Energising your plot

One-sentence theme: Working with narrative energy to improve story pacing 

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As most of you know, I’m in the second act doldrums of my current WIP (but not for long, because the break into the Act III is just around the corner – take that, writer insecurity!). Like most writers, this is a time of despair, and self-loathing, and doubt, and pretty much staring at the page and cursing its blankness. But also, for me, it is a time of introspection – I’m the sort of person, when faced with a problem, will keep attacking it until I solve it. I don’t cut knots off, I tease them out.

I’ve been stuck, this week, in a chapter where nothing really seems to happen. There’s a lot of things in motion, and there’s definitely forward momentum, but it’s all one foot in front of the other (some more hesitantly than others). When, if I were to follow my own advice of ‘every scene needs conflict’, it would be more a case of one step forward and then two steps back (preferably because something big and terrifying and intimidating had shoved it).

So here I am, in this problematic chapter (which comprises three scenes of 400, 600, and 300 words, respectively), and I’m trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m close to the my third act, where I know the action and conflict will come on in spades; I don’t want to manufacture conflict when all I need to do is really drive these characters to the trigger for Act III; I know that I need to keep things at a sufficient level of tension to not let this sucker drop below the lifeline threshold (and commit my poor WIP to the slow death of a saggy middle).

And anyway, I started thinking, what if every chapter needed conflict, but every scene just needed energy.

(Now I fully appreciate that this may just be me indulging in delusional wishful-thinking – so call me out in the comments if you need to. I’n kind of just spitballing this in a stream of consciousness, so we’ll see how it plays out…)

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Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Two primary types of energy

When we talk about energy, we are talking about two primary types:

KINETIC and POTENTIAL

Kinetic energy is energy possessed by something in motion.

Potential energy is energy possessed by something because of its relative position to something else.

So far, so good – it’s easy to see how both concepts can be applied to fictional narratives: scenes with kinetic energy have direct, obvious, tangible conflict – bodies and things in motion; scenes with potential energy have the promise of conflict only because of where they sit in relation to other scenes.

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Graphic by Aniruddha Pochimcherla

If your scenes hold kinetic energy – you’re all good. You have pace, you have drama, you have in-your-face conflict. There’s no risk of saggy middle, go do a celebratory dance and leave the rest of us miserable writers alone.

But, if your novel has a run of potential energy scenes, you may be drifting into second act trouble. And if you have this run of potential energy scenes in the first or third act, well then, you’ve got bigger problems than I…

So, let’s check out these potential energy subtypes and see if we can apply them to fictional narratives. And then let’s evaluate whether that helps us ascertain whether we have a problem or not.

Four types of Potential Energy

So, obviously we can’t use the literal meaning of the Potential energy subtypes. But we’re talking about fictional narratives, so I am going to use a little creative licence.

Let’s say Chemical energy is romantic tension. No action, no sexy-time, no sneaking kisses behind the gym – but the almost-kiss, the lingering looks, the brief touches, the racing heart. There’s an energy in the scene, not because there is action, but because there is no action. Just the potential for action is enough (and maybe better) – the hint of the tension possibly being realised.

And let’s say Nuclear energy is a ticking time-bomb. The countdown to an inevitable disaster – the Titanic bobbing up and down before it goes under, the flashing numbers on a explosive device ticking down, the deterioration of a terminally-ill patient, the continued regression of Benjamin Button.

We could shape Gravitational energy in one of two ways: a) as the coming together of two objects, reluctantly and/or against their will  – the tension of opposite things occupying the same space (but without direct/realised conflict, remember); think Ann Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in Colossal just eyeing each other off; and/or b) as one thing going through a metamorphosis of a sort and transitioning (without resistance) between two states or environments (like falling from air to earth); think of scenes where a character is processing a revelation, like Elizabeth Bennet reading a letter in Pride and Prejudice. Not the aftermath, mind you; not the part when her world is turned upside down, just the part where there is the hint (or the promise) that it will.

And we could treat Elastic energy as the stretching of something away from its home, its destiny, its true North, just before it is inevitably snapped back. Like Scuffy the Tugboat (incidentally, I have (in my adult years) grown to hate that book, despite its beautiful prose, because of its depressing message of ‘don’t dream beyond your limits’), or like Jonah in the Bible.

That all seems to work, so what now?

Yes, it’s quite the neat little package, isn’t it? All these things have energy – and seem to be very reasonable alternatives to their kinetic counterparts. I mean, who doesn’t love simmering tension in a hate-to-love story or the thrill of a race against time?

Oh, and, great question.

So, as I was writing this, I came to the conclusion that potential energy in fictional narratives works the same as in reality: It’s stronger a) when it is closer to the object it has a relationship with, and b) when the object it has a relationship with is strong in and of itself. 

In narrative terms, this means your potential energy scenes lose energy the more you distance them from kinetic (action) scenes. And that they have less energy if the nearby or related kinetic scenes are weak themselves. Moral of the story: Don’t run a lot of potential energy scenes together. And make sure that you boost your kinetic energy scenes to give your potential energy scenes more gravitas.

So, your problematic chapter is fixed, then?

Sadly, no 😦 While this was incredibly helpful in identifying ways to imbue ‘sequels’ or reaction scenes with energy, I’ve realised that none of these potential energy types are in my three bogged-down scenes (and that I’ve broken my own advice and linked them together in one, horrendous run). So it’s back to the drawing board for me, but I hope it’s been reassuring for you.

Let me know what you think in the comments! And don’t forget to share on social media. 

Energising your plot

Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

It seems that every time I reach the middle of a WIP, I start musing on the problems a second act can cause a writer. Second acts are notoriously difficult for writers – there are hundreds of books and articles out there decrying the flabby belly, the second act bog, the meandering middle, the belly of the beast, “the time which is not the beginning and not the end, the time in which the artist and the protagonist doubt themselves and wish the journey had never begun” (David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife).

My struggle, it seems, is all to do with divergence and convergence. As a former intelligence analyst, the process of positing a reasonable theory involved both modes of thinking – divergence: brainstorming as many ideas, variables, possibilities as you could think up, and just running with them; and convergence: critically analysing the options to identify the strongest and then pushing them to their limits to see which would break and which would stand up to the assault.

It’s the same with drafting a book. Act I is drafted with what I call acute divergence – all wild ideas are welcome and there is no internal consistency that has been established or needs to be obeyed. This is creativity unleashed – it’s the exciting, adrenalin-fuelled writing rush. It’s why I have a thousand story ideas lurking on index cards and why I started a dozen stories in my youth but never got beyond chapter five.

But, after Act I, comes Act II. The first part of the second act (Act II(a)) is drafted with I call obtuse divergence – there’s still a lot of room for movement and creativity, even though the rules of consistency have been established. The world, the characters, the way things work have shape and form, but are still, to a certain extent, malleable. Like a child out of the womb; the features are formed – eyes look like eyes, toes like toes, the external tail of the embryo now a coccyx – but the bones haven’t yet set. When I draft Act II(a), I know there isn’t as much free reign or creative licence I had in Act I, but there’s still enough to take one of the story threads and let my imagination exploit it.

Mikhaeyla Kopievsky - Writing Tips and Tricks

That all changes after the Midpoint and the arrival of Act II(b). Now, I’m firmly in obtuse convergence. The parameters of the story are well-established – the bones have set – and I can feel myself chafing against the harder boundary. What’s worse, there’s no forward/downhill momentum – everything is still so vague with all these story threads to manage, it all just seems to coalesce in the middle. The epitome of a sagging belly! There’s no magic cure for this – you just have to power through it. Keep converging your story – tightening the plot, weaving the story threads closer together, shedding dead weight, and sharpening the spear-point.

Because if you do that, you’ll get to Act III – the point of acute convergence. Here there is no creative licence to go off track – everything is firmly in place. But in a good way. With everything finally tightened, you have  clear sight to the end. You have the forward/downhill momentum. It’s at this point, much like the first act, where the story seems to take on a life of its own – the driving force of the earlier acts pushing it towards its natural conclusion. I find that I write fastest (and with the most confidence) in the first and third acts – because there is acute plotting, drafting, and creativity at play.

Knowing that obtuseness is the enemy of my writing productivity, I’m now on a mission to discover tips and techniques to help deal with it… I’ll keep you all updated on what I find!

And if you have tips and techniques of your own – share them below in the comments! 

Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

Play like a girl: Challenging gender stereotypes in spec fiction

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Today, I’m launching a dystopian anthology with eleven other indie authors. On the Brink features some amazing stories and most of them feature protagonists that are female, flawed, and ferocious. It got me thinking about my own posts on the subject of gender in speculative fiction and I realised that I never posted the guest post I published on Amid the Imaginary. So here it is in all its glory for you to read:

Challenging the Collective Identity

Just a little while ago, on 14 July, I released the second book in my Divided Elements series, Rebellion. I thought it was kind of fitting that Rebellion was published on Bastille Day, since it is a dystopian tale of revolution set in a post-apocalyptic Paris. Interestingly, 14 July is also celebrated as International Non-binary Day – which similarly held a nice symmetry, since my book is centered on challenging the identity stereotypes society imposes.

As someone who has always strongly identified as female and as a feminist, but not particularly feminine, Non-binary Day got me thinking about how gendered identity – like all types of identity – is both a deeply personal and a deeply cultural concept. And that authentic identity is forged in the way we both embrace and challenge the cultural stereotypes of that collective identity.

Collective identity is a tricky thing – by its very nature it is a generalisation; a broad-brushed characterisation of a shared experience, perspective, and values-system. Changing the way we view that characterisation (and opening up opportunities for challenging it), requires changing the narrative…

And what better vehicle for doing that than actual narratives?

Science fiction has been creating mind-bending narratives for decades and there are likely hundreds of examples that show stereotypes being challenged and reimagined. Today I want to share with you my favourite examples of gendered stereotypes turned on their heads by scifi books and movies:

Sarah Connor (Terminator) – ‘Mother’. Sarah Connor is not the kind of mother you’d Image result for sarah connorfind in a Norman Rockwell painting and yet she is nothing if not fiercely maternal. Sarah debunks all concepts of passive, gentle motherhood and instead gives us a mother lioness.

 

 

 

 

 

Ellen Ripley (Alien) – ‘Damsel in Distress’. Ellen Ripley Image result for ellen ripleyis on a distant, unfamiliar planet when her entire crew is decimated by a really freaking scary alien. Ellen is not a kick-ass, alien-killing ninja (a la Emily Blunt’s Angel of Verdun in Edge of Tomorrow) – she is just a woman who is left alone and who must survive with the skills, knowledge and resources available to her. She is not super-human, but she finds a super-human strength within her to win her battle with a formidable foe and make it out alive.

 

 

 

Ann Burden (Z is for Zacahariah) – ‘Dreamy Schoolgirl’. Ann, a teenage girl who is left Image result for ann z for zachariahalone on her family’s farm in the wake of a nuclear fallout, undergoes a rite of passage when her isolation is interrupted by the arrival of Loomis – an older man who appears with a radiation safe-suit and ideas on how to survive. Desperate for company and impressed by his confidence and credentials, Ann nurses him to health and fantasizes about eventually marrying him, falling into line with his ideas and directions. Over time, she starts to harbor doubts about the man and his ideas and when he turns aggressive and violent, rather than capitulate to submission, Ann takes control of her life and claws back her own agency.

YT (Snowcrash) – ‘Sweet Sidekick’. YT (Yours Truly) is a savvy, self-assured Image result for snowcrashskateboarding courier who is more the reluctant hero than the book’s actual protagonist, Hiro. YT is a world-weary fifteen year old, who wears a dentata (anti-rape device), frequently thinks about sex, throws herself into the path of danger, and still loves her mum.

 

 

 

 

 

Nyx (God’s War) – ‘Pure Warrior’. There are many stories about women warriors who Image result for gods war kameronare righteous and just and almost Madonna-like (holy, not musical) in their pure quest for victory. Not Nyx. Nyx is a ruthless mercenary who kills for money, not morals and not loyalty. She is not the one to save the cat, she is one to save herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each of these examples show how good science fiction can challenge what we think we know about a shared experience and collective identity. I see aspects of myself, my sister, my mother, and my friends in all of these characters – and I love that they broaden my understanding of what being female is and can be.

Challenging gender stereotypes creates a more dynamic and fluid understanding of identity and allows us to create more personal reflections of the cultural stereotypes that have previously limited us.

I hope to read, and create!, more amazing and interesting and unique female characters that continue to challenge and inspire me.

What about you? What stories, tv series or movies have challenged gender (or other) stereotypes for you? Tell me in the comments!

 

Divided Elements - Book 1 and 2
You can now purchase Resistance, the award-winning first book in the dystopian Divided Elements series, and its sequel, Rebellion,  from awesome bookstores and ebook sites around the world.

Click here to start reading now!

 

 

On the Brink: A Dystopian Anthology by [Ingleby, Alison, Huard, Michael W., Adkins, Heather Marie, Andrews, Carissa, Andrews, Alanah, Ward, Chris, Korn, Tracy, Littlemore, Clare, Heingarten, Paul, Andrews, Ellabee, Behn, Brea, Kopievsky, Mikhaeyla]
For a limited time, you can also grab your copy of On the Brink – a dystopian anthology from twelve best-selling and award-winning indie authors, featuring Revelation: A Divided Elements origin story. 

 

Play like a girl: Challenging gender stereotypes in spec fiction