Overwriting

So with my first draft of Moonrise Ink finished, I am working on revisions, trying to make sure the story is as solid and as engaging as possible.

My first draft is 105K words, which is a lot for a middle-grade fantasy. (And I’ve heard agents call it a “crowded market” so a high wordcount from an unknown author certainly won’t do him any favors.) However, as I read back through my draft and analyze how each scene fits into the overall story, I can definitely see that my first draft is overwritten.

Different writers might mean different things when they mention “overwriting.” When I say that my first draft is overwritten, I mean a few things:

1. My sentences can be clunky rather than concise. In the first draft, I am more focused on getting the story out of my head, so I will write a sentence as it comes to me, and it usually doesn’t come as concisely as it could. So my descriptions may be riddled with redundancies and unneeded adjectives. For example, I might write: “The stone gave off a blue glow.” But glows are, by their nature, given off, so that information is redundant. My writing would be more concise if I wrote. “The stone glowed blue.” I think there’s still something clunky about that sentence; it doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily, so I’d probably try to find another way to say it. But I think you see my point about redundant information.

There can also be a lot of useless words, such as: very, suddenly, really, instantly, however. They often don’t add much to the story.

2. I think overwriting can also be found in over-describing things, like rooms. At one point in my story, one of my characters is working in a laboratory in a palace. My description of the room goes on for almost a page. It may have been a good exercise to help me visualize the room, but so many details only slow the story down. It is especially easy to get into a habit of cataloging, simply listing all the sorts of things that are in a room. A few details are interesting, especially when they help set the mood for the POV character’s experience of being in that room, but it’s easy to go too far. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words are not worth a picture.

3. Finally, the action in a story may be overwritten. I have scenes in which my characters are simply walking from one town to another, or flying in an airship from one place to another. So I think, “Well, they don’t do nothing on these journeys, so I better add some scenes to create the sense that time is passing as they journey on. I’ll have my characters argue about something or recall some backstory.” Amateur mistake. If it doesn’t have to do with the story itself, it can be cut. We can sum up a two week journey in a short paragraph. The reader won’t feel cheated because we’re moving the story forward.

Going to and from places can be especially tricky. For some reason we feel we have to describe a character walking through a door instead of just starting the scene with a character in a room. Of course the reader will know he came through the door, how else would he get there? Or we feel we have to start a scene with a character approaching his destination instead of just being at his destination already. Pointless.

There may be some more ways in which we writers may overwrite a draft, but these are the sorts of overwriting I’m noticing (and cutting) in my own first draft.

Intruder words

Writer Bryan Thomas Schmidt recently made a nice post about using “intruder words” in writing. I had never heard the phrase before, but I think I understand what they are. As Schmidt says:

‘Wondered, felt, thought, saw, knew, heard,’ etc. are all ‘intruder’ words. They intrude on the action, by stating extemporaneously what can be written more actively. They pull us out of the intimate POV of the character and throw things into telling or passiveness.

When we experience everyday life, we don’t consciously think about the mechanics of our own perceptions. Our focus is on our experiences themselves. So when we want to make the reader experience a story from a character’s POV, reminding the reader of those mechanics tends weaken the illusion (unless, I suppose, the character is consciously thinking about those mechanics himself).

Looking back through my novel-in-progress, I use “intruder words” a lot. I am guilty, guilty, guilty. “Thravien jumped when he noticed the silhouette of a man…” “Thravien heard his heart beating.” “Quoll heard nothing but gushing water.” “Thravien didn’t see Sinta’s ship…” “Thravien watched the ships…” It is definitely something I will have to keep in mind as I finish writing a first draft and begin a second draft. So many of my sentences can be reworded to put the reader deeper into the characters’ experiences.

This might be a topic for another post, but I wonder if this might be why reading about glances and glares annoys me as a reader. “He gave her an amused glance.” “She returned an annoyed glance.” “They shared a thoughtful glance.” Bleh! If I am called to imagine the look of a glance, then I have to step outside the character and watch him like a camera-man. It takes me out of the experience of being that character. And my imagination can choose the appropriate look of a glance quite well on its own, thank you very much.

The villain

In the real world, although we humans can have strong and passionate disagreements, I can’t imagine that anyone really thinks of themselves as the villain, purposefully setting out to get in some hero’s way. Rather, villains are just doing what they honestly think is right. If their conscience annoys them, they don’t think about it, or rationalize it away.

This is why villain monologues also seem unrealistic to me. They come from thinking of a story only through the hero’s point of view. “The poor hero is being persecuted! It’s all the villain’s fault! He’s just so hateful!” What about the villain’s point of view? Can’t he be just as passionate about something as the hero? I don’t mean a story should be morally ambiguous. I mean that a villain should be just as human as the hero, and his motivations should be sympathetic, even if we as an audience disagree with his ultimate choices. That is, even if we disagree with his decisions, we should understand where he’s coming from. In this way, a monologue at a story’s climax should not be necessary; his motivations should be apparent from the story.

But there is a time when I think something like a monologue can work. A monologue is meant for exposition, so that we as an audience can understand what and why a villain did what he did. And while a monologue itself is unrealistic, it is conceivable that a hero may, during a conversation, coax a villain into revealing his motivations. This can only happen believably if the villain thinks the hero may be sympathetic to his views. For example, the villain may be trying to lure the hero into joining him. Or perhaps he just wants sympathy and validation. (I recall Stinky Pete’s exposition in Toy Story 2, or Darth Vader’s classic confession in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.) Such a conversation, when the villain is trying to get something out of his exposition, should seem more natural than a direct gloating monologue spoken only for the sake of exposition.

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.

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?”

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.

Simplicity

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.