November 19, 2020 / 1 Comment

Shouldn’t Throw Stones

There’s an aphorism about writing I heard a while back—“get your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.” It’s one of those fun, quick statements with a lot of truth behind it. A complex idea boiled down to something simple.

There’s another one, part of Pixar’s rules of storytelling. “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”  Because we’ve all seen that, right? The character who randomly finds the exact thing they need just when they need it.

Put these two together and my character’s picked the worst tree to climb up. Because it turns out that’s the rock-throwing tree! Since our town was founded, people have always thrown rocks up at that thing. The local little league uses that specific tree for pitching practice. Young couples throw rocks at that tree to see if they’ll live happily ever after. And they say if you throw rocks at it under a new moon, you can speak to a lost love one final time.

Okay, maybe going a bit overboard there. It’s kind of silly to believe this one tree has so many legends and habits and traditions of rock-throwing associated with it, right? Especially because some of them, you’ve got to wonder… why? How the heck did this become a thing? Why would all these people one day choose to throw rocks at this tree?

Which is what I wanted to talk about.

We’ve talked about the need for conflict before. If there’s no conflict—or an utterly minor, negligible conflict—I can’t have much of a plot. And without a plot, my characters are just kinda standing around without any. So this idea of throwing stones—of putting lots of obstacles between my character and their goal—is a solid one. We want our characters to have something to do, and we don’t want it to be easy for them to do it.


Kind of like with the rock-throwing tree, we need to feel like there’s a reason behind this. If our character was stuck up in a tree and people just happened to randomly decide “hey, let’s throw rocks at that!”… we’d probably call foul. It’s just not terribly believable.

Okay, it might be believable once. Our minds will give a little leeway (especially in fiction) for a single bizarre coincidence. To quote the esteemed philosopher Elim Garak, however… I believe in coincidence. Coincidences happen every day. But I don’t trust  coincidences.

If I’m going to have a lot of rocks thrown at my character, I need some solid, in-story reason why they’re being thrown. Because after my characters lose their keys or forget the password or drop the flash drive or run into a third mugger… well, it starts to look less like coincidence and more like weak writing.

Because even coincidences have a reason behind them. Why this person showed up early. Why that battery isn’t charged. Why Dot forgot to bring the incredibly important goober that this entire mission hinges on.

Even when it’s less coincidence and more an active thing—if it’s the same mugger chasing my protagonist across the city and popping up again and again—I have to ask why. Why is Phoebe so obsessed with mugging Yakko? Why does she keep doing this? Or how does she keep ending up just where he is again and again and again. or why does Yakko keep ending up in places where he’s going to get mugged when it just happened to him the other day.

Get your character up that tree and throw stones at them. Throw boulders at them. And handfuls of loose gravel. But know, within the story, why they’re all getting thrown. Is there a real reason for it?

Or is the only person the reader sees throwing stones… me?

In other news, in case you missed it, the A2Q now has a table of contents, so you can find all of it quick and easy. Also, with everything going on in the world I made my usual Black Friday offer a little early this year, so if you’re someone who could use it, please get in touch with me.

Next time here on the ranty blog…

Holy crap, it’s Thanksgiving. How is this year moving so slow and so fast at the same time? The barriers have been shattered! All time is existing at once!

Seriously, though, unless someone’s got a specific, pressing question I’ll probably take the day off and maybe throw some Cyber-Monday gift ideas at you. And next time I’ll talk about binding agreements…

Until then, go write.

And throw some stones.

April 14, 2020 / 1 Comment

Tom Gauld

October 25, 2019

Some Outlining Questions

Look! Bonus content! It’s what the internet screams for!

Last weekend I was in Dallas talking to folks about NaNoWriMo. Overall I think it went pretty well. People laughed and chuckled in all the places I hoped they would.

However… there is strong evidence that I may have had waaaaaaaay too much caffeine before giving said talk. Combine that with a very echoey big room and, well, some of my brilliant observations about writing were lost. And most of my awkward jokes, too. So it’s a pros and cons situation.

Anyway, since I’ve been asked about a few things that got lost in my speed-echoes, I thought I could tweak part of the speech and post it here for everyone. It’s helpful for NaNoWriMo, but it’s some good overall stuff to keep in mind, too. Plus, this way I can add in a ton of links to help explain things even further.

What I’ve got below are eleven questions for you to think about when you’re sitting down with your story.  Depending on your particular plot/story/genre/cast of characters, there’s a chance one or two of these might not work for you.  But a lot of them should. In fact, I’d say if a lot of these don’t apply to the story I’m trying to tell, I’m probably missing something important.

1) Who’s my main character—or characters, depending? Man, woman, non-binary, young, old, straight, gay, werewolf, vampire, bionic space Pope, who are they?

2) What’s a normal day for them? What would they be doing today if they weren’t falling in love or saving us from vampire kaiju? What’s their day job?

3) What happens to make this not a normal day? What changes in their life? Why are we writing a story about this day & not a day last week or next month? Fancy folks call this the inciting incident or introducing conflict. I just like to say… why is this not a normal day?

4) What are they trying to do? Really simply, what’s my book about? This is their goal.

5) Why are they trying to do it? Fancy people call this “their motivation.” Kidnapped friend? Revenge? The greater good? Nanite bomb implanted in their groin? Why aren’t they just saying screw this and going back to their normal life?

6) How are they trying to do it? What actions are they taking? Do they have a plan? Are they making it up as they go along? We want our characters to do something.

7) What’s stopping them from getting it done right now? Is their goal far away? Under guard? Super expensive? Only dates cheerleaders?

8) Do I have an antagonist? Somebody openly trying to stop my hero, for major or minor reasons. My antagonist doesn’t need to be a villain, but they’re definitely somebody with opposing views.

9) What does my antagonist want? This is another character, so we want to develop them. They’re going to have goals, too, even if it’s just “kill all those kids out at the summer camp” or “stomp across Vatican City once the sun goes down.”

10) Why do they want it? My antagonist needs to have motives, too. So just like with my hero–why are they doing this?

11) Finally, what happens when my hero achieves their goal? Are there parades? Explosions? Bloody vengeance? Long passionate kisses? What happens if everything works out right? And on the flipside, what’s going to happen if they don’t achieve their goal?

Now, again, these aren’t end-all be-all questions. There’s a good chance 1 or 2 of them might not apply to the story you’re telling. But the answers to most of these questions should exist, even if I’m never going to specifically spell them out in my story.

Y’see, Timmy, if I can answer all of these… look at what I’ve got. It means I’ve got characters. I’ve got an established norm. I’ve got an inciting incident. I’ve got goals and motivations and obstacles. And these are the kind of things that form the bare bones of an outline. They should spell out a basic plot and story. If I can answer these, I know I’ve got an actual story.

And if I can’t… well… odds are I’ve got some more work to do.

Hey, speaking of bonus posts, I wanted to toss out something else seasonal on Monday or Tuesday. And then back to our usually scheduled rants on Thursday.

Until then, get back to writing! Go on… write!

September 19, 2019

Revenge! For Wanda!!

Finally! At long last the day has come! Don’t act so surprised—you know what you did and you’ve known it would…

…you don’t? Oh. Well, this makes things a little awkward, doesn’t it?

Look, we’ve all been waiting for this for a while. Revenge. The moment Yakko finally gets his comeuppance for what he did to me and my friends. Today’s the day he learns just how big a mistake that was. He crossed the wrong guy that day.

Plus, let’s be honest. Revenge stories can be loads of fun. John Wick. Arya Stark. The Wraith. Okay, probably not the Wraith, for a couple of the reasons I’m going to be talking about here. Thing is, a well done tale of revenge can check off a ton of storytelling boxes and almost everyone is up for it. Seriously. There’s something just so wonderfully cathartic about them.

But… by the same token, a good revenge story is kind of a balancing act. Not too much of that, just enough of those, and that base has to be juuussssstperfect if it’s going to support this whole thing. If one of these things is off, my whole story can stumble pretty easily. More than one and… well, I’m probably going to faceplant. Hard.

It struck me that I’ve seen a lot of stories make that faceplant. Sometimes in books, sometimes on screen. Sometimes, while poking around looking for Saturday geekery movies, I come across some things where it’s clear just from the description that they’ve hit the ground hard. So I figured it might be worth going over a few of those key elements to keep in mind. Y’know, before we go out to seek revenge on those who wronged us…

And, as always, this is just me babbling on. There has been no exhaustive study of the canon and there are always going to be exceptions. But I’ve been mulling on this for a while and I feel like it’s a pretty solid checklist.

First off, right at the start, is this something that actually needs revenging? Yeah, we all understand why John Wick goes after the guys who killed his dog. But what if they’d called his dog ugly or stupid? There’s the bully who puts cigarettes out on Wakko’s arms, but also the one who shoots poorly-aimed spitballs in class. Someone can blow up my car, or they can blow up my car with my partner and cats trapped in it. Some of these acts deserve wild, hard-bitten revenge and others…
Well, I mean they’re still bad, but are they really revenge-worthy? Should I really dedicate my life to balancing the scales just because somebody torched my Yaris? Or stole my lunch from the break room fridge? That would seem a little extreme, yes?

In this sense, a revenge story’s a lot like a redemption arc. I need my reader-empathy set to high so I  have an honest sense of how this first, inciting act (ooooh, inciting act–doesn’t that sound all professional)  is going to be viewed by my readers. Will they agree it’s something that requires vengeance?

Second thing is whether or not my character is the person who should be getting revenge. To use an earlier example, if someone kills John Wick’s dog, we completely understand why he goes on his revenge spree. It’s an intensely personal loss for him… but it isn’t for the nice old woman he runs into on the beach sometimes who liked to pet the dog. She might be upset, even angry to hear the news, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to go get revenge, does it?

Revenge is a very personal thing. So the more removed and unconnected my protagonist gets from that actual act, the less it feels like revenge and the more it feels… well, it could be a bunch of things as we get farther away. Maybe Dot hired a hitman to get revenge, so he might be administering the beatdown or pulling the trigger, but for him it’s really just a job. And that police detective obsessed with the case? Well, for her it’s more about justice than vengeance. So revenge tends to stay tight and intimate. Personally, I think it needs to be a family thing, even if you want to take the broader sense of family (in that I can consider my best friends or my teammates “family”).

My third point is very much my own, but it’s also probably the one I feel strongest about here. I think it’s a key part of a revenge story. The person or persons my protagonist is getting revenge against must know why this is happening. Yeah it’s really cool that my heroine’s picking off the folks who killed her family one by one with a sniper rifle. But if they don’t know why it’s happening, who this ruthless killer is… then isn’t this just a random killing spree?

I feel that a big part of a revenge story is that it’s kind of symbiotic, from a storytelling point of view. It’s a relationship between the revenger and the revengee, so to speak, and one sided relationships are always just… well, weird. They need to go both ways. Yes, we want Phoebe to get her revenge, but we also want Yakko to know why she’s doing this. Why is she coming after him? Why is she doing these things? He needs to acknowledge this, one way or another—even if he just dismisses it (“…but I’d do it all again, lady, whoever you are!”).

And the reason for this is that we understand, on some level, that if Yakko doesn’t know why this is happening, then he’s just a victim. Not an innocent victim, no, but still just a victim. It’s the difference between my character seeing their empire torn apart and them knowing why it’s being torn apart.

Which leads me very nicely to my fourth and final point. Revenge can be a messy business. Very messy. Blood is often spilled, property is usually destroyed. And we’re all cool with that. We like seeing people getting what’s coming to them. Maybe even with a little interest.

That’s where it gets tricky. It’s really easy in a revenge story to go too far with the blood spilling and the property damage. And when I do, that’s when my protagonist stops being the hero and becomes a monster in their own right. Yes, we understand why John Wick wants revenge for his dog being killed. But if his response was to go visit the families of everyone involved and kill theirdogs right in front of their kids…? Well, I don’t think most of us would be rooting for him quite as much. Likewise, if Phoebe gets revenge on the guy who killed her husband by… oh sweet jeebus she dissolved him alive in a lye pit? Seriously? And the crane just lowered him a couple inches a day? It took eight and a half days for him to die? I mean, at this point it’s essentially a torture porn story where we’re being asked to root for the killer.

In a lot of ways, revenge is like something I’ve talked about before—the bully balance. Once those scales tip, our mood is going to shift, too. We stop feeling good about the revenge and we start feeling sympathy for the people they’re exacting revenge on. Again, they become the victim and my protagonist becomes the aggressor. Which alters… everything. The whole tone of my story will change, and a lot of things will be questioned. Not in a good way.
Y’see Timmy, in the end a revenge story is all about the characters. Why are they doing this? How are they doing it? Are they managing to walk that tightrope between being a hero and being a monster?  Or have they fallen off it…?

Next time… I think I want to talk about something we usually don’t talk about.

Until then… go write.