The dread god of the machine

On August 6, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, The world of my would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast word count I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (And I don’t want to invoke deus ex machina any more than I can help.)

I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (it’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

This from me: I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

And from Moryah: The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.

Back to Melissa Mead: Mm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible.   

I wish I could give more context without being spoilery… The basic idea is that the Aureni have the healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

…hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should.

First off, for those who don’t know, deus ex machina means, literally, god in the machine. The term originated in classical Greek theater, where play conflict was resolved when a contraption bore actors onstage who portrayed the gods and solved all the problems.

The charm of a deus ex machina is that the writer can pile on trouble after trouble without worrying about their resolution, because the gods are going to swoop in at the end and whoosh the difficulties away. I imagine that ancient theatergoers expected this and derived their pleasure from watching the train–or chariot–wreck unroll.

Fairies in most fairy tales as traditionally told operate as dei ex machina. And we who adapt these stories for modern readers struggle against this device to give our human characters agency.

The question about offending readers has come up before, and I’ve written posts about it, which you can find under the category “giving offense.” But I’ll revisit the subject briefly. I worry about this, too, although I tell myself not to. We can’t control our pesky (hah!) readers, who may take offense at story elements we think are completely innocuous. As long as we aren’t intending to give offense–I don’t even want to write that! I don’t want to give offense in my books for kids, but I don’t much care in my poems for adults, who can watch out for themselves, and some of you may be writing for grownups. And I think an argument can be made even in children’s books for being willing to give offense. A writer may want to challenge readers, for example. My guess is that YA author M. T. Anderson wasn’t very concerned about giving offense when he wrote Feed, which is a terrific though disturbing book.

On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to write stories that, for example, reinforce stereotypes. As a newly old person who just turned seventy, I often cringe at representations of the elderly in the media. How many forty-year-olds can drop down and pop out twenty push-ups, heh? I can, though of diminishing depth after the first ten.

And, of course, I oppose any writing that may incite violence.

But I think we know when we’re crossing a line. Most of us are probably over-cautious and keep the danger zone too far from our writing.

Onto the deity!

Melissa says that the second book’s central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to accomplish. If this is a central premise, we need to take time to set it up.

We can ask ourselves, Under what conditions might this villain be able to do this impossible thing? I haven’t in decades, but I used to read super-hero comic books, and this kind of cosmic shake-up would happen regularly, especially, if I remember right, in Superman. I’d say what I always say: make a list of conditions, and, just saying, there’s no shame in putting a few of Moryah’s ideas on it.

I’m assuming that the villain is defeated in the end, so I don’t think it’s out of bounds for the villain to accomplish this thing if the reader understands how it’s done. I love the idea of a villain wily enough to usurp a deity’s power. I’m thinking of the bible story of Job. I’m not a biblical scholar, but my recollection is that Satan manipulates God into testing Job. If Job loses all his good fortune, Satan says, he will curse God. Game on. God takes away Job’s wealth, health, and, worst of all, his children.

So Satan, a much lesser being, has pushed God into an action He wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And Job, unwittingly, can also spur God to action. His fate hangs on his response to his losses.

I’m thinking also of the very old Ingmar Bergman movie called The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death. Presumably, if he wins, he lives forever. In the movie, the knight loses, which the reader expects, but one can imagine a different story with different results.

Melissa has kind of a David-and-Goliath situation going, with the villain the underdog. There’s fun to be had in playing that out. And if the villain wins, he (she? they? it?) becomes even more scary. Look! He can out-maneuver a god!

Melissa says that this god is omnipresent and omnipotent but doesn’t mention if she (he, etc.?) is omniscient. If she isn’t, the villain can use her ignorance to get the power he wants.

As a pantser, I regularly get myself into this kind of trouble. For me, it’s setting something up without realizing the long-term consequences. One solution, which both Moryah and I have suggested, is to reexamine the conditions that underpin the story, looking for elements we can use to approach the story from a new direction. For example, does the villain have to wield this particular power to do what he needs to? Does he have to do this particular thing, or can some other action bring about the same result?

As I suggested when I first responded to Melissa, she can go into the first book and tweak things to give the villain the power to do whatever has to be done. In a single book, we can go back to an earlier point in our story to make the changes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Set your story in a world where water is limited. Two kingdoms are vying for control of the mighty Nipar River, and each kingdom has a hero/heroine who will do most of the heavy lifting. On the supernatural side, there’s an elf king, a dragon, and a goddess of justice who has limited powers. Each being backs one side or the other, though allegiances may shift. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Pick one or more of Moryah’s ideas and use it in a scene.

∙ Taking off from the fairy tale “Aladdin,” have Aladdin usurp the power of the genie of the lamp and do something only the genie could do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Cinderella with a Teddy Bear

On February 18, 2016, WriterGirl4Life wrote, I find that I’m always getting bored with my stories, putting them away, critiquing myself, or just getting bored with my plot. Can you help?

When one of my stories isn’t going well, I just don’t want to go near it, which is my version of getting bored. Working on the project feels like slogging through glue. It’s happened many times, and the reason varies:

∙ We’ve made our MC unsympathetic, a mistake I’ve committed than once and the latest instance is very recent. I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve started a new book in Ella’s world, and my main character, Daria (recognize that name?), is turned into an ogre in the first chapter, so this isn’t much of a spoiler alert. I’m only twenty-two pages in, but I started feeling gluey and eventually realized that likableness is the problem. Instead of responding with horror over her transformation, Daria minimizes the situation and instantly plans how to deal with it. I want her to be capable and self-confident, but these qualities mean the most when a character struggles. In this case, the consequences are that the reader doesn’t worry because Daria has the situation in hand and doesn’t care because Daria doesn’t seem to. The reader may think, I don’t understand this character. If someone turned me into an ogre, I’d want to jump out of my skin.

Once I figured that out, I went back to the beginning–contrary to the advice I give here–and fixed. Daria is now miserable, and I’m out of the glue. So one cause of boredom may be MC character trouble, and one reason for that may be unlikableness caused by a deficit in vulnerability.

∙ We’re not in our MC’s mind and heart enough, which is related to unlikableness. We’re telling our story more through action and dialogue and our MC’s inner life is missing. We’re bored because we can’t seem to connect with him. We may have our plot path worked out, but we don’t know why he goes down it.

I’d go to my notes to consider this. I might interview him in my notes and ask him what he feels and thinks about what’s going on in the story. We may dream up alternative answers for him, and we can decide from them what sort of person he is, or we’d like him to be. We may discover he’s not willing to do some of what’s being required of him. Based on our discoveries, we may adjust our plot or adjust him, which may involve rethinking earlier scenes, whether we revise on the spot or wait until the whole story is written. That done, we can work his thoughts and emotions into our narrative.

∙ We’ve solved the problem in our story without realizing. I did this in an early version of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. To be specific would be a major spoiler alert, so I have to speak in generalities. My MC has a mission, but she’s propelled to pursue it only because of a  need that’s deep-seated in her psyche. Accidentally, without realizing and in a tangential way, I solved the need, and the wind went out of my sails. I was trapped in glue until, finally, I saw what I’d done. Let’s take an example from the traditional “Cinderella,” not my version. In my opinion, the underlying problem, and the reason the story appears in some form in every culture, is that the MC feels unappreciated, a near universal source of unhappiness. Cinderella is great! Look at how helpful and capable she is. And kind. And plucky. But the only one who might appreciate her–her father–is never on the scene, and she gets no respect from her step-family. Well, suppose, a year before the balls, her fairy godmother shows up and gives her, say, a magical stuffed teddy bear that can talk. Every night at bedtime, Cinderella cuddles up with her toy and he admires her for all her accomplishments and her sterling qualities. Nothing really has changed; her step-family is still cruel. But she’s satisfied. Who cares about a prince when she has Teddy? We’re likely to stay bored or gluey until somebody wields a sharp instrument and slits that bear open from his cute black nose to his darling belly.

In this case, we may not know why we’re bored, but we can think about what our MC wants or needs most. Have we accidentally provided it? Have we been unable to tolerate her unhappiness so we helped her out just, we thought, a little bit?

∙ Houston, we have a plot problem. I never fail to have some of these, alas. You may remember how tangled up I got writing what eventually became Stolen Magic. In an earlier version, which I eventually revised out of existence, MC Elodie’s mother falls under a spell of greediness. She believes she’s King Midas and doesn’t mind when Elodie seems to turn to gold, because she’d rather, in her madness, have wealth than a living daughter. It was horrifying, and, forgive me!, I loved it. But I didn’t know how to end the spell without making everything okay or without giving Elodie an ally I didn’t want her to have, so the madness dragged on and on, and I sank in glue. I wish I’d figured this out and been able to use this plot twist, but I couldn’t.

We may not have to revise everything. If we’ve written ourselves into a corner, we can go back to the point where we got into trouble, or we can list ways to change what’s going on, and we can judge how we’re doing by our state of mind. Are we no longer bored? Are we eager to write again?

The point is, we’re not stuck with anything. The final state of our story is changeable until we say it’s done. If we save our old version, we can blow up any part. I love this freedom, which is a prime advantage of writing, in my opinion, over every other art form!

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this election season, here’s a political’ish plot idea. Your MC at fifteen is running to be the youngest member of the town council. She has the vote of her parents’ generation, who, basically, think she’s adorable, and that’s enough for them. The problem is the youth vote, because young people near her age but old enough to vote find her unlikable–you decide why. Write the story, being sure to include her thoughts and feelings.

∙ Give Cinderella the admiring teddy bear (or other stuffed animal), but make him creepy. Lead the reader to suspect him right away even while Cinderella is delighted with him. Soon, he adds to her many troubles. Write “Cinderella with a Teddy Bear.”

∙ Snow White has escaped to the dwarfs. The magic mirror breaks, and her evil stepmother goes on thinking she’s been restored to fairest-in-the-land status. Readers all over the universe are yawning. Give her a new problem–the hunter? a problem dwarf? the prince in danger? an approaching asteroid?–and write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Objective: objectives

On March 26, 2015, Kenzi Parsons wrote, How do you brainstorm a non-cliche plot when you have the characters and situation already? I find I have a really hard time coming up with a plot if I already have characters–I LOVE my characters but struggle with the story. Any ideas?

These two responses came in:

Erica Eliza: Look at the relationships and the conflicts that will arise between characters. Sort through other story ideas that never took off because they weren’t big enough to carry a whole book by themselves, and see how your characters would handle them.

Tracey Dyck: If you have your characters in place, they can help drive your plot. Look at their individual goals (which might conflict with each other!) and what obstacles, both personal and physical, might stand in their way. The Rafe-Stella situation Mrs. Levine invented in this post kind of touches on that. (March 18, 2015)

Kenzi Parsons answered: These are all great!! Reading these, I think my problem is that my character doesn’t have an objective to motivate the plot. Huh… I’d never thought of that before! How do y’all come up with goals/objectives for your characters if you created them before the plot?

More ideas followed:

carpelibris (Melissa Mead): I almost always come up with character before plot. (I have a dickens of a time with plot!) Usually who the character is helps determine what she wants, whom she hangs out with, what she will or won’t do, etc., and the plot grows out of that. For example, a lot of my characters are loners/misfits, which tends to make them either want to fit in, stand out, or get out of where they are.

Tracey Dyck: What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their desires–what they want more than anything? What do they want almost as badly, something that may run contrary to the primary desire? Could be situational, personal, etc. Maybe one person wants to feel needed, another wants to gain confidence, someone else wants to fix a relationship, and yet another person wants to stop an impending disaster.

These are wonderful.

In case Kenzi Parsons’ concerns weren’t completely resolved, here are some more thoughts:

It’s hard to believe any idea is good if we’re worried about cliches. My entire writing career–my whole body of work– wouldn’t exist if that were much on my mind. A Cinderella story? Fairies? Dragons? Princesses? They’ve been done repeatedly. I’d be sunk!

We all build on old ideas. We have to. Originality comes from what we do with those tired tropes. Yes, sadly, it is possible to write a story that sounds like a dozen other stories, and we don’t want to do that. My strategy for avoiding such a fate is notes, and within notes, lists. It’s a strategy that can help in plot-from-character creation.

Let’s start with what we’ve come up for our character, whom we’ll call Tamara. On the good side, she’s loyal, kind, and funny. On the bad, she has a one-track mind. When something captures her attention, all else sinks in importance. At those times, she’s irritable or even angry with anyone who tries to divert her. She has curly hair, long fingers, a wide smile, and small eyes. Kenzi Parsons may have gone much further than this, but for our purposes we have enough to get started.

We review Tamara’s attributes and think what her objectives might be. Her one-track mind suggests possibilities, so in our notes for this story we list what she might be obsessed about right now, and we keep in mind all the other things we know about her. We pledge to ourselves that we’re going to come up with at least ten possibilities, and, further, that we won’t judge any of them. Nothing is stupid or cliched when we write a list:

∙ She’s raising money for a daycare center in her town.

∙ She’s working on a stand-up comedy routine.

∙ She’s determined to rescue her best friend from a bad romantic relationship.

∙ She’s researching plastic surgery to make a person’s eyes bigger. Once she finds out what she needs, she’s going to devote herself to making it happen.

∙ She’s preparing to join the army (real army or fantasy army).

∙ She’s preparing to rescue the child hostages from their captors in the warring kingdom of Kuth.

∙ She’s developing plans for a flying machine.

∙ She’s trying to save from extinction a species of tiny frogs that still exist only in her rural county.

∙ She’s deep and dark into magic books to cure her brother of the mysterious condition that caused him to stop speaking.

∙ She’s plotting revenge against a relative who sabotaged her frog project.

There. Ten. But if nothing pleases us we can go for fifteen.

Tied up in her obsessions are objectives. She wants to succeed! We can move the plot forward by placing obstacles in her path, some that come from within her, some from circumstances, and some from our other characters, who may want her to fail or may bungle helping her. We can list possible obstacles.

I chose her one-track mind to concentrate on, but I could have picked another of her qualities, although long fingers might be hard, but I bet we could do it. Anyway, her loyalty is suggestive, too. Here’s a prompt: Think about where her loyalties lie. List ten possibilities. Then think about how they might morph into objectives. Create a story around one possibility.

Kenzi Parsons has created more characters. If we have more, we can keep them in mind as we invent our lists, and we can give them the list treatment, too, remembering as we do that their objectives need to relate to Tamara’s in helpful or unhelpful ways.

I love lists. If you read the notes for any of my books, you’d find lists cropping up every few pages (I often have over 200 pages of notes for a novel).

After we we’ve come up with our objectives and have thought of obstacles, we start imagining how they might play out in scenes. And we’re off with a starter plot!

More prompts:

∙ Pick one–or more–of Tamara’s obsessions and use it in a story.

∙ I decided to go with Melissa Mead’s misfit idea and imagined ten ways in which Tamara might be different. Pick one and use it in a story. Melissa Mead already suggested a few objectives, and you may think of more. Here are the ten ways:

  1. She has only one arm (with those long fingers)
  2. She has the same genetic condition that caused Abraham Lincoln to be so tall and ??? At the age of twelve she’s a foot taller than everyone she knows.
  3. Her family have been farmers for centuries. She lives in a farming community. Nobody cares about anything but the size of pigs and pumpkins. She hates all of it. She has a brown thumb, and the livestock hate her.
  4. She has a different fashion sense than everyone else. She looks wrong on every occasion.
  5. She’s way smarter than everyone else around her, off-the-charts smarter.
  6. She’s the stupidest in her family and her school.
  7. She can’t pronounce the long i.
  8. Her brain is oddly wired. Psychologists keep diagnosing her with an alphabet soup of acronyms, but nothing really fits.
  9. She sees other people as numbers. People who appear as long numbers scare her, but she feels close to people who have a 9 in their number. (Look! This is the ninth in my list! What a coincidence!)
  10. She’s an identical twin, but although she and her sister look exactly alike, that’s where the similarities end.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Hooray for Quests!

First off, the big news: Writer to Writer is OUT–RELEASED–PUBLISHED!!! It came out yesterday. Some of you are in it–no last names, of course. Thanks to you all for making this blog a great, helpful, safe place for writers, and for making this book possible.

Second off: Ho! Ho! Ho! Happy holidays, and best wishes for great writing in 2015!

This question came into the website late in July from  Writer At Heart: What are you supposed to do when all of your stories seem to repeat? Like, I’ve had this GREAT idea for a girl going on quest, but all of my other stories seem to copy this idea. What do you do in situations like this?

Just about any story can be expressed as a quest. Consider these: Heidi is a quest for a safe home; The Wizard of Oz, a quest for contentment; Anne of Green Gables, a quest to be loved; Charlotte’s Web, a quest for survival; Pride and Prejudice (and all of Austen–every single book!), not only a quest, but the same quest every time, for marital happiness. All my three Disney Fairies books even have the word quest in the title.

You may disagree with my description of the quest in these books, but I hope you’ll agree that in each one a character wants something and struggles in ways direct and indirect to get it. The character has an objective, even if he or she wouldn’t put it that way. The objective can be called a quest.

Let’s think about Jane Austen, my favorite writer. If you haven’t read her books, I can’t recommend them highly enough. She gives the twenty-first century reader an un-self-conscious look at an earlier age, which I enjoy, but I love her humor most of all, which never gets stale, no matter how often I reread her, and certainly never gets dated. She shows us our timeless humanity, flawed and funny and sympathetic.

Yes, her stories are each wrapped around an identical objective, but the way they play themselves out is different in each one. Austen is a genius at character development. Her characters are unique and meticulously defined, and their natures determine the way they approach their quest. The obstacles are different, too, but in an Austen novel, in my opinion, the freshness comes from the richness of the characters.

In my Disney Fairies books, many of the characters are the same, because the cast always includes the major Never Land fairies: Rani, Tinker Bell, Prilla, and Vidia. And the shape of each story is circular (***SPOILER ALERT***): the fairies’ world and Never Land itself are threatened; events play out; order is restored. But there are new characters, and the threat is different in each book, and the reader gets to see how the old characters respond to an unexpected situation. I hope the reader feels the comfort of the familiar combined with the excitement of the unknown.

As I’ve said before on the blog, there aren’t many possible plots. There’s always a problem, characters who influence events, and almost always a happy or sad resolution. I’ve suggested two major strategies for creating freshness: characters and obstacles. I can think of a third: setting. Austen’s novels would have to be different if they were set in a present day town, different again if they were dropped down in Oz.

Let’s think about “Jack in the Beanstalk.” The quest is for enough money to live on, so Jack’s mother sends him off to sell the cow. Jack is willing to trade it for beans a stranger tells him are magical. Another character wouldn’t be so trusting. The quest would have to be pursued in a different way. Same quest, though. Different story.

Or we can keep Jack but change the obstacles. He takes the beans. His mother throws them out the window, because her character hasn’t changed, either. The story veers from there, though. Suppose what grows is a coat tree upon which hangs a cloak. Jack puts on the cloak, which confers magic powers, although he doesn’t know what they are. His disgusted mother kicks him out, and, in true fairy tale fashion, he sets off, innocent and gullible as ever, to make his fortune and keep his mom from starving. Same quest. Different story.

Or suppose we set the story in modern times. The beanstalk pops up. Jack climbs to the penthouse gym of his forty-story apartment building. The giant is a body builder. Killing him will land Jack in jail, if he gets away with it. Same quest. Different story.

We writers are stuck with ourselves. The themes that hold us in their grip today may change only slowly, if at all. We may have to work through them in story after story. Obedience and its mirror image, rebellion, crop up in many of my stories, obviously in Ella Enchanted, but also, to name two more, in Ever and The Fairy’s Mistake. In Ever, this saying runs through the book: As you wish, so it will be. In The Fairy’s Mistake, Rosella has to toughen up and resist her natural impulse to do what others want, while her sister has to make an exception to her own me-first motto. But this theme and the plots that it calls forth don’t make my stories all the same!

If our plots often present themselves as quests, maybe there’s something in the story shape that we’re figuring out. There may be questions we’re trying to answer through quests, or we may be exploring the limits of personal power, or could be there’s a loss we’re trying to recover. Or, since quests are so varied, it’s something entirely different. We don’t ever have to know. I believe that our hidden motives give our stories energy, vitality, and depth. If we know exactly what we’re doing (if that’s possible), we’re working only on the surface.

I like the quest shape. When I’m having plot trouble, when my story seems to be wandering and getting too complicated, I examine it to find the quest. I ask myself what the basic problem is and what my MC wants most of all–what she’s questing for. When I figure that out–things are really bad if I can’t!–I see the quest and the obstacles to its success. Then I can streamline my story and my plot falls into line.

A quest shape keeps a story moving. The reader knows what the prize is, wants it to be reached, groans at every setback, marvels at the variety of problems that we’ve created, and holds her breath until the resolution, for good or ill, arrives. Hooray for quests!

Here are four prompts:

• Write the “Jack and the Beanstalk” quests three ways: change Jack’s character; change the obstacles to his success; change the story’s setting. When you change the obstacles, you can use my coat-tree idea or anything else you come up with.

• Instead of changing Jack, change another character: his mother, the giant’s mother, the giant himself. See how the story plays out.

• I think the quest, which fails, in “Snow White” belongs to the queen, who wants to remain the most beautiful. If you disagree, indulge me anyway. Try these approaches to creating new stories with a kernel of “Snow White.” For character, she wants desperately to continue to win the beauty contest, but maybe she isn’t quite as evil as the original or isn’t evil at all. When you change the obstacles, she can’t disguise herself; she’s a complete bust at impersonation, so she has to go about endangering Snow White differently.

• If you have a story with a tangled plot that’s driving you crazy, apply the quest method. Frame the plot as a quest and work out the knots. Keep writing.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Vexing complexity

First off, I want to tell you that I’ll be talking and signing at the book festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from April 4th through April 6th. Details are posted here on my website: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/appears.html. However, the schedule when you click on it needs to be updated, because I’ll be leaving by about 2:30 on Sunday. Anyway, I’d love to meet some of you there. Please come if you can!

On January 16, 2014, Melissa wrote, Does anyone have ideas on how to keep things from getting over-complicated? I feel like I get so far into my story that I get stuck and can never get back out of it to figure out an ending without everything seeming abrupt.

Eliza responded with this: Pace the ending like the plot. If you have a slow, thoughtful kind of book don’t wrap everything up in two pages. But if it’s fast paced don’t drag it out forever. You don’t need to tie up all the loose ends, it’s ok to leave stuff ambiguous, but answer the big questions. Decide what your story’s core conflict is. Make a list of all the subplots and characters and how they relate to it. Is there someone who really doesn’t need to be there? Do your characters wander into Subplot Land for several scenes without discussing the core conflict? If it doesn’t directly tie into your story’s core and you can’t tweak it, it doesn’t need to be there.

Thanks, Eliza! Sounds like good advice for me, too. My tendency is to over-complicate as well. I’ve started a new book, although I haven’t been working on it much lately because of poetry school. Only twelve pages in and I’m already spinning a web that would make a spider blush, because it’s too loose to catch anything.

Here’s an example of how I get into trouble: Suppose I want to expand on “The Princess and the Pea” (never mind that I already did in The Princess Test). In this new story, Perlina, the true princess, is my MC, and I need to know what her backstory is before she shows up soaking wet at the castle doors, so I imagine that her throne was usurped the day after she ascended to it. She was escorted to the border and left there. Her core problem is getting her kingdom back. She wanders, cold, impoverished, often hungry, for a month until she hears in a village about the competition for a true princess, which she figures she can win, and then she’ll have a kingdom and its army to help her fight her way home.

Maybe this would work, but probably I’ve already over-complicated my story, which now has to detour through proving that Perlina is a true princess and dealing with the prince and the future in-laws. It’s possible that I would write two hundred pages before realizing that my real story has nothing to do with “The Princess and the Pea” and I have to remove that part (and save it).

When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I had Ella travel to Gnome Caverns with her father before starting her other adventures. I wrote 180 pages involving gnomes, Sir Peter, and the evil men who worked for him. My critique buddies were lost, and so was I. Eventually I cut the whole thing.

What sets me off is curiosity, imagination, and the fun of following an idea. This is important: If we tangle ourselves up, but we’re enjoying the writing, getting lost isn’t a tragedy. We snip and think and get going again. In this case, I would think about a more direct approach for Perlina. Where can she find allies without having first to marry one of them? Who would rally to her cause? How can she find out what’s been going on in her kingdom in her absence? Is a rebellion brewing?

Or, I might decide“that The Princess and the Pea” part is the most interesting and give Perlina a simpler back story.

My capacity for getting into plot trouble is at its worst if I’m writing in third-person omniscient or from more than one POV. Let’s take the story of Perlina’s ouster. If Perlina weren’t my first-person narrator throughout, I might decide to slip inside the usurper’s character and get involved with his goals. Maybe he forced his way to power just so he could offer a throne to the damsel he loves (not Perlina). She’s just a weaver, but she’s crazy for gold thread. Then I may get interested in this weaver, too, to find out if she’s in love with the young man who’s just hijacked a country for her. And there’s the prince who’s waiting for a true princess. He’s fascinating, too. What does he expect from this royal young lady? Are his ideas unrealistic? So I write a few scenes from his point of view. And my story is just a tad disorganized. But if I’m writing only what Perlina experiences I can’t be led astray into these side alleys, no matter how fascinating they are.

So that’s one strategy for story simplification: Limit your point of view to one. I don’t mean you should never write from more than one or from the POV of an omniscient narrator. This strategy applies only if your story is getting away from you. If you know how all your POVs fit into your story, go for it.

Another strategy is to come up for air occasionally, say every thirty pages. Look around. Ask yourself what’s going on. If your story is throwing out tentacles in every direction, follow them back to the center of the octopus and decide what you need. Clip off the extras before you’ve written 180 pages that don’t tell your story.

Regarding endings: Let’s imagine we have two subplots that have been moving along with the main event and we need to draw them to a satisfying conclusion. They’re fine subplots; we don’t feel they should be cut. One of them, say, involves Perlina’s younger brother who’s been imprisoned to prevent a rebellion from forming around him, but he’s eager to escape and help his sister. We’re going to resolve his problem and the problem of the other subplot, whatever that is, before moving on to the final one. If we decide to go that way, we’ll orchestrate his escape and get him to the border to meet Perlina’s force. His presence will give her the boost to surge on to the capital. Or we can decide to have him (gasp!) executed, and news of his death will galvanize Perlina and remove any remaining doubts in her allies. The point is, if we settle the side plots, our conclusion can ring through with clarity.

Naturally, the prompts come from the post.

• Write the scene in which Perlina loses her kingdom. If you discover that you need backstory, write it. Meanwhile, observe yourself in case you’re letting the story spin wildly. If you’re enjoying the ride, keep going. Otherwise, think about how the backstory might set up Perlina’s quest to get her kingdom back, and shape it along those lines.

• Write Perlina’s wanderings in the kingdom of “The Princess and the Pea” after she’s been expelled from her own land. Focus here on what she might learn that will help or hinder her later on.

• Suppose Perlina was overthrown because the nobility didn’t find her a likely leader. Write the scene in which she meets her future in-laws and the prince and show her struggle to present herself with the dignity she had already been judged to lack.

• Write the usurper’s first day on the throne, including his proposal to his weaver love.

• From the prince’s POV, write the scene in which Perlina shows up at the castle door and comes in.

• Put together whatever elements interest you and write the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plot dilemmas and a villain

On December 13, 2013, this came into the website from Alyssa: I reached a point in my book where I needed an explanation for something, but I couldn’t think of one, so I just put something down so I could keep going. I don’t really like the explanation, but it was the best thing I could come up with. Do you have any advice for moments like that?


Also, I feel like there are large parts of my book where I am just making things up as I go along. Is this normal for you, or do you have a general idea of how your story is going to end when you finish your book?


My third question was, when you create a villain, how much cruelty do you consider enough to convince your reader that the character is no good? Because in my story, the main character’s mother is the main villain in my main character Lara’s life, so I want to convince the reader that the mom is awful and cruel, but Lara still loves her mom, I just don’t know how to show that. I want her to seem evil, but Lara sticks around for about 18 years, so I can’t make her that bad. Do you have any advice for this kind of problem?

Eliza responded with these ideas: I’ve heard lots of writers describe themselves as pantsers, meaning they go off the seat of their pants and just make stuff up. Almost as if they’re reading it instead of writing. For me, I need to have at least a general idea of how it will end. “Villain gets killed. Heroine is reunited with her boyfriend. Character breaks out of prison.” But I don’t know who will kill the villain or how the character escapes. It helps if I know the next five events. By the time I’ve written those I’ve come up with something else. If you feel lost you may need an outline. But if you’re comfortable making stuff up? Go ahead.


On villainy: It’s remarkable-and more than a little sad-how people stay loyal to real life villains. Lara’s grown up with her mother. She’s seen her good side too. But show her doing something awful and cruel and readers will recognize her as a villain. I wrote a story where my character’s parents were mean, though not the main villains. It helped to have her brother call out the parents for being cruel when she’s too afraid to stand up to them.

And Elisa weighed in with, On the out-of-the-blue-temporarily-staying-like-this-fix-later thing: Write something that makes sense, sort of, then leave it like that, then come back and elaborate on it. Change some things earlier on and later on to fit with this scene, (Such as Q: How does the MC escape prison? A: He has a file and a parachute. Now you figure out WHY he has a file and a parachute. Add them into the parts of the story you’ve already written.)

A lot of my writing comes from my subconscious. I toss things into my stories without any idea of where they emerged from. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, for example, I made Addie skillful at embroidery, probably because I wanted her to be good at something, and embroidery seemed like a hobby that a shy person might take up. Basically, I was just rounding out her character. I didn’t know what I’d do with this accomplishment, but I kept it in mind, and it came in mighty handy when she was captured by the dragon Vollys.

So that would be my suggestion. We come up with an explanation, the best we can think of, and soldier on, remembering the explanation as we go and looking for spots where it will support our plot. Maybe it will create tension, make our MC unhappy, or get her out of a jam.

I also like Elisa’s idea and her example. When we throw in that parachute and file, we create interest and stimulate our ingenuity. We can also make the reader worry. She knows about the parachute and the file. What if a guard finds them? What if another prisoner steals them for his escape?

In Two Princesses, the embroidery might not have turned out to be useful. Addie may have needed something else. As my plot revealed itself, I could have gone back and exchanged embroidery for pottery, or I could have revised her into a supremely strong swimmer. I may have wasted pages and time with the embroidery, but lost time and words for me are just the price of being a writer. And, often, I have fun writing the parts I wind up not needing.

Generally, before I introduce anything into a story, I make a list of possibilities, and the element I bring in isn’t the first one I thought of. So there’s another suggestion. We can make a list of explanations, five at least, and then choose the one we like best. If that one doesn’t work out in the end, we can go back to our list and add to it or see if one of the rejects really fits the bill.

Like Eliza, I, too, usually know in a general way where my story is going. If a plot seems to be meandering or lurching from crisis to crisis, it’s time to stop to consider what the main problem is. To figure that out, we can ask ourselves some questions: What’s most important to our MC? What problem resonates with her personality? Which challenges those aspects of her character that most need to grow?

When we know the main problem, we can list ways to resolve it. We don’t have to work out the resolution in detail, and our decision can be tentative; we’ll know better if the ending is right as we approach it. Once we have an inkling of the ending, we can craft our crises to jibe with it. We can make achievement of our MC’s goal harder even while giving her the tools that will eventually enable her to get there.

Now for the villainous mother. I have just one suggestion: Be subtle. Mrs. McMeanie doesn’t have to beat her daughter. The havoc she wreaks can be psychological, and the reader will still recognize the misery she’s inflicting. She can make her daughter feel inferior with constant put-downs. She can persuade her child to fear the world outside her family. Going the other way she can even cripple her daughter by giving her the idea that she’s better than everyone else. Or she can burden her daughter with impossible expectations. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I once knew a man whose mother persuaded him that he was unlucky, and he played that belief out in his adult life. That mother, probably unintentionally, became the villain in her son’s story.

Here are four prompts:

• Your MC sets off on a new endeavor, which could be a new school, a battle, camp, a job as unicorn trainer in a zoo. Before she leaves, her mother gives her a few words of advice, which make everything harder. Write the advice and the scene that follows. If you like, continue and write the story.

• A good friend of mine believes that moms have gotten a bad rap in literature for children. In this scene, your MC is spending the day alone with her father. She’s thrilled because he rarely has time to dedicate to her. Make it all go wrong and reveal the dad as less than a great guy.

• Along the same lines, retell “Hansel and Gretel,” and make the father the major baddie instead of the mother–or the witch!

• Our MC, who’s been captured by the enemy, is held in a stone fortress. She has a candle and a lady’s fan. Have her escape using one or both of these.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lost in Story Land

First off, a message from the sponsor (me): Amazon is promoting The Two Princesses of Bamarre e-book with the low low price of $1.99. The promotion runs until August 5th.

Now for the post. On June 19, 2013 Athira Abraham wrote, I have a problem. With the story I’m writing, I haven’t created a plot but I want to because I don’t want to be lost in my story. But at the same time, I don’t want to create a plot because then I’ll have no fun writing it and will get bored. But without no plot, I’ll end up nowhere. Please help!

This generated a big response.

unsocialized homeschooler wrote, Athira, I have this problem a lot. Some of what would be my best stories disappear forever because each time I plan it out, it gets really boring.


First, are you sure that if you don’t create a plot you’ll end up nowhere? Sometimes the best plots and stories come together when you just wander around in the wilderness of your story for a bit. Maybe you should try writing it freestyle with no idea where the story is going, and see where it takes you. Because, if plotting out a novel makes it boring to write, why do it? (Okay, I realize that logic isn’t very sound, and there are hundreds of authors who will tell you that you have to be bored with your writing for a while to finish it–But that seems a little pointless and ridiculous. Write because writing is enjoyable, fun, creative, and all that good stuff!)

And Caitlyn Hair wrote, I plot my story in segments. Maybe that would work? The one time I tried plotting out the whole thing I ended up so far off my outline that I had to redo it anyway. 
I usually do three big chunks: beginning, middle, and end. I usually go off my outline by the time I get through those too, but not as badly. By outlining a little at a time I can incorporate the ideas I come up with while I write and not stress about it not fitting in to my plan.

Elisa chimed in with, Athira, do you have a favorite scene? In one of my stories-to-be I created a random scene where my heroine completely neglects the guy who traveled across two countries and 892 hundred miles to beg for her hand and leaves him living in a tent outside of her moat. I built a story from that. What I picked up is that she was independent and headstrong, also a little mean. Figure out your characters, then make more scenes. Do this, and then figure out how to link the scenes together. That’s how I set up plots for my stories. If you’re basing it on a fairy tale or something, it’s easier, because the plot’s already laid out.

Finally, Jenalyn Barton contributed this: I have two suggestions. My first is to just go with it, see where it takes you. Then, when you’ve finished it and know where it ends, go back and rework it so that your plot better fits where you’ve ended up. This way of writing is fun, because something that starts out as random may become a major plot point.


My other suggestion is to take a look at your story idea and ask yourself, “Where do I want to go with this? Where do I want my hero(ine) to end up?” Once you’ve answered that, write your story, keeping your end in mind. This way you can have a game plan in mind without having to give up the fun of discovery writing, as Brandon Sanderson calls it. You’d be surprised at how flexible you can be even with some major points plotted out beforehand. But, when it comes down to it, it’s really up to you and what you’re comfortable with.

Wow! These are great! I agree with unsocialized homeschooler and Elisa that in art accidents often lead to great discoveries. I’d even say that without the looseness that allows accidents writing can turn out stiff.

And I like Caitlin Hair’s practice of plotting in big chunks, which I think may make the task manageable. We don’t have to deal with the whole thing, just this beginning segment. And we can start to ask ourselves questions. What will get the story started? Who am I dealing with? Where? I do something like this, but in smaller bits, when I plan my scenes out before I write them.

I’m also in synch with Jenalyn Barton’s suggestion that you imagine an ending and write toward it, as I usually do. In fact, the ending often comes to me as a package along with the idea that gets me started. For example, as soon as I thought of Ella’s curse of obedience, I knew that the book would have to end with the lifting of the spell, although I had no idea how that would be accomplished.

However, these comments come from writers who don’t do close, detailed outlining. I’m in that camp, too. Is there anyone out there who can weigh in about creating complicated plot outlines and staying excited when the time comes to expand into a narrative? What are your strategies?

Some of you know that it took me a very long time and a lot of wrong turns before I finally figured out Stolen Magic. So I resolved to plan out the next book before I started writing. And I failed almost immediately. After five or six pages of notes I itched to begin the story, which I did. I’ve written only two pages, and now I’m revising a manuscript for my editor, and it will be a while before I get back to it, but I’ve been laughing at myself. We may gravitate to a certain process, in my case winging it, and be stuck with it unless something forceful intervenes, like an amazing teacher or a how-to book that we follow to the letter. Or a magic spell.

Getting lost in a story doesn’t necessarily mean disaster. When I get lost I often backtrack to the point where I still had my bearings and strike off again. Sometimes that point is 200 pages ago. I may repeat the confusion a few more times; still I’m learning about my characters and the final story shape. It’s possible I couldn’t have found my final book without meandering.

Both Athira Abraham and unsocialized homeschooler mention boredom. When I was writing the languages in Ella Enchanted, coming up with each one and figuring out how they sounded and looked on the page was fascinating, but once I had the scheme, inventing each new word was dull, necessary but dull. Other than that, when boredom sets in, it means I’ve gotten lost, and then I have to do what I talked about in the last paragraph. I don’t think boredom is required for finishing a story, although it may be a necessary sign that what we have isn’t working.

Here are three prompts about being lost. Of course, there’s a third possible ending to each beyond finding the way or being lost forever. A character can wind up in a better spot and not care about reaching the original destination.

• Take a true experience from your life of getting lost. Write about what really happened and how you felt and, if you weren’t alone, who said what.

• Now put someone you know in your place and fictionalize the memory. You may have to try out several people in your imagination before you find the right player. How would this other person handle what happened? How does the story change?

• Now make getting unlost much harder. Introduce obstacles, weather events, a villain. If you like, put it all in a fantasy world. Change your MC so that she becomes entirely fictional.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plot skimming

First off, Carpelibris, I can’t find the Humpty-Dumpty story. Can we see it online yet? What’s the title? Is there a URL that goes straight to it?

And now, a reminder: Please post writing successes on the blog. Anything published? Anything won a contest? Any other form of success?

Also before I start I want to share a sad (in a minor way) discovery I made this week. At one point in Stolen Magic I wanted Elodie to say something about a large vegetable, and I was thinking of a pumpkin but I suspected that pumpkins originated in the New World, which wouldn’t do, because I’ve been deriving my fantasy middle ages world from Europe, so I looked it up online and found that not just pumpkins but all squashes originated in the Americas. Whoa! I thought. Didn’t I put squash (not a pumpkin) in A Tale of Two Castles? I checked, and I did. Then I went to my book, Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman, to see if it said people ate squash back then, way before Columbus, and yes, it did say that. The book was wrong! How could it do that to me?

It doesn’t matter much. This is fantasy. It isn’t even true historical fantasy, since the kingdom of Lepai doesn’t exist on planet earth. But still, I like to find some of my details in the real world. I would say that the lesson is to double-check everything, but I won’t say that. Everything is tedious, and fantasy doesn’t demand it. Yes, I should double-check anything I’m not sure of, or use an absolutely dependable source, like the Oxford English Dictionary, but in the case of squash other than pumpkin, I accepted the accuracy of my book.

If you’re writing historical fiction set in a real time and place, I do think you should be confident of all your details, and if you depart from reality, say so in an Author’s Note. And if you’re writing non-fiction, then everything should be rock solid – unlike my book. Shame on you, Mr. Newman!

For the large vegetable in Stolen Magic I wound up going with a cabbage. I had no idea they can grow so big. Some weigh 130 pounds! There are photos online. They throw off one’s sense of scale. People standing next to these cabbages look like elves! If you’re in the mood, check it out online. Or maybe you’ve grown such a monster cabbage – and eaten a lot of coleslaw!

Now for today’s topic. On May 27, 2013, WriteKnitRead wrote, I’m having a problem with my book in that though I’m in love with my plot and can see exactly where I want it to go, I can’t actually… write it. I feel like I’m skimming over everything interesting, like description and giving my characters, well, character, in order to write down the plot. I keep telling myself that it’ll get better once I’m through the first draft but my writing is so bland and boring right now I can’t stand it. I feel like I want to give up but I still love the plot, just not the writing. Is it just first-draft blues? Or do I really need to start over?

When I said I was adding this question to my list, I also wrote, I’d suggest getting interested in your characters. Then see what happens.

Let’s imagine a quest plot. The golden scale of justice has gone missing from the kingdom’s grand courtroom, which is right next to the king’s throne room. Without it, the royal magistrate can’t rule on criminal cases or make judgments in civil disputes. The magistrate’s daughter, Lara, can’t bear to watch her mother’s indecision, her sinking into depression. Moreover, bad people are taking advantage of the situation. Lara decides to find the scale and bring it back – that’s the quest. We plan out these plot points:

• the disappearance of the scale and when it’s discovered

• consequences of  the disappearance

• decision to quest and plan to visit the local oracle for starters

• overcoming the creature that guards the oracle

• posing a question to the oracle

• the oracle’s answer, which reveals that the scale has been stolen by an evil magician who lives in a forest fortress

• failure to enter the castle of the duke, who owns the sword that is essential to recovering the scale

• enlisting the aid of the duke’s eight-year old cousin, Peter, who can sometimes read minds

• trying again with the castle, and this time succeeding

• sailing across the yellow sea to the island of the wood nymphs, with the sword in the boat

• persuading the wood nymphs to follow Lara into battle against the magician

• the capture of Peter by the magician

• the storming of the fortress

• the final battle between the magician and Lara

• recovery of the scale and Peter

Lambs and calves! I’ve written a rough outline!

Let’s pick one of these bullets: overcoming the creature that guards the oracle. If we regard this as just a step to the next bullet, the oracle, things get boring pretty fast. Lara is told by one of the king’s advisors that the creature guarding the oracle adores bread pudding, so she shows up with two crocks of bread pudding. If the creature will let her in she’ll give it one on her way in and the other on her way out. The creature is mollified; she enters without incident. We can cross that step off on our list, but we’re feeling sleepy, and we can hardly type or write.

There are two problems here, which you may have guessed. The first is that we’re making things too easy for Lara, and the second is that we haven’t explored who she is and who the creature is. Maybe we have explored Lara’s character by now because we’ve already seen her decide to go on this quest, but we probably haven’t gone into the creature.

So let’s invest some thought in the creature. Here are a few possibilities:

• It’s mostly teeth and stomach, and its tiny brain cells are focused on its teeth and its appetite. Lara will never get by it with the second pudding crock. She better give the creature all the food she has on the way in. Then we and the reader have to worry about how she’s going to get out again.

• The creature is afraid of only one being: the oracle. After it lets Lara in, it’s consumed with fear of the oracle’s anger. What does it do to protect itself? What are the repercussions for Lara?

• The king’s advisor was misinformed or lied. The creature has no interest in bread pudding, but it will let Lara in if she’ll do a favor for it in return. Whatever the favor is (maybe winning the creature’s freedom), it makes her quest more difficult.

• The creature adores bread pudding and falls in love with anyone who provides it. The creature starts following Lara everywhere, and sometimes its behavior is problematic.

By the time Lara reaches the oracle, she may also want his advice on dealing with the creature!

Then we have to consider the oracle, who he is, what he wants, whether his prediction is truthful or not. We want to cut Lara (or WriteKnitRead’s MC, or yours) a break every so often, generally an unexpected one, but mostly we want to make every step in our plot outline as hard for her as possible, and we want to pave her way with the most fascinating characters we can come up with.

As we write, we have to develop the setting so we can see (and hear and smell) everything play out, and if we can think of ways for the setting to make matters more difficult, we should. For example, suppose the walls in the oracle’s house are covered with trompe l’oeil paintings. Lara can’t tell the painted stairways from the real until she attempts to climb them. It may take her days to find the oracle, and time is ticking. If the setting contributes to the plot, we’re sure to get interested in it.

WriteKnitRead, I’m not sure if you need to start over, but if I’ve diagnosed the problem correctly, I do recommend that you go back and expand your scenes. If I’ve entirely missed the boat, please write again to set me straight.

The prompt today is obvious. Fool around with my outline. Pick one of the bullets and expand it into a scene or scenes. Invent the setting. Develop the character. Make Lara’s quest harder. If you’re ambitious, write the entire story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Enough to go on?

Two short answers today. Both questions come from Lark on December 10, 2012. First: Gail (and anyone else), do you ever spend a lot of time writing something or pursuing an idea then just trashing it? I wrote 20,000 words for my NaNo novel but most of it was junk; I just kept saying to myself, “At least it’s words. And at least it counts.” However, probably only about 20% of it is acceptable writing, and the other 80% would need LOTS AND LOTS of revisions to even make it make sense. Do you ever stick it out if you’re in that situation?

I’m a revise-as-I-go writer, which is one reason I haven’t attempted NaNoWriMo. And I’m a revising-after-I-have-a-first-draft writer, too, plus plenty of revising after that. This is why I haven’t found myself in the situation Lark describes. BUT I’m a big admirer of NaNoWriMo, which is great for spilling all your ideas, for creating marvelous scenes and dreadful scenes. At the end, you have something to work with if you want to.

I’ve discussed this before here. There’s a time cost either way. If you abandon what you have, then the time you spent on it is lost. If you work on it, revising may take longer than an entire new project would, if the new project goes smoothly. But that’s writing for you. Efficiency experts would tear out their hair.

There is no shame either way. You can move on to something else, knowing in your skull bones that you learned from this unresolved effort. Or you can start shaping and tweaking and deleting and adding, sticking essentially with what you have.

There’s a third way, too. You can use your old effort to create something entirely new, or several new somethings. Start by rereading what you have, no matter how painful that is. Underline what you like. Take notes. Think about where you could go with this or that. Admire your interesting ideas, your bits of scintillating dialogue, the moments when you nailed a character. Ask yourself if see a way to sew it all together or if you see a bunch of new spinoff stories.

On to another question from Lark: Is it okay to start a story if you have wonderful, realistic, well-rounded characters, but no plot or idea of where your story will go? Or on the flip side, starting a story with a great idea and thought-out plot but hastily pieced together and un-thought-out characters? Or do you wait until you have everything thought out? I’m having quite a problem with that…

It’s okay to start if that’s your process. I often start with less than either of those two. But if you need an outline in order to feel secure, then I’d say, Create that first.

In the first instance, the thought-out characters, you can jumpstart the plot by giving one of them a desire that’s not easy to realize. For example, suppose Henry – kind at heart but with a temper and a need for things to go his way – argues with his sister Marigold and says something awful to her. They separate for their ordinary days. Soon after, he realizes he was horrible and hurt her where she was most vulnerable. He makes her a present that he knows she’ll love to make it up to her. But meanwhile something terrible happens to her: she’s in a coma or she’s been shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for Mars or her personality has been taken over by an evil elf or anything else. Henry has to save her so he can give her her present and apologize.

Now we have the beginnings of a plot. So we look around at our other well-developed characters. Tricia is Henry’s closest friend although she’s unreliable in a pinch and she’s very self-centered. Henry tells her what happened and she responds however she would, and we’re off.

Or you can give two of them desires that are at odds. Say Marigold has died. Henry’s life mission has become to be helpful, to insult no one ever again, never to leave anyone with hurt feelings. Tricia wants Henry to side with her in her argument with another of their friends. He doesn’t want to get in the middle but he doesn’t want Tricia mad at him. And the third friend has yet another agenda.

Or we can look at our fascinating cast and ask what fiction we can create by rubbing them against each other. Let’s say we have Henry and Tricia as I’ve described them. And Marigold is a dreamer, kind of other-worldly, easily hurt. And there’s Ray, adventuresome, a little scattered, who tends to talk and not listen. We can send them off together, camping or to a city they don’t know well. They argue about what to do or where to go. The others don’t get with Ray’s program, and he stomps off. They let him go but his absence ruins their good time, and they get a strange text message from him. And the story is off and running.

The second instance, when you have a plot but no developed characters, is most familiar to me. It’s where I am when I start adapting a fairy tale, so let’s pick one and see how it works. I’ve never tried my hand at “Rapunzel,” so we’ll try that one. Well, I’d think about the damsel. What’s she doing in the tower? She could be passive and helpless. The witch decides to keep her there, and she goes. Or, maybe she’s been imprisoned because she’s the opposite of passive and helpless. The witch has tried other ways to control her, say reason and kindness, which haven’t worked. Rapunzel could even be the villain! She needs to be in that tower in order for the rest of the kingdom to be safe. But she starts preparing her hair as bait to get her out of there.

Next we think about the witch or the prince. If Rapunzel is bad, that changes our perspective on everybody else. Take the prince. Why does he get involved with her? Maybe he thinks the best of everyone. Or maybe he likes to reform people, and he thinks if only he can spend some time with Rap, he can turn her around. He may be putty in her hands. Maybe the witch is the heroine, and the story is a tragedy because Rapunzel does get free.

I love having a bare-bones plot to ornament with interesting characters!

The prompts today are in the post:

• Henry insulted his sister Marigold, and something dreadful has befallen her. Pick one of my possibilities or create your own. Write the story of his quest to save her and redeem himself. Include Tricia as his sometime helper and sometime obstacle.

• Marigold is dead, and Henry is a damaged person. Tricia wants him on her side in an argument, but Henry never wants to offend anyone ever again. Put what happens in a story.

• Henry, Tricia, Ray, and Marigold are with their youth group on a trip to New York City, where they’ve never been before. They wander off to have their own adventure, but then argue over what it should be. Ray goes off on his own. He gets into trouble, and so do they. Write what happens. Your version of New York City can include zombies, talking buildings, whatever you like.

• Take the approach that I suggest with “Rapunzel” or any other fairy tale. Develop characters who will go interestingly in the direction of the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Thinking It Out

On September 26, 2012, Courtney Arzu wrote, I’m an extremely young author…But I would like to know how to set up a story/novel. I can begin a story but I can’t seem to finish because I haven’t thought it out. I don’t know what I’m going to do, what the main climax is going to be or how I’m going to end it. I just wanted to ask: What “outline” would be best for creating the plot? I’ve tried multiple things, but I always end up writing halfway through and get stuck at my mid point. I don’t like writing blindly but that’s the only way I seem to know how to do. I have extreme difficulty with plot, supreme extreme difficulty and was simply wondering what to do.


I’ve read your only Planning one, and I don’t seem to click with it. I’m an odd one. As I’m so young, and just trying to kick start myself into writing. I have been telling stories since I was able to talk and I love it. I read everything I could get my hands on. By nine years old, I was in adult fiction. It wasn’t enough. I started to write my own stories, yet I could never finish one because writer’s block would poise itself in the middle of a sentence somewhere.


When I’m writing, I write tons but when I’m not, I have no ideas. A story of mine has fallen into the humor category simply because I’m filling space. I’m going to go back and edit it out but I haven’t a clue how to plan ahead. It’s a bad trait of mine and I do hope I’ll figure it out but to me the light is way at the other end of the tunnel, a couple hundred miles and I can’t quite tell if I’m going to get there before a train comes barreling in my direction.

Courtney’s question spurred this response from Maia: I started loads of stories and then never finished them b/c the plots got too complicated and I couldn’t see where they were going…so before I even start writing now, I write out the entire plot using bullet points. It’s very useful – it keeps you on track but isn’t so strict that I can’t add things here and there and often stories have taken off by themselves outside the confines of their structure.


The light in the tunnel is nearer than you think, and fortunately trains don’t happen along very often.

And this from writeforfun: I always force myself to write a roughly one page summary of the story before I start writing, because once I’m writing, I have to know where I’m going. If I can’t write the whole summary, including the climax and end, then I think about it and write an idea for an ending, even if it’s a bad one, so that I have a road map for what I’m writing. Some things will change, but that helps me a lot. Just a suggestion.

These are great suggestions – planning tips for people who don’t completely outline. But if you’d like to learn one approach to really outlining, you might enjoy Walter Dean Myers’ book Just Write: Here’s How.

I don’t outline, but I usually have an idea of the ending, and I write toward it. Often the golden coin of the ending is clutched in the fist of the beginning. The beginning introduces a problem, which the ending will solve, one way or another, happily or not. In Ella Enchanted the problem of Ella’s curse is introduced in the first chapter, and the end is right there, too, the lifting of the curse, or if the book turned out to be a tragedy, the certainty that Ella would never be free. What I wrote in between were instances, as Ella’s life progresses, of the burden of the curse, her attempts to save herself, and the life she manages to live while her suffering goes on (the budding relationship with Char, her friendship with Areida, the continuing support of Mandy).

So we can look at our beginning and ask what problem it’s posing, and then what the possible solutions are. Say we start with an alien invasion. We need to ask lots of questions about the aliens until we discover what the central question is that the beginning is posing. Are these good or evil aliens? How much more advanced are they than we are? What are their intentions toward us? Let’s say they’re neither evil nor good; they’re traders, and we have something valuable that they can trade. Say it’s lumber. They want our trees, and they have marvels to give us in exchange, but we need our trees, too, and yet the marvels are tempting. Some powerful people will make enormous fortunes from the alien goods if we do trade. Now we have the problem, and the ending is sewn up inside it: whether or not Earth will be stripped of trees.

Suppose we decide that the planet will keep its trees. That’s the way we want it to come out. How are we going to get there? Who’s going to be our MC or our MCs? Who will represent the aliens? What other characters do we need? From this we can build our summary. And then we can start working out scenes.

A fascinating but disturbing tale of an alien invasion is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which takes the alien theme in a surprising direction. It’s a book for adults but if I remember right it should be fine for kids twelve and up. Check with a librarian to be sure.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you know I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I set off without much more than a beginning and a dim idea for the end. I’m familiar with the kind of distress that Courtney describes. The difference between us is experience, which may be annoying if you’re just starting out. Sorry! I’ve gotten through getting lost before and I’m pretty sure I can do it again. I cobble a story together from the threads I follow, and then in revision I tighten and tighten. So part of the solution is tolerance for your own writing style, which may be organized or may be messy. And another part may be tolerance for imperfection. First drafts are not supposed to be good. Good comes later, in revision.

As I’ve mentioned here, I’ve been working on a book based on the blog, which I just sent off to my editor on Monday. Much of it comes from the blog, but some I wrote for the book. Below is part of a plotting chapter. Although bits may be elsewhere here on the blog, I think at least some is new, and if not new, it all bears repeating:

Try writing a short summary of each scene that you have on an index card, then spread them out and move them around, out of their original sequence. You can even bring in scenes from other unfinished stories. Edgar in your old story can turn into Garth in the new one with a few personality adjustments. When you think about the characters, do you see new threads that connect them? Does one scene suggest itself as a fresh beginning? Another as the end? If, after rearranging, your story flows except for a few scenes that stubbornly don’t fit in anywhere, you can cut them but save them in case you find a use for them when you revise or in some future project.

If you discover that the cards move you farther along but then you bog down, you can lay them out again starting with the point where you got stuck – you don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning.

And here’s a plot exercise you can do in your notes that comes from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (most of this book is fine for kids, but a few chapters aren’t, so before you use it, show it to a parent). You can use this technique on a new story or an old one. If this is a new story, whenever you’re not sure where to take the story next, ask yourself, What if? and write down five options for directions the story might take. Be wild. Be carefree. Anything goes in notes. Don’t even look at what you have till you’re done.

It might go like this: My MC is at a party and feeling all alone. What if she sees a framed photo of her long-lost brother on the mantelpiece? What if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening? What if she decides the party needs livening up and starts singing? And so on.

Now look over your list. Suppose two options appeal to you. Write a paragraph about each: what it would mean for your story, how it would take place. Pick the one you like best and return to your story. When you reach the next story decision point, ask What if? again and repeat.

If you write five possibilities and none pleases you, write three more or five more.

In an old story that you’ve given up on, ask What If? after your last sentence. If that spot doesn’t yield anything interesting, go back to a point where the story was still burning in you and ask the question. When you find a new path, start writing.

If you find them helpful, use the plotting strategies above for these two prompts:

∙ Write the story about the aliens who want our trees.

∙ Write five more What if?’s about the MC who feels alone at the party. Then write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!