How to Write a Good Story – The Essence of Story

Writing

On social media across the Internet, there is a single constant refrain- “How do I write a good story?” It comes from new writers eager to make their eBook fortune on Kindle, young adults who want to join in the fanfiction fray, and even experienced writers who are looking to up their game. It’s lead to a huge boom in How-To writing books, and an even bigger boom for those who offer their services to writers like editors, cover designers and marketers. The editors especially are in demand, because the truth is most writers are flying blind when it comes to writing stories.

Don’t believe me? Go on a social media forum with writers and ask them a simple question like “How do I write a good book?” or even “What is a story?” and you’ll get a thousand different answers thrown at you, because the truth is most of them don’t know the answer to either of those questions.

Oh, they know pieces of it, and the more savvy and experienced ones have pieced together quite a bit of knowledge on the topic. Mostly though, new writers will get advice like “follow the three act structure”, “have a gripping main character”, and various other sage advice about what worked for the writers who respond.

Because most writers learn to write stories by writing them, and they do that by consuming the work of lots of other writers and then copying what seemed to work for those other writers. They basically write by instinct, and then through making mistakes and finding what works, and what doesn’t, they become better writers. This is a time-honored way to learn any art, and some would argue that it’s the best way because it preserves a creative spirit of originality and helps new generations of artists add to the great body of human culture.

When it comes to writing, those people are wrong.

If that was true, why do we keep writing the same stories over and over again? Why do almost all stories follow the same basic structure, no matter the culture or level of literacy? Why do we keep seeing the same stories over and over again, generation after generation?

The answer is pretty simple- because there IS a hardwired, human pattern to storytelling that we follow over and over again- exactly because we’re human.

[Now, the followers of Joseph Campbell are all nodding their heads right now and going “Of course there is, dummy! The Hero’s Journey!” But I’m going to argue that while Campbell was on the right track, he also complicated things up more than they needed to be. So simmer down, Jack!]

One of the nice parts about living in the age we do is that researchers on big questions have been able to use things like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to look inside the human brain in real time and look at what people’s brains are doing during certain activities. Unsurprisingly, a few of those researchers decided to find out what happens inside the human brain when people consume stories, and they learned many interesting things.

One thing they learned is that the human brain is optimized for learning from the experiences of not just ourselves, but from the experiences of others. We don’t have enough time to experience everything ourselves, so instead our brains crowdsource information and make a point of learning from how other people did things. It’s a survival mechanism left over from the days when we were cavemen, and every bit of knowledge about the world we had could be a key to living another day. The ones who didn’t learn fast died faster.

So, what are stories then?

Stories are people sharing their experiences so that others can learn from them. They’re us telling the world what someone did when they were faced with a problem, so they can learn from that person’s experiences and gain knowledge about the world and the human experience.

So therefore, at it’s core, for something to be a story it has two requirements:

  1. A character does something.
  2. The character’s choices produce results.

This is because our brains are trying to learn from that person’s actions, so obviously they must do something, and those actions must also have results, otherwise we haven’t learned from them.

So, there you are, cause and effect- that’s all that you need to tell a story.

And if I put it that way, you do this every day, right? Anytime you, or your mother, or crazy old grandpa are telling a story, you use this structure- “I did these things, and this was the result.”

That is the root seed from which all storytelling comes- a character does something and gets results.

“I kicked the dog, and he bit me.”

Of course, as you obviously already know, there’s a little more to it than that. Saying “I kicked the dog and he bit me” may be a story, but it’s not exactly a gripping one that’s going to hold an audience spellbound for hours or express your artistic vision.

To tell an interesting story, you need details, the more the better! (But only the right ones…)

Also, there is a simple process all humans go through when approaching a problem and the audience for a story likes to know the details of that process whenever possible.

So, we break those two parts into several clear steps.

A character does something can be broken into several steps:

  1. The character has a Need.
  2. The character chooses a Goal based on that need.
  3. The character finds there is Opposition to achieving that goal.
  4. The character comes up with a Plan to overcome the opposition.
  5. The character takes Action based on that plan.

The character’s choices producing results can also be broken into steps:

  1. Results:
    1. The action fails> return to Plan.
    2. The action succeeds> go to New State.
  2. The character’s situation has changed because of the results and they’re in a New State.

To make it clearer, let’s give an example.

  • Bob is Thirsty. (Need)
  • Bob decides to get a glass of water. (Goal)
  • Bob finds there are no clean cups. (Opposition)
  • Bob decides to do dishes. (Plan)
  • Bob does the dishes. (Action)
  • Bob now has a clean glass. (Results)
  • Bob drinks a glass of water and feels satisfied. (New State)

Note that this is still extremely simple, but that’s because it’s also infinitely flexible. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bob getting water or War and Peace, all human stories are using a variation of this structure at their very core and when reduced to the simplest level. If a story doesn’t meet (almost) all of these steps, it isn’t a story to the human brain.

There has to be a character who has a Need and a resulting Goal, who faces Opposition, finds a Plan to overcome it, takes Action and gets Results that will put them in a New State. All of these steps are crucial because otherwise there’s nothing to learn, and the human brain isn’t interested. If I show you a video of Bob walking across the room getting water from the fridge and sitting down to drink it, you’ll get bored because there’s no challenge there (which is where drama comes from) and nothing to learn from.

Let’s go into each of the steps in more detail:

Need:

The character needs a reason to take action, and this reason can be active (they choose to take action), or reactive (someone else forces them to take action), but there must always be a cause for what they do in the story.  Active characters are almost always better, since the audience can learn more from a character who is trying to actively accomplish a goal, and they’re easier to write.

In either case, the character will have a Need, something which is driving them to attain their goal. At its core, this need will usually be based on one of the Basic Human Needs that all humans have- Food, Safety, Sex, Sleep, Companionship, Self-Actualization, and so on. The character tries to fulfill that need through taking action, whether they consciously understand that need exists or not.

This can be as simple as being thirsty and needing a glass of water, or as complex as defending their galactic empire from an alien invasion, but it will always be rooted in a basic human need when it comes down to it. (We don’t tend to things that don’t try to meet a human need in some way.)

Goal:

Goals always fall into one of three simple categories:

  1. Attain
  2. Maintain
  3. Lose

The character either wants something new (attain), they want to avoid losing something that already exists (maintain), or they no longer wish to have something and try to get rid of it (lose). All characters will have one of these three goals, with the details varying by the story. This will be based on solving the problem created by their Need.

Goals will often be based on solving obstacles that prevent the character from achieving a human need rather than directly trying to achieve a human need. (ie Losing weight in order to get sex. Losing weight is the goal, but it is still rooted in the human need of sex.) Directly solving more complex needs can often be hard and painful, so characters will often choose goals that are smaller steps towards that greater need.

Opposition:

If a need can be met without opposition, it usually isn’t worth telling a story about. In fact, often the heart of a story isn’t the need or action being taken to meet that need, it’s the challenges that come with meeting that need. If there’s no opposition to the character’s actions, then the story moves to the New State phase and ends there. (Along with the audience’s interest.)

Opposition can come in any form that prevents the character from achieving their Goals, however these too tend to fall into one of several categories:

  • Active opposition.
  • Passive Opposition.
  • Lack of resources.
  • Lack of ability.

Active Opposition– an opponent who is actively trying to prevent the character from achieving their goal. Usually they have the same (or similar) goal as the main character, and this common goal brings them into direct opposition with each other. Often they also have a superior position to the main character in some way, at least in terms of knowledge, resources, power or ability. (After all, if they weren’t able to give the main character a challenge, they’re not much of an opponent, are they?) Usually, they are also made specifically to exploit the weakness of the main character, thus making them exactly the right person to make the main character’s life difficult.

Passive Opposition– an opponent who stands in the way of the character achieving their goals, but who isn’t pursuing the same goal as the main character. They are pursuing their own goals, but because of their existence/presence it prevents the main character from achieving their goal. Think of this like a sleeping guard dog that prevents a character from sneaking into the house, the parent who says the main character must clean their room before they can go out, or a clerk at a tax office who says the main character must follow procedure before they can have what they want as time is running out.

Lack of Resources– the character has a goal, but lacks the physical resources (time, money, friends, contacts, clothes, equipment, etc) to achieve that goal. This will usually require the character to pursue other smaller goals first (like getting a job to earn money) to achieve this goal.

Lack of Ability– the character has a goal, but lacks the personal skills, requirements, or knowledge needed to reach that goal. This can most often be fixed through training and personal improvement, or occasionally by finding someone else who has the abilities needed and getting them to do it.

Note that a single story can have more than one obstacle to a single goal. Just as there can be big goals and little goals, there can be big obstacles and little obstacles as well, and often the character needs to accomplish several little goals first to be able to accomplish the big final goal.

Plan:

A character with a goal faced by obstacles will need to make a plan, which is the route the character decides to take to achieve their goal. This can be the result of self-reflection, previous results, or gut instinct, and plans can take seconds to make, or hours, or years in the context of the story. This step is actually semi-optional, as sometimes the “Plan” step is skipped over because it’s obvious, or for dramatic effect. (Jumping from Goal to seeing the character in Action to make the audience want to see how the character’s actions will achieve that goal.)

Action:

Action is simply the character trying to follow their plan and seeing what the result is. Again, this can be a simple single movement, or a long and complex project that takes years to finish. The writer may choose to detail every step of the plan, or just a few key steps, or even jump from the beginning to the end of the Action step. However, the character must make a choice and do something, even if their choice is just to sit there and cry.

Results:

Of course, there are really only three possible results:

  • They succeed and achieve their goal.
  • They fail and must either try again or give up.
  • They only partly fail or partly succeed and must either try again or give up.

If the character tries again, they go back to the Planning stage, and if they succeed and have met their Need they move on to the New State. If they give up, they have also moved into a New State- but it’s one where they failed to achieve their goal and are dealing with the consequences of that failure.

New State:

If the character achieved their goal, then the story is finished, or (if part of a larger story) then this portion of the story is finished. They have their goal, and are now either satisfied or not satisfied with the result based on the Need they were trying to fulfill.

Often, the character cannot reach a New State without first overcoming some personal flaw, in which case the New State is actually one where the character has changed part of themselves in order to achieve their true (often unconscious) goal.

 

So, there you have it, the fundamental structure humans use when telling stories.

You will see many variations of this formula kicking around online. Whether it’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, Chris Vogler’s take on The Hero’s Journey, or Michael Hague’s Six Story Steps, but ultimately, they’re just this very basic formula with extra steps added (or removed) for effect. One expanded version of this formula is John Truby’s Twenty-Two Step Story Structure, which takes a formula like this one (which was partly based on Truby’s 7 Essential Steps) and shows how typical modern novels and films tend to expand on this structure and what they add to it. (His book is highly recommended!)

However, just because something follows the above steps that doesn’t mean it’s a good story, it just means that it meets the basic requirements to be called a story. It only shows a character doing something and getting results, or in other words, showing how an action might play out.

To have a good story, one which is meaningful and the audience actually gets something from, that requires not just a story, but a Moral Argument as well.

 

Why I Hate Football Plots

I hate Football Plots.

I hate them with the passion of a thousand suns.

What are Football Plots?

Football Plots are when the whole story centers around a piece of information (or item), and the story is basically about the characters trying to get that “Football” to the other end of the “field” while avoiding the people trying to stop them.

Now when you read that, the first thing that might come to mind (if you’re a geek) is Lord of the Rings (Frodo tries to get a ring to Mount Doom while dodging Orcs) or perhaps even Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Luke tries to get the plans to the Death Star to the Rebels) and while yes, those do fit the criteria I list above, real Football Plots take it to a whole other level.

I first noticed Football Plots when I was watching Korean Historical Dramas, and they are masters of the Football Plot. In a typical Korean Historical Drama, very often a character will find out a piece of information (say X is a spy for the enemy) and then the moment they find out that piece of information the whole world turns against them. Why does the world turn against them? Because if the character were able to say a single sentence to the right person, then the whole plot would end there and then. So, as a result, anything and everything has to happen to keep that character from being able to give that piece of information to the right person until the appointed time (or page count) in the plot.

This commonly includes:

  • Being interrupted before they can speak.
  • People falling sick at bad times.
  • Old enemies being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Friends (temporarily) turning against them for plot-convenient reasons.
  • Family members who have known them their whole lives suddenly not trusting them.
  • The people they need being in hard to reach locations at just that moment.
  • The people they need being distracted by something else at just that moment.
  • Nobody believing them.
  • Doing things that they’d know they shouldn’t do if they just stopped and thought about it for a moment.
  • Accidents happening at just the wrong time.
  • Everything they’ve ever done wrong in their life coming back to haunt them at just that time.
  • Amnesia.
  • Being Kidnapped.
  • Misunderstandings with almost everyone around them.
  • Just missing the people they need to see.
  • And every other possible coincidence you can imagine that would prevent them from being able to pass that one piece of information along.

Now, while a few of these in a story is hardly a cause for annoyance (they’re tricks for building drama, and they work) if you use too many of them, it can quickly turn a dramatic and thrilling plot into a silly soap opera where the audience feels strung along, and when it reaches this level I call it a Football Plot because that’s all it is, an endless series of plays and interceptions as Character B tries to stop Character A from talking to Character C. Of course, in a real Football game, a single goal doesn’t decide the whole game, but here it does, which is part of the problem.

Football Plots are inherently weak, because they’re dependent on a single action. To give an example, I’ve seen Korean Dramas where twenty or more episodes of plot could literally have been skipped or avoided if Character A said “I’m sorry” to Character C. Literally skipped, as in it would have made no difference to the story whatsoever overall, and wouldn’t have changed the characters or their relationships. That was twenty episodes (20 HOURS, give or take) of time and events which didn’t need to happen, but did because the writers wanted to pad the show out, thus a Football Plot was used to fill time and create fake drama.

And this is one of my main problems with them, most of the time they’re used there’s no reason to use them at all, except to create fake drama where it feels like something exciting is happening, but in reality there’s nothing important going on. They just serve as filler to keep a story moving that otherwise should have ended a long time ago. Of course, sometimes they really do have consequences, but even then they can run off the rails and into “Why Does God Hate Me?” territory.

“Why Does God Hate Me?” is a type of Football Plot where the main characters are trying to accomplish a goal that is important to everyone involved, but literally everything that can go wrong goes wrong to ridiculous levels, as though God has a hate-on for the main character(s) and is betting on their opposition to win. This is usually the result of the writer taking the old writer’s adage “Put your characters in trees and throw rocks at them” and turning it into “Put your characters in trees and shoot at them with a 50 calibre minigun”.

And, lest you’re thinking “Oh ho! Those silly Koreans and their crazy Dramas” this whole post was inspired by one of the most beloved of American speculative fiction writers- Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files and Codex Alera series. For at the moment I’m reading his almost 700 page novel The Furies of Calderon (Book One of Codex Alera), and it is one of the most maddening examples of a “Why Does God Hate Me?” Football Plot I’ve ever seen. One that would make the Korean drama writers point fingers and laugh ironically.

How bad it is?

Well, you see that list up there. The list of crazy weekday afternoon soap-opera plot twists that you were probably mocking a moment ago as you read it? Well, Butcher does ALL of those twists in the first 400 pages of the book, and we’ve still got another 300 to go.

Go back and look at that list.

Then think- ALL of it, to the main characters, in 400 pages.

All because if the main characters spoke to the wrong person for five seconds, the whole story would come to a screeching halt and the heroes would win. So he’s pulling out every single trick he can think of to keep that from happening, while at the same time giving his villains every bit of good luck they can handle.

Actual condensed (non-spoiler) scene from the story:

Villain: This sucks. I’m randomly lost in the middle of nowhere, the heroes will win and have no shoes.
(A messenger carrying the information the villain can’t have get out happens to pass that exact spot out of the whole valley at that moment, and the villain kills him.)
Villain: Hurray! Now I have stopped my enemies, know where I am, and have gained shoes!

This is sandwiched next to a scene where the heroes almost reach their goal, and a literal random act of god knocks them back halfway across the story field for no reason except to keep the plot from stopping there and then.

I swear, I nearly threw the book at the wall at that point. But I like my wall.

It’s a decently written book, with interesting characters and ideas, but my god is it one of the most maddening things I have read in a long time. The heroes get almost no breaks (except in ways which don’t threaten to prematurely end the plot), and the villains get all the breaks they need to keep the plot going and people running around. A good story should have a balance between successes and failures that keep the reader interested and make them believe that what they’re reading is there for a reason, not just to keep a weak plot alive.

Which I guess is why I hate Football Plots so much. They’re usually more flash than substance, and aren’t really giving the reader anything new, just stringing them along until the writer can get their payoff. They’re the opposite of creativity, and a cheat.

Now, as I said before, there’s nothing wrong with using some dramatic twists to keep the reader interested and make the main character’s life interesting, in fact you need to throw a few in, but like a good chef, you need to know just the right amount of spice to use to make the dish nourishing and tasty at the same time. A Football Plot is all icing and no cake, and that makes Rob an unhappy boy.

Rob

Classic 12-Chapter Murder Mystery Formula

(Note: This has been floating around the internet for years, and I don’t know who first wrote it (if anyone does, let me know!) but it’s worth archiving and Camp Nanowrimo starts next week, so here it is.)

The classic mystery is popular fiction which follows a specific formula. Clever writers may try to change the formula, but the most clever will cling to it for a very good reason. They work within the bounds of the formula because it works!


The following outline serves the modern mystery novel, as defined by editors and publishers. A typical story will contain 60,000 to 65,000 words (205 manuscript pages) and will be divided into 12 chapters, each approximately 17 pages in length.

The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula

Act I

Introduction of the crime (mystery) and the sleuth

Chapter 1

A. Disclose the crime and mystery to be solved. The crime must capture the imagination. It should have been committed in an extraordinary way and either the victim the perpetuator, or both, should be unusual. Give the reader enough information about the victim to make them truly care that the perpetrator is found out and that justice is served.

B. Early in the story, clues should be revealed which suggest both physical and psychological aspects of the initial crime. Those clues should point to suspects and motive which will cary the sleuth to the end of Act I. Some clues should point the sleuth in the right direction, others may not be obvious or be recognized as actual clues unto later in the story.

C. Introduce the sleuth who will solve the crime early, and have him or her do or say something very clever or unexpected which will establish that person as unique. Create this character with care. His or her personality should be interesting enough to sustain the interest of the reader to the very last page. (or through an entire series of books). It is not necessary to disclose all aspects of the sleuth’s personality at the onset. Let the description unfold gradually to sustain interest. Do reveal enough background to let the reader understand the world in which the protagonist functions. (Small town sheriff, Scotland Yard detective, Pinkerton agent in the old West, country squire, investigative reporter in New York City, etc.)

D. Ground the reader in the time and place where the crime occurs. It is often useful to include some sort of symbol, an object or a person, in the opening scene which serves as a metaphor for what occurs in the story. The reappearance of this symbol at the conclusion of the story will create a certain organic unity.

E. Begin with a dramatic event. Some writers offer a prologue, describing the execution of the crime in detail, as it occurs, possible from the point of view of the victim or perpetrators. The same information could also be revealed by a character, through dialogue. Sufficient details should be furnished to allow the reader to experience the event as though he or she were actually there. Another good opening would be to put the sleuth in a dire situation and allow detail of the crime to unfold in due course.

Chapter 2

A. Set the sleuth on the path toward solving he mystery. Offer plausible suspects, all of whom appear to have had motive, means and opportunity to to commit the crime. Select the most likely suspects, and have the sleuth question them. One of these suspects will turn out to be the actual perpetrator.

B. At the approximate mid-point of Act 1, something should occur which makes it clear to the reader that the crime is more complicated than originally thought. Hints may be given to allow the reader to actually see possibilities not yet known to the sleuth.

Chapter 3

A. The sub-plot should be introduced. The plot will continue to maintain the progress of the story, but the sub-plot will carry the theme, which is a universal concept to which the reader can identify. Sub-plots tend to originate either in a crisis in the sleuth’s private life, or in the necessity of the sleuth to face a dilemma involving a matter of character, such as courage or honesty.

B. The ultimate resolution of the sub-plot with demonstrate change or growth on the part of the protagonist, and will climatic on a personal or professional level. That climax may coincide with, or occur as prelude to the climax of the main plot. The sub-plot may be a vehicle for a romantic interest or a confrontation with personal demons of the sleuth. The author can manipulate the pace of the novel by moving back and forth between the plot and sub-plot.

Act II

Direct the investigation toward a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous.

Chapter 4

A. Reveal facts about suspects, through interrogations and the discovery of clues.

B. Flight, or disappearance of one or more suspect.

C. Develop a sense of urgency. Raise the stakes or make it evident that if the mystery is not solved soon, there will be terrible consequences.

Chapter 5

A. The investigation should broaden to put suspicion on other characters.

B. Information gathered through interviews or the discovery of physical evidence, should point toward the solution, although the relevance may not yet be apparent.

Chapter 6

A. The sleuth’s background is revealed as the sub-plot is developed. Tell the reader what drives the protagonist, what haunts or is missing in his or her life.

B. Make it clear that the sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome, either because of threat to his or her life, or the possibility of revelation of matters deeply disturbing to the protagonist on an emotional level.

Act III

Change of focus and scope of the investigation. This is the pivotal point in the story where it become evident that the sleuth was on the wrong track. Something unexpected occurs, such as the appearance of a second body, the death of a major suspect, or discovery of evidence which clears the most likely suspect. The story must take a new direction.

Chapter 7

A. Reveal hidden motives. Formerly secret relationships come to light, such as business arrangements, romantic involvement’s, scores to be settled or previously veiled kinships.

B. Develop and expose meanings of matters hinted at in Act I., to slowly clarify the significance of earlier clues.

Chapter 8

A. The sleuth reveals the results of the investigation. The reader, as well as the protagonist and other characters, are given an opportunity to review what is known and assess the possibilities.

B. The solution of the crime appears to be impossible. Attempts to solve the crime have stymied the sleuth. Misinterpretation of clues or mistaken conclusions have lead him or her in the wrong direction, and logic must be applied to force a new way of grasping an understanding of the uncertainties.

Chapter 9

A. Have the sleuth review the case to determine where he or she went wrong.

B. Reveal the chain of events which provoked the crime.

C. The crucial evidence is something overlooked in Act I, which appeared to have been of little consequence at the time it was first disclosed. That evidence takes on new meaning with information disclosed in Act III.

D. The sleuth (and perhaps the reader, if a keep observer) becomes aware of the error which remains undisclosed to the other characters.

Act IV

Solution

Chapter 10

A. The sleuth weighs the evidence and information gleaned from the other characters.

B. Based on what only he or she now knows, the sleuth must seek positive proof to back up the yet undisclosed conclusion.

Chapter 11

A. Resolution of the sub-plot

B. The protagonist, having been tested by his or her private ordeal, is strengthened for the final action leading to the actual solution of the mystery.

Chapter 12

A. The Climax – a dramatic confrontation between the sleuth and the perpetrator in which the sleuth prevails. The more “impossible” the odds have been, the more rewarding the climax will be.

B. Resolution – Revelation of clues and the deductive process which lead to the solution. Establish that the case has been solved and justice has been served to the satisfaction of all involved (except, the villain).

How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery

On her excellent writer’s blog, writer Karen Woodward has written and put together a fantastic collection of articles on writing mysteries that anyone wanting to move into the genre should definitely check out. She covers setting, victims, making sufficiently intriguing murders, and even delves into the techniques used by Agatha Christie in order to explore how to write the perfect mystery story. Check it out! And while you’re there, read some of her other excellent articles on writing as well, Karen really knows her stuff!

Rob

Plotting Thread

As I discussed in Prepping Your Novel, there are a vast number of different ways you can go about plotting a story. Currently in the Writer’s Cafe on Kboards (the un-official Kindle discussion forum) there’s a discussion going where different writers are sharing their approaches to plotting their novels. And you know what? Almost every one of them is using a different method, and one that works for them.

These run from:

Writer Nicolas Andrew’s very traditional approach:

My outlines are rarely finished, usually because I get tired of summarizing and just start writing. I usually know what the end is going to be, anyway. It’s the middle that gives me trouble. I’ve always used the method of outlining I was taught in middle school, which looks like:

A. Setting
  1. Time
  2. Place

B. Characters
  1. Main Character
  2. Main Character

C. Plot

And so on. For plot, the subheadings used to be a mere list of events. Later on, to cut down on subheadings I would divide it into the five points of dramatic structure (exposition/introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution/denouement). But since I’m not likely to forget these points or their functions after twenty years, these days I simply divide the story into Act I, II, and III. 

I don’t decide what event goes into what chapter at this point. That comes out of the actual writing. I use my instincts on where a chapter break should occur, whether it’s on a cliffhanger, or important information being revealed, or a decision being made. Most times it’s a subconscious thing for me.

To writer Lady Runa’s Half and Half Approach:

I guess you could call me half-plotter, half-pantser. When I begin writing a book I plot the hell out of it but it’s never enough. This is how I do it:

1. Idea: the initial setup and a few main characters. Then I follow Larry Brooks’ structure system (the MC’s journey):

2. I take a sheet of paper and divide it into four parts: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr. This is my hero’s arc.

3. Then I brainstorm the story (it may take a few days or weeks) trying to come up with as many relevant and memorable scenes as I can. Normally they fall within the first two parts. I make sure that every part has its own arc and climax. I also plot out the midpoint (Big Fireworks, Great Revelations) and the third plot point (The Bad Guys Win!)

4. I come up with all the characters using Dwight Swain’s character sheet (it’s AWESOME). As he suggests, I make sure that my cast is as varied and contrasting as possible. I come up with all their arcs making sure they’re relevant to the story. I never bother with petty stuff like “what school they went to and what music they like”. This is what I love about Dwight Swain’s sheet: it only includes what’s really relevant.

5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about novel writing it’s you can’t overdo on drama. You can, but it’s extremely difficult. So I try to make sure every scene is dramatic and memorable. Using Holly Lisle’s term, I try to make every scene a “candybar scene” – something I itch to write. No fluff.

6.  Now I plan the living daylights out of the first two parts: scene by scene. I plan every scene very closely, spelling out the setting, the characters involved, the conflict and the chars’ secret agendas. I also plan as many scenes of Part Three as I can – and a few of Part Four.

7. I plant my backside firmly in a chair and write Parts One and Two based on my scene sheets. Normally, as I do so, all sorts of little alterations start to pile up. New better ideas force me to change certain things, which is why I never plan rigidly after the Midpoint. Normally, by the time I reach Midpoint, I have a whole lot of new better ideas and characters that force me to change a lot of the story.

8. So after Midpoint, I sit down and plot out the rest of the book. I’ll change certain things and add more dramatic and memorable scenes based on those alterations. One rule I never break comes from Larry Brook: I never introduce a new major character after Part Three.

So I guess, I’m a half-pantser because as I write the first two parts from my spreadsheet, I end up with new ideas that ultimately improve the book. I’ve got a few traditionally published novels now and work on the next one so it seems to be working – for me at least. I do recommend this “flexible planner” style to those who feel they can’t just sit down and write a book (I can’t!) but who disagree with the “rigidity” of planning.

 

To writer AnnChristy’s unique “Ellipticaller” Approach:

To an observer, I’m a pantser. Total and complete Pantser.

But that’s not quite true.

Instead, I’m an ellipticaller (Is that a word? If not, it should be.)

I get an idea and then I elliptical a great deal, building the story as I do, rearranging it, tearing bits out and putting bits in, building characters and all of that. I logged 22 hours on the elliptical creating the story for Strikers over a short period of time. 

Then it took me the time to write it. But I don’t use notecards or whatever. I build it entirely in my head. Small details like exactly what everyone looks like and their preferences (handedness, a nervous tick, whatever) I do put in a separate scrivener page.

Whole process: 3 months for about 400 pages. 

If I try to use a more written outline method, I would never get done because I’ll constantly reference it and confuse myself. The only way it works for me is to absolutely memorize it and know it like you know your favorite TV show.

 

So, if you’re on a quest to find what kind of plotter you are, give the thread a look! There’s lots of great perspectives there and you might just find something that works for you!

Rob

Phasing, a Unique Story Plotting Technique

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As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for innovative plotting techniques that might improve my output or help me put together a story faster. Recently, I’ve been especially focused on how people structure their books, since that’s one of my weaker areas and I want to see if it can work for me. I’m not a natural plotter, but I think it can give my work a level of structure that can improve it and also prevent me from starting novels that I don’t finish-both of which are worth trying for.

I really did think I knew most of the techniques out there, and surveyed a bunch of them in my recent Prepping Your Novel post. Almost all of them are based on the concept of beats, acts, or breaking your story down into scenes, and I had pretty much settled on the idea that all plotting methods were variants of the beat/act/scene approach.

Then yesterday, I found something that blew my mind- another way.

The Phase Method is a method pioneered by Lazette Gifford, and she explains it on her website like this:

Phases are written out as key phrases that will bring the next set of lines — the next action — into focus. This is not a scene-by-scene outline, but something worked out in much shorter sections.  A phase can be clues to dialogue, if that’s what the section’s focus is centered around, or it might be a little bit of description, or a set of actions… anything that will make the story move another few hundred words.  Usually a ‘phase’ will only run from twenty to fifty words in the outline.

In simplest terms, what she’s doing is turning the story into a series of small chunks with each phase representing a series of key ideas,images,words and thoughts that would take up about 200 words of the actual text (or more, depending on the length of the work). That might be a scene, or it might just be a piece of a scene, but it’s reduced to a point-form item that almost sounds like stream-of-consciousness thought. She gives the following examples:

1. Tristan in the room aboard the ship, resting, thinking about going home, feeling the world changing.  It feels like traveling between realities, without any of the work. (28 words)
196. Voices call him back.  Mother — What the hell is that?  Get your bows ready!  Praise Gods for her.  She never wavered, never panicked.  Kills the creature.  Lehan?  Open the door. Takes a moment, and then the door flies open and he is knocked back. (46 words)
197. Wounded!  Not bad.  Bad enough to put you down!  You knocked me down.  Didn’t have to kick the door open. What was that?  Anyone know?  No one does.  Others take bows and torches to scout the trail near the village, but not far before light. (46 words)

So, as you can see, it’s really abstract, but at the same time captures the essence of what she thinks will happen during that phase. (See what she turned each of these phases into on her website above to compare.) These are almost like micro-story-beats, or (forgive me) story heartbeats! With each phase capturing the essence of a single pulse of the story. Using this method, she also claims to have managed to bang out 10,000 words/day, because the essence of each scene is already finished.

You can read the rest of the details on her website, but I have to say this is an innovative approach to the story outlining process and one I intend to experiment with. I love using point-form lists (which this is structured around) for planning and organizing, and its both abstract and concrete at the same time in a way which I think might work with my own style. It’s definitely not an approach for everyone, but I think it could be quiet helpful for people who tend to think in more image-based or dialog-based terms.

Plus, to me, it looks like a kind of raw story poetry. Which has a beauty all its own.

Rob

Writing Chinese Style, or how to Crank Out 50,001 Words in a Day.

Not everyone knows this, but Chinese and European chefs actually take a radically different approach to cooking.

In the European style (which we naturally follow in North America), the focus is on short preparation times and long cooking times. This likely came from the nature of European vegetables (lots of tough starches) and the style of pots and ovens they used to cook with. In any case, the key to European style cooking is all about the cooking process itself, and not so much about the preparation that goes with it.

Chinese style is the complete opposite. A typical Chinese dish is almost completely prepared before the Wok is even fired up. They were usually just working with one fire and one cooking surface, so anything fancy had to be done during the preparation stage, because they only had one shot at it.

So, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, generally there are considered to be two polar opposites when it comes to approaching writing. One side, referred to as Pantsers (as in “Fly by the seat of your pants!”) are people who come up with an idea and just start writing the story,  developing it as they go. The focus for Pantsers is exploratory writing, as they’re basically telling themselves the story when they write their rough draft.

Being a Pantser is a lot like being a European chef, as the focus isn’t so much on the prep as the actual cooking itself. Of course, there’s the opposite pole as well- Plotters, who are like Chinese chefs. For them, it’s all about the preparation, and at an extreme you get writers who write 60-100 page (or more) outlines before ever typing a single word of dialogue. (That’s like writing a book to write a book!)

Of course, most authors fall somewhere in between these two extremes, using some hybrid method of Pantsing and Plotting- whether it be loose outlines, or a plotter who never looks at the plan while writing. There is no right way to write, and you have to go with whatever works for you.

That said, there are more efficient ways to write if your goal is churn out your rough drafts as fast as you possibly can. And, the truth is, they pretty much all involve using the “Chinese” approach of plotting the hell out of your book first, so that the actual writing of the book turns into an exercise in detail and letting your creativity flow instead of worrying about what goes where. Essentially, you do the creative heavy lifting first, so that the the writing itself turns into a long jog in the park instead of running a marathon through the Alps.

On a recent episode of the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast (an episode every author should listen to no matter what their writing style), writer Matt Ahlschlager outlined how he managed to finish Nanowrimo’s 50,000 words/month goal in a single day!

How did he accomplish this goal?

I’ll spoil it for you and tell you the answer was:

  1. The software Write or Die
  2. Planning. Planning. Planning.

He always knew where he was going, so he never had to stop and think about it, and could just keep writing. (Which is good, because Write or Die is a merciless little piece of software that will punish you in nasty ways if you stop writing!) Two weeks of planning based on Mary Robinette Kowal’s method of outlining put him in a position to know who all his characters were, what the story was, and where all the scenes went. After that, writing became the easy part! No wonder he could crank out 50,001 words of a novel in a single twenty-four hour period, have time for social media updates, and still finish with a half-hour to spare.

Naturally, there were a few other tricks and techniques involved (you can read a list of most of them if you click on the RSP episode link and also check out the file marked “Fast Drafting Guide”) but it pretty much all came down to planning ahead.

Of course, Matt isn’t claiming to pull off a ready-to-publish novel in those 24 hours (he even turned off spell check), just an extremely rough draft which can later be edited into something that might be worth publishing. He puts a lot of work into the editing and revision when he writes (he plans to publish 8 novels this year, and already makes a living with his writing), but that may be the better way to go for some writers. Editing can be a lot easier than writing it the first time, and even if you have to do a total re-write, it will still be easier than trying to get it perfect the first time for most writers.

As Nora Roberts once put it- “You can’t edit a blank page.”

So, should you give up Pantsing and turn yourself into a Plotter?

Not necessarily. There are a few Pantsers out there who churn out a novel a month, and they seem to do fine without a map. Also, if your goal is quality over quantity, maybe you do want to pick every word with tweezers and take the time to let your muse slowly guide you on a wonderful journey of discovery.

The only problem is that in the Self-Publishing World, Quantity = Money, because the more you write, the more likely you’ll write something that people enjoy reading, and the more you get your name out there and build a loyal readership. You need to write lots, and write often, and anything that can give you an advantage can make a big difference if you plan to make a living as a writer.

Also, I should note that there are degrees of plotting as well. Author Rachel Aaron is famous for being a 10,000 word a day writer, but she only plans a few chapters ahead before she puts her words on the page. And the speed can vary, Matt himself has only done the 50,000 words in a day thing once as a challenge, and has yet to actually publish that particular book. He normally writes at a fast (for most writers) pace, but nothing close to 50,000 words in a day.

So, like anything, it’s about finding what works for you and getting your butt in that chair to write. Even if you’re a Pantser, it might be worth experimenting with new plotting strategies in order to see if they help up your output. After all, the more you write, the better you will naturally get, and the faster too.

Just like most European chefs at least try cooking Asian cuisine to boost their skills at some point, taking a cue from the Chinese way of cooking might boost your writing as well!