Non Standard Plots: A Dog’s Purpose

At Agile Writers we adhere to The Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. We also take lessons from movie plots and combine them into the Agile Writer Method.

The Hero’s Journey has a standard pattern. The hero starts out in a familiar world where things are pretty static. Then something happens that upsets the hero’s world and he is thrust into unfamiliar territory. He must learn the rules of this “Special World” and overcome some great obstacle and return to the “Ordinary World” with the lessons learned.

The vast majority of story plots follow this pattern. But it’s not necessarily the only pattern. Sometimes writers break the mold of the hero’s journey to tell a compelling story using a different device to good effect.

One example I like to use is 2011’s War Horse – a Stephen Spielberg film. In it we’re introduced to a horse who is bought by a farmer at auction at the start of World War I. The horse is a thoroughbred – built for racing. But the farmer uses the horse to plow the fields. The horse demonstrates great heart in her work. Ultimately, the farmer is forced to sell the horse to the English cavalry. The horse is then owned by a captain who runs into a German infantry troupe and is killed. The horse then changes hands again and is used to pull cannons for the German artillery. The horse escapes and befriends a young French girl whose father works for the resistance. Finally, after the war is over, the horse returns to the farm only to find that it is overrun by cars, jeeps, and buses.

This pattern is the “anthology” story. The horse is not really the hero of the story. The horse is merely a.token that is passed from mini-story to mini-story to give the movie continuity. The horse doesn’t learn any lessons. But we’re witness to the loss of innocence of Europe and the transition from an agrarian society to a technological one. The world is changed, not our hero.

A similar device is used to good storytelling effect again in A Dog’s Purpose. In it, a dog, Bailey, is born, dies, and is reborn over and over. In each life the dog learns something new. And all through the multiple lives, Bailey has experiences that teach him how to be the best dog he can be.

It’s hard to watch a good dog die. Especially over and over again. While the story is cloying and tugs at the heart strings, the anthology pattern is used to good effect here. The message this movie wants to push home is “be present and happy in the moment – like good dogs do.” It does it by following one dog’s spirit through multiple reincarnations.

Not every story is a hero’s journey. At Agile Writers, we adhere to this pattern because most stories can be told to great effect using it. There are times, however, when other patterns, like the anthology pattern, may suit your needs better. Choose the pattern that serves your story best.

Avatars: Your Ideal Reader

imagesRecently at Agile Writers the topic of what is “allowed” in certain genres came up. In particular, a couple writers are working on Christian Inspirational fiction and wondered what words or topics were taboo.

In that genre, readers are very sensitive to words that are perceived as “swear” words. Our own Cat Brennan related a story of how a Christian writer had a villain who had a foul mouth. The writer allowed only one swear in to the text. But when a bookseller found that word he called and complained bitterly to the publisher. The publisher then recalled all the books and removed the offending word.

This is an example of how you, as the writer, regardless of your genre, need to know your audience. You need to know what language your audience will be willing and able to read. You also need to know the conventions of the genre and the expectations of your readers.

I recommend to my writers that they create an ideal reader. The “ideal reader” is an idealized representation of the person most likely to read your book. Steven King, for example, claims that he writes with his wife in mind. He reasons that if she likes it, others will too. His wife then, is his ideal reader.

So, to figure out who the ideal reader is, think about the age, gender, educational level and expectations of the person reading your book. When I ask new Agile Writers who will read their book, almost invariably they answer “everyone!” But of course, not everyone will want to read your book. A book that appeals to a 12-year-old girl likely will not appeal to a 65-year-old man. It *can* happen, but it’s not likely. And as a writer, you can’t be expected to write a book that appeals to everyone.

So consider the age of the reader. If you’re writing a cozy mystery, you’re likely aiming at an older person: perhaps in their 50s or 60s. If you’re writing a young adult dystopian novel, you’re probably going to want to appeal to 12- to 15-year olds.

Gender is also a good identifier for your ideal writer. If you’re writing a spy/espionage thriller – you’re likely going to appeal to a male audience. And if you’re writing a romance novel, you’re book is probably going to appeal to women.

If this sounds like stereotyping, it is. And in this case, it’s not a bad thing. These are not negative stereotypes. This is knowing your demographic and writing to please them. You’re not telling a woman that she cannot read or enjoy your cold-war thriller. It’s just that the majority of your readers are likely to be men. And so, you’ll want to keep them in mind as you write your work.

I encourage writers to go an extra step in this process and create an “avatar” of their ideal reader. An avatar is an outward representation of a hidden concept. The word comes from the Sanskrit meaing “to descend”. It used to represent Hindu gods who came to Earth and needed an Earthly visage for people to see. In modern terms, people use “avatars” as pictures or cartoons that represent them on Facebook or in chat rooms. These are simple images that represent their true selves.

In the case of writers, an avatar is a stock photo of someone who represents their ideal reader. I tell my writers to create a full backstory for their ideal reader, and go onto the internet and Google search for an image that looks like their ideal reader.

For example, Cat is working on a Christian Inspirational cozy mystery. Her ideal reader might be a woman in her 50s to 60s who bakes, sews, quilts, and knits. I’d give this woman a name, say, “Melinda.” Melinda lives in the midwest and has three children and two grandchildren. I’d then ask Cat to go onto the internet and find a picture of this ideal reader to act as her avatar. Finally, Cat should print the picture out and tape it next to her computer screen so that she can keep her ideal reader in mind as she writes.

Keeping your reader in mind is an important part of writing your novel. Choosing an ideal reader will help you to make the right word choices, cultural references, and situations that will resonate with your readers. And having an avatar – or picture – of your ideal reader will keep you on-track as you write that first draft.

The Split Climax

merging-lanes-aheadOne of the things I teach in my seminar on The Agile Writer Method is that the climax is the seventh and final turning point in the story. There is the classic climax where the hero defeats the villain and solves the main goal of the story. But there other ways to handle a climax. One of them is what I call the Spit Climax.

In most stories, we get to the sixth stage which I call “The Gathering Storm.” In it, the hero gathers their friends and makes a new plan to get the Main Goal. This usually follows the “Death or Disappointment” moment where getting the main goal seems impossible.

If you look at the climax of the Pixar film Toy Story, there comes a moment where Woody and Buzz are in the clutches of the evil kid “Sid Vicious.” Sid is known for destroying his toys and mangling them into fearsome forms. Sid has strapped a firework rocket to Buzz’s back and is getting ready to light the rocket and send Buzz to his ultimate demise.

Meanwhile, Woody has gathered all of Sid’s toys and created a plan to save Buzz. Just as Sid is about to light the rocket, the other toys break the primary rule of toy-being, and rise up like zombies to confront Sid. Sid is terrified of the approaching toys and goes running to his room to hide.

This is what I call “Vanquishing the Villain.” This is the first half of the split climax. The second half is called “Resolving the Main Goal.” Woody and the mangled toys have scared Sid straight and saved Buzz. But that’s not their ultimate goal. Their Main Goal is to return to Timmy before he moves away. If Timmy moves away before they can get home, they won’t know where he lives and they’ll be lost forever.

In the next scene, Woody and Buzz work together to chase after the moving truck. They hop in a toy car and are pulled along by the slinky dog. But that plan fails and Woody realizes the only solution is to light Buzz’s firework rocket, which is still tied to his back. When he lights it, Buzz opens his wings and flies just like the real Buzz Lightyear might. After some thrilling moments, Woody unties the rocket and the two buddies fall through the moon roof in Timmy’s car and they land in his box of toys. Timmy looks down and exclaims that he found his toys which must have been there the whole time. Thus resolving the Main Goal of returning our heroes to Timmy.

The great thing about the Split Climax is that the reader gets two moments of relief, or “catharsis.” In the first half, Vanquishing of the Villain, the reader experiences the relief that the hero is safe and the villain has been dispatched. In the second half, the hero resolves the Main Goal and the reader gets a second feeling of satisfaction. This gives the reader two cliff-hanging moments in one. It’s a great way to end your story.

But wait, there’s more. The Split Climax can also work in reverse. A lot of Marvel movies incorporate the Split Climax. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the heroes in the story are fighting a horde of robots who have managed to raise the capital of Sokovia high above the Earth. The city is falling and if it crashes to Earth it will cause a global extinction. To make a long story short, the Avengers land the city safely back to Earth. Then the “Vision” character destroys Ultron.

In this case, the Main Goal (saving the city and hence the world) is resolved first. And Vanquishing the Villain is accomplished second. As you can see, the Split Climax works both ways.

So, the next time you plot out your climax, remember that there are other options besides a showdown with the villain that resolves all the problems in one scene. Sometimes you can get twice the bang for the buck when you use a Split Climax.

The Night Before Agile Writers

By James Bono

Twas the night before Thursday. Throughout Martins’ store
Rishonda was browbeating us to write more.

“Ten pages are sent every Sunday by peak
agile writers. So how was your week?”

Elevator pitches graced those who would dare,
in hopes that Saint Gregory soon would be there.

Each writer was nestled all snug in his seat
while visions of publishing contracts loomed sweet.

And Bill with his laptop, Suzan with iPad
knew what it was like, because published they had.

When out in the parking lot rose such a clatter
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a geek,
pushed sideways the curtain and I took a peek.

The mercury vapor lights lit up the cars
all silently parked on the asphalts and tars.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
but a miniature sleigh and a herd of friends dear.

With a little old driver as agile as myth
I knew it a moment it must be Greg Smith.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:

“Now Sharon, now Ursula, Kevin and Ken,
On Kristen, on Lisa, on Elsie and then
There goes Larry and Anthony, Whitney and Grace,
And Jackie and Jane and old what’s-his-face.
Run Katie, run Sarah, Marlene and Michelle,
gain altitude Glory, we’ve stories to tell!
Go Catherine, go Christine, go Angel and Paul,
A great Hero’s Journey awaiteth you all!

“From the handicapped parking, to the tow-away zones
now all pay attention and silence your phones.”

While some of them entered and made for the stairs
others bought dinner to bring to their chairs.

So up to the second floor room they all flew,
with their heads full of tales of a hero or two.

And then in a twinkling I heard through the door
the sounds of their footsteps plying the floor.

As I drew in my head and was turning around
to Martins’ conference room Greg came with a bound.

He wore business casual from his head to his foot
and his pockets were places where pens he had put.

A bundle of gizmos he wore on his back,
the latest electronics thence to unpack.

His eyes how they twinkled, with intensity stared,
so not meeting their quota of pages none dared.

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
but the beard on his chin he refused to let grow.

Since Martins’ wi-fi did not always connect
Greg’s smart phone as hot spot was there to correct.

He spoke many a word, not a duty did shirk,
reviewing his movies and publishing work.

Then at 8 o’clock sharp the main meeting did end;
half the group he would keep, half away he would send.

But I heard him exclaim as I left to critique,
“Which of your stages did you write this week?”

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO THE AGILE WRITER FAMILY!
MAY THE NEW YEAR SEE YOU ALL PUBLISHED!

You Bring the Passion…

agilewritermethod“You don’t have to be a great gram­mar­ian or great speller to write a novel. You don’t have to have con­nec­tions in the writ­ing world. What you need is a pas­sion for your story and a plan to com­plete. You bring the pas­sion, we’ll bring the plan.”

-Greg Smith (2011)
Founder Agile Writers
Creator of the Agile Writer Method

TIP: Simply Publish It

If you want to get your work out in the simplest possible way at the lowest possible cost, consider Smashwords.com. You put your lightly-formatted Microsoft Word document into their engine and it converts it to Apple iBook, Barnes&Noble Nook, Kobe, Sony, and many other formats. Then Smashwords will distribute the eBook to all the different publishers AND take in all your royalties and display it in a convenient dashboard.

It’s simply the easiest way to reach the non-Kindle marketplace! Be sure to read their guides for formatting (no tables and no fancy fonts). And get published right away!

5 Reasons WordPress.com is for Authors

One of the first recommendations I give to my writers is to create a website and a Facebook page. This is the beginning of creating a platform for selling their book. Even if the book isn’t written yet, the new writer needs to create an interested following. The easiest way to do this is through social media. As a writer, you need to get the word out that your book is coming. Creating a pool of followers makes for an instant customer base when your book finally hits the market.

Here are five reasons I recommend WordPress.com as a great, free website and blogging platform

Free Stuff

There’s hardly any argument against free stuff. Creating your own site from scratch using hosting and web creation software can cost a lot of money. Hosting your web site on a server can cost from $100-$300 a year. Domain registration can cost $10-$30 dollars a year. You can create your own site if you know HTML and CSS and you have an artistic bent. Hiring a graphic artist to create your site can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

WordPress.com pays for itself with advertising that is displayed at the bottom of your page. Its a very small price to pay for free stuff. Plus, the quality of WordPress.com software is excellent. It is very easy for the non-technical person to learn. You don’t need to learn computer languages or hire a graphic designer.

No Administration Headaches

If you buy your own web hosting you not only have to pay yearly fees, but you have to administer it yourself. This could mean learning Linux or some other operating system. It is possible to install free WordPress software on your own server. I do that myself for my http://AgileWriters.com site. (It’s worth it to me because I customize the software for my needs). However, if you do this you have to keep up with the WordPress upgrades, which I talk about next…

Constantly updated against hackers

Another problem I have with my self-hosted sites is hackers. The language used to create WordPress is PHP. It is prone to being hacked. I have to make sure to constantly update my site with the latest WordPress software to make sure I don’t fall prey to the hackers.

WordPress.com is constantly looking for “exploits” in their code. Your WordPress.com site is automatically updated with the latest software that has been hardened against hackers.

Akismet Spam Blocker

One of the biggest headaches for bloggers is spam comments. These are comments left on your blog postings that actually come from robot programs (bots) that seek out new blog posts and respond to them with comments that sell some good or service that you haven’t authorized. Some websites get tens or hundreds of these spam comments every day.

Akismet is a service that monitors spammers and keeps a database of them. If you host your own WordPress site, you can pay for this service to protect your site from spam comments. WordPress.com does this for you for free. It’s an invaluable service.

Brochure Web Site Built In

A brochure web site is one that is filled with static content that advertises some good or service. It’s called a “brochure” site because it is like your sales brochure on the Internet. WordPress.com allows you to create “pages” of static content that just tells people what you do. You can create an “About Me” page where you give your biographical information and your writing influences. You can also create a page for each of the books that you have written. It’s really easy to do, and again, you don’t have to learn a programming language to update your site or add a new page.

Blogging Web Site Built In

A blog is dynamic content that you add to on a regular basis (daily, weekly, etc…). A new entry in your blog is called a ‘story’ or ‘posting’. If you had a traditional web site, you might find it difficult to update daily because you would have to write HTML code in a text editor, save it to a file, upload it to your site, and update other pages to create links to the story.

WordPress.com is made specifically for blogging. It allows you to add new posts as often as you like. You can even write a batch of blogs and schedule them to be released periodically – so you don’t have to sit in front of your computer every day. It is this dynamic and regular updating that makes your site feel fresh and alive.

Conclusions

So there you have it, five reasons (nope, it was six reasons – I gave you a bonus one!) for using WordPress.com instead of relying on your own hosting. You have a lot to worry about as an author just writing and selling your book. You don’t need the headaches of managing a web server too.

Take it from me. I’m a software engineer with a lot of experience in managing web sites. I use WordPress.com for my blogs as much as I can. Take a look at the site I built with WordPress.com over at http://ReelHeroes.net and you’ll see how much you can do with a free WordPress.com website and blog.