Monday, November 26, 2012

How to Write a Great Climactic Scene

I recently removed a major element of my WIP. Removing major plot elements always leaves holes you have to apply mortar to and brick over, but this one was so massive that it required an entirely new climatic scene. Which was fine.

Except I didn't have a replacement climactic event.

There I was, with a heroine all set to apply newly-realized lessons, and to finally discover the last important pieces of information she needed to know, and with her ready to put the smack down once and for all on her antagonist....and I didn't have any place for them to do it.

The creative well was dry on this one. I needed a setting for all those above items to happen, but no place jumped out. Nothing. I had nothing. So I did what any stuck writer does: I turned to the Internet and watched the kitten web cam. After that, I watched some Limmy videos for a while. When I was done with that, I checked Facebook and Twitter...well, you get the picture. When I had exhausted all my usual diversionary tactics, I got down to work and researched what to do. And I came up with:

3 Important Points about Climatic Scenes

[1] The first point is a quick recap of what a climactic scene needs to accomplish. The climactic scene is a final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist. And the outcome must prove your story's moral premise and theme; it must contain a "moment of truth." A crappy or weak climactic scene will not accomplish the point of your story and it will leave readers feeling let down and disappointed.

So, after that little picker-upper, the next thing to do was refresh myself on the second point, which isn't actually a single point, but more of a header of many points.
[2] What should a good climactic scene contain? (this list is culled many other blog posts and books)
  • It should be an epic confrontation with a clear winner and a clear loser.
  • The hero must confront the biggest adversary.
  • The hero must save him/herself.
  • The scene should be resolved with action and conflict.
  • The climactic scene represents the dramatic highlight of the story.
  • The hero directly affects the outcome.
  • Often, this is done in a location we haven’t seen yet.
  • Sometimes there is a figurative or literal arena in which the showdown will occur.
Good. Now that I had those basics, it was time for the third point:
[3] The details of a good climatic scene. How to get the details? Well, I have to supply those, unfortunately  But you get those by asking yourself these questions (thanks to Stavros Halvatzis for this):

1. What is the primary strength of my antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness/fear of my protagonist?

Oh, now we're getting somewhere. Stavros (fab Greek name, Stavros, in case you were wondering) says the answers to these questions need to play into my protagonist’s chief weakness\fear while promoting my antagonist’s primary strength. I also need to ask myself what setting best enhances my antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously increasing the chances of your protagonist’s failing.

Whoa. That hardly seems fair. And yet, that kind of conflict is going to make a great climatic scene.

Stavros adds, "improve your writing by exploiting an appropriate setting that strengthens the antagonist while simultaneously weakening the protagonist."

So whatever setting I end up choosing, I'll need my antagonist to be comfortable and on even footing when my protagonist catches up with him, so that the antagonist things he's on Easy Street. Then my protagonist can pull the rug right out from under him and triumph. Tribal drums may or may not be involved (probably not).

A Note About Settings for Climatic Scenes

All of the above was great for grounding my head in what the scene needs to accomplish. But I still needed to primarily consider the setting. A Writer's Digest article on plot and climatic elements recommends the following for choosing a setting:

"There’s nothing that says your climactic moment has to be in a different location. If it’s a sports story, for instance, the climax may occur in the same place as much of the rest of the book: the court or field. If the characters have been trapped in an elevator for the whole book, the climax will most likely take place in the elevator. So long as you cover all the elements, you’re fine. But why not take it to a new fun location?

Think about your story a moment. You may have a good idea for where the big showdown needs to happen. And even if you’ve thought of a place, considering other options will help you find surprising wonders or can verify that you have, indeed, found the right place for this crucial action.

 What is the ultimate setting for the final conflict in your book? If you’re writing a thriller about a killer who preys on children, could the final standoff occur on a playground? If you’re writing a romance about flirtatious ornithologists, could the final will-he/won’t-he moment take place in the world’s largest aviary? If it’s a pirate story, the climactic scene had better be on the high seas.

There’s an appropriateness about your story regarding the “right” location for the big scene. Where is the perfect place for your book’s climactic sequence? If you’re still not sure, perhaps looking at each element of the climax will help you decide."

Hope the above helps. I put this post together primarily to help organize my own thoughts about climactic scenes. I hope it helps someone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

3 Writing Questions Answered

Some of the things that help us grow as writers have nothing to do with the craft of writing at all. It's those periphery questions surrounding the process of writing, getting feedback, and how to handle a manuscript before and after you've written it that help you learn so much more than the mechanics of storytelling and wordsmithing.

Recently, I got an email from a blog reader who had three really great questions. Asking questions like these is how we learn how to navigate the novel-writing world. No questions are stupid. Thanks to this reader for asking, and finding a way to ask, these questions.

The reader, whom we will call "Terry" said she'd just finished writing a book in a particular genre. Through a family connection, she knows an established author who writes in a different genre. Terry said she asked the author if he would read her novel and let her know how it is.

Terry asked me*, [1] "Is it wise to ask someone who writes in a different genre to read your stuff before it is published? [2] I know people send stuff to authors to hopefully get a blurb on a book cover...Which I really don't care if he "blurbs" it or not.... I just want him to let me know if it publishable. [3] I wonder if it is a good idea to send out an unpublished manuscript to anyone."
*I have edited her actual words for the blog

First, let's answer the big one.
1. Is it wise to ask someone who writes in a different genre to read your stuff?
If the person you asked is a published author or a seasoned writer, then yes, having them read your stuff is going to be helpful for you. They'll bring a whole host of knowledge to your finished product, including plot, character development, mechanics, voice, and flow. It doesn't matter what genre you writer in and the author writes in, he or she is going to be able to give you seasoned feedback honed by years of his own experience.

However, it is true that someone who is steeped in a genre different from yours is going to have less applicable feedback when it comes to plot elements that are specific to your genre. And that's where you need to be careful. My old writing group had a few members who wrote in a different genre, and who didn't read my genre, and in fact didn't particularly like my genre. Their critiques of my work consistently asked me to do different things with my character that were inconsistent with my genre.

That being said, there's no reason why a writer who writes in a particular genre wouldn't also be a reader of several genres--and maybe even tried his or her hand at other genres.

So, be careful, but go get that critique. If the person critiquing your work is a die-hard romance writer, she may not have the insights you need for the greatest success. But she will have a sense of other writing elements, and for that reason every critique partner offers a good opportunity for feedback.

2. How do cover blurbs work? 
Terry said, "I know people send stuff to authors to hopefully get a blurb on a book cover...Which I really don't care if he "blurbs" it or not.... I just want him to let me know if it publishable." This isn't really a question but I wanted to mention here that cover blurbs are something that are typically negotiated by your publisher unless you are self-publishing, in which case you are likely approaching authors yourself for endorsements. You should definitely care if an author blurbs your cover, because he's putting his name on the line for your work. But of course, asking for a cover endorsement and asking for an is-my-work-shite-or-not critique are two totally different things.

3. Is it a good idea to send out an unpublished manuscript to anyone?
Yes! A thousand yesses! So many yesses that it sounds like a room full of snakes! This is how you get valuable feedback that will make your work better! If your worry is that someone will steal your work, you really shouldn't. This is not something that typically happens. Send it! Grow!

Thanks for the questions, Terry. I hope these helped and I hope others will chime in on these in the comments.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Next Big Thing

My friend, the inestimable Meghan Ward (, asked me if I'd like to participate in the The Next Big Thing blog chain in which authors get to talk about their work. Well, of course I did! I was highly pleased that Meghan asked me, because the last time we had a play date (meaning, we pretend our kids play together while we actually talk nonstop), we met at a park that was situated in the middle of a freezing cold fog. Meghan came from her house, which was not in the fog, so she had no idea it was going to be the Arctic circle just a few blocks up. I knew it, however, because my house is near the park, and I'd been freezing all day in the fog. Anyway, I wasn't sure Meghan forgave me for her kids getting frostbite on their toes (her son sure as heck didn't: "Mama! I'm freeeeeeeezzziiiinnnnnngggggg!"), but perhaps this is a sign things are looking up.

Be sure to read Meghan's Next Big Thing post, too. (But only after reading mine! Got it?) At first when I read the questions I was a bit intimidated, but actually this was a lot of fun to fill out. Especially when I pictured myself in a comfy armchair being interviewed Babba Waltas style.

What is your working title of your book? 
Lost at Home

What genre does your book fall under?
Women’s fiction

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
This is a toughie because I'm not up on all the actors out there, but I'd like to see a few different guys audition for the role of my main love interest. I would invite Joseph Fiennes to please audition. Also Johnny Lee Miller. A private audition may be necessary for them. For my heroine, anyone except Keira Knightly is welcome to audition. I'd like to say the role would go to someone like Natalie Portman, but she's way too polished for my character. Someone a little rougher, a little scrappier. Maybe Mila Kunis?

And I just revised a scene with a new character in which a guy was clearly fixed in my mind as Thomas from Downton Abbey. So he'd have a bit part. He doesn't have to audition. The role is his.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
A woman returns to her native country after her estranged father dies, and spurred by mysterious letters that hint at the existence of another family, she stays to find out who the man was--and in the process, herself.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be represented by an agency.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It took about eight months, the longest I ever took with a manuscript. It's a little hazy because I was writing it while pregnant with my baby, and revisions were affected by the dementia brought on by sleep deprivation. A minor setback. But I'm not having any more children.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
I say my style is like Catherine McKenzie, and I aspire to be like Anna Maxted or Liza Palmer. (died and gone to heaven if so)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
This story is at its heart about a father and a daughter and their lack of communication due to misunderstandings and lost chances. With my own dad, there remain misunderstandings and disagreements about the past. We have let them lie and moved past them, but they're there. I wanted to write a story about what happens when you don't clear those up. I also wanted to write a story about how parents continue to affect their adult children no matter how much the children might think they've distanced themselves.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 
By the end of my book, my heroine falls in love with her guy--and I did, too. This is pathetic to admit. But I wanted him too. Every time I read the end, I feel satisfied. The very last chapter? Oh yeah. The best. Ever.

Here is the place where I list 5 other people I've tagged to do this. But in fact, I haven't, because I didn't get my butt in gear fast enough, and quite frankly, Meghan stole the first person I'd ask. I took this, naturally, as further sign of her intense resentment about the foggy park incident.

So, would you like to play? Leave a comment and let me know and I'll update this post with a link to you so everyone knows to go to your blog. You'd just need to post this next week. Let me know and we'll sort out the deets!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

5 Things I love

1. Call the Midwife on PBS. You are watching that, right? If you loved Downton Abbey, you will like this. Sadly, this British series appears to finished airing its first season, but that matters not because you can watch all the episodes on Even better? You can watch them on your Kindle or any tablet that connects to the internet. That is heaven.

2. The Paper Source catalog. Paper Source is a store with lovely things and great design, and their catalog is like crack, I tell you. Here are a few things that inspire me out of their catalog:

There are many, many more things I love (and need) from Paper Source, but I am not a Paper Source catalog, so you must browse for yourself.

3. Walks in the November sunshine. Here in California, it's still sunny, but the light has an orange quality to it, and there's a slight kick to the air. It's sort of spicy and windy and promising of crappy, cozy whether to come. The time just changed, and you sort of know good things are ahead.

Here's a picture of the walk I took last weekend. I thought I was the luckiest girl alive. I still do.

4. Sandwich bowls. These were invented by my husband for our 18 month old son, who likes sandwiches, but not actually eating them. That is, he likes the ingredients but a sandwich is too much for him unless it's cut in bite-size chunks. And then, he just takes those apart and makes a grand mush of it all. So Mr. Sierra cut the bread, turkey, and cheese up and just made a bowl of it. It went over so well that I tried it myself and loved it. Probably I just like the idea of the name sandwich bowl. But how awesome is it not to have to pick up a drippy sandwich and have it slop all over? I can eat it with a fork like a civilized girl.

5. The election results. My worry with the presidential race was that people weren't bothered by the lying and cheating from Romney's camp. I personally don't believe that any person who wins the biggest job in the world is free from a certain amount of ego and spinning and pushing, but I do believe that Obama comes across as a honest guy who does genuinely cares. I also think he acts within his means--which sometimes doesn't seem like enough. Overall, I feel that I was served. I know others don't. My own dad is heavily conservative and thinks Obama will change us all into a communist country. So he's pretty angry. But from where I'm sitting, I'm rejoicing in the ideology of hope, change, and movement, and I saw none of that with Romney. And well done to the states that legalized gay marriage-- Maine and Maryland. Well done, you! Well done!

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Writerland Challenge

Every November, I get a little antsy because of NaNoWrMo. Mind you, I have never participated in NaNo because I was always working on something that required my full attention, and I was never in a place where I wanted to bang out a novel in a month without stopping to pause or sleep or feed my children. But I always secretly wanted to do it, because I liked the accountability it offered. Anytime there's a program with deadlines, I respond well.

That's why when I read my friend Meghan Ward's post on her blog Writerland about the Writerland Challenge--an alternative to NaNo that actually allows for flexibility--I jumped at it. This was a program I could get with, that let me work on the project I'm working on now, and do what I needed to do on it rather than write new content. 

The way it works is you that you leave a comment on Meghan's post and you're in. Follow along on Twitter and check in daily with the #TTWC (Take the Writerland Challenge). If you tweet to me (@sierragodfrey) with the hashtag as well, I'll dish out some sass, free of charge. On Meghan's blog, note what your daily or weekly challenge is. Meghan has some cool prizes for participants, too.

My goal for the month is to finish complete revisions on my novel, which means a weekly goal of about 8.5 chapters. 

So, what do you think? Are you in?