Friday, March 5, 2010

Stuck for a storyline? Pitch that idea

If you are sitting in front of that blank computer screen or empty sheet of paper once again, then welcome to the club. We all get “dry” of ideas from time-to-time. Here's a tip that grew out of a conversation with a retired literary agent, and a bit of Googling about scripts and how they are “pitched” to movie and TV producers. I employ this technique frequently as I'm thrashing about for some interesting storyline to write about. I pitch story/script ideas to myself as if I'm the publisher/producer. Here's an example of what's frequently flowing through my mind when I'm off doing something totally unrelated, like kayaking. I find that trying to do this while sitting in front of the computer is often fruitless. I'm making this one up right as I type this blog entry, so it's not a plot spoiler. Plus, if you can take it and make something out of it, then just remember me when you are sitting on your ranch in Montana.

-It's Executive Orders meets The Manchurian Candidate
-Rogue AF General plots coup to takeover US Government
-Finds “like mind” in charismatic, ambitious US Senator
-Senator is elected president and seeks to implement takeover
-Now president seeks to cut out powerful General from plan
-General turns against president
-General's newly found loyalty to US, although growing out of sense of betrayal, leads to armed conflict between forces loyal to new president and those loyal to Constitution, resulting in near loss of the United States to rogue foreign forces who come to aid of traitorous president.

I do this little scenario around 40 – 50 times per week, until I find something that begins to “click” and which sounds plausible. Those few lines are turned into a broader, usually 1-2 page, outline. If I still feel that it's plausible, then it goes into my “projects/ideas” folder for later development. That way, I always have a few ideas that are out there on the horizon.

My major source of ideas however, is still the flow of daily news. My file cabinet is full of interesting little clippings of information that could easily be “color” or “background” for a story. And, I use “favorites” on my computer a lot...sorting websites and stories into folders for later use.

However you do it is up to you, but although I'm a proponent of writing...something...anything...every day, I'm also a proponent of writing with a purpose. If you are constantly churning ideas around in your head, “pitching” them to your own "inner producer", then you will eventually hit on a combination that inspires you.  Just remember to be passionate about your "pitch".  Don't be your own "inner critic" at the same time you are trying to be the idea proponent, or you will shoot down your own ideas before they fully blossom.  Hope this helps you find your next great book idea.

Write on!

Jack Riston

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chapter transitions: Consider the movie "Cut" technique

I'm not any sort of classically trained writer. My website at describes me just the way I see myself, as just a story teller. My training, if you can call it that, came from years of writing volunteer articles for one base newspaper, or another, where space was always at a premium. As a result, my style developed into what might be called the “cut” in movie parlance. I just don't have the interest (or, seemingly, the ability) to write a lot of exposition in the beginning of a chapter. Rather, the reader's own ability to “fill in the blanks” is important to me.

This doesn't mean that the story can be written like a screenplay. As Mr. B. pointed out in another article, too little information will leave your reader adrift, while too much information may put them to sleep, or worse yet, insult them. I want to give the reader total credit for being able to figure things out, while still providing some clues to help them along if they missed something in an earlier section of the book.

In the snippet below, for example, from “Mandate” (You can read the first full chapter at my website) Grace Dakan, wife of a US Senator, and heir to her family's fortune, has come to the offices of Arlo DuPlesser, prominent Washington, DC private investigator. She has told him what she thinks about the circumstances surrounding her husband's death, which has been presented by Russian authorities as a sex-drug-murder-suicide while the Senator was on a trip. During that conversation, she has given permission for Arlo to talk to the corporation's counsel, Jacob Kunis.

As she leaves the PI's office, the reader must know that the first call the PI is going to make is to the attorney. So, rather than do a lot of expository stuff about the law firm, or picking up the phone to call the attorney, or talking to the receptionist, or the time of day, etc, I just parachuted right into the middle of the conversation between the PI and the attorney, as Chapter 2 began, doing my exposition as I moved along.

It might not be the correct form. Did I mention earlier that I grew up in the TV-Movie age? I'm mostly visual. But, it's a technique that my “test” readers have found effective enough that they can't seem to stop reading. Sounds like a good thing to me.

“There's something else?”

“Yes, there is. I have seen the pictures taken in the Moscow apartment. There’s something you should know about Hugh. He was left handed.” Then, in a voice that said she didn’t think Arlo was convinced that he should take her case, she also said, “...and I think someone is following me!”

Chapter 2

“No, I don’t think you could classify her as a paranoid. Still in shock? Yes. Under a great deal of stress? Most certainly.” The voice on the other end of the phone connection was Jacob Kunis, senior partner at Kunis & Dowd, probably the largest, but certainly the most prominent law firm in all of Washington. Their list of corporate clients looked more or less like a photo copy of the Fortune 500. There were reportedly over 200 partners in the firm, and Arlo didn’t doubt it for a moment. With offices sprinkled among the major US cities and a half dozen foreign capitals, Kunis & Dowd cast an amazing shadow in the corporate world. “We’re not even certain that she is being followed yet. Her driver was the one to notice what appeared to be the same dark gray sedan on a number of consecutive days. Under the circumstances, we felt that it was prudent to investigate this, but as discreetly as possible.”

Hope this will help you as you make your transitions from chapter to chapter.

Write on!