Ideas Versus Written-Down Stories

On March 16, 2021, Brambles and Bees wrote, I’m having a bit of a crisis. I have been trying to write a book, but I always end up disliking the idea and then give up. Or I actually do like it, but I have a hard time with writing it. I think it might be a problem with me not planning out my writing carefully, but I have never really liked planning anything out. I also don’t like a lot of the characters I create because I always have this perfect image in my head, but I can never get the character to fit into that mold. So how do you actually write out your characters? And how do you create enjoyable plots and storylines?

Two of you answered.

Fantasywriter6: One thing I’ve learned is to save what you write. Sometimes I’ll scroll through my Google Docs and find an old story that I started but gave up on, and I’ll find a totally new perspective on it or find that the words flow a lot better. Also, don’t pressure yourself to write a Full Length Book…the idea’s pretty intimidating and makes me feel like I need to get it right the first time, but who does? Just write because you love to write! Also, have conversations with people you trust about your specific plot lines or characters and see if they can help you form words. My guess is that you have great ideas (we are our own worst critic) but have a hard time putting pen to paper and being satisfied with what comes out. Just, again, remember that nothing comes out perfect- and very few things come out great- the first time!

FantasyFan101: I have that problem too. I hated a lot of my characters, but Gail’s character questionnaire saved me. It’s a bunch of questions about your characters that you fill in. You can modify the questions depending on the world you create and a bunch of other things. It really helped me for my current WIP. I knew from previous stories that my characters were usually just creatures with a name and appearance. They had no special traits and way of speaking, or even standing. The questionnaire was a life saver. As for creating enjoyable plots and storylines, I did like you, just went where the story took me. But I’ve realized, I like to write Sneak Peeks. They help me get the gist of where I want to go, and how I want to do it. You can plan the beginning threads of future scenes, before weaving them into the actual masterpiece.

I’m with Fantasywriter6 that pressure isn’t helpful, is actually the enemy. And, FantasyFan101, I love the Sneak Peaks idea, which seems fun and freeing.

And I’m happy that you’re both into fantasy!

Dreaming up a story idea is exhilarating. Writing it down is humbling. Ideas and written-down stories are no more than distant cousins, so we can’t expect the first to morph easily into the second. When we’re in the castles-in-the-air stage, we see walls and towers made of glistening stone and pennants waving in a gentle breeze against a bright blue sky. We don’t think about rats and mice and itchy vermin, and winter drafts and plumbing. When we start writing, though, we have to contend with those things, which will make our setting real.

I’m not much of a planner either, though lately I’ve been writing a super-short outline before I start, and I have to know the end I’m aiming for. But the end may change if my story can no longer accommodate it, and I tend to forget about the outline.

Plot and character aren’t distant cousins, they are BFFs. They do everything together, go nowhere without the other. They talk and plan and grow and change in tandem.

If I’m even the tiniest bit uncertain while I’m writing a book, I toggle to my Ideas document to put down what may come next, and what may come next can be the tiniest thing, like what physical gesture a character can make during a conversation. For even that little thing I may make a list. I’m not a fast writer.

Let’s use that gesture question to see how plot and character work together. Imagine that our MC, high school sophomore Lisa, is paired with Sam, a classmate, to make a presentation on the use of animals in scientific experiments. They just have to research facts, but they discover that they’re on opposite sides of the issue. Sam says flatly, “You’re wrong, Lisa.” She replies, “You’re wrong, Sam.” We’re thinking about how she says her reply. If she accompanies her words with a shrug, their work probably continues, albeit frostily. If she thrusts her head to an inch from Sam’s and lets out a little spittle on the S, which wets his upper lip, things may escalate. Either one moves our plot along.

Both possibilities reveal character. Shrugging Lisa may have an easy temperament, or she may hate to argue, or she may have a crush on Sam. Spitting Lisa may anger easily, or she may feel so deeply about the subject that she wants to be sure she got her point across. She may or may not realize that spit was involved.

My character questionnaire is in my writing how-to book, Writing Magic. We can use it to help us decide how Lisa will react.

Planning isn’t necessary to make our plot evolve, but it is useful to have half an eye on where we want to go. Suppose for example that we want to start a little romance between these two. If that’s not the end of our story, at least it can be our next plot point.

If Sam backs away and rushes for a sink to wash off the saliva, we’ll know we have a steep hill to climb to get them to a kiss—and we can think about how to do it. If he laughs and says she reminds him of his sister (in a good way), we may worry that this is going to be too easy—and we can think about how to make trouble.

I tend to find my characters in their thoughts, feelings, action, and speech. And I tend to decide what those thought, etc., will be based on the direction I want my story to go in.

Here’s an early prompt: Take any character you’re working on with you today (or tomorrow if you’re about to go to sleep). Here’s how you might do it:

Later this afternoon, my friend Christa will come over with her dog Demi for a playdate with Reggie, as they’ve been doing a few times a week since both of them were just past puppyhood. Addie, my MC in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, would probably be afraid of lively Demi. She might even go into our house for safety. Her sister Meryl would be interested in only Demi and not in Christa or me. Meryl might imagine Demi to be a dragon in dog disguise. She’d also go into the house to persuade Addie to come back out. What would your characters do? If you had a friend over or visited a friend, how would they behave? What would they do, let loose in your house or town?

Our perfect characters have to have the equivalent of the castle mice and vermin—flaws—to be real, even to be lovable. We can ask ourselves—and make a list!—what makes this character perfect in our minds? We’re probably not going to be able to keep all these qualities, so what’s the perfection we care about most? In my backyard scene or in your activities for the day, how would this perfect characteristic express itself? Would your character intervene successfully in, say, an argument between Christa and me? Would she see the big glass fragment in our path and pick it up before one of the dogs stepped on it and got a deep cut? (This has happened. Every spring our backyard, which has been continuously inhabited for over two hundred years, sends up a harvest of glass. For a long time garbage disposal seems to have involved throwing things and leaving them where they landed.)

Let’s imagine it’s the glass because our heroic MC always has an eye out for danger. But in saving a dog, she fails to notice that Christa is weeping over something mean  that Gail just said, and she’s confused by the emotion. So she’s less than perfect about human interaction.

Or she can be so attuned to people’s feelings that a dog has lost a pint of blood before she notices.

Brambles and Bees is a tad hard on herself in her question. Many of us are when it comes to writing—or to any creative endeavor. We need to find havens in our writing method that don’t trigger self-criticism. This blog is one of those spots for me. Posts are short. Little is at stake, because if I don’t get an answer exactly right, the question is likely to resurface in a slightly altered way, and I’ll get another crack at it.

Poems are a haven too. Mine are often less than a page and almost never more than two. I expect to write more in the revising phase than in the creating stage, and I love to tinker.

We can give ourselves the refuge of writing short even in a long manuscript. My ideas document, which I create for each book, is that refuge. When I’m lost, I toggle over there to write about my confusion and to make lists or to revise a paragraph or even a sentence. Nothing is at stake there. No one will see the document. I can let loose with all my notions and not call any of them stupid. I even feel different when I’m doing this. My shoulders are looser, and my skull seems to crack open, allowing ideas of every sort to frolic.

Here are two prompts to go with the one above:

  • Your MC knows she needs to take everything less seriously. Her relationship with her best friend depends on it as does her own peace of mind in the face of teasing by her older brother and younger sister. How does she go about it? Write the story.
  • Your MC, a master at a particular game or sport (you decide which), is having a match against the sentient dragon who is holding her parents hostage. She knows that it will honor its promise to release them if it loses, and she knows three other things: It hates to lose so much that it is likely to burn her to a crisp if she wins; if it realizes she lost on purpose it is likely to burn her to a crisp; she hates to lose as much as the dragon does. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Getting to Know You

More new stuff on the website: All my book tour appearances are now posted. Just click on News and then on Appearances and you’re there. But to give you an idea, the cities I’ll be in or near are Chicago, Salt Lake City, L.A., Houston, and Boston. I’ll be in Orlando and Milwaukee too, but no signings. This came up the last time I toured, so I’ll repeat that I don’t simply sign at a signing. I read from the new book, talk about it, and take questions before I start signing, and generally there’s time to get a little acquainted. Hope to see some of you!

Also new on the website: The first chapters of all my books have now been posted, so you can take a look. Let me particularly direct you to my least known novel, Dave at Night, which may be my favorite.

Since I’ll be touring for the next two weeks the appearance of the blog is iffy, but I’m going to try to keep it up.

On March 3, 2011, maricafajaffa wrote, …I have this habit of jumping right into the plot. In the story I have been writing, the characters are introduced with a small amount of background and then suddenly the main plot line is introduced. I have tried to stretch it out but I haven’t been able to work it out properly. Please help me. You can read my story on one of my blogs:

and maricafajaffa later added:

    I’m not sure if it is bad, but I just get the feeling that I’m getting into the story too quickly and there isn’t much for readers to really get acquainted with the characters.
Then Charlotte commented, @maricafajaffa– sometimes I find you need to write a bunch before even you can get acquainted with the characters. I know I’ve found that it really doesn’t matter how much I figure out about my characters before I start writing (I’m a total fan of the age/gender/height/weight/likes/dislikes/etc forms), because once I’m in the story, they often end up going off and doing their own thing anyway. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s always time to add more about who your characters are in the beginning AFTER you’ve written enough to know that yourself. There’s a huge difference between the first draft and the final product. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try. Heaven knows I never have. 🙂
    Hope this has been helpful…

Thanks, Charlotte. Very helpful, I believe.

maricafajaffa, if you’re worried about us readers, we aren’t likely to care about the characters until they’re in at least a tiny bit of trouble or somehow at risk, no matter what their backgrounds are. Let’s imagine Irena, an abused teenager, for example, in a foster home, living with Mr. and Mrs. Nembler. Irena has her own bedroom and she’s on the phone with her cousin Jeb from her old life. She tells Jeb how much better her situation is now, and the conversation reveals a lot about her. We hear her voice. She says “You’ll never believe” frequently. She tells Jeb about the shopping spree her foster mom took her on. From the elaborate description we get Irena’s fashion sense. From her enthusiasm we realize that her fashion sense has rarely been indulged. We sympathize with her. If she asks Jeb what’s going on with him we see she cares about other people and we may begin to like her. But the stakes are low.

Suppose she ends the phone call and lights a cigarette. Uh oh. A seed of worry has been planted. Is she allowed to smoke in her room? Do her foster parents know she smokes? Is she sabotaging her wonderful new place? We may wonder where she got the money for cigarettes. When the cigarette dwindles to a nubbin she puts it out between her thumb and forefinger. Youch! How self-destructive is this girl? The conversation with Jeb has put us on Irena’s side, and now we’re worried. Now we care.

A million other things can pull us in. The Nemblers’ youngest son, theirs by birth, can announce he doesn’t want Irena living there. Mr. Nembler can enter Irena’s room and close the door behind him, enough to tinkle our alarm bells. Another foster child can warn Irena about Mrs. Nembler’s temper.

I’m naming mundane but potentially important problems; however, you don’t have to go that way. Irena can go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She glimpses Mr. Nembler in the living room watching TV. She knows it’s him because he’s wearing the same University of Kentucky sweatshirt, only his human head has been replaced by the head of a horse.

I agree with Charlotte. We need to put our characters into a situation and imagine what they might do. Sometimes they’ll take matters into their own hands and act independently seemingly without our intervention. But more often, especially at the beginning of a story, we have to consider the options for them and pick. If we have a sense of the story we’re telling, we think of possibilities that will take our character where we want her to go. Best not to force her. We don’t want to make her do something strange just because our plot needs her to.

If we ourselves don’t have a clue about Irena, we may have her do something generic when the action begins or behave as we would, and the results may not be as interesting as we’d wish. If I were Irena I’d sneak out the back door and go to the police. But first, being a cautious soul, I’d peek in the police station window to make sure the cops don’t have horse’s heads too. That’s me and one version of Irena. One of my friends adores horses. She’d probably imitate a whinny and march right in and strike up a conversation. Another friend would be likely to question her own sanity. Sometimes it helps to think of actual people you know to develop options. What would your best friend do? How about your daredevil cousin? Your older brother? Your mother? When you finish running through actual people, imagine other options. Might Irena wonder if Mrs. Nembler has a horse’s head too? Might she go back to her room and push the bureau against the door? And so on.

Whatever Irena does in this situation, or in any of the other scenarios, begins to establish her character for both the reader and the writer more vividly than any amount of background can. Once you have a start on her – once she begins to act – then future options are narrowed. The girl who marches into the kitchen to speak to the horse is unlikely to run away when Mrs. Nembler comes out of the bathroom with the head of a sheep in place of her human head. Irena may bolt, but if she does, you have to explain.

The events that follow also depend on what Mr. Nembler says or does, how his personality shapes up and the personalities of the other people in the family, possibly the town.

I’ve written this before, that sometimes I start with a character’s back story because I need to know his history before jumping into the present problem, but the back story gums up my beginning and the book doesn’t get off to a clean start and I wind up amputating the back story. So I think it’s generally fine to get into the action quickly. And, yes, I agree with Charlotte that in revision you’ll be better able to see what you need in order to introduce your characters. When the whole sweep of your story is behind you, your perspective clarifies.

You’ve probably guessed the prompt. Write about Irena in any one or more of the difficulties I suggested. She’s self-destructive; a member of the family doesn’t want her; Mrs. Nembler has a terrible temper; Mr. Nembler, and possibly others, is transformed at night. He doesn’t necessarily have to get a horse’s head, either. The animal could be far less benign. Also, you can give Irena problems I haven’t even dreamed of.

Have fun and save what you write!

Plot or Character at the Helm

On April 7, 2010 EquusFerusCaballus, now known as Marmaladeland, wrote, Which is a more important element in a story: character development or plot? If you have good characters, should you go right ahead and bend a story to fit them, or wait until a better one comes along to click? If your plot is excellent, but the characters are as believable as purple unicorn turtles, should you write anyway?

Plot and character are as entwined as ivy on a trellis, and I can’t say which would be ivy and which trellis.  Or the chicken and the egg might be a better analogy.  It doesn’t matter which came first; you can’t have one without the other.  They’re equally important.

Marmaladeland, it is almost always a major no-no to force characters to behave a certain way because of plot.  I say almost because there are no absolutes in fiction writing.  Making a mean character suddenly nice, for instance, just for plot reasons is a good way to get those purple-unicorn-turtle characters.

I’ve probably said before that I’m more plot oriented than character driven.  I start with an idea and then invent characters who will fulfill the idea and go with it naturally.  But if you have characters who interest you and want to follow them, that’s fine too.  Legions of writers work this way, and I wouldn’t call their method bending the story in a bad way.

Suppose you have a main character, Sandra, fifteen years old, the most kindhearted person in the world.  It would wound her to hurt someone, even in the tiniest way, but she worries, with good reason, about being taken advantage of.  Let’s throw in also that she has trouble making decisions and she’s highly emotional, cries easily, laughs easily, angers easily and says things she regrets.

A little of her history: She’s new at Cloverleaf High School, pretty, wears the right clothes, is socially comfortable.  But at her last school her best friend betrayed her, took advantage of her kindness, and she isn’t over it.  What she wants most at the new school is a friend she feels close to and can trust.

Now let’s picture a boy, Drew, also fifteen, short for his age, who gets picked on by other kids, partly for his size and partly because he’s so serious.  He doesn’t fight back or laugh off the attacks, but he hates being ridiculed.  Let’s say he loves music and can play piano, guitar, and drums.

I’ll add one more character, Liza, fifteen too, who is over-friendly.  She flatters people and sometimes puts herself down by way of comparison, as in, “You’re brilliant.  I wish I had half your brains,” or “You have such a fashion sense.  I never know what to put together with what.”  An unrecognized part of Liza’s mind hates the people she flatters and hates herself for having to do it.

Now we have to imagine a situation.  It doesn’t have to be that much of a situation, because this is a character-driven story.  Suppose the three kids are in the drama club, and they’ve been cast in a one-act play together.  Sandra sees Liza as a possible friend, and she’s observed Drew being picked on and wants to help him.

Suppose Liza is the best actor of the three.  She could help the other two, but she can’t put herself forward this way.  Sandra and Drew are astute and find Liza condescending, even though she doesn’t mean to be.

Here’s the prompt:  Imagine a setting where your scene takes place.  Write the first rehearsal, keeping the characters true to themselves.  Continue the story if it interests you.  Don’t decide ahead of time that you do or don’t want Sandra and Liza to wind up as friends and one of them with Drew as a boyfriend, or any other outcome.  Don’t twist anybody to do anything.  If one or more of them changes in the course of the story, make clear how the change came about.

Now for a plot-driven story, the kind I do write.  The clearest example in my books is in my short comic novel, The Princess Test, which is based on “The Princess and the Pea.”  In that book I took the same approach as the one I wrote about last week.  I asked questions and found two major ones: Who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses?  And how is this a test of princessness?

The first question is the big character one. I don’t think anyone could really feel that pea, but there are probably many approaches to a solution.  For example, the princess could have long-distance hearing (this is fantasy) and have overheard the king and queen planning the test.  Or she could be a paranoid princess and tear her chamber apart, hunting for something amiss and finding the pea.

If you remember the story in detail, the successful princess doesn’t have to know she slept on a pea.  She has only to have a bad night’s sleep, so she can simply be an insomniac.  But I didn’t go that way.  I made her not a princess at all.  Lorelei is a supremely good-natured blacksmith’s daughter who’s highly sensitive and allergic to almost everything.  If the mattresses aren’t entirely made of swans’ feathers and the sheets aren’t silk with exactly the right thread count, she is certain to toss and turn till dawn.  And maybe the pea will add to her discomfort.

Then there was the lesser question of how to get her to the castle soaking wet in the middle of the night.  Ordinarily she wouldn’t be outside after dark and certainly not in the rain.  Lorelei’s mother died when Lorelei was fourteen, and the blacksmith had to hire a maid, Trudy, because Lorelei is useless around the cottage.  Trudy hates Lorelei for her general uselessness and plots to lose her in the forest.  Hence the late-night drenching.

Earlier, the prince has met Lorelei when he was out for a ride, and he’s fallen for her and she for him.  As for the king and queen, since this is a very silly tale, they get by just by being silly and adoring their son and wanting the best for him.

The point is, the characters behave according to their natures all the way through, because I’ve chosen those natures for the roles they have to play.  To take a deeper example, in Ella Enchanted, I  made Ella spunky so that she could have a shot at overcoming the curse of obedience.

Here are two plot-based prompts:

•    Three students discover (you make up how) that their popular middle school principal is embezzling part of their school’s state funding.  The money is supposed to be used to build a new library, and he has hired a construction company that will skimp on materials.  The building won’t be safe, but the company and the principal will split the money that will be saved.  Exposing the principal isn’t easy.  They’re just kids, and he’s been principal for fifteen years.  Who are the students?  What qualities do they have that make them able to succeed?  What qualities do they have that trip them up?  Write the story.

•    Going back to fairy tales, seems to me that the characters in “Rumplestiltskin” need work.  The father boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold when she can’t.  The king says he’s going to marry her if she can, execute her if she can’t.  The daughter does little more than wring her hands.  Rumplestiltskin wants the child and then gives the queen an extra chance to keep him.  Who are these characters?  Explain why they behave as they do.  Flesh them out in a story without changing the outcome (unless you decide to).

I loved the discussion that followed the last post.  If you want to share thoughts, please do.  But first write, so you don’t lose the writing energy.  Have fun and save what you write!