Worldbuild Minus Infodump Equals Fantasterrific!

On March 15, 2020, Myra S. wrote, How do you find ways to worldbuild without infodumping?

Several of you had ideas.

Erica: What I’ve done in my poor, neglected WIP is to get the plot started quickly, and then slow down a little. For example, once I got my MC suitably injured, I then described the evening he spent in the hospital. What actually happened wasn’t important to the plot, bur it gave me the opportunity to explain better what was going on.

future_famous_author: Also, if a character has to explain your world to another character, a character who has just been introduced to the country/realm/dimension/planet then you have a super easy excuse to easily plant new information into the story about the world that it is set in.

Melissa Mead: Here’s a handy resource:

Christie V Powell: I’ve enjoyed watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on the subject. He has two recent ones on worldbuilding, and covers this topic. Here’s the first one:

Raina: I think two aspects of worldbuilding are what to share and when to share it. For the first, I like to think about a concept called Chekhov’s gun: basically, the idea is that if you introduce an element in the story, it should be used later on. The original concept applies to plot devices and props, but I think it’s a good way to think about worldbuilding. Beyond basic details about the world, if you introduce some information about the world, it should be relevant to and have some impact (even if not directly) on the story later on. In other words, the information should be used–whether to justify a character’s actions/personality, to have an effect on the plot, or just to explain why something happens the way it does–eventually.

For the second, it helps to introduce information slowly, as it gradually becomes relevant/noticeable to the characters. I play Dungeons and Dragons (basically a group-based storytelling game with dice), and our dungeon master (the person in charge of the game and the overarching story) does a LOT of worldbuilding, but doesn’t tell us about it until it becomes relevant for our characters or we interact with the world. When we enter a city, he gives us some basic information (the size, the climate, the general atmosphere, stuff you would notice by looking at a postcard) but doesn’t tell us all the details in one go, like the precise demographic makeup, every historical event, the internal power structure, where all the best taverns are, etc. To find that information, we have to walk around the city and talk to people and investigate, and we get bits of info here and there. And if we choose not to go down a particular path, he doesn’t tell us about it, even if he already created an intricate plot but we completely ignored the inciting incident. (Which has happened a couple times!) The beginning of the Hunger Games is a great example; we’re gradually introduced to more details about the world as Katniss draws connections between what her world is like and what she’s currently doing/thinking about.

Another tip is to think about how people process “worldbuilding” information in the real world, and how we think about the world around us. For example, our government system: most of us know that America is a democracy, and we choose our president by voting every four years (the political system), we know who the current president is (current state of things), and we know this all came about after the thirteen colonies declared independence from Britain (history). If we’re interested in politics or history, we may also know how the electoral college and the two-party system works, which party is in power in each of the three branches, or that the Constitution that set up the American governmental system was ratified on June 21, 1788. I would guess that considerably fewer people would be able to explain in detail how our first-past-the-post electoral system led to the development of exactly two major political parties, name each congress member and their platform, or list the names of everyone who signed the Constitution. If you want more examples, check out some academic nonfiction books about history; they go SUPER in-depth about specific topics and analyzes their impact on everything we know. All of these things shape the world we live in, but different people know it in different levels of detail. And even if you DO know these things, you’re not always thinking about them. Most often, the things at the top of people’s minds are the things that are most noticeable or directly affect them. So while you build a complex world, keep in mind that your characters might not know every single detail or realize how that affects them as a person.

These are great!

As you know, my next book, Sparrows in the Wind, is about the Trojan War, which figures in Greek mythology, although some parts of the myth may have really happened, as archaeological discoveries suggest.

When I was around nine or ten, I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which, though it was first published in 1942, is still selling briskly. I loved it and and reread it many times. When I started writing Sparrows in the Wind, I assumed that almost everybody knew the story of the Trojan War, just as most people know the fairy tale “Cinderella.” I didn’t think I’d have to do much world building.

Wrong, alas.

I asked my friend, the terrific kids’ book writer Karen Romano Young, to read the first eighty pages. She was bewildered.

When I explained the mythology, her eyes rolled back in her head and her mouth fell open. Until then, I hadn’t realized how complicated it all is, beginning with a banquet on Mount Olympus with the gods, a golden apple, and the goddess of discord.

I went back to page one and explained everything and finally finished the novel. I sent it to my editor, who wrote to me in her editorial letter that I had created an infodump (the first time I’d ever been told this in all the worlds I’ve made up), and the mythology still wasn’t clear, and she had to supplement her reading of my story with her own research.

Not what I’d hoped for.

So I started again, again.

This goes to Raina’s “when to share it,” which I had never had to think about before: My MC in the first half of my book is Cassandra of Troy, a minor figure in the myth, who is given the gift of seeing the future by the god Apollo. Then, after she won’t do what he wants, he curses his gift by making no one believe her.

When she receives the gift, in my unrevised telling, she knows immediately all the terrible things that will happen to Troy and the people she loves, and I pass the details on to the reader–the infodump.

Not telling everything at once seemed to me like tricking the reader, which, when another author does it, prompts two reactions in me: I think it’s fun but obvious–the story machinery is showing. But I did some of it anyway, in that I allow Cassandra to know more than her thoughts and dialogue tell the reader.

What I wound up doing mostly, though, was to have Cassandra herself see only one terrible event the first time the future is poured into her. The second time she looks, she stops the internal movie when the tragedy becomes too great for her to tolerate. The infodump goes away. Knowledge is revealed in digestible bites.

So that’s one strategy: find ways to break up the revelations into small morsels.

My favorite way is to introduce the world as our MC or another character comes upon it. Cassandra doesn’t know the future when my book opens, so it’s as new to her as it is to the reader. That’s handy, but it can’t always be that way.

My book begins twenty pages before Cassandra receives the future. She’s already in her world, which she knows and the reader doesn’t. How do we show it?

A little at a time, but quickly. The book starts with Cassandra awakening at dawn. She stretches lazily in bed (so there are beds) and leaps up, remembering that this is the day she will be kanephoros for the city of Troy.

What’s a kanephoros? She tells the reader in her worried thoughts. Being kanephoros is an honor, but it’s risky. She has to lead a procession in a festival for Apollo while carrying on her head (hands free!) a heavy basket of offerings for the god. If the basket falls off, the whole city will suffer. The reader frowns. Everybody makes mistakes! These gods aren’t very understanding.

For those who don’t know anything about Apollo, Cassandra tells the reader about him in her thoughts–that he’s her favorite god and why.

So thoughts and a POV character’s narration is a natural way to show our world.

Let’s consider the fairy tale “Puss in Boots.” Here’s the beginning from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book:

There was a miller who left no more estate to the three sons he had than his mill, his ass, and his cat. The partition was soon made. Neither scrivener nor attorney was sent for. They would soon have eaten up all the poor patrimony. The eldest had the mill, the second the ass, and the youngest nothing but the cat. The poor young fellow was quite comfortless at having so poor a lot.

“My brothers,” said he, “may get their living handsomely enough by joining their stocks together; but for my part, when I have eaten up my cat, and made me a muff of his skin, I must die of hunger.”

The Cat, who heard all this, but made as if he did not, said to him with a grave and serious air:

“Do not thus afflict yourself, my good master.

And so on. Here’s a link to the rest of the story, which is in the public domain:,

The world building doesn’t begin in this excerpt until the third paragraph. When the cat is first introduced, there’s no hint that he’s anything extraordinary. I think we accept the abrupt shift because we know this is a fairy tale, and the story is mostly told rather than shown.

But if we were writing a novelized version, we’d have to prepare the reader. The first time the cat is mentioned, we’d want to drop something in that suggests he’s more than the usual feline.

If the youngest son is our MC, he can think of his dead father and the cat and of hints his father dropped. Our MC can talk to the cat as people talk to animals without expecting an answer in words. The cat can answer.

But let’s say our MC is Puss himself since he carries most of the action. Then the reader will know instantly that this is a world of super-smart cats. We’ll probably have to reveal quickly whether the second son’s donkey is super-smart too. We can bring this out in Puss’s thoughts or in something he does.

We never have to explain why cats are so smart unless that reason is essential to our plot. We establish it. This is the way things are. Brilliant cats.

That’s another strategy. We don’t need the history of the ways our story world differs from the reader’s–unless the history figures in our plot. We don’t build any more world than we need.

The reader will accept the world we’ve laid out, even if it’s wildly improbable (think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld carried on giant elephants and a giant turtle), especially if we bring it on early. Pratchett describes his world as soon as the reader opens a book. So that’s another strategy: Pile on the surprises while readers are still settling into their chairs.

In “Puss in Boots,” the reader learns that the story is unfolding in a monarchy. This comes up suddenly when the cat brings a rabbit to the king, so we probably want to alert the reader beforehand that there is a king and also that he has a daughter. How much introduction the two of them need depends on our plot. We don’t have to go into the details of the monarchy unless the plot calls for it. For example, the reader doesn’t have to know if there’s an assembly and how the members are appointed and how much power they have or how wealthy or impoverished the king’s subjects are. Unnecessary details may lead to the info dump. And we should keep in mind that readers of fantasy have a lot to keep track of. We don’t want them to sink under the weight of it all.

If you love worldbuilding, you can figure it all out and write down every bit. If your plot isn’t set, you can examine what you’ve come up with to find spots you can exploit to make trouble for your MC. Once you start the story itself, you’ll drop the details in gradually, but only the ones your story needs.

Here are three prompts:

• In “Puss in Boots,” when the king and his daughter go on an outing in their carriage, Puss contrives to have his master taken inside with them. Then Puss runs ahead of the carriage and tells the peasants this from Lang: “Good people, you who are reaping, if you do not tell the King that all this corn belongs to the Marquis of Carabas, you shall be chopped as small as herbs for the pot.” The good people believe him! Write a scene that makes his threat believable, or write an entire story that leads up to the threat.

• Not much later, Puss comes to a castle owned by an ogre, and this is the first the reader learns that ogres exist in this world. Write an earlier scene that introduces the ogre.

• Andrew Lang (1844-1912) is best known for his collections of folk and fairy tales. Imagine that he brings his “Puss in Boots” as I’ve quoted it here to a workshop for a critique. Write the scene, imagining who might be in the workshop and inventing your own Andrew Lang as a character, rather than the historical figure. (For this, I recommend reading the whole story–which is short.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Writers Bravely Go

On March 12, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to write about things you don’t know? I know as writers we’re always told to write what we know, but sometimes I wonder. If I were to try to write a story about two people falling in love, could I do it? I’ve never fallen in love, so does that mean I can’t write about that? (I’ve liked people a lot before, and I’ve always been loved by my friends and family and seen couples in love, so would that count?) If I haven’t experienced something (or at least something very close to it) can I still write about it? Should I? Or is it about relating things we have experienced to things we haven’t experienced?

I don’t worry so much about faeries or dragons or vampires, because those things aren’t real. But I do worry about emotions or experiences. Can I write about a character who’s going through trauma I’ve never had to deal with without getting it wrong or offending someone?

I’m just worried because that seems to be a mental block for me whenever I have an idea. I always tell myself if I haven’t experienced it (or something very close) I can’t write about it.

A few of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I’d say go ahead and try! Even if you get it wrong at first, you’ll get better with practice + experience.

future_famous_author: Speaking of love, I wrote a whole book about love and I’ve never been in love! The love was hardly a subplot, either, it was a huge part of the plot! And if all we did was write about things that we had experienced, don’t you think that our stories and books and poems and movies would all start to get boring? All you have to do is try and picture yourself in that character’s shoes, whether those shoes walk through hard times or good times, and whether or not those shoes would actually fit you. It can be hard sometimes for us writers to make things up- not just a character, but emotions and feelings. It definitely takes practice to conjure up emotions that you’ve never felt and somehow project them onto a page, but it almost has to happen. Female authors oftentimes write about male characters, and thoughts and feelings that they have that the female author has probably never had herself, and vice versa. And in a classic, Little Women, which has been made into tons and tons of movies, the main character falls in love and gets married, whereas the author, whom the character was based off of, never got married herself. And I’m sure that Gail has written emotions that she never actually experienced herself!

Christie V Powell: Humans are amazing. Our emotions don’t know the difference between real and imaginary–that’s why stories exist. Have you read books or seen movies where you felt the connection between two characters? Then, to your brain, you have experienced it.

If it’s a specific trauma that worries you, asking someone you trust who has gone through it is always a good move. If meeting in person doesn’t work, try social media, or even reading a memoir or article they’ve written.

My goodness! It’s almost a whole year since you, Kit Kat Kitty, asked your question, and you may have fallen in love three or more times since then!

future famous author, you’re right. I have never looked at someone’s earlobe and wanted to eat it! More seriously, I haven’t been in the terrible circumstances I thrust my characters into. I don’t know how I’d react.

And I’m with Christie V Powell that humans are amazing in our willingness to merge with imaginary beings of all sorts. And writers are an amazing-plus subset of humanity, gifted with the power to create the characters that readers can inhabit.

On a whim, I just googled “How does it feel to fall in love?” and many articles and entries popped up, which you and other writers may find helpful. (I haven’t clicked on them.)

I’m revising my Trojan War book for my editor, which means that the heaviest lifting is done and I’m thinking about my next project, which will probably be a take on another fairy tale. In the way I’m approaching this fairy tale, one of the main characters is super selfish, bordering, in my opinion, on narcissism. I don’t think I’m much of a narcissist myself, and, luckily, I haven’t known anyone else I’d peg that way. But that isn’t a reason not to write this character!

So I did a lot of googling on narcissism, especially on how to stop being narcissistic, which seems to be very difficult. Fascinating! I don’t know how much I’ll use, but what I read gave me a better idea about how to approach the character and how to move him through my plot.

I research constantly, even for fantasy. I’ve fallen in love, but I may go back and read my Google entries on the topic. Research helps me feel grounded and stokes my imagination because the real world is full of surprises. The way I fall in love is probably different from the way other people do, and my characters all have their own ways.

As Christie V Powell suggests, we can ask real people about what falling in love was like for them. We can ask people who seem to be happy together and (tactfully) people who seem anything but. How did it start? Slow or fast? What did they think and feel? What was the physical reaction? Chills? Heat? Trembling? Tingling? I bet everyone will have a different story.

Let’s linger on that. Won’t a shy person and an exuberant person fall in love differently? Writers on the blog often talk about backstory. Won’t people’s backstories affect how they fall in love? We can’t have all the experiences our characters have. We have to make it up. No other option.

And, just saying, if my characters could come to life, I’m certain they’d tell me I got things wrong. The nice ones would thank me for trying. I don’t know what the villains would do!

I agree with Kit Kat Kitty that we expand from what we do know to what we don’t. We know about forming friendships, about liking and even loving friends, about being loved. I’ve never been hungry for an earlobe, but when I’m ravenous, the sight of a raw chicken about to go into the oven can be almost unbearable.

As for offending people, I’d say no one has the right to be offended. You’re not writing about them. They’re not experts in how your characters fall in love! You and your characters are the only experts.

Here are four prompts:

• A thousand-year-old elf falls in love with a nine-hundred-year-old dragon. Write their meeting and how the love develops.

• The roots of two trees come together deliberately in an embrace. Write how that happens.

• A shy person and an exuberant person do fall in love. Write their first meeting. Continue with the progression of their romance.

• After Snow White wakes up, she goes with the prince to his castle where they get married though they don’t know each other at all. Using the original Grimm story, write your version and make the romance real. Remember that she has quite a backstory.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Unboring the boring

On February 16, 2020, Katie W. wrote, My problem with getting the characters involved in a conversation is that when I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’m procrastinating, so the characters start talking and never stop. I’m facing that right now in my WIP, as well as the general “I need to put something in the middle of this story but I don’t know what.” Essentially, I have a busy day, four fairly boring days (although there will probably be an exciting scene or two), and then it gets interesting again. Any advice?

Sara wrote back, I would try to be as brief as you can with the boring parts. You have to describe something in order to let the reader know that time is passing, but try not to go through the motions with what you describe. Something I do sometimes is be brief but still go through a day chronologically, by giving short descriptions of everything that happens. Then I realize that a bunch of the stuff wasn’t necessary, and I only kept the interesting things. So if the little descriptions don’t give us something that’s at least kinda useful, don’t feel bad cutting it. I think that the reader can fill in the blanks. For letting dialogue go on and on, you might want to just write it when you feel like you need to or want to and then go back and look for any useful or interesting or funny little parts. A lot of the time, in a bunch of dialogue, there will still be really good parts even if it’s overall unnecessary. If the whole thing doesn’t fit, then try to put the good parts somewhere else in your story.

I am with Sara that we can let our stories run on in a first draft, and we can snip away a little at a time in later drafts. If we’re entertaining ourselves, there’s nothing wrong with that. Writing is hard. We should take our fun where we find it. And I’m with her that there will generally be really good bits that we can keep or drop into other places.

We don’t want any boring parts to remain in our story when we finish polishing it, so as we revise, or even as we write in the first place, we can insert hints to the “next interesting thing” coming up in our plot. To do this, we think ahead:

Does our MC or anyone taking part in the dialogue know about the plot point on the way? If yes, we can put hints into the conversation or the body language or the thoughts and feelings of our MC.

For example, suppose our MC, named Kiara, and her friends will all be competing to get into an elite academy, and the competition is the next important event in our story. Meanwhile, they’re at the birthday party of Kiara’s best friend Lyle, eating swamp beast stew and talking about, say, favorite board games. We need this scene to show the bond between the characters, but nothing major happens in it.

How can we introduce tension? We make a list!

The result of the list is that during the party, Kiara thinks how, after Friday, she probably won’t see some of the other kids again and, if she fails, won’t see any of them. She notices Lyle talking with his mouth full and remembers how that always annoyed her but now it seems precious. She swallows over the lump in her throat.

The reader can’t be inside the heart and mind of any other characters, but their actions and dialogue can foreshadow the coming test. These go on our list too. Lyle drops his fork, and Kiara notices that his hand is trembling. Janelle says she hates board games because they’re too competitive. Marla announces spontaneously, “I love you guys! Every… single… one… of… you.” Jerrold blows his nose with a wet honk.

These hints can punctuate a debate over the best board game and a rambling anecdote from someone about a family Monopoly marathon. The reader will pick up on the clues.

If the characters don’t know about the excitement ahead, we can still put in signs. Suppose a goblin army is about to invade the kingdom and Kiara and her friends live in a town near the border. The partygoers have no idea this is on the way. How to foreshadow the danger without out-and-out saying, Little did they know…

Naturally, we make a list. How can we suggest trouble while the peaceful party is going on?

• Kiara casually mentions that Lyle is now old enough to be called up if the kingdom is threatened. Most of the kids are old enough too. This becomes a joke. If they all flunk the entrance exam, they can still fight together. Kiara thinks that it’s lucky the kingdom has been at peace for a century, because she barely passed her martial arts class.

• Lyle picks up the Royal Gazette on a side table and reads out loud an article about a construction project that happened to unearth sacred goblin bones.

• In a discussion of end-of-year research papers, Kiara says she wrote about goblin psychology, concentrating on goblin rage.

• Lyle says that goblins never die alone. “They always take someone with them.” Everyone shudders.

We list other possibilities.

When we write the scene, we include the mundane. Lyle opens his presents. Kiara says she ate too much. Lyle’s parents put in an appearance.

But if the party scene turns out not to be necessary for our plot, we cut it–and save it in case we change our mind, in case we need it for another story, in case a doctoral student writing about us will find it fascinating.

There is nothing wrong with making time pass in a sentence or even three words: A week later… Or we can mark off time landmarks in a few sentences. Lyle’s birthday party came and went. Rain fell three times. Out of boredom, I repaired the hem of my least favorite gown. If we like, we can drop a hint of tension into our summary: Mother was called away two nights running.

Here are three prompts:

• The goblin army is camped ten miles outside the border. A dozen soldiers eat around a campfire. Write their conversation. Make it both boring and horrifying.

• I based my Princess Tale Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a little known fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” In the beginning of the fairy tale, a farm’s hay harvest is mysteriously ruined three years running. In the third year, the hero discovers that a magical horse is eating the hay. The next year, a second magical horse shows up, and the next, a third magical horse. Nothing happens in the story aside from one day a year. Here’s a link to the fairy tale: Or Write the first two or three years. The challenge is to make them interesting. If you haven’t already, don’t read my version.

• Write Prince Charming’s first hour at the first ball before Cinderella shows up.

Have fun and save what you write!

Question Grab Bag

On February 13, 2020, Samantha Pixley wrote, What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map? My current WIP is a lot of great ideas that aren’t coming together well – 100 pages in, I’m daunted by the idea that my story isn’t capturing the right feeling that I’m after and I might have to scrap it and start over. I feel almost like I’m losing the essence of my story. Any thoughts on what I should do?

How do you deal with wordiness? I’m 100 pages into my WIP and not even halfway through the plot. Besides this, I keep getting lost in the words instead of letting the story GUIDE the words. I’m floundering in a swamp of words! I’m talking too much and saying nothing!

You said “Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.” Do you ever have the problem where you daydream about your stories instead of writing them and does it help or hinder your story? On that note; as a published, well established author, do you ever find yourself missing the characters or the world of an already completed story and getting the craving to go back and write more? Is that what happened with The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre (one of my favorite books of yours)!

Do you ever go back to a story you wrote a while ago or already published and go “Igth, that isn’t nearly as good as I remembered!”? I do that all the time! I think part of this is because I’m guilty of never really editing that much and so my stories just aren’t that pristine. Another reason might be because I am very much a new writer – I’ve only really been writing for about four years, so I don’t consider myself all that ‘seasoned’ in the process. Is this something that only I do, or do other people go back to their already finished works and say “Igth!”?

Several of you offered help.

Katie W.: I’ve been writing for about the same amount of time as you have, but I can take a shot at your third and fifth questions. First off, I totally daydream about my stories. Sometimes I even sleep-dream about them. (Although, given how nonsensical my dreams are, this doesn’t help as much as you might think.) And what I’ve found is that sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s just annoying. For example, I am totally obsessed with my current MC, and spend a probably ridiculous amount of time figuring out her backstory and random scenes from her life. Sometimes it’s useful, like the sudden realization that her teacher’s motivations made a lot more sense if they were related, and sometimes it’s not, like the fifty bogillion ideas for a scene I might never write. So, I would say there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, so long as you start writing eventually.

As to the fifth question, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I edit something to within an inch of its life, feel really happy, and come back to it a year later and absolutely loathe it. Two stories have been so utterly unusable that I ended up rewriting them without even a glance at the original. Others I’ve just given up on because I don’t want to go to the time and effort to fix them. The only good thing I can see about this is that at least I recognize that they’re terrible, and the fact that I recognize that is a sign that I have grown as a writer. Or, at any rate, that’s the way I choose to think about it, even if it’s not entirely true.

Melissa Mead: I’ll take a shot at “How do you deal with wordiness?”, and maybe a little “What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map?” too.

The first place I sold stories to was a magazine with a maximum word limit of 600 words. I’d write stories of about 1,000 words, and then cut, and tighten, and distill, until the story fit. It usually got more intense and focused in the process.

So for your first draft: Go ahead! Write anything that strikes your fancy. Let it ramble all over the place. If a new character or side quest pops up, roll out the welcome wagon.

Once you’ve got a finished draft, put it away for a while, maybe a week, while you do something else. Then go back to it with an editorial X-acto knife in hand.

Re-read the story. If something’s boring, or distracting, or just not right for that story, cut it out. (I keep a “cut file” for books and long stories. That way you can tell yourself that you can always put it back if you really want to.)
Then cut, and polish, and cut, and polish, until your gem shines the way you want it to.

Song4myKing: About daydreaming, I do it all the time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually sit down and write, but I can still think about my stories and write the fun scenes in my head. I often figure out details this way, and get a sense of where I’m going in the story, and get excited about upcoming scenes. Often, there are scenes that I’ve written out in my head many times over. It probably doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I love writing those scenes. It’s almost like finally performing a well-rehearsed play or piece of music. I also daydream a lot about things that I know won’t make it into the story. I don’t see this as a waste; it’s fun and it’s helpful for world building and character background.

Raina: Story all over the map–I’ve struggled with this too, and it’s one of the main reasons why I lose momentum on a project. What’s helped me is to spend some time thinking about and writing down the “heart” of my story. I like to think of this concept as how I would answer “what is your story about?” It can be a theme, a character, a feeling you want to capture, anything. For example: “My story is about an Unchosen girl who chooses herself. My story is about finding adventure even when it’s not handed to you. My story is about the side characters who get left behind, who aren’t special enough to be the Hero but say screw that and make their own story anyways.” Whatever the heart of your story is, write it down and keep it close. Whenever you feel like you’re losing direction, look back to it. Remembering what you first loved about your story, why you’re passionate about it, and what you want it to be is a fantastic motivator to make it a reality on the page.

Daydreaming–I do this a lot too, but I think it’s a GOOD thing as long as it doesn’t take the place of actual writing. Daydreaming is an awesome place to develop new ideas, test new directions, and flesh out your story more. If you want to feel more productive, it can help to write all of that stuff down. An idea for a character, a snippet of dialogue, anything. That’s what I do. Every single story-related idea I have that’s worth remembering/expanding upon, I write down so I’ll have a reference later. (I use an app called Trello, but you can use a notebook, post it notes, anything.) And for me, at least, that stuff really comes in handy later when I’m going to actually write the story.

Looking back at old stories–I sometimes look back at old stories, and a lot of the time the quality is worse than I remember/what I have now. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I’m not. But I see that as a GOOD thing. The fact that I can now see problems means that I’ve learned as a writer. The quality gap between my old work and my new work is how much I’ve improved as a writer since then, and to me, at least, it feels pretty nice to see the difference. I try not to judge my old work; I’ll either leave it be as a memory of my state at the time, or use everything I’ve learned since then to polish it up into something I’m proud of now. Occasionally I’ll even see something that’s actually pretty decent–a line, a turn of phrase–that I’ll feel proud of myself for thinking of at the time.

I love Raina’s idea about finding the heart of our story. Out of sad experience of getting lost more than once, these days I write a lot of notes before I start my manuscript itself–character notes, plot notes, fictional world notes. As I’ve said here, I have to know my ending in order to write a book. Not everyone does, but for me, knowing my destination keeps me focused.

We don’t have to do this work at the beginning. A hundred pages in is a great place to stop and look around. It’s certainly not too late. We can ask ourselves Raina’s question about the heart of our story. If we’re really all over the map, we may have a bunch of possible hearts. What an abundance!

We can see what we’ve put in that supports this heart or that one. Which thread seems to dominate? Which one interests us the most? What endings are suggested by the threads? Do some of them interlock so they can be pulled together?

It’s hard to remember this, but there is no rush. My favorite and best writing teacher used to say that a story takes as long to write as it takes.

And, published or not, the only person we have to satisfy is ourself.

Joy, if we love more than one idea, even if they don’t all fit the story as it’s shaping up. The others are fodder for more stories. Save them!

Once we’ve found the thread that interests us the most and seems to have the most possibilities, we can ask Raina’s heart question. We can ask my ending question. As we write, we keep the answers in mind. We can write them on a Post-it and stick them on our laptop. Or more than one Post-it and stick them on the fridge, our mirror, our pillow. If we start meandering, we can ask if we’re going off track or if there’s a connection to our main story road.

As for wordiness, I’m entirely with Melissa Mead. I agree about first-draft freedom and the revision X-acto knife. About the first: We’re word people. If we run on, it’s out of exuberance and love of language. Writing is hard! We don’t want to take the fun out of it!

About the second: I wrote a blog post called “Down With Length, Up With Thrills,” which I posted on August 26th of last year. It may be worth rereading.

I don’t daydream enough about my stories. I love when my mind spontaneously visits what I’m working on when I’m not actually working. The daydreaming is more relaxed than writing the book itself or even than writing notes. It comes from the back of my brain, puttering along, puffing out charming figments that are often useful. The only bad thing is if I forget before I write down the conjuring.

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre came from long-simmering ideas about “Rapunzel.” I finally saw a way to use the fairy tale and end it in a more satisfying way than I think the original does–by combining it with a fantasy version of Exodus from the Bible. Then I wondered if it could find a home in one of the worlds I’d already created, and Bamarre came to mind.

I don’t have the Igth! experience you describe. Ordinarily, I don’t reread my books, and I don’t suggest rereading old work unless we plan to celebrate our growth, as Katie W. and Raina say they have. Otherwise, we’re just making ourselves unhappy.

Lately, though, I have been reading my books on Facebook. I’m doing it as my bit in offering some respite to people suffering stress from the pandemic and the economic downturn. I hope that the routine can help. I give the same intro and wear my little fairy pendant, and it’s always my same old face and, lately, my disordered hair, plus a chapter or two of an adventure story that may be nostalgic for some and new to others. When I started, I had no idea how many books I’d get through.

So I am rereading. I’m glad to say I like my books. I’ve even been surprised at how moving parts of some of them are. I don’t know if anyone has noticed that a few times I’ve been close to tears or laughter.

On the downside, I’ve noticed some sentences that I’d recast if I were writing them now. I pick up word repetitions that I don’t like. Since I’ve studied poetry, I even spot sound repetition, like unintentional rhymes, that I’m not happy about. Ah, well.

Here are three prompts, all inspired by the movie, The Wizard of Oz:

• The farm Dorothy returns to isn’t the same as the one she left. Maybe a stranger has come to live with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Maybe the house now has an attic when it didn’t before. List the possibilities of what may have changed. Think about what could result. Write the first scene of a sequel. If you like, write the whole thing. Consider what could be the heart of the new story and how it might end.

• The wizard leaves Emerald City to be administered by the Scarecrow, assisted by the Tin Man and the Lion. What could go wrong? Write the story.

• On the way back to Kansas, the wizard’s balloon malfunctions and he and Dorothy make an emergency landing. Where? What happens? Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Idea Worry

Happy New Year!

I happened across this interesting website that you might enjoy noodling around in. The page I’m linking to reveals the difficulty level of any word: Some of the results are curious. For example, dogged is considered elementary/middle school level, but doggedness is graduate level. Another page may come in handy for naming characters (and children). It’s the Baby Name Uniqueness Analyzer. There’s also a Nickname Finder.

On February 9, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’m having trouble with ideas. Not just coming up with them, but liking them. It seems that lately, whenever I get an idea, I excitedly write down the possibilities, but then I just drop it. I focus so much on how wrong everything could go. The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

I feel like every time I really start thinking about something and what I could do, I don’t want to write it anymore. I’m just so convinced that it’s not worth it, or it won’t work, or it’d be too hard to write and I’d just get lost.

Any advice? And does this happen to anyone else?

I wrote, I think it happens to almost everyone. I’ve added your question to my list.

Erica wrote, My only advice is to try to write the story before you analyze the story. Aso, maybe it would help to deliberately try to write a really bad story so you can get the criticism out of your system?

And Melissa Mead wrote, Oh yes. All the time/ Sometimes it helps to write something that I don’t intend to show anyone. I tell myself “Okay, time to get this junk out of my system so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.”

Sometimes it is junk. Sometimes it comes out better than I would’ve thought.

My rule is not to be judgmental about anything I’m writing. Ever. Not even after my story or novel or poem is all written and revised. I’m not allowed to think it’s unoriginal or boring or farfetched or any other withering criticism. Of course I let myself notice if, say, the pace is slow or a character isn’t likable when I want her to be. Those criticisms are narrow and useful. Then I jump in and work on whatever the problem is.

This taboo includes liking or disliking my ideas or my story, which is just another form of judgment.

The reason for the ban I put on myself, as Kit Kat Kitty is discovering, is that harsh judgment makes writing much harder, maybe impossible. Why would people subject themselves to such misery? Instead, we can master archery or cook a stew or weed around the tomato plants–which are impossible to do in a clichéd way, and the reward comes more quickly.

But I want to keep writing.

The ban takes practice. We have to become self aware and notice what we’re doing to ourselves. Gradually, we recognize that we’re self-inflicting before the effects set in. We can put a quarter in a very large jar whenever we catch ourselves. We can keep a log: May 3rd, 11:05 am, called myself stupid; May 3rd, 3:47 pm, called my characters flat. Etc. We can congratulate ourselves when we go three days without having to write in the log.

Because the minute we notice, we have to cut it out.

I’m copying a sentence of Kit Kat Kitty’s worrying here: The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

We can put a quarter in the jar for the word unoriginal and then we can get down to considering our setting without judgment. What could be in the backyard in addition to the swing set? We make a list, naturally: a giant face made of wood that can be stepped into through the mouth or slithered into along the ear canals; a small, two-horse carousel; a half-repaired sailboat. You can continue the list. How can we develop our setting in a way that will support our plot? For example, in revising my Trojan War fantasy I’m thinking about how to make the city precious so that the reader will care about its survival, not just the survival of my characters.

We can take the same approach with the magic system. We pay the jar for wouldn’t make any sense and put the worry in terms we can work with, like consistency or effectiveness. What about the magic system is inconsistent or ineffective? How can it enhance our plot?

Same approach even for the rip-off criticism, maybe even more so. We want to be inspired by the creations of other writers, including books, movies, series, and, though I don’t know much (anything) about them, video games. We want them to plant seeds in our brains. Poets do this quite openly. We write responses to other poems or have a conversation with another poem. We incorporate a line from someone else’s poem in ours (and give credit).

For fiction, we can ask ourselves what in the other writer’s story set off the imitation impulse? It may be something we want to explore ourselves. Or it may be something we disagree with and we want to make our case. Or there may be a flaw that we want to remedy. I wouldn’t worry about imitation. Whatever we come up with will inevitably be our own.

(I thought Ella Enchanted was entirely derivative when I wrote it, because I poured into it elements of everything I loved as a reader. I was sure I was going to be caught, but so far I’ve gotten away with the theft.)

I think something else may underlie the self-attack when we indulge in it, and that, in my opinion, is how daunting writing is. Many arts are interpretive. Actors (who aren’t doing improv) interpret the lines provided by a writer. Musicians (who aren’t jamming) interpret a composition created by someone else. That’s easier! (Or so I think, who is neither a musician nor an actor.) Writers have to do it all: characters, plot, setting, POV, voice. The prospect is scary, so we may put off the work by hobbling ourselves. Better, in my opinion, to look unblinkingly at what’s involved, understanding that we’re imperfect writers and a struggle lies ahead.

There’s this too: we can ask ourselves if something has happened, connected or not to our writing, that has brought on the self-attack. It may be that someone has criticized our hair or our way of arranging the food on our plate or our voice quality. Or we ourselves may have done something, unconnected to writing, that we don’t approve of. If we discover the source of our unhappiness, it may detach from any association with writing, and we may be free.

As for ideas, they’re minor in the process, just raw glimmers that have to be shaped. We can’t know how useful they’ll be until we start delving into them and asking many what-if questions–without judgment.

Meanwhile, we can generate ideas about what we’d like to buy with the quarters that are piling up.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take that backyard setting. Make a long list of what might be in it, at least twenty-five items, some of them direct steals, like I’m thinking of the rocking chair from the old movie Psycho, which would have to be rotting by now. Vary the tone of the items: make some of them normal and cheerful and some creepy or sad because they bring up tragic memories. When you have your list, think about the plot that might come out of using some of them. Ask yourself who lives in the house, who lives next door. Who’s the mayor of the town. Relax. Don’t settle for one particular idea. Write down whatever shows up. No judgment. Let them germinate. No judgment. Imagine a conversation in the backyard. Write it down. No judgment.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” may suffer from harsh judgment herself. When the mirror tells her that Snow White has replaced her as most beautiful, she can’t handle the criticism. All that comes to mind is killing the girl. If she thinks about the other young women who are likely to come along as she ages whom she’ll also have to kill, she probably accepts her serial murderer future. It doesn’t have to go that way! Help her out and write a story in which she evolves. Extra credit if you also manage to give Snow White a personality.

• This is from Wikipedia’s description of the beginning of the plot of the medieval epic poem Beowulf:

Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it, he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster, is pained by the sounds of joy. He attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the Grendel’s equal. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand.

Imagine that Beowulf doesn’t attack Grendle immediately. Instead, the two contemplate each other silently for ten whole minutes, each one having ideas about what’s going to happen. Write the internal monologue of each one. Imagine, say, that one is a battle tactician and the other a deep thinker about philosophy.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Creating Wind in the Doldrums

Here’s a little grammar rant, which I hope I haven’t delivered before: Whom is dying, and I am grieving. The poor pronoun is no longer heard on the airwaves I listen to. I don’t see it in newspapers. In its style guide, an important publisher I know of instructs writers not to use the word in books for children.

English is a living language, which means usage changes. I favor that. I cheer for it. But I’m worried that the moribund state of whom is more than the loss of a word, because people may become ignorant–or they already are and that caused its demise–of the difference between subject and object. Whom is an object pronoun, the person to whom something is done. The doer is the subject pronoun, as in, “Who killed chivalry?” The one to whom something is done is the object pronoun, as in, “Whom did Jack the Ripper knock off this time?” (It isn’t always as obvious as this–all the more reason to know subject and object.)

Rant over. But if you think whom’s death isn’t a tragedy, please argue or at least comsole me.

Onto the regular post.

On January 31, 2020, I’dratherbewriting wrote, Does anyone know what to do when you don’t know what to do? In my current work in progress, I’ve reached a point where I’m not quite sure where to go with the plot. Everything before this point is fine (as far as first drafts go, at least) and I have a detailed outline for where I’m going after. But I’m currently in the doldrums of my plot. It’s not quite exposition, but I’m not far enough to start building up the tension. Does anyone have tips for how to push through a rough patch in the story?

Also, I’m having problems with pacing. I’m constantly swinging between feeling like I have too much dialogue or feeling like I don’t have enough. Where is the happy medium, and how do I find it?

Two of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: What purpose is the part of the story with “the doldrums” serving? Does it need to be in the story at all, or can you convey its information more efficiently some other way? Ex, if the evil wizard’s enslaved servant girl is secretly studying his books at night, hoping to find a way to escape, instead of detailing every stolen midnight reading session, you could say “After four years of breath-stopping close calls, she managed to levitate that tiresome silver tray as high as the window, and realized that now was the best chance she’d ever have.”

Christie V Powell: When I’m stuck in a rough patch, I usually take a break–a walk is best, but doing some household chore works too. It helps my brain get moving again. I’ve probably mentioned this too many times, but I love using KM Weiland’s Plot Structure for pacing. The info is free on her blog,

With dialogue, I think the issue is more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity–I mean, people still read screenplays, which are almost entirely dialogue. One of my early readers complained that I had too much dialogue in my first book. The problem was mostly with scenes where the characters were chatting about world details or backstory that weren’t really relevant to what’s going on in the current story, so I shortened or removed those.

I’m with Christie V Powell on the helpfulness of breaks, and I love to walk. Playing with the dog is good too.

This isn’t exactly a break, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I amble on the treadmill in our basement, where there are no distractions, and think about the problem and what I might do to solve it. The slow pace and rhythm of my steps keep me focused.

I’m also with Melissa Mead on hopping over the slow times in a story. If time has to pass before the action revs up, we can just write A month later and get to the tension.

Sometimes I think I have to set everything up before my plot starts moving, which makes for a dull beginning, and the reader may not hang in long enough to reach the adventure to come. We have to begin to introduce it quickly while acquainting the reader with our world.

Let’s take Melissa Mead’s example: the slave girl to an evil wizard. During the day, she polishes the wizard’s torture instruments. In the evenings, she catnaps. At night, she reads magic books in his library, hoping to find a spell that will get her out of there. For three years, nothing changes.

We may have to skip some of those years simply by telling the reader that they passed. But what can we do to bring to life portions of this time?

At the beginning, our crises should be small, compared with the turning point to come, but they need to engage the reader’s sympathy with our MC, whom I’ll call Vicky.

Naturally, the reader will want to know how Vicky got into this mess. I’m not a fan of flashbacks when they can be avoided, so we can start our story with the origin of her captivity. How did this happen? Time for a list!

It’s generally useful for our MC to have an Achilles’ heel–or both heels–to increase reader worry, so we might make her capture partly her fault. That would go into our list:

• Her focus on whatever she’s doing is absolute. She’s unaware of the wizard until he’s halfway through chanting his spell.

• She know the wizard is coming and why, but some other crisis is unfolding and she has to deal with it, and she isn’t good at multitasking.

• The wizard is an old friend of her family. He’s gone over to the dark side but she doesn’t notice the signs, because she thinks the best of everyone.

Your turn. As an early prompt, add three more possibilities.

This is exciting! We write the scene of her capture, introducing the reader to the wizard along the way, including his strengths and his Achilles heel. Maybe we jump forward to her exploration of his stronghold and the discovery of the library. This is tense too, because she can’t be caught wandering around.

She finds the library and establishes a safe route to it. Now, the doldrums set in, but we need some action during the three years. First off, can we shorten the time to a month? A month is a great length for ratcheting up the suspense. If she doesn’t escape within the month and reveal his location, then the wizard will have completed his fog machine. The kingdom will be enveloped in darkness, and he’ll be able to get away with his nefarious whatever.

But if, for plot reasons, we can’t shorten the time, what can we introduce periodically?

We can decide that we need, say, four tense scenes in the three years. Two will improve Vicky’s chances and two will make everything more grim. We start another list:

• Someone new arrives at the stronghold.
• The wizard begins to suspect Vicky.
• Vicky finds a spell that she thinks will save everyone, but it goes disastrously wrong.

Your turn for three more.

The three years end. The reader hasn’t stopped turning pages, hasn’t slept in days. Time for the major crisis.

Onto dialogue.

I suspect that this question is best left for revision when we can tell what’s needed and what isn’t, so let’s imagine that we’ve gotten there.

I’d argue that almost everything in a story should contribute to its pace, dialogue included. I agree with Christie V Powell that dialogue that is mere chatter should be trimmed.

That said, I include a lot of talk in my books. Out of curiosity, I scanned two random twenty-page sections of Ella Enchanted. Coincidentally, dialogue appeared on sixteen pages of each sample. Sometimes, the dialogue was just a line or two.

What does dialogue do that contributes to pace? Well, it reveals character, and character is essential to plot. It builds relationships–or destroys them. It advances plot directly, as in the necklace incident when Hattie comes to understand that Ella has to obey.

Here are three prompts. For extra credit, use whom in your story, or use who in its place and feel good about it.

• Rapunzel is in her tower for three years before the prince arrives. Write three exciting scenes in the tower during that period.

• Using an expanded list, write Vicky’s capture by the wizard.

• Write the crisis when Vicky finds the right spell and casts it–but the wizard fights back.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Blog Business

I almost forgot to post! Thank you, Life Means Books, for reminding me!

Congratulations to those of you who raced with NaNoWriMo! How did it go? Please tell us your challenges and triumphs and what you learned along the way.

On November 20, 2020, Christie wrote, I recently picked up your book, Writer to Writer, for my daughter during the pandemic home time. I recently realized I could use a little inspiration as well. I started a business last year that has now moved completely online. With that comes the blog….for me…the dreaded blog. I was wondering if you may have some suggestions for a person new to blog writing?

I wrote back and asked Christie what kind of business hers is, and she hasn’t answered, but I moved her question up in the queue anyway because it seems urgent when so many enterprises are struggling. I hope the post will interest others, too, and I hope those of you who write a blog will offer your ideas.

I also hope Christie isn’t relying only on me for information. I’m sure there are more knowledgeable sources. I’d suggest googling and searching online bookstores. I’ll bet there are books on successful blogging.

This blog was sparked by an email from my publisher to all its authors, urging us to become more active on social media. I considered the options and decided a blog would suit me best, although since then, I’ve posted as well on Facebook and Instagram. I have eschewed (a word I rarely have a chance to use!) Twitter, because I’ve heard things about it that make me shudder.

So the impulse to blog came from the marketing side. I figure that the blog does have a small positive effect on sales of my books, and I hope that, as well as the blog, blog readers read my books, which I sometimes mention while I’m writing them. (As an aside, if you are more of a library-book reader than a book buyer, you can encourage your library to acquire my books, and I will be grateful.)

However, as the blog accumulated readers and writers started commenting, and because writing has my heart, creating it became a joy. And continues to be. As I’ve written many times, I love the helpful exchanges that take place here.

The blog has a voice, which is my voice at its most positive–but it is genuinely mine. If you met me in person, I think you wouldn’t be surprised at what I say and how I say it.

So that’s one strategy: we want to be ourselves on our blog. To achieve this, it may be helpful to look not only at my posts but also at the comments, because the comments are also written in a natural style that reflects the writer. I haven’t tested this, but I suspect I’d recognize the voices of several of you if I closed my eyes and someone read to me.

Write a page or two. Your blog posts don’t have to be long! As you write, imagine that you’re telling whatever you’re saying to a friend. Then show what you’ve written to a few supportive people. Ask them if you sound like yourself or if you’ve gone all formal. If you sound like a technical manual rather than yourself, edit for shorter words and shorter sentences. Include your own opinions about the topic, especially your enthusiasm.

I’m assuming that Christie is passionate about her business. We should make sure our readers know we care, which we can say head on. We can say, I love toenail clippers! Imagine life without them! I have devoted myself to them in all their variety, which I bring to you in my shop and now in these posts.

If you can, incorporate a little story in your post, because people are drawn to the shape of a story. Above, I gave this blog’s origin story. You can do the same. You can begin the blog with its origin story or with the origin story of your business.

As the blog continues, don’t worry about repeating yourself. I think of this blog as the writing analog of a wedding magazine. The topics are limited, but there’s always something new to say. Wedding dresses, for instance, are endlessly fascinating. Likewise, in writing: villains, plot, character development, and so on–but there are only so many.

Some people read all the posts in the blog, which is an undertaking by now. But others read just the latest one. I’m happy with either way of experiencing it.

Think about the audience you want. What will interest them? If you want to promote something in particular, consider why your audience will enjoy reading about it. I’d suggest not marketing constantly. You might give readers an insight into why you chose a certain item as something you wanted to sell. Is there a story behind it? What adventures has the business brought you to?

If you can persuade people to ask you questions, everything will be easier. (Thank you, everyone!) You’ll be certain that at least one person, and probably many more, wants an answer.

I don’t use images, but you may want to. Feel free!

My blog readers found me, with the help of NaNoWriMo. You may have an email list of customers. Let them know you’ve started a blog. Let family and friends know. Put a sign in your window. There must be other ways too that I don’t know.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a post from Rapunzel’s blog, which she writes in her tower.

• Your MC’s enemy writes a gossip blog, which is widely read. He posts viciously about your MC. Write his post. If you like, continue and write what follows.

• Your MC is a spy behind enemy lines. She writes a well-known cooking blog in which she conceals info for the intelligence service at home. When she realizes that her cover has been blown, she writes a final post, knowing she can’t use the usual code. Write the story and the blog posts. If you can, make the recipes part of it all.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lights! Camera! ACTION!

To you who are competing in NaNoWriMo, congratulations on finishing more than two weeks! I’m rooting for you! If you have a minute, tell us your obstacles and triumphs. Questions are welcome too.

On January 24, 2020, Pleasure Writer wrote, I have a really hard time writing action scenes. They turn out so awkward and most of the time I feel like they’re boring to read, which is obviously not the goal for an action scene. Any suggestions on how to better engage my readers in the story?

Two writers responded:

Erica: For me, a good part of what makes action scenes exciting is the vocabulary. “He looked around at” is much less exciting than “He caught glimpses of.” As a general rule, use fewer, vivid words. Also, you might need to adjust the amount of showing vs. telling. I think there is an old post about how to write action scenes, but I don’t remember what it was called.

Christie V Powell: For action, you want shorter, simpler sentences, and shorter paragraphs. It makes it faster to read, and it also creates white space.

For example, the writer I edit for had a sentence that reads: “The outline of a man holding a knife in the air sent her screaming as she struggled out of her bed and ran out of the bedroom.”

I changed it to four sentences: “A shadow crossed her chest of drawers: a man with a knife. She screamed. Her feet tangled in her covers and she struggled out of bed. Somehow she made it out of the bedroom.”

Nice edits! I especially like the last sentence and the humor tucked into it.

A fundamental strategy for action scenes is to make sure the stakes are high, that the reader cares about the outcome. A reason for this is that we give up the tools we usually use to draw in the reader in favor of action. We’re not charming the reader with character development, dialogue, thoughts, emotions, or setting, though we may sneak in a tiny bit of these. In an action scene, we’re probably not going to reveal that our MC loves dogs. No one will give a long speech. Thoughts and feelings will be uncomplicated and limited to what can be conveyed quickly. The setting will be only what’s needed to make the action visible and possible.

An action scene is mostly physical, and the physical alone is just moving body parts and possibly weapons–not inherently interesting. Think of watching a sport or a game. If we don’t know the rules, don’t know the teams or the players, or haven’t placed a bet, we see just movement and aren’t engaged.

Imagine, though, that we’re watching a baseball game and a runner twists an ankle on the way to first base. We don’t know what is going on since we don’t understand the game, but we see he’s trying to get somewhere. We’re a little more interested then, because we want to see how the wounded player does. Not much is at stake, but it’s a beginning. We may put off going to the kitchen for ice cream or to another room to read.

That means everything has to be set up in advance. The poor reader has to be induced to care about the MC and the characters she values. He has to be made to hate or fear the villain or the antagonist, which might be something in the natural world–a wildfire, a storm, a bear. We can do this quickly if we decide to start our story with an action scene: “Mom!” I yelled. “Back away!” I ran toward her–what I told her not to do. Didn’t she see? Didn’t she hear the branches breaking? I vaulted the fence.

We care about this POV character because she’s trying to save her mom. We care about the mom because the narrator seems to love her. And the questions about seeing and hearing make us begin to fear the peril, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.

Once the danger is over, we can add more to reveal who these people are and what the problem will be.

If the reader cares about what’s at stake, he’ll read intensely and quickly. He won’t want character development or any of the other things I mentioned because he has to find out fast! how it turns out.

That’s where the short sentences come in. The reader is stressed out! Long sentences are too complicated. I’m thinking like a reader here. When I’m reading an action scene, I’m going so fast I’m almost skimming. I don’t take in a sentence with a lot of clauses. My eyes will jump thoughts. Is the MC okay? Is the villain getting away with it? Will the trapdoor work?

The reader has to care, which we set up with a relatable MC. Whatever is at stake has to do with her, not that she has to be at risk. In the battle scene near the end of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, for example, the MC’s sister Meryl is the one the reader worries most about.

Once we’ve written a draft of our action scene, we can make it more concise so that it moves faster. We can make sure it’s clear what’s riding on the outcome.

Here are three prompts:

• Continue my beginning: “Mom!” I yelled. “Back away!” I ran toward her–what I told her not to do. Didn’t she see? Didn’t she hear the branches breaking? I vaulted the fence. Write the scene or the whole story.

• Snow White realizes that the evil queen wants to harm her and refuses to open the dwarfs’ door. Undaunted, the queen goes through a window. The poison in this apple is so potent that Snow White doesn’t have to bite or swallow. If it so much as touches her lip, she’s a goner. Write the action scene in which the queen, wielding the apple and possibly a weapon, chases Snow White through the cottage, which can be as big or small as you like.

• Sleeping Beauty has an enemy in her castle, who wants to kill her before she falls asleep, when she’ll be safe from him for a hundred years and forever. You decide who he is and why he’s her enemy. He doesn’t have to be human. Write the action scene in which she is trying to get to the spindle and he is trying to get to her.

Have fun, and save what you write!

On the Links

Many of you have started NaNoWriMo. I wish you the best. May your fingers never flag. May your dreams–if you sleep–deliver scenes and characters. Put them in! May your brain send ideas: the surprising, the wild, even the ordinary–no judgment, just so they generate words. Go, writers, go!

On January 21, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I was wondering, how do you link things? Like, I, as a pantser, always have trouble with the plot – and it seems that everything is separate. Any tips on linking everything together so my plot doesn’t die? Any advice would really help!

Several of you responded.

Christie V Powell: I think it has to do with linking cause and effect. For example, in my rough draft, I had a teenage daughter of the family run away right before the climax begins, when her father and brother confront angry townspeople. So, in editing, I had to figure out what might have caused the running away, and what consequences running away would have in the story. In this case, I decided that she ran away at this particular moment because her friends warned her that the angry townspeople were gathering against her family. Her father and brother go into town trying to find her, and that’s why they end up in the middle of this dangerous meeting.

I’ve enjoyed following KM Weiland’s blog, and she likes to talk about how story threads need to be linked thematically. The main characters have a Lie they believe about the world, and over the course of the story they learn to reject that Lie and learn a new Truth (for a positive arc story). Each action in the plot takes the characters along that path.

Melissa Mead: Exactly! “This happened, which caused X, and because of X…”

Raina: I’ve had the same problem, and here are some strategies I use:

  1. Cause and effect. This is probably the most basic one. A detective finds a clue, which leads them further down the trail and into the next plot point. Two friends have a fight, and one of them goes off on their own, advancing the plot. The cause and effect connections doesn’t have to be super direct or big (though you probably don’t want too many extremely-tenuous connections either). For example, my character ends up at a tavern where a major plot point happens because she’s on her way to somewhere and passing through. The tavern is not directly connected to the previous plot point (her escaping a magical tower), it’s just a small “normal” thing that happens as a result of her travels. The cause is that she needs somewhere to go on her way away from the tower, the effect is that she ends up stopping by the tavern because that’s where a traveler naturally would stop. In contrast, the plot point AFTER that is directly caused by her actions in said tavern. The cause is that she accidentally starts a bar fight. The effect is that she gets hauled off by the guards, which leads directly into the next plot point, which is her escaping from a dungeon. In both cases, the connection is there, but in one it’s more direct (consequences to her actions in the previous scene) but in another it’s more transitional (she finished doing this, and she was on the way to do something else, and this happened to her).
  2. Character motivation. This is a big picture thing, and it’s important for more than just connecting plot points, but it’s a useful tool to connect plot points. Everything your character does is connected to an overall goal, in addition to being connected with the cause-and-effect of their previous actions. If cause and effect is like two Lego blocks linking together, character motivation is like a tree. The branches aren’t all necessarily directly connected to each other (though they can be), but they’re all connected to the trunk (underlying character motivation). For example, a detective visits a hotel, a mall, and a warehouse. Maybe those three places and the events that transpire there aren’t directly related, but the reason the detective visits all of them is because they’re his leads to solving a mystery (his motivation).

As a note, characters can have (and frequently do have) multiple sources of motivation. Maybe the detective visits the hotel, mall, and warehouse to look for clues (motivation: solve the mystery), and then goes to a bar to meet with his crush (motivation: love). These things aren’t necessarily cause and effect, but they’re all “caused” by the detective’s personality, who he is and what he wants as a person.

Oh, and one more point: coincidence is also a tool you can use, although you shouldn’t use it too often. It’s perfectly okay to have your character randomly stumble into the inciting incident because they were walking on the street and saw/heard something that propels them into the plot (like the beginning of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where the MC is at a party, just another normal day for her, and sees someone gets murdered, which then leads to her finding out about a secret world of demon hunters). The problem with this is that it’s a passive form of plot progression (where an outside force acts on the MC, rather than have the plot be based around the MC’s actions and their consequences), so you don’t want to use it too often. That’s why you typically don’t see this used beyond the inciting incident. You can also later reveal information that justifies the coincidence or suggests that it wasn’t really a coincidence at all (in the case of CoB, MC was actually the daughter of an ex-demon-hunter-in-exile, and thus she has the ability to see magical things, which was why she saw the murder).

And since you can continuously edit stories (at least before they’re published), retconning (changing previous events to make them fit with new ones) is a powerful and very useful tool. A new plot point doesn’t fit with the old ones? You can change the old ones! You need your character to do something that doesn’t fit with their personality or motivations? You can change their personality! Granted, you should do so carefully because it’ll change the whole story, but if you don’t like it, you can change your entire story and as long as the change is consistent throughout the entire thing, no one will ever know. I think writers sometimes take that for granted, because I certainly did, until I figured out that other mediums (like role-playing games) aren’t like that.

I love reading everyone’s approaches, because we all get to the same place–story–by different routes. And I’m with Raina on the infinite possibilities of revision.

Here are some approaches that I use that may be helpful:

Even though I’m mostly a pantser, I do need to know the overall problem of my story. At the moment, I’m thinking about my next project, and I’m turning the fairytale “Aladdin” over and over in my mind. The problem is the problem, because I’m not sure what that is. Is it the love story with the sultan’s daughter? Defeating the evil magician? Wielding the genies’ magic? If I’m going to go forward, I’ll need to know.

Knowing helps with the links. When a scene wants to be written, we can think about how it relates to the problem. If it doesn’t relate, we can explore how it might be shaped so that it does. (This may require a list.)

Once I’ve figured out the problem, I move onto my characters. What kind of person will my Aladdin need to be to both overcome the problem and struggle with it? Who will the princess be? The genies? What sort of villain will the magician be? These can change, as Raina says, but to get started, I need a preliminary idea.

Same with the ending. From the start, I need to know where I’m heading. Even pantsers can know that much. The ending is a beacon that lights and guides the writing road. As we write, we can ask ourselves how the scene we’re about to write will move us toward the end, either by throwing up obstacles or by overcoming them.

All of these will automatically pull the story together and forge links.

Most of my novels are from a single first-person POV, though the Trojan War manuscript I’m revising now is told in the first half by one character and then, several years later, by another. Unity is natural when there’s one teller. The reader reads her thoughts and understands how events connect.

But even with multiple POVs, a POV character’s thoughts can pull plot points together.

Writing chronologically also creates links, which is similar to the causality that everyone above wrote about. This happened, then that happened–and the reader connects them.

I’ve written here about handling flashbacks and backstory, which are fine techniques–please use them at will!–but they do wrench the reader away from the current action and make the linking harder. Even foreshadowing does that. If our story is getting unruly, we can stay in one time zone.

Lately, from more than one sad experience of losing my way, I do write a very basic outline, a few paragraphs, maybe a page–even though I’m almost intolerably bored by the exercise. Once I start writing, I forget the outline, but it influences me anyway.

I also do a sort of rolling outline sometimes. In my notes, I write about what will come next based on the scene I’ve just written, what arises from it. This may yield bullet points that will carry me through a few more scenes, when I have to regroup again and plan ahead.

If we’ve already written, say, fifty pages, that don’t seem to link, we can look them over with a dispassionate eye. We can ask questions about what we have. Is there a problem that seems more pressing than any other? If yes, how can we make it filter into everything else? If not, is there a problem that particularly interests us? Can we punch it up? Which character (or two or three characters, probably no more) interests us most? Can we relate the problem to this character? How might the problem end? We can list possibilities.

We don’t have to wait until we reach the end to revise. We can reshape our fifty pages and then continue, keeping our eye on the problem and the ending we’re aiming for while remembering that we can change any of it.

Finally, trust yourself! Trust your mind! Don’t yell at it or poke it. Let it meander and find the connections.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take another fairy tale that continues to confound me: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The reader is supposed to rejoice at the success of the soldier in figuring out why the princesses wear out their shoes every night, but these young women come out of it without gaining their freedom, and the reader never finds out what’s really up with the underground dancing princes. In my opinion, the story solves the mystery of the shoes, but not the more interesting problems. Decide what the problem is, who the MC is, and what the ending might be, and write the first scene. If you like, keep going.

• Look at three unrelated articles in your newspaper. Stare at them. Imagine they are somehow linked. Consider what the links might be. If the three don’t yield links, you can add more articles. Find a story in them, with a problem, an MC, and an ending. Write the story as another news article with a banner headline.

• Personify an inanimate object, a plant, and an animal. Write a paragraph about each, including its personality, problems, backstory, and anything else you think is important. Look at what you have. Did you happen to include common elements that you can expand? If not, look for connections. Decide which of the three will be your MC, which your villain (if you need a villain). Write a first scene. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!