Vexing complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturally, the prompts come from the post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plot dilemmas and a villain

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are four prompts:

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lost in Story Land

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

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

This generated a big response.

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plot skimming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• consequences of  the disappearance

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

• overcoming the creature that guards the oracle

• posing a question to the oracle

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

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

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

• trying again with the castle, and this time succeeding

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

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

• the capture of Peter by the magician

• the storming of the fortress

• the final battle between the magician and Lara

• recovery of the scale and Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Enough to go on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prompts today are in the post:

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Thinking It Out

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

Plot luck

Alexis wrote on December 2nd, I love writing, but I usually just write with very little in mind, typing whatever comes to me and it ends up this elongated mess with no clear plot and I haven’t the slightest idea on how to do so without constantly worrying about it. When I deliberately set out to make a plot, I think of that chart I get in middle school, where I had to define the rising action and the climax and the falling action and so on. This just seems to take all the fun and creativity out of writing for me, but I know I just can’t write blindly. Can you please help me?

Not all stories have a crisis. Some books are a chronicle, held together by the charm of the characters or the fascination of the subject. Joan Abelove’s Go and Come Back is narrated by a girl in a Peruvian tribe that is visited by two American anthropologists. The story begins with the arrival of the anthropologists and ends a year later with their departure. Many things happen during their stay. One of the anthropologists gets very sick, for example, but her illness isn’t the story’s crisis, because there is no crisis, and yet the book is engaging and hard to put down. I recommend it highly, one of my favorites, and an example of how this kind of story can succeed. For middle school kids and older.

I think I’ve written before that a book or a story can be structured around an event, like summer camp or a wilderness adventure. In such a story, this happens, that happens; maybe there’s a crisis, maybe not. But there’s an accretion of experience. The main character comes away changed, and the reader is satisfied.

Some books are short stories strung together by common characters. Some of the stories may follow a rising-action-crisis-falling-action format and some may not. The reader gets attached to the characters and wants to see them in new situations, wants minor characters in one story to star in another. This works too.

My books are plot driven more than character driven, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lost in a maze. A while back, in misguided desperation, I bought two books on plot, thinking I might discover a template that would guide me through all my stories. One of the books has this subtitle: “How to build short stories and novels that don’t sag, fizzle, or trail off in scraps of frustrated revision–and how to rescue stories that do.”

!!!!

Nobody can instruct you so that you – or I – can’t fail. Nobody can do the work for you. I don’t remember this as a bad book. It just promised much too much. We all have to hack our own way through the thicket of plot. We learn by practice.

Now here’s a writing book I definitely do like: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I’m not sure about it for kids below high school age. Have a parent or a librarian advise you. What If? has a few chapters on plot and some interesting exercises.

One of its ideas is that plot arises out of character and situation. For example, in “The Little Engine That Could” the little engine faces a huge hill and a string of train cars that have to reach their destination. In the classic, the engine is plucky, determined, and all heart. But what if the engine’s favorite conductor just lost her job, and the engine is ticked off? Or what if it’s winter, and the engine is depressed due to Seasonal Affective Disorder? Where does the plot go? Can you get it back on track (pun intended)? Do you bring in other characters?

Even if you’re a rambling kind of writer, a bit of tension is necessary, whether or not your story comes to a crisis. Think about what interested you originally. What was the spark? Suppose you began with two friends going shopping together, and you wanted to show what they’re like by the way they shop, because you’ve observed yourself shopping and your friends and your family. Or suppose they’re just out for a walk… Or suppose they’re in a field, and they’re both bored. All they’re doing is watching grass grow.

You don’t have to make the earth crack open, revealing a golden stairway to the realm of a lost civilization, for your story to take off. You can put it in flight with the tiniest thing. You can just have one character ask the other, “What are you thinking?” and begin major conflict. After all, how many times have you had thoughts that you do not want to share?

If you feel your story degrading into mush, examine what you’ve got. This means going back into the narrative. Hunt for spots where you can make trouble. You don’t need a grand plan. Just look inside what you’ve written. Twist something small. Drop in a tiny new detail. Make a character angry or unhappy or lonely. Anger can work particularly well because it’s lively. Create a problem in which action is forced on one of your characters. Bring in a new character who will shake things up. You can write notes to explore the possibilities. If you get stuck, go back to your old story for more bits you can use.

Here are two prompts from this post:

Rewrite the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” Make it more complex by changing the engine’s character or its situation.

Have one character ask another about his or her thoughts. Create some kind of disaster – interpersonal or global or intergalactic – as a consequence.

Save what you write and have fun!