On August 14, 2021, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you decide when you’ve got two different routes that your story can take? Maybe you’ve written your list and you’ve got a couple of brilliant ideas, but they don’t work well together. Or maybe it’s an either-or question: should I kill this character or not? Should I combine these characters or not? Like, both options are valid and would make a decent story.

If it makes a difference, right now I’m trying to decide whether to add (gender swapped) Beauty’s father into the plot in the beginning or combine him with “Beauty”‘s army commander. The Beast part is pretty clear in my rough draft, but the father part needs work.

A back-and-forth ensued.

Melissa Mead: What would the father contribute to the story that no one else can?

Christie V Powell: Mainly it’s the connection to the fairy tale. Right now, I’m trying out combining him with the commander, who has a more important role. It changes “Beauty”s motivation a bit, but it also raises the stakes, so I’m hoping it will work.

Melissa Mead: Well, if the Disney version could leave out Belle’s sisters, I’d say you can be flexible.

I chimed in.  

Gail Carson Levine: Do you know the ending? Are you in the outlining stage?

Christie V Powell: I have a loose outline and a really messy rough draft, and now I’m trying to make it more presentable. So I know the basic building blocks, including the ending, but there are still details I haven’t figured out yet.

Gail Carson Levine: I’ve added your question to my list. Your approach is so much more logical than mine, I don’t know how much help I’ll be, but I’ll take a stab. By the time the question comes up, you can tell us what you wound up doing and how you approached it!

Since Christie V Powell asked the question eleven months ago, I looked on her Amazon page to see if I could see if a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling was there, but I couldn’t find it. What I did find, among many titles, was The Great Pasta Rhyme-Off by James G. Powell written either by her son or a very accomplished professor of limerickology, judging by the sample Amazon provides.

Seriously, Christie V Powell, I was charmed—and mighty pleased to see a photo of you doling out said pasta!

Anyway, please let us know if you finished the book and what you wound up doing.

When the question is simply whether to have two characters or one—a father and a commander, or the father is also the commander—I would go with option two.  Generally, I believe in character consolidation; one character is better than two. The reader doesn’t have to take another one on board when there may already be many.

But there are exceptions, like if the single character has to be in two places at once. Or we may want two to bring out different aspects of character. I’m not a fan of the father in the original fairy tale because he dumps the choice of which of them—he or Beauty—should be sacrificed to the Beast. The Beast hasn’t said he’d eat her, but her longevity doesn’t look good if she’s his captive. I don’t know what Christie V Powell has in mind, but indecisiveness doesn’t seem a likely personality trait for a commander.

When my story reaches a crossroad—or whenever I have to make almost any story decision—I write notes, which is one reason I’m such a slow writer. I ask, What if it goes this way? I write possibilities, lots of them if the idea is promising. That way? Different possibilities. Sometimes I reach a dead end quickly, which tells me to go another way.

What I’m looking for are surprises and enthusiasm (my own). It’s a good sign if a follow-on idea is unexpected. I’m convinced, and I set off—

Which doesn’t mean I won’t run into trouble later on. Since I’m mostly a pantser, I don’t anticipate trouble very well. Trouble occasions more notes, but I rarely reverse my earlier choice.

Let’s take a stab at our own gender-reversed B&B, in which we’ll give our MC the boy’s name Beau. He’s bookish and loves novels of manners and poets who write in rhymed couplets. If one of his books weighs more than five pounds, he staggers carrying it to his favorite chair by the fireplace. When his father comes home with his terrible news, Beau rises to the occasion, though he almost drops his mug of hot chocolate in the effort of standing up. Huzzah! Maybe an adventure will lead him to a new interest in swashbuckling stories! “I’ll go, Father.” He smiles bravely and gulps.

Say we go with one character for Beau’s father and the commander, who is in charge of the defense of the kingdom’s capital. When the Beast, an enormous lioness, offers him the choice of his own death or sacrificing his son, he thinks he could bump off the creature himself just by pulling the chandelier down on her, but he wants Beau to toughen up, and here’s the chance he’s been waiting for. This father isn’t indecisive at all! “Take my son,” he says. “You’ll love him.” Heh heh heh.

Now, say the father is just the father. By trade, he’s a merchant. The cargo he traded in before he became impoverished was rare books about botany. He and Beau are twigs on the same delicate tree. When the Beast offers him a chance to live, he grabs it instantly, in a grip that’s barely strong enough to squeeze a kitchen sponge.

But he loves his son. When a month passes and Beau doesn’t return or send word, he visits the commander, who is happy to take on the rescue.

At this point in my thinking, the father seems like dead (but light) weight. If the commander takes over we don’t need the father in the first place unless he has something to do later in our plot.

At this point I’d wonder what that might be. I’d think about how my story is going so far. What’s happening with Beau and the Beast? Is Beau accruing any swashbuckling skills? Probably not. Is he finding ways to sabotage the Beast or to make his captivity bearable? Is the Beast in love with him? Or is she disappointed and getting hungry?

How can the father worsen Beau’s situation or improve it? As usual, I’d make a list.

I don’t know how it would come out, but that would be my approach.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write the list to determine Beau’s father’s story fate. Depending on what you decide, write the story.
  • Write your own gender-switched fairy tale.
  • Write “Beauty and the Beast” from the father’s POV.

Have fun and save what you write!

Spy Thrilling

On July 19, 2021, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice about how to nail down what you want the plot of your story to be? I’ve been wanting to write a Spy Thriller for a really long time, (since about November 2019). I started the first draft for NaNoWriMo, but gave up and moved onto different projects (as evidence in this post). Recently, I had another idea for one, which would take place in the same world and country but involve a different main character and take place a few years before the one I started in 2019. However, I’m having a lot of issues deciding what I actually want to happen. I really like espionage, fun action scenes, secrets, dark pasts, many things that are staples of the genre. But every time I try to say “This is who my main character is, this is her main motivation…” It all feels wrong. I’ve tried making lists but I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Christie V Powell wrote back, You might try Brandon Sanderson’s method. He starts by writing down a couple of the goals for the plots and subplots that he wants (character A learns to trust, the villain is defeated, this element of the magic world is discovered…). Then he writes down what steps would be needed to reach each one (so, for “learns to trust,” he might list character A mistrusted someone but was wrong, A is taught a lesson by someone, A likes someone but is held back by her mistrust…). Then, as he writes, he looks at his lists and tries out what comes next. You might try that with your list (espionage can be what secret your character has to discover, the action scenes can be how to bring down the villain, etc.).

I actually don’t do lists right. I usually only get to item three or four, and then my brain latches on to one and decides that This Is The Way. Sometimes I can get a few more on the list by building off of the previous ideas instead of coming up with new ones–for example, if idea #3 is “Perrin meets two mages,” then idea #4 might be “Perrin meets two mages who help heal his friend” or “the two mages have ulterior motives.” I think I would get overwhelmed by possibilities too if I forced myself to keep listing all brand new things. Maybe you could try out building on old ideas instead of coming up with new ones?

When I’m coming up with a new story idea, I start by scribbling down some of the things that I’d like to include. Then I use those ideas to fill out a “beat sheet”, moving them around from spot to spot and filling in new things until it feels right. I wrote a blog post about the story structure/beat sheet I use, if you’re interested:


I’ve made no secret about having a hard time with plotting, even though plot interests me more than anything else. My plot handicap is why I lean so hard on fairytales and myths and, lately, history, which help me not only with my story shape but also with unexpected tidbits that suggest plot directions. Providentially, I’m right now figuring out the plot of my murder mystery that takes place in thirteenth century England and I can give you an example from recent reading:

Fact #1: The murdered woman, who is historical, had a powerful and influential son.

Fact #2: The son lived in a different city from hers.

Fact #3: Little was done to find her killer.

Fact #4: It was easy to escape from jail and hide out in dense forest.

Fact #5: The prime suspect did escape and fled.

Fact #6: Travel, unsurprisingly, was dangerous. (Think bands of evil Robin Hoods.)

I haven’t written anything yet, but my plot as I had imagined it before my most recent research was a bit too straightforward. Now, though I’ll have to find out more, I hope to make my two MCs travel through this scary countryside to reach the powerful and influential son. Without research, I wouldn’t have thought of this promising plot twist.

Out of curiosity, I googled “real-life spies” and found lots of entries. One of them was this:, though it may not be the most useful. We can click on a few and noodle around the websites, jotting down discoveries that interest us. In the Wikipedia list, we can click on some spies and read about them. We can sample spies in different eras and see what changes.

In this stage, we can think of ourselves as tourists, lingering here, sampling this war or that crisis, this country or that one. It’s important not to worry. We’re picking flower buds of possibilities. If we’re relaxed about it, the flower buds will drift around. In the backs of our minds, some will make patterns, break apart, and reform. This sounds fanciful, but our creative selves need space where desperation is not allowed.

Later, when we arrange them in our story bouquet, we can figure out where they go. Some may reveal themselves as weeds. Some may bloom with surprising colors and vivid perfumes.

The process is likely to continue as we write. We’re stuck in Chapter Six until we remember a particular factoid we read about a spy in the Franco-Prussian War and a different one from the Cold War. (I’m assuming this will be a fantasy spy thriller since Kit Kat Kitty mentioned the “world” of her story. If we’re writing strictly historical fiction, we’ll have to be more rigorous, and we won’t be able to hop around in time much, but we’ll still need our relaxed tourist experience.)

As we do our time travel, we can speculate in a writerly way. What kind of person did this particular spy have to be to accomplish what she did? There may be several possibilities, which we can list. What might have stood in her way? What stood in the way of a different spy that we looked at that we can plug in? I’m thinking not only of personality but also of physicality. For example, did she have asthma before there were inhalers? Does she have any identifying features? For instance, I would have a hard time getting through a dragnet because of my height.

I love to look at online images, although, usually, after the first four or so, they tend to switch to other people. I don’t care much if I’m not writing real historical fiction. What kind of person would wear this expression? What might have happened to this one to cause those frown lines?

When we’re ready—we can even declare a set time period for our touring, say a month—we can write notes about what we’ve learned. Still in relaxed mode, we can speculate about how we can use it. Gradually, our story is likely to take shape.

I don’t mean it’s easy. This is the part I dislike most. But this is the best way I’ve found to get through it.

The great thing about historical research over spy novels and movies is that we don’t have to worry about infringing on anyone else’s creation. History happened. No one told President Truman, for instance, to make up his mind to drop the atomic bombs because the war’s historical moment was taking too long to conclude and the pacing was faltering.

We do, of course, have to be aware of copyright in nonfiction biographies and history books. The authors of these books shape their presentation of facts and people. If we discover something important to our story, we probably want to find more than one source for it. This is one reason I love Wikipedia, because it’s open source, and we can use whatever we like.

Here are three prompts:

  • In medieval England, the punishment for most crimes—really!—was execution. Your MC has been falsely accused of theft and convicted, but she’s escaped from prison in the tower of the local lord’s castle. She’s following a narrow track through the woods on the outskirts of town when a large person drops down from a tree onto the path ahead of her. Write what happens. If you like, keep going and write the story.
  • Your MC is an executive at a manufacturer of teakettles where the factory workers are trying to form a union and the owner is using aggressive tactics to stop them. Secretly, your MC sympathizes with the laborers and wants to help them even though the repercussions will be severe if he’s caught. Write the story.
  • In this world, a small percentage of the population has the power to time travel. An even smaller bunch has formed a cabal to return to the past, where (when?) they plan to install their leader as prime minister. His policies will be disastrous for everyone except the members of his cabal. Your MC has infiltrated the group and is determined to make them fail. The problem is that she also shapeshifts. The shifts are set off by time travel, and she never knows what form she’ll have taken when she arrives. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

The PP

On October 19, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I was wondering what everyone’s plotting process is like? (For those of us that plot, of course.) I know I’m a plotter (pantsing has never worked out for me), but I haven’t quite figured out my plotting method, and I figured it might help to find out how everyone else does it and test out some different methods.

Christie V Powell wrote back, I say this a lot, but I use KM Weiland’s system, which she describes on her blog helpingwritersbecomeauthors. I write down the basic steps that I want, and then use it as an outline. Here’s the brief overview I have (hopefully, my abbreviated version makes sense).

Act 1.A: Set up characters, motivations, world rules, Stakes, potential to win

Hook- inciting question

Characteristic moment: introduce Main Character (MC)

Ends with Inciting Incident: story is set in motion

Act 1.B: Normal World

Ends with First Major Plot Point- MC commits to act

Act 2.A:

Reaction: MC scrambles to understand obstacles, gains skills and weapons

MC punished for Lie, moves closer to Want but further from Need

Ends in First Pinch Point: Reminder of BG, MC gains new clues

Act 2.B:

Ends at Midpoint: MC discovers the Truth, moves to proactive

Act 2.C:

Reactive: MC’s reactions more informed, caught between Truth and Lie.

Truth is blatantly stated.

Ends with Second Pinch Point: Reminds MC of Stakes

Act 2.D:

False Victory: MC renews attack on BG, seems to win

Ends in Third Plot Point: Low point, forces to confront the Lie, MC chooses Need over Want, death is often symbolized or used outright.

Act 3.A:

Assembles characters/props, Fulfills foreshadowing.

Ends with Trigger: Up stakes, MC demonstrates change, caught between Truth and Lie. Subplots tied off.

Act 3.B

Climax: Confrontation between MC and BG. Lie vanquished.

Climactic Moment: conflict resolved.

Resolution: Tie off loose ends, show change, give preview of new life

I’ve seen several similar systems. Save the Cat (and Save the Cat Writes a Novel) is a popular one. Story Genius by Lisa Cron is another.

A year later (today—10/4/21), I asked Christie V Powell to define BG, and she wrote this: I used “BG” to stand for “bad guy” (the antagonist).

I don’t know if this would help or just be overwhelming, but I did just write a new blog post that went into depth about my plotting method. It’ll have more information, and hopefully spell things out a little better:

I’m sure Christie V Powell’s method gives a writer security, which I’d love to have, but I’m part pantser, and we live on the edge. I hope my stories have rising action and a climax and falling action, but I don’t think about those things, or I haven’t so far.

I start with notes in which I jot down my thoughts about a possible story. Sometimes, just thinking brings me to find a knot I can’t untangle, or can’t untangle yet, so I drop the idea into a deep hole in my mind, where I hope it will simmer and untie itself (can take years). Many of my notes are questions, which I may answer or leave open.

I write lists of possibilities for what may happen. Always, I search for an ending, because I can’t start unless I have imagined the finish, which is where I part company with complete pantsers. I was a complete pantser until I got tired of getting horribly lost in book after book. So this is one strategy: We can think about how we want our story to resolve itself.

In my notes, I often write about what my story looks like if I shape it as a quest based on either what my MC wants or needs or what terrible circumstance she’s landed in. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is a great example. I had intended to write a novelization of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but there were mysteries baked into the fairy tale that I couldn’t figure out, like why the dancing princes were enchanted. From somewhere along the way of attempting to write the story, I introduced a terrible disease. Eventually—it didn’t happen instantly—I realized that a quest for its cure could be the heart of the story, which would be an original fairy tale, and I was able to write it.

Most or maybe all of my fiction can be expressed as a quest. My historical novel Dave at Night is a quest for a home. Fairest is Aza’s quest for relief from her own dislike of her looks. Ogre Enchanted, like Ella Enchanted, is a quest for spell release. Sometimes, I don’t see the quest until I finished writing. But we can be more intentional about our quest for a quest. That’s another strategy: Express our plot as a quest and see if that helps it take shape.

Once we see the goal, we think about the impediments (like BGs) we can put in the way for our MC, and we can also decide what can help her. I bet you (not me) can use this quest structure to set up your rising actions, climaxes, and falling actions.

We can write a one-page summary of our story as we envision it. If it were a fairy tale, we can ask ourselves, how would it go? (We don’t need to be writing fantasy to do this. We’re just going for a story shape.)

Lately, I write an actual outline, a short one, recording events I want to make happen. I just looked at my outline for Ogre Enchanted, which can be called an outline, really, only by a partial pantser. It’s full of questions that often aren’t answered. Once I started writing the book, I mostly forgot about the outline.

That’s another strategy. We can write a short outline reflecting how, at that moment, we want our story to go, but we don’t have to attach ourselves to it with leg irons. Pure outliners, I think, change course too, but they fix the outline along with the story, so they can see how the shift affects everything that’s to come. I rarely do that. Once I start writing, I follow my characters and what they do. Still, a corner of my brain is keeping an eye on the plot and remembering where I want to go.

Character is super important to me, but plot has primacy. I’m a plot driven, rather than a character-driven writer. Alas, plot is harder for me than character is, which is why I like to use ancient stories—like fairy tale, myth, or history—as frameworks I can hang my plot on. Many writers do this, including Shakespeare!

Suppose we want to write a love story, well, we have a trove of fairy tales at our disposal. Or say we want to write about poverty, we can use “Hansel and Gretel.” If we want to bring to life the end of a civilization, we can read up on the fall of Rome in history or Troy in mythology. For self-deception, there’s always “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

I’m hoping that my next novel will be a historical murder mystery about the death of a Jewish moneylender in 13th century England. I’ve just started my research, and the conditions for Jews rich or poor back then were difficult and precarious. The question that I’m asking myself is: What can I balance the sadness with—what hope? what happiness?—that will make this work as a book for kids? The question is an early step in my plotting process—as an example of how I do it.

Here are four prompts. You may have seen them coming:

  • Use “Hansel and Gretel” as the basis for a contemporary story about a mother and father with two kids to support in grinding poverty and the choices they make. Who will the gingerbread witch be? Write the story.
  • Write a love story about a selkie and a human. Decide whether or not it’s a tragedy.
  • Do a little or a lot of research as the basis of a story about the downfall of a civilization. Write the story.
  • Write a story about self-deception based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Have fun, and save what you write!

Burrowing Into the Blur

Before I start, the countdown is on to the release of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, on May 12th, six days away!

On December 5, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote: How do you write past the beginning? The farthest I’ve ever gotten in a novel was 15707 words. (Yes, I failed NaNoWriMo. After a little I hated my story so much, I had a hard time looking at it.) Once I’m done with the beginning, I tend to get stuck. Every time I think about it, I can only imagine the climax/falling action/ending. Everything between the Inciting Incident and climax is a blurry haze of no ideas and wanting to slam my head against a wall.

A few of you weighed in.

Writing Ballerina: There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically. Write whatever part excites you. Then you can go back later. Writing the climax and ending might actually make it easier for you to know where you’re going. It also might help for you to plan that part you get stuck very in depth so you always have a place to go. And if you’re having a really slow day, you can throw in some silly things like sea monsters nibbling apples, or a random cat into your scene to get things moving. I did this a couple times during Nano.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is really helpful! (I love cats, and when I was younger they were in my stories all the time.) But I think my big problem is I’m not really sure what’s supposed to go in the “rising action” place. (I don’t know what else to call it, I’m going based off of what my English class has taught me.) I think if I could figure out how to write something interesting that moves the plot forward without being so crazy and over the top it doesn’t make sense.

Writing Ballerina says: Plot is driven by tension more than action, so focus on events that will build the tension of the story. I really recommend the book Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He has lots of great tips on how to build tension, write plot twists, and a bunch of other stuff. You can probably get the book on your library, or even google excerpts.

Melissa Mead: I learned by writing short stories first. They give me experience with writing stories all the way through.

future_famous_author: You could skip the beginning, or you could just keep exciting things happening the whole time to keep you–and the reader–excited. My current WIP is about a princess, and she is eventually going to get captured, but I have to wait until I have about twice as many words as I have now to get to that part. So, while I wait, I try to keep the tension high. And, when there is a boring conversation, I try to throw in important information, or maybe even foreshadowing, so that it isn’t boring. Just because you haven’t reached the climax does not mean that there can’t be problems. My MC’s biggest problem will end up being that she gets kidnapped, but for now, there’s an awkward love triangle going on, and so she has to deal with that.

These are terrific!

Before sheltering in place and after, I hope, I work out with a trainer named Tony, which makes me a very strong old lady. When I tell Tony something like, “I’m worried I’ll drop this fifty-three pound kettlebell on my toe,” he always answers in all caps, “DON’T DROP THE KETTLEBELL ON YOUR TOE.” So, with Tony in mind, I say to Kit Kat Kitty, “DON’T SLAM YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL.” !!!

Writing Ballerina’s first comment–about writing out of order and writing scenes that excite us–is along the lines of what I said in the most recent post. Likewise, my ideas about being stuck, so Kit Kat Kitty and others may be helped by rereading that.

Before we progress beyond our beginning, let’s talk about beginnings themselves and take a look at one of the most famous first lines ever, by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. What does this beginning do, in addition to making us smile?

Well, even though it’s lighthearted and ironic, it lets the reader know that the book is going to tackle something big–love and matrimony. There will be the two sweethearts and all the circumstances that separate them, which will have to involve other characters, probably friends and family, and a milieu in which they move.

Here is a sampling of first lines I found in a Google search. I’ve read all but the book by Anne Tyler (but I’ve read others by her), and they’re all, except, I think, for The Red Badge of Courage, best for high school and up.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

(An aside about copyright: Most of these books aren’t in the public domain, but quoting such a small bit is okay, covered by something called the Fair Use doctrine.)

I want to be clear here: I don’t mean we should agonize over our first sentence. A big deal is often made about the need to have a knockout first sentence or first page for queries or agents. I hope that’s not true, and I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how to think about our beginnings so that they set us up to move into the rest of our story.

Each of these first sentences suggests big things to come, maybe thorny problems or complex worlds or complicated characters, or all of the above. We can look at the beginning we have, that we’re feeling hopeless about, and ask what we’ve suggested in it. We know the end, but what else did we put in the beginning that we can use, that hasn’t occurred to us before? We can write notes, ask questions, make lists. Who are the characters? What can we do with them in the course of our story? How can we use the world we’ve hinted at? What do we have that will make our ending richer when we get there?

I’m with future_famous_author on developing exciting scenes to get us from dot to dot along our storyline. We can ask, What will be very hard for our MC? Is there a hint of this in our beginning? (If not, we can add.) Who will put her in this tough situation? How can we bring it about? Will she learn something, or fail to learn?

I like the rule of three, which I’ve talked about here. It’s used repeatedly in fairy tales. The evil stepmother in “Snow White” tries three times to do in Snow White and seems to succeed only on the third attempt. Cinderella goes to three balls. The wolf blows down two houses before he comes to the third, the brick house. We can consider how we can bring three tries at something into our story.

Each try can be fleshed out. At each of Prince Charming’s balls, events happen; characters behave characteristically; feelings may be hurt; unforgettable things may be said. What’s wrapped up in each ball can fuel the rest of our story. The evil queen may spend days figuring out her next ploy, while Snow White compulsively replays the last one in her mind, and the dwarfs whisper among themselves about how best to protect her.

Since I find plotting so hard, I like to have something external I can follow, one reason I use fairy tales, which provide steps to get me where I need eventually to go. I elaborate on the steps and turn each one into dozens of pages or more. Right now, I’m writing a version of the Trojan War. I start with the moment when Apollo gives Cassandra the gift of prophecy but curses the gift so that no one believes her. The story runs through the incidents that lead to war, the war itself, and ends soon after the Trojan horse deception. Those steps are laid out in Greek mythology, so my job is to drape my own, new story over them. This is another strategy for finding our way from our dynamite beginning to our great ending.

Here are three prompts:

• Take one of the famous beginnings above, preferably from a book you haven’t read, and use it as a starter for your own story. You can copy it right into your first draft and then insert something else or cut it when you revise. Or–you’d need to check on this–you can keep it and acknowledge the source in a note or an Afterword. Think about the problems the beginning hints at. Write notes and lists about how you can use them. Imagine an ending and write your story.

• Look at headlines in a newspaper, in print or online. Do not read the articles that follow, at least not yet. Pick one and make it the beginning of your story. Think about the issues it raises and the characters you’ll need. Imagine an ending. Jot down three or more events that will get you to the end. Write the story.

• Imagine the three little pigs are three human sisters orphaned in a kingdom after their parents, the duke and duchess of Mewks, have died. These young women are rich and they don’t get along, so they each set up a separate establishment. But they’re all threatened (you decide how) by the evil Baron Spythe. Write a story about the choices they make and how they all come together in the end to defeat the mustache-twirling Spythe. (You don’t have to give him a mustache!)

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Plots Beneath the Plot

Kudos and congrats to all of you who ran the NaNoWriMo course! Yay! Please let us know about your victory.

And if any questions came up in the process, please ask.

Actually, I’m pretty desperate for questions. Somehow, my list is almost dry. The kind of questions that get my blog-post mind going are ones related to the big writing issues: character, plot, setting, tension–you know. I’d also welcome some craft questions, too, like about flow or sentences. Also publishing questions, which I don’t generally get into much, like working with an editor or an agent. And poetry!

On September 20, 2019, Erica wrote, Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. Any tips there?

Melissa Mead wrote back, I could use some tips on subplots myself.

Pretend the commas are money, and spend them as effectively as you can.

Back to Erica: Good idea! I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either.

Subplots first.

Erica, you might try–like the combining-two-sentences exercises–combining two of your short stories, which we can all use as a strategy and which will probably involve changes to both stories, especially to the characters. We’ll ask ourselves if our MC in one story can become a secondary character in another, if the plot lines can work together, and if the conflict is similar or can be made to be.

What’s a subplot anyway? I’d say it’s a little story that has its own conclusion while helping the main plot along to its bigger resolution.

Let’s look at some examples. With Wikipedia’s help, I just refreshed my memory about the movie Back to the Future (the first one). The main plot concerns Marty’s need to get back to his present time. The two subplots that jumped out at me were ensuring the success of the romance between his parents and keeping Doc from dying years later.

Both of these involve secondary characters: a younger Doc, and Marty’s parents when they were in high school. I won’t give away the resolution of Doc’s problem, but Marty’s parents have to fall in love or Marty won’t ever exist. Each one contributes to the ending of the movie.

Now let’s look at LOTR, which is loaded with subplots. The main plot centers around Frodo taking the ring to Mordor and saving the world. One subplot involves Aragorn becoming king. Another is Gandalf’s capture by Saruman. Yet another is Boromir’s tragedy. Each of these involves a secondary character. Except for Boromir’s subplot, they also take place away from Frodo, so a subplot can have a different setting from the main event. And they all contribute to Frodo’s quest.

A subplot can be separate in time as well as place. For instance, say there’s going to be a war, and our MC is going to lead one side, we could introduce subplots that take place even before our MC is born. But these subplots set up the conditions our MC faces.

To create our subplots, we can ask ourselves what our secondary characters want, just as we ask what our MC wants. Then we can give them desires that dovetail with our MC’s situation, by supporting or undermining it.

A great example of undermining comes in–you guessed it–Pride and Prejudice. I see three subplots here: Jane’s romance with Bingley, Charlotte Lucas’s urgent need to be married, and Lydia’s flirtation with Wickham. Lydia’s mess, a genuine subplot, causes the crisis that leads to the resolution of the main plot. If you haven’t read P&P, I haven’t given much away.

After we give our secondary characters desires, the next step is to develop incidents to bring the subplot to life. In P&P, Lydia’s subplot comes to fruition when she goes to Brighton, which the reader learns about through reports by other characters. At Bingley’s ball, which is important for Jane’s story, Elizabeth deals with happenings of her own.

To summarize:

∙ We can combine stories, subordinating one to another, to produce a subplot or more than one.

∙ Subplots can take place at different places or times from the main plot.

∙ Story arcs for secondary characters will produce subplots.

∙ Subplots need action and resolution, just like the main plot.

∙ Our subplots will intersect with the main plot, helping or hindering our MC from achieving her goals.

Onto commas and sentences.

Just saying, sentences with commas don’t have to be long: He ate, and she watched. Or, He ate, but she watched. These are two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Five words. He ate is an independent clause, and so is she watched. Also, a list can produce a lot of commas, but the sentence can still be simple, as in: She ate a can of cranberry sauce, half a turkey, a mound of stuffing, a ladle of gravy, a big blob of mashed sweet potatoes, two brussel sprouts, one bite of salad, a quarter of a pumpkin pie, a wedge of apple crisp, and a handful of Tums. It’s all coming back to me.

On the subject of commas, I accuse Erica of being a comma-sentence-length hypochondriac. Let’s look again at her question and her response to Melissa Mead, with my notations:

Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? (No commas. Short sentence.) I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. (Four commas. Long sentence.) Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. (Three commas. Medium length.) Any tips there? (No commas. Short sentence.)

No run-on sentences.


Good idea! (No commas. Short sentence.) I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. (No commas. Longish sentence.) I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either. (One comma. Medium length sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

There’s sentence variety in the sample. Most sentences begin differently. I see two questions and an exclamation. I conclude that the patient is  healthy. Unless Erica writes differently in her fiction, I don’t see a problem.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC and four other characters are traveling together–by train, spaceship, medieval caravan, horse, whatever. They’re all on a mission to warn their king or queen or democratically elected representative or benevolent dictator of a plot against the country’s independence. Their route is fraught with danger. Each of them has personal goals as well as the main mission. One wants to keep them from reaching their destination. Two fall in love. One is hiding an illness. Use these to create subplots. Write the story.

∙ At random, pick a few paragraphs from your WIP. Analyze them the way I just did. If a lot of sentences are short, combine them, not just by putting them together with and in between. Create dependent clauses. If too many start the same way, say with the or I, recast them. If many are long, cut them up. If many begin the same way, rearrange them. If the verb keeps being was or is, rewrite the sentence so that the verbs are more active.

∙ Mash together “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Pick one to be the main story and the others to be subplots. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I just noticed that all three involve heights. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The best-laid plans of mice and writers

Just want to mention before I start how much better and better the help keeps getting that writers have been offering one another here. Such a pleasure for me to read. Kudos to you all!

This is a continuation of the last post. Here’s a rerun of the question: On May 18, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, I cannot finish anything I start writing. I know lots of people have asked about this and many many authors have made blog posts and books written from both sides of the plotter/pantser perspective, but my trouble is that I am neither. I am smack dab in the middle, and I cannot seem to get out.

See, in one way I’m a plotter. I can’t write if I don’t know very well where I’m going. (Kind of like my dad on a trip. If he doesn’t have a very, very good idea where he’s going, he won’t go–unlike my mum who doesn’t mind wandering around a bit.) I need to know my destination and how to get there, or I cannot start out.

On the other hand, I find plotting tedious. I will plot out my story until I hate it so much I would rather take a weed whacker to it than a pen. I may write for a while, but the loathing intensifies until I sometimes literally hurl the manuscript at the wall. I then crumple it into an envelope and leave it to molder in my closet for years. Sometimes I’ll pull it out (not often) and take a peek, and then get excited about it and write on it for a little while, but then I get drained all over again, and try instead to work on a less taxing story.

This has been going on for roughly six and a half years, and it just gets worse over time. I have about three hundred loose stories, all at various stages of completion, (I even have a whole first draft! But it is so hideous it turns my stomach to even look at it) floating around in the abyss of my closet.

Does anyone have any tips for how to write a story without knowing the plot in advance or how to outline a story without becoming desperately bored?

What followed was an exchange with Christie Valentine Powell, which I didn’t post last time. Here it is now:

Christie Valentine Powell: Does it need to be a specific outline? Many “plotters” I’ve talked to have a rough idea, maybe up to a page, of where things are going, but not a precise blow-by-blow description. I’ll have the story broken down into big sections, but without a ton of detail. That way I know where I’m going but I’ve still got room to play (like giving yourself extra time on the vacation for exploring new places).

Another thought: I’ve heard of the Snowflake method, a type of plotting that works for some people. You might give it a try.

Lady Laisa: I don’t know if I’ve tried your way yet. I have tried a very vague outline, just two or three paragraphs to explain the basic “shell” of the story, if you will, but that wasn’t enough detail. I didn’t know what my character’s short term goals were when I did that, and goals are, I’ve found to my dismay, a VERY big part of a character. I just have a really, REALLY hard time figuring goals out (if anyone has anything to say about character goals I would like very much to hear it).

So when you say that you have your story broken down into sections what do you mean? Like “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Final Solution” sort of thing? I’ve never really tried that, but I could see how it might work.

I do like having elbow room to give some room to spontaneity. Tolkien himself had no idea that Strider, when he wrote him into the scene at the Prancing Pony, would end up being such a pivotal character.

But if I have too much elbow room the plotless expanse stretches before me like an open prairie, and I feel like a rabbit trying to reach his warren and knowing full well that at any moment a hawk might swoop from the sky to devour him.

Christie Valentine Powell: I have somewhere between five and ten sections. The book I just finished (er… mostly) is a quest, so it included different geographical regions. The next one I’ve outlined are more story-related (something like this: Exciting Opening, World Building, Character Building, Betrayal, MC character growth, Exciting Climax, Resolution). I’ll have a few bullet points under each of things I think I should cover. When I’m writing and getting closer, sometimes I’ll stop and plot out the next section more clearly–either on paper or in my head: “Okay, this is the Hanan region section. I’m going to start with the characters sneaking into the city, then they’ll meet some humans who tell them how to find the heir. How can I do that in an interesting way?”

With goals, I think it might depend on your story type. For my quest story, it was pretty easy. For most of the book, the driving goal is trying to find the true heir (although the very beginning and very end have different ones). For my first book it was harder and changed more, and I feel like it’s not quite as good because of it. I imagine a more realistic or character-driven story would be less cut-and-dry–which honestly is one reason I haven’t been able to write that kind of story.

Trying to outline is tedious for me, too. In fact, I just googled the snowflake method that Christie Valentine Powell mentioned, and I got so bored reading about it that I fled the site before finishing. However, the method may work for you, so check it out. When I outline, I always long to start writing scenes. I have a short outline for the novel I’m working on now, but I rarely look at it and rarely change it based on what’s happened in the writing.

I do often use fairy tales as the taking-off point of my plot, and they help me find my direction. Usually, it’s the flaws in the tale that shape my story. In the original “Cinderella,” for example, the eponymous heroine is passive; evil is done to her, and good is done to her. She doesn’t do much except what she’s told. So, I wonder, who is she? Why is she so obedient? Why doesn’t she strangle her step family, or at least ignore them? I get to work to figure out why. The answers shape my plot.

That’s one strategy: use a known and problematic story. Yours can be a fairy tale, too. Or a myth. Or a story in the news that seems incomplete. How was that bank chosen as the robbery target? Why that museum? Or, how did the art forger get her start? (If we’re going to do this, we probably want to invent our answers–although research can help us frame more questions.) Moments in history that seem inexplicable can generate ideas. We’re likely to find character goals when we start interrogating our story.

I agree with Christie Valentine Powell that the quest is a great plot shape for seeing one’s way through. I love when I can frame my story as a quest. But the quest sometimes needs to be set up. Ella’s quest doesn’t start until after her mother dies, because she’s protected until then. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Addie’s doesn’t start until Meryl gets sick. In The Wish, Wilma’s doesn’t start until she finds out her wish won’t last forever. However, Aza’s in Fairest is with her in the beginning, but changes later on.

Before the quest in Two Princesses gets going, Addie has different objectives, which vary from scene to scene. Then the objectives narrow when Addie tries to save her sister, but still, some scenes call forth another response. In Fairest, Aza wants to be pretty or at least not ugly. That’s her character’s goal. If she achieves that or conclusively fails to, her character arc will be resolved, or so we think. But the story has other ideas, and the solution is different.

I’m suspicious of the idea that we have to think up our characters’ goals ahead of time, before we start a book or write a scene–at least for us pantsers or partial pantsers. A few years ago, I used a car service to go to a kids’ book event. It was late at night, and the driver hit a deer, which caused a pretty big jolt. If I had been plotting the scene in advance, I would have given myself, the caring person I believe myself to be, the first objective of making sure I was okay, then the driver, the car, the deer–the important stuff. Actually, my first goal turned out to be making sure my laptop was intact (granted, it was obvious to me that I was still alive). The driver (uninjured) was impressed with how cool and unworried I was. Sure–my laptop hadn’t been damaged. Not really cool. My priorities were haywire.

The funny part is that I used the car service because I hate long distance driving, especially at night, and I realized that if I had driven I would have been miserable but I (probably) wouldn’t have totaled a car, injured or killed a deer, endangered any human or laptop–because I would have made the trip during the day, when most deer are snoozing.

When I planned out the trip, the real-life equivalent of outlining, I didn’t expect deer accidents. I didn’t pack human or vet first-aid supplies.

Let’s imagine a chase scene. Our MC is pursuing the major villain through a forest, desperate to catch him. He’s armed and more familiar with this place than she is, but she’s more fleet. She’s focused on what’s about to transpire. We, the pantser writer, are thinking along the same lines, but something pops into our head and we act on it. Birdsong penetrates our MC’s concentration–not any birdsong, the distinctive call of the elusive purple nightingale, which hasn’t been heard since her grandmother’s time. Without thinking, her feet slow.

(Either the reader already knows that in peacetime our MC is an avid bird watcher, or we jump back fifty pages to slip that info in.)

In that foot-dragging moment, her body has one objective and her brain another. We can go a lot of ways from here. She can goad herself even more and take after the villain again. She can stop to enjoy the bird, justifying the delay according to her character. The villain can hear it, too, and also be entranced. Or he can realize she’s stopped and use her slowness to his advantage. Or any other possibility we may come up with.

If I were a committed, happy outliner, I probably would have built this surprise into my outline. I would made the delightful bird discovery earlier in the process and would have had fun figuring out the repercussions.

In my opinion, pantser or outliner, the complexity of the bird improves the story, even if it complicates the goals. And we are likely to learn something about our characters from the surprise. Maybe our MC realizes how important wildlife is to her and how it needs to be part of her plan to save the kingdom. Or maybe she discovers something about her villain that will help her–or vice versa!

Regarding me and my laptop and the late-night accident, I was forced to see how intrinsic writing is to me. My work was backed up. If my laptop had been destroyed I would have lost no more than a few new pages and, possibly, some money, but I reacted as if much more had been at stake.

I hope this is good news for those of us who worry about advance planning. Whether we’re pantsers or outliners, we can’t expect total control of our stories or ourselves. We can go with the flow. I don’t know what my characters are going to do or want until I get into the moment. Something may crop up that I haven’t seen coming, and that’s what keeps the writing un-tedious.

My mantra these days seems to be Relax. Don’t sweat. No worries., which, if repeated at fifteen-minute intervals all the way through a story, may be the key to finishing. Near the beginning of the writing, when we’re either outlining or writing notes and lists (my method), or writing the first few scenes and getting to know our major characters, we can speculate about what might be a satisfying (not necessarily happy) resolution. The answer can be vague: come into herself as a leader; be loved; be safe; find the treasure; rescue somebody. We don’t have to know how the resolution can be achieved. Then we can let our subconscious work for us. While we’re writing scenes, it will keep an eye on the goal, and–I really believe this–create a path to get us there.

I don’t mean this is easy. With my Stolen Magic I had to swim upstream and downstream and start again three times for over four years. But I did get there, and I guess I did my flailing about in the spirit of exploration.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Lady Laisa asked Christie Valentine Powell about sections in rough outlining, so let’s use the first two of hers and two more of mine: “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Accommodation;” and “Part Four: The Terminus.” Use these suggestive headings as a bare-bones outline for your story.

∙ Write the above chase scene with the birdsong.

∙ Cinderella’s fairy godmother from the original tale arrives to help Cinderella go to the ball. Just as she’s about to wave her wand, have someone else come in. You decide who and write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plan or pants?

Before I start the main post, I’m re-posting part of a question capng asked in comments on the last post: I’m worried that if one of the minority characters dies, readers will read too much into it – I’ve seen enough criticism on the internet because of things like that.

Yesterday I wrote this and I don’t want it to get lost, because people have stopped checking and it’s important: I don’t think we should pay much attention to what we read online about what’s good or bad in writing. We don’t know the person who said whatever it was or what his motive was–or how good a writer he is! I don’t know any rule about killing off or not killing off minor characters. It depends, as it always does, on how it’s done and how the death fits into the plot. One of the things I adore about this blog is how positive and encouraging we all are.

On to the post.

On April 17, 2015, Hypergraphia wrote, I know, Ms. Levine, you said you didn’t outline. However, I know of many famous authors who swear by it. What about you guys (other readers of this fabulous blog)? Do you find it easier to finish a story with or without an outline? Does it make your story better? I hadn’t outlined until I read all these things saying it was much better if you did outline, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work for me, so I was just wondering what you guys thought.

Kaye M. repeated the question: I’m reading WRITER TO WRITER now, and I’m curious to hear what Mrs. Levine thinks about the benefits of pantsing over plotting. I’ve always outlined because I have friends that outline religiously, but sometimes, especially if it’s raw in my head and not a revision, I feel like I’m bleeding out my enthusiasm for the story and trying to commit the colorless remains to paper. Other times, I try to get by without it and I realize that there are parts missing or I worry about my stakes being high enough. Does this mean I should try pantsing?

People kindly weighed in.

Tracey Dyck: It all depends on the writer. I know of excellent writers who outline (extensively or sparsely), and also excellent writers who “pants” everything (meaning they make the story up as they go along). Both kinds of writers are equally capable of pulling off AMAZING books.

I myself tend to fall into the outliner’s camp, but I don’t plan so thoroughly that I know everything that will happen. I like to leave some room for creativity. My outlines are never set in stone. For shorter projects, I plan much less and end up halfway pantsing it, but for the 4-book series I’m working on… let’s just say I would be entirely lost without my outlines! So I guess it depends on the project as well as the writer.

Song4myKing: I agree with Tracey that it’s different for different writers. That seems to be the way with any art.

I outline. I find I have to know that there is a possible way to reach a good ending before I can actually begin writing. Basically, I figure out and write down what the main plot points will be, and I have in my head at least some idea how I’ll get from one to the next. Sometimes this takes the form of possible chapter titles or a rough timeline.

I do go through a bit of a (very unorganized) process in my head before I can figure out an outline. I compose scenes and try out various directions that I then keep or kick out. I wonder if those of you who don’t use an outline do a bit of that same processing while actually writing?

carpelibris: I’m a pantser. I’ve tried to outline, but it quickly goes astray.

From what I’ve heard and read, a lot of my favorite writers are pantsers too. I wonder if that’s common?

This subject fascinates me! I’m always interested in better ways to write, and I love to hear what other writers’ processes are. I want to know what people do to get past the bumps that trip me up.

We may not have free will when it comes to outlining versus pantsing versus falling somewhere in the middle. Our method may choose us. I’m like carpelibris. I’ve tried to outline. I’ve asked writer friends to explain their outlining procedure. I’ve listened, nodded, even taken notes. But when I try to follow their example, I get confused and bored. I itch to try my ideas out in scenes. On the rare occasions when I have managed to work up an outline, I inevitably and quickly discover that I forgot some major factor that unhinges it, and I veer off into uncharted, pantsy territory.

However, I’m not a total pantser. Even without outlining, I’m happiest if I’ve got a notion of my story before I start writing, and I like having an end in mind, although it may change when I get there. It’s possible that I retell fairy tales because they give me a sketchy outline, and they’re generally pretty simple, so I can embroider and go in fresh directions while still sticking to the original story shape.

I’m delighted to announce that I finished the first draft of the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which took me only about nine months. Contrast that with four-and-a-half years for Stolen Magic. The difference is that I imagined the prequel as Rapunzel meets Moses (just part of the story of Moses) while I made Stolen Magic up from scratch–and got lost and made a few very foolish story choices.

It’s possible that some genres lend themselves more to outlining than pantsing, and the mystery, which Stolen Magic is, might be one of them. I’m speculating here, but a mystery, or a complicated one anyway, calls for more moving parts than, say, one of my adventure fairy tales. In a mystery we have to figure out the movements of not only the villain but also the suspects and the victim. Everyone has secrets, and we have to get interested in them all. It’s complicated. Maybe an outline, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, can more easily be followed to reach an ending.

And conceivably a simpler plot works better for a pantser. Take “Sleeping Beauty,” for example. Nothing to it. The pantser has only a few plot points she has to hit, which gives her a sense of security. She has to get the fairies to the christening, but she can have a grand time bringing them there and delving into what’s going on with any and all of them beforehand. At the ceremony, she can have a field day with the dialogue. When Sleeping Beauty sleeps, what dreams does she have? Who is the prince and why does he take on this quixotic quest? And on and on.

I’m with Tracey Dyck in that I, too, doubt that whether one outlines or pantses influences the quality of a book. Quality comes from word choice, plot, characters–all the elements we go into here.

Kaye M. asks if it’s better to pants or to plot, but everybody has to plot. The difference is plotting ahead of time versus plotting as you go.

I agree with Song4myKing that outlining for outliners is a lot like writing for pantsers: exploration, uncertainty, experimentation.

Each method has difficulties. Years ago, I listened to some classes taught by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University that had been taped and made available for free online, which some of you may find interesting. I did! Here’s the link: He discussed differences between pantsers and outliners, and I think he said he falls mostly into the outliners’ camp. The difference that I remember is that he said that pantsers love to revise and outliners do not. Wow! Revising is my favorite part of writing. What outliners love, if I remember right, is plotting, and plotting makes my head want to explode, though I do it, and I happen to be a plot-driven writer (rather than character-driven).

A while back, I had a conversation with the young-adult writer Walter Dean Myers on the subject. I’ve mentioned this before, because it astonished me so much. He was (he died last year) an outliner and as far out on the spectrum as possible. He told me that by the time he finished an outline, he knew how many sheets of paper to put in his printer for his draft, and he knew exactly how many pages would be in each chapter. I concluded that he and I had grown up on different planets. He wrote a book about his method, Just Write: Here’s How! I read it, and was glad to have someone else’s method mapped out for me, although I continue to stumble along. You may find it useful.

Whether outlining or pantsing are better for finishing stories, I’m not sure. Pantsers have written here that their stories peter out into tangles and loose ends. Outliners have commented about getting bored. Outliners may need to blow up their plans a little to get excited again, and we pantsers may benefit from imposing order on the chaos we make.

I can’t recommend this from personal experience, because I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard from other writers that it’s helpful. I’m talking about Scrivener, described by Wikipedia as a word processing and outlining program for writers. Scrivener isn’t free, but if you’re comfortable with technology, you can download a similar public (free) program. Does anyone on the blog use Scrivener or anything similar? What do you think?

In these two prompts I may be setting you up for failure by asking you to go against your usual method and maybe against your nature. If you’re enjoying your story but the process keeps getting in your way, abandon it. But first give it your best shot. Here are the prompts:

∙ This can be realism or fantasy: A young man is walking along a cliff with a friend when he falls off. His death is the basis for your mystery story. If you’re a pantser, write an outline for the whole tale and then write the first scene. See if you can stick to your outline. If you’re an outliner, don’t outline, just pants the first scene, although you are allowed to think ahead about how the story might end, but you may not write anything down. If you’re inspired, keep going.

∙ Write a prequel to “Snow White,” that ends with her stepmother ascending to the throne. If you’re an outliner, don’t. If you’re a pantser, do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plots and subplots

On October 5, 2014, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I’m on the fifth draft of my novel (oh the joy of calling my work a novel!) and I think I’ve lost my way. Originally the story was simple–boy likes girl, boy writes anonymous letters to girl, girl gets in trouble because of boy, girl hates boy, boy saves girl. Okay, so maybe not that simple, but now it’s really complicated. There are multiple perspectives, half a dozen more important characters, and another subplot. With all this extra stuff, the stuff that made up my first draft now only takes up a quarter of the novel. Part of me thinks that all the extra characters, subplots, points-of-view, and stuff should all go, but the other part of me really really really likes all the characters I’ve added. 

So do I cut out all the stuff in an attempt to recapture the original magic of my story? Or do I leave it all in and re-write the story from scratch for the third time and embrace the new magic of my story? Any suggestions?

Most stories follow one or two MCs, who have goals, who face problems, who overcome for a happy ending or fail for a tragic one. But exceptions abound. An example that leaps to mind is the novel (high school and above, I think) Exodus by Leon Uris, which I read decades ago, and which follows multiple characters. The problem of the story, the founding of Israel, doesn’t belong to just one or two MCs, but the struggle unites the narrative.

So that’s one way, a connecting thread. If we look over our story with its octopus tentacles of plot and POV, can we find or devise a problem that unifies everything? Suppose that overarching issue is the romance, and let’s call unsocialized homeschooler’s boy Rafe, and girl Stella. Our other POV characters are Stella’s sister, Pauline; Rafe’s best friend, Tom; Stella’s ex-boyfriend, Oscar; the principal of their high school, Ms. Quincy; and–oh, let’s mix it up–Mellie, Rafe’s cat, who, unbeknownst to everyone, has recently achieved human intelligence due to a freak accident with lightning one night when she got out of the house to go prowling.

Since our unifying problem is the romance, each character has to be invested in its success or failure. Let’s say Mellie, who used to have a happy social life with other cats, now finds her former friends dull. She’s miserable and wants to spread it around, so she’s trying to sabotage the romance. The reader is interested in how she goes about this, and also in whether or not she’s going to remain super-intelligent and whether Rafe is going to figure out her transformation.

Say Oscar, Stella’s ex, wants the relationship to succeed. He’s mad at Stella for their break-up and he thinks (rightly or wrongly) that she and Rafe will be wretched together. He’s moved on, but his new relationship is troubled. If he gets to a better place, he may be kinder to Stella, so the reader is caught up in his story, too.

You get the idea. The lives of these other characters work because of the bearing they have on the main event, and also because we’ve, naturally, made their personalities and their stories compelling.

Now I’m thinking of the novel, Hawaii by James Michener (again, high school and up), another book that I read as a young adult. It proceeds chronologically and tells the story of the islands, starting with the geological events that created them. The six sections are separated by time gaps. One is about the Chinese immigration, another about the influx from Japan, and I don’t remember what else. Each part, as I recall, is long enough to be a novella and to be satisfying, and each stands alone. I don’t think characters appear in more time period.

So that’s another approach, a chronological ordering. We can start our story in the past. Rafe and Stella can be the patriarch and matriarch, from whom everyone else descends. Their romance can be successful, but there’s a problem that succeeding generations have to work out.

A third way might be through theme. Now I’m thinking about Little Women. The MCs are sisters, which makes their coexistence in a story natural, but each has her own narrative arc. One chapter belongs to one, another to another.  They come together in the theme, which is growing up.

Love can be our theme in this example. The cat Mellie may find a turtle who was similarly storm-struck and whose intelligence was also enhanced. The two bond, and the reader experiences inter-species affection. Ms. Quincy becomes increasingly engaged with her job. She embraces the challenge of running a successful school (falling in love with her work). Oscar could be the failure. His new relationship founders, and his subplot is of love gone awry.

Writing in third-person can provide unity of voice, too. All of the books I mentioned are in third-person, but I don’t think that’s a necessity. Variety is fun for the reader, in my opinion.

Going in a different direction, however, we can decide that some of our subplots, new characters, and POVs deserve their own stories. We can split them off and give them their day in the sun. If we do, we may be able to be more expansive with them and not have to cram their problems into a story that belongs primarily to others (Rafe and Stella).

I’m painfully aware that I sometimes over-complicate my plots, and the result is that the tension flags. Then I have to slash and burn to get things rocketing along again. Many of us may struggle with this.If this is happening in your story or in unsocialized homeschooler’s, simplifying may be the only answer.

To go back to unsocialized homeschooler’s question: I can’t say whether she should cut back, embark on draft number six, or find some middle. Here on this blog we don’t mind writing again and again to get it right. The point is to create a sense of continuity.

Here are four prompts:

• Little Women is old enough to be in the public domain, which means you can fool around with it and not worry about copyright infringement. It’s possible that there’s more to Jo’s story than Louisa May Alcott was able to cram in with all the demands of the other sisters. Write a story about Jo that isn’t in the book. You can even make her an only child if you like. Then go on and write separate stories about each sister. You can also write one about Laurie. If you’re inspired, each one can be a novel, and the result can be a series.

• Write a story about Rafe and Stella and the others with the overarching problem being their romance. Add or subtract characters at will. Try it in third person and then in first from more than one POV.

• Write a story about them using the chronological approach. Rafe and Stella are the founders of the family, and they set up a mystery that succeeding generations have to resolve. Each secondary character can be the MC of a generation, or two of them can exist at the same time. Don’t forget Mellie the cat!

• Treat these characters thematically. Their stories are united by a common theme, which can be love or anything else.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Fresh plots for sale

On July 5, 2013, Athira Abraham wrote, How can I come up with original plots? I’ve searched up on the Internet, and I know that you should write the story you want to read, but I’m sick and tired of reading books on quests, rescuing, riddles, forbidden love, escaping, or revenge, though it seems like all books and stories and plots fall under these categories and more. But I want my plot to be more enticing to the readers that read it and to myself. I want it to be new, original, and unique. 

I do like quests and escaping an evil enchanter etc., but its so common. How can I accomplish this?

This reassuring response came from Michelle: I think that perhaps the reason that these topics are used so much is because they’re popular. For many people, these adventures are so exciting and suspenseful that they never get boring. Of course, the success of a book depends on its author. If you feel bored with these topics, don’t use them. There’s a good chance that readers won’t be interested if you’re not.

Write about what you think is interesting. As for the uniqueness, I don’t think there is any advice to give. It’s a hard question. But, I do think that every plot, even original plots, have piggybacked off others at one point or another. If you like quests and an escaping evil enchanter, ponder those topics. And eventually, ideas will come. Good or bad, they always do. By the way, if you’ve done research on the internet, this means you’re a serious writer. You have an imagination. And if you have an imagination, there’s nothing to worry about.

On my bookshelves are two books about plot, bought a long time ago, probably out of desperation. Interestingly, I just looked on Amazon and discovered that neither author seems to ever have published any fiction!

The point of one of the books, which is similar to Michelle’s comment, is that there are only a few possible plots. I agree with Michelle and the book on this: a limited number of plot types. But character possibilities, situations, settings, are limitless. Complete originality may be impossible, but uniqueness is inevitable. Except for plagiarizing, no one writes exactly the same story, comes up with the same dialogue or identical characters or identical anything.

We all, I think, have dreams for our stories; we hope that we’ll create a marvel, which we may actually achieve. But not by concentrating on wished-for greatness. Once I sit down to write and start spinning my tale, I need to put those hopes aside to concentrate on my words and my story. If I think about how stupendous I want my book to be, I freeze. Guaranteed.

Having said that, as an example of pretty significant originality, I’ll put forward The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, which I just read, and which won the Newbery in the 1950’s and is, in my opinion, a tour de force in plotting. It’s too young, I’m pretty sure, for almost all of you who read the blog, and it may seem old-fashioned. But I recommend it highly, because it has a lot to teach us about plotting, and I’m sure I’m going to learn from it. There’s little at stake, only persuading two storks to nest in the Dutch village of Shora (so it’s a quest plot), but the tension stays high, and DeJong varies carrying out the quest with astonishing ingenuity. Repeatedly, when I thought the problem was solved, he came up with something new to keep me reading. Besides, it’s a charming book, and, here and there, throughout are marvelous brush-and-ink drawings by Maurice Sendak. If you do read it, or if you already have, I’d love to know what you think.

Athira Abraham, sounds like you may be tired of the kinds of books you usually read. Maybe your writing would be re-energized by reading outside your usual preferences. I don’t know how old you are, but when I was in high school I went through a phase when I read mostly nineteenth century Russian novels, and then I moved on to other kinds of novels. I also read a lot of plays, and several were by George Bernard Shaw. Mark Twain is another favorite, and he’s so unsentimental that he’s cleansing. I adore A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Or, in the world of young adult literature, I admire the work of Virginia Euwer Wolfe boundlessly, and my favorite is The Mozart Season. Short story collections may be useful too, because you come across a lot of plots in a single book. A librarian or a knowledgeable bookseller may have more suggestions.

You may already know all these books and authors; you may read short stories regularly, but the point still is that stepping outside your usual preferences may give you new ideas and may suggest approaches to plot you haven’t tried before.

Another source of unpredictable plots is life, where the unpredictable meets the random meets the intentions of people. They combine and recombine, and we find meaning. We shape what happens to us into story. We can use family stories as the basis of our fiction. I’ve mentioned before that my book Dave at Night is an invented version of my father’s childhood in an orphanage. Tucked into the story are fragments of truth and the real-life personality of my dad. Soon I’m going to start reading another book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, my ancestors among them. I’m hoping to find a true story I can fictionalize, because something that really happened often has a surprising shape. You may find something in history that you’d like to turn into a story. Or a piece in the news. Or something that’s going on in your community.

When I think about turning fairy tales into novels, I look for leaps of logic, anything that doesn’t make complete sense, which usually leads me to exploring my characters’ motivations. Why does the prince fall in love with the maiden in “Toads and Diamonds”? What’s up with the cat in “Puss ‘N’ Boots”? Why is he so willing to help a master who was about to eat him? The answers usually take my plots in surprising directions.

In The Wheel on the School, author DeJong uses not only his characters, but also the weather, the dike (since this is Holland), and a bell tower to twist his story.  Oh, I hope you read it! As we write, we can think, What else can I bring in? What’s handy in my story that I haven’t exploited yet?

Here are two prompts:

• Begin your story with the achievement of a quest. The magic statue has been found at great cost. The heroes and heroines are celebrating, and it all falls apart. The statue doesn’t do what it was supposed to, or someone drops it, and it shatters.

• Here’s a little germ of an incident from my girlhood, which you can use as a story seed. A friend and I read a book in which the heroine’s name was a variant of the name of another one of our friends. We announced to her that she had to go by that nickname from then on. I won’t say what followed. That’s your story. Think conflict. You can go small and keep the tale to the confines of the friendship. Or you can widen it. You can imagine that the three are members of powerful families (as we definitely were not!), and more people get involved. Whichever route you take, the point is that, since it derives from reality, the story is unlikely to follow a predictable path.

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!