I have been working on a couple of posts (on various not-related sf/f things) that keep not gelling. I was working on one such post while also starting to feel drowsy and decided it was close enough to bed time that I should just pack it in. I fell asleep really quickly. I half-expected to dream about the post I had been wrestling with. Instead I had about six dreams that were all variations of the same story. Most of the dreams weren’t about me, though I and Michael were supporting characters in one variant of the story. And while processing this (and waiting for my coffee to perk), I realized that there was a piece of writing advice I have repeated (and sometimes expounded upon) which my be useful to revisit and reconsider.
Before I jump into that, one weird digression. I saw recently on one of the social media platforms a question: When you dream is it like you are inside the story reacting to whats happening to you, or is it more like you are watching a movie about something happening to you? And I wanted to answer, “Those two choice assume that my dreams are always about me.” Because sometimes my dreams are, indeed, like an immersive experience, and other times as if I’m watching a movie or play… but I don’t always dream that I am me. And in all six of the ones that led to this post, the main character/who I was wasn’t Gene, at all. And in most of them none of the other people were anyone I know in real life.
When I was in school, I had more than one teacher covering English or Literature make the assertion that there are only four plots: person vs person, person vs nature, person vs themself, and person vs society. I wasn’t the only member of the class who didn’t quite buy it—when we came up with counter-examples, the teacher would find a way to shoehorn it into one of the four. In the years since I have seen it much more common for folks to list seven plots… the problem is, I’ve seen at least four variants of the list seven which don’t map to each other very well. Which is probably why other people have written books about the 20-something or 30-something fundamental dramatic situations you can build a story from. And so on.
All the dreams I had that night were variants of: being taken to meet the parents. And specifically, being taken to meet the parents who are not yet comfortable with their child being queer.
I know one reason that my sleeping brain easily cooked up six very different versions of that story is, in part, because being a queer person myself I have (in addition to having some personal experiences with the situation) listened to, read, or watched many, many, many variations of that basic situation.
And that’s the point of the Lauren Beukes quote above: what makes a story is the execution, not the plot.
Which brings me to the piece of writing advice I talked about earlier. It has been observed many times that every person is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, it is useful for the writer to keep the motivations of all of the characters in a story in mind. If you write yourself into a corner, the advice goes, try re-writing some of your scenes from the point-of-view of another character. In a novel-length story if you find yourself needing a subplot to intercut with the main plot, a great source of sub-plots is to pick some supporting characters and ask what is going on in their lives off screen.
And that’s good advice.
But it may also help to actively invert the usual advice. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story… but also everyone is the supporting character or villain of someone else’s story. That might seem to be implied when someone advises that you re-write scenes from other character’s viewpoints to look for ways to move your plot forward, but I’m not sure we all actively think about it that way.
Especially about your hero. Sure, you know that your protagonist is the villain in your antagonist’s story… but is there anyone else who see your protagonist as an irritant, or a burden, or an obstacle… or maybe a villain, just in a different way than your antagonist does?
And in which of the supporting and otherwise background cast of your main story is your protagonist a supporting player, or even merely a superluminary? If you can’t imagine who might look at them this way, maybe you haven’t made your protagonist as well-rounded as you think?
It’s worth thinking about, at least!
I first encountered Neil Gaiman’s writing back in the late 80s and early 90s while he was writing The Sandman for DC Comics. Sandman was not a superhero comic, it was the story of the incarnation/personification of Dreams, and over the course of the series Gaiman told tales crossing many genres: myth, mystery, horror, and a lot of things that are difficult to classify. It won a bunch of awards. One issue won a World Fantasy Award for short story–a thing which shocked some people so much they changed the rules so that no graphic novel or graphic story could ever be nominated in a World Fantasy Award writing category again.
Anyway, over the years after I would encounter some of Gaiman’s short stories and novels. Some I liked, some I didn’t. But the ones I liked were always so good that I would always at least give a new story a try.
When I first saw reviews of his 2001 novel, American Gods it sounded like something that would be right up my alley. A combination of fantasy and Americana that looks at the question, if ancient mythological creatures were all real, where are they now and what are they doing? Admittedly themes Gaiman had already explored in Sandman, but it’s an area of fantasy of which am an enamored. So I expected to love the novel.
It would not be fair to say I hated the novel simply because I have never been able to make myself finish it. I got bogged down maybe a quarter of the way through. Since I’m often reading multiple books at any given time, I set it aside with a bookmark in place and grabbed another book on one of my shelves with a bookmark and read it. Months later I happened across American Gods on one of my shelves, and I picked it up read some more. And I still wasn’t feeling it.
A few years later I headed into the computer room at our old house intending to copy some files from my desktop computer to take back to my laptop and my comfy chair in the living room and get some writing done. We used to have a small stereo in the computer room that one or the other of us could plug our iPods into. When my husband was playing video games on his computer, he often listened to audiobooks on the stereo. He was in the middle of one such book when I entered the computer room that day.
And during the few minutes it took me to find the files I needed and copy them, I found myself sucked into the book he was listening to. I sat there for more than a half hour listening. I only stopped because my husband paused his game for a bathroom break, and also paused the book. I asked him if, as I suspected, the book he had been listening to was Anansi Boys. It is sort of a sequel to American Gods, though Gaiman said he thought of the second book first. Anyway, it shares one important character, and essentially happens in the same world.
I asked my husband if we had a hardcopy of the book. He said he thought his copy was on the shelf next to his side of the bed. So I went, found the book, and spent the rest of the night reading Anansi Boys from the beginning, instead of writing. I quite enjoyed the book.
So not long after, I figured that maybe, now that I had finished the sort-of-sequel and really liked it, I should give American Gods another chance. After all, I had disliked and not finished the first three or four Discworld books people had tried to get me to read years before. Then a friend convinced me to read Wyrd Sisters and, well, it wasn’t long before I owned a copy of every single Discworld book there was.
I still found it impossible to become interested in American Gods or its main characters.
There are many people whose opinions I respect who really like American Gods. There are many people whose opinions I respect who don’t like it—I can think of at least one friend who hates it with a passion. I don’t hate it, I just can’t get into it. On the other hand, there is the related book I love, and a number of other things by the same author I love.
The lesson to be learned here is: not every story is for every reader.
If someone reads your story and doesn’t seem to be interested—even if they come out and say they hate it—that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. All we can know from that data point is that that particular story is not for that person.
So don’t let the fact that anyone has ever reacted poorly to something you wrote stop you from writing something else. Don’t listen to that voice that says that no one will be interested in this story. Or that says you shouldn’t try. And so on.
There is someone out there who needs the story you are trying to tell. I am confident of that. But they will never know they need it until they find it. And they will never find it if you don’t write it.
So, go! Write! Tell that story! Now!
They aren’t always happy when I tell them that this thing they have gotten into spirited arguments with their spouse/relative/co-worker over doesn’t have a clear answer.
They are even less happy when I tell them that it does have a clear answer, and they are partially correct but have misunderstood the actual rule. I’ll give an example.
Which of the following do you think is correct:
- A FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police.
- An FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police
I’ve had a huge number of engineers who insist the first sentence is correct because “you only use ‘an’ when the next work begins with a vowel.” And they are sort of right, but completely wrong. Whether one uses the indefinite article “a” or its variant “an” isn’t determined by the spelling of the following word, it is determined by the pronunciation. Because most people pronounce that three-letter initialism FBI as if it were spelled “eff-bee-eye.”
It isn’t whether the next word begins with a vowel, it’s whether the next word begins with a vowel sound.
If that’s still a little too vague for you, you can use the instruction given in the Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer: “Use the indefinite article a before words in which the first sound is a consonant, a sounded h or a long u… Use the indefinite article an before words in which the first sound is a vowel, except long u, and before words beginning with a silent h.”
The reason that pronunciation determines which word is used is because written English is not a programmatic system for creating sentences nor an algorithmic apparatus for manipulating the alphabet. Written English is a methodology for representing the speech of English speakers. And when you try to pronounce a phrase like, “a hour” it feels wrong. The “uh” bleeds into the “ow” sound. Some people literally can’t force themselves to say it without the “nnnn” sound in there to break them apart; that’s how deeply rooted the habit has become.
This is a bit of a ramble to get to my point (and to introduce a new series of posts I’ve been plotting for a while): using language is not like assembling a piece of furniture. Language can be ambiguous and still be proper from a grammatical standpoint. Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sentences usually provide enough context that which meaning the author wants is clear. But sometimes the ambiguity is the author’s intent. That’s how much of poetry works; a line or group of lines are constructed in such a way that several meanings of a particular word are evoked, in order to create a synthesis or a juxtaposition of the concepts.
One of my problems when I am copy editing someone else’s work is not just that I have a bad habit of unconsciously decoding common typographic errors (so I literally don’t perceive the wrong word a person has written in some cases), but also because I love the many variant ways that language can work. Enforcing a standard style guide is difficult, because sometimes, even though a sentence in a particular article or instruction violates the guide, it more elegantly conveys the meaning than one which followed the guide.
This isn’t to say I don’t have my own style preferences that I will enforce on others if I’m in an editorial role (copy editors I have worked with can tell you about the long rows we’ve had because I insist that the only acceptable spelling is “okay” and not “OK” for instance), but I also know that those instances are preferences that I’m insisting on because I like them, not because there is an absolutely right or wrong answer to the particular question.
There are times when ambiguity is bad. There are times when you have to make the meaning crystal clear leaving as little doubt as possible about the exact meaning of a particular description or instruction. Most of those cases have to do with procedures which people are undertaking: instructions related to medical conditions, or repairing equipment, or recording legal documents. But quite often in fiction, a little ambiguity is required; it provides the wiggle room necessary to breathe life into your story.
“Semicolons revel in ambiguity; ambiguity is beautiful.”
This is hardly the first time I’ve written on this topic, of course: Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana.
A few months back James Palmer posted A Message About Message Fiction that hit several of the points that I have tried making before about writing, including the notion that from one perspective, all fiction is message fiction. Which isn’t to say that every story is meant to convey an ideology or convince the reader to accept a particular thesis. Writers, just like all other people, perceive the world via minds that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences; they craft narratives in frameworks built from their beliefs, memories, hopes, fears, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas encountered throughout their lifetime.
A story cannot exist without such a framework.
But seeing the world through the writer’s eyes is not—or should not be—the same as being indoctrinated with an ideology. I’ve seen many people try to make the distinction between message fiction and fiction which happens to have a message. I never found their arguments persuasive, coming to the conclusion that they were talking about a difference without a distinction. I thought I was through talking about this, but then a friend asked a question about metaphors and how you craft them. At the time, I was too busy explaining that that isn’t how my process works (I never plan a metaphor on purpose; other people have to point them out to me in my story afterward) to notice that while he was talking about metaphors, he also expressed the desire to craft a story that didn’t beat a notion over the reader’s head, but rather left them thinking about things afterward. It didn’t leap out to me until I was re-reading our text exchange later, while looking for a link he’d sent me earlier.
That seemed like an important distinction: preachy message fictions delivers an answer, whereas good stories raise questions.
Yes, the way the author poses the question may tilt toward a particular answer, but that isn’t the same thing as insisting on that answer.
I’m a little embarrassed that this particular means of drawing a distinction didn’t occur to me before, because my own writing process has always been about looking for answers to questions. Sometimes the question is, who are these two characters jabbering away in the back of my head? but it’s always a question. If the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to have great luck, what about the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (or seventh son of seventh daughter, or seventh daughter of a seventh son)? What if a dragon sought redemption? What if a prophet/seer was always right–and she insists that freewill is real? What if a god retires? What if the foretold apocalypse literally can not be averted?
I start with questions like that and then write to try to find an answer. That’s my process, I really am writing to try to find out how the story ends. In longer stories, there is usually a point long before I reach the end where I realize what the ending will be, and then I spend time figuring out how I get from what I have to the end, but I almost never know how a story will end when I start it.
Just because that’s the way I work, I am not saying that that’s the way everyone else ought to write stories. A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite writers usually can’t start a story until he knows the ending. He spends a lot of time thinking about the situation until he figures out how everything will go. That process works for him and creates great tales. But when we’ve talked about his process, he doesn’t talk about metaphors or messages: he talks about actions and consequences, and whether the reader will enjoy the ride. So even then, the focus isn’t on trying to convince the reader to agree with something.
While working on earlier drafts of this blog post, I went back and re-read a lot of the articles and blog posts about message fiction that I had read when wrestling with this question previously. When I examined the specific examples cited in each one, I found that most of those articles that tried to draw a distinction between message fiction and fiction with a message really were just constructing rationalizations to commend messages they agreed with and condemn the messages with which they disagreed. So my earlier conclusion, that it was a difference without a distinction was completely wrong. There was a distinction, but it wasn’t being explicitly (or honestly) delineated.
Some of my favorite stories (whether novels, short stories, or movies) have been tales that blew my mind by making me see something I had never seen before. They made me question my own assumptions. And the ones that did that didn’t just push forward an agenda, they problematized assumptions. What I mean is, they took a set of assumptions—whether the author’s or those held by a significant proportion of society—and examined problematic implications of said assumptions. They created a situation where I could see more than one side of the issue; in other words, they made more than own perspective on the problem appear reasonable.
In other words, they are stories where, at some point in the process, the author was exploring. Which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, an essential part of art. Message fiction doesn’t explore, it dictates. And that isn’t art, at all.
For another take on some of the topics covered here, but not from the viewpoint of a sci fi fan, you might find this informative: The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right—From ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ to Newt’s Moon Base to Donald’s Wall
So I write it down (or as much as I can) and see if I can keep the conversation going. If I don’t know who some or all of the characters are, I try to figure out who they are. I ask myself why they are talking about this interesting thing? What is at stake? Why does each person in this conversation care?
Notice that I haven’t yet asked ‘What happens next?’ Some people operate under the mistaken notion that the plot of a story (play, movie, series, whatever form your story takes) is what happens—this happens, then this, and then this guy does that, then she does this, then another thing happens, et cetera.
Nope. Plot is a problem, obstacle, or riddle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and forms the connection between all of the events in between. Plot can be described as the blow-by-blow style of the action of the story, but getting all those actions in order generally follows long after figuring out the central conflict.
So at this stage, I’m trying to find that problem or conflict that will drive the story. That means I’m also still trying to figure out who’s my protagonist(s). You might think that as soon as I figure out one, I’ll know the other, and generally that’s true, but a single problem/obstacle/mystery can confront mulitple people, who all have to deal with it. So finding the right protagonist for your tale among the involved characters can be a challenge.
One of my favorite examples of a conflict that can have more than one protagonist is illustrated wonderfully in two middle-grade books by Mary Stolz: A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street. In the first book, the protagonist, Edward, would love to be free of the constant bullying of Martin, another boy who lives on his street. Edward also would really love to have a dog of his own, and is a bit jealous that other boys who have dogs. The second book happens at exactly the same time, and for the most part involves the same series of events, but Martin is the progagonist who has no friends and constantly tried to prove that this doesn’t bother him by picking on others.
Some times it takes a really long time for me to sort out the plot and protagonist. Years ago I had an idea for a story set in the sci fi shared universe of the Tai-Pan Literary & Arts Project. I knew who all the involved characters were and I knew what the problem was. And I thought I knew who the protagonist was. So I wrote about half of the story and read what I had at the monthly writers’ meeting. I wasn’t even halfway through the opening scene before I knew I had it all wrong. Reading the scene aloud for the first time told me that I was approaching it wrong, but also feeling the energy in the room, as some people fidgeting and others started scribbling down critiques made it clear this wasn’t the compelling story I thought it was.
I tried starting the story at a slightly different place. But when I read that over to myself, I knew it was still wrong. So I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other stories, instead. Some time later I tried writing it from a different character’s viewpoint. Things seemed to be moving along a lot better, but when I shared it with the writers’ group it was clear, once again, that I hadn’t had it right. Once again, the story went onto a back burner and I worked on other things for many more months.
Sometimes you do have to set a story aside for a long time, let it percolate in your subconscious while you work on (and complete) other stories. It may take a long time.
I tried to tell this storfy from two other characters’ points of view, but it still didn’t work. Finally, I used a modified version of an exercise from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s excellent book, Building Fiction:
For every character in the story I wrote out the answers to these questions:
- What does this character want immediately/externally?
- What does this character want on a deeper, emotional level?
- What is preventing this character from getting the external thing they want?
- What is preventing the character from getting the internal thing they want?
- What is the moment in the story when the character believes that they will not get what they want?
- What is the character thinking and feeling at that point?
I did it for every character that I thought had any role at all in the story. And once I had those things written out, I realized that one problem was that the character whose viewpoint I tried at the beginning believes she will never get what she wants, so her reaction at the crisis point of the story is to shrug and cynically say, “I knew it!” And one of the other characters never, ever believes that he can’t get what he wants, because he sees several ways to get it at every point.
Finally I saw that one of the characters I had been thinking all along as a supporting character was the person who thinks she can solve the puzzle, then learns that the problem is different than she thought, then sees everything fall apart, and then could have an epiphany and turn the situation around. Suddenly, everything clicked. I was up late a couple of nights in a row getting the story through to the end, but this time I was sure I was correct. And the writers’ group confirmed it, not by saying, “You got it!” No, instead, everyone’s critiques were about little quibbles of grammar and the like.
The events that all of the failed versions of my story covered were the same, in the abstract, as what happens in the final version that worked and was eventually published. What was different was I found the character for whom those events represented something that could be lost, but still fought for, and for whom overcoming the issue required her growing or changing.
Figuring that out is where plots come from!
An expository dump (or info dump) is a “a very large amount of information supplied all at once, expecially as background information in a narrative.” That’s a rather academic definition, and like most language definitions, it contains subjective terms. Exposition is simply text that explains something. Narratives need a certain amount of exposition to work. What I object to is large chunks of explanation that stops the action of the story. For example, a few years ago I wrote about a fantasy novel I stopped reading because the third or fourth chapter of the book consisted entirely of one character lecturing another about the history of the world. That’s sloppy writing, at best.
I don’t have anything against exposition, per se. There’s a lot of expository writing in some of my favorite novels. Just earlier this week, for instance, I was reading in Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair (which is a non-eurocentric steampunk novel, so far), a description of a small train. The description gave us some hints of how the fictional world’s technology differs from our own history, gave us a sense of not just the look of one of the supporting characters, but his personality, and also had hints about the social strata of the country which the viewpoint character was visiting. But this wasn’t a long passage. It was only two paragraphs. And rather than prattling on for pages about the history of the country, it gave us a few tidbits of information from which we could infer more. And it isn’t just description. Something is happening: a supporting character is arriving to some anticipation of the viewpoint character.
In my own writing you will find very little exposition. To me, the heart of any story are the triumphs, failures, hopes, and fears of the characters moving through it. Yes, I’ve done a lot of world building. If you ask, I can go on an length about all sorts of things in the history of the fictional world where my fantasy novels are set. I have to know all of that stuff to tell stories. But most readers are interested only in a fraction of it.
No one wants to read a scene in which one character prattles on about how ten years ago when the previous emperor died, a group of traitorous nobles assassinated several of the heirs in an attempt to grab the throne for themselves, including the motives of each of the conspirators, who died and who survived. When it was important to the plot I’m writing now, I had one character mention “the succession crisis in the capitol year ago.” There was another point where that history was relevant to the reason one character was hostile to another, and was able to have just a few lines of the argument between those characters give a few more details. But those lines also moved the plot point that was happening right that moment along, and gave the reader some insight into the personalities of the two arguers (as well as a couple of other characters who were trying to get them to stop arguing and deal with the problem at hand).
I do that because I trust that readers are smart enough to put pieces together and build their own picture of the world. I don’t need the reader to visualize exactly how the stitching on a character’s clothing looks, or the precise shape of the filigree on a particular piece of furniture, or to keep track of which pillows are round and which are square in order to follow the story.
If I wanted to tell the story of the succession crisis, I would make the crisis itself the story. I’d pick one of the characters involved as my protagonist and tell the tale. But if it’s backstory, we don’t need all the details. Sure, it’s handy to know that in the present timeline, one particular vampire-like character was one of the failed conspirators who was cursed by someone who loved one of the murdered heirs (hey, it’s a fantasy universe, why can’t we have a good curse every now and then?). That tells you how the character wound up an evil parasitic undead, and gives you some hints as to how trustworthy he is going to be to his alleged allies in the current story. It may also help the reader understand his motives at later points in the tale. But I was able to convey that in a couple of lines of dialog and keep moving on with the current tale.
Not everyone is as comfortable without all the details as I am. I understand that. And there’s a part of me that always worries that I haven’t given readers enough clues. So sometimes I do something like write a whole chapter worth of flashback, which I read and re-read and argue with myself about whether it’s really needed and do I really want pull the reader out of the current story.
And eventually I usually figure out that if I tweaked some dialog over here, and add a small scene where two characters who weren’t aware of the past events find some of the aftermath, and realize that yes, I should trust the reader to figure it out and move those flashbacks over into my big file of background information that the reader is never going to see.
Because part of trusting the story is trusting the reader to not just to follow it. I want the reader caught up in the story I’m telling right now. I want the reader turning the pages as quickly as they can, breathlessly asking, “And then what happens?”
Similarly, you can be unhappy with a story because you feel the story is reinforcing sexist, or homophobic, or racist, or ableist myths. You can call out the problem when a story pushes that agenda. You can express your disappointment. You can organize a boycott. But again, pointing out problems in a narrative should not turn into harassment of the people involved.
In this case it was actually two hordes of idiots harassing the writer. One group were angry because they thought the writer was pushing a relationship between two characters they didn’t want together. The other group were angry because the relationship wasn’t going where it had “clearly” been implied it was going.
Readers aren’t the only ones who can be jerks. Writers can disrespect their audience; they can make mistakes, abuse the reader’s trust, they can cheat and exploit their audience. Which isn’t to say that the writer owes any reader or group of readers a specific outcome, or a particular plot resolution. But as writers we must always remember Niven’s Law for Writers: It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.
In the simplest sense that means that as writers we owe the reader our best professional effort. We tell the story as best we can. No story and no draft will ever be perfect, so we can’t get hung up on revising until it is, but we don’t turn in a half-assed effort.
I want to make a brief digression here. Most of my fiction writing and publishing has been in small press and amateur publications. Occasionally, when as an editor I have given writers aspiring to those publications feedback and requests for re-writes, a writer has pushed back. “You can’t hold me to professional standards, I’m not getting paid!” I didn’t quibble over the fact that technically, because we were giving them free copies of the publication if we used their story it meant they were getting paid, instead I said, “I’m publishing to professional readers. They pay for the privilege of reading my zine. And even though what they pay barely covers the costs of printing, and doesn’t provide any monetary compensation to you, or me, or the copy editors, or the layout specialist, the reader is still paying.” Of course they didn’t have to make re-writes if they didn’t want to. But if they didn’t, I wasn’t going to publish the story, because I wasn’t going to ask my readers to spend their time or money on a story I didn’t think was ready.
To get back to what we mean when we say it is a sin to waste the reader’s time, in a deeper sense that means playing fair. If there are mysteries for the reader to try to solve, you can’t withhold information. Obscure it amongst a bunch of other description? Sure. Distract the reader by dangling a red herring in the same scene? Also perfectly reasonable, but you can’t simply not show the reader vital information.
Also, don’t spring surprises on the reader merely for the sake of shock. It’s easy to think that surprises and shocks and twists are the only way to create suspense, but that’s wrong. Suspense happens when the reader cares about your character. If you create characters the reader identifies with and cares about, you can create suspense out of anything that the character cares about. You create that caring by treating the reader with respect and showing the reader the hearts of your characters.
Don’t lead the reader down a painful emotional path without giving them a pay-off. If you make the reader care about the protagonist and then allow the reader to see a horrible thing happen to the protagonist, don’t skip past the messy emotional fallout. You don’t have to show blood and gore—often graphic descriptions of violence are more boring than engaging—but show us how the bad thing affected the characters. Let the reader experience their sorrow or anger or triumph. Don’t skip that to get to the next plot twist.
When you tell a story, you are asking the reader to give you their time and attention. Make sure that the journey your tale takes them on is worth it.
“It is a little out of touch to presume that someone wants to follow your every observation and insight over the course of hundreds of pages without any sort of payoff. That’s why writing isn’t a one-way street. You have to give something back: an interesting plot, a surprise, a laugh, a moment of tenderness, a mystery for the reader to put together.” — Christopher Bollen
Years ago a friend shared an article from Writer’s Digest that referenced the old Krazy Kat newspaper comic strip, which had a running gag involving one of the characters getting hit in the head with a brick. The article said that the place to begin your story is the moment your protagonist his hit in the head metaphorically by the problem or conflict or riddle which forms the basis of the plot. The moment when the character realizes this is a big problem. The moment when the character discovers that this isn’t just going to be another day in her life.
I read a lot of amateur fiction, fan fiction, and rough drafts of other people’s work. And I’ve noticed that lots of people don’t understand that. They start the story long before the brick. They may still start the story when something disruptive happens in the character’s life, but it’s more like a moment that they character stumbled on a door step, days or weeks or months before the brick.
The worst are stories that end with the brick. We meet a character who is in a difficult situation. We meet some of the other characters in the protagonist’s life. Things happen and the situation gets worse. We see the character struggle with the issue, trying to figure out what’s really happening. The character attempts to get out of the bad situation a few ways, and either fails entirely or achieves a temporary relief that leads to a worse situation. And then there’s a big dramatic, shocking moment… and the story just stops. We’ve finally reach a point where the story has gotten really interesting, and the writing snaps the book closed and snatches the story, metaphorically, from our hands.
I just finished a story like that, where the character suffers through a lot, persevering through an unjust imprisonment and enduring various indignities, making a teeny bit of headway with one of the other prisoners, and then finally learning a little bit about one (and only one) of the mysteries the writer had been teasing us with for the entire story, and then that was it—an previously unseen character whose existence had been hinted at appears, causes a lot of damage, rescues the other prisoner and leaves. We get a denouement in which the protagonist is released, receives an apology of sorts from some of the authorities and goes. We never know what happened to any of the specific people responsible for the imprisonment, we never learn why a lot of the things that happened to the character happened, et cetera.
That’s not an ending, that’s an abandonment!
I know that someone will defend the author’s decisions by saying that we don’t always get all the answers in real life, and that bad people don’t always get what we think they deserve, and so on. But this isn’t real life. It’s fiction. The difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has the make sense. The author is free to tell and omit what he or she wants, yes, but never forget that it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. You may not want to tell the story about the mysterious character who rescues one of the others in the end for whatever reason. But by structuring the rest of the story this way, the author has teased the reader. Worse than that, the author has misled the reader. The author has laid out a lot of intriguing questions, sprinkle in some enticing tidbits, clearly implying that those breadcrumbs would lead to something interesting. And then the author didn’t deliver.
It’s a bait and switch.
Don’t get me wrong: leaving some things open-ended for the reader to debate and wrestle with is all right. But the conflict introduced the beginning needs to be resolved (by the protagonist’s own actions) at the end. Not solved, necessarily, but resolved. I failure to solve the problem is a resolution, after all.
This particular “story” isn’t actually a story, it’s the backstory to a story the author didn’t write. At least the way it is structured. It’s like. Sci fi story I read a long time ago in which a journalist is approached by a crackpot claiming people are being replaced by robots. The journalist doesn’t believe the guy at first, then various things happen that make it seem there might be something sinister going on, then the crackpot suddenly changes his tune, insisting he was mistaken and off his meds. The story ends with the journalist laying in bed, unable to sleep, something makes him check his wife for a heartbeat. And the final line of the story is that he can’t hear a heart beat in her chest, just a mechanical whirring!
It might have even ended with more than one exclamation point.
That wasn’t an ending, that was a beginning. Because the interesting tale isn’t that people don’t believe dangerous things are happening around them. The most interesting conflict is: what do you do when you find out your loved one has been replaced by an android?
Go back to the brick. Crackpots spout nonsense at people all the time. You don’t have to be a journalist to have some stranger come up to you and make extraordinary claims. Just stand at a bus stop on a busy bus line for a few hours and it will happen a lot. If you are a journalist, it must be even more common place. So that wasn’t a brick, it wasn’t even a stumble. It was business as usual. The brick was finding out the crackpot was correct. The story scould have begun with, “Everything fell apart night John discovered his wife had no heart. He had been chuckling to himself just before hand. A crazy man had contacted him, insisting he had proof of a conspiracy. John had known it had to be a delusion, despite all the evidence and the strange incidents that happened with the cars with darkened windows and mysterious sounds behind closed doors. He had only checked as a joke. It would make a funny story to share at the next cocktail party. But then he put the stenthoscope to her sleeping chest…”
And then you go from there. You don’t need all the back story. You can fill in details later, if needed. Fit the facts the reader needs to understand in dialog, that sort of thing.
Find the brick. Hit your character in the head. And then show us what she does about it!
I always thought I was one of the world’s biggest Star Wars fans. I was 16 years old when the first movie was released, and I saw it with two slightly older friends one of whom was a hard core science fiction/fantasy fan who subscribed to magazines and fanzines no one had heard of and was always talking about the intricacies of how this make-up artist did that thing, et cetera. Our small town in southwest Washington state had only two theatres back then and seldom got anything new, so these friends were always driving down to Portland, Oregon to see movies none of us had heard of.
They convinced me to go see this movie that they thought might be good on opening night. My mind was blown away. We hadn’t expected it to be so awesome. The next day we convinced several of our friends to caravan down in several cars to see Star Wars in a big group. They were equally as mind-blown.
We took another group of friends down a couple weekends later. Over the course of the summer of ’77, I drove myself and various friends down another 13 times to watch Star Wars again. The movie finally opened at one of our small town theatres in August, I think, and some friends who had refused to take the long drive to see it finally went with me to watch it on a fairly tiny screen. By that point, I not only knew every single line of dialog, but I could engage in trivia battles with my friends.
I organized excursions to go see each of the two sequels on opening day. For Return of the Jedi, two of my best friends and I got up at 4am to drive down to the big theatre in Oregon where I’d first seen Star Wars and Empire and we sat in line all day. I was 18th in line that morning for the first showing to the film.
I’m always a little amazed when I realize how many friends I have, now, who were too young to have experienced the movies the way I did. To them, Obi Wan, Luke, Leia, and Han weren’t cool characters in this awesome movie, they were beings of legend on a par with Santa Claus or Moses. And thus many of those friends have gone through all the phases of believing in the original tale, learning that it is a story that someone somewhere made up, becoming a bit cynical about the process of making movies and selling toys, and so on. Which isn’t to say they they don’t love the films. A lot of them revere them, and defend them as a treasured part of their childhood.
I didn’t go through those phases with this particular story. I was old enough that I could see which parts of the movie were homages to the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, which parts of the movie harkened to Westerns, and so on. That didn’t make me love the story any less, by no means. Look how many times I drove to watch it!
I didn’t own my own copy of the movie on VHS tape until I was nearly 30 years old. It was one of the first movies I bought after finally getting my own VCR. (That’s another thing, I’m old enough to remember when VCRs were a new gadget that only really well-to-do people could afford to own.)
To this day when I watch the original movie, I find it a little jarring to see those words “Episode IV – A New Hope” appear at the top of that initial screen crawl. That wasn’t there for that entire first run of the movie. It was added when the movie was released on home video, and in the re-release to theatres just before The Empire Strikes Back came out. It doesn’t matter that for 37 years that movie has been referred to as “Episode IV: A New Hope,” my visceral reaction is, “No. That isn’t the real name. The real name of the movie is simply ‘Star Wars.'”
I’m not recounting all of this to disparage anyone else’s appreciation of the film, or to try to prove that I’m more of an authority than anyone else. I chose my opening sentence to this post with a purpose. It implies something that I now want to make explicit: I always thought I was one of the world’s biggest Star Wars fans, but I’m not the biggest. I can’t be. I have seen people very literally insist that they will cease to be friends with people if those people spoil the new movie for them.
And that’s simply insane.
Seriously, you are the sort of person who will discard another human being because they slip up and mention something about a movie?
I love Star Wars. It changed my life. It changed my view of storytelling. It set a standard that I still measure other stories against. And I’m a storyteller myself, now, who believes that storytelling is not merely fundamental to the definition of human, but that it is a transformational force which can move the world. I believe all of that, but I’m also able to understand that a plot twist is not more important than a human being. A literary surprise should not be more valuable to you than the love or affection you feel for another person.
I’ve made ludicrous statements myself, such as that I can’t be friends with someone who thinks The Phantom Menace was a good script. I’ve said things about movies or books or shows that I love and people who don’t share my enthusiasm which were insensitive at best, and outright cruel/pure assholery at worst. And then felt like a complete heel when I realized how I sounded. So I recognize that people might be being just a little hyperbolic. I realize that maybe these same people would regret it if they really did ostracize someone for “spoiling” the movie.
I hope, at least. Because here’s the thing: if you really love Star Wars that much, you should love the fact that other people love it. And maybe they don’t love it exactly the way you do. And maybe they love it so much that when they talk about it they reveal some details that you think of as spoilers, where as they think they’re just telling you it was awesome. It’s fine to let people know that you would like to be spoiler-free. And clearly, if someone tells you the ending for the malicious and intentional purpose of upsetting you, they are being an asshole and maybe you would be better off without them.
I try, myself, not to mention plot twists or reveals and the like of anything I’m watching or reading. I constantly bite my tongue about which clone is my favorite in the series Orphan Black, for instance, because merely mentioning my love of the character could spoil an important plot-twist that happens near the beginning of the second season. Even though it has been out for years, now, there are still friends I’m trying to get to watch the show, and I don’t want to ruin the joy I felt when that reveal happened.
But it’s just a story. It isn’t actually a matter of life and death. And just as we hurt people when we make disparaging remarks about things they like that we don’t, we also cause pain when we piss all over someone else’s enthusiasm. We shouldn’t do that. Especially about things they love.
I’m trying to learn not to do it. Won’t you join me?
But, getting the rough draft together is no mean feat. And it’s whole lot easier to revise something once you’ve got a rough draft than it is to create the first draft to begin with6.
Now, some people operate under the mistaken notion that by editing we mean going through the story line by line to correct spelling and get the punctuation right. No, that’s copy editing. And you do that at the very end. Which isn’t to say that you oughtn’t fix any spelling errors, typos, and so forth that you notice during the first editing pass, but that isn’t what editing is. It’s not even the most important part of editing.
Storytelling isn’t about creating perfectly structured sentences with perfectly spelled words and having every comma at just the right spot. One reason why that isn’t nearly as important as many people think is because there are a lot fewer rules of grammar than most people believe. There are wrong ways to use a comma, yes, but there are an infinite number of completely different but still right ways to use (or omit) one as well. A lot of the “rules” that people have learned aren’t rules at all. They aren’t even, often, good guidelines. They are preferences in some case—and outright myths in others.
Writing isn’t a simple algorithmic function. A story needs to live and breathe. A story has a mood, sometimes that mood changes as the tale moves along. Some parts of a story move more quickly than others. You may have a rapid fight scene with a lot of angry posturing and taunting between the opponents, followed by a more leisurely description of the aftermath, when the conquering heroine comforts the person she rescued. And you control pacing by varying things like length of sentence, length of paragraphs, choices of punctuation, and so on.
No style guide, no matter how good, can tell you how to structure a sentence to be brassy and defiant. You have to let the context be your guide.
But before you get to copy editing, you need to revise, restructure, and clean up your story. In my day job as a technical writer we have several terms for different types of editing. And the one you need to concern yourself with first is what we call a developmental edit. This is where you look at things such as the structure of the story, the plotting, the pacing, the characterization, the tone, and the overall reading experience. This is something that is very hard to do to your own work if you haven’t been writing for a long time, but it’s something you can learn, and just like writing, you learn it primarily by doing. But you also have to study.
Pick up some good books about structure and narrative7, and read at least one all the way through before you pick up your manuscript at start the edit pass. I admit, at least half of the reason I give this particular piece of advice is to give you some time away from your story. You need some emotional distance in order to look at your work objectively8.
Then you need to look at the story first as a whole. What is your central conflict that drives your main character’s actions? Does this conflict run like a thread from the beginning to the end of the story, or does it get tangled and cut off midway through, and another conflict entirely take over?
What about the emotional arc of each of your characters? This is another way of looking at the theme of the story. Why should the reader care about the things that happen to your leads and supporting characters? What is at stake and how do they feel about it? In what way do they change? Or what prevents them from changing?
Does the order of events make sense? Are you missing connecting scenes? Do you need to have a few characters spell out their motives a bit more?
Is the pacing of the story overall consistent with the plot? Does the pacing of individual scenes match the mood, purpose, and context of that scene?
Do your sub-plots compliment the main plot, or are they distractions? Does each sub-plot line up with the emotional arc of at least one character?
There’s a lot to work on. And at some point you’re going to have to let someone you trust (and by trust, I mean, they will give you their honest opinion) read what you’ve got to see how they react to it. So long as you remember Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Before you do that, you should try the trick of reading it aloud in an empty room. You will be amazed when you read a scene aloud to yourself at all of the things that are wrong with it which you never noticed while reading it silently.
Editing is work, but it has rewards. There will be moments during the editing process when you’re just sloughing through, and start wondering if it’s worth it. And there will be other moments that inspiration will strike and you’ll find yourself writing new bits or revising existing bits that feel as exciting as the best moments of the first draft.
Just remember: the goal is to tell the story the best that you can. Never forget that.
“Write drunk; edit sober.”
1. A writer I follow on Twitter re-tweeted another writer who said, “An agent recently told me that every December 1 she receives hundreds of unsolicited, awful, unedited manuscripts. Don’t be that person.” So, obviously, there are people who don’t realize that a rough draft needs edit and re-write passes2.
2. This shouldn’t surprise me. As the editor of a non-profit amateur publishing project for more than 20 years I frequently received unsolicited manuscripts from people who were absolutely aghast when we asked for re-writes. “Can’t you do that?”3.
3. And I’ve written before about people who have never written a thing in their lives and are convinced that their life experiences would make a great book—and then find out that I’m a writer. They are always shocked that I’m not willing let them tell me their anecdotes so that I will write it up for them for a promise of a small percentage of the proceeds?4
4. Though my favorite was still the woman who, after listening to my explanation of the project at our table in a Dealer’s Den of a sci fi convention, asked if we she could dictate her stories to us and we just write it down. I referred her to services that will do that and she was appalled that someone would actually charge to type her stories for her. “I’m doing the hard part! I thought it up!”5
5. See, it isn’t just artists who have to contend with this!
6. Even though there are times while working on the rough draft that you probably despaired of ever finishing, there were also times when the words just seemed to fly from your fingers. You didn’t always know what was coming next, but right that moment, inspiration was driving you, and it was fun.
7. Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure by Jesse Lee Kercheval is an excellent place to start. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Garder is excellent. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham is very good. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. LeGuin is very good. There are a lot of other excellent choices. Lots of people swear by Stephen King’s On Writing, and it’s an excellent book, but I found it more useful in terms of thinking about the writing process than looking at the structure of a finished story.
8. Or as objectively as anyone can look at anything.