How I outline

Some people were talking about their story outlining methods on a writing forum, so I thought I’d write a short post about my current methods.

The Process

First, I let the ideas simmer and mix for months or years.

When the time feels right, the work begins. After writing down the initial ideas of what I definitely want in the story in terms of cool characters, scenes, conflicts, or themes (almost like movie trailer moments, disconnected but interesting), I try to think up an ending, which helps me define exactly what the main conflict of the story will be, both physically and thematically.

At this point, I try to think up an interesting title before I start fleshing out the outline. This helps me make sure the title fits the spirit of the book, and hopefully sounds interesting in and of itself (at least to me).

So then I have various scenes I think would be cool and an ending. I basically flesh out the story from there with connecting scenes, usually working backwards from the ending, trying to keep in mind how each scene relates to the overall story. How much detail I put into my scene descriptions just depends on my mood. Sometimes a few sentences work for me, sometimes I explore the possibilities for several pages. I’ll often start writing dialog, though very little of it will make it into the final story. It helps me with getting into the characters’ heads and fleshing out their individual personalities and philosophies.

In the end, my outline is a list of scenes with various amounts of descriptions.

While writing, I’ll re-outline as needed. Nothing drastic, but I might find that a scene will need to deal with an extra conflict or happen at a different time or place. Or I might find that I need an extra scene or can drop some unneeded scene.

Other things I’ve learned

Sometimes I’ll try to tell others the story from beginning to end verbally, like a movie summary, to make sure the story seems cohesive, isn’t overly complicated, and doesn’t have any glaring plot holes I’m missing. I have found this to be a helpful exercise.

I’ve learned that I need to make sure the scenes are actual scenes and not just something that needs to happen in the story. “They go to the office and Bob gives them important info” may need to happen, but it doesn’t have to be dramatized as a scene if that’s all there is to it. It took me a while to figure out why certain scenes seemed so boring to write. It’s because they were unneeded. Similarly, something like “They journey across the northern plains” is not a scene. That can be summed up in an expository paragraph at the beginning of a chapter. If nothing interesting and story-related happens, it’s not a scene. If I try to force it to be a scene by adding in conflict for its own sake, such as making characters argue or having a character brood on some inner-conflict, I risk disappointing the readers when they realize what they just read was only filler.

For my latest novel attempt, Moonrise Ink, I’ve been trying to keep my number of scenes small; it’s easy for me to go overboard and write too many scenes, trying to cram too much in the outline (thinking my novel is going to be some huge epic). But the actual story would end up being way too long. Took me quite a few failures to realize that (I’d get to 40K or 50K words and my story would still be just getting started).

Worldbuilding notes

Lastly, since I’m writing a fantasy story that takes place in another world, I do some worldbuilding as well, either in a notebook or on my computer. I have a private online wiki (a bit like Hanniwiki, except it’s completely private) where I keep all my world building notes; histories, legends, names, magic system rules, etc. Wikis are perfect for organizing worldbuilding notes. I do some worldbuilding as I’m outlining, but I also continue to do it as I write to help myself stay consistent. A lot of my worldbuilding will probably not even make it in the book, but it’s cool to create anyway. For example, one of my characters (Thravien) loves playing a game called Twenty Wizards, so I took some time to actually create the game and figure out the rules for it. It’s a very simple game, but an explanation of how it’s played really doesn’t belong in the story.

Along with my worldbuilding notes, it’s very easy to get ideas for sequels or other stories that take place in the same world. I’ll collect any other story ideas I have in a notebook or on my wiki as well.

Writing speed trials

Every now and then I think it’s interesting to time my writing speeds just to gather statistics on how I work. Recently, over the course of four hours (split among two days), I timed my wordcounts at twelve twenty-minute intervals. This was while I was working on a difficult action scene, so I think my writing was definitely slower than usual, but I’ll have to time myself during some new trials when I get to my next scene to see what sort of differences there are. Here are the results of my trials:

Words written in 20 minutes: 181, 176, 121, 133, 198, 132, 150, 111, 112, 138, 220, 218

That’s a mere 1,890 words in 4 hours. That’s about 473 words per hour, or about 8 words per minute.

I’ll also mention that just timing myself probably slows my process as I’m interrupting myself at regular intervals, taking my mind out of my work. Still, I think it’s interesting to see, and it will be interesting to see how it changes with different sorts of scenes and as I gain experience.

Write every day?

There’s a saying that goes: “Writing is like showering; if you don’t do it every day, you start to stink.” A lot of people repeat the advice whenever they can: “You must write every day! You must, no matter how you feel!”

Of course, this is false. You can write when you please, and you can decide not to write when you please.

But the idea of writing each and every day comes from an important understanding: writing takes discipline and practice. One must keep doing it, thinking about it, and studying it to get good at it. One does not become a wonderful storyteller simply by having a brain that can imagine a story that would be “so cool.” One must put in the practice hours, knowing that the products of early efforts may not be very pleasing to anybody.

However, I think the idea that you must write every day misses a key ingredient that makes any story writing worth the effort, and that is the joy of writing. Writing every day for the sake of writing every day turns the art into work, perhaps even drudgery. A writer who forces drudgery upon himself is not nobly disciplined, suffering for the sake of his art. Instead, he’s a fool, suffering for the sake of his pride.

Write every day or don’t, it really doesn’t matter. You will find successful authors who do, and successful authors who don’t.

I think the more important element to learning any discipline is not the ability to grit one’s teeth through the drudgery, but the ability to be passionate, the ability to let the rest of the world fall away. In storytelling, it’s the ability to fall in love with what never happened in a world that never was.

Unhelpful writing advice

This video is named “How to Write a Memorable Sentence.” Unfortunately it only succeeds in explaining literary terms that aren’t directly useful for a storyteller, such as “anaphora” and “extended parallelism.” It seems to separate the writing process from the storytelling process to the point of hilarity. It’s like trying to explain the success of a Mozart symphony by listing its notes and chords.

I post this here not just for my own amusement. I think one of the greatest things any storyteller can do to learn his craft is to study his own emotional reactions to specific things. If you like something, why do you like it? If you don’t, why not? Sometimes it can be hard to tell why something just doesn’t feel right, but you gain that much more skill if you can recognize a specific reason (or set of reasons).

“What makes a sentence memorable?” is a dumb question to begin with; memorability is not something you can so simply analyze your way through, as if the only variables were the sentence’s words and their position in the sentence. A better question would be: “What makes a sentence work in the context of its story?”

Fridays with Agent Kristin

There are some short but informative videos in a recently created series on YouTube called Fridays with Agent Kristin. Some of videos helped me better understand the common differences between YA and middle-grade fiction, especially this one:

I think my current novel-in-progress, Moonrise Ink, falls within the upper-level-middle-grade arena.

Also a great writing resource is the agent’s blog, Pub Rants.

Brandon Sanderson’s writing lectures

Over on Write About Dragons you can find a great number of video lectures from the creative writing classes of the awesome fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. In the lectures, he talks about creating characters, plotting, writing description, and more, as well as some insights into how the book business works. I have found these lectures to be extremely helpful and informative; they’re definitely worth checking out.

Maker of the bell stand

Here’s a quote from film director Ingmar Bergman. I heard it in an interview which was included as a bonus feature on the blu-ray of his film The Magician and quite liked it. I think it definitely applies to writers:

I’ll tell you very plainly how I see the relationship between an artist and his audience by telling you a little story that I heard many years ago and that made quite an impression on me.

You see, during the middle ages, a certain wood-carver in China was given the task of crafting a stand for the temple bells. It was a very honorable assignment for this Chinese wood-carver, and he set about his work.

While he carved, he started thinking about all the money he’d earn for this bell stand, and as it happened, the carving turned out quite poorly. But since he was an ambitious Chinese craftsman, he started all over again.

But this time too, as he carved, he started thinking about how he would win everyone’s love with this incredibly beautiful stand. And this attempt too was a failure. So he destroyed that stand and started a third time.

But this time it occurred to him that he would gain immortality with this bell stand, and his third attempt was a failure too.

With that, our Chinese wood-carver grew furious as only a Chinese wood-carver can be, and he decided to try a fourth time. This time he had just one thought in his head: to create a bell stand.

This time he succeeded and in so doing gained love, money, and immortality.

Character chemistry archetypes

I wrote this a few months ago and thought it would be a good addition to this blog. Always having character chemistry in mind is essential for storytelling; it is what brings characters to life:

I’ve had a sort of epiphany that none of the books on writing I’ve read seem to mention, but it’s pretty obvious once you realize it: character chemistry is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So often books on writing or plotting talk about characterization as if characters are complete entities in and of themselves.  That’s the natural way to think of them.  But in a story, a character does not exist in a vacuum.  A story, and our interest in it, is born of the interactions between one character and another.

The best way to understand this is to think about your favorite character being placed in a world in which everyone was just like him.  Unless the character has multiple personality disorder, an interesting story is impossible because there’s no way to get any character contrast, no way for the character to be defined, and thus no way for us to get any meaning out of the character.  A canvas painted one color holds no interest; it is a specific collection of colors that attracts our eyes.

Many books on writing talk about character archetypes.  I still think those are valid, but I think they’re incomplete.  For example, the “old wise mentor” character archetype is useless without a student to teach.  It is not the “mentor” archetype that we relate to, but the mentor-student relationship we enjoy.  Both characters are necessary because it’s a relationship, not just a character sitting there by himself.

So I paced around and tried to come up with the main basic relationship archetypes we see again and again in stories.  Here’s what I came up with.  Let me know if you can think of any I might’ve missed:

The Straight Man and The Fool

AKA: The Annoyed and The Annoyer, The Serious and the Unserious, “The Double Act”

Examples: Shrek and Donkey, Squidward and SpongeBob, Bert and Ernie

This is definitely one of the most popular relationship archetypes.  One character says stupid things and acts annoying, and the other character gets angry.  We, the audience, laugh not at the fool (or at least not only at the fool), but at the relationship.  We laugh more when other characters react with serious looks.  The humor is born of the relationship.

The Hero and The Client

AKA: The Rescuer and The Rescued

Examples: Mario and Princess Peach, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Shrek and Fiona, Dr Alan Grant and the grandchildren

Another extremely powerful and popular relationship.  A character needs help, and another character agrees (often reluctantly at first) to help them.  Pretty easy to understand.

There are many stories in which a hero is on a mission to save a city or a kingdom or an entire world, such as Frodo destroying the One Ring or Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star.  I would not consider these quests to be part of this relationship; it’s not concrete enough to be a relationship.  Caring about such stories only works if, within those stories, there are other pre-established relationships we care about.  We really don’t care about an entire world for its own sake, we care about the specific relationships within it.  I think this is a very important point.  Character relationships we care about have to be at stake for the peril of the world to matter.

The Mentor and The Student

Examples: Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker, Gandalf and Frodo, Shifu and Po, Doc and Marty

Another age-old powerful relationship.  One character teaches, the other learns.  We, the audience, get to learn with the student, but we also get to observe his progress along with the teacher.

The Envied and The Envious

AKA: The Used and The User

Examples: Mozart and Salieri, Frodo and Gollum, Captain Hammer and Dr Horrible

A simple and understandable way to create animosity between characters.  Since we’ve all known the feeling of envy at one time or another, this relationship allows us to identify with the otherwise negative envying character.  When he wants something specific that the other character has, we understand his motivation for doing evil things.

I would also lump into this category relationships in which one character is merely using the other character as a means to an end.  There may or may not necessarily be any envy involved, but the character can’t achieve what he wants on his own, so he forms a relationship, perhaps faking friendship, to get what he wants.

The Noble and The Rogue

Examples: Will Turner and Jack Sparrow, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Christine and The Phantom, Lisa Cuddy and Gregory House, Wendy and Peter Pan

One character tries to play by the rules, while the other character’s moral compass is a bit harder to follow.  I think we, the audience, tend to gravitate our fascination toward the rogue character, but they’re at their most interesting when they’re playing off or arguing with someone whose moral compass is more like ours.  Note that the rogue character doesn’t necessarily have to be evil or have evil tendencies; his ways of doing things simply have to seem foreign to us.

The Guard and The Prisoner

AKA: The Ruler and The Ruled, The Boss and The Employee

Examples: Lisa Cuddy and Gregory House, Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, Vernon Dursley and Harry Potter, The Wicked Stepmother and Cinderella, Captain Stottlemeyer and Monk, Monk and Sharona or Natalie, Mr Krabbs and SpongeBob

This is basically an authority relationship; one character has the power to tell the other character what to do.  We immediately relate to it because we all have to deal with authority of some form, and I doubt any of us really like it.  It’s a relationship that naturally and constantly creates conflict (hopefully not as much in real life as in fiction).

There can be different degrees of this relationship, from the cruel wicked character keeping the other character trapped, to the friendly boss who works with an assistant.  The point is that we clearly understand the direction of the authority.

Dysfunctional love / friendship

Examples: If you can’t think of any, you have no hope

This is probably the penultimate relationship; it makes all the other relationships interesting, and it can be found in some fashion in almost every story.  Two characters somehow connect or fill a need for one another.  They care about each other.  While conflicts may force them apart, love or friendship is the magnet that keeps them coming back to each other.

I use this relationship to describe any relationship in which both characters care about each other.  It could a romantic love, in which the characters will probably want to eventually get married, it could be family love, or it could just be the friendship of two buddies who get along.

In many stories, this relationship begins as one of the preceding relationships, such as a Hero and Client relationship leading to romantic love, or a Straight Man and Fool relationship leading to friendship.

For most of the story, perhaps even for the entire story, the love or friendship must be dysfunctional.  We are not interested in love or friendship that is working fine.  The relationship is only interesting if it is being tested by one of the other relationships or outside conflicts.  Perhaps authority figures from the Boss and Employee relationship do not want the character to fall in love, perhaps there’s a love triangle and another character is envious, perhaps the characters in love have ideological differences due to a Noble and Rogue relationship.  The point is that it’s never perfect unless we’re past the story’s climax.

They’re all mixed up

Of course, within a story, characters can take on multiple roles in multiple relationships.

For example, in the Back to the Future trilogy, Doc is often the Unserious-Mentor-Hero while the young Marty McFly is the Serious-Student-Client.  Sometimes Doc becomes the Client while Marty becomes the Hero.  Their relationship is held together by Dysfunctional Friendship, and there are multiple Dysfunctional Love relationships throughout the trilogy.

Role reversals are also fun.  In the Shrek movies, Shrek is usually annoyed by Donkey (“You’re headed the right way for a smacked bottom”), but he sometimes becomes the annoyer himself as he makes his own jokes (“Well, sure it’s big enough, but look at the location!”) which are made funnier because Donkey doesn’t laugh, maintaining the Straight Man and Fool relationship.  As long as the characters stay in character, relationship switches can keep things interesting.

Conflict itself is not a relationship / Having a crush on someone is not a relationship

In the movie Jurassic Park, what relationship does the T-rex have with Dr Alan Grant?  Obviously none.  OK, that’s an easy one, since the T-rex is not a human.  How about the Joker in The Dark Knight?  What relationship does he have with Bruce Wayne?  Again, none.  He causes conflict, sure, but he has no motivations other than to cause conflict.  He might as well be an unconscious volcano.  (You might claim it’s a Noble and Rogue relationship, but I’d argue it’s not, because, like I said, the Joker has no desires or motivations.  Rogues do.)

You can find this with a lot of villain characters.  What about The Emperor and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars?  Obviously there’s some conflict there.  But, again, I’d argue there’s no relationship.  There’s just conflict created by the Emperor wanting Luke to turn to the dark side (maybe if they changed its name?).  What about Sauron and Frodo in Lord of the Rings?  Again, no relationship, just conflict.

My point is that just because a character acts as a conflict does not mean he necessarily has a relationship with the character (he may or may not).  But it is through these outside conflicts that Love and Friendship relationships are threatened and tested.  It is against these conflicts that Love and Friendship must remain standing (or not, if it’s a tragedy).

Similarly, if one character has a crush on another character, that is not a relationship.  It is just an interest.  Such an interest might play a part in the character’s already-existing relationships, and it might lead to another relationship, but it is not a relationship in and of itself, because it’s one sided.  And we, as an audience, probably don’t care much about it until some actual interaction takes place.


How many main character relationships can we find in stories?

I think books have the space to become as complex as they want to, but in TV shows and movies, I think it is usually kept quite simple; probably at most three for a single TV show episode, and at most four for a movie, and even that might be pushing it (I have yet to seriously analyze any films for this).  TV shows and movies can still have many small relationships that play out for a scene or two, but only a few will be important for the overall story arc.  (For example, in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, I would not consider the relationship between Aragon and Arwen to be of prime importance to the overall story; hence the reason some of their scenes were edited out for the theatrical versions.  Nor would I consider the friendship between Gimli and Legolas to be too important.)

In Conclusion

OK, hope that was an interesting post.  You will now either begin to see these relationship archetypes all over the place, or completely forget everything I just told you.

And so it begins…

So here is my new blog. I really wanted a blog I could dedicate to just the craft of writing fantasy and science fiction, and anything (books, movies, games, etc) that inspires me in that pursuit–a blog that won’t get bogged down with random philosophical essays or controversial rants about things I didn’t like in the newspaper. So we’ll see how it goes!