Marcy’s Blog

The Secret to Destroying Episodic Writing in Three Easy Steps

Destroying Episodic WritingBy Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

One of the main causes of the saggy middle syndrome many books suffer from is episodic writing. Episodic writing also makes our books feel slow to the reader.

“What’s episodic writing?” you might ask.

Episodic writing is when your story is composed of a series of loosely related events. Those events might be exciting. You might even have a few scenes that tie tightly together. But when you look at the big picture, something still seems off and the story feels like it lacks direction at times. Readers are easily able to put the book down and feel no compulsion to pick it up again.

If episodic writing is something you’ve struggled with in your past (or present) manuscripts, here’s how to fix it in three steps.

Step 1: Give your character a story goal.

The story goal is what they’ll be pursuing over the course of your book.

Sounds simple, right? Where most of us trip up on this step is confusing a goal with an ambition.

An ambition is vague. You can’t take a picture of it.

A story goal is concrete. It’s clear by the end of the book whether our character reached her goal or not.

Ambition: Be a successful author.

Okaaay…but what does that look like? How will you know when you’ve achieved that?

Goal: Hit the top 10 on Amazon’s bestseller list for my category.

Do you see the difference? One more example before we move on to step 2.

Ambition: Have a well-behaved dog.

Goal: Have a dog who sits on command, comes when I call, and doesn’t bite the mailman.

Because ambitions are vague, they can mean different things to different people. Goals are specific and clear.

Step 2: Build a chain link from beginning to end.

To reach her big story goal, our character will be attempting to take a tiny step toward that goal in each scene.

Where most of us tend to stumble on this step is that we’re either too nice and the story lacks tension because our character reaches her scene goal too easily, or we’re too mean and we stop the story dead.

In other words, when asked whether our character reaches her scene goal, we answer with a simple “yes” or a simple “no”

I’ll give you an example.

Scene Goal: Go to the murderer’s house and arrest him.

Does our character succeed?

Answer: Yes.

…Now where does our story go from here? Is it over?

We often think this is the way to make sure our plot has forward progress. After all, doesn’t our main character need to succeed at least sometimes if they ever want to achieve their goal?

They do need forward progress and some success, but this is the least interesting way to go about it.

Answer: No.

The murderer wasn’t at his house so they couldn’t arrest him.

That grinding noise you hear is a writer’s brain struggling to decide what to do now. We threw a disaster at our character, why isn’t it working?

A straight “no” can work, but more often leads to episodic writing because we’ve brought our story to a complete stop. Too many simple “no” results in a row can mean the story feels static and lacks that sense of escalation that readers crave. If we back our character into too deep a corner, they can sometimes end up seeming like too much of a weakling failure or waiting passively for outside circumstances to change.

The solution is to create variations on these answers.

Answer: Yes, But

Yes, they arrested him, but some of what they saw in his house called into question whether he was truly the murderer or not.

We allow our character to succeed, but we introduce a consequence or complication.

Suddenly, we have forward motion. Our character makes progress, in a way where each scene is directly connected to what came before, but it also creates excitement and a sense of escalation. The reader keeps reading because they want to find out what will happen next.

Answer: No, And Furthermore

No, they didn’t arrest him, and furthermore, he’d rigged his house to explode and our main character’s partner was injured. Now they’ll have to either continue investigating alone or accept the help of the rookie cop who screws up everything he touches.

These endings work because we’re continuing to increase the stakes and obstacles, consequently raising the tension in the reader. Because too many of them can stall the story out in the same way as a simple “no,” they’re often best saved for the big turning points in the plot.

Both “yes, but” and “no, and furthermore” build a chain link that leads you from the start of the story to the end because each scene directly connects and grows out of the one that came before.

Which leads us on to…

Step 3: Escalate the failures from bad to worse.

It’s not enough to throw “but” and “furthermore” at our character. Each one needs to present them with a bigger challenge, push them harder toward their breaking point, and require more ingenuity and grit to overcome it.

Have you ever struggled with episodic writing? Any tips you’d like to share for how you overcame it?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers, Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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Image Credit: Michael & Christa Richert

50 Years Ago This Island Didn’t Exist

By Worldtraveller at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

By Worldtraveller at en.wikipedia (Creative Commons License)

By Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

Welcome back to my unbelievable real life feature.

One of the great myths is Atlantis–the advanced civilization whose island sank into the ocean.

Although Atlantis is a myth, an island actually exists in our world that appeared and is now disappearing.

Surtsey formed between 1963 and 1967 from volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland. Originally, it grew to around a mile square, and plant and animal life moved in. In the years since its formation, however, Surtsey has shrunk by half.

I think that’s fascinating just as a fact, but for those of us who are writers, Surtsey can be great idea-fodder.

What if a new island formed near an overpopulated region? What kind of conflict might arise over that land?

What if our character’s society won that battle, but now it’s 100 years later and their island is shrinking? And what if no one will believe her about the danger?

What if our character is a modern-day myth-hunter trying to prove that Atlantis really did exist and an island like Surtsey provides him with the final clue of where to find the true Atlantis?

If you ever feel low on ideas, search the world around us. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

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I Have a Love-Hate Relationship with Pictures

This is the new picture I'll be using online.

This is the new picture I’ll be using online.

By Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

Turns out I have a love-hate relationship with pictures.

I love them because they grab important moments and help keep memories alive. I find great joy in looking back at pictures from times past. I hate them because, in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed I look older in them than I once did.

I know, right? That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. People grow old. But I’m a person who has always struggled to be comfortable with her appearance, and a photo shoot for my new website/online photos just over a week ago drudged up a lot of old insecurities I’d thought I’d put to rest. When I’m held still in an image, all the imperfections that I trick myself into thinking people don’t notice in real life can’t be hidden anymore.

I needed to replace my current photo because it was nearly eight years old. I didn’t want to replace that photo because the truth is the thirty-three-year-old me doesn’t look as good as the twenty-five-year-old me did. And as time goes on, that will get worse, not better. I won’t ever be able to go back to that girl’s face or her body.

I found myself wishing I could have a picture like Dorian Gray’s that would grow old for me. And as I thought that, I remembered a post I’d written a few years ago for August McLaughlin’s Beauty of a Woman blogfest. At the time, I wrote it because a lot of women around me were struggling with the turning-thirty hurdle. Now I’m dragging it back out because I need to remind myself of those lessons.

Dorian is the title character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian is an extremely handsome man, so handsome an artist friend has asked to paint him.

On the day the artist will finish the painting, Dorian waits with a much older gentleman named Lord Henry. Lord Henry tells Dorian he should enjoy his youth and beauty while he has them because those are the only things that matter.

“You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully,” Lord Henry says. “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats.” (Chapter 2, page 26)

Dorian can’t shake Lord Henry’s words, and when he sees his picture, he’s filled with despair because the beauty in the picture will last, but his own won’t.

“When one loses one’s good looks,” Dorian says, “whatever they may be, one loses everything.”

He claims he would trade his soul in order to have the picture grow old in his place.

Lord Henry’s lie—and it is a lie—is the same one society feeds us.

It sells us Botox, liposuction, anti-aging creams, and Spanx. It tells us wrinkles and grey hairs are things to cover up. It glorifies youth and irresponsibility and marginalizes the elderly, with all their wisdom. It believes a woman should never admit to her age.

And if we buy into the lie, it puts us at peril of the same fate as Dorian.

Because of the trade he made, Dorian stays young and beautiful, while his picture ages and grows grotesque with every year that passes and every evil Dorian commits. His outside stays beautiful at the expense of his inner growth and beauty.

Eventually, overcome with guilt for the murders, suicides, and other sins he’s been part of, Dorian stabs his picture, thinking that will free him. Instead, the picture returns to youthful beauty and Dorian, in death, becomes a withered, disgusting corpse.

Like Dorian, when we buy into the lie, we start to focus more of our time and energy and money on trying to match the unrealistic standard of beauty our society holds up for us to worship. We focus less on trying to cultivate the beauty we have inside.

And in the end, we’ll never win the battle against age. We’ll all die, and most of us will die old and wrinkly, saggy and age-spotted.

Instead of dreading it, fearing it, we should rejoice in it. The most beautiful woman is one who’s lived a full life.

I’m going to wear each new crinkle in the corners of my eyes as a badge of honor speaking to the hours I’ve spent laughing with friends.

I’m going to remember that my no-longer-perfectly-flat belly is because I’ve chosen to enjoy pizza nights with my husband, eat birthday cake and ice cream with my each of my elderly grandparents, and bake cookies for my parents.  

I’m going to treasure the dark circles under my eyes (the part of my age I hate the most) because it speaks to how deeply I love, to the nights spent lying awake trying to think of ways to help hurting friends or crying over deceased loved ones and pets. Deep love leaves deep marks.

So as much as I’d still like to have a picture like Dorian Gray’s, I’d never want to be like Dorian Gray.

Because external beauty is not the most important thing, at least not to me.

Do you struggle with growing older? Do you love having your picture taken or do you hate it?

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Do You Believe in Second Chances?

Lord of the RingsBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Long after I finished reading the books and watching the movies, the character from the Lord of the Rings trilogy I couldn’t stop thinking about wasn’t any of the plucky hobbits, Viggo Mortensen’s ruggedly handsome Aragorn, or Gandolf with his words of wisdom.

It was Gollum.

Born a hobbit-like creature named Sméagol, Gollum wasn’t always the shriveled, conniving wretch we meet in Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t until Sméagol was in his thirties that Sméagol’s friend Déagol found the powerful ring that Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring would later seek to destroy. Overcome by lust for the ring, Sméagol killed Déagol and took it for himself.

The ring prolonged Sméagol’s life, but began to corrupt him until his family finally cast him out. From that point on, he lived alone in the dark caves of the Misty Mountains, eating raw fish. Déagol’s death haunted him.

When Frodo learned about Gollum, he said, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” (Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 78).

“Pity!” Gandalf answered. “It was Pity that stayed his hand.”

Gandalf believed that everyone deserves a second chance—a chance at redemption. He went on to tell Frodo that even Gollum wasn’t wholly ruined: “I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it…My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many” (79).

Gandalf’s words stuck with Frodo.

Later, when Frodo showed him kindness, the Sméagol side of Gollum’s personality found the strength to fight against the Gollum side. What good was left in him tried to drive out the evil. Frodo’s kindness gave him a second chance.

Sam couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see past the disgusting parts of Gollum to take into account what he’d been through—isolation, torture in Mordor, the clutches of a ring that ruined all who carried it. He refused to try to see what Gollum might become if given a second chance.

When I first met Lynn* in elementary school, all I saw was a girl who disliked me for no reason. She seemed to take pleasure in embarrassing me in particular, and it seemed to me, in my ten-year-old wisdom, that she thought she was better than the other students. I found her annoying and wanted nothing to do with her.

When I should have been Frodo, I was Sam.

I didn’t bother to find out her true story, her past and her struggles.

When she disappeared in high school, I didn’t even notice. I cared as little for her as Sam did for Gollum and would have gladly left her behind in my past. When she came back during our senior year, she wanted to be my friend.

Second chances are tricky things. You could get your finger bitten off the way Frodo eventually did. Every second chance comes with another opportunity to experience the pain you did the first time.

I was hesitant, skeptical. But, to borrow from Gandalf, my heart told me that she might still have a role to play in my life.

Years later, we stood up in each other’s weddings. We joke now about back when we didn’t like each other and talk about who disliked whom most. And we laugh.

But if I hadn’t given her a second chance, I would have missed the trips we’ve taken, times we’ve cried on each other’s shoulders, good advice exchanged, secrets shared (and kept). I would have missed out on knowing a woman who’s now one of my dearest friends and who I admire for her strength, her grace, and her faith.

For me, the chance to get exactly what I did was worth the risk of giving her that second chance.

Has there ever been a time you decided to give someone a second chance and were glad you did? Do you believe in second chances?

*Lynn isn’t her real name. I’ve changed it to protect her privacy.

*Thanks for reading this blast from the past while I recover from my trip. Even though this post is a re-run, I’d still love it if you’d leave a comment.

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10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter

10 Writing Mistakes That KillBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m teaching at a writer’s conference this week, so instead of one of my in-depth posts, I thought I’d create a quick checklist for you.

Here are 10 writing mistakes that kill your first chapter (in no particular order). Get them before they get you!

#1 – A Boring/Generic First Line

Don’t show me the character doing anything completely normal and forgettable. Waking up, getting out of their car, folding their laundry…

Your first line needs to raise questions in the reader’s mind and make them curious or hint at trouble/conflict. Preferably both.

#2 - Point-of-View Shifts

Head-hopping is always a problem, regardless of where it crops up in your manuscript, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean a point-of-view shift carried out with a proper transition.

Confused? In your first chapter, one of the things you need to do is convince the reader to invest in your main character. They need to spend time with them to do that, and if you switch POV characters within the first chapter, the reader doesn’t have enough time to make that connection.

#3 – No Clear POV Character

This point is the doppelganger of (2). It’s extremely difficult to be interested in a story when you don’t know who matters, what they care about, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Connect the reader to a character immediately and allow the reader to experience the story through that person.

(If you’re writing in omniscient POV, ignore this point, but make sure you wow the reader with your distinctive voice.)

#4 - Too Many Characters Introduced at Once

How am I supposed to remember all these people, especially if they’re introduced without much to set them apart? Drip feed your characters, and make each important character memorable in some way.

#5 – Clumsy Formatting

This could be internal dialogue that fills the page with so many italics that my eyes start to bleed, dialogue where I’m not sure who’s speaking, or any number of other distracting, confusing formatting glitches. These pull the reader right out of the story and shift their focus onto something they shouldn’t even notice.

#6 - Allowing a Character to Speak or Think Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!) at a Time

I could actually expand this to say “allowing your character to do anything uninterrupted for too long,” but giving a speech or musing to themselves are particularly problematic. Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just three reasons why this is an issue. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead.

#7 – Too Much Backstory

Backstory can be hinted at, but it’s normally something you should withhold until later when the reader really wants to know it and it’s pertinent to what’s happening in the present. Why? Backstory, by definition, is over. The reader wants to see your character getting themselves into trouble in the present.

Which leads me to…

#8 – No Trouble or Conflict

I suspect that we writers fall into Happy Person Syndrome because we want to make the reader like our character or because we’re trying to follow the advice to “establish their normal world before you disrupt it.”

A calm, happy opening isn’t the way to establish your character’s normal world or make the reader like your character. Show them trying to solve a problem in their normal world. It’s active, it creates reader sympathy, and it shows the normal world.

#9 - Telling Instead of Showing

If you’ve read my book Showing and Telling in Fiction, then you know I’m an advocate for telling having a good and useful place in fiction. Your first chapter usually isn’t that place.

Showing is more entertaining and more interactive, and engages reader emotions—all good things if you want to hook a reader and keep them turning those pages.

#10 - Stilted Dialogue

Is your dialogue too formal? Do you have everyone using direct address? (E.g., “Did I see you at the movies today, Mary?”) Do you have too much filler dialogue? (E.g., hellos, goodbyes, how are yous.)

Dialogue doesn’t automatically make your book feel active. Good dialogue does.

Do you have any other common first chapter problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords.

(You might also be interested in checking out Grammar for Fiction Writers, Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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Would You Be a Mermaid If You Could?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my unbelievable real life feature. Today I’m taking a look at one of the most unusual “schools” I’ve ever heard of–mermaid school.

Apparently, mermaid schools are cropping up all over–in the Philippines, in Germany, and even in Canada. While it’s never been a dream of mine to be a mermaid (though swimming underwater with sea creatures is extremely appealing), I’d love to try this for the workout.

Does being a mermaid appeal to you? If you had the opportunity, would you try out mermaid school–if for no other reason than that it’s supposedly a good workout?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen (it’s only 99 cents). Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.

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6 Major Writing Problems in Avengers: Age of Ultron – Part 3

Avengers Age of UltronBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Today’s post is the final installment in the three-part mini-series I’ve been doing on what writing lessons we can learn from the mistakes made in Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you missed Part One and Part Two, I recommend you read them first.

Mistake #5 – A Villain Who Is Melodramatic, Not Scary, and Inconsistent

In the trailers for Age of Ultron, Ultron seems dark and frightening. In the movie, however, he’s over the top and almost goofy. He lacks the depth and complexity of character and dark heart of Loki. I suspect this disappointed me because it didn’t match up with how the trailer portrayed things and because how he developed didn’t match up with how it seemed he would develop when he first entered the movie. The more over-the-top he became, the less I felt like he was going to be a real challenge for the Avengers to defeat. He stopped feeling like a real threat.

In The Avengers, Loki was definitely insane, but two things kept him from going so far over the top that he became laughable. The first was that he was smart enough to realize the Avengers could be a threat to him, and he came up with a plan to tear them apart. The second was his motivation was consistent. He felt he should be the one ruling Asgard instead of Thor. So, in revenge, he decides to rule over Earth, the planet Thor loves. Even though it’s a plan to take over a planet, it’s really a story about jealousy between brothers.

Ultron’s motivations came across as inconsistent. He was originally created to protect humanity, and so a well-developed villain would have taken that good intention into a misguided direction. This could have been taken in many believable ways–a police-type state for one. Annihilating the elements of society he saw as a threat to peace might have been another. Instead, he decides to…wait for it…create an extinction event. That’s right. He’s going to wipe out humanity and leave the world for robots. Try to figure out the logical progression on that one. If you do, let me know. Because it also begs the question of why he wanted a more human body if he was planning to create a robot world. When you throw on top of that all his strange Biblical references it becomes even more unbalanced.

Takeaway:

Don’t misrepresent anything just to hook a reader.

Your villain needs to be as well-developed as your main character, including giving them a consistent motivation. For more on creating villains, you might want to read my post “How to Create a Truly Frightening Villain.”

Mistake #6 – A Half-Baked Romance

Although I don’t read a lot of straight romance, I love a good romance subplot. For me, it always makes a story feel richer and more real. But the keyword there is good.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’re dropped into the story and asked to believe that a romance has already been blossoming between Black Widow and the Hulk. It’s too big a leap because there wasn’t even a hint of it in the first movie, and we don’t get to see it develop. In the first movie, he turned into the Hulk and almost killed her. Now, suddenly, she’s the only one who can help him change from green monster back into a man by stroking his arm. The only reason given for why they’re even a good match is that neither of them can have biological children.

Because of the other mistakes made with this movie, there wasn’t room to develop their relationship fully, but the problem could have also been solved if the scriptwriters would have slowed the relationship down a bit. They could have easily had this Avengers movie show their attraction starting to develop rather than jumping in when it’s already fully formed. They could also have shown how Black Widow and the Hulk figured out the “lullaby” trick that brings him back into human form.

Takeaway:

It’s not enough to say two characters are attracted to each other. The audience either needs to be able to watch the relationship believably grow or be shown why these two characters are a perfect match. Preferably both.

Also, don’t be afraid to take it slow. The longer you build the sexual tension between two characters, the bigger the payoff when you finally fulfill it.

I know these posts made it sound like I hated the movie. I didn’t. But that brings me to the overall writing takeaway I got from it as a writer.

If we’re writing a series, we’re making promises to our reader with the first installment. It’s important for us to understand the promises we’ve made to them and to continue to fulfill on those promises. If we don’t, we’ll end up with a disappointed or angry audience.

What do you think? If you think I’m off-base about Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’d love to hear your reasons. If you think I’m right, did you enjoy the movie anyway and will you watch a third one?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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6 Major Writing Problems with Avengers: Age of Ultron – Part 2

Avengers Age of Ultron

Image Credit: Svilen Milev

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series where I’m looking at what we, as writers, can learn from the mistakes made in Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you missed the first installment in this series, I recommend you read it first.

Mistake #3 – Too Many Easy Answers and Short Cuts

We need to briefly talk a bit of plot structure here. Early on in a story, the villain/antagonist should be much stronger than the hero. Reaching their goal wouldn’t be a challenge for the main character if the antagonist wasn’t stronger than them at the start. The main character (or characters) grow and learn over the course of the story until, at the end, they’re able to defeat the antagonist.

Your main character needs to defeat the antagonist/villain based on their own skills. You can’t bring in the cavalry to solve their problem for them, especially not at the last minute. The solution can’t magically arrive. The solution needs to come from inside the main character (or characters). This is what happened in The Avengers.

It didn’t happen in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Prior to the final battle, Ultron had kicked the Avengers’ butts, with the help of his allies. So what should have happened is that the Avengers should have grown and learned something to make them stronger as a team, enabling them to overcome Ultron. Instead, in comes the cavalry. Vision (who I’ll talk about more in a minute) comes to life, and Ultron’s former allies switch sides, without ever dealing with their personal problems with Tony Stark, which were what drove them to side with Ultron to begin with. Not only is that an outside solution where the main characters never need to grow or improve, but it’s a gaping plot hole. We hated you before, but now we’re okay working with you even though you haven’t changed at all (as proven by the creation of Vision).

The easy answers and solutions didn’t stop there though. I don’t have the time to go through them all, but I will mention another huge one–the creation of Vision.

Ultron wants to create a better body for himself. He takes the same material that made Captain America’s indestructible shield (Vibranium) and the infinity stone that powered Loki’s staff, and together with the help of a bio-engineer who can grow flesh, he puts it all together with the intent of downloading his consciousness into the finished product.

The Avengers highjack the body and get into a fight over whether or not to bring that body to “life” apart from Ultron, using Stark’s artificial intelligence program JARVIS. This is an absolutely fantastic moral dilemma. Should they or shouldn’t they create life? It should have been a major stepping stone in Stark’s character arc (the truncated one we talked about earlier).

But nope. Just as the other Avengers are fighting over what to do, Thor arrives and unilaterally brings Vision to life. “Why?” you might ask. Because he took a trip to the water spirits (which we’d never heard of before) and decided it was a good idea. And everyone is just supposed to go along with what these hitherto fore unheard of water spirits told him.

In my opinion, that was a pat and easy solution that stripped all the great moral conflict from the situation. Having Vision be able to lift Thor’s special hammer later didn’t fix the fact because he was already alive by that point. In other words, the hammer was an ad hoc justification (something added to a theory after the fact to save it). Oh, look, it’s okay they brought him to life because lifting Thor’s hammer proves he’s a good guy. (Sarcasm very much intended.)

Takeaway:

The solution that allows your hero to defeat the villain that they weren’t previously strong enough to defeat should come from within themselves and from things they’ve learned, not from outside sources. And the solution should never be easy.

We also need to watch out for taking the easy way out. This can come in two forms. We write ourselves into a corner, putting our characters into a situation that we can’t now find a way to get them out. So we save the day with a solution we haven’t laid the foundation for earlier or we bring in the cavalry. I’ve talked about this before in my post on “Four Fiction Felonies that Make Your Story Unbelievable” so please check that out for more. The other form is when we’re tired and our creative and emotional juices are dry. In this case, we don’t write a scene to its full potential, wringing every ounce of conflict from it, simply because we’re burnt out. The solution to that is to move on and come back to the scene during editing.

Mistake #4 – Too Many Rabbit Trails and a General Lack of Focus

Somewhere along the line, the powers-that-be forgot that this movie is supposed to be about telling the story in this movie rather than setting up for other movies or other Marvel franchises.

If you’ve never heard the term “rabbit trail” before, it refers to a digression in a story that doesn’t contribute anything to the main storyline or to any subplot of that story. It might be kind of fun in and of itself, but it makes the story feel slow or scattered because it doesn’t matter to that story. It steals time away from the real story.

One major example of this is the hallucinations the Avengers experience when they encounter the Scarlett Witch. Large chunks of time were given to showing Black Widow as a child learning ballet, Captain America dancing with Agent Peggy Carter, and Thor at some weird party. Captain America’s flashback felt very much like it was intended to drum up interest for Marvel’s TV series Agent Carter.

These scenes did not need to be there. They’d already shown the dark hallucination Scarlett Witch gave to Tony Stark. That one was necessary. It kicked off his (never completed) character arc, served as the inciting incident for the creation of Ultron, and showed her powers. But then all they needed for the other characters was to show her shooting her red mist at their heads and them dropping to their knees looking tormented. We would have figured out that she’d given them horrible visions too. Because the only plot purpose of those hallucinations was to show that Ultron and his allies could bring the Avengers to their knees. (In other words, to show that the villains were stronger than the heroes at that point.)

A second example–what was the point of Ultron kidnapping Black Widow? What purpose did it serve for Ultron–why not just kill her? What larger purpose did it serve in the plot? None, none, and none. Rabbit trail.

Here’s another example. Midway into the movie, Thor decides he needs to take a side trip to meet up with his professor friend (the one Loki enslaved in the first Avengers movie) so they could go to a cave where Thor would talk to water spirits. Thor makes a point of telling us this will be dangerous (probably because they wouldn’t show any of that danger and they were trying to trick the audience into worrying–it didn’t work because they were TELLING rather than SHOWING). Thor’s trip didn’t need to be in this movie. It’s whole purpose was to set up the Infinity War movies that Marvel plans to release in a few years. (I read somewhere that Joss Whedon fought to have this scene cut, and he lost the battle.)

And let’s not forget the brief introduction of Ulysses Klaw, the arms dealer with the special Vibranium metal that Ultron wanted to use to build his body. Not only did Tony Stark conveniently know about this illegal arms dealer, but he also knew that Klaw had Vibranium even though all the Vibranium in the world had supposedly been used to build Captain America’s shield. No real explanation is given except that Stark met Klaw at a conference. Am I the only one who doubts a grimly-looking illegal arms dealer goes to legitimate conferences? But introducing Klaw and his collection of Vibraium sets up the Black Panther movie Marvel is planning. Though they don’t show it in any current Marvel movie, Klaw killed Black Panther’s father to get the Vibranium.

So much of the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron was focused on preparing for or pitching other series and movies that it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to develop the plot or characters for this movie itself.

Takeaway:

Everything we put into our stories needs to matter for that story by itself. This is true even if we’re setting up for future elements in a series. We need to find ways to introduce those elements that still work within the present story. We also need to be careful that we don’t include a character in our main series just to “introduce” them to our readers so we can try to convince them to read about that character in a different series. If a character or plot event doesn’t serve a purpose in this story, it doesn’t belong there.

Do you have full-blown flashbacks in your book? If so, you need to ask yourself what they contribute to the story. Do you really need them?

Check your book for rabbit trails. They might be great writing in and of themselves, but if they don’t move the plot forward, they need to go.

What do you think? If you think I’m off-base about Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’d love to hear your reasons. If you think I’m right, did you enjoy the movie anyway and will you watch a third one?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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Creating an Author Business Plan: Our Product Plan

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’ve now reached a milestone in writing our author business plan. Last month, we finished our author business plan summary and our Business Operation section. In other words, we’re officially into the body of our author business plan where we need to start laying out practical steps to reach our goals. (If you missed the earlier posts, it’s important to start from the beginning because we’ve already talked about setting our goals, choosing our stories, and identifying our audience.)

Everything we’ve written down in our author business plan prior to this point will remain fairly stable. In the upcoming sections, we’ll need to be much more flexible, adjusting as we go. What we write down is our starting point.

In the coming posts, I’ll be talking about our competitive analysis section, our marketing plan section, and our professional development section, but before we can do that, we need to complete our Product Plan.

Please join me at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University for the rest of this post on Creating An Author Business Plan: Our Product Plan.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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6 Major Writing Problems with Avengers: Age of Ultron – Part 1

Avengers Age of UltronBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

When Avengers first came out, I saw it twice in theaters and brought the DVD as soon as it was available. Very few movies rate highly enough with me to be watched a second time in theater or to be purchased afterward for repeated home viewing.

So I went in to Avengers: Age of Ultron with high expectations…that weren’t met. The trailers looked fantastic, but the movie itself didn’t deliver. The more I’ve thought about it, the sadder it makes me. It makes me sad because of all the missed opportunities. It makes me sad because, given all the money this movie is almost guaranteed to make, some writers out there will use it as an example of how they should be able to do the same–flawed and awful–things in their story. It makes me sad because it sets a precedent for more movies in the future where the special effects and fight scenes are valued over the actual story and character development.

I ended up with enough material for more than a single post on this, so this is going to be a two- to three-part series, but I believe there’s a lot we can learn–as writers–from where this movie went wrong. While I normally like to use only positive examples, things that we should be emulating, I’m making an exception this time because this movie has the potential to send future storytelling in a negative direction. So grab a snack, settle in, and at the end of each post, please let me know what you think.

Mistake #1 – No Character Arcs

I respected Joss Whedon’s writing in The Avengers not only because of his snappy dialogue, but also because he found a way to allow the characters to be unique and to grow, despite the large ensemble cast. As a general guideline, the more characters you have in a story, the more difficult it is to bring each of them to life. One of the ways Whedon did this in The Avengers was through the character arcs.

In The Avengers, Tony Stark wasn’t originally considered for the Avengers Initiative because he doesn’t play well with others. He’s not a team player. Early on in The Avengers, Captain America accuses Stark of not being the type of guy who sacrifices himself for others. He says Stark isn’t the one who’ll lay down on the wire and let others crawl over him. Stark, flippantly, replies he’d just cut the wire.

And then, at the end of the movie, when there is no option to “cut the wire,” Stark has grown enough as a team player that he sacrifices himself to take the nuke into the alien realm and blow them up rather than allowing it to destroy New York and everyone there. Everyone thinks that’s a one-way trip and Stark is going to die. Tony even tries to make one last call to his girlfriend to say goodbye. He’s willing to lay himself down on that wire and make the sacrifice.

Stark isn’t the only one with an arc. In The Avengers, Bruce Banner is the tormented genius who believes he’s a monster and who fears himself as much as other people fear him. He doesn’t believe he has anything of value to offer. He hates himself so much he’s tried to commit suicide. He doesn’t know how to properly harness his anger so, when the movie starts, he’s hiding.

Through the course of the plot, he’s put into situations where he has to face what he is and figure out a way to make peace with the Hulk inside him. He has to accept himself and realize that his anger can be used for good. Because he needs to become part of the world, as the Hulk, to save it. (If you want to see my in-depth look at his character arc, check out my post “It’s Okay to Be Angry.”) The pay-off moment in this arc is where the Hulk smashes Loki into the ground as Loki tries to tell him how worthless he is. He won’t listen to those voices anymore.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the groundwork is laid for another growth arc for Tony Stark. He’s going to have to face his narcissism this time…And then it’s never fulfilled. It’s worse than never fulfilled. It’s almost like Stark backslides from where he was in the first movie. So does the Hulk.

In fact, none of the characters have a significant, satisfying arc, and I think that’s in part because of Mistake #2.

Takeaway:

Your main character needs a character arc because great stories are about growth and change. Your character has a problem/character flaw. The story puts them in situations where they must confront and deal with their flaw no matter how much they don’t want to. They’re forced to change. Seriously, that’s all there is to a character arc, and it’s the core of a memorable story. Even in a large or ensemble cast, make sure you give some of the characters a complete and interesting growth arc.

Mistake #2 – Too Many Characters

The Avengers was already an ensemble cast, which can be tricky, but in the first movie, they managed to find the balance. They had six star characters (Tony Stark, Captain America, Bruce Banner, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Thor), and they found a way to make us care about each of them. They even found a way to make us care about Phil Coulson, a secondary character. (So much so that his character had to be brought back to life to star in Marvel: Agents of Shield.)

Part of how they managed this was each character had a distinct personality, and they had enough room in the movie to give each of them emotional struggles and a bit of their own plotline and backstory. I won’t go through all of the characters, but I’ll show you a couple more (we talked about Stark and Banner above) and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

Captain America is the straight-laced, honorable one who was struggling with his place in a world that had changed so much since he’d last been in it. He feels the world is evil and his morals are no longer valued. What he discovers is that there will always be evil to fight, and so there’s still a purpose and a place for him.

Thor is the arrogant “god” from another realm who is hurt by his brother’s continued betrayal and who needs to learn that he’s not as superior to humans as he originally thought.

When we move into Avengers: Age of Ultron, they dumped in Falcon, War Machine, Scarlett Witch, Vision, and Quicksilver. In other words, they almost doubled the key cast. And all those additions weren’t necessary. What was the point of all those characters? They didn’t improve the story.

My husband pointed out that “they’re assuming you’ve watched all the other movies.” But I’ve watched all the movies, and that didn’t make it any better just because I knew who Falcon and War Machine were. I can’t help but wonder if it’s more about trying to make you want to watch the other movies, and doing a crap job of it because they don’t seem to understand that a walk-on cameo by a character won’t make anyone interested enough in them that they run out and buy the other movie to find out more about them.

By adding in so many of them, none of them received the development they should have had. And, as I mentioned above, the development of the original characters suffered as well.

I wasn’t as invested in the characters, and the story felt scattered and shallow.

Takeaway:

Too many characters can clutter our stories rather than making them feel populated and real. How many characters do we really need to tell our story? Can we cut a character and give the role they play to someone else? Have we given each of those characters (at least the ones who are supposed to be important) a distinct personality and struggles of their own?

One of the current trends is to write short stories, novellas, or even whole new series about secondary characters in an already popular series. That’s a great idea, but we need to be sure those characters deserve their own stories. Cameo appearances by characters also shouldn’t be added just to “check in” with those characters. If they don’t forward the plot of the current story, they don’t belong in it. (This also ties in to Mistake #4 that I’ll share next post.) This is especially true if we’re bringing in cross-over characters (character who appeared in a separate series and are playing a walk-on role in this one). We can’t assume that all readers will have read the other series as well, and so we need to make sure they can follow each series independently of the others. (Again, more on that later in Mistake #4.)

What do you think? If you think I’m off-base about Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’d love to hear your reasons. If you think I’m right, did you enjoy the movie anyway and will you watch a third one?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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