The Writer As Houdini

If anyone is looking for a short, intellectually stimulating break, I’d recommend The Gathering, a Friday-to-Sunday conference at Keystone College near Scranton, PA, which starts on July 12th, when I’ll be speaking about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I’ll also be giving a workshop on writing historical fiction. For participants only, I’ll be sharing pages that I cut from my forthcoming book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which few others will ever see. (My editor said they were too depressing for kids, and, as I revised, I came to agree with her, so I turned many pages into a single paragraph.) The food is great. The accommodations are college dorms. There is a cost, but there’s a student discount and a few scholarships are available. Here’s the link:

On March 27, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I have written myself into a roadblock.

So in my WIP, the bad king’s plan is to release a deadly epidemic on his kingdom then go away before he gets infected and bring back an enormous army to conquer the remaining weak subjects. The good guys have a plan to cure the disease, thwarting that part, but it is totally unrealistic for them to throw together an army in less than a month when they haven’t had one for a good number of years (BTW anything that seems like a loose end in this summary all checks out in the actual story it’s just too complicated to explain it all here). I considered having a good guy send a letter to the approaching army with all sorts of bluffs in hopes of scaring them off, but that’s also unrealistic.

I need some help, please!! I have no clue how I’m going to get out of this.

A few of you responded.

Kyryiann: You could have a group that wasn’t happy underneath the King’s rule and was already planning on raising an army anyway. Or have veterans of war be able to call on their old contacts, who are close by.

Melissa Mead: Maybe one of the disgruntled subjects is the one who crafted the disease, and they expose the evil king to it. When the army sees their king showing signs of the Dreaded Plague, while the opposition looks perfectly healthy, they flee.

Christie V Powell: Sounds like list time! Feel free to list any of these you like and keep going.

An army is made up of people. That means they can be changed. Perhaps if you feed them propaganda, they’ll doubt their orders or even switch sides. Perhaps you could send a special task force in to defeat just the leaders, so that they’re now the ones issuing orders to the army. You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural. You could use a natural barrier of some kind to block the army, such as an avalanche clogging a mountain pass or redirecting a river to make a flood. You could speak to the king’s underlings, sub-captains and whatnot, and offer them the cure in exchange for the king’s life.

Me: I’m so glad to see a LIST! Thank you, Christie V Powell!

Yay, Writing Ballerina! You’ve made a mess–and that the writer’s job. It’s our task to tie our MCs and other characters the reader cares about into knots that would challenge Houdini. I’ve done this more than once without an exit strategy.

Christy V Powell’s list is great, although I suspect she might have cut the stupid ideas that crop up in all my lists, like the giant frog that materializes in the evil king’s bedchamber and kills him with its acidic slobber.

Let’s look at this one of Christy V Powell’s possibilities: You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural.

The You here would probably be the MC, and everything will turn on the characters of the MC and the evil king, whom we’ll call Zigurd, and we’ll call the MC Lady Edna, who is a renowned warrior.

Let’s start with the Zigurd. What might make him susceptible to persuasion by Edna?

We make another list:

∙ He’s considers himself a visionary and likes to delegate the nasty details to others.

∙ He has this deep-down fear that at bottom he’s not very clever, so anyone who sounds brilliant can win him over.

∙ He’s susceptible to flattery.

∙ He devises unpleasant loyalty tests. If Edna passes, she’s in.

∙ He has a mistaken idea that he’s fabulous at reading other people. He tends to guess wildly wrong about people’s motives.

You can keep going. Note that I’ve listed only qualities that make him vulnerable. We also need for him to be formidable, which may require another list.

Onto Edna:

∙ Her beloved brother was killed by Zigurd. She’s willing to sacrifice her life to bring the king down. What she lacks in skill, she makes up in determination.

∙ She is better than good at flattery. She has a knack for making people feel loved, no matter what the truth is.

∙ She’s a super-skilled liar.

∙ She’s a pastry chef, and her mother is an herbalist. (We may need to add to Zigurd’s list that he’s a glutton.)

∙ She’s a whiz at chess. Her thinking is always three steps ahead of everyone else’s.

Again, we can continue. And again, I’ve listed only qualities that make success possible. We also need traits that will handicap her–another list.

In both cases, the characters can have more than one quality on our list.

The reason for the second list in each case (of strengths for the villain and weaknesses for the hero) is that we don’t want to make success too easy. First Edna has to get into Zigurd’s good graces, and she may fail a few times along the way. Then, she needs to put her plan into operation, and this shouldn’t go smoothly either. Until the moment when Zigurd swallows the poison, the reader’s knuckles on the book should be pale.

The point is that, almost always, the resolution, happy or tragic, of terrible situations goes straight to character. Houdini got out of the restraints he set for himself because he was Houdini. I would have been dead if I tried his stunts. I just googled him, and a quick look suggests that people who preceded him used their skills at getting out of restraints to create other illusions. Houdini seems to have been first to make escape the main event. He was the real Houdini.

There’s another principle we can bring to bear: setting things up early. Suppose we decide Zigurd gives loyalty tests, and that’s how Edna will win him over. We show him giving a loyalty test to someone else earlier in our story. And to ratchet up the tension, we show the consequences of failing. Then, when Edna gets tested, the reader recognizes the pattern: Zigurd doesn’t trust people until they’ve proven themselves.

If we want to bring in a natural event, like the avalanche on Christie V Powell’s list, we have to be sure there are mountains in our setting and that people sometimes start them and know how to–more or less-aim them.

We’re always going for both the surprising and the believable. Surprising, because we’ve used sleight-of-hand (speaking of Houdini) to divert the reader from thinking about avalanches, and believable because the reader remembers that there are avalanches in this world.

Before I began learning to be a writer, I was into watercolor painting, about the least forgiving artistic medium there is. If I made a mistake–and I made lots of them–the painting was ruined.

But writing is kind. We can revise and revise again. If we need to change Edna or Zigurd or both, if we need to grow a few mountains or introduce a loyalty test, to save the day, we can go back and do it.

I don’t recommend revising until we finish our first draft if we can possibly keep going. We make a note of the revision and continue writing as if the revision has happened.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick the loyalty-test option. Write the scene when Edna takes it. Make it touch and go. Make the consequences of failure evident.

∙ Write the scene in which Edna wins Zigurd’s trust.

∙ Write the scene in which Zigurd eats the poisoned meatloaf (or roast hart). Make Edna almost have to eat it, too. If you’re up for it, write his suffering and slow death.

∙ Invent an escape artist. Think about the qualities she needs to be successful. Develop a plot around her and write the scene in which she tries her most daring stunt. Decide if you want her to succeed or fail.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Writing Ballerina says:

    THANK YOU!!! I’ve really been struggling with this part in the story (again) because the ending I tried earlier ended up (haha) to be probably the worst ending ever.
    (Side note: it’s really funny to see you try and guess my MC’s character completely wrong 😛 )

    “The point is that, almost always, the resolution, happy or tragic, of terrible situations goes straight to character.” Is now my writing motto 🙂

    The evil frog really made me laugh!

    Along with a mix of others’ suggestions, I’ve gone with Kyryiann’s suggestion (thanks Kyryiann!!) of a secret army that’s planning an uprising. Thank you all so much!

      • Good question! I’m going to have to write one of those eventually as well, and I have no idea how. I think the battle scenes in the Chronicles of Narnia are really interesting to think about from a writer’s standpoint, because C.S. Lewis never really explained them in much detail; while in the Lord of the Rings, armies and battles seemed to be more of the highlights of the books. I suppose that’s mostly the age difference in the audiences, but still, it’s interesting how different they are. Not that that’s an answer to your question at all – I still haven’t the foggiest how to write one! I guess I should be working on reading more books with battles and armies in them…

      • Another book series with great battle scenes is The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, the last book especially. There also really good books in general.

  2. Writeforfun says:

    I love this post – but I wanted to thank you specifically for the last one as well. I’ve been working over time the past several months, so I keep getting behind and then binge-reading your posts – it’s fun! But it’s also amazingly timely – I was just about to post on here specifically because I wanted to ask for some thoughts on what makes a character likable and what makes one annoying. That last post was very helpful – your timing is impeccable!

    I do have another question at the moment as well, I’ll take any opinions. I thought for sure that I would have this figured out by this point! I began this book with four potential main characters, because I couldn’t decide which would work best for me and I was intrigued by them all. I know, that’s a lot! And I quickly realized that would be unwieldy to write; so I thought I would be able to single out one MC by the time I had written a few chapters’ worth of story…but…not so much. I did manage to knock one of them down to supporting character role, but I cannot for the life of me figure out which one out of the sort-of “three musketeers” I have remaining to choose as the MC. I keep making lists and finding exactly equal pros and cons to each one. Their experiences and views are each so unique and, honestly, enjoyable for me to write, that I can’t seem to settle on one.

    Any suggestions how to pick the best one? They each have developed such unique voices and attitudes that I can’t figure out a way to get along without being able to peer inside all three heads.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      If you really can’t decide, you could write in the third person omniscient POV. Omniscient means “all knowing,” and it’s basically like you can delve into the heads of all the characters.

      You could also write multiple POV’s. I’ve seen it done with third person (not omniscient) and first person and I like both. There’s a couple of comments about writing multiple POVs in either the last post or the one before.

    • I agree with Writing Ballerina. If you really can’t choose, use all three. I love books with multiple POVs because you really get a better grasp on the situation if you can see from more than one person’s head.

    • Given that one of my secondary characters hijacked the story by the second chapter, I’m not one to talk about deciding between MC’s. (I ended up doing alternating viewpoints, but you can tell the second MC is the one I’m most interested in) Like everyone else, I would say do all three. Maybe one of them will take over, maybe not. But if your story needs them, it needs them. They may turn out to be exactly what it needs.

    • future_famous_author says:

      Well (not that this is exactly a good idea) because I stopped writing that WIP 99 pages in, I have tried (and failed) to write a story in seven different POVs. Definitely think about what Melissa Mead said, that’s a good idea. Though you maybe already did that. When I wrote seven POVs, they were all in first person. It sounds hard, and it would’ve been had I tried to make them sound different. They all sounded the same. So, if you’re afraid you’ll have the same problem (not sure how I thought seven would work, but I’m about to try two) maybe stick with one? Or use omniscient POV.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m glad the posts have been so helpful!

      Just saying, I think both options are possible and respectable choices: third-person omniscient and three POVs. I don’t think three are too many for a reader to deal with.

  3. My WIP is fantasy and I am having problems with names(as usual). Every time I come up with one it just doesn’t seem to fit, and if I do it ends up being the name of some character in a different book.

    PS I loved the post, and am SO exited for A Celling Made of Eggshells ( Especially since I am partially Spanish)

    • I know the feeling! One random tip: maps. Look at a map of Europe, the Middle East, wherever names like the ones you want come from. Then start looking for interesting cities, mountains, anything. And don’t be afraid to adjust them (Cilicia becoming Kikilan, for example) Another option is to sneak in references to authors you like by borrowing their names, with a bit of a twist (Codairem is Meriadoc backwards) or for dragons named after real things, looking for synonyms (Undertow and Riptide) If all else fails, give them a completely stupid name until you come up with the right one (Eragon was apparently named Kevin for the entire first draft. Still can’t get my mind around that one.) Hope this helped!

    • I keep a spreadsheet of names to choose from. Some I’ve come across while looking on websites. I also have a cool book, “Common Words in Twenty-Six Languages”. I like to look for a word that fits my character (fire, happy, gift…) and seeing if a word in another language sounds like a name.

    • When I’m naming characters, I usually search through baby name books first. If I want to make the names more unique, I try changing or eliminating a couple of letters (Emily becomes Emeli, etc.) For places, I try combining pieces of real place names to make convincing new ones, or I try spelling them backwards. I invented some of my favorite place names this way! 🙂

  4. We were looking through our stuff for a book sale, and I found two things: the rough draft of a story I wrote when I was twelve, and a series of “stories,” really more like scene snippets, I wrote when I was 6-8 (It’s been a long time. I have no memory of writing them, except a vague impression of one of them) The interesting thing is that the story I wrote when I was twelve is utterly terrible. An interesting idea, but terribly done. I was wincing my way through it. The stories I wrote when I was 6-8? Hilarious. Terrible, yes, but adorably so. Anyone else had this happen?

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      YES! I was an avid storyteller when I was 6-8 as well. So adorably terrible. And my grade 5, 6, 7 stories are just so bad…

    • future_famous_author says:

      Anybody ever heard of the Wild Kratts? When I was about seven I loved that show, so I wrote a story about me being their little sister and it is completely unrealistic, even if it didn’t have all the half turning into animals because they stick discs in their shirts.

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        My little brother and sister love Wild Kratts. For me it was Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street.

        I have no recollection of this, but I found a story I wrote when I was like 7 about a girl who got taken away from her parents because they wouldn’t buy her a certain stuffed toy 😂. I may have been just the slightest bit bitter about not getting the stuffie I wanted.

    • Yeah I still have this story I wrote when I was 10 and it was so terrible. Now that I think about it, the MC was kind of like my fictional alter-ego, a fifth grade girl who loves music. It was a nice idea, but terribly executed. Whenever I read it, I cringe at the clunky sentences and bad character development, but I’m so glad I kept it. Like you said in one of your books, Mrs. Levine, never throw a story out, even if you hate it!

  5. future_famous_author says:

    Okay, I have a problem. I’m writing a story that starts with a battle scene, well for of just a crazy scene with a lot taking place. Basically, the MC’s brother (Lester) is about to make a vow that he is dedicated to being the heir to the throne, and then, before he can promise anything, these bad guys from another planet come charging in. Here’s a snippet from the scene:

    Just then, the entire planet began to shake. I fell to my knees from the sudden movement, and Lester looked back at me. He knelt beside me, arm around my shoulders. Guards rushed our parents to safety, then us. As we running off, though, a man in all black fell from the sky. My heart was thudding as he pointed a gun at us. “Hold it right there.” He barked, and others began to jump out of thin air. I was too nervous to look up, to see where they were coming from. “Hand over your princess.” That was when I noticed that the gun was aimed at me. “Or she dies.”
    “You’ll just kill her anyways.” Lester growled, grabbing my wrist and running off.

    See, my problem is that I’m not sure how that sounds, because I wrote it. I’m wondering if it sounds too boring, especially for the beginning of the book and a crazy scene. Does it go too fast? Does it sound to plain?

    • Sounds fine (and interesting) to me. Of course, I have alien meteorites falling all over the world by page 2 of my story, so I might not be the best person to ask.

      • future_famous_author says:

        I’m just afraid…Well, I’m not sure how to put this. I’m afraid my writing in the dramatic parts won’t draw the readers attention, that it won’t get their heart beating faster just like Phoenix’s (the MC). I feel the same way when I’m writing the dramatic scenes as when I’m writing the romantic scenes, so I have no idea how it sounds to a reader!

    • It’s cool, but reading it I have a question that you might have explained already in your book. Why do they want the MC and not her brother? If you hadn’t mentioned why yet, I would suggest that you answer soon.

      • future_famous_author says:

        I’m leaving that in the dark for now, but I do say something about it a little later. Here’s the following part:

        I tripped on my dress, and he picked me up like a baby. He turned a corner, and then another, and finally set me down.
        “Shouldn’t we get to the palace?” I asked, standing up and peeking around the corner. Lester grabbed me and pulled me away from the wall.
        He looked me straight in the eye. “It’s not possible they know, is it?” He asked, and I shrugged.
        “I don’t know.”

        So, basically she has fire powers (similar to Elsa from Frozen, except it’s fire and doesn’t come out of here feet) but I’m not sure when to tell the reader. Should I tell them when the boy Phoenix and Lester meet on Earth finds out, or should they find out earlier. If they find out earlier, how? Thanks for bringing that up, Erica.

        • Possibly, have her be told not to use them, not to let anyone find out, and then put her in a situation (like a battle) where she HAS to. Don’t reveal exactly what the powers are, but mention them enough that when she starts throwing fireballs at people (or something like that) the reader goes “Oh, THAT’S what her powers are.” For plot twists in general, I would recommend the King of Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner (high school and up, I think.) There’s always a major plot twist about halfway through, and often another one at the end. The one in the second book falls flat in my opinion, because there isn’t enough evidence earlier in the book to support it, but it works with the rest of them.

        • I would bring up hints to her powers in her own thoughts and maybe Lester talking to her. Don’t mention exactly what they encompass until she’s forced to use them. I always like it when the reader has an idea of what’s going on, but doesn’t get the full picture until later.

        • You could also have her almost use them a couple times, but control herself just in time. That way, you could tell the readers what the beginning stages feel like, hinting that her powers have something to do with fire, so that when it does happen, the readers understand what’s going on. Another way to do it is to put the information in the back-cover summary. Mention her fire powers briefly there, and the readers will understand the weird things that happen to her. Of course, you probably aren’t ready to write the back-cover summary yet, but it’s an idea.

          • future_famous_author says:

            Thank you both! In the introduction to the book, I do say she has fire within her in multiple ways, and I was planning on having her not be able to control them. When Phoenix gets worked up, she almost uses her powers, and the fire pushes up into her. This also affects her personality, in that she is very positive, trying to let her powers get the best of her. I also like the idea that she almost uses them, which would mean she gets worked up, angry, sad, or scared, or any other negative emotion, or that she almost needs to use them against someone or something, which would add more drama, but I can save showing her powers for the battle scene at the end… This WIP is basically a mix of Frozen, Superman, 3 Below (a Netflix TV show), and the BFG. *laugh*

            Thank you all again!

      • future_famous_author says:

        Thanks! I just read this today, and you have no idea how much that means to me! I never want my beginnings to sound plain or boring, and the fact that you want to know more…just thank you so much! Also, your username is the name of the MC is one of my other WIPs, and it’s short for Catrina.

  6. Superb♥Girl says:

    I’m working on this one character who’s the best friend/co-MC and as much as I love her, I feel like she’s in complete danger of becoming a “Manic Pixie Dream-Girl.” Does anyone have any advice for avoiding nasty tropes such as these, and cliches for (female) characters in general?

    • What I have found to be helpful is to look for a contradiction in their personality. For example, maybe she acts like she’s in control all the time but actually rarely knows what she’s doing. Just something to add another dimension to her character.

    • What I’m doing (because one of my MC’s is flatter than the pancake batter that sticks to the spatula when you try to flip them) is rewriting all of the scenes he narrates as 1st person. Also, this is the point at which pantsing becomes very useful. Sometimes, a sentence pops into your head, say, that they rake a hand through their hair when they’re nervous, that turns out to be the key to your character. Or, if all else fails, explain WHY she’s a “Manic Pixie Dream-Girl.” With my flat MC, I can explain part of that away by saying that his father trained him to be a politician, and to get along with everyone without actually agreeing with them. The training didn’t work, because by the time he reached that point, he’d basically turned into a kind of Teflon character, and nobody’s ideas stuck, even his father’s. So he kind of floats along placidly until I get my hands on him. So, you might be able to do something like that.

    • I’m thinking SO MUCH about Kinkajou right now! She’s a co-main/secondary character in the Wings of Fire series, (middle school and up, by Tui T. Sutherland, read of you love dragons) and she’s totally this kind of character. Sweet, a bit flighty, adventure loving, but really smart when it comes down to it. And she’s in love with this really sweet guy where all he wants in life is to be a writer like his mother, so the love interest doesn’t have to be the cynical type. She hasn’t gotten to narrate yet, but I hope she will. Anyway, long, nerdy, story short, I think, even if your character does turn out to be this type, you can make it work. Just because she’s this type doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to her. Think of her like any other character, and you can make it so the readers go “That’s just like her!” and not “Of course she does that. Everybody like her does that.”

  7. I’m struggling with “Malak’s Book #2,” and I’m curious as to how people here would handle the problem. he book has 2 protagonists, and I’m not sure it would be better to write the scenes in the order they’ll be read, or write a bunch from one POV, then the other, and then weave them together. What do you think?

    • I would say in the order they’ll be read, or in chronological order. In my WIP, I have two narrators. They meet in chapter 2, then stay together until about halfway through the book, then split up again. I’m doing two chapters where MC 1 narrates, then two chapters where MC 2 narrates, etc. But I’m a complete pantster, so I had to write in chronological order, especially since one MC is involved in and aware of a major plot twist about nine months before everyone else, including the other MC. If I had written the scenes out of order, I almost certainly would have had the plot twist common knowledge in scenes it shouldn’t have been in. Basically, write it so you can keep track of what the reader will know at any point, in my opinion.

    • I agree with Katie W. If you write the sections separately, it will almost certainly take a lot of editing to connect them smoothly. Why wouldn’t you write in chronological order?

        • In that case, I would write the interesting plotline first. That way, you end up with a better idea of what needs to happen in the other one, and you might even come up with the solution to the other plotline while you’re doing it. Or, you might be able to find a way to combine the two plotlines into something even better.

  8. Writing Cat Lover says:

    I have a problem too. I want to make my charachter’s personality more complex, but I don’t know how.

    Any tips?

    • Seconded! See mention above. One of my MC’s is flatter than an oak-leaf pancake. I’m rewriting his POV scenes as 1st person, but more tips would be highly appreciated. I’ve given him a backstory that explains part of his flatness, but I want him to become more 3-dimensional over the course of the story, and I’m not sure how.

    • Two tips. Find something strange about your character (she can never remember what day of the week it is, for example) and work it into her story. Second, for main/major characters, look for contradictions in their personality. Other than that, when you’re writing about that character, feel towards them the way you want your reader to, and hope it comes out in your writing.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I would only worry about this at the end of your first draft, though. Otherwise it can overwhelm you with too much to think about and you can lose focus of your plot, which is the most important thing to think about in the first draft.

  9. Writing Ballerina says:

    With the battle scene I’m writing (mentioned above), I want to play it out in such a way that the MC has a vital role in conquering the evil king. Unfortunately, the MC is a girl, and the fantasy world is based off of medieval England, where they didn’t conscript girls into the army.

    How do I have it so the girl MC can have this vital role?

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