What Do Tom Turkey and Writing Have in Common?

by Sue Coletta

Photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash

Clare’s recent post got me thinking about craft and how, as we write, the story inflates like a Tom turkey. If you think about it long enough and throw in a looming deadline, Tom Turkey and story structure have a lot in common.

Stay with me. I promise it’ll make sense, but I will ask you to take one small leap of faith — I need you to picture Tom Turkey as the sum of his parts, constructed by craft. And yes, this particular light bulb blazed on over the Thanksgiving holiday. We are now having spiral ham for Christmas dinner. 🙂

But I digress.

Story beats build Tom’s spine (hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, midpoint, second pinch point, all is lost, second plot point, climax). The ribs that extend from Tom’s spine liken to the equal parts that expand our beats and tell us how our characters should react before, during, and after the quest.

Broken into four equal parts, 25% percent each, we call this the dramatic arc and it defines the pace of our story.

  •             Setup: Introduce protagonist, hook the reader, and setup First Plot Point (foreshadowing, establishing stakes); establish empathy (not necessarily likability) for the MC.
  •             Response: The MC’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point; the MC doesn’t need to be heroic yet (retreats/regroups/doomed attempts/reminders of antagonistic forces at work).
  •             Attack: Midpoint information/awareness causes the MC to change course in how to approach the obstacles; the hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed, not merely reacting anymore.
  •             Resolution: MC summons the courage and growth to come up with solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonistic force; all new information must have been referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by 2nd plot point or we’re guilty of deus ex machina.

Tom Turkey is beginning to take shape.

Characterization adds meat to his bones and interesting, conflict-driven sub-plots supply tendons and ligaments. When we layer in dramatic tension in the form of a need, goal, quest, or challenge, Tom grows skin. Obstacle after obstacle, conflict after conflict, he sprouts feathers. Utilizing MRUs — Motivation-Reaction-Units; for every action there’s a reaction — sets our story rhythm. They also aid us in heightening and maintaining suspense.

When we use MRUs, Tom Turkey fluffs those feathers. Look what happened. He grew a beak.

Providing a vicarious experience, our emotions splashed across the page, makes Tom fan his tail-feathers. The stakes add to Tom’s glee, and he prances for a potential mate. He thinks he’s got the goods to score with the ladies. He may actually get lucky this year.

Then again, we know better. Poor Tom, he’s still missing a few crucial elements in order to close the deal.

By structuring our scenes, Tom grew an impressive snood. See it dangling from his beak? The wattle under his chin needs help though. Hens are shallow. Quick, we need to imbue the story with voice.

Ah, now Tom looks sharp. What an impressive bird. Watch him prance, all full and fluffy, head held high, tail feathers fanned in perfect formation. Stud muffin.

Uh-oh. Joe Hunter leveled his shotgun at Tom. We can’t let him die before he finds a mate. We need to ensure he stays alive. But how? We’ve given him all the tools he needs, right?

Well, not quite.

Did we choose the right point of view to tell our story? If we didn’t, Tom could end up on a holiday table surrounded by drooling humans in bibs. In other words, we’ll lose our reader before we even get a chance to dazzle them with Tom’s perfect structure.

We also need narrative structure. Without it, Joe Hunter will murder poor Tom. We can’t let that happen!

Narrative structure, by the way, is almost impossible for me to define (maybe one of our craft teachers will weigh in here). I call it the “oomph” and I know it when I write it. I also know when it’s missing. Have you ever started writing a story but it didn’t have that certain something? The story was just … meh. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it didn’t sizzle like it should for some reason.

Yeah, so have I. Those novels are now trunked. Without the oomph, the story doesn’t work. We need the oomph — aka narrative structure.

Tom needs narrative structure, too, if he hopes to escape Joe Hunter’s bullet. He also requires wings, in the form of context. Did we veer too far outside of our readers’ expectations for the genre we’re writing in? Did we give Tom a heart and soul by subtly infusing our theme? Can we boil down the plot to its core story, Tom’s innards? What about dialogue? Does Tom gobble or quack?

Have we shown the three dimensions of character in order to add oxygen to Tom’s lungs? You wouldn’t want to be responsible for suffocating Tom to death, would you?

  •             1st Dimension of Character: The best version of who they are; the face the character shows to the world;
  •             2nd Dimension of Character:  The person our character shows to friends and family;
  •             3rd Dimension of Character:  Our character’s true character. If a fire broke out in a crowded theater, would she help others or elbow her way to the door to save herself?

Lastly, Tom needs a way to wow the ladies. We better make sure our prose sings. If we don’t, Tom could die of loneliness. Do we really want that on our conscience? No! To be safe, let’s review our word choices, sentence variations, paragraphing, grammar, and the way we string words together to ensure Tom lives a full and fruitful life. Don’t forget to rewrite and edit. If readers love Tom, he and his new bride could bring chicks (sequels or prequels) into the world, and we, as Tom’s creator, have the honor of helping them flourish into full-fledged turkeys.

Aww … it looks like Tom’s story will have a happy ending after all.

Over to you, TKZers. Is Tom Turkey missing anything? What would you name his mate?Can anyone define narrative structure in a more craft-appropriate way?

Want to meet more feathered friends? The antagonist in BLESSED MAYHEM has three pet crows, Poe, Allan, and Edgar. The Kindle version is on sale for a limited time.

Blessed Mayhem by Sue Coletta

 

 

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Theme Through Intent

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently, I spoke at a local book club. The readers posed interesting questions about my life as a writer, but I also learned a few things from them. For example, the special needs teacher said her students are “unable to visualize movies in their head” like we do when we read. This deviance stems from all the visual images presented to us through TV, movies, video games and such. These young people haven’t developed the ability to imagine beyond the words on the page.

This statement took me aback. I understand that not everyone likes reading fiction, and it’s a gift when words on a page transport you to another place in your mind, but I never realized some people can’t see beyond the actual words themselves. If this deficit is allowed to grow, we’ll lose generations of readers to literal translation.

Another book club member, an English teacher, had this to say:

“On our tests, students are given a passage to read and then asked to explain the author’s intent. I once asked an author if they knew the theme of their story before they wrote it, and their answer was no. They write the story as it comes. How about you?”

“My intent is to entertain,” I said. “That’s it. I want to give my readers a few hours of escape from their mundane routine and all the bad news out there. My goal is to write a fast-paced story that captures their attention.”

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And this is true. I’ve had a writer friend who is a literature professor look at my work and find all sorts of symbolism. Excuse me? I had no idea it was there. Must have been subconscious. I do not set out to sprinkle meaningful symbols related to a theme into my story content. I just write the book.

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However, I do know what life lesson my main character has to learn by the end of the story. This is essential for character growth and makes your fictional people seem more real. Usually, I include this emotional realization in my synopsis or plotting notes. It doesn’t always turn out the way I’d planned. Sometimes, this insight evolves differently as I write the story. Or maybe a secondary character has a lesson to learn this time around.

For example, in the book I just finished, I have a couple of paragraphs in my notes under the heading, “What does Marla learn?” Now maybe these lessons could be construed as the book’s theme, but I did not consult these going forward to write the story. To be so analytical would have stopped me dead. Fine arts grad students can pay attention to these details, but I have to write the book as it unfolds. So did I meet the intent that I’d originally set out for my character? Yes, in some respects I covered those points. But do they constitute the main theme of my work? Only my readers will be able to tell me the answer to that question. I can’t see it for myself.

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How about you? Do you deliberately devise a theme and the symbolism to support it before writing the story, or does it evolve from the storytelling itself? How do you even tell if a theme is present? Or is it the same as the life lesson learned by one of the characters?

Note: I have a Contest going to celebrate the release of Hair Raiser, #2 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. This title had been originally published by Kensington and is now available in a revised and updated Author’s Edition. Enter to win a signed hardcover copy of Shear Murder and a $10 Starbucks gift card. http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest
 

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Morality in Mysteries

I’m speaking on several panels at two upcoming conferences. One of the topics concerns morality in mysteries, and how fractured relationships might lead to the crime when the criminal gives in to his baser instincts. Hmm, this isn’t something I’ve thought about much up until now. I write my tales  to entertain. Might there be a morality lesson in there somewhere?

Certainly, the Bad Hair Day series as a whole has a moral or a theme, if you will. I see the two as one and the same. So here’s one moral you can take away from my books: You can move on from past mistakes. Redemption is the theme here. When the series starts, Marla—my hairdresser sleuth—is still atoning for a tragedy that happened when she was nineteen. A toddler in her care when she was babysitting drowned in the backyard pool. Guilt drives her. It motivates her to solve the crime in Permed to Death. But when she meets handsome Detective Dalton Vail, this guilt prohibits her from progressing in their relationship. He has a teenage daughter, and she doesn’t ever want children. She has to forgive herself before the future can blossom for her.

So here’s another lesson she learns: You can still be a good person even if you’ve done wrong. The accident that happened in the past wasn’t really her fault, but she blames herself. Deep down, she knows she is a good person. She strives to be better and solving mysteries is one way she does this. She also volunteers for the Child Drowning Prevention Coalition.

As Marla and Dalton grow closer, Marla comes to care for his daughter, Brianna. Their relationship still has its bumps, because Dalton also has some past baggage to let go before he can move ahead. But finally, by Shear Murder, Marla has accepted that she’s stronger with Dalton and Brianna for a family. Wait! Another moral is coming: Finding love can strengthen you, not cause dependency.

But Marla is still nervous. As their nuptials approach, she buries herself in solving another case rather than face wedding details and bickering relatives. Finally, she finds the courage to accept her new family with enthusiasm and love. She sheds her fears and looks forward to a new tomorrow. So here we go again: No matter how glum today looks, tomorrow is a better day.
I guess you could say that the morals in my stories involve my sleuth and her character growth. The focus isn’t on the criminal and how he evolved, or what effect the crime has on the victim’s family or on society in general. My cozy whodunits are centered around the sleuth and her life, not on the crime. That’s why I like reading cozies, too. They’re about someone like you or me who is a lot braver and who has the guts to chase down the bad guy. Along the way, we live vicariously in her world and see how her relationships grow and change.

How about you? Do you consciously determine the theme ahead of time, or does it emerge from your writing as you develop the story? Do your tales focus on the criminal’s motivations and the repercussions of the crime, or more on the sleuth’s life in general?

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Bait and Switch Tactics

Bait and Switch Tactics are a means to keep your reader on the edge of her seat with gripping fear for your characters’ lives. What you’ll want to do is isolate your characters, then write scenes in each person’s viewpoint with a cliffhanger at the end of each sequence. This only applies if you are writing from two or more characters’ points of view.

In SILVER SERENADE, my current science fiction romance, Silver is an assassin whose assignment is to kill Tyrone Bluth, the leader of a ruthless band of terrorists. Jace, a hunted criminal, needs Bluth alive to prove his innocence. In addition, Bluth has kidnapped Jace’s sister and so Jace must learn her location from the man.

Silver promises to help Jace before she kills the monster who destroyed her family. Whether or not she will hold to this promise is the basis of the romantic conflict. Silver and Jace are both after the same target but for different reasons.

In one scene, Silver and Jace confront the terrorist leader in his lair. The purpose of this scene is to deliver important information and propel the action forward. To rachet up the suspense, I’ve isolated my heroes. Here is how the scene breaks down [Spoiler Alert!]. It shows how this technique can work for genres other than mystery/suspense/thriller.

1. Jace’s viewpoint. Jace and Silver, in disguise, present themselves as new recruits for Bluth’s terrorist network. They look for their contact, Gruber, at a saloon on the planet Al’ron. While sitting at the bar, Silver shrugs off a roughneck patron who makes a play for her. The fellow insults Jace, who kills him. After this display, their contact approaches and introduces them to the bandit leader. Impressed by Jace’s quick response, Bluth says they passed the first test. He’ll take Silver with him to his headquarters, but Jace must follow them alone in his ship. Jace fears for Silver’s safety. Or worse, will she use this opportunity to assassinate Bluth and leave him behind?

2. Silver’s viewpoint. She is on a firing range at headquarters for Tyrone’s Marauders, being tested for her skills as a sharpshooter. She passes the test. Her supervisor marches her to the detention center where the evil Bluth snatches a captive child from his mother’s arms and demands Silver shoot him. Tempted to aim her laser rifle at Bluth instead, Silver manages to demonstrate her skill in a less lethal manner. During their dialogue, she learns a piece of important information. Bluth leads her away, while she wonders what’s happened to Jace who has failed to show up. Has he been caught?

3. Jace’s viewpoint. Jace’s cover has been blown, and Bluth arrives to torture him in his prison cell. Bluth questions him about his contact, Gruber. Was Gruber duped by Jace, or is he a willing accomplice? Jace turns the interrogation around when he learns where his sister is being held and also gains news on urgent political issues. What chills him more is Bluth’s boast that Silver waits for him in his chamber, unaware the pirate knows her true identity.

4. Silver’s viewpoint: Silver seeks to rescue Jace. In the hallway, she hears approaching footsteps. She opens the nearest unlocked door and slips inside a stranger’s quarters. He turns out to be a financial officer for Bluth. After rendering him unconscious, Silver copies data from his computer. This information may help prove Jace’s innocence and may also help them cut off Bluth’s funding at its source. But this data will only be useful if she can escape the complex. How can she reach the detention center and free Jace?

5. Jace’s viewpoint: Guards arrive to march him from his cell, and he figures he’s marked for execution.

And so on. You get the idea? When I began this scene, I had no idea how it would play out. The sequences developed as I wrote, but each time I was in one character’s head, I left them at a critical juncture. Hopefully this will induce you, the reader, to keep turning pages to see what happens next.

In summary, to increase suspense, isolate your main characters and leave each one in jeopardy or fearing for the other’s safety at the end of each sequence. Switch back and forth, until they meet again. This technique has been used successfully in many thrillers, and you can deploy it for your story as well. Hook your readers and reel them in!

For more info on Silver Serenade, go to http://www.thewildrosepress.com/nancy‑j‑cohen‑m‑831.html

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The Adventures of Balloon Boy

By Joe Moore

I was listening to James Brown sing “It’s A Man’s World” while trying to decide on adding to the gender bias thread stitched so well into TKZ posts throughout the previous week. But since my fellow blogmates so thoroughly covered the SinC vs. PW dust-up and the related Venus and Mars writing debate, I chose instead to talk about Balloon Boy.

bb1 We all saw it on TV. The Jiffy Pop-shaped silver aircraft streaking over the Colorado landscape. It was mesmerizing watching the helicopters circled the makeshift flying machine like they were covering the arrival of visitors from another planet. The possibility of a 6-year-old boy being trapped inside with the chance that the craft might run out of air and crash or he could come tumbling out at any moment. And we would all witness him cartwheel through the air and slam into farmhouse tin roof or rusty 1950s Chevy pickup. It was drama at its finest. And no one could look away.

If this had been a novel, it would have shot past Dan Brown on the bestseller list with millions lined up to get their copy. As writers, we would have all been asking the same question: Why didn’t I write that? And as readers, we would have been curled up in our beds well into the late night turning those pages as we devoured the story to find out what happened next.

So what can we learn from Balloon Boy when it comes to writing novels? That his story had all the elements of a bestseller.

Initially, there was an immediate grab with extreme danger: Breaking News! A young child’s life was hanging by a thread. Like any great thriller, there was a ticking clock—how long would the craft be able to stay up? Then there was a growing mystery: was the child even in the balloon? The event was ripe with emotion—anyone with children knows the sickening feeling of helplessness as they watched. After all, it could have been their kid.

So we had danger, a young life at stake, time running out, mystery, and gut wrenching emotion. The protagonist was an innocent boy possibly frightened beyond belief and fighting for his life thousands of feet in the air—all in front of a captivated world. And he may only have minutes to live.

Now we all know that for every great protagonist, there should be an equally evil antagonist. In this case, an unlikely character emerged—the boy’s father. As the story progressed after our heavy sigh of relief at finding that the child had been home and save the whole time, the spotlight shifted to the parents, particularly the father. We soon found that he deceived us and caused everyone undue emotional stress. He forced his child to go along with the scheme to fulfill his own personal ambition of securing a family reality show. He even called the local network affiliate to report the runaway balloon before he dialed 911!

The mother was an equal co-conspirator willing to let the plan go forth with full knowledge of the deception. As fear for the child shifted to disgust for the parents and pity for the boy and his siblings, we were taken on a ride that saw our feelings shift from one grand emotion to another as distinctly as a color wheel spotlight shining on an old aluminum Christmas tree—fear, relief, suspicion, revulsion.

The conspiracy started to unravel when Balloon Boy let it slip on a national morning interview that they did it for the “show”. The dedicated local sheriff started digging deeper and finally was able to pull back the façade and expose this despicable conspiracy for what it really was—a lie to capture the headlines and to make money even at the expense of a child.

How does any great story end? The villains get caught and must face their just rewards. The parents have now pleaded guilty and may have to serve jail time.

So what can we learn from Balloon Boy? That it was all there in plain view—the main ingredients for a solid, absorbing and captivating thriller. Boy, I wish I’d written that.

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