December 14, 2023 / 1 Comment

Three Random Answers

So, a few weeks back Rhyen asked three (supposedly) unrelated questions…

1. Have you ever used index cards for plotting?

2. Have you tried Scrivener?

3. (Stealing from the Colbert Questionnaire) What is the best sandwich?

I shall now answer these in reverse order. Just because.

First (or 3.) the best sandwich is clearly a turkey club with bacon. Once you move away from childhood classics like PB&J or baloney and cheese, the club the bedrock on which all “adult” sandwiches are built. Multiple meats, multiple veg, multiple condiments, works with almost any type of bread. There’s a reason it’s in the Criterion Collection of sandwiches. Sure, people will offer you more elaborate sandwich creations all the time—different meats, stranger veg, unusual condiments, is that even technically a bread? But that’s just it– they’re all trying to make more elaborate, overcomplicated versions of the classic.

I am, of course, open to hearing counterarguments on this, as long as you understand up front that you’re wrong.

Now, if you’re still with me after that…

Second, I haven’t tried Scrivener. I tend to just work in whatever my current word processing program is and have never been a fan of software that “helps” me do things. This goes back to my (attempted) screenwriting days. My current book and the one I finished earlier this year were both written in Open Office. Everything for about twenty years before that was plain old Word. Before that I was using a program called AmiPro.

Why? Well, I get uneasy whenever a piece of software (or a writing course, or a book) starts offering options or suggestions. F’r example, I’ve never once considered breaking all my chapters into individual files/documents. But it’s an option in Scrivener. Is that good or bad? Who knows? Up to you. Reference photos for locations? You can add those, too. Oh, you don’t have any reference photos…?

See, I think for a lot of folks, once an option like this is put out there—especially put out there by a vetted authority like this piece of writing software—it makes us think “huh, should I be doing that?” And because we tend to see books or machines as the voice of authority, I think some folks keep doing the thing the software suggested they do. Even when it doesn’t work for them. The computer wouldn’t lie to me, right?

To be clear, I’m not saying Scrivener is bad. My partner uses it and she loves it. I’m just saying folks should approach any piece of writing software—and all the bells and whistles they offer—as possibilities, not necessities. If you think it might help you, cool. Try it out. But if you ultimately feel like it doesn’t help, then just stop. It doesn’t matter if it works for a dozen writers you follow, it just matters that it works for you.

There’s probably a whole post about this sort of thing. Maybe in the new year…

Anyway, third (or 1.), no, I haven’t used index cards for plotting. I think I tried once (back in high school, maybe?) just as a character-notes thing, but even that didn’t sit right with me for some reason. When it comes to plotting, I tend to work right on the page, moving sentences back and forth in my outline (or just drawing arrows if I’m using a legal pad)

But that’s just me. And a few other folks I know. But I do know writers who use index cards and swear by them. Some go so far as to color-code the cards for different plots and subplots and story threads. I also know some folks who just pull them out to work through problems. And there are folks who use index card software, whiteboards, and look there’s a bunch of ways to do plot stuff out. I can tell you what’s worked for me, but it might not work for you.

I will say this, though—if I’m using index cards to plot out a book (or screenplay or whatever), I want to make sure the cards are plot beats, not details. “Miles fights all the alternate versions of Spider-Man” is a beat. “The fight spills out of headquarters and into the city” is a beat. “One of the alternate Spider-folks is a Tyrannosaurus” is a detail. Just remember, beats move the story along, but details stack up on beats.

This also might into that early-new year post. Or maybe I’ll just do a whole post about plotting? We’ll see…

Anyway, that’s three questions answered. See? Posting comments does do something!

Also, last week I signed a bunch of books at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. I believe they’ve still got a few copies of The Broken Room, Paradox Bound, The Fold, and Ex-Isle. If you’re looking for Christmas gifts, it’s probably too late to ship anything without ridiculous charges, but if you’re in the LA area… they’re right there in Burbank. Just saying…

Next time… let’s talk about all those Hallmark-y Christmas movies. You know the ones I’m talking about.

Until then, go write.

September 3, 2020 / 2 Comments

Comedy Hour!

I know I said I was going to talk a bit about endings but I had this kind of funny epiphany at the grocery store the other day. As in, an actual epiphany about funny things. No, really…

I’ve wanted to talk about comedy for a while. I tried once years ago, but—to be really honest—I didn’t quite have the vocabulary for it at the time. I’m not sure I do now, but at least I thought up two things that sounds kind of clever. That’s better than nothing.

Once or thrice I’ve brought up my bad movie habits and explained them. A fairly common thing I’ve seen are movies that bill themselves as comedies or something-comedies. I say “as” because they’re rarely funny, and I think there’s two big reasons for that. Well, three, but the third one’s not really relevant here. Maybe some other time. For now, two big reasons.

One is that comedy is very empathy-dependent. Possibly more than any other type of writing. If I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes, I’m going to have a tough time figuring out how to make them laugh.

The second reason is what I wanted to blather on about.

I’ve talked about genres and subgenres here a few times. Sometimes these subgenres have really specific rules. Take horror for example. Cosmic horror stories are not the same as slashers, which are not the same as supernatural thrillers, which are nothing like torture porn, which definitely aren’t monster stories. Or mysteries! There’s over a dozen sub-genres for mysteries, and publishers take them very seriously. Cozies, noir, capers, amateur sleuth, professional sleuth, procedurals… every one of them has their own expectations and requirements and guidelines. I can’t write a cozy mystery about a serial killer who collects his victims’ genitalia. They just don’t work that way.

Comedy is the same way. There are satires, spoofs, farces, romcoms, dramedys, and many more. And just like above, each of these has certain rules and expectations. I can’t just throw down a pile of funny things and declare it to be a spoof. And truth be told, no matter how big that pile of funny things is, I might not even be able to call it a comedy.

Y’see, Timmy, funny is to comedy the same way notes are to music (that’s clever thing #1). You need one to make the other, but that doesn’t mean a pile of one equals the other. I don’t expect thirty random notes to come together and make a song—we all understand I need to arrange them in a certain way, they need to work together, they need to have a certain flow to them. Just like a pile of random ideas doesn’t make a plot, just because I’ve got a pile of funny beats doesn’t mean I’ve got a comedy. What’s funny at the bar might not be as funny at work. That little bit of physical comedy from your date is definitelynot going to go over the same way at work. Heck, it might not have even been that funny on the date.

If you don’t want to believe me, I had a chance to talk with Kevin Smith years ago and we discussed ad-libs. He pointed out something you hadn’t planned or scripted can be incredibly funny on set, but the important thing is that it works in the editing room. Just because it’s funny doesn’t automatically mean it’ll make sense in the final film. ”It’s not germane to the discussion,” was how he put it.

When I’m writing a comedy story or screenplay, I need to be aware of what kind of story I’m telling. Am I adding things because they work within the framework I’ve established and they propel the narrative forward… or am I putting it in because people laugh at poop jokes? Is this part of the comedy, or is it just some random funny element? One that’s hopefully still funny in this context. Hopefully.

More doesn’t always mean better. Just because I add more funny things doesn’t mean I’ve made a better comedy, in the same way that just because I added more types of robots doesn’t mean I wrote a better sci-fi story. And really… does anyone think a bunch of jump scares make for a better horror movie?

Remember, whatever it is I’m writing, my elements should serve my story, not my genre.

(and that’s clever thing #2).

Hey, speaking of whatever it is I’m writing, he said by means of a segue, the exclusive period on my novel Terminus has ended. That means you can pick up the ebook version of the book right now. It’s not narrated by Ray Porter, yeah, but I did include a nice-sized afterword where I talked about where some parts of the book came from and how a lot of the characters developed. And if you’ve been waiting all this time for it, I made it fairly cheap, too, as a small “thank you” for your patience.

Next time… endings. Definitely.

Until then, go write.

Here we are yet again. Welcome back, my captive audience. How’s everybody doing as we enter week… two? Three? How long have you been social-distancing at this point? Yeah, it sucks, but he way these numbers are going there’s a good chance you’re saving someone just by staying at home and… well, reading this.

Anyway, I know originally the A2Q was going to be an every other week thing, but we’re getting to some of the meatier stuff so I just wanted to continue with it. If anyone has any complaints, let me know down in the comments what you’d rather have me prattle on about.

But for now… more A2Q.

It’s finally time to start putting things together. We’ve talked about plot, characters, story, setting, and theme. Now let’s talk a bit about how to put them all together and take a few big steps toward a manuscript.

Also, I’m going to warn you right up front… things are going to get a little vague here. As we get deeper into this it gets harder and harder for me to write out advice because you (yes, I’m talking to you, specifically) are your own person. You’re a writer with your own quirks and habits and preferences. And your story is your story. Nobody knows it like you do. Nobody knows how it should be told better than you. Which means a lot of this is going to be on your shoulders. I can offer you some general guidance, but it’s going to come down to you.

Think of it this way—and this actually ties in well to today’s topic. Let’s say you want to go on a road trip and ask me for advice. I’ve taken a bunch of road trips, but there’s only so much I can tell you without knowing about you, your interests, what kind of trip you want to take, in what direction, and for how long. My advice and experience might not line up with what you want to do. Doesn’t mean what your idea for a trip is wrong, and it doesn’t mean my advice is bad. It just means we all have different ways of doing different things

Also-also… this is kind of a huge step. It might not seem it, but it is. We’re going to take this huge pile of elements, arrange them, connect them, and try to do it all in a way so this contraption of words creates specific emotional and intellectual reactions from people we don’t even know.

Nervous yet? Don’t be. Well, I mean, you can be, but you don’t need to worry about it. We all get nervous at this point. Yeah, seriously. Everyone. Yep, even her. Him too. And her. Okay, no, not him—he’s kinda delusional. Nice guy, but take his advice with a grain of salt.

Also-the-third… speaking of fear, there’s one other really important thing to keep in mind at this point. Absolutely nothing we’re doing is set in stone. It’s not like once I put this element here and connect it to that it’s fused solid and they can never be moved or separated again. They can and they will. Nothing’s locked. We’ll be changing things now, and while we write it, and while we’re editing it. So I don’t need to stress out too much while I’m doing this.

Anyway…

I thought about this for a little bit, and I think there are four big pieces of advice I want to offer you at this stage. Plus a dozen or so links to earlier posts where I’ve talked about some of this stuff in much more detail. When the A2Q gets a book deal, I’ll make sure more of that stuff’s right here, but for now—links.

So, when we’re talking about arranging and connecting all these elements, there are four things I think we need to keep in mind.

—What parts do and don’t belong in my book
—The starting point
—The end point
—How I’m going to tell my story

Let’s talk about each of these and how they relate to that big pile of elements.

First, which of these elements do and don’t belong in my book. Which ones are part of the tale I’m telling and which ones are backstory or character details. I need to sift through them and figure out which ones belong in which pile.

Now, I know the first instinct is to say “it all matters,” and in one sense that’s true. All of these backstory elements and little nuances are going to affect my character and shape the kind of person they are. But that doesn’t mean they all need to be in my book. Some of these things will just stay in my notes or in my head and shape things from there.

Also, we mentioned weeding them out earlier but even so there’s a good chance some of the elements we talked about before that just don’t fit anymore. They’re good ideas, they just don’t work for this particular book, or maybe the book it’s become as I gathered all the different elements and polished them off a bit. The werewolf being a cyborg from the future? Really fun, I bet I could do it well, but it’s not going to fit here. Part of doing this is realizing that and accepting it. Not every idea works for every book.

Don’t worry—if Tor picks this up for a series, we’ll definitely see the time-traveling werewolf by book three.

Second is the starting point. Where am I going to begin my book? What is page one going to be? I think this gets messed up a lot, for a couple different reasons….

One is that, as the writers, we know all the lead-up events, and the impulse is to put them all in. But this quickly becomes a trap, because there are always going to be earlier events that lead to these events. I don’t want to start with the police detectives at the crime scene, I want to start with the jogger finding the body. Except I don’t want to start with finding the body, I want to start with the murder. Except I don’t want to start with the murder, I want to begin where the murder was being planned. Except I don’t want to start with the murder being planned, I want to see the event that pushed her into killing him. Except I don’t want to see that event…

See what I mean? We can always go further back. So one of our jobs is to figure out where do things actually begin for my heroes.

Another way this gets messed up feeds a bit off the last one, and it’s the old “start with action” thing. I’ve talked about this at length before, but essentially it’s a piece of advice that gets misunderstood a lot by people starting out. They twist their outline to begin with exploding cyborg ninja conflict when it might just need two people arguing about laundry from different ends of their house.

Finally, feeding off both of the last points, I think there’s some other bad advice out there that usually takes the form of “get into it as quickly as possible.” Again, this advice isn’t wrong, it’s just lacking context. Which is kind of my point—if I dive into the story too fast I won’t have time to establish any sort of norm for my heroes. Without that context—the bar to measure everything else in the book against—things won’t have the proper weight and I’ll just be confusing my readers. So I don’t want to spend five or six chapters on my hero’s normal, day-to-day life, but I can’t neglect it, either.

Third is the end point. No matter what kind of road trip I’m planning, I need to have some idea where I want to end up. Maybe this is just a long weekend away and we’re going to end up back home. Maybe it’s a longer-than-necessary trip to visit a friend. Maybe I’m moving cross country.

Whatever kind I decide it is, it’s hard to have any sort of structure if I don’t know where I’m going. I can’t tell if I’m going the right way when I don’t know what direction the right way is. It becomes less a book and more of a firehose with nobody holding the end, just thrashing around and spraying water everywhere as it slams into things.

Keep in mind, I don’t need to know exactly where I’m going. For road trip purposes, I can just say “I’m gonna drive to Los Angeles.” I don’t need a specific part of town or  a street address or the name of a nice restaurant for dinner. I can figure out the details when I get there. But I want to have enough sense of my ending that I can say “I need to head north-west from here.”

And also… there’s nothing wrong with deciding to change destinations halfway through. Maybe I’m going to shoot straight through LA and head for San Francisco. Maybe I’m going to veer off and spend a long weekend in Las Vegas. Or out a Joshua Tree. But at any given point, I should be able to say “I’m trying to get to there.”

Fourth and last of these key things is how I’m going to tell my tale. How am I going to arrange things in an interesting, compelling narrative that also creates ongoing, climbing tension? Do I want to use a straight linear narrative? A series of flashbacks? Am I going to have a completely non-linear structure?

All of these are big questions. In the past I’ve talked about structure and it usually covers three pretty big posts. I’m not going to go over them all at length here, but in my opinion it’s always best to make sure my linear structure makes sense before I try to work in lots of flashbacks, time shifts, or the like. There haven’t been a ton of studies that I know of, but I think readers always know, on some level, if a book doesn’t make linear sense.

But past that, a lot of this is going to depend on you and your tastes. It’s how you want to tell your tale, after all. Maybe you want to start simple, or maybe you’re going straight to the most complex, interwoven plot you can manage. That’s all your choice, and you’ll need to think about it as you start outlining.

Speaking of which…

With those four things in mind, let’s try to make some kind of outline. Again, this is something I’ve talked about a couple times before, so I don’t want to talk too much here (look how big this is already). But let’s try to address a few things.

You’ve probably got a ton of plot and story points piled up so far. Little snippets of dialogue, cool action moments, neat reveals, maybe some good character beats. For now, let’s just deal with plot and story elements. Try to get them more or less together in one document. What do you have, two or three pages? More?

What I generally do at this point is start rearranging things. I want to put all these in some kind of order pretty close to my story. I think a quick, easy tool here is basic three act structure. Beginning, middle, end. Grab any plot element out of your pile. Seriously, look at your list, close your eyes, point your finger at something.

Now, gut reaction, is this element from the beginning, the middle, or the end of your book? Is it one of those basic establishing/introducing/setting-things-up points? Is it one of the last big twists? Don’t think about it, just drop it where it goes. You’ve probably already got a sense of where these things belong, so don’t overthink it for now. Remember—if it doesn’t work, we can always fix it later.

Once you’ve got them all arranged, read through it. Does it make sense? Does it feel like it’s lacking anything? If there’s stuff you’ve kept in your head (there’s always a few things) feel free to jot those down now, too. If you want to swap a few things around, that’s cool too. Just poke at it for a day or three until it feels like a loose summary of your story. Not a complete one, but I want enough of one that I can see the shape of it.

That thing in front of you is an outline. A simple one, but that’s what it is. If we’re talking about a road trip, this is our rough map. Or maybe an itinerary? Little of both, really.

And this brings us back to another “up to you” moment. Maybe this simple outline’s enough for you. Your brain’s buzzing to get to work, to start writing. If that’s the case, go for it. But if you want a little more that this—if you want a more detailed map or a few more things locked down on the itinerary, that’s cool too. Start pulling in your character elements, maybe add a few setting details where they’d be relevant.

For my first book, Ex-Heroes, I barely had an outline. One page of random notes, most of them about characters, a lot of stuff still in my head. For my last book, Terminus, the outline was 23 pages long. And for this new thing I’m working on, I think I had three pages of notes when I launched into it. It’s going to be different for every writer and it’s going to be different for every book. So don’t worry if yours is “right” or not. Just work with it until you think it’s enough to keep you on track from the beginning to the end.

All that said… let’s toss down a few elements of our werewolf story, move them around a bit, and see what we end up with. It’s going to be rough because it’s just for me. You’ll probably recognize a couple of these elements from earlier A2Q posts…

+++++

Start with Phoebe and Luna at home.  Both getting ready to go out for the evening, but Luna’s heading out to another party and Phoebe’s going hunting. So they’re looking for things, asking who borrowed what, warning each other to be safe, and so on.

Phoebe’s going to be out hunting and encounter the super-werewolf (although she doesn’t know it’s super yet, or who it is). She’s going to put a silver crossbow bolt in it and it’s going to ignore it and run off. This will also give her a chance to grumble about losing a silver bolt because they’re expensive. She can track it for a while, find the bolt… but no body.

The next morning Phoebe goes to the lodge and we meet Luc and talk about hunting last night, if he saw anything noteworthy. Maybe some one-sided flirting?

Intro. Andrea.  Maybe Andrea’s actually the head of the lodge. Warden? That sounds Masonic without going all weird with “master.” She’s willing to entertain the ‘super-werewolf” idea, and will pay an extra $2500 bounty for proof.

Down to check in with Quinn. Crossbow took a beating last night. One knife needs a nick ground out of it.

Gets a call from her job at the bar—she’s late, supposed to be there for deliveries.

Go to the bar, intro. her “norm” boss.

Work night.

After work??

Breakfast with Luna the next day. Talk about the bounty, using it to pay for college?

+++++

It’s very, very loose, but I think that’s eight or nine chapters right there. Into the second act, easy. It’s also very straightforward and linear. I’d write out more of it, but as I mentioned… this is getting ridiculously long.

One thing that immediately occurs to me—and I’ve come up against this before—werewolf stories have an inherent time limit built into them, especially if I want to go “classic” light-of-the-full-moon werewolves. And that is… the full moon only comes out every four weeks. So I’m looking at a lot of time here with, well, no werewolves in it. I’ll need to space a few things out and skip over some time. Which won’t be a huge problem since I’ve already said Phoebe’s stuck with a normal job and Luna doesn’t know she’s the werewolf.

What I might do, right now, is take the bit with Quinn and drop it down to the bottom of this little outline fragment. So that just became another day. Plus, now it means Phoebe’s getting that call from her day job while she’s in her meeting with Andrea, which can create some fun.

And at this point, forget about writing a book—I’m worried the sheer size of this post might be intimidating to some of you.

Get your elements. Organize them. Make your road map, and make it as simple or detailed as you like.

Next time… our first draft.

Until then, go write.

February 1, 2020 / 7 Comments

A2Q Part Two—The Plot

Hey, here we are back with the A2Q. Sorry this is a day late. Yesterday was a big day for me, and it ended up eating a lot of my time. In a good way.

Anyway, last time in the A2Q we talked about ideas. How to find them, collect them, and clean them up for later use. Now I want to talk about plots. We’ll go over what they are, why we need them, and how to put one together using that big pile of ideas we’ve gathered up and had sitting on our desk for a few months now.

In my mind, a plot has three basic parts. It establishes a norm. It gives us some kind of conflict. And then we resolve that conflict. Again, just me, but I think if my plot doesn’t have these three identifiable components, it’s going to be tough to get anyone interested in it.

Let’s go over each of them.

First, we need to establish what passes for “normal” in the world of my book. Maybe it’s the modern world as you and I both know it. Maybe it’s the historical world of the 17th century. Perhaps it’s a future world where planets settle all their grievances and negotiations with gladitorial games. Or possibly it’s the modern world but werewolves exist and everybody knows about them.

I know a lot of folks push for diving right in as quickly as possible, but there’s a reason this step is important. If I don’t establish what’s normal and natural in this world—or at least what my characters think is normal and natural—I can’t have anything unnatural happen to them. This can be a little tough if “normal” means living in a world with space elevators and moonbases, or a Victorian steampunk world, or a modern world where werewolves are real, but I really believe it’s vital. If I don’t establish what’s possible, everything that happens in my book becomes questionable, as do all my characters’ reactions to it.Yeah, you and I might freak out to see a werewolf run in front of our car tonight, but for the residents of WereWorld this is just another Thursday. It’s normal.

Second, we need to establish some kind of conflict. Whatever that norm is our characters are used to, something has to break it. By its very nature, today should be something out of the ordinary, because if this was a regular, day-to-day challenge our characters would already know how to deal with it, right? And if they know how to deal with it, it’s not that interesting. We want to see the day things change, the day our characters have to deal with something that knocks them out of their comfort zone and forces them to impress us somehow.

Now, throughout the course of our book, there may be a bunch of challenges my characters need to deal with. If a werewolf murders my character’s lover but nobody believes in werewolves, she could have a ton of people after her—the police, the FBI, her psychiatrist, maybe even a werewolf hunter who thinks she was bitten. But there should be a main, overall conflict that’s driving everything. In this particular case, it’s our character trying to prove werewolves are real and she’s innocent. Almost everything builds off of that.

Third, we need to resolve this conflict. We can’t tell our readers there’s a ravenous werewolf storming through my hero’s hometown killing everyone it can and then just… never refer to it again. If Dot’s dream all this time has been to ask out the cheerleader, then she needs to ask out the cheerleader (or at least address why she doesn’t need to ask out the cheerleader anymore). A big part of any book’s success is how we tie things up at the end which means… well, we need to tie things up at the end. When was the last time you or someone you know praised a book for not resolving anything?

Something else that kinda needs to be addressed. When the conflict’s resolved, it needs to be my hero who resolves it. I don’t want to follow Wakko for 300 pages and then have Phoebe step in to save the day at the end. All that tells me is we should’ve been following Phoebe all this time. Which means I write a book about the wrong character.

Now, with all that in mind, let’s talk about how we can fit a bunch of ideas together to make a plot.

And before we get into that, I want to go over something I mentioned last time. It’s one of the early obstacles we need to overcome in this book-writing process. And that’s understanding that one idea won’t become a book. An idea is just a single, lonely thing, and we need a couple of them together to make a plot.

F’r example, let’s go with this idea— There’s a werewolf in the forest.

Now, I bet your brains are already hopping with this, right? Thinking of ways it can go. Well, that’s just what I mean when I say one idea isn’t a book. We all immediately, instinctively understand there has to be more than this. I just mentioned that a plot has three parts, so it stands to reason that it needs at least three ideas. A lone idea should force us to consider other ideas. Is it a hungry werewolf? Is it intelligent? Is the forest close to our characters? Are they in the forest? Do they know about the werewolf? Does anyone else know about it? Are they hunting the werewolf? Is the werewolf hunting them?

This is where we shall deploy our most powerful plot building tool… conjunctions! Yes, just like in that old Schoolhouse Rock cartoon? Am I dating myself with that? Never mind, you all know what conjunctions are.

When I’m assembling a plot, I’m going to be stringing ideas together with and, but, and sometimes or. Think of one of your favorite books or shows or movies. If I asked you right now to explain it to me, you’d end up using lots of conjunctions describing it as the ideas stack up.

We’re out for our evening walk but there’s a werewolf in the forest and the werewolf’s terribly hungry for human flesh and the forest is right on the edge of town and the werewolf is a time-travelling cyborg and the werewolf is also a Sagittarius but there’s still a chance we can stop the werewolf. We just need to get some silver bullets and shoot the werewolf with them or the werewolf will kill us all and getting killed would be really bad.

Let’s talk about that little pile of ideas I tried to make into a plot.

First off, hopefully you can see what I was talking about. Each little bit is a separate idea. On their own they’re not much, but as we tie them together they become part of the larger whole. I established a norm, I introduced a conflict, and I’ve floated at least two possible resolutions. It’s very basic and no frills, but it’s a pretty solid plot.

Second, plot is almost always about doing something. To be more specific, the attempt to do something. My characters are doing something. The werewolf is doing something. Plot is active. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, our plot is going to boil down to “X is trying to Y.” Kamala is trying to balance superheroics and schoolwork. The Mandalorian is trying to protect the Child. Benoit Blanc is trying to solve a murder. Detective Pikachu is trying to find Harry Goodman.

As I mentioned above, the thing our characters are doing should be something out of their wheelhouse, something that puts them in an uncomfortable place. If everyone knows werewolves are real, Phoebe’s a professional werewolf hunter, and she’s out there in the woods with a quiver full of silver crossbow bolts… again, this is just a Thursday night in WereWorld. But if she puts three of those silver crossbow bolts straight through the werewolf’s heart and they do nothing… well, crap, what’s she supposed to do now? She only really had the one trick and that werewolf looks very much still alive and super pissed now.

Third is taking that second point a necessary step farther. Plot is almost always (again, about 99% of the time) about the attempt to deal with an external problem. Enemies. Society. Corporate banks. Androids. Aggressive jocks. Harsh professors. Werewolves. They’re external things that affect our characters, and simultaneously they’re things our characters need to deal with or address, one way or another.

Also, just because somebody always takes things too literally, when I say external, I’m referring to the characters as people—their consciousness, not their physical forms. If Wakko wakes up with a bomb implanted in his stomach or Phoebe gets a sudden case of super-lycanthropy, yes these threats are inside their bodies, but they’re still outside forces. They’re things that aren’t part of them, that they have no control over. We’re going to get to internal things later, don’t worry.

Make sense? Okay, lemme throw out two more plot-related things. A warning and a consideration. And I’m going to use a different metaphor for each one

First is a warning. Last time, while were talking about ideas, I said we could think of ideas as puzzle pieces. Like building puzzles, we need to get a sense of what ideas fit best where, and also… which ones don’t fit at all. With puzzle pieces, we can look at the tabs and the slots, as well as what’s on the puzzle piece itself, and get a good sense of what goes where. The piece that’s all off-white moon and the piece that’s all night sky most likely don’t connect directly to each other. There’s going to be one or two pieces between them. Heck, maybe a lot of pieces. And that one with the flat side is clearly an edge—it’s not going to end up in the middle somewhere.

Likewise, that smaller bright green piece with grass on it and the notably smaller tabs… well, odds are prety good that’s not even part of this puzzle. We can see that it doesn’t belong and get rid of it pretty quick. We don’t want to spend a lot of time wrestling with something that clearly isn’t going to fit anywhere.

Look at my sample plot up there. Two of those plot points probably stood out to you. One is the werewolf being a time traveling cyborg. I mean, it’s a cool idea, but does it belong right there? Should it maybe be something we know from the start, or something we figure out at the end? Just dropped in right there it feels a bit jarring, yes?

Still, not as bad as the werewolf being a Sagittarius. It’s a funny bit, but funny doesn’t really fit with anything else there, does it? Maybe if the tone of the book was kinda different. But as is, it feels a little too goofy alongside talk of a flesh-eating werewolf charging out of the forest. I may really need to think about getting rid of it. Or changing some other things to make it fit better.

Plus, let’s be realistic—any decent monster is a Scorpio.

This is a really tough thing to get a handle on—the idea that an idea can be good but not good for my book. We tend to think that a good idea is good no matter what, and in a way that’s true. But we’re not talking about ideas as individual things. We’re talking about them in that greater, interlocked pattern that’s our plot. And sometimes a really cool idea just doesn’t fit. No matter how amazing that little piece of green grass looks, it just doesn’t go with the other pieces in this puzzle.

Now, here’s my other thing for you to think about—a different way to consider plot.

Raise your hand if you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons. C’mon, we’re all geeks here. If not D&D, I’m sure you’re familiar with some sort of pen-and-paper roll playing game. Gamma World? Vampire: The Masquerade?

Okay, since some of you are still feeling shy, a common element here is for a Dungeon Master (aka “the DM”) to draw out a map of the town/castle/catacombs/crashed spaceship our adventurers will be exploring. The DM draws out every room, tunnel, antechamber, hidden staircase, and so on, usually with a few extra details about what can be found in each area. This is the rough framework of the adventure.

This framework is very similar to how we build a plot. Lots of conjunctions, right? The adventurers will travel through an archway and a hallway and a thick oak door and a room and a hidden door behind a tapestry and a tunnel or a staircase and then a vault. Each element we add takes us further along the path, moving us toward some kind of conclusion. Hopefully one where our rogue, Yakko, doesn’t end up dead again.

Now, with this metaphor in mind, let me ask you this. Have you ever sat down for a night of D&D with that person who’s just a little too enthusiastic that they finally get to DM? And they’re going to design the most amazing dungeon ever? We hit that first room behind the thick oak door and there’s twenty skeletons and they all have +2 swords and +3 shields and there’s a werewolf and she has a +4 flaming axe and the helm of disintergration and the floor is really a giant Trapper and the ceiling’s a Lurker Above and

I’m guessing most of you are familiar with this kind of DM, in theory if not in personal experience?

Here’s what I wanted to point out. Notice how this version of the dungeon has just as many conjunctions, but it doesn’t actually go anywhere? After all those conjunctions, we still haven’t moved past the first room in the dungeon. We haven’t progressed at all.

This is something we need to watch out for. Not all of the ideas in our big pile are going to be part of the plot. Some of them are going to be details, and we don’t want to confuse details for plot points. My conjunctions shouldn’t all pile up in one place, just building and expanding this one area. They need to keep moving us into new rooms and new halls, all of which are leading us, again, toward that eventual end. We can add a lot of things to our plot with conjunctions, but do they actually move the plot along? Do they force our characters to make decisions and take actions?

So, to sum up a few points. My plot establishes the norm, introduces conflict, and then resolves conflict. It’s more than one idea, all with solid connections. It’s an active attempt to do something, and that something is almost always going to be some kind of external issue. And plot is moving our characters through the book.

After all this, you’ve probably guessed what I’m talking about in the next A2Q. Characters. How we come up with them. How we develop them. How we fit them into our plot.

But that won’t be for three weeks—next time here I want to talk about an old favorite, and the week after that is a little Valentine’s Day advice. And then back to the the A2Q for maybe two sections in a row.

Oh, and if you somehow missed it, my latest book, Terminus, just came out as an Audible exclusive. Go check out that beautiful landing page they set up on the other side of the link. It’s got a bunch of clips, a video chat between me and the narrator—the wonderful Ray Porter—and of course the book itself.

So until next time… go write.

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