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!

  1. In my version of Cinderella, I made her have fire sorcery (that’s why they call her Cinders)
    In my version of Snow White, I made her have ice sorcery (that’s why they call her Snow)
    In my version of Phantom of the Opera, I made my Phantom a woman fleeing the Nazis.
    Making the MC different is always a fun process for me.
    Also, I’m the first commenter out here so far. Cool.

  2. I also have a little writing problem today. I’m doing a story about a gymnast and I have to describe her routine. It’s going to win her an Olympic medal, so I have to sort of immortalize it. But every time I try, it pretty much says “She did three flips off the uneven bars and landed.” Any tips would be appreciated.

    Oh, and Gail, thank you so much for this post. I have been fighting to try to present my Snow White story in a new way. And I adore list-writing too.
    By the way, when you say you’ve added a question to your list on this blog, what does that exactly mean?

    • I would try to watch videos of previous Olympics and other gynmastic competitions, and see how the announcer describes what’s happening. They’re usually pretty good at describing athlete’s movements and making them sound dramatic. Also, if you want, intead of simple third person narrartion, you could instead describe the scene with diologue from an announcer, that way, you can overdramatize it a bit, and add a bunch of little comments and interjections. For example:
      The announcer’s clear voice rang out through the broadcast system. “She’s getting on the bar, perfect posture as usual…Ohh, look at her left foot, pointing slightly inward! That lapse of form could cost her a few points, or *gasp* a turned ankle! But no matter…she’s going for the win…she leaps for the first bar…Is she going to make it?…She has!…and the second!…The third!…And she lands! A perfect 10 from the judges! Give it up everybody, for our wonderfully talented contestant!”

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I keep a list of questions that I plan to answer in a post, and I answer them chronologically. Usually the questions that seem to fit have broad writing implications.

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      Another good thing to do is to include sensory details. My fiction professor said that, as a rule of thumb, he would try to include at least three sensory details on the page. You could talk about the feeling of chalk on her fingers, since gymnasts use chalk to give their hands more traction. You could talk about the smell of sweat and the smell of popcorn (or something similar) in the gymnasium. All of these things will help root the reader in the seeing of the story and help it come alive.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I just approved it. I didn’t realize. Yes, I meant Marfan Syndrome. I looked it up. The question marks were in my draft for the post, and I thought I fixed them. Thanks for asking!

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I found out what the problem was. The blog program puts in moderation any comment that includes two or more links. That’s just the way it works–there’s nothing wrong with including two or more links. What I was able to change is that from now on I’ll get an email whenever a comment is sent there. Weirdly, it put one of my own comments there, too, and I failed to notice!

  3. I have a lot of questions, so I apologize in advance for the length of this comment, but you guys are so helpful I can’t resist 🙂

    1. (the only one actually related to the topic of this post) Anyone have any tips for writing a plot where there is no technical antagonist? I want to write a story where there are multiple main characters, who each has a different agenda that brings him/her into conflict with the others. They’re going to take turns sharing the POV, so I want the reader rooting for different people at different times, but ends up rooting for them all even though they’re fighting against each other. Ex: in chapter one, it’s person A vs person B, told from person A’s pov, so the reader roots for person A; in chapter 2, it’s again A vs P, but this time written so the reader roots for B; except it’s with more than 2 people in various combinations. And there’s no “one big villain” that they’re all fighting against either; it’s just them fighting against each other. The best example I think of is the book Artemis Fowl, but that has only 2 main “opposing teams”, and I would like to do more than 2, which complicates it some. Does anyone have any tips or book suggestions that demonstrate this? (I already know Artemis Fowl, Les Miserables, and Game of Thrones) Another thing is, I’m not looking to just write a few chapters in the antagonist’s POV or make them “sympathetic” (think Snape). I’m trying to write a story where everybody is both the protagonist and antagonist, and the reader wants everybody to win.

    2. I’m having trouble sticking to one project. When it comes to writing, I have the attention span of a two week old puppy. I’ll be writing a story, and suddenly a new plot bunny will run across my mind, and I’ll go chase it. I’m not bored with the old story, I still love it, but I’m just constantly distracted by the new, shiny ideas which seem more fun to write. I’ve heard people suggest writing down the ideas in a separate document, but that doesn’t work for me. Instead of getting vague ideas for plot, I get REALLY specifically worded scenes or dialogue I want to write. I have it planned out in my head down to the word, so if I were to write it all down I would be a pretty into the new story already. Because of this, I currently have about 8 stories in various stages of development floating around in my head and on my computer. Any tips for dealing with distractions?

    3. When I imagine stories in my head, I think of a bunch of little “scenes”I want included, like a movie trailer, instead of a big picture plot. What I’m having trouble with is stringing these scenes together. Any advice?

    4. This one’s more for Gail, but any help is appreciated. How do you come up with the names of fantasy kingdoms/countries and their languages? The setting of my book is a modernised version of the unnamed fairytale kingdoms in Grimms’/Anderson’s fairy tales, and I want each kingdom to sort of correspond with the modern European country that they oringinated in. (Ex: The little mermaid’s kingdom is based off modern day Demark, Snow White’s kingdom is modern day Germany, etc) I want the names to have some relationship to the country they’re representing, but I don’t want it to be too obvious. Right now I’m just using the name of a country in its native language, but I don’t think that’s going to work. Any tips/suggestions?

    5. This is more about legal stuff than writing, but does anyone know where parodies fall on the copyright spectrum?

    Sorry for hogging all this space. Any help is greatly appreciated, and you don’t have to answer all of the questions. 🙂

    • 4) I realize this one was supposed to be for Gail, but I just had a little tip. Based on the books I’ve read that try to do what you’ve described I would suggest coming up with a name that vaguely suggests the country, maybe a sort of bowdlerized version of an actual place there, and then make all of the names of of the characters from the actual country. You can even drop in words from a made-up language that sounds like dutch or french or whatever, or even actual words from a language. You can also use stereotypes about the people from that country to help people figure it out. That’s not to say everyone has to be a caricature, but just one or two snooty and well dressed “french” people, or an “irish” guy with red hair might help.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          On #4, Arnyoung’s suggestions sound good to me. You might also approach the problem phonetically. For example, Germany in German is Deutschland, and the sound of the first syllable is sort of doitch, so you might use that oi sound in the name of your kingdom. Or, if you’re sticking with the English name for a country, like Denmark (I don’t know what it is in Danish), you might think, two syllables, short vowels, no sibilant sounds, hard ending and use those as guides.

          On #2, I’ve written posts on finishing. You might also divide your writing time. First hour for an ongoing projects, second hour for new.

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            Also, on #5, I Googled “does parody violate copyright?” and it’s complicated. I suggest you Google the same question to see the complexity, but ignore the article from Lithuania, where the law may be different.

          • My friend is from Lithuania! Nobody ever talks about her country, so I’ll have to tell her that it came up in conversation today!
            (Um, does that sound weird?)

    • Hi, Kitty, here are a few suggestions. Also a very long post, pardon my wordiness:

      1: If you want everyone likeable but still quarreling, I’d suggest you read THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL by Soman Chanani. Certain characters are supposed to be “good” and “bad”, but for example, the prince is conceited and sometimes sexist in my opinion, and one of the wicked witches seems horrible but actually wants to help people.
      You could also try the Ever After High series by Shannon Hale. There are two girls, Raven and Apple. Raven’s destined to be evil, Apple’s destined to be good, but Raven is really nice and Apple actually wants Raven to be evil because then things go good for Apple. I ended up liking both of them.

      2: I get that too. Not sure if this will help, but what I try doing is dividing my writing time. I pick one main idea and give it an hour and a half of work. If I get a random idea, I allow 30 minutes to write that. If I don’t have random ideas that day, I just spend an extra 30 minutes on my main story. Then I never type for more than two hours a day. If an idea’s really pressing, I jot it in a notebook and get back to it later.

      3: Sometimes I have a bunch of little ideas like that, too. I know that my gymnast is going to win a fishy medal, and I know that her boyfriend is going to cheat on her, and I know that she’s going to get death threats on her Instagram page. What I try doing is cause-and-effect. Like, she finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her with a fellow gymnast named Liza. She gets really mad at Liza and tells her that she’s a horrible gymnast, she’s ugly, she’s fat, etc. Liza gets mad, too, and posts the death threats.

      4: I’ve had that problem a lot. I once wrote a fairytale in Russia. The word for “kingdom” in Russian is “korolevstvo”, so I called it Korol. The other country was based on Italy. The word for “country” in Italian is “paese”, so I called it Paese.
      If you don’t like that, Shannon Hale once named her country Bayern, which is German for Bavaria, and got away with it.

      5: Parodies of other books? Or parodies of what’s happened in real life?

      Hope something in here helps!

      • Thank you, Yulia!
        I’ve read both the School for Good and Evil (currently waiting for the 3rd one to come out!) and the Ever After High series (I’m way too old for them, I know, but they’re kind of addicting. I read a lot of stuff that’s *technically* too young for me). I love both series, but they’re not exactly what I’m looking for. In both, there’s some kind of ultimate antagonist that’s behind everything (The schoolmaster in School for Good and Evil and Headmaster Grimm in EAH–they aren’t especially elaborated on in the first book, but are revealed as the series progresses)But both series are awesome; I’m glad that you like them too!
        (on a side note, judging from the comments on the web show, there actually seem to be A LOT of people who hate Apple.)

        Your time management schedule and planning strategy seems like it’ll work very well. I’ll definitely try it out.

        Your kingdom naming strategy is really clever. So far I’ve been using the name of the country in its native language (ex: “Denmark” in Danish), but it kept on sounding too much like the English name. (At first I thought that was kind of weird, but then I realized that the English name for any country is probably an anglicized pronunciation of the name in the country’s native language. I facepalmed so hard.) I’ll definitely try using words like kingdom or country in different languages.

        By parodies I mean parodies of other book/media like movies. I want to do a parody of Rise of the Guardians + the Illuminatus trilogy about surveillance and privacy in the digital age. If you know where I can find any legal information, that would be a big help.

        Thanks again for all your help!

        • #4: Are the authors living? Copyrights in the US are good for 70 years after the author’s death.

          I’m 16 and still read both SGE and EAH.
          You can pre-order School for Good and Evil #3 at barnesandnoble.com already.

          Also, have you ever thought about naming your characters after words in the native language? Like, I called a Russian redhead Krasna because “krasnyy” means “red” in Russian.

        • People are hating Apple? Like, as in, saying she’s awful, can’t believe she’d do that to Raven, she’s a villain, she’s such a “bleepity-bleeper“? Who knew cyberbullying happens even to cartoon characters? *gnashing my teeth*
          Really, Apple’s haters need to find something better to do. Like write a book of their own.
          Sorry for the rant there. It’s just that I know a girl who’s getting cyberbullied for something she didn’t do, and when I see it happening to a character (a made-up person, for the apple tree’s sake!), I get mad. It’s so backwards.

          • I know. I think most of the complaints I’ve seen are some variant of “She’s selfish and doesn’t think of anything besides her own happily-ever-after” or “her personality is kind of bratty/annoying” . But you’re right, cyberbullying isn’t okay, even if the person isn’t real. I hope your friend can find a way to stop those bullies; best luck to both of you 🙂

          • Come to think of it, Apple was a little self-centered and prissy-princessy, but I still liked her.
            My friend’s doing just fine. She ignores it all, thank goodness.
            Peace to the world, everyone!

    • Song4myKing says:

      1. Maybe you could figure out something that they all want badly enough to work together on? Or maybe you could try looking at their deeper wants. (like, one of my friends helped me figure out that what was really driving my MC was that she was trying to find security. So even though she fails to totally reach her goal, by the end of the book she has found security and it’s a happy ending.) Maybe some of your characters won’t get what they were trying for, but they’ll still get what they really wanted all along. I couldn’t think of any books that were like what you describe, but I like the concept!

      2. I tend to be fairly focused (er, that is, I’ve got a one-track mind, like Tamara of the example), but I also am constantly getting new ideas. Some I write down, some I don’t. Mostly, I just keep going on the WIP when I’m actually at my computer, and let the new ideas bounce around while I’m doing other things. Sometimes after letting them bounce around a little, I figure out a way to work them into my WIP or into another story I’ve already got in my head. Sometimes I’m sure they’ll make a whole story of their own, and then I might jot down just enough to remind me, keeping most of it in my head until I feel ready to start writing a new story. I don’t know if any of that helps you. It’s how it works for me, but each writer has a different way of channeling their own creativity.

      5. What I’ve SEEN done (but I can’t guarantee it’s sufficient), is that the author will give the title of the parody followed by “Apologies to [the original author].”

  4. Great post Mrs.Levine! I started writing stories recently and your blog posts are really helpful. One thing I have a problem with is my dialogue. It just seems really stiff and unnatural. Does anyone have any advice? Thanks!

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      Observation is key! I would suggest carrying around a notebook with you. Then just pay attention to how people speak when they interact with each other. When you have the time, go to a food court, mall, park, or other place where a lot of people congregate. Find a comfortable spot, set a timer for something like twenty minutes, then spend the entire time writing your observations. The key here is to write down what you see, hear, smell, etc, but focus on people rather than setting. Try to spend the entire time slot writing things down. I’ve found that doing this gives me a better sense of how people interact with each other, which in tien helps my dialogue feel more real. Hope this helps!

  5. I have a question as well. You all were immensely helpful answering my Cinderella question from a few weeks ago, so I thought I’d ask about another Cinderella related problem: The Stepfamily.
    I find it difficult to portray them. I am making them too sympathetic, and they MUST NOT be too sympathetic. How do I make them loathsome?
    They do have a few boundaries to keep them from being entirely horrid. For one, the house is essentially Elaina’s, to be claimed once she becomes an adult. The family business too is entailed to her, though the stepmother runs it and makes a good profit, for now. Because of these boundaries, they are forced to be careful of how they treat her, though they all, especially the stepmother and the oldest stepsister, hate her passionately. What can they do to torment Elaina, while still being careful not to do anything huge enough to make Elaina want to toss them out into the streets immediately after she turns 21, that will make readers absolutely despise them? The motther is clever, and very calculating, and mean to the core. The eldest sister is a bit of a dunce, but can be surprisingly observant, and the youngest is a scheming harpy, who takes every advantage to blackmail people, her mother and sister included. What can be done with these characters to make readers detest them? Does anyone have any ideas?

    • Maybe make the stepfamily try throughout the whole book to figure out a way to blackmail Elaina, so that they can treat her as badly as possible without having to worry about her getting revenge? Like spying on her to see if she has any secrets, etc. Or you could make them scheme about how to steal her inheritance. (legal loopholes, etc)

    • Well, for the stepmother, I knew of a lady who appeared all nice to everybody, but she was really mean and ruthless behind the scenes. She was a gymnastics coach, and she would do anything to get her gymnasts on a team. She was always sweet and lovely with her own gymnasts, but when no one was looking, she was calling the federation to kick the others off the teams so there’d be free spots for her students. Yet all anyone ever saw of her was her motherly, kindly, fairy-godmother-like image.
      For the oldest stepsister, maybe she can make tiny digs at Elaina (who I assume is the Cinderella), just enough to annoy her, without being all-out horrible. From the gymnastics world again, I knew of two gymnasts who didn’t get along well. One was a little thinner than the other, and the thinner one once said, “I really have to watch what I eat. If I weighed any more than I do, I’d be overweight.” And the other one didn’t even pick up on it. You could make Elaina a little clueless, and she won’t figure that it’s a dig, but the reader will.
      For the younger stepsister, you could make her unaware that she has to be nice to Elaina, so she’s downright nasty.

    • I think a lot of times, it’s the little things that makes me not like a person. Maybe the Stepfamily can say normal, nice things to Elaina, but do it all with glances at each other and smirks and eye-rolling and stuff. If they do things like that–that are obviously mean but you can’t quite put your finger on what’s cruel about it–then if Elaina tries to do anything about it, they can claim innocence and maybe even guilt her into feeling bad about ever thinking that in the first place (if that make sense). Whenever I read a situation like that, I get so ANGRY. But if the mother and the youngest are clever, they could probably do that sort of thing really well.

      • Kitty: that is an option, though because the home had belonged to Elaina’s mother, and the business was half-and-half, I’m not sure just exactly how they’d go about it.
        Yulia: Yes, the stepmother is that kind of woman, to the world she is a good, capable woman, looking after her deceased husband’s business and making money that will (supposedly) go to her stepdaughter. She also gives extensively to the various charities.
        The older sister would definitely say things like that, and while Elaina would understand it, she would be above such petty insults and pay them no heed, she has bigger things to worry about than the chapped state of her hands.
        The younger sister is a very clever girl, and she definitely knows that Elaina stands to inherit pretty muchly everything, but she’s mean anyways, because she figures she has enough brains to see her through trouble.
        Bug: YES! That is exactly the sort of things they would do! For instance, if Elaina mentions that she needs a new pair of stockings, stepmama will go, “Oh, but my dear Cinders, surely the allowance your father left you would cover that. It certainly isn’t my fault if you haven’t been careful of your money matters. And you can’t expect me to deal with these things when I have my own daughters to maintain. Heaven knows you’re going to inherit everything soon enough, and then MY source of income will be gone. The courts really don’t know what’s good for a person so young; you can’t be expected to run the business alone…” etc., etc.

        • That’s like one of my least favorite kinds of villains…and by that I mean favorite, because they’re so fun to hate, I guess. I don’t know. Your story sounds really interesting! Good luck!

  6. So I just read the writer to writer book, and it inspired me to change my work. A LOT. So I’ve started rewriting my story in short parts. The thing is even though I have the beginning, middle, and end, whenever I log onto my computer to write my ideas run away. Like, they have sprouted legs and jumped out of my head. (good subject for a story, maybe I’ll write it later) Also, my characters talk way too little, even though I created them to have one be quiet and one really talkative. Any advice on how to cure a blank mind? And possibly make my characters slip into the people they are supposed to be?

    • Maybe you could write out the main points, like this (using my own work-in-progress):
      1: Main character, a gymnast, gets a medal she doesn’t deserve. Hatred building from people who think they were gypped.
      2: MC goes home, finds that her boyfriend is cheating on her with another gymnast. Confronts his mistress. Mistress posts death threats on the gymnast’s Instagram page, but the MC doesn’t know who they’re from.
      3: MC reads the threats, decides she has to get out before someone kills her, catches a plane to a foreign country.
      4: MC gets to the foreign country, finds a place to stay; her landlady is suspicious of her.

      Then you fill it in with more details, like this:

      Chapter 1: MC is at the Olympics during the vault final, the last gymnastics event. She does her routine and wins. She’s elated about her victory and has no idea that it was fixed. She goes to bed happy.
      Chapter 2: MC comes to breakfast in the Olympic Village. Her teammate comes bursting in, saying that the MC’s win is the most talked-about topic on Twitter. She starts scrolling through posts, reading them off. Some of them are nasty, and the MC realizes that not everyone agrees with her victory.
      Chapter 3: The President of the Moldovan Gymnastics Federation tells the MC that he helped rig her win. She refuses to believe it and storms off.

      Hope that helps. Also, I love your username Queen-of-procrastination. That’s totally me too.

    • What works for me is writing down my ideas as soon as I get them–or as soon as I am possibly able to. I have a notebook where I put names that I like, general plot ideas, dialogue snippets, anything. And I read it every now and then. And then, when I want to work on something in there, I write it down again on a blank page and then start writing questions about it. Like, why does this person do this? What would make this thing end up in that place? That gives me ideas, and I write those down. That way, whenever I start writing, I have a few pages to give me inspiration and sort of get me into the groove of writing it.

      Another thing that helps me when I can’t get characters to do the things I want them to is to write scenes that just belong in my notes. If you want one to talk more, write a few scenes with monologues that that character gives, maybe. It kind of gets you used to making that person talk a lot, and maybe it’ll help you figure out the way she/he talks.

  7. Erica Eliza says:

    I’ve been reading one of my stories and the writing sounds awkward and clunky, especially in dialogue. How do I tell the difference between actual awkward and clunky writing and “I guess this is just my style.”

  8. So I’ve got another question that’s been bouncing around my brain and I wanted to see what you guys thought: how do you write steampunk? I have a story idea I think would be cool as a steampunk theme, but I’ve never written anything like that and I honestly have no idea how to go about doing it. Any ideas?

    • Well, don’t really have any advice as an experienced steampunk writer but I wrote my first steampunk story a few months ago like you. I’ve got one rule for you; if you’re going to include lots of fantasy machinery and gadgets (you probably are) make sure that you’ve planned out how your machine is going to work. Even if it wouldn’t make sense in real life, it at least has to be clear to you how it works in your world, if that makes any sense. Also, try not to get caught up in all of the cool atmosphere and world-building, I love describing steampunk clothes and gadgets and places, but in my story, I had to cut out lots of details because the story got boring for the reader and the plot dragged on. You might consider doing some research about victorian times too, if you are going in that direction.

  9. Hi, I’m writing a story with a hilarious little MC. His girlfriend is under a curse, and it’s his job to kill the wizard who cursed her. But how do I turn my goofy loveable guy into a vengeful fighter?

    • Hi Yulia, you may not need to completely change your characters personality and make him all vengeful and heroic. He can be hesitant, crack jokes along the way, or banter with his ultra- serious enemies. I think the best way to solve your problem is to incorporate the fact that he doesn’t think he is cut out for his role in the story. You don’t want a whiner, but he can complain occasionally, and maybe he can have some confidence issues, where he is discouraged and he feels like he’s not the big, buff hero the situation demands. Think Harry Potter; he really just wants a normal life but he has been cast as the hero of the story, so he learns to deal with it. If it is possible, he could even have a sidekick of some kind, someone to kind of guide him about what he’s supposed to do to be the fighter the situation demands. Whatever you decide to do, don’t lose the humor! I think a wisecracking MC is always good, especially when the story gets dark.

    • Is his girlfriend still alive? If she is, how does the curse affect her? If not, how much time has passed between her death and the wizard-killing-fiasco? If she’s dead then you can make him angry and hurt and out for revenge, as even the nicest people can do really drastic things when their loved one is hurt or dead. If his girlfriend is alive, maybe make the curse life-threatening, and the only way to lift it is to kill the wizard. The boyfriend might not be vengeful or want to have to kill the wizard, but he realizes he has no choice if he wants to save his girlfriend’s life. Again, people will go to surprising lengths for a loved one.
      Also, who’s the audience of this story? If it’s for little kids, I don’t think you have to make him into a vengeful fighter. They probably won’t notice or care that the loveable goofball just killed someone.
      Hope this helps!

    • The hero’s girlfriend is still alive but getting weaker by the minute (like in Frozen when Anna’s heart is frozen and she starts turning to ice). The wizard is trying to take over the kingdom and kill the prince so he can become king. Killing the wizard will save the kingdom.
      The problem here is that there are two MCs, Jack and Crystal (his girlfriend). It’s in three parts. Jack narrates the first part, Crystal narrates the second, and Jack narrates the third. The two don’t see each other in part 2 since Crystal’s off on a mission of her own. Jack is so loveable and goofy in the first part, but when he shows up in the third part, he’s a sword-swinging knight in shining armor!
      Also, at the end of part 2, Crystal gets locked up and Jack rescues her. That’s when his heroic character starts up. But it’s so un-Jack-like for him to break into a prison.
      Any tips would be appreciated. Thanks guys!

      Oh, and the audience is going to be about 10 -17.

    • Honestly you might not have to turn him into a vengeful person at all. Just because your main character is a comedian doesn’t mean he can’t still be a conqueror. I don’t think the story itself sounds very similar to what you’re writing, but one series with a comparable character (a hilarious guy who has to take on a serious task) is the Ascendance trilogy by Jennifer A Nielsen. Despite having to overcome some series serious challenges, the main character is always making jokes, being sarcastic, and saying funny stuff. All three are pretty fast reads, and I would definitely suggest the series if you’re trying to create a character like that.

  10. girl_artist says:

    Âllo! I’m really good at writing, even though I’m not a teenager yet. First, I made my character. Then, I made the plot. It took a lot of time to think of the plot. As Ms. Levine says, ideas take a long time to come, but they always come. Now I have all of my ideas for my novel and am revising it chapter by chapter.

        • I say read it over and see if you’re getting bored in parts. I once cut over 50 pages of a 150-page novel because it was such a snooze fest.
          Then really look at if your characters are acting like you want them to. Is it clear what they want?
          Finally, just see if you can say anything clearer than you already have.
          Gail has a few posts on revising, if it helps. Look under tags like “revising” or “editing”.

          • girl_artist says:

            Thank you! I made a map of my fantasy lands, which are called the Lonjuregait Lianskeils {a name I made myself. :)} It’s much clearer where Elicia is travelling now.
            I’ll also make sure that the story makes sense yet is complex and interesting. I’ve noticed I’ve been cutting a lot of my brilliant prose as I’ve been writing, but in my opinion, too much descriptive language when action strikes can be irritating.
            And thank you for those tips! I’ll make sure that my dialogue is crystal clear.

  11. Hey Gail,
    I’m working on outlining the plots for a few stories right now and for two of them there is no possible way for the end to be happy. Do you have any advice on sad endings? Or do you advise against them?

    • That’s exactly my problem, Zoe. I’m doing a story like that too. I’ve decided to make my story bittersweet: the main character dies, but the other characters are okay, and life goes on. Of course, you can do what you want.

  12. Quick grammar question: when you start a new paragraph in the middle of dialogue (still the same person speaking), do you leave off the quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph? I’ve seen it done this way in books, but I don’t understand why.
    For example, which one is correct?
    1. “What choice do we have?” Isabel shot back. “We have no money, no identification, and I’m the only one who speaks the language. We’re not making it back to the States on our own. So unless you want to spend the rest of your life in the South American wilderness, shut up and listen to me.”

    “Look, we don’t have to tell the them what we did, okay? We just make something up, get back to the States, and lay low for a while. Nobody has to know we’re in trouble with the law.”


    2. “What choice do we have?” Isabel shot back. “We have no money, no identification, and I’m the only one who speaks the language. We’re not making it back to the States on our own. So unless you want to spend the rest of your life in the South American wilderness, shut up and listen to me.

    “Look, we don’t have to tell the them what we did, okay? We just make something up, get back to the States, and lay low for a while. Nobody has to know we’re in trouble with the law.

  13. I have a kind of weird question. I’m writing a story, and I have the PERFECT title, it’s plot relevant, it’s ironic, AND it’s a pun. Unfortunately, there are…problems. What to do? The title is “4 Is.” (As in the plural of the LETTER I, not the word ‘is’. Should I add and apostrophe, making the title “4 I’s”? All the articles I’ve read say NOT to use an apostrophe when speaking of a plural letters. I’m specifically asking
    Mrs. Levine, but if anyone else knows anything helpful, I would be grateful if you would share your knowledge. Thank you.

      • Chrissa Pedersen says:

        Since we’re asking technical writing questions, I thought I’d throw one in as well. What is the difference between Third Person Multiple POV and the Omniscient POV? And is one better than the other for a particular age group?

  14. Gail Carson Levine says:

    The difference, as I understand it, is that in multiple third-person, the POV sticks with one character within a scene and only switches in the next scene, whereas in omniscient third-person, the narrator jumps in and out of any character’s thoughts and feelings at will, even within a scene. Does that nail it for you?

    I’m not an expert on age level, but my opinion is that third-person omniscient or third-person single POV is best for the picture book crowd (age four to eight), who are too young to handle switching around. Older than that, though, depends on what works for the story. We can do whatever we like.

    • Chrissa Pedersen says:

      Thanks, that does help to clarify things. I’m analyzing “Charlotte’s Web” from a writer’s perspective for a project I’m working on. Based on your comment, I think “Charlotte’s Web” is written in the omniscient third-person? I always thought of the omniscient narrator as having a “personality” of its own. In “Charlotte’s Web”, the narrative voice doesn’t seem to take on a personality of its own, but it does dip into the thoughts and feelings of all the characters within a scene.

      I’m still on the fence about whether the current story I’m working on will be a PB or a CB. Having a better handle on the use of third-person-multi vs omniscient will allow me to figure out which would be more suitable for a CB, but I will stick with the simpler perspective if the story want to be a PB.

  15. I need helppp! I have, in my story, two perspectives. Mostly it’s about one character (Patrick) trying to get to a village, but I sometimes add a chapter about the village and its inhabitants. Unfortunately, I go by days, so we see Patrick waking up at the beginning of the chapter and going back to sleep by the end of it. Then in the next chapter I write about that SAME day, but focusing on the village inhabitants. How can I show that it’s the same day, but a different perspective? Or will the reader just assume so? The timing of the days is important.
    Any replies are appreciated!!!!

    • I’m doing something like that. In chapter 14, it’s Ashley’s perspective. In chapter 15, Jason tells the story from his point of view. Chapter 14 says, “Ashley, June 12” and Chapter 15 says, “Jason, June 12”

      • For some reason, I don’t like putting in dates in books. Instead of staying in my fictional world, it pulls me back to earth with a start!! 🙂 I suppose I’ll have to conquer my bane, though, because I can’t really see any other way. Thanks!

        • Song4myKing says:

          Would the days of the week be any better? Or holidays, real or made up (“Patrick, one week after Thanksgiving”)? There may ways of making it clear in your writing (“That morning, the villagers awoke to the sound of . . .”) but I imagine it could be hard to make it fresh every other chapter. Unless you use a really standard phrase that readers come to recognize as the signal of where and when this is.

          My way of getting around that hurdle is to drop in the scenes in chronological order, even if it means flipping between three areas of action a couple times in one chapter. It’s a balancing act, but I like the effects I can create that way. It sounds like you’re aiming for a different effect, however.

          • Both excellent ideas, Song4myKing!!! I think the date in relation to a holiday is a very good idea…
            Writing the scenes in chronological order might be my best choice. Not all the time, of course, but it helps put everything into place throughout the book. Many thanks!

  16. While we’re asking POV questions, what POV would you consider a book that’s mostly third person, but uses “I” in a sentence or two? Examples of this would be The Book Thief, or the Artemis Fowl series. Most of the narration is done in third person omniscient about a set of main characters, but the “narrator” occasionally makes small interjections, like “Let me explain this and that.” Does the few first person sentences override the mostly third person narration of the book?

    • Song4myKing says:

      I think that’s included in the third person omniscient POV. Omniscient literally means “all-knowing,” so in that POV, the narrator might know what none of the characters know, and might comment on it. In a lot of third person omniscient stories, the narrator stays in the background, but the author can choose to have the narrator make up-front statements like that. It used to be done quite a lot, I think. C.S. Lewis with his Chronicles of Narnia is another example.

    • Chrissa Pedersen says:

      If “I” is within the dialog I don’t think it would change the thrid-person POV, but if it slips into first person outside of the dialog that might be kind of confusing unless the omniscient narrative voice is the “I” or “me”. Definitely a tricky question. Thanks for mentioning The Book Thief, I’ll have it on my shelf to read and now I’ll be looking for the examples you mention 🙂

  17. In Gail’s book FAIRY DUST AND THE QUEST FOR THE EGG, there’s a scene where she addresses the reader with something like, “Close your eyes and think of a cottage. Yours might have soft gray walls. Mine might have a little blue door. To fairies, that is Mother Dove” (severe paraphrasing, sorry). She uses the word “mine” and I think it was fine.
    Also, THE BOOK THIEF is on my Goodreads list.

  18. Hi, I have a little problem. I’m writing a story about a fierce archer-princess. I want to name her after the Roman goddess of archery Diana. But whenever I write Princess Diana, all I can think of is the late Princess of Wales, who certainly did not go around attacking kingdoms and stuff. Any ideas how to get around the Princess-of-Wales image?

    • This is going to sound stupid, but it’s an idea, anyway: Why not have a different royal title for Diana? Maybe she’s titled “Her Royal Highness, the Goddess Diana”, or an entirely new title like “Talta Diana”. In one of my novels, I have a witch, but the term “witch” makes her sound evil. (At least, to me.) To solve the problem, I termed her a “goddess” instead. I don’t know, it could maybe help you get the image of the Princess of Wales out of your head. 🙂

    • Song4myKing says:

      In case it interests you, Artemis was the Greek equivalent of Diana, originating separately, but sharing a lot of the same stories.

  19. Hi, I have a little problem (again, since my writing seems to be full of little issues). I’m writing a scene where the actors are performing a play. How should I go about referring to the characters? They’re performing “Macbeth” and the actors’ names are Francois and Pierre. Should I say, “Pierre sent his assassins to kill Francois” or should I say “Macbeth sent his assassins to kill Banquo”?
    Just curious. Any help is welcome!

    • Song4myKing says:

      If you want to show a whole scene from the play, you might be able to switch to the POV of someone in the audience in order to let it play without sounding awkward.

      You might like to read other novels about actors to see how they’ve handled things. I pretty quickly thought of several that I’ve read and liked – King of Shadows, by Susan Cooper; Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive) at Last, by Avi; Mistress Malapert, by Sally Watson; and Surviving the Applewhites, by Stephanie Tolan. I’m sure there are a lot more too.

      • That’s a great idea, but there’s little stuff going on with the MC. She plays Macduff’s wife, and her love interest plays Macduff. They’re a perfect couple, and there’s some chemistry happening onstage. So I’m not sure how to deal with that.
        Otherwise, I could always move the romance someplace else, or have the audience person narrate about how they seem like a great couple, but I can’t describe how the girl’s heart starts pounding when her love interest takes her hand and stuff.

        • Song4myKing says:

          I see! Definately do it from her POV! That’s what was happening in Mistress Malapert, with the play Romeo and Juliet. (That doesn’t mean the idea is taken – like Gail said in the post, “we all build on old ideas.” I once read a story that had a very similar premise to my own, but the stories were very different. I realized that was because it’s MC and mine were very different, despite being the same age and having the same problem.)

  20. Hey, I have a question about viewpoint. I’m having trouble because the main character is pretty much descending into madness. Telling it from first person shows nothing of what’s going on because she’s gone mad. Scenes sound like this:

    Mirai was talking, but I couldn’t hear a word she said. All I could hear was Yang Shan’s voice saying over and over, “You are our champion. Be proud of it.”
    How was I to be proud if I was a fake?
    “LaoLao, are you hearing me?”
    Mirai’s shout cut through the madness for a minute, and I looked up. “What?”
    “LaoLao, I’ve been talking to you for five minutes and you haven’t answered me.”
    “Oh. Sorry.”

    But then third-person sounds so distant and doesn’t get close enough to the MC (LaoLao). How do I get a nice close-to-LaoLao story that actually tells what’s going on?

    Also, do you have any tips on writing post-traumatic stress disorder? That’s what the story’s about.

  21. I have a problem concerning the rule “show, don’t tell.” To me, it always seems like whenever I try to “show”, it just sounds—well—clichéd. “Her eyes sparkled”, “His fists clenched”, “My heart started to beat more quickly”… They’re everywhere. I have to say, they still paint a better picture than “she was delighted”, “he was angry”, and “I was nervous” (or frightened), but I don’t like them because they’ve been used so much already.
    So, are they still okay to use, or should I try harder to come up with a more creative way of showing?
    Any thoughts are welcome!!

    • Not that I’m an expert, but maybe you can try this:
      Original: She was delighted/Her eyes sparkled.
      Edit: Delight filled her so fast she could barely see.

      Original: He was angry/His fists clenched.
      Edit: Fury boiled in him, a pot about to spill its bubbling contents, but he wouldn’t let it out. He clenched his fists, trying to hold back the anger.

      Original: I was nervous/My heart started to beat more quickly.
      Edit: Nerves paralyzed me, and all I could feel was my racing heartbeat, like an auctioneer’s call in my chest.

      This works best for extreme cases. If you’re paralyzed by nerves, you must be pretty nervous. But it’s an idea.

    • One thing I’ve done to try and combat this is to use dialogue to “show” a character’s thoughts or feelings. Obviously this won’t work in every single situation your characters are in, but oftentimes when I’m stumped because “he was nervous” doesn’t work and none of the descriptions I can think of fit, I’ll try to slip in dialogue. When I’m editing and come back to it, I might have a better idea or find a different way to go with the scene. It’s not foolproof, but I find it helps pretty often 🙂

      • Yeah, you could try something like this:
        “I’ve never been so nervous,” I said to Betty. “But I have to do it.”
        “Good luck with that. He looks like a mighty one.”

        • Dialogue is great to “show” the moment. I’ve never thought of using that before.
          Analogies work well to “show” a character’s heart beat, or anger. You did that very well, Yulia, with the fury like a pot bubbling over and the racing heart like an auctioneer’s call.
          Thanks so much, both of you!!!

      • I said this:
        Hi Shannon, I’ve been reading your books since I was 8 and ADORE them. I’m a writer because of you. PS love marshmallows too. (I was responding to a tweet of hers about roasting marshmallows)
        She said this:
        hi there! Thanks!
        Like a lunatic, I responded:
        OMG you really responded to me? Thanks so much. Loooooooove you!
        That was my little conversation with Shannon.

  22. Hi everyone :D! I have a little question. Is it okay to use humorous wording in your narrative? Like, “she was sitting in her perfectly perfect room combing her perfect hair”? Would that cause, oh, I don’t know, my book to lose the chance at the National Book Award (okay, I’m fantasizing right now, but hey, one of the queens of writing just tweeted me :D, so I’m a little off in la-la-land).
    Anyway, just curious! Thanks so much!!! 😀

    • I don’t think that’s wrong at all!! I think if you’re using that kind of humorous phrase to make a point (maybe she’s a perfectionist, or completely full of herself, etc. and you’re using that phrase to show this) then I say GO FOR IT! I for one think those kinds of phrases in books add character and are fun to read 🙂 Also, no harm in dreaming big!!

      • Thanks!
        Sorry I won’t be able to help much around here for a while. I’m going on a blogging diet, if you can call it that. No blogging or tweeting for 30 days, so I can get more work done. I’m calling it my August NaNoWriMo.

  23. Before my no-blogging starts up, can I ask you guys one last teensy question? I’m torn between some titles for my Phantom of the Opera story. Keeping in mind that it’s about a Jewish opera star who flees Poland during the Holocaust and performs in Paris and gets famous yadda yadda yadda, I picked THE GIRL IN THE RED MASK (after the Girl in the Red Coat from SCHINDLER’S ARK), THE PHANTOM’S DAUGHTERS (because the girl is really the Phantom’s daughter), and OPERA STARS (because the symbol of Jews is a star, and a star is a famous person). Which one do you think I should go with?
    It would make me feel a lot better about my NoWriMo (can’t call it NaNoWriMo, because it’s not National Novel Writing Month) if I had a title for it. Can somebody please help? Sorry to bother you all.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you,

    • I agree with Penguin. The other two are good, but my favorite is The Girl in the Red Mask for sure. The benefit of the that title is the tie to Edgar Allan Poe’s Red Mask of Death story, which is alluded to in Phantom of the Opera when the phantom dresses as him at the masquerade.

    • I also really like The Girl in the Red Mask. It just sounds more alluring and mysterious–I’d be more likely to read a book with that title, personally 🙂 I like all the ideas though!

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