The Dark Wizard, update 9

I finally finished the tedious chapter 19 of my middle grade fantasy novel, The Dark Wizard, early this morning. It was definitely one of the most difficult chapters to write. Some very important things happen in this chapter, and I really struggled figuring out with what spirit to approach it. After finishing, I continued on and wrote about half of the next chapter as well, so I have about four and a half chapters left to write. The novel’s wordcount (still doing my part to make this an acceptable compound word) is now at about 35,300 words. As I’ve stated before, by aim is for around 42,000 words, if possible, so that’s roughly 7,000 words for four and a half chapters. I think I will at least come close. If anything, I’ll probably get a bit too wordy. But it’s only a first draft. Anyway, I feel like I’m in the homestretch now. The scenes remaining still have their challenges, but I think the most difficult chapters are now behind me. It shouldn’t be much longer until I wrap up this first draft!

Brandon Sanderson’s Write-a-thon

Last Friday, I watched fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s online streaming “Write-a-thon.” As he says on his blog:

Last Friday I did a live writing session to benefit the Waygate Foundation and Worldbuilders. The session was recorded and you can see it here. Thanks to everyone who donated and who gave suggestions in the chat during the recording!

At its peak, there were some seven hundred of us writers and Sanderson fans (“Fandersons” as someone quipped), so it was a very lively space.  During a Q&A portion, I did manage to get one question in there, which you can find at the 1:56:55 mark.  It went something like this:

Hannifin: Do you find it harder to write as you continue further into a project?

Sanderson: Yes. The hardest point usually is the second part of the middle. If you split a book into four chunks, chunk three is the hardest part. When I get to the ending, that usually is easier. Yeah, no matter what I do, it feels like that’s the hard part of it.

I was curious to ask this question because I know it’s certainly true for me; the “second part of the middle” is exactly where I am in The Dark Wizard, and my progress has been very slow. Of course, I haven’t worked on nearly as many projects as Sanderson. But the fact that a much more experienced and successful author finds the same difficulty is clearly a sign that I am a genius. Of course, it’s likely that this a very common experience among a lot of writers; there are just more story elements that have to be balanced carefully in the third quarter, and they must be used in a way that moves the story toward its climax.

The short story Sanderson began writing based on audience suggestions was a bit too outlandish for me to get impassioned about, but it was fascinating to see another writer working in real time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other writer do something like this. Fun stuff! Here’s the full four-hour stream:

Elements of a story ending

I’m preparing to write some short stories, and I’ve been thinking about plot structure a lot lately, and plotting endings especially.

Of course, endings are always a challenge in plotting any story, whether it be a novel or a shorter work. But novels have much more time to establish the rules of a new world, establish multi-dimensional characters, and build tension through plots and subplots. Short stories must be much more economical in their approach; their endings must resonate emotionally while being based on far less development. They don’t have time to take characters through long emotional arcs, or build up world-threatening doom.

So I pondered the art of the ending for a while. And while they may still present a creative challenge to the writer, I have noticed at least two ingredients endings tend to have. Understanding these ingredients may help a writer come up with ideas for a story’s ending more easily.

Endings tend to consist of two things: a resolution of the stakes and a thematic revelation.  (I’m not sure if these are the most precise terms for these ideas, but they’re what came to mind when I first thought of them.)

The resolution of the stakes

The resolution of the stakes is basically the climax. Whatever was at stake throughout the story is no longer at stake. The threat is vanquished. The hero saves his own life or the life of a loved one, the villain is defeated, etc. (Or the reverse of this in the case of a tragedy; the anti-hero himself is defeated or meets his doom.)

This may seem fairly obvious, but if you’re having trouble coming up with an ending, it may be because you have not defined the stakes in your story clearly enough. That is, coming up with an ending may be difficult because you’re not exactly sure what’s at stake in the first place.

So first, you need to know the stakes of your story. Typically it is the hero’s death or the death of a loved one, eternal separation of a loved one, or eternal suffering of some sort. If your hero doesn’t achieve his goal, what is the worst that could happen? (If nothing bad could happen, beware — it could mean you don’t have a very strong story. It’s hard to care about whether or not a character achieves his goal if failure holds no threat.)

Then ask yourself: What threat needs to be removed for the stakes to be resolved? How can the hero remove that threat, directly or indirectly? This is the story’s climax.

Thematic revelation

Following the climax, stories often end with a revelation of some sort, the story’s final note, the closing image. The revelation reveals some sort of new information. It could hint at what the future may hold (“and they lived happily ever after”). It could shine a new light on what has happened before (rosebud!). It could simply be a reminder of one of the story’s themes, or it could illustrate how things have changed since the beginning. Remember Dr. Grant looking out at a flock of birds at the end of Jurassic Park, with children now asleep on his shoulders.

Often, the thematic revelation mirrors something that happened near the beginning of the story, and together they “frame” the rest of the story. Since the final thematic revelation is the last thing the reader imagines, it’s the image he’s left with in his mind as he looks up from the page and thinks back about your story as a whole. He will then decide whether to catalog the story in his brain as something special, or to forget it as a silly or boring waste of time. The final revelation should not be taken for granted.

In conclusion

I have only recently come to this understanding of endings, though of course I think anyone who reads a lot of stories or watches a lot of movies understands this on an intuitive level. When endings feel flat or anti-climactic, it’s usually because something about resolving the stakes didn’t work or the final thematic revelation didn’t fit the spirit of the rest of the story.

Anyway, these realizations have already helped me come up with ideas for endings. It still takes work and creativity, but its easier to get ideas when you understand what functions those ending scenes play in the overall story.

Suffering for super powers

How can you make a character instantly relatable and sympathetic?

Make him suffer for his super powers, of course!

That is, ask yourself two questions: What makes the character special? And what makes the character suffer for it?

I could wax philosophical about why we as readers enjoy characters who suffer for their super powers. Is it because we are vain? Or is there something deeper? I leave this for you to think about as an intellectual exercise.

By “super powers” I do not necessarily mean fantastical super powers. I would consider being royalty a super power, or being exceedingly talented in some way or another. A musical genius? That’s a super power. A talented ninja? That’s a super power. A famous actor? Super power. The point is that it is something the reader would want for themselves. It’s something that makes the character special in a good way. Certainly if you read and write a lot in the fantasy genre, the super powers tend to be fantastical in nature.

But if we stopped there, we’d merely have a short daydream, not a sympathetic character who can drive a story. The key ingredient to putting this special-powered character through a story is to make him suffer, and, more importantly, to link that suffering to his super power somehow. In this way, it is that very power that makes him special that also becomes the source of his problems.  Using super powers always backfires on the hero, at least at the beginning of a story.

Some random examples:

Ender of Ender’s Game. He’s a genius. And he’s thus torn away from his family and forced to undergo extensive military training that pushes him to his psychological limits. He suffers for his powers.

Batman of, well, Batman. He’s insanely wealthy. But when he uses wealth to make himself into Batman, he’s forced to push away important relationships and hide his true self from the world.

Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. He’s insanely strong. But when he uses he strength to save a man trapped under cart, he blows his cover and is chased by the law. He suffers for his powers.

Really, almost every story features a hero suffering for his powers in some way, but the sooner and clearer you can introduce these elements to the audience, the more effectively you can get them into the hero’s shoes, and they’ll care about your character and his story.

At least, that’s my theory.

The Dark Wizard, update 7

I finally finished writing chapter 16, which was definitely the toughest chapter to write thus far.  I’m not sure why.  I don’t know if it’s only because my perfectionism decided to rear its ugly head, or because it was just difficult figuring out how to approach it.  But finally it’s done.  Whew!

I did some more chapter restructuring, adding a new short chapter and splitting another, so my current plans now call for 24 chapters in total, of which I have finished 16.  (It may end up being 25, because there’s an earlier chapter that I now think would work better split in two.)

The novel now stands at about 28,500 words.  Getting there slowly.  I think I’ll definitely finish this month at least.  Maybe even this week if I can stay focused.