Today’s the last day of Worldbuilding on FiYoShiMo, and we’re going to tie many pieces together.
When we talk the tone in a manuscript, we’re looking at the word chosen to convey the way the MS should feel to the audience. I know, we’re always technically talking word choice when we talk writing, but let’s not split hairs.
Think about the world you’re telling the story in. Think about the plot, think about how it affects the world. Got it in your head? It’s okay if it’s unclear, you’re not going to have to write the whole thing out today.
Get a piece of paper. We’re going to make a Feel Document, only now we’re going to call it a Tone Document, because I can rename it whatever I want.
Put the title of your MS on the paper. No title? Call it “The Untitled Book I’m Writing” or something. Call it Gary, let’s not get hung up on this point.
Did you have any scenes in your head? A moment that really stands out, either because you’ve already written it, or you’re excited to write it. can you get that scene boiled down to a sentence or phrase that fits on ONE LINE of the page?
On the line below that, draw a line.
On the lines below that, start listing adjectives to describe how that scene feels TO THOSE CHARACTERS INVOLVED IN IT.
A guy walks down a creepy, dark hallway looking for an axe murderer
Now in my made up scene, that guy is going to take an axe to the face at some point, but that action beat is pretty straightforward in terms of tone (pretty sure it’s going to suck to be him), so I want to really spend my words on the moments before axe-meets-face. The more I can put down there, the more buildup I can create to make the killing strike a bigger deal.
Do this for all the scenes that stand out to you. Do it for all the scenes you have written already.
Once you get all the scenes tonally listed, see if there are any common threads or even repeated words. These repeated adjectives are indicative of your world’s tone. They’re signposts that you don’t want to stray too far from when writing. Treat them like landmarks when you feel like you’ve gone off course. Navigate not based on action beats, but on how you want the MS to feel to the reader.
Ask: “Okay, I’m reading this, I’m in place of the character in this moment, what would I feel if this were happening to me?”
The two skills I’m suggesting you strengthen here have names. Reflection is when the tone remains consistent even when scene types or character arcs change. Treat it like an Instagram filter – the photo’s subject changes from your kale and horseshit sandwich to the pair of shoes you artfully balance next to your green juice and whichever bullshit book you think makes you look worldly, but it’s still sort of sepia and overblown. (I may have said too much there)
Reinforcement is when the tone gets cemented as more information gets added to the existing material. Think Lego – you’re building some monster-sized playset, and all the bricks are the same shade of grey, because the spaceship you’re making is grey. A red brick thrown into the middle would stick out, and likely irritate some part of you that appreciates appearance and your efforts.
Scenes need to fit tonally with each other. If you’re writing a snarky blogpost, it would feel weird to suddenly get all serious. This isn’t like when a boy band breaks it down while reaching out to the audience, this is more like when that record scratch moment when someone makes a bold statement just when everything gets quiet.
The arc of a character has to ride along the rails of tone while they experience whatever it is they’re going through. Yes, I mean boundaries. They help keep out the extraneous leakage of emotion and add a vector for the arc as you stay on target towards character change.
Your world’s tone needs to be reflected across all different types of elements. Want your dystopia to feel dirty and gritty and a little hopeless? Express those ideas in as many different ways as possible. There’s a balance there, to be sure, but when you’re getting the ideas onto the page, trust that revision will suss out when you’ve beaten dead horses. This isn’t time for revision, this is a time for production.
Practice, map it out. The more development you can do, the more you can solidify the idea in your own head, which will make those moments of “What am I doing here on this page?” easier to bear.
You can do this.
Tomorrow is Christmas, so there’s no FiYoShiMo. We’ve both earned a day off. See you on the 26th when we talk revision and other decisions. The homestretch of FiYoShiMo awaits!
Have a great holiday, if that’s your jam.
As we near our giftiest of holidays, let me give you a nice package with a bow on it.
Today on Day 23 of Fix Your Shit Month, our characters get put into the world. And our world gets put into our characters. It’s pretty exciting stuff.
We’re going to work today with the protagonist, but what we’re doing is going to apply to all the characters, and after you try this with the protag, run some other characters through this process and see if you like the results.
Start by taking your protagonist and putting them in their seat of power. A seat of power is the location where the character exists in the most comfort and agency. It’s where they feel their best. It’s their Batcave, their Sanctum Sanctorum. Whenever the character is in that location, then they’re at their most capable.
This is NOT the same as the character doing whatever they do best, this is about the location. So picture it. Detail the hell out of it. Even the parts or inches of it that the character doesn’t interact with. The ceiling of the Batcave, the crown molding in the Oval Office. Those non-interactive spaces help give the place a sense of realness.
If you only describe the space they use, you’re limiting yourself in terms of what development you’re broadcasting. For instance, I’m in my office. I can describe the desk I’m sitting at, the chair I’m sitting in, maybe the window and shelves next to me. It’s easy for me to take for granted the carpet under my feet, or the small box that my computer’s subwoofer is sitting on, or the stack of DVDs that need to be filed but are now stacked on the floor. I don’t talk about them because they’re just … there, and although I love sitting in this space, and no other space (in the house or otherwise) feels as good as this space does when I’m working. We take things for granted, and when our writing highlights one of those things, we’re adding an additional splash of color to our mental pictures.
Alright, protagonist, seat of power. Now consider that seat. Is it common in the world of your story? Are there similar ones elsewhere (I don’t just mean Batman has spare Batcaves, I mean does Batman have one, does Tim have one, etc)? If these seats are common, what distinguishes your protagonist’s seat from the others? Think about it in terms of the aesthetic (maybe our protag’s office is painted blue), but also in terms of functionality (maybe it has an extra window).
A caution though about functionality: Giving a protagonist a place of super capability can really reduce the threat within a plot. Something like that can verge on deus ex machina, which cheapens the strength of your story. Don’t rely on the seat of power to be your character’s solution engine. The ability to solve the problem lies within the character, not wherever they’re hanging out.
Back to the seat – where is it in relation to the locations in the world where the plot is happening? The Batcave is outside Gotham City, so we need to give Batman a way to reach the City. The offices of Nelson and Murdock are in Hell’s Kitchen, but we still need to give Daredevil a way to reach the action. If we want the character to be able to interact with the plot, we don’t need to spend much time on how they get there – just get them there. (Unless the plot IS the journey somewhere…)
Let’s switch gears. Think about locations in addition to the seat of power that your character frequents. Can you split them into a list of locations where the character has positive experiences and negative experiences? Think about this both in terms of what’s plot-specific and relevant, but also globally (because we learned early on in FiYoShiMo that characters exist as larger than the plot, remember?).
Our protagonist feels best in her living room. She has a great experience every morning at the gym with her best friend and confidante. She has a miserable experience nightly at the local bar. She has a day job where she’s often at odds with her boss or her co-workers. The plot will take us through these locations.
If our plot is a bank robbery, we’ve got a scene of the crime. We’ve got offices or a precinct or something so our protagonist has a seat of power. We’ve got locations where the suspects are found. We’ve got a location for a tense climax. All these locations should be accessible at anytime, even if we don’t need to be there until a specific time. Sure, we can have a climax on the moon, so long as we have given ourselves a way to get there before the climax happens.
In order for a character to feel lived in, their experiences in the world need to be understood by the reader. We all have the moment of frustration when we’re in the bathroom and realize there’s no toilet paper. We’ve all gone into the kitchen, opened the fridge door, and then forgotten what we were looking for. We’ve all been hurt and wanted comfort. We’ve all really enjoyed dinner and wanted to take off our pants afterward.
To do that, we’ve given our characters places in the world where these moments can happen. Something’s relatability is proportional to its description combined with its narrative development.
You might mean “sofa” but if you describe it as a “long cushioned surface”, we’ll end up thinking different things. Yes, I get it, you want your character to feel futuristic in their futuristic world, but it’s just a future-sofa. Help the reader understand. Do all you can to give the character a world that feels like the reader’s world, even if we’re hurtling through hyperspace in a giant city-ship after narrowly escaping time traveling alien cockroaches with ray guns.
When a character feels connected to the world, the reader is more accepting of details. Yeah, the idyllic suburb house sure does have a picket fence. Of course it does. That fits with our mental picture of a suburb. And yes, our protagonist does rock a pearl necklace while vacuuming. These details help get the picture across because they reinforce our accepted ideas.
When we introduce conflicting information, like maybe while our protagonist vacuums, the automated babysitting murder robot (I’ve been playing Fallout 4), is telling our infant son that it’s totally okay to murder the vicious raider gang from the other neighborhood. That info, at face value, doesn’t fit our idyllic suburban view, so we need to alter our view — if we transplant our suburb to a wasteland full of raiders, radiation, destruction, and monsters, our pictures get tinted, shaded, expanded, and become more realized.
If a character feels out of place (example: picture Elmer Fudd in an episode of the West Wing), then no amount of world description is get that character into place. When in doubt, check the character. Adjusting the world is a much larger solution, but it has too many trickle-down ramifications. Don’t reach for the bazooka when you need a fly swatter.
Take what we did here and put all your major characters through their paces. Give them seats of power, connect them to the story locations. Adjust as needed.
Tomorrow, in our last day of Worldbuilding, we’re going to look at World Tone. See you then.
FiYoShiMo charges forward.
Okay, okay, wait. Let’s just take a minute for some disclosure. I’m writing this after spending 12 hours in a car, oh so thrilled that WordPress doesn’t want us to have nice things, because it ate ONLY the finished piece for Day 22. I’ve decided to rewrite it, but add in my post-trip exhausted commentary, which is usually what I’m saying to myself or the dog while I’m writing.
It’s Day 22, and today is sort of a big huge linchpin day, because now we’re going to intersect your plot with your world. So, if you haven’t got it handy already, write down your plot one more time, and get all the worldbuilding notes you’ve been taking.
We’re going to break down your plot into a new set of components. We’re not changing your plot, we’re just going to deconstruct it.
This sounds scarier or more complicated than it really is. Basically, we’re going to look at your plot in pieces. You’re gonna be fine.
A plot has some basic elements:
a) A central conflict where there’s a risk and danger
b) Opposing people or views looking to take sides in that conflict
c) Consequences for either being on the achieving or losing side of that conflict
Let’s define these things:
Central conflict is the problem or source of tension that has the biggest resonance relative to the scope of the story, most connections, and most intense connections to people involved. This isn’t walking the old lady across the street when you’ve introduced this whole big planet. Keep your scale in mind. What issue covers the most of that scale, affects the most characters, and does so in the most intense ways?
If we’re just telling the story of a 9 year old kid earning a merit badge by walking the old lady across the street, then we don’t need to know the geopolitical issues of the country or solar system this kid is in, because the focus of our story is on this kid getting his merit badge. The larger stuff is irrelevant.
A lot of people try and make a pair of scopes, so they can say they’re making a huge series by laying groundwork all through the story (especially if it’s the first one), then they can yo-yo the reader in and out of scope to demonstrate …. something that usually comes across as the panicky writing desperate to keep the reader attached to the author. You don’t need to bungee cord your reader around. Keep the scope focused, keep the story moving. Since not every damned story is a series in the making, your need for elaborate groundwork may be eating into the space you need to tell the actual story in front of you, not the one six stories from now.
Opposing forces are the people or person(s) who take differing sides based on the conflict. This doesn’t have to be binary (good vs bad, Jedi vs Sith, Gryffindor vs Slytherin, mustard vs ketchup, Captain America vs Iron Man), but characters do need to have some sort of side in the conflict. Staying out of it can be a side IF they need to be persuaded to change sides, but don’t confuse being Switzerland with being the kid too cool at the lunch table to sit with anyone.
Okay, did I mention I’m hella tired? Let’s work on that metaphor — If we have two sides, A and B, then we put our characters into one of those two camps. If we have a third option, C, that’s fine, so long as C has a vested interest in staying out of A-B rivalry. If C doesn’t even interact with the rivalry, why are they in the story? The central conflict is one of the chief things tying your characters together, either in terms of circumstance or necessity or common ground.
Consequences for both sides of the conflict have to matter, meaning they have to make a provable, visible, tangible difference in the lives of characters, otherwise it’s not much of a threat. The prospect of me losing Internet is going to lead me to take more direct action out of fear and worry than if you’re going to tell me you’ll be taking away my three hole punch. If the risk seems negligible or doesn’t motivate a character to action, then it’s not really a risk. That’s why badguys kidnap family and friends instead of not calling on the hero’s birthday. The danger has to matter.
Yes, I did totally picture Skeletor staring at the phone but not calling a crying He-Man.
What’s the conflict in your plot?
Look now at the world your plot takes place in. Is that conflict, based on the world, going to matter to the character(s) involved?
If you make the risk bigger, you don’t have to alter the world. Likewise, if you shrink the world, you don’t have to alter the risk. Yes, they’re related. When we think about a story that works, the risk involved in that story is relative to how big the “world” of the story is.
Like how in a Mission Impossible episode, the whole world could be at stake, and we know that, because our agents have to jetset all over the world and negotiate various dangers.
When this doesn’t work, you’re talking Phantom Menace, where we know it’s called Star Wars, and we have a whole lot of planets that we know exist, but for some reason, we’re supposed to think that this one planet with Uncle Remus and Natalie Portman/Kiera Knightley is the biggest of big deals. (Hint: It wasn’t, and that’s one of like 90 gazillion reasons that movie didn’t work)
Are there sufficient sides that are clearly delineated for your characters to take up? Yes, I know, I just talked about how it doesn’t have to be binary, but looking binary for a second, see how clearly each side has its boundaries? Every side, no matter the number of sides your polygon has, should have clearly marked and clearly differentiated sides.
This is particularly true when we look at fantasy or science fiction or genres where we aren’t completely grounded in the modern present. We may have a prophecy (I’m making something up here…) where we have people who believe in it, those who don’t, and then this third group where they’ve never heard of it. Those are distinct groups, and that third group can be drawn into the other two groups through a variety of story means. We can’t however, have a fourth group who believes in this other prophecy all together (not just a reinterpretation of the first one), but not give them any opposition.
And that’s because we don’t really need that second prophecy, and because it doesn’t really connect in any meaningful way to the first….
Now if you’re about to say, “But John, it totally could…” and then tell me I need to read more of your story, I’m going to stop and ask you why you didn’t just fold the two prophecies together.
Every side in a conflict needs to have ways to mark its members. Teams wear uniforms. There are ways to distinguish one side from another, even ways that aren’t physical (outfits, colored laser blasts, etc).
Are there consequences for each side? If A “wins”, or gets what they want, how does the world change? What if they “lose”? Does every side in this conflict have consequences they’d like to achieve or avoid?
No, they don’t all need to be the same consequences (otherwise why are they on different sides of the issue?), but they do need SOME consequences that matter to them.
My last point today is that the world and plot need to “fit” together. When they don’t mesh well, it becomes so much harder for the reader to engage with the material. What do I mean?
I mean … a story about a disavowed secret agent trying to get back in his agency’s good graces but the next 17 chapters of the book are all about this spy’s romancing the woman who owns the cupcake store, and we jettison the part where he wants to be a spy again.
I mean a world where robots are on the verge of enslaving mankind, but we’re telling a story about two puppets who come to life and have zany non-robot-related adventures.
The plot has to be relative to the world you’ve built, and vice versa. Otherwise, a reader challenges why it matters, and that leads to questions of why they’re spending their time with your work. And that’s not a scenario with a lot of good outcomes for your work.
Today, go weave your world and plot together. Tomorrow, we’re going to weave your characters and world together.
Welcome back to FiYoShiMo, we’re back today with the rest of the world building tools. We did three yesterday, and here are three more today.
World building tools are designed to create the bigger, broader picture. You can get really fussy and lose yourself in the details or the over-thinking of them.
We’re going to talk tomorrow about how you can use what you’ve built here in concert with your plot to develop a strong story, so I think this is a good spot to point out that it’s not enough just to have a strong plot OR defined characters OR a rich world. It’s about the synthesis of all three elements, partnered with your voice, driven through the ways you engage the reader, that all make a story great.
Now, onto the toolbox once more, dear writers.
The Punishment & The Prize
This will come back tomorrow, but now I want to introduce it and give it a little shape. A punishment is the negative consequence for breaking established rule and order. And it should exist in your world. Preferably, there’s more than one, so that you give the antagonist some amount of tension as they will effort to avoid these consequences. Maybe it’s a superprison. Maybe it’s the tarnishing of their social status. Maybe it’s banishment to some alternate dimension. Maybe it’s death. There has to be some kind of sanction levied on the character(s) for being transgressive.
A prize is something available as a reward in the world. Yes, this is often part of the specific story plot (Someone wants to rule the world, cue evil laughter), but just like punishments, there needs to be MORE than just your plot in the world, even if the plot involves the whole world (as it may in fantasy or science fiction, for instance)
Having the plot resolve favorably for the character should earn them a prize. And there does need to be more than one prize, so that you break the cycle of every badguy trying to take over the world (if that’s the one and only prize you’ve created), and the tension of that effort being eroded time and again by the badguy of the week failing to do so.
The reason why a plot sticks out in a story, or even in a series, is because it’s different than what usually happens. Time-traveling cyborg ninjas riding fire gorillas don’t attack every day, so it’s significant when they rip through the portal from Dimension G and lay siege to the city.
There has to be a sense of normalcy established in the world in order to make the action stand out. If those ninjas attack every Tuesday, then invasion Tuesday becomes the new normal. A story’s world will always seek homeostasis until the conflict and/or plot prevents this, which is what compels the protagonist to do something about it.
Without that stability, it becomes difficult for the reader to gauge just how much they’re supposed to worry or connect to the plot and the characters. The bigger the unknown looming danger that’s external to the story (at any minute the planet could explode, in addition to this cop needing to stop this criminal, for instance), the harder it is to care about the cop’s efforts.
If you take stability too far, the result is a world that’s far more static than dynamic. There’s a reason we so often talk about a world that feels “lived in.” That sense of vitality helps the story feel like it’s about more, or has more, than just whatever the plot involves.
Let’s say you’ve got the story about a big war in space, involving huge factions and many planets. If you want that war to have weight, if you want it to be a big deal, here are some of the consequences of war to represent in your story: resource scarcity, damage to property, a population shift, conscription, or even occupation.
When the events of the world have tangible effects that you can say more than a sentence about, when those effects are factors in the obstacles and opportunities characters face, that’s how you have a sense of activity in the world.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how plot and world building intersect, and you’ll see some of these tools come back into play.
See you then.
Welcome back to the awesomeness that is FiYoShiMo. We’ve talked characters, we’ve talked plot, and now we’re on the home stretch, where we start talking about the world these characters and this plot live in.
Over the next two days, I’m going to present you with six tools (three today, three tomorrow), to help you take the world and give it necessary texture, growth and permanence, so it isn’t just some flat high school stage where people act until it time not to act anymore.
World building is a huge deal. Without a world, your characters have no context, and no impact or consequences. If there’s a madman loose in the city, if the city is underdeveloped, how can you ask anyone to care about stopping the madman? Sure, the plot says he’s supposed to be stopped, but how is the reader supposed to give more than a cursory damn about stopping him?
World helps story matter. So let’s check out some tools to help get the world lived in.
The Basic Questionnaire
What we’re looking for here is a number of ways that the created world mirrors our own, so that the reader can project their experience(s) and understanding onto characters and situation that are outside themselves. When readers project, they invest, and the more opportunities for that to happen, the better.
To that end, there are some core questions to ask about the world:
a) Is this world more primitive/relative to/ more futuristic than Earth at the time you’re writing?
b) Does this world have the same physics (gravity, light, sound) as Earth at the time you’re writing?
c) In what ways does the world differ from your own?
d) Is there magic in the world?
e) Are there any races or species aside from those expected on Earth at the time you’re writing?
These give some larger boundaries and limitations on the world, which can tell you what you need to write about (like if you have ogres) or not write about (like if you have comparable gravity). Within those boundaries, find the freedom to explore the ideas you need to, with very little of what you don’t.
Scope of the World
This story has specific locations in it. Even if you’re telling the story of an omnipotent deity shaping the world out of nothing, there are going to be some sort of locations developed in the story. Things happen at places. The issue is how broadly is the reader zoomed out from those places.
One of the things that used to frustrate me as a child when I looked at Where’s Waldo books was that in order to hide Waldo, they made everything so tiny. It’s cheap obfuscation, and it requires you to put your face close up to the book and scrutinize it in systematic chunks until you find that striped shirt wearing knob. It’s not actual concealment, it’s clutter. And the same thing happens in some stories.
You want to tell a political story about a kingdom, with large families and an extended cast of characters. Maybe you have multiple lands in your story, and you subject your characters to lots of sex and death across a lot of geography. As the number of characters rise, so too does the number of places you put these characters, because you fear (somewhat) that if you put them all in the same kingdom, surely they’d run into each other. You’re running from clutter in one place by cluttering up a lot of places, but only in little piles, rather than some hoard.
How large a story are you telling? Where do you want the focus to be? If your story is about some guys robbing a bank, why do we need to know about another country or even another city in this world? Don’t dilute the focus just to show off that you’ve made a big world. Let the world seep into what you’re actively presenting, through small details or consequences or beats, and the world will seem big.
The Mess Test
We’re going talk about this more on Day 22, when we talk about where plot and your world collide, but the starting point for that is realizing that if you remove tension in the world, you’re crippling the story. A utopia where everyone has no problems, can get everything solved, and is never challenged is not a compelling starting point for a story, assuming the status quo doesn’t change.
So the Mess Test asks you to highlight where the possible points of change could be. Yes, they include the plot, but they’re not limited to the events in the plot. If you took the world and shook it like a snow globe, where are the loose rattling bits? How could you mess up this world, without the obvious removing gravity or sending it crashing into a black hole?
The point I’m making here is that fragility in the world, the tenuous relationship between cohered pieces, can all be canted or torqued to produce interesting fuel for story, even when it’s not just the plot doing the breaking.
I know, a bit of a shorter post today, but I want you to take these three tools and apply them to your world. If you need to, make decisions you’ve not made before. If you’re not happy with the answers you find, ask yourself why. Take all these notes and come back tomorrow where we’ll talk about the next 3 tools.
See you then.
Our final FiYoShiMo day of plot probably could have come sooner in the list, but I’m happy with it here, since it’s a good segue into what we’re talking about next week with world-building.
Today we’re talking plot crutches, which are all the things we fall back on, over and over, when we’re talking about plot construction. (There are character crutches too, I just didn’t talk about them this month.)
Sometimes we don’t even see them until they get pointed out to us. This is something that happens amid editing passes where I make some remark to a writer like, “You know you’ve started the last three paragraphs off with ‘He and a verb’, right?” then there’s sort of this light bulb moment that marks a shift in how they write.
I’m going to talk about three different crutches today, and I want to stress that you might not realize you’re doing them, and you might not think they’re a problem. I guess we should talk about why they’re a problem.
When a plot crutches on the same elements over and over, particularly in a series, you’re not pushing yourself as a writer, and you can very quickly get tired of churning out identical or nearly identical stories. You should be pushing yourself as a writer, even in a series. Try new constructions, test your assumptions that you can or can’t write a compelling X or Y or Z, try stepping out of your comfortable bubble to a new genre or new point of view.
Crutching risks readers. My best example for this is in video games, particularly the sports ones. Year after year, a new edition is produced, and on the whole, not much changes. They update the rosters, maybe they add one or two animations, but for the most part, it’s the same game with a new paint job. To mix it up, every few games they revamp something substantial, adding a new camera angle or a new mode of play, but it’s still the same sports game, because they tout it “still having the experience you’ve come to know and love.”
For many years I was a devoted purchaser of Madden games. Every year, new game. Every year my brother and I played the snot out of them. This was back when you could shuffle up the personnel on every team, and we’d try to build exciting fantasy teams to beat each other. Then after a while, we stopped buying it. We found other games, other ways to spend our money and our time. Only recently have we come back to the series, after a long absence, and have found the new games to be improved over the old, but hardly the game we need to be playing every weekend. Swap “Madden” for your book, and swap “my brother and I” for readers, and you’ll see the point I’m making.
The first crutch I’m going to point out is the broadest of the three.
Crutch of writer comfort
Let’s say you’ve been writing more than … six weeks. I just picked that number , but really any stretch of time more than a few days would work. You’ve written in school, you wrote when you were younger, you still write now. Or you’ve always wanted to write, and now as an adult you get that opportunity.
You grab pen and paper or laptop or tablet or whatever, and you go write. You write idea after idea. You write this thing or that thing. Maybe you finish things and endure the publication process.
And you do this over and over. Maybe sometimes you’re successful, however you define success. Maybe sometimes you’re not. But no matter what, you’re still writing. In the big picture sense, this is great. This is the sort of will and discipline that turns writing into something rewarding.
Then someone points out to you that you’re only writing a certain type of story. That you’re only writing one kind of character. That you’re only making one kind of plot. Sure, in story 3 you’ve got them doing a plot on Mars instead of the Moon, but it’s still the same plot. How many times are you going to put the weary protagonist and her rebellious royal lover into political situations in between sex parties?
We build ourselves comfort zones, where we feel safe while we do something, where we can work without fear of judgment. We shut doors, we sit in coffee shops with headphones on, we silence phones. We limit our distractions, and do our best to give our full attention to what we’re doing, because in this comfort zone it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be doing this stuff. We’ve set up these boundaries, and we’re the gatekeepers, we have control.
But after a while, you need to either expand that zone, or leave it and go make a new zone elsewhere. Yes, you can have more than one comfort zone, if you don’t want to expand your current one. Think of all the things you do in a day: interact with people, write, relax, read, whatever – these are activities and skills different enough from each other that sometimes their only unifying quality is that you’re involved. And that’s okay. Here’s your permission slip.
Comfort zones can eventually become limitations because we realize how comfortable we’ve become and how scary the not-comfortable appears. We forget that at some point where we are now was scary, and after a while we tamed it. And if we did it once, we could do it again. Maybe the issue isn’t the fear, but the projected time and effort that would take? Does that sound a little lazy and/or fearful to anyone else?
Push yourself. Step out onto that branch and try flapping. You flew before. Do it again. You can always come back to the nest. But try.
Crutch of conformity
Okay, you’ve decided to take the bold move of trying something new. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first ever to do a thing, or if it’s just new to you, it’s new.
When writer decide to try their hand at a new genre (remember our discussion of genre at the start of the month?), they usually go find work in that genre and start reading. They start looking for examples of work, or templates of writers to follow, or anything to get a sense of the ingredients for their new work.
And they look at source after source. Over time, this develops a sense that in genre X you have certain components, because you’re seeing them time and again. Yes, genres have components specific to them, that if you omit them, your story doesn’t work or isn’t satisfying, but the specifics of what those components are need to be varied.
I cite romance for this a lot, that people take a female protagonist and partner her with some kind of supernatural important figure who not only has the power physically (there aren’t many romances with dudes like me in them), but also socially, since these supernatural dudes are princes or kings of the hot-guy-who’s-really-an-animal kingdom.
Sure, each writer picks a different animal, or a different mythology as a baseline, but it’s still pick-an-animal-pick-a-mythology-make-the-guy-super-hot-go-bang-him.
In science fiction, many people grab onto Campbell as the mold for storytelling. Gotta have that mentor, gotta exit the cave, gotta have your transformation. Yes, it works, but how much variation do you have? Oh, your protagonist isn’t a space farmboy, they’re the half-robot orphan in a cyberpunk dystopia? And instead of a leather trenchcoat, they wear a leather Nehru jacket? Wow. Bold moves, intrepid writer.
Just because there exists a group of people and they’re all packaging material the same way does not mean that you need to follow suit. I’m not talking about how your story can skimp on a setting or a plot and that will make your story standout, I mean that as a complete story, there has to be enough differentiate it from all the other stories in it’s field.
The example I learned in school about this was stores at the mall. You can buy clothes at lots of places, but why specifically go to The Gap or Nordstrom’s? They all sell shirts. What’s making each store (your book) in the mall (all the other books in your genre) worth my (the reader) time and energy and money?
Crutch of syntax
Presentation of your plot, of what you’re trying to say, might be the hardest crutch to recognize, but once you do, you see it everywhere. We all use certain patterns of words in regular intervals, as part of our linguistic identity.
Our word choice is a fingerprint, it’s a clue to who made a thing, and a signpost as to what you can expect within that thing.
Here’s one of my crutches in blogging. I use a lot of “So,” especially as a sentence starter. I don’t know where or when I developed the habit, but I do it, and it’s been pretty difficult to make sure I haven’t used “so” until the previous sentence.
I do it because it helps me move thoughts along, and it’s a “word of agreement”, a word where I’m assuming the reader not only sees the point I’m making, but inherently agrees with it, and then I can lead them further down the logic chain. Using it and other words like it suggest a sense of apprehension, a sense that if I don’t get you agreeable first, you’re going to stop reading and stop coming to the blog, which is a lot of my professional insecurity around my usefulness.
When I speak, I tag “, right?” or “, yeah?” onto sentences for the same reason, I want to make sure people agree with me so that I can keep talking to/at them. So that I’m not alone. Again, more insecurity.
It’s all habit. It’s all attempts to sate thoughts and feelings and worries. It’s all efforts to take control and calm uncertainty. You learned how to do it, you can unlearn it, though it might not be as easy as writing different words. The psychology underneath also warrants examination, and that can uncomfortable. And that perception of possible discomfort sends us right back into our comfort zones, where we can use these crutches without fear of judgment or reprisal. We’re back to where we started.
To find your crutches, rely on other people. Editors are trained in finding these things. Careful readers can see it too, though their varying objectivity might mean they shrug it off. You won’t see your crutches the first time, and you shouldn’t be expected to.
The tricky bit is after you spot it, when you have that moment where you can choose to beat yourself up about it or not. It’s hard to avoid the self-beating, but it’s worth it. Kicking your ass over syntactical issues when there’s still story to produce is a great way to turn yourself off from wanting to write the story. Don’t beat, go write.
Tomorrow we’re going to start the last leg of our FiYoShiMo triangle: world building.
See you then.
Today, we’re talking about time, and how it relates to plot.
Time is one of the story elements that sits in a very unique position – either the story is built around it, or it doesn’t get mentioned outside of passing details that end up being of little consequence. You can’t say that about other elements like setting or description of objects. Time is at once critical and not, flexible and fixed, static and dynamic.
We need to know the time. It provides a boundary over the scale of a story, it helps gives actions and characters a significance. If we’re telling the story of a kidnapping, knowing the time of certain scenes and beats help us map out the events of the story, even if it gets all chopped up Rashomon style. If we’re telling the story of a planet being forged out of starstuff and gravitic forces, we’re less concerned about the congealing of hydrogen on a particular Tuesday, and more interested in the zoomed out galactic view of millions or billions of years.
The nice thing is that as storytellers we have an infinite supply of it. Even if our storied is bounded within the confines of a single day or a weekend or a few hours, no matter the boundaries we can set up the pacing of the story to allow for lots of actions to be occurring simultaneously within our chronological windows. As I write this post it’s early afternoon. I’m willing to bet that while I’m writing this post, there’s someone elsewhere who is answering a phone, or pouring a glass of water, or thinking about pickles. I’m comfortable with that bet because there are so many people and places in the world that I can’t easily conceive or count them all, so I’m chalking a lot up to possibility.
As a creative, you have such enormous control on what’s possible in your world. How much can someone do in a day?
Well, Die Hard (the movie that’s on in the background while I’m typing this), takes place over one night. John McClane does a lot of things, if by a lot you mean shoot, run, and quip.
I pick that film because it shows a stretching of time. Over the course of an evening, Gruber and his forces infiltrate, take hostages, begin a robbery, and get foiled, all before the sun rises. Outside of a few plot demands that people be released or actions be taken at certain times, you don’t really know how long it’s been from shooting that security guard to the Rickman plummet. And you don’t have to. In Die Hard, time is immaterial. It takes time to do these things, but whether it’s 3, 5, or 7 hours doesn’t matter to you.
Contrast that with Ghostbusters. There’s a pretty generous collapsing of time. How long does it take for the busters of any g-h-o-s-t to build a following, make radio and television appearances and get a small business in New York City off the ground? Sure, it’s all montage with cuts back to Sigourney Weaver, but that montage represents weeks or even months.
Between those two films, you can see the flexibility of time as applied to story.
Ask yourself how critical time is in your story. Do we need to track time as if it’s finite (as in a kidnapping or heist story)? Do we need to stop considering time altogether, because there are more important things at work (like in high fantasy where it’s all warfare and drama)?
Ask yourself what benefit time has in your story. Are your characters challenged by a lack of it? Is time so abundant they can procrastinate without any consequence?
Ask yourself if time is bound or unbound. Bound time is the period of time the story takes place in as a range of days in sequence, but we don’t look past it. A story about a weekend bachelor party where we’re only concerned about Friday to Sunday, is bound time. Yes, we have an idea that time exists beyond and existed prior to the story, but we’re only asked to focus on a specific range of contiguous time.
Unbound time is the period of time the story takes place in, but it doesn’t matter if the days are in sequence or not. A story told in non-linear chronological order, or a story with inconsistent stretches of time (a weekend here, a Tuesday over there, a Monday to a Wednesday later on), gives us a sense that time is a thing, and it’s “sort of” acting as a boundary in our story, but it’s more of a guideline than some concrete rule.
We’ll end today with this – managing time in the story goes a long way to giving it credibility and a feeling of groundedness. Even if you don’t use our Earth-based calendars or time metrics (any of them), even if you rename all the days and months and give them irregular lengths or durations, you’re still giving the story one additional layer that people can hold onto and invest in.
Don’t dismiss time. Don’t put it off. Some of us have waited many many years for some stories to get advanced, so don’t think it’s not important to us.
*I apologize for the brevity of this post. HOLY SHIT TODAY IS STAR WARS DAY! WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT ANYTHING OTHER THAN STAR WARS?!
See you tomorrow, where we’ll conclude our discussion of plot with Plot Crutches.
FoYoShiMo is over 50% complete and it’s my hope you’re feeling better equipped to go forward with your MSes. We’ve looked at storycraft basics, we’ve talked characters, and we’re nearly done with plot. We continue plot today with plot interruption.
As I said a few days ago, plot moves in one direction: forward. Just like time, relationships, armies over the Alps, and progress, plot gains momentum and mass over the course of story, and then gets resolved after a highest moment.
That’s the ideal, anyway.
It doesn’t always work out that way.
We have in our writing toolbox a lot of techniques we can apply to story to make the idea in our head come out as best it can on the page. The recipe for “good story” is far more open-ended than you think of, and therefore the ways to make a “good story” happen are far more numerous as well.
But just like you can’t do as good a job hanging a picture using a banana as you could a screw and some wire, there are certain times to deploy certain tools. Sure you can force the issue and use the technique, but using the technique just to say you’ve used it can rob the technique of its nuance and polish. And worse yet, it can gum up the story.
When I’m editing a manuscript, I don’t have a checklist to tick off when a story does or doesn’t use a flashback, for instance. Sometimes (like in children’s books), you just don’t see them, and they don’t really need to be there. Not having a flashback doesn’t send the book to the scrap heap, it’s just not the right tool for the job.
Today, let’s talk some tools that can hose your plot, even if you think they’re totally great to use. I’m not saying you should never use these, I’m urging that you use them when they do the best good, not just to be arbitrary about it.
A flashback is any interruption of the present to reveal or relay information about the past, usually through memory or recollection. Visually the screen gets all dissolve-y, and somewhere in the late 50s, people added harp sounds to it. The visual and audio cue is to indicate to us that the scene is changing.
In text, we accomplish this through dialogue, as in “I remember …” or some kind of hard break in text to indicated a significant change in the narrative, like an asterisk break or starting a new chapter, or italics (careful with the italics, it gets old fast).
When it works, you reference the past to bring information forward to the present, which you’ve had paused since you started the flashback.
When it doesn’t, you’ve tipped your hand and created a nearly too-perfect solution for the present moment. (See any 80s action movie where the hero flashes back to their mentor teaching them a fighting technique that they’ll use the second they come out of flashback to whoop the bad guy’s ass, or any mystery where the detective pauses and remembers the soon-to-be revealed murderer saying something critical).
The issue with time and information is that for characters, it’s memory while for readers, it’s discovery. We don’t know until the story tells us something, even if the characters already knew it but haven’t shared it.
I have a memory of being in a youth bible club and going on a hike. There was a chaperone there (F something, I think), who very patiently listened to me tell him about dinosaurs, as I had been to the museum recently, then he told me I was completely wrong, since they didn’t exist in the bible. I wasn’t wrong about going to the museum, he had a problem with my recollection of what I saw. This moment sticks out in my head because it was the first (of many times) adults would doubt things I’d say, until I just learned to not say anything that I was afraid would ruffle feathers. F was an asshole, and dinosaurs happened. Also, that museum is badass. Suck it F.
I tell you that because it’s a memory to me, but you didn’t know about it. I can summarize that memory thematically down to “I learned to stop speaking up so that I couldn’t be doubted”, and then draw a parallel between that moment and whatever moment I’m narrating in the present. Since Fred’s dead (I’m pretty sure anyway), this information gives you more context about me, rather than adding bells and whistles to my battling stupid Fred. I’m pretty sure that even with a bum heart, I could take Fred in a fight if he’s still alive. He’d be pushing 90.
Where a flashback works is in its detail. It can expand your world-building. It can make things seem more grounded, it can give a reader more to invest in or believe in. When applied poorly, the flashback can add nitrous to plot, speeding up things just for a moment, so that we can get ahead. We’re going to reach that same point eventually anyway, so why rush it by having the detective remember something that you take sentences (or paragraphs) to belabor?
The Dream Sequence
Oh boy, here’s one of those incredibly overdone tools in the toolbox. Let’s make one thing clear: dreams are not panacea. They’re not just for future divination, they’re not just for exploring alt-realities or worst case scenarios. They’re dreams, abstract depictions of the unconscious, the brain working shit out. Yeah, you can analyze them to the Nth degree, or you can just leave them alone.
I had a dream the other night where I was on one of those semester at sea cruises, and Clive Owen was teaching me history. He led me, after class to large gymnasium, where he shot me and I bled out in the dark. It was unsettling. I woke up scared and in a sweat, only to fall back asleep and have another dream where I talked about the first dream.
You could extrapolate from that a sense that I hate Clive Owen (I don’t), that I hate guns (I do), that I fear dying alone (I do), or that I have a problem with history teaches and gymnasiums (I don’t). You could also discover from that how earlier in the night I was watching a Clive Owen movie on cable, and how I remembered the Mtv show about a semester at sea because one of the girls was attractive, or how I had read an infographic about gun violence that day.
Now if we’re in the context of a manuscript, and I the protag end up on a cruise ship with Clive Owen teaching me history, then you could say that my dream sequence is actually a supernatural predictive ability. The amount of direct coincidence (how closely the dream matches real life) renders this parallel too on the nose, even if my story features my future-predicting abilities.
If the character’s prediction includes the death, then either they know how they die, which renders the rest of the story pointless to read, or they will act in ways to get them away from that situation. That could be interesting, but that assumes the protag would just need to have a new dream, which renders the first dream pointless too.
Like flashbacks, dream sequences interrupt plot to (when used poorly) give us future not-happened-yet plot, or (when used well) give us some character stuff to invest in.
According to my posting schedule, the new Star Wars movie comes out tomorrow. Presumably there are people already camped out for it. If this is my story we’re reading, then as protagonist, whatever I’m doing is the A-plot. Let’s assume that one of the people camping out is my sidekick, let’s call him Mike. We have to assume that Mike has shown up in my story already in order for this to work, so make up some good anecdotes about Mike before you agree with me that he’s totally the kind of guy who would camp out for Star Wars in full costume in December. Yeah, classic Mike.
When we digress from my story to whatever Mike’s doing, we don’t pause time, we pause story. No longer are you reading about me writing, me worrying about whatever I’m worrying about (hint: everything) or me wanting to do fun stuff, now you’re all on Mike and his adventures in a tent on a sidewalk dressed as man-sized Ewok.
Humorous as it may be, this isn’t Mike’s story, this is Mike’s part of my story. Mike isn’t getting top billing along with me, he’s the sidekick. Remember how we talked about character promotions a few days back? Giving Mike more story real estate than his giant Ewok story warrants sends the message that the protagonist (me, in this case) isn’t as critical as an individual.
Worse still, in talking about Mike, you run the risk of creating a story within a story, which doesn’t tie back to the main story line, even I pop in to drop some snark on Ewok-Mike.
If Mike’s having such a great time, and it seems to stand independent of my story, give Mike his own manuscript. Don’t cut Mike out entirely no matter what, because Mike is still a factor in other parts of my story, but the solo adventure of Mike likely doesn’t have a place here.
In all three of these cases (flashbacks, dreams, digressions), you’re pausing the central timeline, which halts the momentum of the story. Stopping that progress means you have to expend some energy to get it back, which can result in some sluggish words to get things back up and moving.
The later that jumpstart happens, the more out of place it feels, and the more jarring it can be to read. The nearer it is to your climax, the harder it will be to make the climax be that biggest point of storytelling, because you fussed with the buildup. Don’t throw the brakes on progress.
Tomorrow, we talk about Plot and something called plot-time. And since Star Wars will be out, you can bet I will be making lightsaber sounds while you read it.
See you then
More plot today on FiYoSHiMo Day 15. I hope you’ve been finding this series helpful. Plot is one of the more abstract and variable elements in storycraft, since we can all come up with a different one even if we start with the same components.
Let’s keep at it today, where we talk about plot sustenance.
You have to be able to keep a plot going once you get it started. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking main plot (the big conflict in the book) or a subplot (a lesser conflict in the book) or a character arc (the evolution of the character over the course of the book), because whatever you start, you need to keep it going.
It’s sort of like running. If you stop moving your legs, you’re not running anymore. Thinking about it now, without moving your legs while running, I think you’d be falling. Someone go test that for me.
Or maybe you’d see it like a fire. You have this nice stack of small pieces of wood and then you introduce this spark, and it catches and burns, continuing to do so for as long as there’s wood to consume.
Either way, you need to keep the plot moving.
This breeds three questions:
a) How do I move the plot forward?
b) How much do I move the plot?
c) How quickly do I move the plot?
So let’s look at each question.
How Do I Move Plot Forward?
The nice thing about plot is that it only has one intended direction (forward) and two possible speeds (moving or immobile).
Plot is driven by scenes, and scenes are driven by character decisions and any consequences that arise from those decisions. Any reactions that other characters or the world has to those initial decisions are also decisions, which is also bear consequences, and around the cycle turns. Basic algebra tells me then that plot is driven by character decisions.
And since a plot can only be acted on by the characters involved in it, the number of decisions is actually pretty small. Which means you get to map them out. Go get your opening scene. I’m going to go get a cup of tea.
Ready? Cool. List me all the characters in this scene. All of them. In any order, doesn’t matter. Just make a list.
Now put a star by the main character(s). Include any antagonists. These are your decision makers in this scene.
What decisions can they make? Write them down too. If any characters can make the same (or similar decisions), make sure they each get it on their list.
As an example, let’s say I have 3 people: A, B, and C. They’re going to go holiday shopping. A and B arrive together in B’s car. C meets them there. The mall is crowded, noisy, and busy. A and B get into an argument about a gift. C is tangential to it.
So what can they do?
Both A and B could work out their problems.
Both A and B could concede their position in the argument
Both A and B could use a variety of tactics to win the argument.
Both A and B could drag C into the argument
C could jump in to defend or attack either A or B
A, B, or C could walk away from this scene at any time.
I’m not talking about what could happen, I mean, I could easily introduce D through Q into the scene. Hyperintelligent dinosaurs could attack the mall Santa. Asteroids could strike the parking lot. There could be a sale on handtowels. Tons of things could happen.
But I want to see the decisions that the involved characters could make, because those decisions are going to make this scene feed into the next. The scene needs to resolve itself, but not all resolutions are pretty things with bows on top. Resolution just means conclusion. It doesn’t always need to be satisfactory, it just needs to be over so the next thing can start.
To move plot, make decisions.
How much do I move the plot?
Since we agree you have to move the plot along over the course of however many words and pages you’re writing, now we start to look at pacing.
Pacing is the flow of plot. The first part of pacing is called “plot division” which is a measure of how big each package of plot is. Do you give out plot every (I’m making numbers up here) 3 scenes? Every other chapter? Every tenth page?
There isn’t a single “you must do it this way” answer. Whatever speed at which you choose to lay out the plot, you just need to be consistent about it. Why? Because if you’re inconsistently delivering plot pieces, then you’re not establishing how important each piece is. And your plot is supposed to be important.
This is usually where someone asks, “What about unimportant pieces of plot?” and I have two responses:
a) Why are you giving the reader unimportant plot?
b) If there are many similar items that can be grouped together (like all the evidence at a crime scene, for example), why aren’t they coming all in one package?
As you build your story through the first two acts, as you reach the climax, your rollercoaster should be gaining momentum. The pacing of details and scenes should reflect the chug-chug-chug of the car up the tracks until we have no choice but to rocket down the slope. And on the downturn, the pacing can slow back down until we’re off the ride.
How fast do I move the plot?
We just talked chug-chug-chug. Now it’s a question of how many chugs, how quickly.
How quick a pace can you maintain? That’s an important question to consider, because you have to be writing this thing, and invariably there are going to be moments that are slower than others. And knowing your own development, even a little, can provide a lot of insight as to how you’ll plan to write. And I’m not just talking about the time you’ll spend sitting and writing, I mean the scenes you right as well. Do the intense scenes take more out of you? Does knowing that you have to do the dull scenes tempt you more to procrastinate? You’ve got to do all the scenes either way, but how you view getting them done is going to affect how you write and what you write, even if you don’t realize it.
Move the plot at whatever speed works best for your production and whatever speed works best for the development of the tension you want to build. Rush me through something, I’m going to assume it’s not important. Take your time and set up something, I’m going to look for a proportionally large payoff.
All of this is up to you: based on your plot, how you divide it, how you choose to dole it out, and how large a story you’re telling. Try out a few different pacings, see what feels comfortable. Practice. Try again. Keep trying.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about plot filler. See you then.