Writing Maladies

This is more of a random post; I wanted to start doing these every once in a while, just to mix things up a bit. They won’t always be about writing, but they usually will cover something related to the writing craft. (And with a couple of words I just gave myself creative freedom to produce any post I want. ūüôā

This week I wanted to talk about the problems, or “diseases,” that nearly all writers face, in one form or another. You’ve probably encountered them in the past, whether or not you knew exactly what they were, but understanding them is one of the most effective ways of lessening their effect. Let’s list them out:

  • Writer’s Block
  • Worldbuilder’s Disease
  • Imagination Disconnect
  • Verbosity Syndrome

Sometimes, these “diseases” can interconnect. For example, writer’s block may come out in the form of worldbuilder’s disease, as when the writer continues expanding his setting just to push off the actual writing part. I’m sure there are many more writerly problems, but these are just a few off the top of my head. Their similarity lies in the fact that I feel pretty confident saying that most writers have experienced all of these, to varying degrees.

Writer’s Block: For some reason, the fact that your left leg looks¬†strange under the table distracts you enough that your writing abilities decide to go on vacation. (Hey, that sounds like a writing prompt!)

This is one of the biggest ones. It comes in many forms, spans many types of writers, and doesn’t discriminate between genres. Sometimes, it seems an unstoppable force. But–though I’ll list several of the cures I’ve heard over time–there remains and will always remain the one sole, easiest cure for writer’s block:¬†Sit down and write. (Or stand and write, whatever’s your thing. Just write!)

  • Reasons For Writer’s Block:
    • The simplest reason why you can’t write is that–for whatever reason–you simply don’t want to. Maybe you’re in a bad mood, maybe you have a test tomorrow and should be working on that rather than writing this story, but you really want to write and it’s awesome, but it just doesn’t seem to happen and you feel like you . . . Sorry, got carried away. Point is, maybe you just need a break.
    • This is another biggie, and is the most common form of Writer’s Block (Ugh…I’m just going to say WB, from now on) for me, at least. It happens particularly when I haven’t outlined a story well enough–I just can’t seem to figure out what comes next. Or, sometimes, I know what comes next, but I can’t piece out how to put it into words. Maybe this one is just me, but usually I either wait a little and try again, or it comes to me randomly during my day. Then I need a computer. Immediately.
    • Maybe you’re just distracted? Noises, problems, or simply too many ideas are floating through your head. It’s very difficult to write under these circumstances, but it can’t hurt to try.
    • Your environment is bothering you. Some people need quiet to write, while some enjoy listening to music. Others prefer a quite hubbub of conversation. Each writer has his/her preferred writing space; find yours, and try to make sure you write in it as often as possible.
    • Another cause, particularly for newer writers, is that you may think what you just wrote is utter garbage. I think there is a sense that writing is supposed to be easy–I’ll probably rant about this in some other random post–and when it’s not, we feel like we can’t go on. We just failed at doing something simple, so why try at all?
    • It may be there is a fundamental problem with whatever you are writing. This is the hardest one to fix, as the sense that something is wrong comes earlier in the writing career than the knowledge of how to fix it. As we become more experienced, however, this form of WB becomes much easier to deal with.
  • Cures For Writer’s Block:¬†
    • Writing is not easy! Recognize the skill that you have–the skill to literally transform the realm of thought into the realm of words, to change a metaphysical phase–and recognize that it will only better with time. Every word you put on a page is going directly to making you into the best writer you can be. So, write, write, write!
    • One way I get myself into the writing mood is to do a quick edit of what I wrote the day before. It’s not really that thorough; I just scan through, maybe change a couple words here and there, but it reminds me of what happened yesterday and¬†gives me a boost on today’s writing.
    • Obviously, if you can identify what is distracting you, you should eliminate it as soon as possible and get on with writing.
    • Try writing something else. Some people just need time thinking about something else before they can get back into their current project, and this way you get the benefit of writing, as well!
    • Another effective cure is to allow yourself to write freely. Just keep going–write whatever comes to mind, without thinking, even if its garbage. One of the great things about writing is that you can always go back and fix things. It’s how certain characters sometimes sound wittier than the author themselves; we have the power to go back in time. So, who cares if it’s garbage, now? You’ll fix it later! (I like to have a deleted scenes file to keep anything I delete or change too drastically, just in case.)
    • Now for the hard one . . . what if the scene’s just not working? Obviously, this one’s very subjective, but the general cure could simply be to change something:
      • Try changing the scene’s setting or viewpoint character. Either of these could mix things up and help get the writing back on track.
      • Add a new character (or remove a character) to make the conflict even worse.
      • Get to know the scene’s characters better. Often the problem is they are not being consistent in what they do, as the author does not understand them well enough. Try writing a first-person monologue from their POV. Have a big disaster happen (Things like a plane crash, a forest fire, your love interest walking in with someone else. You know, those sort of things.); we learn a lot from the way people react to the problems they are faced with.

Worldbuilder’s Disease: What? Of course, I’m a writer. I’ll start writing as soon as I finish developing the phonetics of the third dialect that a sub-sect of the Wrenari have adopted, after they fled to the Whites to escape the capital king. Oh, is it in the¬†book? Umm . . . no, but it’s fun!

Disclaimer: I am not saying you can’t have fun worldbuilding.¬†If creating worlds and fantastic settings is your passion, go ahead. I’m talking about the ‘disease’ form of worldbuilding, where a person who would like to be writing–or has a deadline–is stuck continually building parts of his world that are not relevant to the story, and never begins writing.

I happen to love worldbuilding. I enjoy creating governments, cultures, and histories almost as much as I enjoy writing about them. That makes this writerly malady quite the iceberg to my titanic, you might say. (That sounded a lot better in my head . . . . but we’ll get to that.)

From what I’ve seen, worldbuilder’s disease manifests in two primary forms. One is the one I mentioned above, where the writer just keep building and building and never gets to the actual writing. That one is worse, in my opinion. The other is when that same writer has begun writing, but instead of telling the story, he dumps huge blocks of info on the reader, as if to say ‘hey, look what I created!’ The reason I think this one is less bad, is because–although the info dumps will make his story uninteresting–at least he has a story. If there’s one thing you can take from this entire post it’s that having something to edit later is always better than having nothing at all.

I think all of us love worldbuilding, to an extent. It’s apparent in what we do: We want to create a world that’s different from our own, a world we feel we can only partake in through writing/reading it. A world we have to create.

So I don’t think the cure to this ‘disease’ lies in stifling that love. Worldbuilding is an extremely important skill, and–like plotting, characterization, and dialogue–it requires practice to cultivate to perfection. The love of the ‘disease prone’ writers can only aid in this endeavor.

What we need to do is limit it, however. Try giving yourself a week for worldbuilding this particular piece. During that time (or whatever span you choose) work solely on building your world, keeping yourself to the points that will be most central to the story you are telling. As soon as the week is up, however, it’s time to begin writing. And not stop.

Imagination Disconnect: I’m going to have a scene on the peak of a cloven mountain, where the hero will fight an entire army alone,¬†while lightning falls from the sky and volcanoes erupt,¬†backlighting the dragons that soar through the air. (Or something¬†suitably imaginative)

The disease that I call “imagination disconnect” is a phenomenon newer writers are very familiar with. You’ve dreamt up that big idea, and you have it all worked out to the finest of details. Yet when you put thought to page, it’s just not the same. The resulting story doesn’t have the awesomeness of the incredible scene your imagination had created and played out. It’s disappointing, by comparison.

I think one of the main reasons for this “disconnect” is that the ability to perceive what is good art comes long before we know how to emulate it. This may be because most writers are readers first, but the fact is we can usually tell good writing from bad by the time we start writing ourselves. Naturally, since our skill level has not reached even the heels of our taste level, we cannot help but fall short.

The cure to this one, however, is as simple as the reasons that caused it. We all experience it, and we all get over it, at some point. Knowing this is extremely important; you’re not expected to write masterpieces when you first sit down to type!

A writer has to give themselves permission to write badly. Don’t expect your writing to be on par with your imagination, and you won’t be disappointed when it isn’t. On the contrary, when the day comes that you write that perfect scene and realize you have brought form to your to your imagination, your excitement will be that much greater!

Verbosity Syndrome: The protein filaments growing from the follicles in the dermis surrounding my skull have spontaneously combusted to the point that they are clearly and inevitably surrounded by a heated, glowing body of ignited gas. (Translation: My hair is on fire!)

This is another of the ones I’ve noticed, and it creeps up on writers of all types, almost without their noticing it. Have you ever found yourself writing a simple text to a friend and thinking about what the best word to use here would be? I have. I’ve changed that word three times and rearranged the sentence before finding what I felt was the perfect fit.

It’s just a text! Some things in life don’t require perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I find that as writers ease into their roles, this ‘syndrome’ begins bleeding into all aspects of their word-related lives. Many become extremely verbose and particular about even the simplest of writings, almost as if a grammatically incorrect shopping list is indicative of their waning abilities.

It’s worth noting that verbosity is not always welcome in regular writing, either. I once heard a catchy saying: “Writing right is writing tight.” (Or the other way around? I’m not sure where it’s from . . .) Of course, this is heavily dependent on the type of prose you are writing, but–if you’re shooting for an ‘invisible pane’ sort of prose, through which only the story can be seen–you should definitely stay away from overcrowding your sentences. Remember, however, that it’s always fine to write one way, then come back and cut off any fat during revisions. Whichever way you go, the final product will be much leaner and clear of any details that distract from the story you are trying to tell.

Conclusion: ¬†I’m sure there are far more than the ones I listed, but those are the ones I could comes up with, at the moment. If you can think of any others, feel free to comment them below–together with what you feel is their cure, of possible. I tried to come up with cures for most of the problems (though some I still have to try myself), but even just knowing that the problem exists is a step upward. It allows you to know what and when you are fighting, which gives you a much better chance than if it was working at you unawares. After all, I’m feeling the effect of writer’s block right now. Why else would I be writing a blog post? ūüėČ


Sympathetic Characters

So, we’ve established that misfortune and conflict are the main factors in driving a story forward. Put a character in a horrible situation and our inner sadist’s interest is piqued–resulting in the turning of pages. And that’s all good and well, but how do we make the reader actually¬†care?

Having sympathy for the characters is an extremely important–and often, I find, underrated–cog in the myriad gears and pulleys that run a successful story. In fact, it may even be one of the central cogs, the core upon which the entire mechanism revolves.¬†Having a sympathetic character gives the reader something to latch onto, something the plot can then carry throughout the entire story. For this reason, every character in the story should be sympathetic for one reason or another–even the villain.

As for the how, here are four ways to make a character more sympathetic:

1) Proactivity drives interest; reactivity cripples it.

I think the number one factor to engineering sympathy is showing the character being proactive, as early as you can. This is one of those things you want to make very clear from the first page of your book, as a “reactive” character is inherently uninteresting. A character that just reacts to events is like a piece on a chessboard, being constantly thrown about by hands larger than he, and which he cannot control. It is very difficult to sympathize with this character, the same way it is very difficult to sympathize with a leaf, being blown away in the wind. There’s just not enough to grab onto.

2) The smallest light will draw us in, if it is in a room full of darkness.

A villain that is the epitome of evil is not as interesting as one who struggles with the choices he/she makes. This touches on a related topic, that of character flaws, but we humans do have a tendency to strive for the ideal. We idealize people, roles, and situations. We try to emulate them, to pull a little of that ideal into our own lives. An antagonist that is entirely evil–or a protagonist that is entirely good–makes it difficult for us to find something to relate to, let alone to idealize. We need similarities; the more a reader has in common with a character, the easier it is for them to aspire to be that character.

3) Expertise is key.

Somewhat connected to the above, the character has to be an expert at something. Now, that something could be plucking tulips while wearing rigid leather gloves, but they have to really excel at it. It’s not so much what the character is good at, it’s that there being good at it lets us look up to them. It also gives them their own niche in the story, aiding in their ability to be proactive, and, therefore, further ramping up their sympathy level. (I’d like to note that even a character who is literally good at nothing is an expert. They’re just an expert at being useless!)

4) Depth trumps breadth.

Yet another way of making a character sympathetic is to give them depth. This can include their actions, thoughts, etc., but the important thing is that there is a uniqueness to the way they view the world. They make us see things in ways we haven’t before, or their take on an issue reminds us of ourselves–either way, sympathy is increased. That’s all I’ll cover in this topic, but the next post will expand on adding depth to characters and their flaws, and how it results in a much more interesting and well-rounded character, overall.

Other sympathy drivers:

  • The Underdog Syndrome: If the character is having problems/is at the bottom of the ‘pecking group,’ we sympathize with them.
  • Quirks help the character be different, and attract our sympathy. I’m not sure why this is, but I’d assume it originates from a similar place as our attraction to expertise.
  • If a character is nice, and/or people like them, we tend to end up liking them too. This is one of the main reasons for the sidekick trope. The sidekick admires and likes the character, and so we do too.
  • Sympathy is easier when a character is consistent in his actions. Consistency allows us to get to know who a character is, and–combined with the above methods–drives us to care for them.


So that’s what I have on getting a character to be more sympathetic, but I wanted to cover one last question before we close this topic: What if I don’t want people to like the character? Wouldn’t I be sabotaging my villain’s ability to cause fear if I help the reader relate to him/her?

Surprisingly, the answer is quite the opposite. The more we relate to a character, the scarier it is when they take action. We understand them on an intimate level; we know what they did, why they did it, and we’re absolutely terrified of what they will do next. It affects us much more than if they were a generic antagonist whose actions are predictable and not demanding of much interest.

More on the topic, dislikability and sympathy are not mutually exclusive. You can make a character sarcastic, spiteful, and mean, and they’ll still be sympathetic and interesting even though we don’t like them. Sympathy drives character interest almost single handedly, and we writers would do well to recognize the inherent power it presents.

Next post: Adding Depth to Your Characters.


The Paths To Plot (Part 2)

In last week’s post we covered three of the many possible approaches to structuring plot: Bracketing, Try-Fail Cycles, and the Three-Act Format. Today, I wanted to go over one of the more famous plot structures, namely Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces–followed by a plotting method used by an author I hold in very high regard: Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson has talked about his approach to plot in several of his online lectures, as well as on Writing Excuses, and I have found his explanations to contain several extremely useful tools for practically any writer. But before I get carried away, let’s talk about the Monomyth.

  1. The Hero’s Journey (Monomyth):¬†This could be an entire post onto itself, but I’ll try to cover the basic steps that make up the Monomyth. The general idea is that a common man faces a crisis, becomes a hero through the victory, and comes back different from when he first left. The sense of progress is created through a series of events:
  • Ordinary World: The Hero is in a place of ignorance (mundane situation), but something is not completely right with his life.
  • Call To Adventure: Something shakes up the situation (either an external force or something from within), causing the Hero to face the possibility of change. He may meet an impact character that will then extend this call.
  • Refusal of the Call: The Hero’s fear of the unknown causes him to refuse the call for change, however briefly. This can often stem from his sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, sense of inadequacy, etc., or come from an outside source.
  • Meeting the Mentor: Once he has committed to the change, the Hero often meets a guide, someone more proficient than he in the ways of the unknown. (This can even be the impact character, sometimes.)
  • Crossing the Threshold: The Hero’s commitment to leaving the Ordinary World is renewed, and he crosses into an unfamiliar–and often dangerous–realm, where the rules are not known to him. (The impact character often leaves here, usually by dying. This happens around the first quarter mark of the story.)
  • Tests, Allies, & Enemies:¬†The Hero faces many tests, and makes both allies and enemies along the way.
  • The Approach:¬†The Hero and his newfound allies prepare for the big push–or the main conflict of the story.
  • The Ordeal:¬†The Hero becomes central to the conflict in the New World, and is forced to confront death (or face his greatest fear.) Through this confrontation he gains a new strength. (This marks the middle of the story.)
  • The Reward:¬†The Hero takes possession of the treasure for which he confronted death, and there might be celebration, but the threat of losing the treasure still looms over his head.
  • Taking the Road Back:¬†At this point, the Hero is driven to complete the adventure and take the treasure home (to safety), and so leaves the New World. A chase scene often signals the urgency and danger of his mission. (This usually marks the three-quarters point in the story.)
  • Resurrection:¬†Back on the Threshold, the Hero is faced with the greatest challenge yet, forcing him to confront death on a higher level than before, and provoking a similarly greater rebirth. The part of the Hero’s life that wasn’t right in the beginning is resolved in this climax.
  • Returning With the Elixir:¬†The Hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing the treasure that has the potential to change the world, just as he has been changed.
  1. Brandon’s Plotting Method: Brandon has focused his attention almost entirely on keeping the sense of progress going throughout the entire book, and it shows clearly in the way he approaches plotting. Here are some of the subplots he uses to maintain that sense of motion at all times:
  • Travel Log: The Hero has to get from one point to another, often demonstrated by a travel map in the front of the book. The origin for the sense of progression here is obvious.
  • Mystery: There is a big question that must be answered by the end. The progression is simulated by doling out clues along the way, keeping the readers on their toes for the next one.
  • Relationships: The characters must be stuck together (alone) at various times throughout the story for this to work, but a relationship is a great way to keep the sense of progress alive in any story. It doesn’t have to be romantic; it just has to progressively change from its beginning to its end.
  • Big Problem: The Hero is faced with a seemingly indomitable obstacle, and must break it down and work on each smaller piece until he overcomes the whole. The wording on the smaller pieces is what gives the sense of progress.
  • Time Bomb:¬†This one is more of a universal one, and can be added to any of the above to aid in the illusionary sense of progression. It simply gives the subplot an impending deadline to be completed. In a mystery, the trail of clues might be getting colder; in a romance, the love interest may have a terminal disease, etc.

Seeing as he plots the ending first, then works backwards towards it, Brandon’s next step is to choose the subplots that will help him reach his intended ending. He lists all of the Relationships, Mysteries, Big Problems, etc. that will make up his overarching plot, then makes a list of bullet points detailing the steps necessary to accomplish each one. When it comes to the actual writing time, he will go through his bulleted list and divide them by chapter, doling them out until he has achieved the emotional payoff of the subplot’s ending.

So that’s it for plotting, at least for now. I’ll probably end up coming back to the topic quite frequently, but I wanted to move on to the next one in the Big Three of writing: Character.


Sources: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero%27s_journey.htm

The Paths To Plot (Part 1)

There are several approaches to plotting, all of which accomplish the same thing in different ways. Not all of them work for every story, however, so make sure to treat them as organic growths, rather than defined limits.

What you’re looking for by structuring your plot is a clear sense of progression. The reason it is only a ‘sense’ is because any progress that occurs in a novel is actually artificial. The writer has complete control over the evolution of time within a story; he can make one second play out over 300 pages or portray a millennium in a single sentence. You want to structure your plot in such a way that there is constantly a sense of motion towards (or away from) the goals and promises that have been made. Usually, if a story begins to lag, it is because this progression has been compromised, and you may want to start fulfilling some promises. (Otherwise you are unintentionally promising that your promises won’t be fulfilled, which may be why the plot feels slow and boring.)

Here are a couple of the tried and true structures that you may want to try out for your own plot:

  1. Bracketing: This isn’t so much a plotting method as an overall system that can apply to any of the ones below, but it plays heavily on last post’s concept (fulfilling promises), so I’ll put it first. Bracketing is the idea that if you start with something, or open a bracket, then you have to close that bracket later on. For example, if the book begins with our protagonist being bested by a superior force, a closing bracket may be her ultimate dominance over that force. If she at first does not trust anyone enough to confide in them, she may very well have overcome that flaw by the conclusion of the novel. Each open bracket promises a level of fulfillment to the reader, which then drives them through the story in an attempt to reach that satisfying, closing bracket.
  • Orson Scott Card uses a similar concept to structure a story based on its core concepts, which he divides into four possible categories:¬†Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. The¬†MICE Quotient, as it is called, works in much the same way as bracketing, identifying the story’s ideal entry points, then closing them in reverse. ‘Milieu’ stories begin when a new space is entered, and ends with our exit. ‘Idea’ plots introduce a question, and close with its answer. ‘Character’-centered tales are much like a character arc: They begin with character dissatisfaction, and end with either a newfound fulfillment or acceptance of their dissatisfied state. Lastly, ‘Event’ stories open as the status quo is disrupted and close when it is returned to some level of normalcy. Similar to bracketing, the stories’ endings each mirror their beginnings, and are therefore closed in the opposite order they were opened.
  1. Try-Fail Cycles:¬†This format works very well for discovery writers especially, though it has many tools that can be utilized to great effect by outliners as well. The basic principle is that the character has to earn their victory, and does so by failing consistently on the way up. The generally accepted form seems to be to fail at least two times before any meaningful success, though that is not by any means a hard number. A possible way of implementing this is by using the “yes, but”, “no, and” method. At every fork in the plotting road ask yourself: Does the character achieve their desired goal? Then answer, “yes they do, but something even worse happens,” or “no they don’t, and something even worse happens.” Start with a random scene in which the character desperately wants something, show them trying to get it, and go from there.
  2. Three-Act Format:¬†¬†This is probably the most famous approach to plotting, mostly because it is used so often in film. It also has an intrinsic sense of motion to it, and divides the story cleanly into three progressive parts, all leading up to the story’s explosive climax. This somewhat generalized structure can work very well for many writers who find themselves leaning toward discovery writing, but not being at the complete end of the spectrum.
  • ACT I: This is your introduction phase, and is generally the second longest of the three acts. In it, the protagonist is still reacting to events around him, a time you can take to establish both his character and the overall story’s setting and tone. The act closes at a crisis point where the protagonist is called to action, forcing him to stop reacting and start acting. This act is often referred to as the point when you “chase your hero up a tree.”
  • ACT II: This is your escalation phase, and is generally the longest of the three acts. In it, the protagonist tries to resolve the conflict, but just ends up making things worse. The act closes at a low point for the character; if he fails again, all will be lost.¬†This act is often referred to as the point when you “throw rocks at your hero.”
  • ACT III: This is your climax phase, and is generally the shortest of the three acts. In it, the protagonist manages to marshal all his remaining strength to just barely achieve his goal (or fail), making good on the promises of the crisis point in Act I.¬†This act is often referred to as the point when you “cut the tree down.”

Final note: This format is not only used to structure single novels, it is often a great way to structure an entire trilogy! Also, the middle act, being the longest, can sometimes be structured in a similar way, by dividing it into its own, smaller version of the three-act structure.

So that’s the first couple of formats for you, though there’s still another two I wanted to cover in next week’s post (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the hero’s journey.) I think the most important thing to recognize about these formats is that they are guidelines, not strict rules. Recognize that each of them has something to offer, then play around with them as you wish. Next week: The Paths To Plot (Part 2).

Fulfilling Promises

Entertainment is all about expectations. One of the major differences between an epic fantasy reader and a short fiction reader is in the expectations that each of them have of their chosen form of entertainment. An epic fantasy reader is looking for complete and total immersion, and will only be satisfied when that is achieved–a feat that is nearly impossible in a short story. A reader of shorter fiction, on the other hand, is looking for that quick emotional punch that a shorter form delivers much more effectively than any other, longer format. In the end, they will each be satisfied only if their expectations are fulfilled, and so may not enjoy each other’s favorites to the same degree that another might.

One of the ways we can control reader expectations–and, by extension, reader satisfaction–is through the promises we make to them, usually within the first third of the novel. In the words of the immortal Dan Wells, on Writing Excuses, “The promises that you make at the beginning of a story are the promises that you intend to pay off by the end of it.” You’re setting up the story’s emotional payoff even as early as the first page–you may just not know it!

For example, a story that begins with a murder is commonly viewed as foreshadowing for a mystery novel. But what if the writer focuses on the fact that it was an ice giant that committed the murder, and that it was done in an attempt to steal a magical scepter from the victim? Now we’re dealing with a fantasy. Or, on a somewhat smaller scale, what if the dead body becomes a backdrop to a certain beautiful young lady that is distracting our detective from the details of the crime? The same scene, this time promising a romance.

As you can see, promises to the reader can often be as simple as the author’s choice of focus–but they are no less binding. A story that promises a mystery then switches halfway to a romance will leave many readers dissatisfied. In fact, it will probably frustrate both the readers that picked it up as a mystery, and push away those that wanted a romance, fulfilling neither of their expectations. The same would happen if the writer focused heavily on a certain aspect of the plot/setting/character, gave it the status of a noteworthy detail, then took it nowhere. This is equivalent to setting the reader’s expectations to an unforgettable excursion to Disney World, then taking them to your local theme park. Or just to the park. Or staying home. Regardless, ‘yanking the rug out’ from under your readers midway (with no foreshadowing) will almost never have a happy ending.

Promises are actually the whole reason for the necessity of foreshadowing, aka preparing the reader’s expectations in such a way that the payoff can be truly satisfying. This is why deus ex machina endings (when something completely unforeseen saves the characters from a seemingly impossible situation) are so unfulfilling. The reader has no expectations of the coming event, and so feels almost cheated. They feel there was no way they could have figured it out on their own; it was too unexpected. And so they put down the book.

Simply put, you should never break promises! This is one of the few absolutes of writing, proven to result in reader dissatisfaction more often than not. If you want to get that same effect on the reader–and be successful doing it–fulfill the promise in a completely unexpected, yet still inevitable, way. This will keep your reader on their toes, knowing they can be surprised, while still allowing them to know that you won’t cheat them out of their well-deserved endings.

Next week we’ll talk about the grit of plotting, namely the structuring of the plot itself, in such a way that it’s end fulfills any promises you have made to the reader.

Hit ’em Where It Hurts

The last couple of posts have been more about the overall philosophy of writing. This week let’s begin our dive into the nitty-gritty aspects of the craft, starting with plot. We’ll cover the actual methods to plotting in a later post, but for now let’s focus on what it is that makes plot work. In other words, what makes a story interesting?

The answer, of course, is conflict. Conflict is the sole and primary driver of any tale, and it must be continually heightened to maintain reader interest in your story. In Aspects of a Novel, E. M. Forster explains that there is nothing to grasp in the statement, ‘the king died.’ You can improve it to ‘the king died and then the queen died,’ but it still lacks a certain tension. Add an emotional sense of causality, as in, ‘the king died and then the queen died of grief,’ and you have yourself an intriguing plot.

In fact, conflict is the glue that not only binds the reader to the page, but also entwines the separate aspects of your story into a cohesive whole. The three major divisions of a story are Plot, Character, and Setting. These become a completed tale only through the accentuation of the conflict points that connect them. An atheist in a nation of believers provides an immediate Character vs. Setting conflict. A world in which demons terrorize the night, eventually resulting in the death of one of our main characters throws Setting and Plot into conflict. Most importantly, all of these make the story more interesting.

It sounds almost sadistic, but a captivating story is one in which a character desperately wants something, then is systematically denied that thing until the very end (at which time they may still not get it, depending on the story.) This can be explained simply through the famous, “no pain, no gain,” adage. Your character’s victory will only have value if they have to fight through hell to achieve it. In a way, the pain is simply a means to an end, at which time it will finally be appreciated as the true reason for the reader’s emotional satisfaction.

When outlining a plot, creating a character, or building a setting, think about what conflicts they each add to the story. Do the conflicts overlap? Do they each provide opportunities to heighten the tension? Are the stakes high enough that your main characters can’t just walk away from their problems? It is questions like these that will add that extra layer of cohesiveness to both your plot and the novel as a whole.

We’ve explained the crucial role conflict plays in a story, but before we move on to the actual¬†structuring¬†of a plot, there is one other piece to making a plot work (which will be covered in the next post,) namely the concept of promises and their fulfillment.

Happy Fourth of July!

Of Gardeners and Architects

Let me preface this by saying there is no one true way to write. There are various paths to success, and not all will appeal to every type of writer. Each path is a tool, to be kept in a box until needed–or discarded if unnecessary. That being said, many writers do tend to fall into one of two camps, both of which engineer their stories in slightly different ways. These groups consist of outliners and discovery writers.

Discovery writers, or pantsers, as they are sometimes called, work best when they are free to create on the fly, without a pre-established structure to restrict the spontaneity of their imagination. To them, the joy of writing lies in discovering the story, and so creating an outline beforehand removes much of the pleasure they feel in the craft. A clear sign you are a discovery writer is if you finish an outline and find you have completely lost interest in the story. After all, at least to your mind, you already wrote it!

Discovery writers tend to have very vibrant characters, as their approach to writing leads to a very organic, almost self-imposed character growth. This poses yet another frustration in outlining, as outlines often confine the character to the requirements of the plot, resulting in what, to a discovery writer, is little more than a cardboard cutout.

Outliners, on the other hand, are crippled by the very thing that discovery writers flourish on. Complete freedom, to an outliner, results in nothing being accomplished. Outliners need direction, they need to know where they are headed before they even put that first sentence down on paper. Knowing their end goal allows them to break the rest of the story into smaller pieces, which they can then tackle one at a time. In other words, if a discovery writer writes one huge story, an outliner writes several smaller stories that are only complete when finally joined together.

Due to their systematic approach, outliners tend to have explosive endings to their stories, as they have been quietly building towards them throughout the entire book. Discovery writers’ endings, however, seem to do just that, end. They are often abrupt, almost as if the writer decided, “well, here’s a good place to stop,” and don’t provide much in the way of resolution. (Often this can be fixed simply by knowing where the book will end, then completely discovery writing the rest of it.) Additionally, the outlining approach usually results in fewer revisions, simply because any major problems have already been cut out of the book back in the outlining phase. To discovery writers, the first draft is the outline, and so they tend to revise constantly, never making much progress. They often require that push to just go ahead and finish the book, with the promise that they can then go back and revise once everything has been completed.

In contrast, outliners tend to fall prey to world builder’s disease (we’ll talk more about this later.) They can spend years creating the perfect world, but never getting to the heart of the story, which are the events that take place within it. The enjoyment they get from tweaking the finer details of their fictional world blinds them to their inciting goal, that of writing a novel. Alternatively, outliners may find themselves ripping through their first draft, completing it, and immediately moving onto something else–without regard to revisions. Both writing approaches carry with them their own strengths and their particular weaknesses, but both have methods to cope with either when necessary.

George R. R. Martin has a great way of explaining the difference between these two types of writers, whom he has compared to architects and gardeners:

“The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”

In practice, most writers fall somewhere in between the two ends to this spectrum, with very few being true gardeners or architects. Some discovery writers create very general outlines, covering the broad strokes of their book, or jotting down the major plot points, but never confining their eventual creativity through overly detailed planning. George R. R. Martin has counted himself among these, claiming he is “very much more of a gardener,” but that he does have an overall goal in mind. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, avoids the inherent dullness of outlined characters by outlining his plot and setting, but discovery writing his characters. This blend of the two methodologies, tending towards on side or another, is far more common in the writing world than one of the two extremes.

Interestingly, it is nearly impossible to find out which of these approaches works best for you without trying them both out. Even then, you may find that a balance of the two will aid you most in your writing. As you can probably tell, I lean more towards the outliner, or architect side. However, one problem I frequently encounter is that I finish an outline, then find that most of my interest in the story is gone and I want to move on to another of my ideas–a distinct call from the discovery writer within me. I’ve learned the only way I can be productive is if I stifle that urge and force myself to write this story. More often than not, my interest is piqued again after writing for just a short time.

And of course, all writing is actually discovery writing. Even the most detailed outline will not go down to the sentence or word choice level. If it did, the book would already be finished. It all comes down to finding which of the two mindsets–which exist in every writer–is stronger when it comes to you. Which makes you a better writer? Answer that, and you are well on your way to improving your writing skill.