I spent most of author Lisa Papademetriou's NESCBWI Conference session on The Art of the Outline scribbling like a fiend. Not only was her presentation lively (there were jokes! Musical interludes!), it was full of valuable information, from story format, to scene structure, to numerous tips about how to craft a plot. Seriously, looking back through my notes, I need to type these up, because I'm not sure otherwise how I'm going to hold onto all of these gems.
But thanks to some fortuitous timing, I was working on developing my characters the day after the conference, so I was able to take Lisa's character exercise for a test drive. I already take notes on my characters' weaknesses, my characters' needs and desires. But Lisa asked a few extra questions which I had never heard before:
How could your character's flaw lead to her downfall?
How could your character's greatest strength save her?
I imagined it as an audition, each character moving to the center of the stage, looking down at me while I sat there asking my questions, my feet perched on the seat in front of me, notebook at the ready. There weren't any surprises when it came to my main character, but all of a sudden I was seeing some of my supporting characters in an entirely different light.
One of my girls dreams of being a fashion designer. I was jotting down all her talents, her organizational ability, her eye for color, her mean ability with eyeliner, and suddenly she was telling me how she didn't really have a strength, as such, nothing that could save the world, but she could create some excellent disguises.
I practically leapt out of my chair, grabbed my imaginary character into my arms, and screamed, "I want this one!"
I'm not yet sure how the plot is going to play out, but I know there will be masterful disguises.
Sometimes these tools, character questionnaires, outlines, scene storyboards, can feel like a waste of time. But every so often, something essential leaps off the page. Lisa started her presentation by defending structure. She pointed out that even improv acts will ask for suggestions from the audience before they start a performance. A little structure, a little framework, doesn't have to curtail creativity--it can embolden it.
I've been recapping some of my favorite sessions from the NESCBWI 2013 Conference on the blog: Jeannine Atkins on using setting to create structure, Kate Messner on mystery and making time for research, and Gail Gauthier on time management.