The Onion Method: Building Better Stories by Talking to Yourself

Reimena Yee’s Onion Method For Outlining Graphic Novels is one of the more interesting approaches I’ve seen to planning a story in a while. At first I thought it was going to be another take on the Snowflake Method, but I quickly discovered her approach is something very different. Not only that, it’s a more character-centered approach to planning a story than most of what you see online.

In essence, she explains this method as follows:

The Onion Method is a outline method that consists of two major elements (Character-Driven Plot, and Thematic Thesis) riffing off each other. One informs the other, vice versa, creating multiple alternating layers in conversation.

Image copyright Reimena Yee.

Now you see where the onion metaphor came from.

These two elements together will create an Onion Story – a character-based story that when cut open, reveals layers upon layers of character motivation and story themes, ideas, topics, messages in conversation with each other.

In actual practice, as she lays out in her long post about this method, this is basically a method where plot/theme stuff happens and then character responds to it. You could almost call it the Call and Response Method or the Socractic Dialogue method, since basically the idea is that the plot and theme become characters who talk to each other. Through this “conversation” the writer figures out the story and how plot/character and theme are going to interact with each other.

As I understand it, it would would work a little like this:

Plot/Character (P/C): A weapons engineer from our world wakes up one morning to find he’s in the body of a prince in a magical fantasy setting.

Theme: Cool idea. Is he going to use his skills to change that world? This story is about taking responsibility for your actions.

P/C: Heck no! He’s going to use them to make himself richer by building and selling modern-ish weapons to the lords of the kingdom.

Theme: Whoa there! That might make him rich, but won’t that destabilize the kingdom? He’s basically setting things up for a civil war.

P/C: Yeah. When they start using those weapons, a lot of people will die. He’s going to feel really scared.

Theme: So he’ll try to clean up the mess he’s made?

P/C: LOL. No, he’ll move to a new kingdom using all the gold he’s made and live a high life as a rich merchant while letting the old kingdom fall apart. He’s not a responsible type of guy.

Theme: But, he needs to take responsibility.

P/C: Well, when the old kingdom falls apart, a warlord rises up and takes over using the weapons the main character made. After that, the warlord sets his sights on the new kingdom the MC is living in.

Theme: So, he’ll have to decide whether to run again or arm the new kingdom to fight the Warlord.

P/C: Exactly, in the new kingdom he found people he really cares about, and they’ll all die if he doesn’t man up and fix his mistakes. They’re willing to run away with him, but he realizes that eventually the warlord will keep coming and destroying his newfound happiness unless he gets serious and takes a stand.

Theme: Sounds like he’s maturing and learning a hard truth.

P/C: Pretty much. But is isn’t so simple. He doesn’t want the new kingdom to suffer the fate of the old one, and he’s afraid that will happen if he just arms the local lords with machine guns.

Theme: So what does he do to avoid problems?

P/C: He creates a special mercenary force just loyal to him and turns them into a special forces commando unit. Introducing big changes is bad, but small surgical changes won’t be as harmful. Then he uses them to attack the weapons factories of the warlords and stop the production of weapons. Then they capture the Warlord and stop the war.

Theme: But what about the old country? Won’t the new one invade it? Isn’t it a mess? That’s his fault too.

P/C: Well, about that… (and the dialogue continues)

The best way to think of this is that the Plot/Character is trying to tell their story, but their “friend” the Theme is constantly asking questions and making comments related to that theme or idea. It’s job is to drag the story back to being about that theme and keep the theme front and center as the story plays out.

If you put the focus on plot, like I did above, it becomes a dance between the plot/character and theme as they negotiate with each other. If you did it with a character and theme, it would come out a little different as the focus would be more about how the character develops related to the theme. You end up with a story about how the character’s flaws are brought into the light by having to confront the elements of the theme.

Character: The MC is a shy 15 year old Canadian girl with no friends.

Theme: But making friends brings out the best in people, she needs to learn to overcome her shyness and make friends.

Character: But she has no social skills and crippling anxiety.

Theme: Then she’s going to need to do something that will require her to overcome that. What could make her face her problems head-on?

Character: She needs to work after her mom gets sick. She has to take on a part-time job to feed the family, and she NEEDS to make this job work.

Theme: What job would make her confront her flaws?

Character: A job in sales. Maybe jobs are hard to get, and that’s the only one available. Her mother’s friend gets it for her.

Theme: Sales as in corner store? Sounds boring. What would be the most extreme sales situation she could face?

Character: A high-end clothing store?

Theme: Sure! She has to work at a high-end clothing store, but she has no social skills, can’t deal with people, and of course no fashion skills. Who is going to help her with that? She needs a mentor to help her overcome her challenges.

Character: Well… (and the dialogue continues)

I think it was manga creator Tetsuo Hara who said that “manga is created in the conversation” (although I might be mis-attributing this to Hara-sensei) and one of the ways to interpret this statement is that manga creation is the result of two creative people (the creator and editor in the Japanese manga system) throwing ideas back and forth. The creator has wild ideas, and the editor keeps them on track and focused.

In a real sense, that’s what’s happening here in the Onion Method. The writer is simulating a conversation between a creator and editor about the story they’re trying to develop, using their own imagination to play both parts. By doing this, a story is produced which has a theme built into it without having to laboriously think through every part of the story from a thematic perspective.

If you struggle with theme sometimes (like I often do), but are good at writing dialog, this could be a good hack to solving that problem.

Also, as Reimena says in her original post, you can then take this dialogue and develop it however you like. Whether it’s just jumping into writing the full story, turning around and breaking it down into your story structure of choice, or digging deeper into different parts of it by having separate conversations about those parts with the same theme.

There’s a lot of potential here for some writers, and it might be worth playing with and exploring the Onion Method to find out if it works for you.

Have fun!

Rob

How M.I.C.E. can help writers.

Cute Mouse

A while ago on the Writing Excuses podcast I heard science fiction author Mary Robinette-Kowal discuss one of her personal favorite ways to structure stories, which is called the MICE Quotient. Mary didn’t come up with the idea, author Orson Scott-Card (another hyphenated writer) did, but Mary seems to be its primary evangelist, so I’ll give her credit for making me aware of it.

The MICE Quotient itself has a few parts, but the main part of it works like this – there are basically four different elements (Card calls them Factors) which make up stories, and those four elements can be used alone or in combination with each other. These four story elements are Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event based stories, which line up nicely to form the mnemonic “MICE.”

Milieu – a story about a world or setting, where that setting and how it functions and transforms is the focus of the story. These stories often start when the character enters this world or place, and they finish when the character leaves or comes to be a part of that place. Examples are epic fantasy (Tolkien wrote these kinds of stories), travelogues, dystopian and utopian fiction, and westerns.

Inquiry – a story about learning or acquiring information. These are detective stories, stories of exploration, or stories where new knowledge or skills are gained. They start when a character finds themselves in search of answers to a question (or questions) and they end when the answers are found. (Note, Card calls this one “Idea” and others sometimes call it “Information”, but I prefer Robinette-Kowal’s current use of “Inquiry” because it more elegantly sums up the key focus of these stories – seeking information. (she used to call it ask/answer for a while)

Character – a story where a character changes or transforms. These are stories about inner transformation which happen when some event occurs and then follows the paths that the character takes to reach a new state. The character usually starts unhappy with their current life or situation, and then through a series of experiences finds a new way to be at the end of the story. Romances are character stories, but many stories contain some kind of character transformation element.

Event – a story where an event happens and we follow the effects of that event. These stories are about external events happening around and to the characters. Often these are stories where the world has been made unbalanced, and the characters need to find a way to fix it or adapt to the new situation. It’s a little like someone throwing a rock into a pond, and then watching the ripples result. The story starts with an event and finishes when the effects of that event are done. Most action stories and superhero stories are event stories, as are disaster stories where we watch characters leap about trying to survive.

Each of these elements can be the basis for a whole scene, story, story arc, or novel, and usually most short stories are built around one of them, while most novels are built around many of them combined. (More on that in a bit.) However, their most basic function is to tell us not just what kind of story is being told, but how it begins and ends.

And, once we know where they start and finish, we can then focus on what happens in between. In most cases, this is going to be conflict based, as shown by this chart from Robinette-Kowal’s website:

MICE
this info-graphic is taken from here

However, this isn’t always the case. When that chart was created, it’s clear that Robinette-Kowal was thinking in terms of traditional western conflict-based narratives, however it would also work with stories of interaction like the Japanese tell. In these stories, two or more things interact in a way which produces change.

For example, let’s say we’re telling a story about a tree…

In a Milieu story the story could start with the MC’s (main character’s) family moving into a new home with a tree in the yard, and the story would end with the family moving away and a new family moving in. In between, the story could be about the family’s relationship with the tree and how it sheltered them, gave them fruit, made the clean up leaves, gave them a place to play, and more.

In an Inquiry story, the story would start with people noticing that a tree is sprouting purple fruit, and the story would end with the answer to the question why it was sprouting purple fruit. In between, we could learn that there is a meteor buried underneath the tree and the tree is absorbing weird radiation that causes the fruit to turn purple. Oh, and one in ten people who eat the fruit become immortals, while the other nine become horrible monsters that crave human brains.

In a Character story, the story starts with a man choosing to sit beneath a tree while he mourns the death of his wife, and the story ends with him accepting that death is part of the cycle of life, which he has learned watching the tree go through its seasonal routines. In between, he comes to sit beneath the tree each day to first escape his lonely house, and then later to enjoy being out in the world as his grief is slowly overcome. The character has gone from one internal emotional state to another through interaction with the tree.

In an Event story, an old tree is struck by lightning and left damaged but alive at the start, and then at the end the tree is cut down and turned into benches and tables for the local park. In between, the local people reminise about the place the tree has held in their lives as they discuss what to do about it, finally reaching a conclusion. The event has happened and we followed the results of that event until they settled.

So, as you can see, the MICE Quotient acts as a framework which tells us where a story element starts and finishes. This is useful in short stories or scenes because they often only have one dominant MICE element and so the story’s beginning and end is laid out clearly by what MICE element the story is built around. You just need to know what type of MICE element the story is built around, and you roughly know the shape of the story.

However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because in longer and larger stories, the MICE elements are used to structure and track storylines within larger works. And, in fact, most longer stories can have anywhere from a few to a few dozen MICE elements running inside them.

For example, let’s say you have a Romance novel.

At the start, in the introduction act, you set up the major threads of the story.

Milieu : The main character has been forced to move to a new apartment building.

Inquiry : The main character notices that the building manager is acting strangely – why?

Character : The main character is single and lonely.

Event : The main character has lost her job.

Thus logically, the end of the book MUST close those elements to feel satisfying to the reader.

/Milieu : The main character moves in with her new boyfriend in another apartment.

/Inquiry : The main character has learned the building manager was going to burn down the building and stopped him.

/Character : The main character has friends she made in the building, and most of all, found a new firefighter boyfriend by becoming an active member of the community.

/Event : The main character has found a new job as the new building manager.

Every story element in the beginning has been wrapped up by the end, making the odds that the story is satisfying more likely. Each element which is introduced has a counterpart ending, which the writer can plan out, and use to figure out where each piece of the story will start and finish. Leaving the writer to only need to worry about the dreaded middle, but even there the writer knows where they’re going and just needs to figure out how to connect those lines.

Also, while the major story elements should run through the long book or novel, there can also be shorter MICE elements inside the bigger story which start and finish in a particular scene, chapter, or story arc inside the larger work. A single scene could easily be a scene where the character navigates a new environment (milieu), tries to get information (Inquiry), must change themselves (Character), or deal with some new circumstances that have popped up (Event). How far you want to take this, is up to you.

If this whole thing still takes a bit of getting use to, fear not! Mary Robinette-Kowal gave a whole lecture on using this recently as part of Brandon Sanderon’s BYU creative writing series at the start of 2020, and you can watch it below. It also goes into more detail and other ways to use the MICE Quotient in your writing, so give it a watch!

So, what do you think? Would the MICE Quotient be a useful writing tool? How could you use it in thinking about the planning of your stories? I like that she links it with computer code and logic puzzles, because in a very real sense stories are exercises in creating strings of logical events that work together to produce a whole emotional experience in the audience.

Rob

The REAL Writing Masterclass – Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series

So, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently working my way through the Masterclass courses on writing. I’ve gone through most of the writers of both books and film they have available, and so far have found two clear must-listen winners – R.L. Stine and David Mamet, both of whom are both informative and entertaining in equal measure. But, even with these two masters of their craft, the courses are more a collection of vague writing theories and tips than actual classes taught by people who are good at teaching their craft.

However, there is a Masterclass available for free to you right now that is as solid a writing course as you’ll find, and taught by someone who is as good at teaching their craft as they are entertaining.

Science Fiction and Fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has for several years been teaching courses at Brigham-Young University on writing in his field, and his entire 2020 creative writing course taught earlier this year is available on YouTube for you to enjoy.

I have to confess, I’ve tried to read two of Sanderson’s novels and couldn’t finish them because they’re really not to my taste (I’m just not an Epic Fantasy guy), but as a writer and educator I respect the hell out of him and his teaching. This is a collection of solid theory and practice combined by a man who has written a small library by himself and has been refining and testing his craft and theory for years.

I went in with the intention of watching his lecture on plot (a favorite subject, as anyone who has read this blog knows) and ended up watching all 13 lectures because there isn’t a single one without a pile of great information and ideas packed into it.

Do yourself a favor and give them a watch, even if you’re not a science fiction or fantasy writer. They’re free, and probably the best master class on writing you’re going to find.

Rob

The 7 Minute Solution

Today, I was going through David Mamet’s Masterclass, and he came to a part I found fascinating during his discussion of his play American Buffalo.

He talked about how human beings have an “alertness” cycle built into them when they’re doing tasks that causes them to mentally take a moment to casually check their environment every seven minutes. Also, every twenty minutes into doing something, there’s a bigger mental break as humans fully stop what they’re doing to access their situation. These are holdovers from the times of our ancestors, when paying attention to our environment could mean life or death, and are hardwired into human beings.

As a teacher, I already knew about the twenty minute rule – humans seem to have a limit of about twenty minutes to pay attention to a topic or subject before they get restless unless they’re really stimulated or engaged. After twenty minutes (some say 18), getting a class to stay on topic can be like rolling a boulder uphill, and so I follow the best practice of trying not to stay on one topic more than twenty minutes when lecturing. Instead, I will try to turn the lecture into a series of smaller parts, and when possible have activities or videos to add a little variety to things.

But, what I didn’t know was that there’s a standard smaller “unit” of seven minutes before people’s attention does a lighter reset. Mamet himself, who spends a lot of time in theaters, gives the anecdote that if the play starts at 8:00 the audience will quiet down precisely at 8:06 as their attention shifts fully to the most interesting thing happening – the play. He claims you can set your watch by it. I haven’t been able to find many other references to it beyond many business sites claiming it’s true, although the website Medium found something similar. They did a study of their large readership’s reading habits for their blogs, and discovered that seven minutes of attention was where readers’ interest in content seemed to peak. After that it dropped off, and if articles took longer than seven minutes to read the readership was less inclined to keep reading.

So, as a writer always thinking about optimization, these numbers 7 and 20, made me wonder if there might be a hack here for writers as well. Should we as writers be calibrating our content to fit into these attention blocks as a way to achieve maximum readability and keep our audiences hooked?

Fascinating stuff!

So, to keep the reader reading, putting in a natural break paired with a dramatic question like a cliffhanger or a bit of suspense at the seven minute mark sounds like the perfect way to keep your reader on track. That way they can either stop for the moment at a good point to rest, or they can plunge on to another seven minute binge to find out what happens next.

But, how long is seven minutes of reading content?

Well, that depends on the reader and the difficulty/complexity of the content itself. However, according to Forbes.com your average American Adult reader reads roughly 300 words per minute. So, doing some simple math, seven minutes of reading means 2100 words.

So, to answer the question that endless numbers of new writers ask every day – “How long should my chapters be?The answer is 2100 words, or if you want to simplify it a bit, make it 2000 words (since it doesn’t hurt to wait for the slower readers).

Of course, shorter would be fine too, but with shorter chapters (or scenes, since this could also be done with scene length) you’d naturally run into the problem that the seven minute gap would come at a random place in your story instead of a controlled moment when you can give them something that grabs their attention to keep them going.

What about the twenty minute limit?

Well, similarly, 20 minutes of reading is roughly 6000 words. So, if you prefer long chapters, you might think about 6000 being your upper limit before you take a break or insert a dramatic pause. And, even if you’re doing 2000 word chapters, then putting a more major dramatic moment every three chapters might be something worth doing to be ready when the reader hits their major restless moment.

Of course, in the end, you can make your chapters whatever length you like, but there’s no harm in being a little scientific and using a little human psychology to make your writing even more addictive.

Rob

The Three Mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes | Description, Stories, & Facts | Britannica

While making my way through Stephen Fry’s astoundingly good Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection on Audible, I began to notice a pattern in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Story after story in the collection tended to follow one of three different patterns, and after I started taking notes, I began to realize that these three patterns didn’t just apply to Holmes’ stories, but mysteries in general.

Using the language of mystery fans, I classify these three patterns as “whodunnits,” “howdunnits,” and “whydunnits.” For those not familiar with the term “dunnit,” it’s a slang version of “done it” and traditionally connected with “whodunnit” (who has done it) mysteries. And, in this and the following posts, I’ll be discussing each of them as they relate to the Holmes stories and the rough story formulas each of them is used in classic Holmes stories. Of course, these formulas can be applied to any plot or subplot to get a mystery out of them.

Let’s look at each in order of their popularity.

Whodunnit: A mystery story built about the question of who committed a crime. When most people think of mysteries, or “murder mysteries,” they’re thinking of whodunnits. In these stories, there will be two or more possible suspects who may have committed the crime and by the end of the story the detective will have figured out which one did it. There might be questions about how a crime was done, or motives, but ultimately everything leads back to the central question of who the criminal was. A classic Holmes whodunnit is “The Adventure of the Abby Grange.”

Howdunnit: A mystery story built around the question of how a crime was accomplished. A classic example of the howdunnit is the “locked room mystery,” which is defined on Wikipedia as a crime being “committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” These are also called “impossible crime” mysteries, for obvious reasons. Of course, there are other kinds of howdunnits as well, like a crime where the criminal seems to have been in two places at once, but the focus of these stories will always be the central question of how a crime was committed. In fact, often the criminal is known to both the reader and the detective(s), but to lay the hands of the law on the criminal requires figuring out how the crime was even possible first. A classic Holmes howdunnit is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

Whydunnit: A mystery story built around the question of why something has happened (or is happening). These stories usually come in two flavors – motives and events. A motive-based whydunnit is built around the question of why a character did something, usually a crime. An event-based whydunnit is usually built around the question of why something out of the ordinary happened. Doyle made use of both, but he especially loved to write event-based whydunnits because of their ability to shock and intrigue readers. In a Doyle story, the reason behind the event is usually a crime, but one which is seen from a strange angle (often that of someone affected by the crime indirectly) and then when the events are seen correctly everything becomes clear. The story may involve elements of whodunnits or howdunnits, but the central mystery will always be why something did or did not happen. A classic Holmes whydunnit is “The Adventure of the Red Headed League.”

Of course, these stories are often not “pure” and often contain elements of each other as plots and subplots, and you can even have a story that contains all three- a mysterious criminal who commits an impossible crime for unknown reasons. However, especially with short stories, there is usually one of these three which is the dominant mystery question to be solved. Which one it is can usually be discerned by it being the last question the story answers, since once it is done, the story is effectively over.

Making each of these the focus of a story can change the story quite a bit, since each of them has their own special rules and quirks that will be discussed in turn in each of the following posts. Just click on the links below to look at how Doyle writes each in more depth.

Lastly, some of you might be saying, “Wait a moment, Rob! What about Whatdunnits? Whendunnits? and Wheredunnits?” If we’re playing with question words, wouldn’t those be stories too?

And you, intelligent reader, would be right, but those three are rarely the focus of a mystery story for good reasons.

A “whatdunnit” would be in a weird space between a “whodunnit” and a “howdunnit”, but really covering neither of them well. If a non-living (or non sentient) thing committed a crime (or other act) then technically it’s a “whodunnit” with a non-living suspect. This has been done, usually in stories where the victim accidentally killed themselves with some weapon or object, and the twist is that all the suspects were innocent. On the other hand, if the “whatdunnit” is about what object/method was used to commit a crime, then the term “howdunnit” is better because it covers a lot more possibilities.

A “whendunnit” or “wheredunnit” would build a story about the time or place a “crime” (or other act) occurs, but in most stories those are just pieces of information that lead to answering other questions. In fact, time and place are usually parts of “howdunnits” when they’re the focus of the story, so that category also covers them already.

Now, on to the formulas!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula

The Psychology, Geography, and Architecture of Horror: How Places Creep Us Out

I found a fascinating paper on why certain things creep people out, which is invaluable information for writers of horror, suspense, and anyone else who wants to play their reader’s nerves like a fiddle.

Abstract

Why do some types of settings and some combinations of sensory information induce a sense of dread in humans? This article brings empirical evidence from psychological research to bear on the experience of horror, and explains why the tried-and-true horror devices intuitively employed by writers and filmmakers work so well. Natural selection has favored individuals who gravitated toward environments containing the “right” physical and psychological features and avoided those which posed a threat. Places that contain a bad mix of these features induce unpleasant feelings of dread and fear, and therefore have become important ingredients of the settings for horror fiction and films. This article applies McAndrew and Koehnke’s (2016) theory of creepiness to the study of classic horror settings and explores the role played by architecture, isolation, association with death, and other environmental qualities in the experience of creepiness and dread.

Full article here: https://esiculture.com/the-psychology-geography-and-architecture-of-horror

Who is Reading YA Books?

I found some interesting reading on Reddit today in a thread from early 2019 that I thought was worth looking at. It’s very challenging to find actual data on the sex of Young Adult readerships since the publishers don’t seem inclined to share what they have and individual writers can only work with their reader surveys and collective wisdom.

The collective wisdom says boys stop reading at 14 and jump to fiction for adults if they continue to read at all. It’s definitely true that publishers have been following this logic, because at least when it comes to speculative (Scifi/Fantasy) they know what side of the bread to butter…

There is little hard data to base this supposition on, so I will throw in a survey of 2019 YA speculative fiction releases, put together by bloggers using Goodreads categories and upcoming releases.

They work hard to keep it updated, and it’s quite comprehensive, though most of the bloggers are US based. This list is unlikely to grow substantially, as young adult publishers tend to line up their publishing schedules more than a year in advance. The results of this list are below.

There are 207 non-contemporary/speculative teen novels coming in 2019 (fantasy, horror, sci-fi, historical, etc) with identifiable genders of protagonists taken from the information available. 27 books were not included in the survey, as their blurbs were vague on who the POV character was, or had no content yet.

Of the 207 books:

18 have a male protagonist only (8.7%)

172 have a female protagonist only (83.1%)

1 non-binary protagonist only (0.5%)

16 have protagonists of both genders (7.7%)

Male protagonists only written by men: 7 (3.4%) NB: interestingly, 4 of these are gay male protagonists. A straight male protagonist written by a man is (1.4%).

Male protagonists only written by women: 11 (5.3%)

Female protagonists only written by men: 6 (2.9%)

Female protagonists only written by women: 166 (80.2%)

Non-binary protagonists only written by Non-binary authors: 1 (0.5%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by women: 13 (6.3%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by men: 2 (1%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by male and female co-authors: 1 (0.5%)

Including co-authors, the gender breakdown is as follows:

16 male authors (7.4%)

198 female authors (92.1%)

1 non-binary author (0.5%)

If we include the books where gender of the protagonist was unidentifiable, the numbers are roughly the same:

18 male authors (7.6%)

217 female authors (91.9%)

1 non-binary author (0.4%)

We must also keep in mind here that there is evidence that picture books and younger middlegrade skew heavily towards male characters, and that’s something that we should definitely work on correcting. It’s unfair that young girls don’t see themselves represented in the books they see on the shelves. It’s arguable the same point could be made for teenage boys.

Source

Interesting stuff, especially considering how YA writers, who in this sample are 92% female and writing stories where 83% of the protagonists are female (90% if you include dual protagonists of both genders) are usually the first to herald the cry for “diversity.” Yet they’re writing some of the most un-diverse fiction in terms of gender outside of romance novels (which are likely around 99% female lead).

Not that I can blame them. Publishers go where the money is, and if the ones paying the money are young women who want to see themselves in the books they read and relate better to female characters, then that’s what they’ll publish. So, they actively avoid male protagonists unless the book is really good and has crossover appeal (or is for a gay male audience).

Writer Steven Kelliher had this to say in the thread…

I don’t typically post about this topic because the downvotes are unreal, but I know several authors in the YA traditional published community, and the statistics of male protagonists accepted by YA publishers are INSANELY low relative to the content that is submitted.

Now, many assume that stories with male protagonists simply are not pitched to YA publishers. This could not be further from the truth. Many, many male and female authors submit manuscripts with male protagonists, and they are rejected because the publishers feel that they will not sell to the targeted demographic for YA fantasy.

YA fantasy should be much more inclusive than it is. You can argue the same thing about Epic Fantasy in terms of male protags and male authors, so it’s fair to say the reverse is true in the YA genre. I think it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where YA publishers largely publish books by female authors (and many, many female pen names) and featuring female protagonists because that’s what sells … but it’s also because that’s largely all they publish.

So, is there a market for male YA fiction? I think so, but most of the audience is online and that’s where it will need to be published. It’s “niche” material that will work best as ebooks and online serials, and not so well as traditionally published work due to the smaller audience.

Another Book Blurb Formula

Found this info in a thread on Royal Road on writing good reader-catching story blurbs by Vincent Archer. I thought it was worth sharing, his original source was a bit vague, so I couldn’t trace it. (Bolding mine for emphasis.)

The blurb is supposed to catch your readers’ attention and sell the story, not tell the story.

I’m going to pick from Author’s Society: Fiction book blurbs start with a situation (a), introduce a problem (b) and promise a twist (c). They usually end with a sentence that emphasizes the mood (d) of the story.

So you start with a catch-up sentence, since often, people will drop the blurb if they don’t like the first sentence, and you end with a kind-of-cliffhanger so that people go from blurb to story.

Blurb sample using the formula (along with ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘d’) lists:

For nearly twenty years since they’ve opened, the Gilded Gates of the Infinite Labyrinth have brought power and wonders to the subjects of King George III. Fueled by the resources from the place beyond the Gates, the modern age is in full swing across the British Empire (a: situation)

But the Hordes of Napoleon are not standing still. They will not stop until they can achieve total dominance, and ending the British advantage is what they plan for (b: problem).

Jonas Sims never planned to be a Labyrinth Professional and be involved in high stakes games (c: plot twist)

Now he, and the rest of his team have to level, push themselves forward and grow beyond their origins (d: story mood)

Or the Sun may set upon the Empire at last! (final hook)

Another one to illustrate the method:

The town of Las Viadas has two sides, like the twin swings of its saloon’s entrance. One seedy, one bright, and never the two meet. (a: situation)

But sometimes, people go into the saloon and don’t come out, and that’s something sheriff Marcus can no longer ignore. (b: problem)

The thing is, sometimes people who haven’t gone into the saloon come out, and no one finds that strange. (c: twist)

Getting to the truth will not be easy, nor will it leave the sheriff untouched by the weird. (d: mood)

Unless he goes in and never goes out. (explosive suspense)

Of course, you can have a full paragraph for each part rather than one or two sentences. You just need to keep your sentences very short, to the point.

There’s lots of tried “recipes” in writing. We’ve been writing novels and doing mass market publishing for centuries now. Everyone wants to be an amazing writer, but for most of us, myself included, using tried recipes and putting our own touch on them works better than attempts at being “truly innovative”.

You can pick my story and try to see how the classic Hero’s Journey steps apply, and you’ll find they’re all there (well, except the very end, since there’s 5 chapters left). It’s all about the presentation.

Same thing for the blurbs. Classic version works nearly perfectly. The best ones follow the recipe without you realizing it’s there.

It’s not a bad little formula, and I think sells stories pretty well.

(a) Situation

(b) Problem

(c) Plot Twist

(d) Story Mood

(f) Story Hook

You could even use it to sell a story to yourself to decide if it was worth writing. Create a blurb for a story you might write, and see if it gets you exited enough to write it!

Rob

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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