Explosions, tiny vodka bottles, and sand: What Lost’s pilot shows us about structure and timing, part 1


(photo credit: NY Observer)

With the news that Hulu acquired Lost, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs, I thought it would be interesting to crack open one of their pilots to see what we can find about story development and craft. I chose Lost because it’s a really meaty two-parter, and it’s got more moving parts narratively. Also, it’s easier to breakdown than a cartoon, because I can’t always translate sight gags or cartoon physics into text in a better way than just showing you the clip.

Let’s start with what Lost means to me. The first season in particular holds a very strange but unique place in my mind, as it was one of 4 shows (Rubicon, Rome, and Cosmos being the others) my father and I watched together. This didn’t happen very often, as we seldom agreed on entertainment and just about any discussion of a show devolved into an argument about how I was somehow wrong or a disappointment.

For whatever reason, Lost was different. I think it was the early commercials for it, but something made us both say, “Yeah, let’s give that a try” so we scheduled ourselves a weekly appointment to be civil to each other and watch the show. I have to tell you – I liked that. My dad is a lot of things, and some of those things I don’t agree with, but I did like the fact that we had this show. And the show’s first season was good for us too. It didn’t have all the later drama or time travel or weirdness, and it told a pretty interesting story about people in a strange place all sort of bound together. It was Robinson Crusoe with just enough “Oh that’s interesting” to keep us paying attention.

Later seasons didn’t hold us though. My dad checked out I think at the end of season 2, and I stopped just before the final season, reading about the ending and feeling like bailing out early was the right move if I wanted to preserve the memory of the first season with my dad.

So what I’m asking you to do is put aside all the stuff we know about the later seasons. Let’s just look at this like we’ve put the television on for the premiere, and we’re gonna cover both parts here. If you want to watch along with this post (which you totally should), I’ve timestamped paragraphs as we go.

NOTE: Given the sheer amount of narrative stuff there is to talk about here, I’m stopping this post at about the [05:00] mark of the show. And then we’ll do the next few blogposts to cover the rest of the two-part pilot.

[00:03] Yeah, I’m starting with the title. The title of any story is either going to convey information (Old Man and the Sea is about an old guy and the water), context (Star Wars is about a war among stars), or as in this case theme. Lost is about people who are, well, lost.

[00:15] Eye opening. Like we literally open the show on an eye opening. I’ve talked before about how the first character introduced in a story is who the audience is going to associate with and attach to until given someone else, and the intimacy here (I mean we’re all up in this dude’s face) gives us very little doubt as to who this character is to us – he’s our protagonist. With television being a visual medium, we don’t need to write paragraphs describing the state of him in any way greater than just what the camera means to show us – the eye – and if you want to keep up the idea that “the sentences and paragraphs are your camera“, then you’d probably want to avoid eating up that first page by talking about the weather or the trees if you want to prioritize the connection the audience has to our protagonist. We’re zoomed in, we connect, and we follow along.

[00:20] A quick word here that the second shot we see we an establishing shot of the bamboo and flora of wherever we are. It’s shot from the eye’s perspective – we’re seeing what the eye sees, we’re the eye – so we’re reinforcing that relationship between the character and the audience. This is deliberate, and it’s going to reinforce the emotional, the what-are-we-supposed-to-feelness of the moment. In paragraph form, here’s where you get to go all hogwild about what’s around the character. Do up the weather, and the immediate visuals, all that. BUT no, you don’t get to move the focus away from answering the question: “If (the reader) was laying there in place of the character and didn’t move their head, what would they see or experience?” Not moving the head is the biggie here in what would be the writing of this. If we want to preserve the closeness of audience to character, we can’t move until the character does, and the camera’s only going to follow the character’s lead, not the other way around. That’s an important lesson, so let’s repeat it – you’re developing what the camera sees, so it’s important to figure out if the camera follows the character’s lead or if the character follows the camera.

Let’s go sidebar on this:

You’ll want some examples. The camera follows the character’s lead when a sentence contains an idea of what the character is doing, and then the next sentence continues to develop what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl walked across the cold floor. He tried not to step on any of the toys his daughter left out last night. (We get the picture of where and how Darryl is walking)

The character follows the camera when a subsequent sentence creates an opportunity rather than describe what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl was very proud of his acrobatics and was ready to silently cheer his good fortune with a fresh cup of whatever garbage coffee his girlfriend left in the apartment. The ringing phone stopped the celebration. (Here we develop Darryl’s feelings and even given him a little personal history, only to cut away from Darryl to draw focus to a ringing phone. With it ringing, it’s taking our attention and creating an opportunity for Darryl to do something – answer it.)

[01:25] Our unnamed protagonist has seen a dog and now stands up. This is important because now the camera moves back to establish context. We’re still invested in this character, so we no longer need to come back to his direct view (we’re not all up in his eye, seeing what he sees). We’re just about 90 seconds into the show, so if we’re saying X number of seconds is a paragraph, I figure we’re about 4-6 paragraphs in, and if we’re doing that publishing thing where the first page doesn’t start until the halfway point on the paper, then maybe we’ve turned the page in our paperback. This tracking isn’t as hard and fast like it is in screenwriting (1 page to 1 minute), but it’s worth having a clock in your head when you’re trying to figure out how long to spend on describing something before moving on.

[01:33] Hey look, a tiny vodka bottle.

[02:08] There’s a quick shot of a shoe hanging in a tree. This is an ‘establishing detail’ and we’re seeing it so that we know there’s a greater, stranger, somehow dangerous context to expect. Establishing details add or confirm context.

[02:26] Okay, there’s a weird camera move that I need to point out. The camera circles clockwise away from the protagonist, so that we keep the shot of the clear beach in frame. We juxtapose the empty beach with the woman screaming to set up some kind of incongruity between the two. The problem here is that our protagonist started on our right and is now on our left, turning left, so when the camera moved, he actually moved backwards and away from us – like circling a chair to try and chase the dog only to have the dog slip past you on the turn. This move doesn’t help us make all the incongruity more jarring, it just leads us to wonder “why did we stop seeing what the protagonist sees?”

[02:36] Oh, that’s why, the reveal of the plan crash and wreckage and people was supposed to be a big “Oooh” moment. Except let’s look at the distance between our MC and the scene, he takes maybe half a dozen steps and he’s clearly smaller than a plane crash, so the previous camera move tells us … did he not notice the plane crash because he didn’t turn left?

[03:23] Hey look, it’s that guy from Lord of the Rings standing way too close to a jet turbine.

[03:40] Big giant establishing shot of the plane crash. Also, I’m glad I paused it here because sweet Luther Vandross am I glad for the silence from Maggie Grace’s screaming. The importance of this shot is to highlight the physical hazards as well as the calamity of the scene. It’s dangerous, plane’s already a wreck, loads of people are hurt, and if that wing section comes off, people could be even more hurt. These are the stakes of the moment. We don’t really “know” any other characters and we don’t really have any framework for tying other ideas we have together, so we’re kept to this present moment where the plane crash is the biggest threat going.

[03:50] Now since the majority of writers tend to create stakes then want to create something smaller thereafter (to show that within this big deal there are a lot of little things going on, all cogs in some large danger machine), we cut to the guy pinned under part of the plane. He’s screaming for help, and before I get to the googling where I don’t think you’d be able to hear him over the sound of the turbine, but if we didn’t hear anything but the shrill whistle of a jet engine, the show would feel radically different, I need to point out the stacking stakes can work, and here’s an example.

Stacking stakes adds tension. There’s this plane crash and it’s a big deal but these localized elements of individual people and injuries help make the big thing feel even bigger without affecting the plane crash itself. They’re the effects of the crash but they’re the seeds of subsequent scenes and stories, causes that will later have their own effects. The plane crash is the first domino, even if it’s just a very big explodey domino.

[04:23] Ooh, a little blood.

[04:36] Our MC reveals some of his attitude and skills by dealing with the leg wound and then a pregnant girl, assigning her an aide, and getting her calmed down. If we’re on paper, I’m saying we’re at least 3 to 5 pages in, and we’re spending a lot of text showing context through sensory information – our MC looks overwhelmed, and were we there, we’d be overwhelmed, so we should convey overwhelmingness by taking about the sound and the sand and the screams and the blood and the whatever-else.

[05:06] The jet turbine explodes. Big huge moment, our protagonist tosses himself to shield the pregnant girl. This tells us a lot about his character.

So in the first 5 minutes what do we have? (not necessarily in this order)

  1. A male protagonist
    1. And we know he has
      1. Medical skills
      2. Courage
      3. Athleticism
  2. There’s a dog
  3. The guy from Lord of the Rings
  4. An Australian girl
    1. she’s pregnant
  5. Maggie Grace
    1. She’s screaming
  6. A plane crash
    1. A turbine
      1. It explodes!
  7. Lots of injured people
  8. Lots of people looking for other people
  9. A beach up against jungle
    1. Tropical
    2. Mountains in the distance

See you next week for more.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, structure, 1 comment

Thinking of a Scene In Paragraphs

(yes, this blogpost is going up ahead of Tuesday morning, but that’s because Tuesday is a travel day for me, and I won’t have internet access for 15+ hours of it)

Last week I did a tweetstorm about treating sentences like cameras.  Today on the blog I want to go into more detail about that, and show you want it actually looks like.

Yes, I understand that our particular writing styles and choices are going to be (and should be) different, but I’m hoping the point comes through to you all the same. I believe very strongly in the idea that you have a responsibility to put the clearest broadcast of your art into the mind of the other person and that no matter what your art is, it will be filtered and affected by not only your biases and experiences as a creator, but by the biases and experiences of the audience. The best way to pierce this chain mail of expectation and perception is through clearly getting the idea out and across.

Don’t confuse clarity for simplicity or brevity. You don’t need to be simple or brief to be clear. And don’t mistake this for an argument about having more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, because it isn’t. Show and tell work together as concepts to help deliver the art into the person’s head. But that’s for another tweetstorm and another blogpost.

While today I’m using a scene from a movie, for your own work, I want you to picture it as visually and completely in your head, as if you’ve paused it and like some bad CSI CG scenes, you can fully walk around and through it.

To start off today, we need a scene. Let’s go grab a screenshot from whatever I’m watching on Netflix.

We’re gonna use this one. I like this scene.

This is a moment in Rogue One that I particularly like, though I chose it for the combination of dialogue, numerous things in the frame to describe, and its staging.

To get you thinking like a camera, here’s how I teach it.

  1. Make an inventory of things (not characters) you want to definitely write about in the scene.
  2. Make a list of all the characters you want to write about in the scene.
  3. Make a list of actions that happen in the scene, paying attention to both who does what, but also the order in which these actions happen.
  4. Make a list of stakes, goals, and things risked in the scene
  5. Make a list of all expectations each character in the scene.
  6. Write the scene.

Now if that sounds like I’m asking a lot of you for simple paragraphs, I don’t mean it to. But for those of you who have never done it like this, or you’re looking for a better road map so that you can better at it, I’m purposefully breaking the list out so you see how these things weave together to build something narratively sound.

Inventory of non-character things

This is objects in the scene that aren’t people. These can be the things held by people, but they’re also things like what’s in the background or furniture or the ground. Just so that there’s no confusion about my handwriting, here’s what that inventory would look like typed out.

Not a complete list, but it works for the example

Remember, these notes are just for me as the writer. No one’s going to check them out, and really I’m writing them down to keep myself on track as to what I definitely want to say either as components of a sentence or as a sentence entire.

No, the order I write this list in doesn’t matter, and no, the order I write them in doesn’t translate into the order I’ll write about them in the text. I’m just making a list, stop overthinking it.

List the characters

Again, just a list, no special order or attention. The paragraphs and the choices I make about how to write it will dictate where I put attention. Right now, I’m just corralling all the possible beings I could talk about.

I’m sure each trooper has a name, but this is my example. You go do your own.

It’s worth pointing out here that you can do this list before the item list. The order isn’t super critical, so long as by the time you get to the writing, you’ve got all the components organized. I tend to do the item list first, because I tend to skip over things in early drafts and don’t like having the “why did I leave this out” conversation with myself during later drafts.

Some of you are thinking, “Is it just a list of names?” and no, it doesn’t have to be. It can be whatever character associated information you need or want, but since this particular example scene happens well into the movie, let’s assume I’ve already covered the physical descriptions and traits elsewhere.

If this were the intro-to-the-characters scene (and you can argue that this moment in Rogue One is, but you’ve previously seen Chirrut one scene prior), then I’d attach to each item in the list a descriptor or two so that I can establish the details about the characters when they come up.

List the actions

Now that we have all the physical objects of the scene listed, we can figure out what’s going on with them. In a scene, nothing happens without affecting the time and space around it, and nothing happens that doesn’t somewhere have a documentable reaction.

I’ll break that down. If you’re going to have a character do something, the world around him and the characters around him will react in some way, even if that reaction is “nothing changes because of what’s happened.”

For instance, if the Hulk throws a building at you, presumably you’d be crushed by the building and the space where the building was would no longer have a building in it.

Actions are about what happens and what results because of the things that happen

I tend to write this inventory in the order I want the events to happen in the scene. This is the first time I start making decisions about the structure, since the later items on the six-part list will cover things like tone and atmosphere.

What this does not mean is that the first things listed will naturally take more focus or line-space than the later things. In every paragraph in a scene there’s at least one key piece of information that you want to get across to the reader. In this case it’s the Chirrut dialogue and the fact he just straight walks out among them.

The second item “no one shoots him” is a reaction to something else that happens in the scene. Reactions are actions too, so don’t exclude them. I’m sure someone will say they should go on their own list, and yes, I can see how that helps, but action and reaction will likely end up being their own blogpost, so for now, let’s stay on what we’re doing.

Stakes, goals, and things risked

For the next two items on the list, we have to get past the physical objects of the scene and look at the emotions and psychology of the moment. No one walks into a scene without having a goal and risking something to get that goal. No one gets out of a scene without some element(s) of the scene affecting them. Characters take their past forward, every time.

Every character or group of characters has a goal.

I know expectations are the next thing on the list, but don’t include the expectations into this list. Goals are objective, expectations aren’t. A goal of “I want a sandwich” is impacted by the expectation that I have the means to make a sandwich. Actions are bred more from expectations than goals, since they’re more immediate and more variable.

So why don’t expectations go first in our list? Because stakes are derived based on the situation and goal(s) colliding, which means expectations are the character’s assessment of how likely the goal is based on the situation.

What we choose as the goal is part of the overall character arc, since no arc is introduced and resolved in a single scene or beat. And yes, every character has a goal, even if they go unstated at a particular point in the story.


Expectations are subjective because they’re the factor in character development where the skills and perceived risks come into play. I might be a fantastic golfer (skill) but I’m not sure I could play my best when my clubs are made of snakes (perceived risk), so my expectation might be that I won’t win the championship in this snake golf tournament.

Here in my Rogue One example, I’m going to make a clear decision as to what the scene is about based on what expectations I list and which ones I don’t.

Expectations shape actions because they’re the fluid influencers to achieve fixed goals

Write the Scene

Armed with all these pieces, we can write a scene.

The smoke and dust had barely settled when his voice filled the post-explosion silence. 

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me. And I fear nothing.”

Odd, thought Stormtrooper C, that this blind man, this blind fool, could just walk into this moment, his moment, and start yapping. So he watched. 

Chirrut moved in a balletic way, The soft footfalls and the crunch of gravel and sand underscored the sort of grace that stood against the explosion. There were still the smells of burning concrete and flesh. But Chirrut seemed to not notice. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on. 

And no one seemed to fire on him. It would make sense to, to flood the air with blaster fire and turn this blind fool into swiss cheese. But no one did. Not C with all his bravado. Not B with her itchy trigger finger. Not A with their eagerness to please. 

There was just this guy, standing there, talking at them.

It’s not a great moment when I write it out. It’s an example, and I could do a lot more visually with it. I could frame the explosion while slowing down time. I could take more space to talk about C and B and A individually.

There are loads of choices to make, and that’s one thing I want you to remember – the decisions you make matter.

Practice this. Watch things. Pause it and try to describe it in whatever way you’d rewrite it.


Happy writing


Posted by johnadamus in character stuff, check this out, step by step, storycraft, structure, the craft of writing, 1 comment

The Hustle, 2016 edition

Good morning, welcome to Friday. I think were I a wacky morning zoo radio DJ, this is where I’d play some sound effects and then tell you the time, temperature, and traffic. Let’s all be thankful I’m not a DJ and get down to business.

We’re going to talk hustle today. Not the dance, I mean the Rocky chasing chickens, training montage, people doing stuff and getting stuff done hustle. WordPress was being pissy today, otherwise you’d be seeing images not just text right here.
So let’s define “the hustle” as all the things you’re doing to get better at being the best creative you can be while accomplishing your goal. That includes writing regularly. That includes blogging often. That includes … I don’t know, making sure you knit or paint or seed torrents everyday.
The goal, whatever it is, is where we’re going to start today. You need a goal.
There needs to be something driving your creative efforts. Maybe you’re trying to get a book written or published. Maybe you’re writing a script and aiming to get on the Blacklist. Maybe you’re trying to get a business off the ground. Maybe you want to be a wacky morning zoo radio DJ.
Without a clear goal, your efforts don’t have a trajectory – you’re just sort of doing stuff while time ticks by. Sure, things get done, but there’s that “why am I doing this” question hanging around.

What’s your goal? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Picking that goal, if you haven’t already, is one of those simultaneously simple and scary decisions to make, like when you decide that Taco Bell is a good choice for lunch, or when you decide to call your aunt to see how she’s doing.
The lure of the goal is the end result. If I do all this writing and revising and querying, I’ll have a published book when all’s said and done. If I do a little coding, I can set up a website.
But there’s a trap with goals. It’s a trap of perspective and it’s one I fall into a lot, so let me pry my leg loose and tell you about it.
Yes, sure we can all set a goal. But is that goal set because you can reach it or because you want people to see you reaching it? What’s your reason for doing whatever it is you want to do? Want to see your book on a shelf? Want to earn enough money to take a vacation? Want to get over your fear of weasels? Those are goals for you, based on your own wants and thoughts. There’s this danger though, and I know it well, that you can set up a goal so that someone else will come along and tell you that you’re so brave or good or strong. And you keep at it, because as you work on it, they keep praising you. And there’s nothing wrong with praise. But (and here’s the tough part) some of that praise has to come from within you. You have to love what you do and like doing it and enjoy doing it even if no one sees you doing it.

Yeah, I know, it can suck sometimes.

I’m right there with you on getting my internal I’m-good-enough motor to kick over.
I’m saying that not because I want you to tableflip and walk off, but because part of the hustle is being honest and clear in your efforts. It’s not a bad idea to open a business selling socks, but it might be beyond your scope to start a business where you put all other sock makers out of business. There’s this concept called “target focus” at work here.
Target focus is seeing the small goal(s) within the larger one, and working to accomplish them, while realizing that you’re also accomplishing the larger goal.
Think of a marathon runner. There’s 26 miles to run from start to finish. That 26 seems huge and maybe that makes the runner worry about sore legs or blisters. But, if they think about just running that first mile, then another, then another, a mile at a time, the marathon gets done. They complete the marathon (the goal they set out to do), but there were smaller targets along the way that got done. And each target completed gave them a little momentum and incentive to keep going.
Take that goal, and break it down. What smaller targets can help you build to the larger one? I want to clean a room, I can stare at the voluminous mess and feel overwhelmed or I can quadrant off the room and work in 2 square feet of space at a time until I’ve finished. Or I can do one pass through the mess to collect all the laundry, and a separate pass to pick up all the books off the floor. There’s no wrong way to make targets.

A target is defined by:
a) A practical simplicity that advances you to completing the bigger goal
b) It’s something you can do that is actively productive

That (b) part is critical, and I was hesitant to talk about it until recently. Because anyone can take a goal and break it into pieces, but you can break pieces down again and again until you’ve sucked the effort and challenge out of them, until they’re inert. It might look like you’re doing something, but you’re not making a lot of headway. That lack of measurable progress can lead you to frustration.

Go back to that messy room. I can clean in 2 foot squares, which might be physically taxing or time consuming or I could at each pass, just pick up one piece of paper at a time and throw it out. I’d be here cleaning all day. Sure, I’m making progress, but I’ve slowed down to the point where it’s almost not seriously going to matter. And moving towards your goal should matter. You should want to accomplish your goal, for you, for your own reasons.

I say that as someone who knows what it’s like to set a HUGE goal that generates a lot of buzz, and then feel overwhelmed and undermotivated to go accomplish it. Maybe undermotivated isn’t the right word, so let’s pick a new one … how about terrified? Terrified of failing, terrified of succeeding, terrified of discovering I’m either good or not good at it … just plain scared to make progress.

Setting target helps. You can reach targets. Targets are realistic and not scary, they’re activities that happen every day. Set targets that have a bit of challenge, but that you can do. It’s not being anti-ambitious, it’s tempering that super-ambition down to a practical level. So that shit gets done. Try it, let me know how it works for you.

Geared up with a good goal and a motivation to do it, targets focused on, we get to the obvious yet not-obvious part of the hustle: <strong>you actually have to do whatever it is you want to do</strong>. If you want to be someone who makes soap, you have to make soap.

Here we find all kinds of distractions. The Internet. Relationships. Other goals. That whole stupid part where you have bills and taxes. Day jobs. Pants.

Keep that goal and its targets in mind. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. The distractions will still be there for you to handle later, but when you’re on the hustle, when you’re being that creative doing that creative stuff, tell the distractions to wait outside.

I know, I know, some of that stuff doesn’t feel like a distraction. You need that Spotify playlist so you can write. You need your coffee. You need to make sure the dog has water. You just need to check one more thing. You say that’s not a distraction, you just need to be doing it instead of hustling towards your goal. (Feel free to repeat this paragraph out loud a few times, I’ll wait.)

You’re not working in a vacuum. Unlike Matt Damon, you haven’t been stranded on Mars. There are interruptions. That phone’s gonna ring. The kids are gonna need something. The dog has to go out. Yes, there are things that are going to break your momentum.
Let me give you a tool for getting back to hustling after you take a break (either intentionally or not). This is what I do, maybe it’ll work for you.
You’re going to come back to your work after whatever paused it, and you’re going to picture, in your head, in as much detail as you can give a single snapshot, your goal being accomplished. See that book on the shelf. See your foe vanquished at your feet. See the Kickstarter funded. See the yolk not breaking when you flip your eggs. Get that in your head, then count to 10. Then push yourself into work.
You can get the momentum back. Really. You just need to push. And that push (I don’t have a fancy term for it, if you have one, tell me) takes energy, force of will, whatever you want to call it. But you’ve got your goal in mind, right, so getting back to work is what’s going to make that goal a reality.
You lose the momentum, you lose that vector, you get it back. Trip, fall, get back up again. There’s no penalty for however many times you stop, stall, stutter, tumble, break down, pause, uhh, or swear you’re going to give it up but keep going anyway. You’re not a bad creative because you didn’t do whatever you’re doing in one super long productive period. You’re not a bad creative because you tried and failed and then had to try again.
The important thing is that you got back up and tried again. That you put your fingers back on the keys. That you didn’t just close the laptop and say you were right all along about never getting your dream made.

Get back to work. Hustle. Make it happen.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, believe in yourself, check this out, follow me on Twitter, get help if you need it, HAM, just write the f--king thing, keep writing, leveling up, living the dream, make time to create, motivation, pretty cool realization, realtalk, scary, seize the minutes, structure, what to do about doubt, 0 comments

Writer, Why Are You Doing That?

I’ve been away for the weekend, part of a new regimen of relaxation and de-stressing, trying to get (and keep) my blood pressure down. It seems to be working, and in general, I’m finding my weekends a lot more happy and pleasant, doing everything from brunches with new friends to leisurely game playing or even deep conversations.

The upside is that my BP is down ten to twenty points over the last week or so, and I’m sleeping better and generally embracing more of life. The downside? I come home to a crowded inbox of 300+ new messages, all in various states of update, panic or frustration. Usually pruning this inbox down calls for a ginger ale or strong cup of tea, and leads to quite a few tweets:


Not pictured: The loud sigh that accompanies writing the tweets

Not pictured: The loud sigh that accompanies writing the tweets


It’s not that I dislike talking to writers, quite the opposite in fact. I love talking to writers, and we’re not even counting the ego stroke reasons that come from making a living giving advice. Helping someone do something better, especially in those cases where what they’re doing excites some deep passion, is gratifying. Not unlike good ice cream, kissing or catching Murder She Wrote on television.

But there are times where setting writers straight, addressing issues, putting out fires, assessing professional damage and generally laying down a little smack is tiring. And grating. And draining. I have no kids, but I have to liken part of this feeling to what a parent feels when they tell a child for the umpteenth time to do something. Yes, okay, they protest, but way down the road, some time in the nebulous future, they’re going to be thankful for having that knowledge help them. Cleaning your room sucks when you’re ten, but when you’re 35 with many rooms to tidy, you’re thankful you know how.

So too it sucks when you’re a new writer and you’re trying to figure out your way in the wild world of writing. There are so many blogs to read, so many books to digest, so many “experts” all giving you advice that seems to vary based on everything from the number of books they’ve sold to the size of their social-media-credentials-slash-genitals. Unfortunately, there’s no codified set of things to do or read when you get started. And depending on the crowd around you when you start, you might mature as a writer in a fearful way, that you need constantly check some website for good and bad people because the world is full of thieves and con artists. Or maybe you never really mature because you get caught up in some petty social politicking on a message board that wants to talk more about sales than finishing products. Or maybe you deify a writer because their blog is pretty or because they curse or because they have some graphics in the margins, but you’re quick to knock them off that pedestal when you find new and conflicting information. All of these things are possible. As I write this, I’m thinking of writers who range from really great to really great-at-perpetuating-excuses-and-horsefeathers.

I don’t know where you are in your progression. I don’t know if you’re new or if you’ve been writing forever and a day. I don’t know what you write, how you publish or why you do what you do. Regardless, I want to break out the stop sign and slow the race down under caution (that’s the yellow flag, yes?) because of some behaviors I’ve seen.

Yes haters are gonna hate. Not everyone’s going to like what you write. It’s not bad. Some people will rationalize this as “you know you’re doing it right when people hate your work” and others will say you haven’t “made it” until you get opposition. Personally I lean more towards the first even if I think you can still be doing it wrong AND get negative people talking. And no, I don’t know if they’re hating YOU for being able to do something they wish they could (jealousy) or if what you’re writing is actually a bucket of mediocre-at-best wordspew. Chances are that yes, it’s a little of both. Chances are that people are jealous AND you could be producing better stuff.

But does it really matter? Is it insecurity that makes you need everyone to love you? Fear that if one person doesn’t like your work, no one will? Not everyone is going to like what you’re doing. And they won’t like it for reasons as varied as they are: you curse, you don’t curse, you use too many commas, your character doesn’t do what they expect or want them to do, you take liberties with things that really annoy them, etc etc. Who knows and who cares. YOUR writing isn’t about THEIR praise, is it? (Remember that praise is a consequence of good work and talent)

So let’s assume you’re writing, and that you finish a thing, then you send it off to whoever. Let’s call them Jane Doe. Your book has been written on lunch breaks and weekends and late nights and in coffee shops and at your kitchen table. You really tried your best to tell a story and you fought back the sea of doubts that kept you from finishing it. And you package it up all pretty and write a doozy of a query letter. And Jane rejects it. You get a nice rejection letter that may or may not have some ink-scribbled notes on it. If you get rejected, don’t take it out on the person who rejected you.

You can totally hate the system. You can think it’s elitist, exclusionary, sexist, bigoted, biased, dull, unimaginative or whatever. You can say that it’s outdated, perpetuating a model of success predicated on scarcity as to perpetuate their own jobs. None of that changes the fact that your work wasn’t what someone was looking for. You can be angry, hurt, upset, disappointed, or shocked. You can mourn the lack of success. But don’t think that if you track down your rejector’s website, social media accounts or personal information, that you can make your displeasure felt and somehow Jane Doe will totally publish your work once you threaten to publish their home address and phone number. Getting your work published is NOT a hostage negotiation. You don’t get to blackmail or bully people to get your way. It’s not personal. It’s business. And remember, 50% of the process involves you having produced a thing, so don’t forget to look in that half of the equation when you’re trying to figure out what’s wrong. (Hiring an editor is a good thing to help clarify)

Now, maybe Jane Doe rejected you, and your threw yourself a Sucks-A-Lot party. Once you’re done pulling streamers down off the furniture, it’s time to send your work out again. This time, you find Sarah PlainandTall who could read your work. You check out her website and she’s got something called “Submission Guidelines“, and maybe you think ‘Guidelines are suggestions’. Submission guidelines are RULES, not suggestions. They cover everything from what font to put your document in to margins to size of piece and other similar details. Send out something that doesn’t mesh with the guidelines, chances are it won’t even get a rejection, it’ll just get chucked into recycling or sliced into shreds or cut into scrap pages for phone notes. Also, the guidelines aren’t to be selectively followed. You can’t skip number 3 and 9 just because they invalidate your work. You don’t get to pick and choose which rules you follow. If company or person X has guidelines you can’t meet, then find company or person Y instead. Following rules is a great way to make a good impression. Not following them is a great way to make a not-good impression, or validate any assumptions that you’re hard to work with.

In short: follow the guidelines, don’t take rejection personally, and don’t take your frustrations out on inappropriate targets.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in problem solving, structure, the process, 0 comments

Four Things To UnClog Stuck Scenes

Good morning everyone. I was almost about to blog about the chewing sense of paranoia and panic that’s in the middle of smacking me around this morning, but I’m just going to try and hold off the freakout a little while longer. Let’s talk writing.

You know those moments when you’re writing, and everything’s going so well – the dialogue is snappy, the action makes sense and it doesn’t feel like a chore to make the words or the ideas – but then, for whatever reason, you slow down or take your foot off the metaphorical gas pedal for a second and then the whole creative machine seizes up? You didn’t mean to stop, you didn’t mean to break the flow of whatever you’re making, it just sort of did, and now you’re staring at a gap in activity that seems to be growing and growing with each fraction of a second you stare at it. But, for whatever reason, you’ve gotten inside your own head a little and you can’t get back to the scene or that moment or worse, that feeling of easy creation.

Putting it frankly, that sucks. Hard. A lot. Mucho.

For this post, I want you to picture yourself at that spot. I don’t know if you actually are there, or if you’re always worried you could get there at any second, but I want you to imagine you’re there now. Now picture me in the room with you, only we’ve dispensed with any commentary I make about how you don’t have a place for me to sit, or how I don’t like the paint or the walls or how I thought you’d be nicer in person. Skip that, and park me in a chair next to you. No, imaginary me doesn’t care if you’re wearing pants or not. Imaginary me isn’t wearing them either.

When we first get to this stuck moment, we have one binary choice – write or not write. If we decide to write, we’re going to need to get over this gap and regain the momentum and that sense of “Yeah I can do this.” (I’d aim to get the confidence back before we get words on paper, although there’s something to be said for the idea that words on paper breed confidence). If we decide not to write, well then you’re going to have to entertain imaginary me, and that guy is one picky sonofabitch. You better prepare a lap dance or some sandwiches or a string of amusing videos or something.

Let’s assume that you decide to write, because maybe you didn’t shave your legs today or because these are your comfiest not-pants or because you don’t have a lap dance playlist handy at a moment’s notice.

Here then are four questions you can ask about the current scene you’re writing-and-then-got-stuck-on that can unstick you.

A note: These questions work best when you’re not holding onto the current scene in a stranglehold so tight that you’re unwilling to change what you’ve just put down on the page. Be willing to change it. I’m not saying what you have on the page isn’t awesome, but you’re stuck, so maybe that awesome needs a tweak or two. 

Q1: What’s something you can impair, change, take away, or damage about the protagonist in this scene? This question looks at action beats and changing the status quo of the writing. One of the reasons people stall while writing is that they get too far removed between “something happening”, and the story becomes this drawn out line that sags between two points. No matter how great the poles are that hold up this line, if the distance between poles is so great, the line’s gonna sag. Prop it up and keep the line taut with action beats. And for my liking, there’s nothing like the action beat that takes something away from the protagonist. It makes their effort tougher, but also their reward sweeter when they overcome additional adversity. Can you get them beat up by the antagonist’s goons? Maybe break a bone or two? How about they lose a crucial piece of information before they had time to memorize it or write it down? Adversity makes for interesting story friction and enough friction builds fires to keep a story burning. Or something. I’m still working on the fire analogy. Just know that in order to make pearls, you have to start with an irritating grain of sand.

Q2: Who’s gonna care about whatever just happened in the scene/moments before you got stuck? Sometimes we get stuck in parts of stories because things are boring. This is why we don’t often see parts of chapters detailing things like characters brushing their teeth or cleaning their bathrooms or cleaning out the crumbs from their toaster. These details usually aren’t terribly relevant to anything, and while they’re interesting, they’re only interesting in the very short term, like picturing James T Kirk flossing or Han Solo brushing lint off his pants. Yeah, these things happened, but do we need to know about it? Also, leaving in details that are ultimately insignificant and lacking payoff creates story congestion, which can bloat and slow down the pacing and bring even the most tense moments to a neutered payoff. So when I ask “Who’s gonna care?” I’m asking to see the relevance between the moment you just wrote and either the current plot of the story or the development of the character in a greater sense. Does the moment help? Does it demonstrate something new or develop something we already know about the character? Sure, flossing is great and all, but what does it help us know or know more about?

Q3: At what cost does the protagonist succeed in this scene? Success can be boring. I’ll say that a different way: Success without difficulty or effort IS boring. If I don’t have to work for something, if I don’t break a sweat doing something, why wouldn’t you assume I can do whatever it is all the time and that it’s likely not worth talking about? Think about conversations with your friends. Do you talk about the stuff like how you yet again successfully walked across a room? No, you talk about the time you stepped on some LEGO in the middle of the night and now you’re pretty sure that block is embedded in your flesh. The cost of success makes the success compelling. Maybe your protagonist is a cop who has to destroy some police records in order to prove her worth to the guy who knows where the killer is going to strike next. Maybe your protagonist has to fake being another gender in order to even spend time with the person they actually do love? The cost of success early in a story shouldn’t be so great that the end of the story becomes impossible, but just like driving down the highway – there are tolls, and while we don’t like them, we pay them. Unless you’re in a state without tolls, at which point, no one likes how smug you are about that.

Q4: What’s wrong with failing? Okay, so today I’m absolutely paranoid that nearly everyone I talk to or interact with hates me, and that the people I work with or for are going to fire me for reasons ranging from “we’ve never liked you” to “you suck at life”. Failure is embarrassing, sure, but let’s suppose everyone does hate me. Or worse, I get fired from all 26 of my current projects. Okay, that means this blog probably goes away, and I stop tweeting or Google-plus-ing (is there a word for that?), and that I likely stop going to the conventions that I do now. But I’m not dead. I would have to make new friends, find new jobs, and find new places to go. I’ve done that before, and could, if I had to, do it again. I just don’t want to. That’s how I’d describe failure today. It’s the worst case scenario socially, but not physically. It changes a lot about my circumstances, but little about my existence. There’s still food in the house. There’s still clothes in my closet. There’s still a made bed with fresh sheets in the bedroom. Should your protagonist fail along the way from Point A to Point B, what changes for them? If this fork in the road (or the next one, or the one six forks from now), goes in a different direction, but we still keep the same end goals or climax in mind, what’s different? That deviation breeds interest. Embrace it.

Are these the only cures covering that gap and getting back to writing? No. A lot of the gap is expectation and anticipation and anxiety about the perception of how and what you’re writing – if you’re writing “properly” or if what you’re writing is “any good” or if you’re “good enough to do this”. I don’t have four easy questions to ask when building bridges about that, because that’s what I have weekly therapy sessions about and that shit’s hardly ever easy.

I can’t say that I’ll get over this logjam of paranoia today. Maybe I’ll get some praise and it’ll ease up. Maybe I’ll just close Tweetdeck and Gmail for the day and just read some books or listen to music. It’s early yet, and my workload today is light – I’m waiting on writers to finish drafts pretty much until the end of this week and the beginning of next. (Yes, I realize this lack of stuff to do is likely at the heart of why I’m freaked out the world hates me, because I tend to judge my value to others based on the work I do for them)

To you, I say go write. Go challenge yourself. Go make something, and make hard decisions about it as you’re making it.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in revisiting an idea, scary, story repair, structure, 0 comments

The 9 Questions of Development

Good morning. I’m recovering from the crud of Dreamation, so while I currently sound like I’ve been gargling hot road tar and inhaling everything through a bus exhaust, I think it’s time to blog.

Now I should point that this is version 5.2 of the post what was going to go here, having laid out ideas for everything from “What an Empty Workshop Can Teach You” to “How Steak and Herbed Butter Tastes Better When You Tell Sad Stories” to “Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman Want To Help You Write.” They’d all be good, but then I read this post from Chuck.

Yes, it’s another Wendig post where I have a response. I’m sick, don’t pick on me. Chuck’s onto something here, but I want to take it, spin it a different way and give it a nice remix.

Step one, we need some music. Here, have some.

Step two, you’re going to need a plot and a main character. Nope, doesn’t matter what the plot is right now. Nope, doesn’t matter what main character it is. Male, female, alien, sentient raccoon, awful wrestler. Just get both of those things in your head. I should point out that if you’re not sure about either of your two choices, if you’re not sure you like either or both of them, these questions will help you.

Step three, we ask a trio of questions about the main character, to give us a baseline on them.

  1. What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about?
  2. What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead?
  3. What’s one experience that would make your character happy?

The breakdown –

What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about? I like this question going first because I don’t think we conceptualize our character’s fears that often, unless we’re going to tie it directly to the plot, and frankly that’s super lame. We’ve talked before about how the character has to be bigger and exist as more than just the rat in the maze that does the plot and then goes back to the cage. I think to some degree we can measure a character by the fears and the reactions to them, as well as the distance from them. It’s never made sense to me that you make a character afraid of something that never impacts them. (Being afraid of an asteroid hitting your planet when you’re telling a story about how you’re building a house doesn’t quite jive, because the scales are off – if you’re not going to be painting a picture of a web of insecurities, then you’re just eating page-space with material the reader can’t grab onto). Likewise, you need to know the circumstances of how that fear came around. Yes, I know, the character has that fear because you just gave it to them, but what’s a little vignette you can describe to illustrate it? Maybe it’ll come up in flashback, or you can reference it somehow, but it helps to know the origin points of things.

What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead? The “situation” might be an encounter with someone, but it might also be an emotional state or outcome. Exploring why they don’t want it to happen might be an exercise in avoidance, and it doesn’t have to be a sob story in the making, it can be played for comedy to some degree as well. But that space needs exploration. So too does the flipside: knowing how the character is trying to get away from that situation actively is going to inform a lot of what that character does and how you convey that to an audience.

What’s one experience that would make your character happy? I mean this in the big sense, not just how great it would be to have chocolate right now or how much they’d like a sandwich for lunch. Is there some event or action or thing they want to have happen? Is the bank not going to foreclose? Is the big work contract going to go through? Are they going to go on a second date? Now, it’s worth pointing out here that this might be the plot of the story, or even a subplot, but it doesn’t have to be.  Your character doesn’t have to search out this specific happy, it doesn’t have to be the driving force of the story, but put it out there somewhere in the story’s universe to satisfy your character.

Step four, we put those three ideas to the side, and we go look at the plot. (Don’t discard the above three questions, we’re going to use them in Step five)

  1. Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start?
  2. Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so?
  3. What’s lost in order to resolve the plot?

The breakdown –

Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start? Characters are built for growth and change. They exist in a world where they get challenged. They have a plot that tests them. They have a philosophy that gives them a sense of size outside of the confines of the particular plot, meaning they feel and behave like real people. If a character doesn’t change, then there’s no sense of accomplishment. Sure, they might have completed some tasks, but if you can’t point to a shift in their behavior or their thinking, those actions are meaningless. The character’s behavior intersects with the plot and creates moments of tension. Like the guy who does his best to stay out of trouble, only to find himself in deeper trouble and barely escapes. Or the character whose passions actually play a pivotal role in the story, but because of the story, he may regard them bitterly. Change is good, even if change is scary and unknown and it makes you queasy, and makes you just want to accelerate through the scary parts to get to the comfortable things.

Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so? So many great stories wind us along page after page and then realize that “Oh, right, we’re supposed to be doing something” then there’s a manic race to quickly tie up the loose ends introduced way back at the beginning. To avoid that feeling of sudden acceleration and recklessness, make sure that every few story beats and scenes ties to the plot some way. Like spokes on a wheel, things should tie back to the central conflict. Yes, some parts are easier: the dead body, the murder weapon. And some parts are harder: the love story between the the protag and the woman secretly surveiling her, the relationship between the protag and her dog. But that’s one of the hurdles in writing, and clearing it will strengthen your craft and skills. Don’t just take the last six chapters all the way to 11, develop the story across the chapters (think butter spread on toast) so that you won’t have to race later to squeeze everything in before the story wraps.

What’s lost in order to resolve the plot? Even if the answer is “innocence” or “preconceived notions about X”, something has to be jettisoned, discarded, torn away, let go, released, or ejected. By identifying the material-to-be-lost within a key scene you’re giving the scene more impact, making the ideas matter more to the reader and giving them, as the kids say, “all the feels”. Loss is an integral part of development, and we can measure growth not just by the included, but the discarded as well.

Step five, where we tie these things together.

To do this, we’re going to work a little in reverse order. Here’s how.

  1. How would the loss of ___ change the way the character views happiness?
  2. What scenes can you point to in the progession of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have, or is desperate to avoid?
  3. Does the plot’s resolution develop any additional fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward?

What we’ve done here is partner the questions together (the 3s, the 2s, the 1s) to give us a third set of questions where character and plot come together. These crossroads-moments are significant because they show how the plot changes the character going forward, meaning the character is bigger than the plot, but the plot still mattered and had an impact.

Let’s break it down-

How would the loss of (whatever it is that gets lost to solve the plot) change the way the character views happiness? So, if the character is losing innocence over the course of the story, maybe that’s going to change how they feel about something makes them happy. At the most cliche, this is the “putting away childish things and stepping into maturity” but this might also be the loss of a partner changing the way a character feels about living happily ever after in love. What we lose either makes us care more about what makes us happy, or it reshapes how we interpret happiness.

What scenes can you point to in the progression of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have or is desperate to avoid? Maybe you character avoids large crowds. Maybe though that in order to chase down the killer, they’ve got to move through a crowded mall during Black Friday. Maybe your character needs to resolve her feelings about her dead child and she has to confront her grief by explaining how someone else can pick up the pieces and move on. Maybe your character is an ex-cop who left in a cloud of disgrace but now has to go back to the station to get some details on the robbery, and her former partner is now the chief.

Does the plot’s resolution develop any new fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward? Because characters are built to run on change, whenever the plot ties up, no matter what it was, there’s going to be some impact. Things have changed now, revelations exposed and character-states have grown and fell. Going forward whether that’s just until the story’s end or into the next book or the next session or the next episode, characters take their recent pasts with them. And because it’s recent, the wounds might not heal between tales. Which could lead to effects on the character going forward. (If you’ve ever messed up a limb or a joint, you know how winters can be a problem.) If these occur over the course of several stories or throughout one story, you’re helping cement that as part of the character’s composition. And we’re not just talking Indiana-Jones-hates-snakes, but also guy-who-loses-girl-thinks-he-sees-her-everywhere. Yes, there’s a fine line between making this an element and beating the dead horse into fine paste, but that’s what editors and multiple drafts are for.


Armed now with these nine questions, you have yet another set of tools in the toolbox for developing a story and a character. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hack up a lung and try and warm back up. Keep writing. Make art. Tell good stories. Risk your hearts.


Happy writing

Posted by johnadamus in posts when I'm sick, problem solving, story repair, structure, tough choices, writer times, 0 comments

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.

Posted by johnadamus in by request, check this out, exercises, note card trick, step by step, structure, the process, 0 comments


Hello again everybody.

Thanks so much for your very kind feedback about my previous post. For the record, no, I’m still not my usual super cheery amazing self, but it hasn’t gotten worse either. So onward we march.

I asked on Twitter for some blog topics, and got a few very interesting ones. One in particular stood out, because the minute I said, “Yeah I like that” quite a few people (twelve I think) were very excited in response.

So let’s look at the suggested topic:



Josh is curious about what a “good” chapter looks like. And while it’s super easy and incredibly tempting to tell him not to think in terms of good and bad, because they’re crazy subjective, that’s not going to help him. And it is worth noting that a chapter does have a structure, and ideally that structure should help, not hinder, whatever’s going on.

The problem though is that not every chapter in every book in every genre by every writer is going to be the same. Sometimes we’re reading love stories, sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s a lengthy rant about the dangers of single ply toilet tissue. Further, the second question about exciting parts of a larger story is kind of misleading. Exciting (like good and bad) is subjective, and there are some parts of some stories that you don’t want to be exciting. For instance, I don’t want to see excitement and/or tension in the part of the chapter where the hero falls asleep or the heroine washes her hair. It’s not exciting. It might be really nice for the character to do, but it doesn’t need to rivet me to the chair, because I can deal with a sentence or two about sleep and hair care, and as a writer, I’m not worried that at the first mention of something not-as-exciting as other parts of my book, people are going to flee and hate me. So let’s look at the components of chapters in terms of when they work to serve the story versus when they don’t.

Positive Elements In A Chapter

Does this chapter introduce new information? If we’re telling a story with a plot (doesn’t matter what it is), does this chapter give us more detail? A chapter is a step forward in information, we should be able to move from this chapter to the next one and say we learned something we didn’t know before. Yes, this chapter might not be a step forward chronologically in the story, time might not advance, but what the chapter tells us about the characters, the plot, the created world, should be new and in addition to what we already know. Now you can make a case and bring up a good point about first chapters, since there’s nothing new in front of a first chapter, but the rule still holds true here – only instead of relying on whole chapters before it, first chapters are built on a sentence-by-sentence case, where we gain information a discrete unit (sentence) at a time.

Does this chapter cement what we already know (or think we know)? Whether a first or fiftieth chapter, once we see this chapter is providing new data, we have to make sure this chapter is also affirming existing data. This is often called continuity, but outside of fiction this also pertains to contradictory instructions (where you earlier said X but now you’re saying Y) and shifts in assumption (suddenly the author assumes the reader knows more because the reader is deeper into the document). Since our most fundamental building block of knowledge is a word, because it evokes a concept and a memory and a feeling all simultaneously, and we compile words into sentences to give them vectors and focus, we have to be able to trust that the application is constant, that is, that the word we used back seven pages ago still means the same thing it does later on, unless we’ve expressly and obviously changed its definition. Inconsistency in language means that we aren’t conveying in an easily understood way and that our readers will possibly not want to keep reading because “all of a sudden the book got weird/dense/strange”. There’s often a whole editorial pass for continuity, because leaving plot holes and resorting to hand-waving is ultra lazy. Also, since the writer can’t be everywhere constantly to explain things to people whenever they get to a particular part of the story, why not make it easier on them by just avoiding this potential problem from the start?

Is this chapter a complete package? Chapters should start somewhere, even if the action being described is carried over from previous chapters (like chapter 4 opens with the car crashed into a pole, because chapter 3 ended with the car skidding on the highway) or that the chapter is called “Combat” and contains all the game rules for fighting. It has to start somewhere, and even if you’ve established some really funky variable chronologies in your story, there still has to be a starting point, even if a particular starting point differs from others throughout the book. In fact, it’s impossible to have a chapter that doesn’t have a starting point. Likewise, chapters should have endings, sometimes with summaries of what you’ve just covered (like study questions) or a push into the next action (cliffhanger) or just the cessation of that line of thought. Chapters have to end somewhere just like they have to start somewhere. The trick isn’t in having them or not having them, the trick is in knowing where the story is served best with those starts and stops. Manipulation of those starts and stops across the span of chapters is a lot like the push/pull we’ve discussed elsewhere about carrying the reader forward throughout the flow of the words.

Things You May Want To Avoid In A Chapter

Does the chapter do too much? As said above, chapters have beginnings and ends. They should ideally contain a progression of material, either introducing it fresh (as a first chapter would) or perpetuating it until it can be closed later (the way a middle chapter would) or tying things up (the way an ending would). Not every chapter in fiction is going to do all three of these things, of course, but it’s important to recognize the role a particular chapter plays as introducer, perpetuator or closer, and making sure the chapter does those things. When a chapter oversteps, and information loses its individuated spot (like cars double parking), then you start creating situations where material isn’t given appropriate weight by the reader, because they have to squeeze more stuff into their head, because you keep shoveling it onto them. This discourtesy, this lack of respect, most often comes up as nervousness on the part of the writer, the idea that they have all this information that they swear they prove its all relevant and has to be used right-this-second, and if they don’t get it out right there in that particular part of that exact page, it has no other place in the book and everything (including all of time and space) will fall apart as your created world is torn asunder. Which isn’t true. It’s in fact fabricated bullshit you’ve convinced yourself is super mucho important because things are going well in your writing and you’re freaking out. You have all the pages in the world to get these ideas out, and even if you’re working within a constraint of a word cap on a project, chances are you have the ability to do multiple drafts and possibly even an editor to help you find the best-fit for all the ideas, even if the best-fit for that idea over there might be not-in-the-thing-you’re-writing-right-now.

Does the chapter repeat other chapters? At some point, and I don’t know when it was, our attention spans took a nose-dive. Maybe it was when it became super easy to look at porn. Maybe it was whenever we all decided to stop wearing hats. Maybe it was when we invented the machines that propel us into outer space. But collectively, specially, our attention span tapered right off. Some people will go all gloom-and-doom at this notion and say things like “You only have three seconds to keep someone’s attention because they’re soooo busy!” (I really hope you made up your own arm waving at that one) but when you later question them as to what people do that has them so busy, the answers seem to all suggest that a lot of time is consumed in a lot of short actions like looking at phones, blinking at monitors and feverishly responding to other stimuli. To compensate for all this, we started repeating ourselves, as in the case where you can post tweets to facebook and to your blog and you can stick blog posts to twitter and facebook and other blogs … all that. This isn’t a bad thing, when it serves a purpose (like getting information out quickly to a wide audience), but when the same information shows up again and again, it’s annoying. Yes, we get it. This thing got written. Yes, you said she was blonde already. Yes, I know, the gun has only one shot left. Recycling this information more often than not is proof that the writer really doesn’t trust their reader to remember things they’ve read, and/or to some degree, that they don’t trust themselves to establish a fact and then leave it alone with bringing it back up. There is also something to be said for over-saturation, where a detail too oft mentioned loses the specialty it needs. If the response to a fact is a huge sigh, chances are you’ve said it enough times.

Does the chapter fit? In the progression (not arrangement, I don’t mean something arbitrary like in a game or manual) of the story, does the particular chapter belong in the space you’re assigning it? Does, for example, that chapter about the kid bored at school belong between the two chapters of the kid’s parents fighting robotic farm animals? Would it make sense to hold off showing what happens to the protagonist trapped on the roof (for a whole chapter) because you totally want to show the flashback of how the protagonist first learned to love being on a roof ? (by the way, the flashback-as-teaching-tool-as-a-chapter is way super totally overused, especially if you bring us out of the flashback at chapter’s end and practically quip). Stories, remember, are progressions of actions and emotions, carrying the reader from their starting point, educating them and delivering them the world you built and leaving them back in their world, changed by experience of sharing yours. Huge bumps in that road jar the reader, and too many times jarred can lead the reader to lose interest. Make sure there’s a clear path from A to B to C.


Josh, I hope I answered your question. I know it probably wasn’t the answer you looked me to give, but I am partial to this one.

Everyone, stay well, keep writing and be good to one another.

Posted by johnadamus in follow me on Twitter, structure, 0 comments

Writing/Gaming – The Outline

When I was in school, the one part of English class I dreaded were the boring mornings (I often had English first in the day) where we had to learn how to write an outline.

I hated it for three reasons:

1. I had tutors and my parents teach me all about outlines in previous years, so this wasn’t anything new.
2. I disliked having so much structure in a story.
3. I disliked having to map out so much of the story in advance, because then it felt like I had already told it, so why write it?

I remember we had to learn how to outline for research papers (which oddly enough, I never did after high school, despite claims that everyone and their uncle wrote research papers seemingly daily in university classes and at their jobs), as well as fiction outlines (again, something I seldom did, because it took all the fun out of writing).

Basically, I was a brat who didn’t want structure to interfere with how I felt my story should develop. I didn’t want no chocolate on my peanut butter, no girls in my clubhouse and damned sure didn’t want “the man” telling me how to be creative.

Note: When I do develop that time machine / meet up with Doctor Who, we’re totally going back in time to shake some sense into younger me.

The outline is not your enemy. It doesn’t have to be your best friend, you don’t have to date it, or listen to it prattle on about how you can’t leave the empty milk bottle in the fridge.

The outline is just a tool, and like any big tool, if you treat it with healthy respect, it will help you out.

How did I figure this out?

Well, I started by getting so fed up with myself about my progress on my novel, The Kestrel Soars, that I decided to get a copy of Scrivener, which came highly recommended by Matt Forbeck (when you’re done reading this post, I want you to go out and get your hands on Carpathia. Please, do this, and enjoy yourself.)

So I install it, and start plugging my novel into the suggested skeletal format. Now in my head, where this and like 20 other stories reside fully formed, I figured this was just sort of a “jump through hoops” act, and I’d be maybe just making a title page and sending my story off later the same day. Because, to me, that story was done.

Oh no. Not even close to done.

When I broke down the chapters into scenes, and the scenes got sorted out by their arcs and progressions, my novel was…well, naked and gooey.

I’ll take one order of discouragement, and supersize that please. With extra You Suck sauce on the side.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to quit, because I had a story somewhere in my head, and I knew if I quit, I couldn’t live it down. And I knew that I going forward would be way hard, and I have this voice in my head that screams how much of a blackhole of failure I can be, so I was better off just not doing anything – just go back to editing other people’s things and put it off. Put it off, don’t take action, in fact, let’s not even edit today and just play a game.

That voice, if you can’t tell, is NOT on my Christmas card list. That voice, if you have to know is a tricky sumbitch that at times sounds like me, like my parents, like the English teachers who I hated, like women I dated, like more successful friends, like well-meaning friends who just ‘want to help’, like random people I work with, and sometimes, like the Muppets.

I didn’t quit. I didn’t stop. I didn’t put it off. I grabbed a stack of notecards and feverishly wrote out my scenes. And when I reached a spot where I didn’t have a scene….I wrote something down.

I kept asking myself, “Okay, And then…” or “Therefore…” because in my head, to my way of thinking an outline is just a rough map of where the story goes. It doesn’t have to be the rigid roman numerals and capital letters of term papers. It doesn’t have to be the overly detailed soul-sucking stack of facts.

It’s a way to get my brain on paper. And the story, if I want to publish it and have people buy it, has to be on paper.

So I came up with 35 scenes, in an order that tells a story.

I had 18 written, which I hacked, chopped and robo-built into 9 chapters.

Yeah, this book wasn’t done, but the voice was shocked into silence because I pushed myself to actually find the value in structure.

And there is a value in structure. My teachers may have begrudgingly doled it out because they got a paycheck for killing time until retirement and they didn’t give a shit, but it’s on me to do something with it.

Structure actually helps my story. (Scrivener, by the way, totally rocks).

The lesson here? Don’t always run from structure. And don’t think that you have to resign some of your power, your creativity and your fun/happiness to apply someone else’s structure to your stuff.  Find a structure you’re 60-80% happy with, and make it yours. Get all Jeet Kune Do on it. (This is also known as “making it your bitch, and discard the stuff that doesn’t work“)

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in HAM, how I learned to love an outline, scrivener tales, shout out, structure, 0 comments