I touched on something a few weeks back that I thought was worth revisiting.
It’s not unusual for us to set stories in fantastic worlds that are close to our own, or maybe not close at all. Maybe it’s our world but with magic. Maybe it’s a futuristic sci-fi utopia or a historical zombie apocalypse. I’ve talked here once or thrice about the Marvel Universe, and how living there would require an entirely different worldview.
There’s a certain kind of worldbuilding we could probably call “everything you know is wrong” or maybe “revealing the world behind the world.” It’s one of those stories that starts off as the real world, or maybe a real world, except then our heroes come to learn that there’s a lot more to their world than they believed. We establish that we’re here on Earth, in the real world, and then BAM! Aliens are real, and they live among us! Reality is actually a complex computer simulation. Secret vampire cabals rule the world.
We’ve all seen some version of this, yes? This moment usually comes right before we start our second act. Now that my characters know what the world really is, they can learn what challenges they’re really up against.
That’s what I mentioned before, but wanted to focus on a bit today. The idea that worldbuilding has to happen in the start of my story. I can fill in details later, but the broad strokes stuff needs to happen early on. Definitely in the first half, I’m tempted to say preferably in the first act.
The reason it needs to happen this early is context. I’ve talked about this a bit before, too. In this case, it’s how we know what’s possible—or what my character thinks is possible—within the world of the story. If we don’t know what’s normal in a story, how do I know what’s supposed to surprise us? I mean, what would be unbelievable in this world? How do I know if my characters are reacting appropriately? If I’m going to keep altering the rules of the world as the story goes on and on, it makes it harder and harder to get invested in the world and the characters.
So if I’m doing some major worldbuilding in act three… it probably means I’m cheating a bit. I’m rewriting the rules in a big way at the last minute. Suddenly, with less than a hundred pages to go, there’s time travel or ghosts or aliens or teleportation or something that puts a whole new spin on everything! And odds are I’m doing it to create some suspense or a new challenge or to get my characters out of a challenge.
And, well… that’s cheating.
Actually, think of it like playing a game. We should have a general sense of all the rules before we really get going. Even if we just handwave over things for now and say “Fighting the basilisk, ehhhh, we’ll get to that one if it ever comes up,” this still tells us there’s the chance of running into a basilisk and there might be special rules for fighting it. So it won’t be a surprise when these rules show up and get explained later. None of us want to play with that person who at the last minute says “Oh, I forgot to mention… I get 100 extra points just for being the blue dwarf.”
But wait, WAIT, says internet guy #23. Hang on! There are LOTS of stories that don’t tell you things up front. That change the rules at the last minute. He was dead all along! They were on Earth the whole time! She’s actually the Viscountess Isabella!
And this is true. Sort of. Third act twists are very common—and freakin’ amazing when they’re done well, BUT…
One of the basic rules of a twist is that it doesn’t violate anything we’ve seen before—it just makes us look at it in a new light. Most of the example twists I just (vaguely) gave don’t change the core premise of their established worlds at all. For example…
When we find out Dr, Malcolm has been dead the whole time, this isn’t new worldbuilding. I mean, we’ve known ghosts are real for most of the movie. We know little Cole can see them. He even flat out told us “some of them don’t even know they’re dead.” The big twist here doesn’t change any rules or limits of the world as they’ve been explained to us, it just changes how we look at Malcolm and his interactions with it.
Want to use the old classic Planet of the Apes. Or any number of Twilight Zone episodes)? In all of these a key thing is establishing interstellar travel one way or another, so it’s not breaking any rules to say we might be on another planet, or these aliens are from another planet. All of these stories involve the inherent assumption of what planet we’re on. So again, the story isn’t cheating—it’s just playing us because it knows what we’re going to assume about the world we’re being shown.
But if, in his final showdown with Harry, we found out Voldemort was a cyborg alien from the future, that’s breaking the world we’ve established for the past six books. Likewise, if the next season of Picard has him bringing Data back to life using ancient Vulcan sorcery… that just sounds like nonsense on a bunch of levels, doesn’t it?
Go build incredible worlds. Have fun with them. Just don’t cheat.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for you.
Next time… well, this Monday’s my birthday. So next time we see each other I’ll be older and wiser. That being the case, I’ll probably have share some of that newly found wisdom with you.
One thing all of our books and stories and screenplays have in common is an ending. They’re going to be different for all of us, and for all of our different projects, but everyone of them has an end. Even if it’s part of a series, this discrete part of that overall story has concluded and another part will (hopefully) begin at some other time. Hopefully on the sooner side
Endings come in all shapes and sizes. They can be happy. They can be semi-positive. They can be ambiguous. They can be blunt. They can tease more potential story or be very, very clear this is the end.
But one way or another… the story ends.
We don’t talk much about the fact that there are different types of endings. Not just in that happy-sad-ambiguous sense. In a structural, nuts and bolts sense. There’s also the type of ending where I think I might get to do another book someday, the ending where I know I’m going to get another book immediately, and the ending where I know that this is it, we’re done. Just to name a few.
Also, before I go much further, I’m going to toss around some terms here and I think some of them get used in very general, catch-all ways a lot of the time. Which I also think is what causes some of the issues I’m blathering on about. So some of my blathering may go against things you’ve been taught or picked up here and there.
That said, let’s lean into television for a moment. Yeah, I know most of you aren’t here for screenwriting, but I think this is a good, universal reference point. You should all understand what I’m talking about.
There’s a certain class of network show that tends to have what we might think of as a respawn point most of the time. No matter what’s happened, no matter what the characters have gone through, by the end of the episode they’re pretty much right back where they began—physically and emotionally. They’ve reset for new stories next week. We see this in a lot of sitcoms and even some one hour dramas.
There are also shows that have season arcs, with story elements that carry through from episode to episode. A lot of these end on dramatic revelations or beats that aren’t quite cliffhangers, but still compel the audience to think about what’s going to happen next.
What’s that? Why aren’t they cliffhangers? Good question. This is just my own musings, granted, but I think the big difference between a cliffhanger and a dramatic ending is where they compel us to pick things back up next time. What does the audience/reader need to see next? So it’s a structural, framing difference. If I’ve got a cliffhanger, the next chapter/episode/issue/book needs to begin right here, right at this moment where we left off. With a dramatic ending… the story can resume a little later. We’ve all seen this. “Three hours later, his mind was still reeling from this new information…”
Again, this is just my take, but I think it’s a take that hold up pretty well. And I’ve experienced the jarring results when someone sets up a cliffhanger, but then just treats it as a dramatic ending when the story resumes. Or doesn’t resume. Because if it doesn’t resume, that kinda kills the whole “needs to resume” aspect of it, doesn’t it?
I think it’s also worth noting that a lot of newer, bingeable content is created to be seen as one ongoing story. Each episode still has an ending, but they’re structured very deliberately to line right up with the next episode, more like act breaks than episode conclusions. These shows tend to have really powerful season finales, because that’s the ending that really matters—the one that makes us come back for next season.
And, as I mentioned above with books, there are the endings that imply the potential for more story if the opportunity arises (“hey, we don’t know if we’re renewed yet so just in case…”) and the ones that wrap everything up nice and tight. They all lived happily ever after.
Why am I blathering on about all of this?
Hopefully it’s clear that the type of ending I have—structurally–should give the reader a sense of what comes next. And what doesn’t come next. Again, this is an ending, which means… something should end.
That doesn’t mean I just stop typing. But I’ve seen that plenty of times in books and on some shows, and even a few movies. Things just… stop. The werewolves lunge down the street, our heroes raise their swords and shotguns to fight and wait why is the next page blank.
This is why I’ve been going back and forth with this for so many weeks. It’s tough to talk about endings because each one’s going to be unique to that story and that writer. I can’t say “Don’t do X” when X might be exactly what need to happen in your particular story. A lot of it is going to come down to each of us looking at our story with an honest, critical eye.
Let me toss this out, and then I’ll ramble on a little more. Have I actually ended my story? Or have I just stopped telling it? They’re not the same thing, and if I don’t realize that… well, that’s probably a bit or a red flag right there.
I think one thing we need to do, as writers, is make sure we’ve finished our stories. If my book is about a chosen one accepting his destiny and fighting the manifestation of pure evil… well, by the end of my book he should’ve accepted his destiny and fought the manifestation of pure evil. If my story is all about the school valedictorian desperately wanting to ask out the head cheerleader… at the end of the story she should’ve asked out the cheerleader. This is basic, three-act structure stuff. Once I’ve set up conflict, I need to resolve that conflict. If I don’t… I’ve kinda failed as astoryteller. You remember what Chekov said about that phaser rifle hanging over the fireplace in act one, right?
Ahh, I see some hands and at least one scoffing shake of the head. Yes you did. I saw you. Let me slap down two provisos on this, not so much exceptions as places for a little more thought and that honest, critical eye I mentioned up above.
First, it’s not unusual for my protagonist’s stated goals to be different from the actual goals of the story. The valedictorian may think this is about asking out the cheerleader, but the book is more about her accepting who she is and gaining self confidence. Plus, she’s clearly supposed to be with the goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops. So, yes, in this sense the resolution may not be the one the character hoped for or originally set out, but my story’s (hopefully) structured in a way that still makes this a cohesive whole.
Also, it’s not unusual for a story to veer off and for characters to suddenly find themselves with all new goals. Maybe the valedictorian had worked up her nerve, was approaching the cheerleader out in front of the school and oh holy crap! Cyborg werewolf kidnappers! They’ve got the cheerleader! And they’re going to infect her with lycanthropic nanites at if the valedictorian doesn’t stop them! This is going to take all her computer and science skills, plus maybe some help from that goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops…
Again, though, there should’ve maybe been a few tiny hints so this kidnapping wasn’t coming out of nowhere. Or didn’t happen in the back third of the book after 200 pages of high school drama and musings. It’s a goal that’s carried through the narrative and eventually achieved.
Second, there’s the possibility there’s more to this. Maybe my book’s part of a trilogy or an ongoing series. Maybe it’s in a shared universe and questions here are going to be answered over there. If the story’s going to continue on and spill over into other places, isn’t it normal that things won’t end yet?That questions will be left unanswered?
Well, yes and no. Sure, there may be three or four more books, or another season’s worth of episodes, or maybe a new issue in just a month. But that doesn’t change that this, the book I’m holding (or season I’m watching or what have you), is a single thing. Yes, The Hunger Games is a story of a ruling elite being overthrown by a rising rebellion, but book one (and two) are really the story of Katniss training for the arena and then surviving in the Games (again). If book one had ended with five people still alive in the arena, will she make it out, pick up book two in just ten months… well, you’re already laughing, aren’t you? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t’ve bothered with book two after an ending like that. I’d bet a few million other people wouldn’t’ve, either.
Y’see, Timmy, this one book still needs to stand on its own . It may have threads or whole subplots that continue on in other places, but this book still needs to be a self-contained thing. It has to hold some kind of story within itself. Yes, the series might be about finding the six, errr… seven… Eternity Crystals (copyright 2020, Peter Clines), but what’s happening in this part of that overall story? Are my heroes involved in a big heist to get the Chronos Crystal, even if they don’t fully realize what it is yet? Or has an old friend distracted them away from their quest to help rescue a cheerleader from cyborg werewolf kidnappers? What goals have I set for my characters to accomplish in this book?
Because if this book doesn’t have any goals for them… what are my characters accomplishing? They either don’t have goals, or they have goals that aren’t met. Either way… not an exiting read. And not likely to get a lot of folks to book two.
Again, every ending is going to be unique to every book by every author. But the one thing they should all have in common is that things need to be resolved. No resolution means my characters (and my readers) are just kind of left flailing and unfulfilled.
Ultimately, the thing I need to remember is that the end of my book is it. This is the last chance to amaze my reader. My final chance to shape their emotions, to lock down what they think about my book. Once they turn that last page, it’s all in their hands.
We talk about first impressions, but the last impression means something, too. It’s what people are going to walk away with. How many books or shows or movies have you enjoyed—maybe really enjoyed—and then the end just left you snarling in frustration?
And why are we usually frustrated? Because we didn’t get answers. Because ultimately nothing happened. Because we feel like we wasted our time.
Stick the landing. Nail your ending. Get that phaser rifle down from the fireplace and make sure it goes off.
Speaking of endings (shameless plug) if the end of the world is your kind of thing, my latest novel–Terminus–finally came out in ebook last week. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s kinda fun and fairly inexpensive. If you have checked it out and enjoyed it, reviews are always appreciated.
Look! Bonus content! It’s what the internet screams for!
Last weekend I was in Dallastalking 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?
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?
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, whathappens 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.
Very sorry I missed last week. Last month was copyedits, this time I got layouts back for my next book (Paradox Bound, out this September, available everywhere somewhat-adequate books are sold) and spent my days going through it line by line and making notes. Far too many notes, if you ask my editor.
But we’re all here now. Soooooo… let’s talk about magic tricks.
Most people tend to think of magic tricks as kind of a bam done thing. I pull your chosen card out of the deck or out from beneath your drink or out of your own shirt pocket. I cut the lady in half without killing her. Then I make the other lady float on air.
The truth is, though, well-done magic tricks almost always have a very specific set of steps. There’s a casual set-up. There’s a moment of confusion. And then there’s the big surprise that makes the audience ask “How did you do that?!”
Think about it. When I do a card trick, the first part is actually showing you the deck of cards—a totally normal, regular deck of cards, right? And then, after you pick a card, it vanishes from the deck… waaaaait a minute. How’d I manage that, right? And then when I reach over and pull the card out of your sleeve, or point it out sitting face-up under your own drink, right there in front of you the whole time… the crowd goes wild.
A common term that gets thrown around a lot is three-act structure. If you’ve been poking at this storytelling thing for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard it from someone. Doesn’t matter if you’re working on novels, screenplays, short stories, or even magic tricks—I’d be willing to bet late night Jack-in-the-Box money that you’ve come across this term or had it pushed at you.
I’m a big believer in three-act structure. I think a good number of flawed stories can tie their problems back to it. Or to a lack of it.
I also believe three act-structure gets misunderstood a lot. And I think there are a lot of gurus and producers out there pushing “three act structure” who… well, don’t have any clue what they’re talking about. We’ll get to that in a little bit.
Oh, one other thing. It’s important to note that three-act structure doesn’t really fit in with the other story structures I’ve talked about in the past—linear, dramatic, and narrative. It’s kind of a different thing in the way a car can be an automatic and a rifle can be an automatic, but they’re not the same kind of automatic.
Okay, so here we go…
Any sort of storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
That’s three act structure.
No, seriously. That’s pretty much it.
If we want to go into a little more detail… every kind of story needs these three stages. I’m not talking about page count, but the way my story develops. If it’s done right, any reader can tell you when these parts begin and end in my story.
In fiction we can even hang a name on each of these three acts. We call them establishing the norm, introducing conflict, and then resolution. You’ve probably heard of these, too. I’ve talked about them here before, but let’s do a quick sum up.
Establishing the norm is just that—showing how things normally are. This is when my characters go to work, pay bills, spend time with their loved ones, and so on. It’s when we often find them at their most relatable.
Remember that everybody has a “usual day.” For Rey, a usual day means scavenging parts from middle-of-nowhere wrecks on a middle-of-nowhere planet. For Steve Rogers, a usual day means going for a morning jog, meeting up with a coworker, and then dealing with some international terrorists who’ve seized a ship on the high seas. If my characters don’t have a normal day, they can’t have an abnormal day, a day when they’re thrown out of their element and have to impress us somehow.
Introducing conflict means something is knocking my characters out of their comfortable little world and forcing them to take some sort of action. The new manager says they have to pay all their back rent by the end of the month. A dying stranger shoves a magic amulet into their hands. Turns out that one night stand is going to have nine months of consequences followed by eighteen years of repercussions. Or maybe some little droid shows up claiming it has information it has to get to the resistance, followed by a lot of people with guns who want said droid.
Note that this can happen more than once in my story. If my character keeps getting pushed further and further out of his or her comfort zone… that’s great.
Also worth noting that conflict has to cause, well, conflict. If I introduce something that doesn’t bother my protagonist, or takes no real effort to deal with… that’s just boring. If it’s boring to them, it’s going to be boring to my audience. Resolution is, big surprise, when things come to an end. Usually because my protagonist has taken some action and made things come to an end. It’s when answers are made known, hidden things get revealed, and plot threads all come together.
Word of warning—if I’m submitting to contests or trying to catch the attention of an agent or editor, ending my story with “to be continued” immediately costs me at least twenty points in whatever grading system they’re using (so hope it isn’t a ten-point one). If I’m doing this, my story doesn’t actually have a resolution. It might even mean that I—the writer—don’t have a resolution for it. And since this third step is an important part of the story, well…
Look if I stop at mixing the cake and don’t take that last step, I can’t be surprised if most people don’t want to eat it, right?
Or that some of it call it “sludge” instead of “cake”…
That brings up another point. Y’see, Timmy, a story that doesn’t have these three parts has a sort of… meandering quality to it. Characters either do nothing or do tons of stuff without any real motivation to it.
This generally comes from writers only having one or two parts of a story. Maybe they had a great opening and a cool middle, but didn’t quite know how to end it. Or they came up with a cool opening and a clever end, but never figured out how those two acts would connect. I’ve even seen a few folks write a very cool opening… and nothing else. There was a great set up and then the story sort of spiraled off into… nowhere.
Okay a few last notes. I’ll try to be quick.
First, there are still a few little caveats to this, of course. Many stories start in the middle and take a bit before they go back and explain the beginning. In medias res some folks like to call it. Other stories start at the very end, and use the ending as a frame for the whole story. All of this is fine, and I’m sure all of us could list off a ton of great examples of books and movies that do this. What we need to remember, though, is all these stories still havea beginning, a middle, and an end, even if they’ve been juggled around a bit in their tellings. As I’ve mentioned before, the narrative structure of a story doesn’t change the linear structure. The events have a definitive starting point. The characters have a baseline the audience sees them at. There’s a progression brought about by conflict and changes resulting from the conflict. And it all leads to a definitive conclusion.
Like the examples I mentioned above, I’ve seen stories that try to come in on the action, on the conflict. Thing is, they never go back to explain how these events began. The story’s left flailing without that first act, wondering what set off these events and why the character’s invested in stopping them (or helping them along).
Second thing, which I promised at the top, is some of the nonsense that gets spread about three act structure. I see a lot of folks try to argue that all these acts have very specific lengths–you have to be done with this by page sixteen, this must happen by page twenty-three, that must be revealed by page forty-two. That’s just nonsense, and it’s easy to find hundreds of examples that prove it’s nonsense.
I think a lot of this comes from people who want to quantify stories somehow. They want to be able to create a marketable formula of “how to make a bestseller,” and that’s just not possible. Every story is going to have its own pace, and altering that pace at arbitrary points isn’t going to make it appeal to more people.
I’ve also seen some people who try to argue for six act structure, seven act structure, or some other number. They justify this by pointing out that television shows often have four or five acts. Sometimes a teaser and a closing, too.
I think these arguments come from misunderstanding what three-act structure really is. These particular gurus are trying to tie it back to those larger, more expansive structures I mentioned earlier. Television shows do have multiple acts, yes, but that’s structuring for a format, not for a story. I know a bunch of television writers, and none of them think that their scripts have a beginning, a middle, another middle, one more middle, and then an end.
Now, all of this leads us to a question some of you have probably been wondering about since I started this little rant. What’s so important about three-act structure? Why do we need it?
The big reason is because a beginning, middle, and end in my plot usually means we’ve had character growth in our story. You may have heard me mention one or thrice that good writing is about good characters. As readers, we want to see who they start off as, what changes them, and how the change affects them in the long run. That change is a real response that grew out of his or her experiences.
When that happens, readers stop thinking about these creations of mine as characters and start thinking of them as people.
Next time, since I’ve just waded through a ton of tweaks and edits… I thought we could talk a bit about tweaks and editing.