Stop Aspiring, Start Doing

I’m an aspiring author.”

I hear those words a lot. I read them a lot in tweets and emails. And we’re going to talk about them this morning.

Good morning, welcome to Friday, good job getting through another week. Got any good weekend plans? I’ll be playing video games and editing manuscripts, which is a pretty good time. Oh, and I might treat myself to a steak.

Today we’re going to talk about aspiring, and why that word isn’t doing what you think it does. Because I don’t want you to be aspiring, I want you to be doing. Doing what? Doing whatever it is you do creatively.

So many people talk about aspiring, so let’s look at the definition first. Here:
Aspire1Aspire2Aspire3

Aspiring, from what I get in these 3 definitions, is wanting to do a thing or having a plan to do a thing. I don’t see in these definitions the actual effort, just the preparations.

There’s nothing wrong with preparation, it’s how we improve and effort towards success. But preparing to do X isn’t actually doing X, and that’s the important point.


I want to take a second to point out that moving forward from aspiring to doing can bring a lot of people and their opinions into whatever you’re doing. They may say things like “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” or “Are you sure you want to do X that way?” or they become some sort of oracle when previously they had just been critical. Take their feedback with a few handfuls of salt. Critics are not the boss of you. It’s okay to move forward and do the best job you can, even if that job requires time, patience or learning some new stuff. You’re allowed to make mistakes, and you’re allowed to get better. Okay, sidebar over.


We use aspiring to talk about stuff that hasn’t happened yet, but we’d really like it to happen. As if we’ve placed the order with a server, and we’re waiting on our entrees. This suggests that what we want is subject to external forces, and while that is partially true depending on circumstance (selling a million books means a million books need to be produced), the bulk of what we aspire to do is within our ability.

Maybe it’s not automatic. Maybe we’ll need to raise money, get training, change a habit, start a new habit, talk to some people, take a risk, fill out a form, get on a plane, write an email, or whatever. But we can still do those things. We’re not wholly incapable of performing the task, it’s that we’ve mentally resigned ourselves to a position where we think we can’t accomplish the task.

It would be expensive to travel. Equipment to do that thing is expensive. Getting something done takes time. You don’t know who to talk to. What if people laugh at you? What if other people, society, the universe, determines you’re awful? Note: It’s been pointed out to me that awful people can run for President and get their party’s endorsement, so don’t give up hope.

We imprison ourselves in a little comfortable low-risk cage, with shackles made of fear and excuses and projection. We could be doing stuff, but “our place” is over here where we don’t let ourselves take whatever steps necessary, or even take the steps beyond those. Because we might fail. Because we might be rejected. Because we might find out we’ve wasted time or money.

Says who?

Who’s going to laugh at you for taking that vacation? Who’s going to think you’re a failure because you’re taking noticeable steps towards your goal? How is making an effort the same as failing?

It’s time to stop aspiring, and start doing. This is how we got to the moon, landed a dishwasher on a comet and know what DNA looks like. This is how we created national parks, got a black guy elected, and learned that graham crackers get even better with chocolate and marshmallow.

But how? How can we excise this word and this idea out of our heads when we see it repeated over and over?

We prove it wrong. We prove it to be an inadequate descriptor of what we’re doing.

We’re not just people staring out the window, diddling around, with big hopes and blank spaces. We’re creatives. We make stuff. We tell stories. We make art out of cheese. We shake our moneymakers. We hammer metal into shapes. We do stuff, sometimes with pants on.

Every day, every chance you get, not just when convenient, not just when you remember to, do something substantive that gets you towards your goal.

A writer? Get more than 1 word on the page. Aim for multiple sentences. Not revising them. Fresh ones.

A maker of stuff? Sketch, prototype, develop.

What I’m saying is do more than just think about it. Do more than fire up the imagination and wouldn’t-it-be-nice engines. You can make this stuff happen.

No, not right away, nothing happens right away. It’ll take time. But you have time, more than you realize. And you’ll accomplish the goal, you’ll get where you want to be, you just need to make progress.

No, it won’t always be easy. Some days you’re not gonna wanna do anything. Some days you’ll feel like you haven’t done nearly enough. The goal is going to look a million billion miles away.

But that’s when you look at the work you’ve done. The actual work, not just the time spent thinking or staring out the window watching the neighborhood pass you by. See the words on the page? They weren’t there before. See the sketches? They didn’t poof into existence. You did that. You took a step forward. Good job.

And celebrate when you take that step forward. I know, it’s not the goal, but if goals were only one step away, you probably wouldn’t be lamenting them not happening, would you?

This is all predicated though on taking your goal and breaking it into reasonable steps. And the key there is “reasonable.” Reasonable means not only a manageable size given the current time frame and all the other stuff you have going on, but it also doesn’t require extraordinary intervention. Winning the lottery so you can pay off your crushing student debt is not as reasonable as say, having 2 and not 3 drinks when you go out, so that eleven dollars doesn’t leave your checking account is reasonable.

Your goal shouldn’t always means an end to your life as you know it. Sometimes, yes, it can, if you wanted to become a monk and live in a cave, you probably don’t want to living in downtown Seattle going out to microbreweries every night. But on the whole, you can develop incremental steps towards your goal (those steps are goals themselves, don’t forget), where the rest of your life doesn’t detour.

My point is, you don’t have to keep aspiring. You can go do it. One step at a time. Set up your own steps, and make your goal happen. I believe in you, even if I’m just a guy on the internet blogging three times a week and tweeting a lot.

 

Have a great weekend, happy writing, I’ll see you back here Monday.

FiYoShiMo- Day 1 – Beats, Beats and More Beats

So here we are. The first of December. NaNoWriMo has wrapped up, and regardless whether you wrote 50k or not, this is Day 1 of FiYoShiMo, or Fix Your Shit Month.

What we’re going to do every day in December (not on Christmas though), is take a look at what you wrote in November, and we’re going to take it apart, so that you can see the moving parts, and figure out what parts work and what don’t. This isn’t meant to convince you that you are completely worthless and shouldn’t be writing, this is going to show you that what you’ve written in November HAS merit and value, and that you have some ability to write – you just need to focus and practice, and learning some writing craft would be good.

For today, you’re going to need some of what you wrote. Get some scenes. Doesn’t matter if they’re sequential, or even if they’re from the same chapter. Go grab some text from your manuscript. How much? How about 3 scenes? I’ll wait here.

We good to go? Awesome.

Before we get our hands dirty, we have to look at the craft element we’re talking about today – beats. A “beat” in a story (whether that’s a novel, a script, a short play, a whatever) is a moment of action or reaction. It’s something happening. In screenwriting, you get a beat about every 5 minutes or so. In novel writing, you get a beat just about every paragraph or two, unless you’re running a long stretch of description or set-up.

By most accounts, the beat is the smallest unit in storytelling. A bunch of beats together forms a scene, a bunch of scenes together forms a plot, so really, beats build your plot. Beats come in a couple

different flavors, all with their own purposes. A beat always has some kind of consequence. There are a few different kinds of consequences to talk about. The expected consequence is the reasonable assumption and reasonable outcome of a beat. The gun goes off, the bullet has to go somewhere. The timer hits zero, the bomb has to detonate. You step on the gas, the car goes forward. When the expected consequence happens, the reader is (ideally) satisfied, excited and is encouraged to move forward in the story to see how the rest of the dominoes topple as the story progresses. More often than not, you’re going have more expected consequences than any other kind.

The unexpected consequence is the outcome that doesn’t happen, even if it’s expected. This is less frequent than the natural consequence, and ideally, it’s a small boost of tension to a scene. A gun jams or a clip runs dry. The car doesn’t start, even though it’s got a key in the ignition. You take the expected outcome and you deny it, for whatever reason (you need a reason for it to be an unexpected consequence). This doesn’t generate reader satisfaction usually, but it does propel them forward, it makes them want to keep reading to find out what’s next. The danger here is that if you have a lot of unexpected consequences, they become expected, sort of like how everyone expects M Night Shyamalan movies to have some kind of twist. (This is separate from the expectation that Shyamalan movies are going to be awful suckfests that you’ll only find enjoyable through mockery.) What makes them exciting and special is their rarity.

The unnatural consequence is the outcome that happens, but we don’t know why it happens and often it shouldn’t have happened the way it did, so we’re driven to read more of the story to find out why. These are most often big moments in a story that set up a significant element – like why didn’t Harry get killed by Voldemort or why can’t Jason Bourne remember who he is. Again, these consequences are rare in frequency, and rarity often leads to significance.

An action beat is a moment of something happening. Not necessarily limited to something blowing up or a fight or a gun shot, but something physical that happens is the most common way to describe an action beat. An action beat is decisive, and the story gains momentum through them.

Action beats are the cornerstone in most genres. Again, don’t think they’re just physical, you can have mental action beats where you have your great detective puzzling out the solution to the mystery and builds an elaborate maze of string on a corkboard, or social action beats where the team is rallied by a passionate halftime speech. A beat is a moment, and practically everything you’re writing is either a moment unto itself, it expands on an existing moment, or it sets up a future moment.

There are also investigative or mystery beats (I’m going to call them both). Whereas the action beat is a moment where something happens as a result of often a physical stimulus, the investigative beat happens due to the need to gain more information, and it’s often the search for information that leads to other things happening. Your intrepid detective sits down, lamenting to their sidekick that the mystery is tough, then the sidekick says something and whoosh, the detective is out the door with the solution. Or the detective scours the crime scene, and the text describes how odd this looks to other people (because oddity is evidence of genius). Or the suspicious mother presses redial on her daughter’s phone. Or the nervous student asks a follow-up question. Yes, you can argue that investigation is itself an action, but the critical part of the investigation beat is the stuff going on in a character’s mind.

Now if we’re in first-person, and we have access to this character’s mind, the investigative beats become responses to the world around the character, all of which we interpret as narration. However, if your character is mystery-adjacent (if they’re the civilian who won’t have access to the material the cops do, for instance). then mystery beats require there be some sort of way for the character to reach the same conclusions as the cops, just by taking a different route. This is most often accomplished by going through a second character referred as a knowledge proxy (often someone with a specialization in the exact stuff the character needs to know to solve the mystery). In The Dresden Files, Bob the Skull is your knowledge proxy. In Harry Potter, it’s most often Hermione, though occasionally it’s Neville or a ghost or someone else just roaming around the fifteenth chapter or so.

If we’re in third-person, there’s a tricky line to tow around the show versus tell balance. Show versus tell, for me, is always a barometer about how much or how little the writer trusts/likes their audience.

Showing them, allowing them to reach their own conclusions or have their own feelings, shows a great deal of trust, it suggests that the writer knows the reader will “get it” (whatever it is). Telling them, dictating how or what they should think or feel suggests the writer thinks the audience won’t “get it” (and this is where you’ll often see a writer desperate to be recognized as good enough or smart). Hitting that balance, frankly, means doing a little bit of both from time to time. It’s experiential, and my best advice to you about it on day 1 of FiYoShiMo is to aim for more show than tell, but know that telling can be a great way for a reader to get a starting point for showing. Again, this is a practice thing.

Action beats are telling that masquerades as showing. We are shown the gun going off, but we’re told the response. Mystery beats are showing that masquerades as telling. We’re told how the detective solved the crime, but we’re given enough room to see if we can piece it out ourselves.

Where do those consequences fall here?

The expected consequence to a mystery beat is that the plot advances. We see that the gun found at the scene is or isn’t the murder weapon, and then we’re led further into the story. A mystery beat’s expected consequence (at least prior to the mystery’s solution) should lead the reader to ask a question, often “What happens now?” Once you reach the moment of the mystery’s solution, the question shifts to “How does this wrap up?” which is the obvious question to ask at any story’s conclusion. Expected consequences in mystery beats act like accelerators. They often move the story forward, possibly too fast, and they can lead to boring scenes. If we always know what’s coming, what’s the incentive to read? Where’s the challenge? For minor developments, expected beats confirm reader thinking, but keep them small and incremental.

The unexpected consequence to a mystery beat is also plot advancement, though often with changes to the mystery-information we already have. (Another word for mystery-information is clue.) With an unexpected consequence, we change the amount of suspects, motives, alibis, and other clues. The pieces of the mystery that we’re building don’t connect in the way we expected, so that drives us into the story to find out both how the pieces connect, or what we’re missing to make them connect.

This makes unexpected consequences a regular occurrence with mystery beats. The unnatural consequence to a mystery beat is often an action beat. Look at any crime-solving show with a male protagonist. Rockford Files. Magnum PI. Even the formulaic CSI shows. They find something out, even if it fits perfectly with existing information, it segues into action. The footprint means that guy really is guilty, go arrest him. The butter melted an extra eighth of a centimeter, she totally killed her husband. (Note: this is also true for shows with female protags, though often the action beat is indirect, since other people get called in to do the action … but we’ll get to direct and indirect tomorrow). Whereas with action beats the unnatural consequence is rare, they’re pretty common with mystery beats, since you have to winnow down suspects and increase tension.

The emotional beat, also called the meaningful beat if you suffered through some of the same classes I did, is the third major kind of beat we’re talking about today. Yes, others exist, but I want to keep the focus here for Day 1. When the others crop up, we’ll talk about them this week.

The emotional beat adds an additional layer to whatever is going on, no matter what it is. This often happens through dialogue and reactions to dialogue (and when it does, we call them emotional dialogue beats, isn’t that original?).

The crying child embracing his mother. The tearful man being vulnerable to the love of his life. The farmboy staring off in the distance under his desert’s planets twin suns. Film underscores the emotional beat by usually having a swell in music (especially true when there isn’t talking, but there needs to be some sound to help convey that this is a moment where the audience should be feeling something — see the show, not tell — but it’s left to them to feel whatever they do). Emotional beats help punctuate and emphasize scenes. They provide signposts to the reader suggesting that they should be so far along in their commitment to the story, and points out the path to go forward. A story without emotional beats can seem like a summary, or leave the reader wondering why they should invest any further. Don’t neglect these beats.

The expected consequence of an emotional beat is by definition unclear. That’s what makes it tricky (and vital) to a story. It isn’t about the gun or the gunshot, it’s about the feelings of the people involved and the moment they’re in. Is this the moment where you can’t believe that they’re going to kill Sean Bean (again)? Is this the moment where you reveal he’s been dead the whole time (I either mean Sean

Bean or your character)? The story is free to go in whatever direction you want, but remember that you’re going to need to give the story momentum here – an emotional beat might be important, but it can eat inertia. A little push is often a good idea here. Keyword is little, though that’s variable depending on what you’re doing or the scope of what you’re talking about.

The unexpected consequence of an emotional beat is called subversion, which is where you set up a scene to suggest that it’s going to pay off a certain way, then pay it off another way. This is where you, for example, get the classic double-cross, where a character turns on another character as plot advancement. An unexpected consequence is most often an action beat – something happens and that’s what left our jaws hanging.

The unnatural consequence is reader confusion. If your reader is left scratching their head about why this effect follows that cause, you’ve raised a red flag. Don’t do that. Always make sure you and your

reader can time the emotional beat to something. Yes, they might not fully understand what you’re

putting together when they reach page 20, but by page 120, they should be well on their way (I’m making page numbers up here). There’s a difference between needing more information and having no freaking clue what’s happening. Usually a reader looking for more information will keep reading, but if this is part of a pattern they’ve experienced with your story, expect them to discover alternate uses for the pages. Maybe an end table needs leveling. It’s wintertime, tinder is always a good idea.

Having now laid out three types of beats, I want you to take a look at the scenes you have in front of you. Can you spot the beats? Can you find the moments that build this story’s skeleton? When you find one, mark it in the margin: A for action, I for Investigation, E for Emotion. You can track consequences if you want, marking them little “e” for expected, “un” for unexpected, and “x” for “unnatural”.

Once you get all the A’s, I’s, and E’s marked, do you see any patterns? Are there not many E’s on the page? Are there way more A’s than you expected? Do your beats fall in one consistent order, even when you think you’re trying a new approach?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single unifying theory that says how many of each beat-type you should have. But here are three things I want you to look at today so we can go forward with this tomorrow:

You should be able to tie an emotional beat to an action beat that brought the reader to it, and to an action beat that leads from it. Like we’re making an action-emotion-action beat Oreo.

An investigative beat should produce new information that leads to an action beat somewhere, if not right away. Even if that new information is a unit of “we eliminate old info”, there’s a corresponding action beat prompted by what’s been learned.

Your expected consequences should vastly outnumber your unexpected and unnatural consequences.

Tomorrow, for FiYoShiMo Day 2, we’re going to look at Direct and Indirect beats, which is going to build on what we’ve got here.

See you then.

A Roadmap Of An Outline

Well, it’s Sunday night as I write this, so you know what that means – yes my fantasy football team completely went out and sucked. So rather than mourn the inability of grown men to satisfactorily run up and down a field or catch a ball, let’s talk about something really exciting.

Outlines.

No, seriously, we can make them exciting again. But first, we need to cover the not-exciting basics. Which means I get to talk about my relationship to outlines.

I hate them. I hate them the way I hate peas. I hate them the way I hate snow. I hate their stupid preoccupation with order and structure. I hate their completely dull way of sucking all the joy out of my art.

Ever since high school, where my English teacher embarrassed me publicly for not writing one to meet her standards, I have battled outlines both in the practical sense (they take too damned long) and the cerebral (if I have to use one, does that mean I’m not as smart as I think I am, that I just can’t whip up an idea from the top of my head). It’s an ongoing war, and many publishers have routed me on the battlefield for my guerrilla approach. It may be too cavalier, too arrogant, too disorganized, too needing someone else to give me structure.

No, I don’t know why I’m still not making friends with outlines.

But, know your enemy … I think the Wu-Tang Clan taught me that. So let’s meet our foe.

Our first encounters with outlines are probably academic ones. In fact, the majority of outlines you’ll write (assuming there’s not a template for you, but more on that later). The academic outline has Roman numerals, capital letters, and then subdivisions under it. Like this:

ACADEMICOUTLINE

I swear I’m going to work on my anger issues.

This builds a staircase of ideas, breaking things down to smaller and smaller units of idea, and keeps it all orderly via indentation. It’s not a bad system, but it can be rigid, and it’s easy to lock in and end up lost if you have to jettison some parts of it later.

The other significant shortcoming in this system is the lack of clear segue between Roman numerals. In all other cases, the letters and subdivisors share a connection, as they’re all facets of the larger idea. But if we’ve stepped on and down this hierarchy for several divisors, and then we jump back up to the next Roman numeral, might that be a little confusing, especially if you revisit the outline after a few days away from it?

Enter the columnar outline. This method doesn’t rely on indentation as a structure giver, it just has lots of small chunks kept under one umbrella idea.

2015-11-22 18.27.03

This is the outline for today’s blogpost.

If this method seems familiar to you, it’s also how we write to-do lists or grocery lists, or if you’re me, practically any thought I need to keep straight beyond binging Netflix or scouring the internet for British televisions shows involving science fiction and people with accents.

If there’s a downside to it, it’s the presumption that all the information on it has equal value. In our example, it’s about making sure all the outline types have equal importance to the topic (they do), but if this were my listing of things I want to do before going to bed, I’d juggle the order around so that my usual evening phone calls and emails to people take precedence over things like making art notes for Noir World, or figuring out a Spotify playlist.

Additionally, there’s the idea that the elements fall in order of priority. Again, for the photo above, they do, but if I put up my to-do list for tomorrow, the coaching sessions with clients, therapy, and paying the cable bill have much more immediate priority to me than making sure I put away the socks I washed today, even if I put socks higher on the list because I was thinking about it while writing.

The structure is pretty baked into the academic and columnar outlines. Let’s look at one that isn’t so linear.

VISUALOUTLINE

Bonus: I didn’t capitalize or punctuate this idea

This is a visual outline, also called a mind map or mind web or a spatial mapping. This method works really well for visual thinkers (if that’s you, go check out a program called Scapple), but for people like me who don’t process things like they’re CGI elements in Minority Report or an Iron Man movie, this leaves me feeling confused.

With a focus on connections, a visual outline can seem like a great compensation for the janky segues (or lack thereof) in the academic outline model. Here, it’s all segue – how do the ideas connect?

But, when you fail to capitalize or punctuate, it’s tough to immediately get a sense of starting or ending points. Or how to move from connection to connection in a way that I can explain to other people. I mean, I get it, but that’s because I wrote it … hold onto that idea, we’ll come back to that later.

So let’s take this in a different direction. Here’s the method I’m a huge fan of, but that’s because it’s not structured thanks to fancy word processing.

There’s this model of outlining called structured storyboarding. It helps you picture the scene as though it’s paused in your mind, then you Socraticly dissect it and help build it. Like in those movies where people move fast, so everything slows down around them, and they can make adjustments to things.

quicksilver-steals-hat

Like this.

I love this model, because it gets a writer not just thinking about what happens in the moment they’re writing, but also how to describe that moment with some manner of detachment, so they can later apply that same writing to pitches or queries or just plain old talking about what they’re doing.

To do it, you start breaking down the scenes and chapters of what you’re writing into small moments, called beats. We’re gonna talk about beats early on next month in #FiYoShiMo, so for now, let’s say that beats are the foundational element in your story. All the actions, all the stuff people do or think or all the stuff that happens, those are beats. And this method has you writing them down.

There’s a bit of structure here, but it’s designed to get the you thinking. You can check out the nice PDF I made all about it, right here: JOHNBEATBREAKDOWN.

In this beat/slice model, you package your thoughts as more complete constructs than just as items next to letters or numerals, and in a chrononarrative order (meaning: the order they happen in the story) rather than just a vertical columnar to cross off as you write.

You might find many similarities between this method and my preferred note card method, for good reason – they work well together.  So use them. Bring structure to your chaos. You can do this. It’s helpful. Yes, it takes time, but it’s time well spent if it makes writing happen with less difficulty, right?

The negative strike on this method is that it requires time to do, and it asks you to be objective and descriptive about what you’re writing. That might not come easily to you sometimes, but I can stress how critical that skill is when it comes time to query or discuss your work with interested people. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole that you need a lot of research or a lot of prep, since both can become a stall or procrastination, and ultimately an excuse to keep you from writing.

It doesn’t matter which (if any) outline method you use. One is not superior to all of them (we’re talking outlines, not Rings or Highlanders).

I confess to enjoying writing out the beats into chapters or larger chunks of text (called slices, as in slices of pie, because old slang is totally how writing and old Hollywood described anything). It lets me straddle that line between wholly creative and illustrative enough that I’m letting someone see how the story-sausage gets made, without risking my ego that if I show people how this gets done, I somehow lose my value to them.

We’re all tribal primates, organizing information and showing it off informs everything we do from painting on cave walls to sexting to enduring political debates to game playing.

It’s not that stories die in the face of structure like they’re plunging face first into an electrified fence of limitation, but that given structure story can flourish, like the plant you have to tie to a stick so it can support its own weight while it bears fruit.

So find good structure for yourself. And then use it to kick ass.

Do you have a preferred method of outlining? How do you map out the ideas? What works for you? What doesn’t? I’d love to hear from you, either below in the comments and/or on Twitter or Google+.

On Wednesday, we’re going to talk Jessica Jones’ opening five minutes. Bring a legal pad. See you then.

Happy writing.

Wants, Risk, Drive, and Fears – Character Motivators

So while I’m laying here recuperating today, and in anticipation of my birthday tomorrow, I wanted to talk a little about character development.

When you’re writing a character, whether that’s a protagonist, an antagonist, a character you’re about to portray in a game, or some side character with a few lines, it’s helpful to frame them in your mind so you can deliver what you think the best performance is, situationally speaking.

To find that character, here are five questions:

  • What does this character want?
  • What is this character willing to risk to get what they want?
  • What drives this character forward to whatever comes next?
  • What is this character afraid to lose?
  • What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss?

And here’s the breakdown:

What does this character want? What are the character’s goals, both the short and long terms? Do they just want to rob this one bank, or are they going to spend their whole life getting rich? Do they just want to stop this badguy, or does the whole city need protecting?

Goals are tricky to identify. Yes, they can change, and one goal can masquerade as an other, but there’s no denying that everyone has goals. And those goals are getting pursued in nearly every action they take. Yes, a character can have more than one goal, but when lots of little goals tie together into a larger goal, those little goals are just steps towards the bigger achievement. Stealing the chemicals + kidnapping the scientist + testing chemicals on civilian hostages  are all individual goals sure, but they all combine as steps in the antagonist’s plan to hold the city hostage and threaten chemical warfare.

What is this character willing to risk to get what they want? Risk is a “conflict motivator” because there’s danger present in whether or not loss will happen. And since you can’t lose what you’ve never had, whatever’s being risked is something the character already has at the time they make the decision to be risky. Yes, there are circumstances where some risks are dependent on other risks – robbing the bank risks capture or death in a shoot-out, and gambling with that stolen money won’t be possible unless you rob the bank successfully – but on an individual basis, risk is put into the story to change the status quo.

A character willing to risk something means they want to change that status quo. It also means that the thing being risked is either of sufficient value that you’re willing to use it as collateral to change the status quo or it’s of such little value that any risk is negligible. The valuable stuff getting risked must mean the challenge seems sufficient to warrant it, right? Why would you risk your life over something tiny? There are side questions here to explore as well, about how the character will change with either the success from the risk or the loss because of it.

What drives this character forward to whatever comes next? Usually this is concept or a core part of the character’s moral code. (Shameless plug – I wrote a great article on character development that talks about moral codes, it’s on Smashwords). Superheroes are driven by a need for justice or redemption or vengeance or something broad but universal. (The more universal the concept, the more the audience can project onto the character and escape into their adventures.). More grounded stories often personify this driving force – a child, a wife – to show a broad category of “reasons to do the right thing.” This can too easily become obvious, dull, and expected though if every hero is driven by the exact same thing(s) as the hero on their right. But there does need to be a reason for the hero to move forward, and it should be bigger than the plot.

Yes, the plot will give them a reason to go forward – the hero has to defuse the bomb after defeating the villain, the lady has to lead her people into battle after accepting the mantle of authority – but consider what the character would do if there wasn’t a plot. Is your character sufficiently realized and developed that you could think of them as something more than a plot-solver?

What is this character afraid to lose? What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss? Loss and risk aren’t the same thing. Risk requires a choice to be made, loss can happen outside of a person’s control. You risk money when you gamble, you lose something when the house burns down. It’s entirely normal to be afraid to lose things. And those “things” don’t even need to be objects. Yes, I’m afraid of losing my glasses or my pills or my dog, but I’m also afraid of losing control over my anxiety. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of discovering that no one cares about me or my work, and that I don’t matter.

Because we can quantify and qualify our fears, we can act in ways to prevent them from coming true. We can earn income so we don’t have to fear poverty. We can make friends or learn to like ourselves so we don’t have to fear being alone. The same is true for characters. We don’t need to reduce them down to some infantile idea of them just afraid and lashing out, but understanding the reaction between being afraid and taking steps to avoid that loss can give a character a dimension that can help explain everything from anger they feel to decision making.

Don’t think though that a character has to exist only in the space between fear and acting to avoid that fear. You can stack the protections and the actions into an interesting chain. For instance:

A character is afraid of getting sick -> So they avoid sick people -> But they keep finding sick people -> So they discover a chemical to boost their immune system -> But it’s expensive and only in one place -> So they decide to steal it

You could have easily clipped this chain of ideas off at “avoiding sick people”, but by giving more context, by adding in more story elements, you’re creating opportunities, risk, and a plot.

These five questions can give flat characters some extra nuance and facets. I hope they serve you well.

Happy writing.

One of the Note Card Tricks

Hello everyone. Hope you’re well and enjoying your creative processes.

I get a lot of questions about “the note card trick” since I talk about it a lot, and usually only demo it in person at workshops or to clients, because it’s easier to see it in person. What I’m going to show you now is a scaled down version, mainly because it’s easier to explain in small bites. I’ve got some pictures here that should help you follow along. You can do this spread for protagonists, antagonists, plots and even whole book series if you wanted. I’m going to show it for protagonists, because that’s an easy place to start.

You’re going to need notecards. A lot of them. Way more than you think is reasonable for any person to own. I’m only showing up to 16 here, but I’ve used these for scripts and stories and had upwards of 100 as needed, if the story calls for that many things to be happening. The note cards that follow have numbers on them, so that you can see their locations.

To put it sort of math-y (I’m sorry, I know I said I’d try and keep math away from this, but I swear this flashback won’t take long), we’re going to make an X/Y axis, where cards spread horizontally and vertically from the beginning to the end of the story. For the example story, let’s suppose we have 4 chapters, but you’re going to have likely way more than that in your book. If so, just keep moving down that horizontal axis as you have to.

We’re going to start at the 0.0 point with a note card, like this:

This is a note card. It is the building block of this system

This is a note card. It is the building block of this system

Notice how I’ve put it at the corner of my table, so that I have a whole lot of real estate to work in. Ignore the holly jolly tablecloth, it was the first one I grabbed out of the closet. On that note card you’re going to put a fact/statement/phrase about your protagonist.

The important thing to remember about this trick is this: When we go to the right, we’re going through the story beginning to end. When we go vertically, we’re adding more details.

The first card is the Physical level of description. So Card (1) is what the character looks like. Is she short, tall, nearsighted, skinny, athletic? If you were to look up from your cards and see your character staring at you, what are the first things you notice?

Now let’s give her some more details. We’re going vertical:

We're going up from Physical, to Mental, then Social, then Aspirations

We’re going up from Physical, to Mental, then Social, then Aspirations

 

Card (2) describes her Mental level of description. Is she nervous? Arrogant? Passive Aggressive? If you were to have a conversation with your character, what’s the first thing you’d notice about your conversation together?

Card (3) describes your protagonist’s Social perceptions and skills. Does she socialize? Does she date? Is she extroverted? This level addresses the question “How does your protagonist interact with the world, and how does the world respond?

Card (4) addresses the protagonist’s Hopes and Dreams. What would make her happy? What goal is she striving for? Remember, this isn’t just talking about the plot of the story, I’m asking you to think of your character as a fully formed person who has more than this particular story’s plot going on in their life. Does she want to own a farm? Does she wish her father paid more attention to her? Does she want a deluxe apartment in the sky where she doesn’t have to wear pants and can eat guacamole all day?

You can go higher. Card (5) would cover a character’s Fears and Doubts. Card (6) would be Closest Relationship and Card (7) would be Relationship to Rival or Enemy. I’ve never gone above (7), because I’ve both run out of space and never thought past those tiers of character development. Feel free to substitute your own as you like, just be consistent with it. And if you do try new stuff, please PLEASE let me know. I’m always on the look out for new methods.

Let’s go to the next part of the story. For me that’s Act 2. For you that might be chapter 2 or part 2 or the next episode. In fact, you can take this time to lay out the horizontal for the whole project or the next chunk of chapters if you want:

Notice that in each chapter/section/whatever, I've got a Physical element represented

Notice that in each chapter/section/whatever, I’ve got a Physical element represented

 

Throughout my four acts here I’m going to mention more physical elements of my character. Not that I’m always going to say she’s a redhead or that she’s got green eyes, but I’m going to talk about some sort of relationship between her physicality and the world – she’s going to get banged up, bruised, a car is probably going to explode and maybe she’ll get muddy. That relationship spreads across the book, so it’s represented in these cards. So, on Card (2.1) I’m going to put down a fact about how she deals with fistfights, because at some point she’s going to hit a dude (play passes to left) (hashtag a-joke-not-enough-of-you-understand).

Add a card with some detail(s) at each level per each part/chapter/act of your story. Remember, this isn’t repeating the same things over and over, it’s about writing down different facets of the relationship the character has on that level to the rest of the world you’ve created.

This means you’re going to regularly ask yourself:

  • How is my character acting and reacting physical to the environments on a scene-by-scene/beat-by-beat basis?
  • How is my character handling the mental stresses/doubts/successes/strains on a scene-by-scene/beat-by-beat basis?
  • How is my character interacting with other people? Is anything developing? Is that development good or bad? Will someone pay a price in the end?
  • How is whatever my character is doing affect their hopes and dreams? Are they moving towards them? Has the plot put the goal on a shelf? Has it changed?

The answers should help you understand (conceptually) what the mindset and experience of the character is, so that you can translate it into words on paper so that other people can read it and relate in the same way.

So this is the story after more cards go down on the table:

This is all four acts mapped out.

This is all four acts mapped out.

 

What you’ll see in that picture are gaps. They’re intentional. A space like (4.2) or (3.4) means that the element doesn’t come up in that section of the story. And that’s an important point. Gaps create importance, and so long as the gap isn’t too wide (I’m sort of stretching it with (1.4) and (4.4), then that re-emergence of the idea makes us take notice – like the guy who keeps a key in his pocket only to remember he has it when he reaches the locked door. It makes both the first instance and its return matter to the story.

However, you might not feel comfortable doing that, so here’s a complete grid for you:

Here's a story where every possible slot has a card for it. This runs the risk of being congested.

Here’s a story where every possible slot has a card for it. This runs the risk of being congested.

I’m going to throw a flag on the play, and not just because I numbered these cards differently. A full story where everything is explored in every chapter can be MONSTROUS to contend with. It might slow down. It might get wordy. It might get confusing. Your mileage varies of course, but please PLEASE don’t think you have to fill every spot, especially if you run cards all the way out to 30 or more.

As I said before, you can do this for a protagonist, or even the antagonist. You can do this for the plot, but then the tiers become more about the impact of the problem on physical, mental and social levels, leading to sort of a zoomed-out picture of the story.

Hope this helps. If you have questions about it, catch me on Twitter, or write me an email.

Choose Your Own Adjective & Adjective Bloat

This post might get a little technical.

In order to understand what I’m about to describe, we’re going to need a sample sentence with, let’s say, three adjective in it.

Let’s use this one:

The loud chainsaw ate through the ancient tree, while shaky homeowners looked on

Let’s grab the adjectives out of it.

loud chainsaw

ancient tree

shaky homeowners 

What’s the first thing you notice? That the adjectives come immediately before the noun they modify. This way there’s no confusion as to what noun they’re affecting. Things can get muddied when you put distance between adjectives and nouns, and I don’t want to get into a discussion as to why or how that’s a good thing sometimes or not. (I mean, I probably will, just not right now)

How did I pick those adjectives? Yes, I made the sentence up based on what I see happening in my neighbor’s yard, but I could have expressed the same idea using totally different words, right?

If we discount synonyms (and please tell me you’re not the writer who delights in using a thesaurus to find new ways of expressing “said”), then no, you really can’t.

The minute you change the modifier, you change the tone of the sentence.

Let’s suppose we change loud to powerful.  A powerful chainsaw can still chew through a tree, and that can still lead to there being shaky homeowners, but notice that once I alter the word that makes you think about the sound of the chainsaw doing what it does, we’re now thinking more about the speed or the act of chainsawing, and less about the sound.

Let’s make the ancient tree young. My first question would be, why chainsaw a young tree? Why be shaky about it? I have a young tree in my yard, and cutting to down wouldn’t leave me shaky, since it’s only about as thick as two or three broomsticks. Changing the age of the tree moves us more to the “why” of the sentence, which could propel us into the story we’re reading, or character motivations or something past the superficial “picture what I am telling you”.

Let’s make the shaky homeowners confident. Why would they be looking if they’re confident? Again, we’re past the words on the page and now we’re into story elements.

Adjectives we read help influence the unwritten adjectives we think about. When that tree was ancient, it created an expectation that it was tall, and given its height, maybe that’s why the homeowners were shaky. When I said the chainsaw was loud, that’s the sound, that chewing nasal hum and vibrating sound, I want you to focus on and amplify, so that you’re getting this scene, maybe with sawdust and nervous people, where no one can hear anything over the saw.

I get asked a lot (and conversely I do a lot of asking about) how words get picked to go on paper. This usually happens when someone is curious if something is “good” or not, but it also comes up in discussions of clarity and connection. For a long time, I didn’t have an answer as to how I picked the words I did, and I suspected a lot of people didn’t. But eventually, after I pestered enough people, I put together a theory, and I share it with you now.

Write the adjectives that get readers the closest to the scene you want to describe and let their imaginations fill in the rest

Come back to our chainsaw and homeowner sentence. I given some facts (that the chainsaw is loud; that the tree is old; that people are concerned) but didn’t give others (what season is it? what time of day is it? where the tree is located in relation to the homeowners, etc), and the sentence let’s you (the reader) project a little and fill in the blanks.

Now, I can’t always do that. I can’t always let you fill in the margins around my words, but for the most part,  I also can’t help it. If I just say something like, “The dog barked.” and I’ve written about my dog in previous sentences, there’s not a lot of information for you to fill in.  But if I say, “I took a blue shirt out of the closet.” then you’re free to speculate as to how blue or what kind of shirt it is until I tell you otherwise. I can inform and use more of that push/pull we’ve talked about elsewhere to move you through my writing.

My theory does require to to trust your readers to be able to fill in whatever you’re not saying, and does suggest that you can relax any sense of “You have to do it my way!” control over them doing so. (Yes, I know, I can trust readers with text I create, but can’t trust LARP players to respect my work? Funny.)

It’s a practice thing. It requires a good feel for your writing and knowing your voice and being comfortable in what you’re writing so that you can know what to omit and not omit. If you skip the omission process, you can easily move into a trouble area, called ‘adjective bloat’.

Adjective Bloat is when you have text that’s just crammed with adjectives that you allege all have vital roles to play in the sentence(s) they’re in.  Let me think of an example:

Down down the winding stairs I dragged my beloved queen, her struggles against my grasp futile and her wails of terror echoing hollow and pale against the damp stones of my castle walls. The rain poured from clouds like the tears of widows and lightning and thunder gnashed their twin furies against the outside world. But soon, soon this queen would be mine, forever and always

I like some parts of what I wrote. I like the idea of gnashing twin furies. I like wails of terror as a phrase. But if we pull those parts out, what am I left with? A lot of fat on a little meat.

Here we verge into masturbation, where things get written because it sounds really good, even if it doesn’t serve the story, or because you like letting your words get ahead of you and they end up flowery and purple.  There’s nothing with that if we’re writing something where that melodramatic sense is important, or if we’re going sort of mock-Gothic. But really, truly, you have to ask yourself: Am I writing this because these phrases paint the ideas I want readers to take with them from sentence to sentence, or am I just indulging some whim and writing to fill space.

Identifying bloat is initially easy, since you can prune back excessive words once you’ve sufficiently described a thing (if it’s a wooden desk, it’s likely brown, so you wouldn’t need brown and wooden together, unless other things are wooden and not-brown), but it can get harder when you don’t have an excess quantity of words and you have to look at their quality. Is word X the best word for the job? If I’m telling you about my castle walls, does ‘stone’ do enough justice? What about rock? The things each word makes me picture in my head, are they so radically different that I need to specify? Could I use them interchangeably? Would I be okay with that?

Word quality is subjective, entirely an issue of ‘feel’, and not something I can easily express to you. When I edit something, once I get good handle on the author’s sound and their connection(s) to their audience, I can suss out what words they would or wouldn’t use, and can flag them appropriately.

So what’s the recourse? Practice. Revision. More practice. More revision. Rinse. Repeat.

(yes, admittedly, the end of this post got away from me. I’ll revisit the ideas)

By request – Cliffhangers, Endings and “Tying It All Together”

Today’s post come from a request made on Twitter by @AprilBrownWrite. Her site is here, and worth a look (also she’s really nice, and you should say hi.)

If there’s something you’d like to talk about, or want to know more about, you can email me a suggestion or send me a tweet – I’m always looking for new content and new ways help you write better.

April had a question about cliffhangers and how to end things. She wrote me a rather nice email about it, with some pretty good examples, but I think it’s easier if we just start with broad topics and then work towards specifics.

So let’s lay some groundwork.

What is a cliffhanger?

1. A ‘cliffhanger’ is caused when you break up an action beat and deny immediate resolution. ‘Immediate’ here means that in sentence A, you set up the situation and then in Sentence B, you resolve it. These are most often very visual or evocative beats (beats are scenes or moments, I’m going to use that word a lot), and other media (like television) has taught us that cliffhangers are great moments to go to commercial. Books, to date, lack commercials, so often people tend to put cliffhangers at the end of chapters (we’ll talk more about that in a minute).

2. A ‘cliffhanger’ is only as good as the setup BEFORE the action, and the intensity of the resolution AFTER. This might be unclear, but there are ways to illustrate it. The thinking behind a cliffhanger is that you want the reader wondering how the character(s) will get out of whatever situation they’ve entered. Will Mace Hunter escape being kidnapped by Red Shark’s goons? Will the damsel in distress ever get off those damned railroad tracks?

But that’s the cut-away-to-commercial moment. That’s the cliffhanger itself. It doesn’t have any meaning as a cliffhanger until we see it in context. We worry about that damsel on the railroad tracks because prior to that, she was kidnapped in the dead of night by the bad guy. We feel tension for Mace because we watched him get overwhelmed by goons and saw him get sapped from behind. The setup to the cliffhanger moment is critical, if you want us to believe the danger is real.

That’s half of it.

The other half is what happens when the character acts to get out of the predicament. If all the damsel has to do is roll to her knees and stand up, the danger isn’t so great. If all Mace has to do is jump out of the car in order to make good his escape, then it’s less perilous than previously indicated. If the resolution to danger/cliffhanger is not well-developed, then the danger wasn’t clearly stated, and the reader isn’t going to think it’s worth getting scared over.

There is an exercise I recommend. You’ll need a note card.
1. Turn the notecard vertically (longways)
2. Divide it into thirds (draw horizontal lines)
3. In the middle third, write the cliffhanger
4. In the bottom third, write the resolution
5. In the top third, write the setup.

So, a cliffhanger for a scene with a damsel tied to railroad track looks like this:

I. Woman is kidnapped
—-
II. Woman tied to tracks
—-
III. Woman escapes (rope use)

This isn’t where you detail it all out, this is where you give yourself a little note of reminder to make sure the setup leads naturally to the danger which segues to the resolution. I tend to find it easier to go from danger to resolution and then reverse-engineer (or hack) the setup to make it sufficiently intense or emotional or whatever the scene needs.

Now, if that’s what a cliffhanger is, what do we do with it?

The first rule of cliffhangers is – Not everything is going to be a cliffhanger. It just…can’t be that intense all the time. Remember this – “When everything is special, nothing is”. You do not need a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, or at the break in every action. Poor is the reader who believes that your story would be made better by doing this. Find them, shake a fist at them, and tell them they’ve watched too much TV and probably read too much poor writing.

The second rule of cliffhangers is – They’re supposed to be risky. There are no “little” cliffhangers. Just like no one is ever “a little bit pregnant” or “the teensiest bit murderous”, little actions do not warrant cliffhangers. Cliffhangers should make you gasp and worry and turn the page excitedly to see what happens next. (Note: I learned this rule as “No one gives a shit about Timmy making toast.“) Go big or go home on your cliffhangers.

The third rule of cliffhangers is – There should be a cost. To get out of a risky and dangerous situation, the character should be tested. It should exhaust them to have to climb up a sheer mountainside, it should drain them to have to run as fast as they can to save the other character, it should hurt when they got shot, taking the bullet for their loved ones. A cliffhanger without a cost is just another action beat.

If those are the rules, where do we put cliffhangers?

The short version – put them where they best serve the story. For most (90%) of cases, that’s usually at the end of Act 2 or just before the highest point of climax.

The longer version – put them where they matter. NOT at the end of every chapter, or every third chapter when you switch narrators. Use them too much, and they lose impact. Use the cliffhanger as a tool to make the story matter, and to test the characters, not as a way to force the story along or make/force the reader to keep going in the story.

So what does that make all those other endings? If they’re not cliffhangers, what are they?

They’re endings. Things can just end. It’s okay. I promise. What matters is how you daisy-chain these endings into the startings of whatever comes next (I mean otherwise, what, you’re writing 4th edition D&D? – gamer joke) so that you’re not writing a series of “bubble scenes” but rather a contiguous stream of actions, reactions, and development to make a single complete big bubble of your story.

If you feel that your endings (the physical ones, the emotional ones, etc) HAVE TO BE cliffhangers in order for them to matter in your work, then, honestly you’ve failed them. You’ve let them down as scenes in your story and you’re not doing your job as the best writer you can be in telling the best story you can.

A well-crafted story should have lots of things that matter, but not all those things are going to be cliffhangers.

So how many cliffhangers should I have in my story?

I don’t know, author. Why don’t you tell me how many breaths I should take today? There is no magic number. In some stories, you only need one. In some stories you can have one per character arc. In other stories there’s one for every character arc, one of the plot and one for theme (I’m looking at you, hundreds-of-pages-long-fantasy-novel-series).

If you’ve mapped out the story (not the same as outlining it), then you should be able to see where the arc(s) move(s) should take you and the reader from beginning to end of book.  Tying it all together is NOT the job of the cliffhanger, but the cliffhanger should signal that SOME element(s) of the story is/are about to change.

I hope this has explained cliffhangers a little bit, April and all those other people who don’t know what to do with them. If you need more information, just ask.

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 6 – The Relationships

This is Part 6 of the Character 101 Series. The previous parts can be found here.

Here’s a brief summary:

  • Characters exist within a world that defines possibilities and suggest challenges
  • Characters have a set of abilities that distinguish them within the world and makes the reader want to inject themselves into the story
  • Characters are on a path that leads them through more than the book-plot.
  • Characters are more than a physical description, they also have mental and emotional attributes worth depiction.
  • Characters have a defined morality and philosophy that influences actions and decision-making, in more than just the plot. 
Today, we could end Character 101 with this post. And it may end, if the recent traffic is any indication (either what I wrote was too deep or too boring), but let’s give today a fair shake. 
The last element of Character 101 can be expressed like this:
The character has relationships of varying depths, complexities and degrees so that the reader can see the created-person in a more complete context, and can sympathize/empathize.
It’s a little appropriate that it’s Valentine’s Day as I write this bit about relationships. Today is the day for making mention of your relationships, even though I am of the part of the population that believes that if you’re happy with your relationship, every day is/can be Valentine’s Day in a new and different way, and that to commercialize love is the lowest form of obnoxious sales tactics and money hungry manipulation. But that’s coming from me, so consider your sources……
Characters don’t exist in a vacuum, they aren’t adrift in some Void-space, they aren’t just blobs of ink on the page. (Even if you did hurtle your character into the Void, it’s likely you’d still make them think or feel stuff, so there would be some kind of bridge built to other characters). It’s about those bridges that I want to focus today.
I am notorious for burning bridges and salting the earth. In the last few weeks, I’ve been launching an aggressive program to clean that up, because a lot of it comes from this horrifically insecure place and it’s all misdirected anger and fear blah blah blah…..but it’s really made me take a look at my relationships to other people and see just how I built those connections. (Yes, I did make a chart, shut up. They help).
Some of those connections are great, and I do not want to burn them. Some of these connections are awful, and I should do all that I can to put the past behind me and get some Grand Canyons between me and them.  I say this not to bitch about my personal life, but to point out that through these relationships, you can get a sense of who I am and/or what I do and how I do it. 
Characters are no different. You can look at their relationships and get a sense of who and what they are. Go get a legal pad, let’s make a chart.
The Character Relationship Chart
note: Yes, you can do this more visually in a web, but I’m just blogging here, so I’ll work linearly
1. At the top of the page, put the character’s name (we’ll call him A)
2. Write the name of the other character in the relationship (we’ll call him B)with them (then in parentheses, write down the type of relationship next to the name)
3. List then a few phrases, adjectives, quotes or ideas that demonstrate how the character (A) feels about the other. (B)
Skip a line and repeat steps 2 and 3 until you have the character’s relationships mapped out. Here’s an example:
Character: Gordon Jeremiah Nevins
Bryan Alfred Nevins (brother)
* “What the hell trouble has he gotten himself into this time?”
* “Stupid dumb naive kid, but he’s all I got.”
* Begrudingly over-protective
* Only acts tired of the relationship.
Wynona (woman he sleeps with)
* Loves her, can’t commit to her
* Would take a bullet for her, but wouldn’t tell her that, in case someone has a gun handy
* “You look good” = “I love you”
By mapping out the relationships characters have with each other, you’re able to also test their philosophies and see their paths play out over the course of the work. If your characters’ relationships don’t undergo growth from beginning to end (at least ONE of the parties involved has to change a little, otherwise readers are going to feel like they’ve wasted time and effort getting invested), then the sandbox they play in isn’t testing them sufficiently. 
Here’s an example from my life:
When I was feeling very down, disputatious and grumpy I treated other people poorly, and gave many others the impression that I was in fact, a melo-dramatic asshole with delusions of grandeur. (Or something, I don’t know, but it wasn’t good). After a few rather intense conversations with people who actually gave a damn about me (rather than just giving a damn about the work I could do, or the benefits I could give them), I started to rehab my image and after some rather big-deal admissions of apology and truth, quite a few people came around. So, because I had a particular philosophy, the world I inhabited tested me a certain way, which lead me down a particular path, that brought me to certain experiences and plots. Only when I made an effort to change, to push myself and change my thinking, did I discover and occupy a new path, that led me to new experiences and plots. 
It is through your characters’ relationships that readers/players/consumers/others are able to draw a complete picture of the character. Just giving them a description and abilities is nice, but very bland and generic. Even if you throw in a moral code and a path, it’s amorphous without a set of relationships to see it explored and strengthened/altered.
The point I’m making here is that all the elements of Character 101 are INTER-RELATED. To make those strong characters for people to gravitate towards, you need lay out all the pieces and get your Frankenstein on (put.the.candle.back.) 
There’s no doubt in mind that if you take care to go through each step in Character 101, your characters, big and small will exponentially intensify and be far more satisfying to both create and use. 
Enjoy your Valentine’s Day. Happy writing.

Game Design Equation, Part 2

YOUR GAME = Desired Emotion / Experience + Mechanics + Theme/Setting

You’re going to want a legal pad by your side when you go through this post. It’s meaty.

Today we’re going to explore game design at it’s core, because in order to understand something, you have to get down to it’s most basic unit. We can’t talk science without atoms, we can’t talk writing without words, and we can’t gaming without emotion, mechanics and theme.

When you’re designing a game, whether that’s a card-trading game, or a board game or a structured tabletop RPG using licensed characters and cinematic plots or something home-brewed, there sits at the heart of it a desired experience. You want the players, and you (presumably as its first GM) have an experience in mind – you want your game to be a certain way, you want the time you spent playing to feel a certain way.

Part I: Desired Emotion & Experience
Because game design is a practical task, take that legal pad next to you and write down some words, concepts or phrases to describe this desired experience. Ask yourself the question, “How do I want the game to be?”

Maybe you’ve written down things like:

  • Fun and easy
  • just like [insert favorite movie title here]
  • fast-paced
  • my players want to do it again
You want to stay away from the mechanics and setting here, because we’ll get to those next. For now, think only of the experience of people around the table while playing. The better you can detail this experience, the easier it is for you to put your finger on it, the more evocative and expressive the game will turn out. 
Add to this list, or in a second column, a list of emotions you want the players to experience while playing. This is just a list, you don’t have to tie emotions to things you’ve already written. Do your best to have more ‘player’ feelings than ‘GM’ feelings, but don’t exclude the GM side of play either. 
I should point out now that there’s no ‘wrong’ length to any of the lists we’ll create, and if you only have one item on it, that’s fine, in time you can always expand it later. What matters is that you’ve put something down on paper. 
Your list may have things like:
  • excited during combat
  • nervous during suspense
  • happy to play at all
Now stop and congratulate yourself because you’re one-third of the way done with the first draft of this game. Onto part 2.
Part II: Mechanics
Games can live and die by their mechanics, since it is lifeblood of play. Mechanics are the practical application of creative desire, and should be relatively codified in such a way as to answer basic questions and promote imagination about future issues. 
Basically – mechanics should be ‘how’ the things you want to do get done but they aren’t meant to be everything to everyone. Remember that play is a collaborative event, and no game is ever going to be able to account for all the potential things a player can do (or not do, depending). No game should be a Swiss Army knife, constantly trying to do everything, as that sounds and feels desperate, like a child begging a parent to pay attention to them. Don’t be a desperate designer. 
Likewise, don’t swing the pendulum the other way and over-specialize. Your game might do one thing well, it may have one or two strong building blocks at the base, but by no means is your game just about the rolling of dice or the playing of one specific card in one specific context is it? Yes, the game can be driven/railroaded towards that situation time and again, but there’s a decided lack of emotion and fun in always going back to rolling that die just because it’s the only part of the game that you know works. 
When talking and thinking about your game, those elements you get really excited about, or the ideas you want other people to be excited about should have mechanics. Also, if your game is “about” something, that “about”ness should be mechanized too. It’s really hard to have a game where players are police who catch robbers if there’s no way for them to find and/or catch robbers. 
But how much is too much? Does EVERYTHING need a rule? No. You have to let the game be collaborative, remember? You have to trust those GMs and players to take what you’ve given them, and use it their way…so long as their way doesn’t absolute ruin your intention…but if it does, so what? You cannot ultimately control that. All you can do is provide them a skeleton with some meat on the bones, and it’s up to them to Frankenstein it to life.
Your best mechanics should be the clearest to understand, not the most convoluted. And you should be able to distill explanations of mechanics down to easy-to-grasp sentences. To practice this (and develop the critical skill of being able to explain your game), get that legal pad again, and write out first the mechanic and then an explanation.

It might look like this:


* Roll Fudge Dice and add your [Attribute] to the result.
* Roll Fudge Dice and count the plusses. To this number, add your [Attribute] score. The end number is the number used for [whatever mechanical issue we’re talking about].
Or maybe this:

*Roll d100, subtract X% for difficulty.
* A percentile die is rolled, and from the result a penalty is assessed. The result is the percent chance of [whatever mechanical issue we’re talking about]
Yes, it’s going to be clunky if you’re new to thinking this way. Yes, it’s not going to be pretty writing. But that’s why the world has editors (Hello. My 2012 calendar open, and we should talk.) But just like all your other favorite skills and habits, you got better at it over time with practice. 
Mechanics are dictated by the story and they also dictate the story ahead. The GM will take the players through the imagined/created story and at some point will turn to the mechanics because the story got them there. If we’re telling the story of conquistadors encountering natives, then at some point, we’re likely going to have mechanical instances of combat. The story has brought the players and GM to that experience, and the mechanics will walk us through the parts of the experience where chance/risk/luck/The Force plays a role.  
Also, the resolution of those mechanical situations will shape the story going forward. In the above conquistadors versus natives example, if the conquistadors get walloped by the indians, then the story will advance differently than if both parties fought to a standstill or if one side ran away. The story will ALWAYS move forward, it may not move forward in a way that you or the GM intended. But adaptability is a good thing. Both designer and GM need some amount of adaptability in their thinking, because it will have profound and positive impacts on the experience of play. (Note: If the game is supposed to have a certain situation go a specific way, it should be narrative, not mechanical)
We end now with the top of the pyramid.
Part III: Theme/Setting
I’ve talked previously about finding your theme. You’re going to want to do that exercise now before going further. Now let’s look at what the theme can do. 
Theme and Setting (which is the theme objectified) are where the meal that is your emotion and mechanics are eaten. Up until this point, your game is nebulous and can occur anywhere. This is where you place a firm stamp on where the game occurs, how it occurs and to a deeper level, why it must occur. 
A game’s setting dictates parameters for the players. A game that occurs in 1492 won’t have planes in it. A game that occurs in deep space likely won’t have American politics at its core. The setting gives you a playground to explore, and the mechanics are the swingset thereupon. The theme is the…lax supervision that allows you to run from the slide to the monkey bars and tease that one kid for his pants falling down. (Not that I’m bitter about my pants falling down, but I was sensitive and stuck on those damn bars for five minutes until you were done laughing) Theme cooperates with emotion you want to express to cohere the mechanics and setting together into a game
Likewise theme gives you a different axis of parameters for players. A “serious thrilling” game should not have too many moments of slapstick humor. A “fun rainy day” board game should not result in arguments about the nation’s death penalty. Codifying and expressing your theme are critical if you want your game to feel unified. 
Note: We’re going to talk more about this soon
But that’s enough for now. Happy writing.

More Game Design Goodies: A B structure

I originally taught this with note cards, but have found you can also do this in two columns on a piece of paper. Designate one column (or card) ‘A’ and the other ‘B’.  (Or some cards ‘A’ and some ‘B’) Put them aside.

Now, the theory – for creating shorter (and slightly more intensive) direct experiences, there is a basic mechanic at work. It can be expressed and explained in three variations. I will detail them below.

Note: All of these can situationally operate ‘backwards’ as B:A B/A and B-A

A / B
Here we have two tracks of action, an A and B, and they work oppositionally. Time is not necessarily a factor here, but this is best expressed as ‘nearly simultaneous’. Conceptually, this means that while A acts, so does B. While the good guys act, so do the bad guys. Their agendas need not mesh, although at some point, they should intersect (at plot climax ideally). This setup works best in larger scale campaigns, where players (often A) can operate under a wide variety of designs and are only vaguely aware of B’s actions. (If that is the case, this is called a ‘Blind A’ or ‘Blind B’ scenario). Taken a step further, you may even withhold the existence of the one side from the other, although that tends to rob the players of the satisfaction of knowing the stakes they face and therefore projecting possible reward/praise.

Note: The majority of game experiences fall under ‘Blind A’ conditions, as the party operates mostly unaware of what their foes are directly doing (even though they might know about the goals). 

A:B
This is more a traditional cause-and-effect situation, and is stated as “If A, therefore B” In this case, A and B need not be opposing sides, they could be action and consequence, move and counter-move, or any like-bonded pair. The majority of two player board games operate under this theory. (If he moves his pawn, I will move my knight — if the rogue checks for traps, I will guard the door, etc) In multiplayer contexts, this serves a lot masters – individual characters follow cause-and-effect, players have an expectation of having their actions ‘A’ have in-world consequences ‘B’, and NPCs assume that ‘B’ is the reward for their plot. In this model, the tension surrounding “what will happen next” serves the desire to move things forward, as players will naturally want to know “what happens next”. 

A-B (-C)
This is the most open-ended and often most subtle expression of the structure, and is stated as ‘A to B‘. This is not a direct relationship (that’s A:B), this is more about the option of the path from one item to the next. In a linear context, this is going from a quest giver to a location, or moving from one room to the next. What is not stated here is ‘C’, which is often defined as a larger goal (clear out the dungeon, win the election, do my errands, etc) and that ‘A’ and ‘B’ are items on a to-do list or instructional template that lead towards C’s realization. 

Now, let’s see how they all blend together. Let’s assume you have two players (the actual number doesn’t matter), and that you’re starting them in a room with a body.

1. Two players are in a room, with a body. (It is natural that they will want to explore/examine both the room and the body, although more likely the body, as they will assume it possesses more potential) [A-B]
2. Two players will speculate as to who they are and why they are here [A:B]
3. While this is occurring, the world exists OUTSIDE this room [A/B]
4. The players will discover some plot elements (they have to, else the game stalls out) [B:A]
5. The players must cooperate to leave the room [A-B]

Ideally yes, the whole game should blend together these elements on a moment-by-moment scale, and yes, in theory you should be able to chart the ‘beats’ (the scenes, the ‘things’) by this shorthand. 

Now as an overall game experience, we can see a larger A and B relationship. In two-session play, the first session is ‘A’, and the second ‘B’. The variation in relationship is dependent upon the way the sessions link together, which is an expression of the desired plot (either via game or via GM). Likewise, you may designate the players ‘A’ and the antagonist ‘B’ and determine their relationship accordingly. Going further, you may see all PCs (heroes and villains) as ‘A’ and the world they operate in as ‘B’. 

Return to your paper or note cards. On ‘A’ list the appropriate beats or characters. Number them as well, so that you can cross reference. Do the same for ‘B’. See below

A
1. The players are in a room with a body
2. Gary, player #1, has an Aspect of ‘Don’t Take Me For Granted’
3. The villain buys the election.

B. 
1. The players must cooperate to escape.
2. Engineer the situation so that Gary is compelled.
3. Therefore, he’s set to become comptroller in two months. 

(Using note cards is easier, since you can create note card pairs like A-1 & B-1, but side-by-side columns are effective if you have space for them)


In game design (as in storycraft of a novel) you should be able to chart out even the most open-ended experiences (hi Skyrim!) because the opportunities need not be linear, but they can be plotted (If the story/characters go to Location #1, that’s an A:B, at Location #19 that’s B-A).


I hope this sets some creative fires burning.


Happy writing.


Note: I realize that I make use of the term “beats” so perhaps I’ll do a second post about what those beats are….