February 1, 2022 / 1 Comment

Who’s Driving This Thing

Wow, talk about running late. All of January with no posts. Sorry about that. Start of the year and I’m already struggling for stuff to talk about.

Well, that’s not true. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to blather on about, but I sometimes worry that I’m not really up to the task. There’ve actually been a few topics I’ve set aside when I realized I couldn’t quite articulate the ideas I wanted to get across. I don’t want to try to explain something, do a poor job one way or another, and actually make things worse for anybody. “I’m not sure if he was serious about that whole ‘mellonballer’ thing but what the hell, I’ll try anything if it gets my foot in the door.”

Another way to look at it is I’m worried the decisions I make here might have a negative effect on you out there. I mean, the goal is to have an effect, yeah, but hopefully not one that has you tossing your laptop or burning your idea notebook. I’m hoping this’ll be an overall encouraging, educational place, and my actions will help you out.

And this, if you didn’t guess, is my clumsy lead-in to this week’s topic.

I’ve talked several times here about the idea of plot and story and how the two bounce off each other. Really simply put, plot is what happens outside my character, story is what happens inside my character. Plot forces my characters to make decisions and adapt. Story is that growth and change, and how it leads them to make different decisions and take different actions. Which then, in turn, affects how the plot progresses. Makes sense?

Personally, I think this is really helpful to have in mind when people start arguing about plot-driven vs. story-driven narratives (I’m using narrative here to avoid the confusion of using story vs.story). If I’m not having this back and forth—if plot isn’t driving story which is driving plot which is driving story—then what is making things happen?


Consider what we usually think of as “character-driven” narratives. If there’s isn’t some outside influence forcing them to adapt and change… way are they changing? Truth is, without outside pressure most of us tend to just sort of stay the course. We need a little nudge or maybe a hard shove to get us out of our ruts, and it’s not really possible to shove yourself. Sure people make random decisions sometimes, but if somebody in my narrative does something wildly out of character… well, I mean it’s clear that decision didn’t come from inside the character, right? So if they decide to change without any sort of outside influence—without a plot—where are the decisions coming from?

Well, they’re coming from the writer. I mean, yeah, the narrative always comes from the writer. But in this case it’s coming directly from them without bothering to guide that motivation through a plot.

Another point worth mentioning—an all-too-typical thing in character driven narratives is when what little plot there is comes to a dead crashing halt for twenty or thirty pages so someone can reminisce and/or lament about… well, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. And they can do this because there’s no actual outside stimulus, nothing urging them into some sort of action. Yeah, the bank’s foreclosing on the farm, the tractor broke down, the dog’s gone missing, mom has cancer, but let me tell you about that time Lizzie Metcalfe invited me to the school dance and I turned her down. Y’know… that’s always gnawed at me. Especially right now, with all of this going on. I mean, isn’t life just one big school dance when you really think about it…?

No? Okay, well, never mind…

When the plot bends or twists to shape itself around my character, it doesn’t feel like anything outside of my character has any real agency, does it? Yeah, my protagonist should have agency, but so should my antagonist. And the bank manager and the waiter and the maitre’d. They’re not there just to give my protagonist more dramatic meat to chew. All of them should be acting or reacting like real people would, not in a way that just lets the character continue working through whatever issues or problems they’re dealing with (or not dealing with) at their own pace.

So we need a plot. We need forces outside of our character, things affecting them and driving them to change. Often at a pace or in a way they don’t like.
And this brings us to the flipside, the so-called plot-driven story. Which is kind of silly because, again, pretty much every good story is going to have a plot, and that plot will lead to changes in the story. Like we’ve been saying.

Plot driven stories are all exterior. We don’t really get to know the characters or their inner needs. Everyone tends to respond to things in very basic, shallow ways. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things, cowardly people do cowardly things, and yes, Benedict McTraitorson did stab our hero in the back. We see a lot of stereotypes (or archetypes, if you prefer) in these kind of stories, not fleshed out past a few obligatory descriptions (“No, she’s different because she’s got
red hair and wears hikingboots…”)


I think another big clue for a plot-driven story is that people rarely have any real choices. The ongoing, dynamic plot gives the illusion of choices being made, but really the characters are just sort of getting carried along for the ride. If people are shooting wildly in my direction and I run away… I mean, this isn’t me really choosing to do anything. It’s an automatic reaction for 99.9% of all people. Yeah, sure, we can argue about what constitutes a choice in the same way some people might nitpick about what counts as action, but at the end of the day we want to believe characters are actually having some effect on the world around them.

One other, slightly less common thing… I’ve noticed plot driven stories often (not always, but often) have hyper-capable characters. They have a flawless plan and even if it somehow goes south they’re so well-trained and prepared they’ll figure something out on the fly. Because they never fail and nothing rattles them in any way, they don’t have to make any hard choices (see above) or suffer any sort of repercussions. Which means they never have to grow or change as characters. Again, nothing interior, all exterior.

Is this helpful? Hopefully most of you see why it’s kind of important I have both plot and story in my narrative. And this is the kind of stuff of stuff I want to keep in mind while I’m writing (or maybe outlining) my story. Has this introspective monologue brought things to a halt? Are events making my character grow or change in any way? If we don’t have both of these things going on

Think of it this way. Plot and Story are playing an exhibition game of ping-pong. They’re knocking the ball back and forth and back and forth. How Plot serves is going to shape how Story returns, and that return is going to effect how Plot hits the ball back, and so on, and so forth. If one of them stops doing anything (or just walks away altogether) the game’s going to get boring really fast. Oh, sure, watching Story bounce the ball on his paddle might be interesting for a minute or two, maybe watching them swat it against the far wall like a racquetball. But ultimately we showed up to watch these two play against each other, not, well… play with themselves.

Although here’s another name for that which also fits well here.

Next time, I’d like to talk about how long this takes.

The writing, not the playing with yourself bit.


Oh, also, shamelessly, we’re exactly four weeks out from the release of The Broken Room. If you want to preorder it from your favorite local bookstore I’d greatly appreciate it. Preorders mean you get the book as quickly as possible while also telling the publisher they made a good choice picking up said author’s books. So if you can… well, I’d appreciate it.

And next time, how long this takes.

Until then, go write.



November 23, 2021 / 1 Comment

Black Friday XIV — Santa Takes Manhattan

I know I said I wasn’t going to post much this month, but late November is when I do all my books o’ the year posts. Plus, it struck me it might not be a bad thing to do my annual Black Friday offer a little early, what with DeJoy stil in office and all that…

So, what’s the Black Friday offer about, ask all the folks who never click links?

It’s about how being poor at the holidays completely, absolutely sucks.

As some of you know, I’d saved up a little film-industry money before I became a full-time writer. Even so, two or three random-but-normal problems—a sick cat, car repairs, a pay cut at the magazine I wrote for—and wham I was poor. I mean… nothing. Below the poverty line, credit cards maxed out, every paycheck stretched until it was less than gauze.

The phone got shut off. No internet. My partner and I didn’t turn the heat on for three winters in a row. We stole toilet paper from the library. Pretty much everything we ate came from the 99 Cent Store. I was working on an article and frikkin’ Shane Black offered to meet up to talk over coffee and I had to turn him down because I couldn’t afford the gas to get me across the city to where he was. Hell, I didn’t have enough money to buy a coffee. We went through three years of feeling constantly sick with despair, just waiting for the inevitable bill or emergency that’d destroy us.

On a normal day, being poor’s a constant, gut-churning feeling of tension.  Of being painfully aware of what you don’thave and what you can’t do. There are some messed up folks who love to bellow about “nanny states” and “entitlements” but the simple truth is that the vast majority of poor people don’t abuse the system. They’re way too busy just trying to survive with their home, their health, and maybe just a shred of dignity.

This deep-in-your-gut feeling’s even worse at the holidays. So much of the holidays is about giving, and when you’re poor you just… you’ve got nothing to give. It doesn’t matter how much you care about that person, it doesn’t matter how much you want to just feel normal and give them something—anything—to express that.  It doesn’t matter because you’ve got nothing.

And again… you can feel people judging you over it.  At every party or gathering or dinner.  You get judged for being trapped and powerless. Hell, even if they’re not judging you, you end up judging yourself, and it just becomes this endless cycle of guilt and resentment and desperation. I hope that none of you reading this are there right now, feeling helpless and sick with despair. Because like I said before, it seriously sucks to be in that position

But if this is where you’re at right now—maybe I can help.

If you can’t afford gifts for your friends or family, shoot me a note at ye olde PeterClines101@yahoo.com. I’ve got a little over a dozen books here that I’ll autograph to whoever you want and mail out to you. Or to someone else, if you need it shipped. Most of these are paperbacks of Paradox Bound, but there’s a few Ex-Purgatory and Ex-Isle, too. Think I might even have a few audiobook sets (those big cases of CDs) of different things. If audiobooks would work better, just say so. You can request a specific book, but I can’t promise anything—it’s just what I’ve got saved up here. I can even gift wrap if you need it (I’m fantastic at wrapping presents, really). 

I’ll send them out to whoever needs them for as long as the books last. Or probably until the 15th, just to make sure you get them on time and have something to give.

So if you need some help this season, please just ask

Again, this is for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people who are pulling unemployment, cutting back on everything, and feeling trapped because they can’t afford gifts.  It’s not so you can recommend someone who might like a free book. You could do that for them, too—go get them a book. They’ll love you for it.

On a related note… whenever I do this folks offer to chip in and help out. I’m good, but I’m willing to bet there’s a toy bank or a gift bank or a food bank or some kind of program within ten or fifteen miles of you right now. You could help out with that. You can go be fantastic people all on your own. You don’t need me.

Finally, I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to score a  free autographed book… well, I can’t stop you. But let’s be clear—if you do this, you suck. You’re a deplorable person who’s taking a moment of peace and relief away from someone who really needs it this holiday season. Don’t act all surprised when karma kicks you hard in the ass over New Year’s.

Anyway, Happy Holidays. Let me know if I can help out

September 23, 2021

Just Accept It

Oh, hi there. It’s been a while. Sorry about that. Piles of stuff going on. I won’t bore you with it all now. Not when I can save some of it for later ranty blog posts…

I have, as some of you know, gotten back to my Saturday geekery. And a while back, during one particularly clumsy movie, I tried to explain a few thoughts about basic storytelling. Twitter’s not always great for nuance, though (sorry you had to find out this way), and I realized pretty quick I wouldn’t be able to talk about this in a way that did it justice. Or didn’t invite a few dozen people to leap in and say “Well, actually…

So let’s go through this real quick.

I’m sure most of you have heard the whole “there are only seven basic plots” thing. Or maybe it’s nine. Depends on who you ask. Thing is, when we really get down to the bones of it, there’s only one plot. Ultimately, it all comes down to something makes today different from every other day. Something happens to make today noteworthy and forces my hero to do something different than usual.

I’ve talked about this here on the ranty blog before, and from a few different directions, so I won’t get into it too much. It’s pretty straightforward though. Something happens = story. Nothing happens = no story.

If I’m writing a longer-form thing—maybe a book or a feature-length screenplay—I’m probably going to have more than one moment like this. My hero’s day will be different and just as they’re adjusting, getting used to things again… something else happens. Like, we found out what was really going on, but then later we found out what’s REALLY going on.

Believe it or not, I just slipped a really important thing in there. And it’s the thing I was trying to talk about on Twitter, but knew I wouldn’t be able to without someone jumping in before it was fully explained. And probably accusing me of hating art or loving Hitler in the process. Because Twitter is also very impatient.


The really important thing is that once the thing happens (however many things I have), my hero needs to accept it. They can have a few scenes, maybe a chapter or three of shaking their head and denying things, but ultimately they need to admit this is the new normal. It’s really important they move on, for a number of reasons…

First, if my characters never adjust to the new normal, they get annoying. Fast. Heck, the real world’s spent a year and a half nowshowing us how much people in denial can get on your nerves. We’ve all seen films where the vampire drops out of the sky, kills somebody, drinks their blood in front of their group of friends, explodes into a cloud of bats… and yet there’s still that one guy insisting vampires aren’t real. Can’t be real. Nope. What, Yakko’s dead too? Still not vampires! Nineteen people killed in front of us one by one? This isn’t happening. Not happening and definitely not vampires.

I’m betting you started to skim that, right? Because that character’s a bit eye-rolling. And this was just a couple of lines. Imagine three hundred pages of that guy. Yeah, there are times I may want an annoying character in the mix, but there’s usually not more than one and it’s very rarely my protagonist.

Second, if my characters don’t adjust and get accustomed to the “new normal,” my increasing challenges are going to be more and more difficult (because my challenges are increasing, yes?) If my character’s not growing and changing, they’re quickly going to be outmatched by the world around them. I’m going to find myself writing things that just aren’t believable. Sure, Dot took out one hitman by sheer luck, but if she never accepts she’s now part of the assassins’ union and develops past that, how are my readers supposed to accept her lasting ten seconds against the Grand Emperor of Death? One of the reasons challenges grow and increase in stories is because my characters are growing and becoming more capable of dealing with things.

Third, is that we all instinctively feel this progression of story and plot. We’ve been trained by years of reading and watching stories. So if my character doesn’t change and grow and adjust to this new view of the world… their story kind of stalls out. And that throws my whole structure off balance. We can’t always identify it, but we can feel it. Something in this book or movie has dragged to a halt. At the very least it hasn’t progressed as far as it should’ve. You may remember we talked about when this happens in television shows–they call it the Moonlighting curse.


Hopefully it’s clear why this moving on is important, but let me toss one more thing into the mix for you to mull over. Why this is so very important in longer works. And to do this… I’m afraid I’m going to have to use some terms that may make some of you uncomfortable.

I’ve talked before about three act structure. We establish the norm, we introduce conflict, and we have a resolution. You remember all that, right?

Okay, well that moment we introduce conflict? More-or-less the start of Act Two? Guess what? That’s when something makes today different than every other day. We could even call it… the inciting incident.

Sorry if that made your skin crawl a bit.

And remember how I said longer-form stories generally have another moment like this? A second time my protagonist gets their legs kicked out from under them? What to guess when that happens?

That’s right! It’s usually as we transition to act three. It’s the sudden shift, the last-minute twist, that makes bringing this to a close so much harder than my hero thought it was going to be. And they already thought it was going to be pretty tough.

But if my protagonist isn’t accepting the thing that happened, if they spend all of act two in denial… well, that gets messy. Because there’s going to be that annoyance factor, yeah. But also we’re going to hit act three and, well… out hero’s not really ready for it. They’re still shaking their heads and refusing to believe that inciting incident stuff (again, sorry).  The bulldozers are out front and heading for the barn, but my protagonist is still insisting there’s no way Jerry from the bank would’ve foreclosed on our farm…

When this happens… well, it usually means one of two things. Either I’ve picked the wrong character to be the hero of my story… or I don’t really have a story. I mean, that growth and progression is pretty much the defining aspect of a character’s story, so if my hero’s spent the last hundred pages with their head in the sand, it’s probably a warning sign something’s gone really wrong.

It’s pretty hard to deny that.

Next time, I’d like to address another geekery issue and talk about really stupid attempts to save the cat.

Until then… go write.

November 13, 2020 / 8 Comments

Black Friday VIII – Black Friday the 13th

I do this every year, but I figured with everything going on in 2020 some folks might need some good news a little early. Plus, with the way the post office is going… well, I figured giving everyone an extra two weeks wouldn’t be bad, either.

That said, I’d like to take this almost-holiday Friday the thirteenth to offer you a little hope. With some depressing facts as a lead-in.

If you’re new to the ranty blog or to me and my writing in general, you may not know that I had a prolonged bout of poverty during my path to becoming a writer. I’d been doing okay in the film industry, and then was doing okay as a freelance journalist, but when the economy crumbled in 2008, the magazine I did most of my writing for started to flounder. Within two years lagging paychecks and a few fairly mundane surprise expenses (car repairs, a sick cat, a lost filling) had emptied my savings and maxed out my credit cards.

I had nothing.

And to be clear, I mean, nothing. My partner and I lived right at the poverty line from 2009 till about mid-2012. In Los Angeles. We shopped pretty much exclusively at the 99¢ Store. Our phone got shut off. We had no internet at home, so we used the library’s wifi for everything, and while we were there we’d “borrow” a roll or three of toilet paper, tucked away in our bags. We didn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row. I missed out on potential work (and meeting some Hollywoodlegends) because I couldn’t afford gas anywhere (which didn’t help things). Hell, for one assignment I had to beg one of my editors to loan me gas money so I could drive to a screening.

Three. Years. Like that. Constantly stressed. Constantlyfeeling like crap.

Especially at the holidays.

The holidays are awful when you’re poor because you feel isolated at a time when people are supposed to be coming together. You can’t afford to travel. You can’t afford to buy gifts for family or friends. Hell, there were times I couldn’t go to a couple nice Christmas parties because we couldn’t afford to park there (friggin’ LA).

And you feel guilty about it. You spend time stressing about if maybe there was something else you could’ve done. About the people you love who you feel like you’re neglecting. About what people think about you, being so poor you can’t even get something for your significant other or your family. 

It’s that feeling all the time. Pretty much from mid-November to mid January. Guilt and dread and shame and self-doubt. Yay! Why don’t we ever hear thatholiday song?

Being poor at the holidays absolutely sucks. Believe me, I know. The past seven years have been good to me, but I still get that twist deep in my gut when the credit card reader makes the angry buzz instead of a beep.

All that said… these days I’m in a better position, and I owe a good part of that to all of you. Because for some reason you like these odd stories I tell. And if I can help some of you avoid feeling miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.

So here’s the deal. If you’re in that bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, shoot me a note at my old PeterClines101@yahoo.comaddress. I’ve still got fifteen or sixteen random books saved from last year (when nobody took me up on this), and I might be able to scrounge up two or three more if need be. I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you (postage is on me, too). I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it. If you know your gift-target would like a specific book, feel free toask, but I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have). I’ll send them out for as long as the books last.

It’s not much, I know. But it’ll be a gift you can give someone. And maybe you can feel a little less stressed at the holidays.

Again, this is for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people pulling unemployment (or not!), cutting back on everything, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford holiday gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone in a bad spot who might like a book. You could do that for them—go buy them a book. And buy locally! Support your local bookstores! And comic shops! And toy stores! And state that could flip the Senate (a gift that will keep on giving).

I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save some cash or score an autographed book… I won’t be able to stop you. Just know you’re a truly selfish, deplorable person and you’re taking away what might’ve been someone’s only bright moment this season. And Krampus will probably feed you to a squale.

So… Happy Holidays.