Write! Shonen Manga is now available on Smashwords for Free!

Last summer, I began revising my book Write! Shonen Manga towards a second edition, however the more I wrote the more it turned from being a second edition into not one, but two different books! The first of these was All the Write Moves which was published last fall on Amazon, and the second one is the upcoming How to Write Manga, which will be released this summer.

How to Write Manga will be an almost a totally different book, and at first, I just removed Write! Shonen Manga from publication and was going to let it vanish into obscurity. But, the truth is, I’m leaving so much useful information from Write! Shonen Manga on the editing floor that it seemed a shame to take it completely out of availability.

Thus, I have decided to compromise- Write! Shonen Manga is now available on Smashwords as a “Choose Your Own Price” book. If you want to get it for free, go ahead and grab it in the format of your choice. All I ask is that if you like it, you leave a review on Smashwords so that others can find it as well. And, if you really like it, consider picking up How to Write Manga when it becomes available.

Rob

The Rise of Webtoons

I’m not sure if many people know about this, but Webtoons.com is just starting to majorly take off. My tween tutoring students all read it, and I think it’s going to be huge in the very near future.


Here’s an artist talking about his first month’s experience on it I recommend watching…

The site is actually the English webcomic branch of Korea’s biggest web portal Naver, which is a huge company and it has real money behind it. They were smart enough to see manhwa (Korean comics) were getting popular in English, so they jumped on it by translating some of their better stuff, plus recruiting other English webcomics, plus making the site open for anyone else who wants to put their stuff on it. All while linking it to Patreon, so your fans can give you money. 


As the video above shows, it’s still fairly easy to find an audience on there because the flood hasn’t started yet, and those who get in soon are going to have a serious first-mover advantage in getting an audience. 

Rob

Writing Manga: The Three Cycle Plot

Japanese comics, or manga, are written as episodic serials- which means they’re broken down into a series of semi-self contained chapters where each episode represents a piece of a larger story but is also a smaller story on its own. This style developed because they were publishing stories in weekly magazines and never knew if the reader had read the previous chapters or not, so they tried to make each chapter as accessible as possible by making it a mini-story. This isn’t much different from how American episodic television is written as well.

Where the Japanese approach differs from the typical American approach is that instead of a typical 3-act structure (Setup>Action>Conclusion) the Japanese prefer a style they refer to as the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, which is based on rising tension and excitement, and when mapped out looks a little like this…

Each cycle of the story represents a dip into suspense (Will they do it? How?) and a return to possible success, with each cycle increasing in length and intensity. This differs in length from a typical three-act story which is Setup (25%)>Action(50%)>Conclusion(25%), by being roughly Cycle One (25%), Cycle Two (30%), and Cycle Three (45%). In other words, instead of being organized as a beginning, middle, and end, the story is better thought of as being in three waves of increasing power and duration.

The peaks of the waves represents the moments of greatest hope and excitement turning into worry, while the bottom of the troughs represents the moments of greatest worry turning into hope. Using this sine-wave style pattern, the audience’s emotions are taken on a roller-coaster ride, and Japanese comic creators use it to play the audience’s emotions like an instrument alternating between fast and slow, soft and hard, and joy and despair.

Which is the key point- the Three Cycle Plot is built around the audience’s emotions and carrying them on an emotional journey. Things that happen are happening because they will affect the audience, and the characters and situations are a vehicle for making the audience feel. It’s all about creating a building a rhythm of suspense and excitement which alternate to bring out the best in each other.

Here’s how to use the Three Cycles to write a story…

Cycle One: Introduction and Problem (25%)

Introduce the following things as quickly as possible:

  • The main characters, including their motivations, reasons the audience should sympathize with them, and any long-term goals they have (if any).
  • The setting and other necessary details and pieces of information the reader needs to understand the story from start to finish.
  • The short term goal they have for this story.
  • An obstacle to that short-term goal which makes it appear challenging but still do-able. This obstacle should be connected to the major obstacle they’ll be facing in this story, but is not the main one.
  • A potential solution to that challenging obstacle.

Cycle Two: Double Trouble (30%)

  • Another greater obstacle appears, building on the smaller one. This can be something actually going wrong, or just the appearance of a greater threat. The important part is it creates another significant question in the audience’s minds (“How can they overcome this?”) and ups the suspense.
  • Usually the main opponent/challenge of the story will be revealed here, and their appearance may be the greater obstacle.
  • Despite the challenge of the greater obstacle, the main character will still attempt to solve it and make some headway.

Cycle Three: Disaster and Conclusion (45%)

  • Just as the greater obstacle looks to be solved, things take a deep turn for the worse and everything looks lost. The situation should feel hopeless for the audience, or at least they should doubt that the main character can solve their problem, just for a moment.
  • The main character must now do something they don’t want to do in order (or have been avoiding doing) to have even a chance at victory, and so they call on all their resources to take one last try at achieving their goal.
  • They win through their own efforts, and claim their prize.
  • The character is shown benefiting from their efforts in some way that makes the audience feel satisfied.
  • If the story is a continuing one, a new challenge is introduced to be solved in the next story.

Example Story: Baker’s Dozen, Episode 3

Cycle 1: Introduction and Problem

Dolly Madison is the best teen baker you ever saw, but she runs completely on instinct and recipes just confuse her. Thus, no baking school will accept her because she fails the written component of all the entrance tests. Seeing her potential, a master baker named Chef Kim has taken pity on her, and is giving her one chance to win a possible apprenticeship. As the story starts early one morning, she sneaks out because her parents don’t approve of her dream, and then heads to Kim’s Bakery, where she will face her big test.

Arriving at Kim’s Bakery, she finds he’s set up three stations, complete with equipment and ingredients. At each station is a sealed letter, and he tells her that in order to pass the test, she must complete the instructions in each letter before noon when the bakery opens. She can do them in any order, but she must complete each task to his satisfaction or she fails and he won’t give her another chance.

Saying a prayer, she picks a station randomly and reads the first letter- it turns out to be for two dozen chocolate chip cookies. The recipe is there, but she’s made them in the past, and is pretty sure she remembers how to do it on her own. She gets everything put together and gets the cookies in the oven- it’s now 8:30am, and she’s got a few hours.

Cycle 2: Double Trouble

She opens the second letter to find it requires her to make two chocolate layer cakes- something she’s never made before. Again, the recipe is there, and at first she tries to use it but gets really confused and makes a big mess. But then after taking out the cookies, she recalls that she’s seen people make these on her favorite cooking shows and after panicking reconstructs the steps in her head. She manages to get the ingredients together and gets them baking- the clock says 10:15am now.

Cycle 3: Disaster and Conclusion

Rushing over to the third station, she finds it’s for two loaves of banana bread- something she again has never made before. As she’s puzzling over how to do it, she smells something burning and discovers that the cakes are burnt! Can’t serve these! She now has an hour and a half to remake the cakes, and she still hasn’t started the banana bread!

After Chef Kim makes it clear there will be no more time, Dolly leaps into action and gets the cakes remade and in the oven. Then, she stares at the recipe, trying to figure it out and decides to just do one step at a time- breaking the process down. She has no time for this, but she’s got to go through it slowly in order to produce something. Working her way through, she manages to get the banana bread in the oven in time to get the cakes out. But the cakes are too hot to ice in time, and so she improvises a special topping that won’t melt on the hot cake. Then, with seconds to go, she pulls out the banana bread and gets them on the cooling racks.

Chef Kim tastes her cookies and finds them a little hard and salty, so he’s not impressed. He’s impressed by her cake however, and her ability to think up a topping at the last second to recover. Then they get to the banana loaf, which he questions will be done under such tight conditions. And, when he checks it, he finds it’s underdone and still uncooked in the middle.

Dolly cries, because she’s failed the test.

However, Chef Kim then informs her that she did pass the test- the test to see if she could follow a recipe under pressure. That was the real test, and in the end she did it, earning her place as his apprentice. Then he informs her it’s time to start serving, so she needs to clean up and get to the front of the bakery to serve customers. Baking is only half the job, and this was only half the test! Get to it!

Examples of Three Cycle Plot Patterns

These are some of the many possible ways you can use the three-cycle pattern to plan out the plot of a story, using some common situations. Each of these is only one way among many to do it.

The Hero Cycle

  • C1: A heroic character is introduced and faces a small challenge which lets the show off what they can do. This challenge leads to them facing a larger threat.
  • C2: The hero faces off against the real threat, and learns that they’re much tougher than they thought. By putting their skills to the test, they manage to hold their own against this dangerous opponent and make things even.
  • C3: The opponent reveals that they’ve been holding back and unleashes their full force against the hero, driving them into a corner. At their darkest hour, the hero manages to find a solution to their problems and rally against their opponent, defeating them.

Bad Situation Cycle

  • C1: The hero meets a villain who is clearly a tough customer. But it seems like they might be able to take them.
  • C2: The hero realizes this situation is worse than expected and pulls put their best move, which seems to do the trick.
  • C3: The villain turns out to be immune to their best move, and…
  • The hero must improvise/find a new way to defeat the enemy and then wins.
  • The hero gets pummeled into the ground and loses, leaving it as a cliffhanger for the next chapter.
  • The hero is rescued by a third party.
  • The hero must develop a new special strength.
  • Some combination of the above.

Young Master Cycle

  • C1: The hero finds a jerk being a jerk and puts them in their place. The young master sends thugs at the hero, who they defeat.
  • C2: The young master’s old master (father/master) comes looking for the hero who has bullied their son/student, and the old master is tougher than the hero. The hero is in serious danger, and at first they almost find a way to avoid conflict, but…
  • C3: The young master eggs the old master on, or something else incites the old master’s anger, and they attack the hero. The hero is in mortal danger and…
  • Must use every trick they have to get out of this one.
  • Finds a new unexpected strength.
  • Is saved by an unexpected ally.
  • Defeats the old master, but now has their entire clan hunting the hero down to try and restore the family’s honor.

The Comedy Cycle

  • C1: There’s a misunderstanding between two characters, but maybe they can work it out.
  • C2: Nope! Thanks to a twist, things get twice as bad, and there’s going to be real consequences. But there is still a chance…
  • C3: The chance for understanding falls apart and the only solution is now the hero coming clean (if it was caused by their own unwillingness to do what needed to be done) or a display of their special strength. The misunderstanding is cleared up and their relationship is healed, usually becoming stronger for the experience.

The Murder Cycle

  • C1: Someone has been killed and a detective uses their skills to find their first clues that lead them to a suspect.
  • C2: The detective finds the mystery is even harder to solve when their first suspect is also killed by the murderer, or the first suspect has a solid alibi. They’re left back at square one.
  • C3: The detective finds a new direction that leads them into a confrontation where they face several suspects and explain how the crime was done. Then they point out the murderer, who confesses under the weight of evidence.
  • Note: The moment things turn around in the Murder Cycle is when the detective has an “ah-ha!” moment that lets them piece the whole thing together and solve the crime.

The Romance Cycle:

  • C1: The lead is romantically interested in another character but their first attempt at getting closer with the other person fails.
  • C2: The lead gets another try at getting closer with the love interest, often due to circumstances, but this attempt not only fails but makes the love interest seem to dislike them.
  • C3: The lead gives it their all and confesses their feelings to their love interest, usually as part of an apology, and finds that the love interest doesn’t hate them at all. The two of them find a way to start a new relationship with each other, one that’s going in a positive direction.

Final Thoughts

This pattern is designed for writing serials, and will work for any kind of continuing episodic story from Manga to Xianxia Webnovel chapters. However, it can also be used for any other kind of story as well, and will work for organizing stories from a few paragraphs to thousands of pages in length. Just remember that there can be cycles within cycles, and each of those cycles can have other smaller 3-Cycle Plots inside them!

Look at your favorite Japanese stories and you’ll quickly start to see this three cycle pattern everywhere. While there are other patterns as well, most of them are variations on the three-cycle pattern which helps to define how the Japanese put together their stories.

Happy writing!

Rob

Time to make All The Write Moves!

A little over a year ago, I released Write! Shonen Manga, and included a section for getting new writers up to speed based on my 20 years experience as a writer and teacher. To my surprise, that writing section got just as must praise from readers as the parts of the book about writing manga, and some even suggested making it into a book all its own!

Well, far be it from me to argue with my readers!

I present to you All the Write Moves: Your Essential Guide to Creating Great Fiction, a revised and expanded guide to mastering the basics of writing fast and telling stories that you’ll be proud to share. It’s a small book, but filled with the major things all the great writers know by heart!

  • Ways to make your book engaging and exciting to readers.
  • Ways to write conflict and non-conflict based stories that resonate with readers.
  • Simple, practical ways to structure your stories.
  • Techniques to let you develop a full story from plot, character, setting, themes, or even your target audience.
  • Easy ways to make your target audience fall in love with your characters.
  • How to write scenes and sequences that fit together organically.
  • Special tricks that authors have been using to brainstorm and develop ideas for decades.
  • And so much more!

So, go give it a click! You never know what you might learn, and whatever kind of storyteller you are, there’s something in here for you!

Rob

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Eight: Writing a Synopsis

Step 8: Writing a Synopsis

While you might be tempted to write your story just from your scene list, it’s a good idea to take one more final step and make sure everything is in place before you begin the process of turning your story into something people are going to love to read.

That final step is turning the collection of scenes you’ve made into a synopsis of the whole story.


Basically, what you’re doing is writing a short version of your story using the information from your scenes and adding whatever details you think need to be added to make the story work. It’s a final pass through your story to double check that it’s going to work the way it is, and that everything will flow smoothly before you commit to writing the whole thing out.

If you’re doing it on paper, you should take a fresh sheet of paper and write everything on that, and if you’re doing it on computer you can start by editing together the bullet point versions of the scenes into full scenes. Since you’re doing a synopsis, don’t be afraid to leave out some details that are already understood between scenes (like turning names into “he” and “they”) and look for ways you can add transitions between the scenes to make things flow together.

What you will end up with will look something like this:

On a morning in late October, Sam and Bob arrive in the sleepy town of Springville. Pulling over to a gas station, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute female gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant flirts with Bob and offers to let him know the details if he buys her lunch, something he happily agrees to do since she’s very attractive.

Later on outside the Diner where Bob is having lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird shaggy homeless kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so he gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls with delight and runs away. Sam shakes his head at the sight and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits, checking his phone to see their messages.

During lunch, the attendant is curious and asks Bob about what he does. He tells her that he and Sam are Monster Vloggers who investigate strange events for their YouTube channel, which has over two million subscribers. She’s excited by the idea of meeting someone famous and asks to be on camera, so he takes out his phone and begins interviewing her about the local events. He finds out from the attendant that every full moon there’s been disappearances for the past year, and that the local farmers have been so scared they’re moving away and half the farms around the city are now empty. He also learns that a girl went missing just two days before while out delivering mail in the west of town.

After lunch, Sam finishes watching the interview Bob did and decides that since this is the last night of the full moon for this month, this will be their only chance to learn the truth. The two plan to go to where the girl disappeared and look around. 

Later that night, the pair are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a giant werewolf eating a deer. When they try to film it, it charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse. As the two are trying to get into the locked farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him as Sam desperately hits it with a shovel. The werewolf ignores the shovel, but then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid instead.

As Sam and Bob watch, the werewolf catches the weird kid, but before it can hurt him two other werewolves appear and attack it. It’s two against one, and the killer werewolf goes down quickly as the boys film the event, gushing over the ratings they’re going to get. Then, after the fight is done, the two new werewolves turn to advance on Sam and Bob but the weird boy stops them by nuzzling Sam. At this, the two werewolves transform into a man and woman and tell the boys that they were here to stop the rogue werewolf from causing trouble for their kind, then demand Bob hand over his phone and make them promise not to reveal what they’ve seen. In the end, the pair are left driving home with a story they can’t tell and it turns out the boy peed on Sam’s pants.

The End.

Some ideas have been made clearer, and the whole story has been tightened up with transitions. This is one of the advantages of writing a synopsis first, since it lets you have a clear picture of the events so that you can just focus on describing the scenes and dialog as you’re writing.

Also, if you’re writing a comic book or movie script, this synopsis lets you start to break the whole story down into scenes and locations so that you can think about page counts or costs before you commit to writing the whole thing. You can also use it to get feedback from others about what works and what doesn’t work about the story, and make easy changes before the whole story is written.


With this, you’re ready to write that story you wanted to bring to life! You’ve gone from having a vague idea and picking a genre, to brainstorming characters and core premises and turning ideas into characters and scenes. This is a method you can use again and again to develop the stories you want to tell and express your unique vision to the world.  Over time, you might start to skips steps, or develop your own methods of doing things, and that’s great too! The whole point of this book is to help you get started and give you a framework you can use or change as you tell the stories you want to tell.

Of course, this is just a starting point in learning the writing process, and like any great art, there is always more to learn. In the following extra chapters, we’ll look at a few Techniques to take what you’ve learned so far and make it even better!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Seven: Organize Your Ideas Into Scenes

Step 7: Organize Your Ideas Into Scenes

The next step is also simple and fun – you take your big collection of scenes and try to see if you can arrange them into a rough version of a story. In the paper version, this involves putting them into a box (or a random pile) and then drawing each one out randomly and arranging them in front of you in ways that make sense. In the Word Processor version, you’ll want to copy-paste them into a blank document one at a time, or just re-arrange them where they are on the page.

In either case, you’ll end up with several Scenes which roughly go together, and a few that probably won’t fit. At this point, discard the ones that don’t fit (although don’t trash them, just set them aside for later possible use) and then make sure you’re happy with the order in front of you.

Here’s a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does this order of scenes make logical sense?
  2. Is this order of scenes interesting?
  3. Do the scenes which happen get more interesting as they go? Is there a constant feeling of rising tension or building drama?
  4. Are there scenes which are missing that need to be here?
  5. Will this story appeal to my audience the way it is?
  6. Is there a starting scene and an ending scene which match each other?

Using the sample scenes from Step 6, we’d end up with something that looks like this:

  • The morning the boys arrive in town, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute female gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant offers to let him know over lunch after she gets off work, and he makes a date with her.
  • While waiting for Bob to have lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away. Sam shakes his head and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits.
  • Bob and Sam are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a werewolf that charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse.
  • As the two are trying to get into the farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him as Sam hits it with a shovel. Then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid.

Like in this example, it’s very possible you will either be missing a Starting Scene or Ending Scene, and that’s fine, because now you know what your story will be, so you can start writing the missing scenes and figuring out the transitions between the different scenes.

  1. The morning the boys arrive in town, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute female gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant offers to let him know over lunch after she gets off work, and he makes a date with her.
  2. While waiting for Bob to have lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away. Sam shakes his head and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits.
  3. During lunch, the attendant asks Bob about what he does, and he tells her that he and Sam are Monster Vloggers who investigate strange events for their YouTube channel. She’s excited and asks to be on camera, so he takes out his phone and begins interviewing her.
  4. Bob finds out from the attendant that every full moon there’s been disappearances for the past year, and that the local farmers have been so scared they’re moving away. In the end, he learns that a girl went missing just two days before while out delivering mail to the west of town.
  5. After lunch, Bob and Sam decide that since this is the last night of the full moon, this will be their only chance to learn the truth, so they plan to go to where the girl disappeared and look around.
  6. Bob and Sam are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a giant werewolf that charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse.
  7. As the two are trying to get into the farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to bite him as Sam hits it with a shovel. Then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid.
  8. As Sam and Bob watch, the werewolf catches the weird kid, but before it can hurt him two other werewolves appear and attack it. After the fight is done, the two new werewolves threaten to attack Sam and Bob but the weird boy stops them and nuzzles Sam.
  9. The two werewolves transform into a man and woman and tell the monster hunters that they were here to stop a rogue werewolf from causing trouble, then make the men promise not to reveal what they’ve seen. In the end, the pair are left with a story they can’t tell and the boy peed on Sam’s pants.

 

Now that the new scenes have been added the story is complete and flows much better. You might notice it doesn’t start with a introduction of why the characters are there right from the beginning. This is to make the reader curious about what these two men are doing in the small town, and helps to start the story moving from the very beginning.

Once you’ve got all the scenes planned out, there’s just one more step to go, and you’ll be ready to write!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Six: Brainstorm Situations and Scenes

Step 6: Brainstorm Situations and Scenes

Once you have your cast, it’s time to figure out what’s going to happen to them.

This is where the fun really begins, as all you have to do is start to write down ideas about situations that could happen in your story. Right from Step 2 and 3, you probably had images of different important scenes in your head, and now it’s time to get those on paper in rough form.

You can do this as two steps or just skip the first step and go right to the second one, but it’s recommended doing both steps as it allows for more creative planning.

Step One

Create a point form list of all the different possible scenes and situations you can imagine happening in this story. Each point is going to be a single sentence that starts with who is involved and tells roughly what happens, and that’s it. The goal here is to get as many of these down as possible, so set a timer for ten minutes (or more) and in that time write down as many possibilities as you can think of. As usual, don’t be afraid to get silly or weird, because those might free up some more interesting ideas. Also, refer back to your brainstorming list from Step 2 and your characters’ profiles from step 5 to help give you inspiration and ideas.

When you’re done, you’ll have a list that looks like this:

  • Bob and Sam see a werewolf and run away.
  • The werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him.
  • Bob talks to a cute girl in town about the strange disappearances.
  • Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin.
  • Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away.
  • And so on…

The scenes and situations don’t need to be in any particular order, they just have to be there on the page in front of you so that you have something to work with. Try to have at least ten of them, but the more the better, which is why the timer method is the best. Now you have a list of possible scenes and situations, and can probably already see a story forming among the ideas. Evaluate the scenes using the questions below and circle the ones you think are useful from the list.

Questions:

  • Does this scene idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  • Is this scene idea going to make your readers feel something?
  • Is this scene idea going to interest your target audience?

Once you have 4-6 scenes ideas you think you can work with, then move on to Step 2. If you don’t have at least 4 you can work with, you probably want to do another brainstorming session with the timer and see if you can think of some more ideas. Obviously, the longer you want your story to be the more scene ideas you’re going to need.

Step Two

Now it’s time to turn those ideas into Scenes. A Scene is the things that happen to a character or characters at a particular place and time, and can easily be defined using the 5WH method. All you need to do is fill in the blanks!

  1. Who is involved?
  2. When does the Scene take place?
  3. Where does the Scene happen?
  4. What happens? What goes wrong (or right)?
  5. Why do the characters do what they do?
  6. How does it all turn out?

Example:

Bob and Sam (who) are walking in the forest at night (where, when) trying to find a missing girl (why) and see a werewolf that charges at them (what happens) so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse. (How it turns out.)

That’s all there is to it.

Your job is to take your character(s) and situations then write down as many Scenes as you can think of for those characters to experience. Traditionally this would be done on paper with each Scene on a separate cue card, piece of paper, or post-it note, but you can do a version of it on a Word Processor with each Scene being a separate paragraph. (It just isn’t as fun.)

And using this technique, you can create as many interesting scenes as you want. The key here is being aware of which character’s goals are driving the scene, and giving the basic details of what happens. Think of these as the scenes of a movie or the chapters of a book, and you’ll have the right idea. They’re what happens at a single time and place in the life of that character (or characters).

Your goal is again to write more scenes than you can possibly use (maybe twice as many if possible) and which are linked together by your characters, themes, or ideas. This is an exercise in brainstorming, so don’t be afraid to write down every crazy idea which come to you, after all, nobody but you will read these cards, and crazy ideas sometimes lead to brilliant ones.

So based on the above list, we might end up with scenes that look like this:

  • Bob and Sam are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a werewolf that charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse.
  • As the two are trying to get into the farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him. Then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid.
  • The morning the boys arrive in town, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute girl gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant offers to let him know over lunch after she gets off work, and he makes a date with her.
  • While waiting for Bob to have lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away. Sam shakes his head and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits.

As you can see, some of the above ideas were combined into single scenes because they worked better that way. Also, using this method, we have now turned simple idea points into full scenes which are almost ready to be used, we just have to organize them.

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Five: Pick Your Main Characters

Step 5: Pick your Main Characters

It might seem strange that it took so long to talk about the characters, after all, you already thought up rough characters when you came up with your Core Premise for your story. However, until everything from Genre to Theme was in place, you weren’t ready to actually sit down and make your lead characters because the characters of a story are influenced by all of the things that we’ve covered so far, and each step has made the characters you will create more focused and solid in your imagination. This is important because characters aren’t real people but are parts of the story which are guided by the premise, ideas and theme like everything else.

Let’s look at the four types of characters you find in every story.


Main Characters

The most important character in your story is your main character (sometimes also called the hero or protagonist), who is going to be the heart of your story. They’re the viewpoint from which the story is being told, and the reader’s guide to the events which play out.

Main characters are also the trickiest part of the story to create, because they have to achieve the right balance of being unique while still being relatable to the audience. If the main character is too unique, the audience won’t be able to connect and empathize with them because they’re too different, but if the main character isn’t at least a little unique they won’t stand out in the minds of the reader.

The simplest solution to this is not to detail your main character too much, but instead make them special in a few important ways while leaving the rest unknown or vague so the audience’s own imaginations can fill in the details and make them their own. This is one of the key skills of storytelling- giving the audience just enough to make a picture in their minds, but not filling in the details so that each person can make their own mental picture.

With this in mind, here’s the top ten things to know about your story’s main character:

  1. Basic biographical information– age, sex, height, weight, hair color(s), job, family members, close friends, education, skills, work history, hobbies.
  2. Which of the Big Five Personality Traits is their weakest and which one is their strongest? Are they an Extrovert who likes spending time with other people? Do they care about other people? Are they well organized? Are they emotional? Are they open to new experiences and ideas?
  3. What are they best at and what are they worst at? Characters are often defined by their flaws more than their strengths, so make sure your character is bad at something for everything they’re good at.
  4. What are the first things people notice about this character when they meet them? Appearance, style of dress, style of grooming, manner of speech, body language, etc.
  5. What are two Paradoxes about them? This is a fast way to make characters unique in the minds of readers- give them two things that seem to contradict each other in the minds of the reader. This is an easy way to add depth and interest to the character. For example, they’re big and strong but very timid, they’re a leader who is afraid of talking to people, they dress very conservatively but wear a brightly colored watch, or their personality changes when they’re in a different environment. (Home/work/school.)
  6. What is going to make the audience like or dislike this character? What about this character is going to make the audience connect with and care about the character? Or, on the other hand, what will make them dislike and reject the character? How will you make that connection with the audience?
  7. What is their overall life goal? What, if anything, do they want to achieve in their life? What would be a perfect life for this character? What would they be willing to do to get it?
  8. What is their goal in this story? A character’s story goals generally come down to one of three things: attain, maintain, or lose. They want to get something they don’t have. They want to keep something they’ve got. Or, they want to get rid of something they have. This isn’t just physical things, it can be anything- objects, people, habits, money, knowledge, love, courage, safety, security, freedom, spirituality, and so on.
  9. What is their motivation in this story? Why are they trying to achieve the goal in the story? What reasons are getting them off the couch and keeping them from running away? Why do they endure or try to escape? What keeps them from giving up and just being a victim?
  10. How does this character connect with the main theme of the story? This is last, but one of the most important things to know- how does the main character reflect the theme of the story? Are they a weak person who learns to be strong? Are they a strong person who inspires others to be strong? Are they are trying to change the world or restore the peace? How does the character represent the life lesson the writer wants the reader to know?

You should be able to fit the above on one or two pages of notes at most, anything more and the character is probably getting too detailed and may be harder for the audience to connect to. If you’re an artist, feel free to sketch the character as well and think about their emotions and how they’d react to things. Other details will probably appear as you tell the character’s story, and that’s fine, just add them to the list as they come up.

One final thought on main characters- like all characters in a story, the main character is a reflection of the writer, but only a reflection. They are not you, and you shouldn’t think of them as being you, but more like your children who you are going to horribly abuse to teach a lesson to. Don’t be afraid to let them grow and become different and unique people if that’s what the story calls for, and let them have their own ways of doing things. When you first start writing, it’s fine for your main characters to act and think like you do, but it’s important over time to learn to separate yourself from them and let them have their own voice. It’s something that will usually happen naturally as you write, but it’s important to be aware of because some people have trouble separating themselves from their characters, and this can lead to making Mary-Sues if you’re not careful.


Opponents

The second most important character in a story is the opponent, also called the antagonist, the rival, or sometimes the villain. In many ways, the term Opponent is better than those terms, however, because almost all of them make you think of a character who is evil or hates the main character. While this is often true, this isn’t true all of the time, and in fact you can have an Opponent who has no feelings about the main character at all, or is actually the main character’s best friend or even lover. The single thing that makes an Opponent an Opponent is that they’re standing in the way of the main character trying to achieve their goal. As long as a thinking character is preventing the main character from reaching their goal for whatever reason, they’re an opponent.

So, for example, if a young child wants their mother to buy them a toy, the mother is the child’s opponent. If a character is trying to survive a night in a haunted house, the resident ghosts or monsters trying to kill him are his opponents. If a woman is trying to convince a politician to give up a proposed new law, the politician is the woman’s opponent. If a man is trying to convince a reluctant girlfriend to marry him, she is his opponent.

A story can also have different kinds of Opponents- usually there is a Main Opponent, who is the one that the character must overcome to achieve their main story goal. However, there can also be Minor Opponents, who stand in the way of the character achieving their story goal, but affect the character’s story in less important ways. For example, if a teen character was trying to sneak out of school, the school security guard might be their main opponent, but they’d also have to convince their teacher to let them out of class (minor opponent) and bribe a rival student not to turn them in (minor opponent). The story ends when they get past the security guard and achieve their goal of escaping the school, but they had to deal with the other opponents too.

The other important thing to know about Opponents is that they too reflect the theme of the story, and often represent the opposing ideas that someone who doesn’t agree with the theme would say. So, for example, if a story was about a character learning to be brave, their opponents would all represent reasons for the character not to be brave and the character’s own fears. If a story is about how slavery is bad and corrupts people, the main opponent will be someone who thinks slavery is the natural order of things and important to society. By taking the opposite position on the theme of the story, the opponent is naturally drawn into conflict with the main character and vice-versa, creating at battle which reflects the theme of the story.

With this in mind, creating a main opponent follows the same process as creating the main character. Use the above list of the top 10 things you need to know about the main character to build the main opponent as well. For Minor Opponents, you might not want to use the full list, but just focus on numbers 1,4,5,6,8,10. You really just need to know how they connect with theme, how they look, and what they’re trying to do in the story.

Also remember that if you want the audience to hate or dislike the opponent, make sure as quickly as possible after the opponent is introduced you have them do or say something that the audience won’t like. It’s very common for movie villains to kill someone or do something bad in their first scene for this reason- it tells the audience that this person is evil and a threat to the hero. If you want the audience to be more sympathetic toward the opponent, have them do something disagreeable, but understandable in their first appearance. In other words, show them doing the right thing in the wrong way, or do both right and wrong things, which makes the audience curious about them as a person as it shows there is complexity or depth there. In any case, always introduce your main opponent in the story as early as possible so the audience knows what kind of situation the main character is facing.

One final note- There can be stories where there are no opponents of any kind, and the character is trying to overcome something to reach their goal instead of trying to overcome someone. For example, a story where a character is trying to survive in the arctic, or earn money to pay for a gift. In these stories, usually the actual opponent is the setting or world the character lives in, or some part of it. Sometimes the character themselves can even be their own opponent, in which case the character must overcome some personal weakness or flaw to achieve their goal. As a rule, the easiest stories to write, however, are the ones where there is a thinking opponent as it gives the main character someone else to interact with and creates more drama.


Supporting Characters

Supporting characters are made much the same as minor antagonists, whether they’re the mentors, friends, parents, lovers, co-workers, or any other kind of character that round out the main character’s life. You just need to tell the audience their names, what they look like, give them a distinctive feature and something to do in the story, and you’re good to go.

Generally supporting characters tend to play one or more of six roles in a story:

  1. Ally– This is usually the “best friend” character who is there to cheer the character on and keep them in the story. They get the character to talk so that the audience can hear the character’s thoughts and they often help to direct the character to think in ways connected to the story by asking questions.
  2. Motivator– This is a character who helps to keep the story going by motivating the character to act and pursue their goal. Sometimes this character IS the goal, in the case of the Love Interest, and sometimes they’re a boss who tells the character what to do, or a child who gets kidnapped by a monster the character has to rescue. Whoever they are, they help to make the story move and keep the main character from sitting on their butt.
  3. Resource– This is the character that provides the main character (and audience) with the information they need to understand what’s happening and keep the main character in play. It can also be the character that provides the main character with the things they need in the story to do what they need to do. This can be the teacher or mentor, the brainy best friend, the starship’s science officer, the gunsmith, the gadgeteer or the mysterious supplier of magical spells. Someone has to supply the character with what they need and need to know.
  4. Innocent– This is a character that the main character needs to teach something to, or help to develop in some way. Most often this type of character pops up in stories where the main character is a larger than life figure who changes the world by showing the right way to live and exemplifying the theme of the story. In those stories, the Innocent is the one learning the truth of the story’s theme from the main character, who already knows and lives that truth every day. Sometimes this character acts as a motivator, but they’re more than that, they’re often the audience’s surrogate when the main character is too unique to be relatable.
  5. Catalyst– This character serves to change the main character’s life by becoming part of it. This can be the new kid in class, a new love, a person in need of help or anyone else who transforms the main character’s life just by walking in the door. They’re the cause of the character’s world turning upside down, and usually enter the story right at the beginning to kick the whole thing off. Sometimes they are the motivator of the story, but sometimes they’re the spark that sets off an inferno, either way, they’re bringers of change.
  6. Comic Relief– If a story is dark or tense, sometimes there needs to be a little sunshine and lighter moments to help balance things out. In that case, someone has to be there to make the jokes that lets the tension drop a bit or make the characters (and audience) chuckle. Serious main characters need someone who isn’t so serious to balance them out and keep the tone lighter, and sometimes the funny character delivers the lessons of the story in the most entertaining ways.

Often supporting characters play more than one of these roles, and one person can even be all six of the roles in a story! These roles can also shift around between stories as characters change and develop between multiple stories or books, but whatever roles the characters play they should stick with those roles within a single story once they’re introduced to the audience as playing that role. If they do change roles, there should be a good reason for it within the story and it shouldn’t happen out of the blue. (The best friend shouldn’t suddenly turn out to be rich at the end of the story when the character needs money unless it was hinted at or established earlier in the story.)


Background Characters

These are the characters that fill out the rest of the story but who don’t play any of the above roles except maybe for a scene or two at most. These the nameless family members and classmates, the redshirts, the merchants, the tavern servers, the fellow pilots and the collateral damage victims. The people who might have a few colorful lines, or are there to give a limited viewpoint or perspective on a scene or event that can’t be given another way. The Extras, the NPCs, the… well, you get the point.

Generally, there’s not much to say about these folks, except that the writer should remember that they serve as representatives of the setting. They are the living embodiments of the world the character lives in, and so every one of them tells the audience lots of information about the world and the major characters’ place in it. They will often set the tone of the story, act as minor foils to let us know more about the main characters As someone once said, “your true nature comes out when you’re with the people you don’t have to be nice to.”), and add color to the world they inhabit.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s generally best to limit these characters to archetypes and not to spend too much time of them. If they’re a police officer, then have them act like a typical police officer for their situation, and don’t slow the story down telling the audience their life story. That is, unless they’re a corrupt police officer and are there to show that the police in that setting are corrupt, in which case they should act like a corrupt police officer to show the audience the current nature of the organization they represent. Only give them the detail they need to fill their roles, and then let them do their jobs.


Cast Size

As a general rule of thumb, you should have the minimum number of characters in a story that you can get away with for the story you want to tell. Every character should be there for a reason, and look for opportunities to combine two or more characters into a single person to avoid larger casts. There are two very good reasons for this: 1) the more names, the more chances there are for the audience to get confused, and 2) the more active characters with goals, the longer the story is going to need to be to develop them as characters and tell their stories.

Try to keep all supporting casts under five characters (including opponents) per main character per story, not including characters who only appear in a single scene or are background characters. This will keep you from having too many characters to deal with and running into trouble trying to keep track of them all. It is generally recommended that most short stories have at least a main character, a single ally (for the main character to talk to), and a single opponent.

 

Your Task

So, with all this in mind, fill out the worksheet profile for your main character, main opponent, and then any other characters that are important to the story in as much detail as needed. Now let’s brainstorm some scenes and situations!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Four: Picking a Theme

Step 4: Picking a Theme

While an interesting main plot or idea for the story is going to make it interesting to read, the truth is if you want your story to really have any depth, or be meaningful to readers, you’re going to need to find a theme for it as well. The theme, as your English teacher probably told your class more than once, is the message or lesson about life that the author is trying to communicate to the reader. It’s the “point” of the story, and works hand in hand with the Core Premise to guide the story toward a natural ending. This is another area where you are customizing a story and making it your own, and is an important one which shouldn’t be skipped.

As your teacher might also have taught you, there are two parts to theme: Thematic Idea and Thematic Statement. Simply put, the Thematic Idea is the general theme of the story (War, Love, Greed, etc) and the Thematic Statement is the actual point the writer is trying to make about the Thematic Idea. (War is bad, Love is bittersweet, Greed drives civilization, etc)

Your job, then, is to match your Core Premise up with a Thematic Statement that will bring out the best in your story and characters while still reflecting your own ideas.

So, first, take a look at your Core Premise again and think about possible themes it naturally suggests. If you can’t think of any, then take a look at this list of common themes and see if any of them will fit the story you’re trying to tell.

For example, let’s look at one of the Core Premises from the previous step:

A mousy college student working in a used bookstore must find a mysterious book when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits that will escape the store at nightfall.

What are the possible themes that could work with this story?

  • Finding confidence in yourself.
  • The power of love.
  • The power of knowledge.
  • The power of friendship.
  • Not giving up.
  • Sins of the past returning.

Now, a story can have more than one theme, but it really should only have one main theme (thematic statement), which is the theme which truly drives the story forward. This idea is the lesson the writer is trying to teach the reader, and it will have a big influence on both the beginning of the story and its ending. Thus, in most stories, the character will start the story with their life in a bad place because they haven’t accepted the truth which is behind theme of the story.

For example, if the main theme of the above story is “you need to have confidence to succeed,” then the main character will start the story with no confidence and her life will be hard because of it. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then the main character’s secret love for her co-worker will be making her miserable and causing problems in her life and relationships. Or, if the story is about “the sins of the past”, the bookstore will be a gloomy place with few customers because a strange dark feeling hangs over the place which is preventing the people there from being truly happy.

Then, the theme of a story will also tell you how it should end because the end of the story has to be one which reinforces that theme or idea and proves it’s the right one. This gives the lesson the writer is trying to prove, and only by accepting that “truth” can the main character solve the problem established in the beginning and find a happy new life.

Thus, if the main theme of the story is “you need to have confidence to succeed”, then it will be about a character who is forced to find confidence to save the day and win. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then it will be about how the main character’s secret love for her co-worker is the key to defeating the evil spirits and her confession of love solves the problem (and her own life issues). Or, if the story is about the “sins of the past,” then the story might play as a mystery where the main character needs to learn whose misdeeds caused this situation, and finding justice will stop the curse and leave the bookstore a happier place.

So, as you can see, the theme of a story can have a strong influence over its plot, setting, characters, presentation, tone and so much more. In fact, it is often the glue which holds the story together, and should be carefully considered. However, if you find yourself getting stuck on trying to come up with a theme (a common problem for writers) then the most likely reason is you’re making your life harder than you need to. Most genres (and subgenres) have classic themes that are already attached to them and commonly used, and all you need to do is go look carefully back at the themes of some of your favorite stories to find one which interests you or moves you. Then, if you want to be a little different, try making a small twist on that usual theme.

For example, in a Romance story, a common theme is “A woman needs a strong man, and a man needs a smart woman.” But, you might take that theme and play with it, making it into something like “Man needs a strong woman, and a woman needs a smart man.” This could produce a different story than the usual, and could provide the audience with something they don’t see very often.

The important part is taking a general thematic idea (like friendship, peace, revenge) and then turning it into a clear thematic statement which gives your story a direction and goal. Just leaving it as a general idea is asking for trouble and a lot of rewriting down the line as you try to find a theme from a direction-less story.

Once you have your story’s clear main theme, write it down on your worksheet and let’s start developing some characters!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Three: Picking a Core Premise

Step 3: Picking a Core Premise

Your next task is to pick a Core Premise for your story based on the pile of ideas you’ve just put together in the previous step. This step is extremely important and shouldn’t be skipped, because your Core Premise is the central idea of your story and the seed from which the rest of the story will grow. Without it, you’ll quickly run into problems because you won’t know the story you’re trying to tell, and with it, you have a guiding star leading the way to the end!

For finding your Core Premise, you’re going to use a very basic technique that writers of movies have been using for a long time. In the movie business, writers often approach producers and directors with ideas for films, but they use a very simple structured version of their idea to get maximum effect and make the producers interested. If they can use it to sell a movie, you can use it to sell a book to yourself- so let’s get started!

A great Core Premise needs to describe most of the following things:

  1. The main character’s role or job. (Don’t use a name, just their role for now.)
  2. One or two adjectives about the main character. (to give them personality)
  3. Anything that’s important to know about the setting or setup for the story.
  4. What the main character’s clear goal is.
  5. The antagonist, opposition or challenge they face. (Also no names, use roles instead.)
  6. One or two adjectives about the antagonist. (to make them interesting)
  7. A hint of what will happen if the protagonist loses, or the stakes involved. (to add drama)

These can be presented in any order, but usually go in the above order, and will produce one or two sentences that look like this:

A mousy college student (adjective, who) working in a used bookstore (setting) must find a mysterious book (goal) when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits (adjective, opposition) that will escape the store at nightfall. (stakes)

An overworked executive assistant (adjective, who) at a large corporation (setting) must choose between her work and her family (goal) when a long-time rival (adjective, opposition) threatens to steal a big project (stakes) during a family crisis.

A high school student (adjective, who) must find a way to tell her long-time crush her true feelings (adjective, challenge) before she moves to a new city and they lose touch forever. (stakes)

It’s actually pretty easy and fun once you get the hang of it!

Try using the ideas you brainstormed in Step 2 to come up with a Core Premise that follows the rules above. You don’t need to use all the information you came up with, just the main ideas. Also, don’t be afraid to try different versions of the premise with different details until you get one that you like.

Once you’ve turned at least two of your story ideas into Core Premises, then you should look at each one of them and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this story idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  2. Is this story going to make your readers feel something?
  3. Is this story going to be one you think will interest your target audience?

If one of them gets three answers of “yes!”, then that’s the story you need to write. If more than one gets a “yes”, then you’ll need to decide which one gets the stronger responses and write that one first. If none of them get a “yes” for all three questions, then you need to go back to Step 2 and brainstorm some new ideas and turn those into Premises that will work for you.

Assuming you have at least one core premise you’re now excited to write, it’s time to move on to Picking the Theme of the story!