Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.23: Are We Stronger Together?

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Zoraida CordovaKaela Rivera, and Howard Tayler

Sometimes we have to look at our ensemble of characters and ask ourselves what kind of story we’re trying to tell? If the story works with a single protagonist and one POV, maybe this isn’t an ensemble story after all. If, however, the plot requires a team effort from the heroes, then we need to make sure the necessary team members make it onto the page.

Liner Notes: The “I’m the tin dog” moment is from Doctor Who, S2 E3, “School Reunion.” Mickey is speaking. Howard couldn’t remember Mickey’s name because sometimes Howard is the tin dog.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Create a “connection” map for your characters that establishes what all the characters’ relationships are. Include at least one challenge in their relationship, and one way the relationship enhances each character.

Thing of the week: Cece Rios and the King of Fears, by Kaela Rivera.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: It’s a classic archetype or style of story, answering the question, are we stronger together. Start by looking at what story you are trying to tell. Not who is the story about. Be aware of the fun of character introductions, and the tendency to overdo them, leading to bloat. Don’t try to answer the question are we stronger together just by splitting the ensemble and then bringing them back together, without adding something. There are other ways to answer that question, like the tin dog. Look for the desire for connection as part of the ensemble. If you break up the ensemble, pair them up in new ways. Make sure we are invested in the characters first. Think about how to bring in a new member, a new character, as part of the ensemble.

[Season 17, Episode 23]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Are We Stronger Together?

[Zoraida] 15 minutes long.

[Kaela] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Zoraida] I’m Zoraida.

[Kaela] I’m Kaela.

[Howard] I’m pretty sure we’re definitely smarter together.


[Zoraida] I would agree with that.

[Dan] Definitely.

[[Zoraida] I agree with that.

[Kaela] Our powers combined…

[Dan] So, are we stronger together? This is kind of a classic, I guess, story archetype or style of story. Zoraida, when you put together the outline for the classes, you started this by asking the question, what is the story I’m trying to tell? Why is that the first thing we think about when we look at this concept of being stronger together?

[Zoraida] I think that… So the question is what is the story I’m trying to tell, as opposed to who is the story about. Right? So the distinction to me is the story itself is… Represents the internal life of my character. Right? So, like, my character has this rich internal life. Then everything around them is what they’re reacting to. Identifying that part of the story really makes it easier for me to understand whether I have something that is an ensemble cast or whether I have a singular, let’s just say, hero’s journey of one person making their way around the world. So once I know, for example, my The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina is a multi-generational magical realism novel. I originally wrote the first draft with only the main character, her name is Marimar. It was only her. As I wrote the story, once I identified that this story is about the entire family and not just one person in a family, I added the different points of view. That came with revision, obviously. But first I needed to identify this story is bigger than one person. That change the entire scope of how I was telling it.

[Dan] Absolutely. Has anyone else come across the same issue before? Figuring out what story you’re trying to tell?

[Kaela] Yes. So the sequel for Cece Rios and The Desert of Souls, it comes out in September, it’s dual point of view versus the first one, which was just singular point of view. That’s because the story I was trying to tell, I realized there was no way to have Cece and her sister in the same place at the same time without it changing the point of… A large part of the story for both of them. So I was like, “Wow, I’m going to have to add another point of view here, because it’s just a bigger story.” Their stories connect and what I like to think is a nice important way. But that, it was too big for a single point of view. I’m currently drafting the third book, and let me tell you, I’m also still wondering whether I need to add another point of view to that. So, the revision and writing process is filled with many questions like this.

[Dan] Yeah, with my cyberpunk series, I had this same question pop up, and realized the story I was trying to tell was a heist. All three books in the trilogy ultimately are heist stories, because that’s what got me really excited. That meant that they needed to turn into ensemble stories. Which is not necessarily what I set out to do, but heists really require that. Because you need to have all the different specialists and they each have their own thing they can do that no one else can do. Then that turned into a big team dynamic story, and then eventually, in later books, turned into a family dynamic story. Because I was… As I changed which characters I was focusing on. But because of the story I was trying to tell, that really did force me into a specific type of cast.

[Zoraida] I think that one of the things that I encounter a lot when I’m writing… One of my favorite things to write, and as a reader or consumer of media generally, is character introductions. I just… I die for them. I’m like, “Yes! Introduce another one. I don’t care that there’s 200 people in the cast already. Give me another one.” Which is something I have to also control about myself, because my editor’s like, “Do you need another person though?” I’m like, “But they’re cool.” And he’s like, “Yeah, but do you need them?”


[Zoraida] I think that’s…

[Kaela] Well… Yeah. I mean, I feel like I’ve had situations where… I’ve had to cut entire characters out of books because I’m like, “Okay, you’re dead weight. The… Another character… Two other characters are doing the exact same thing.” I just want… I just thought it would be funny to have, like, a talking dog. Not really. Like, that’s…


[Kaela] I don’t think I’ve ever had a talking dog in my books.


[Kaela] But, for example…


[Kaela] Right? That’s sort of what I was thinking, like, if you look at, again, the Fast and Furious movies, they all work stronger together. Because you can’t… well, you can rob a car by yourself, but you can’t rob like 17 cars by yourself.


[Kaela] So it is… The question is, and that’s where the dynamic comes in, can you trust everybody on your team? Right? What happens in Avengers Civil War or Captain America Civil War when all of a sudden our ensemble is broken. Right? Because two sides are… There’s a line in the sand is drawn.

[Dan] Yeah. Comic books are such a great use of this particular thing. The X-Men in particular. The X-Men is absolutely a group that falls into this we are stronger together kind of archetype. Because their powers are so unique and often so strange, like Jubilee or Dazzler or some of these other strange kind of minor X-Men, you couldn’t necessarily… They’re not going to stop a bank robbery on their own. They’re not going to stop any of the huger stories on their own, certainly. But put them all together and you have the one character who can make bright lights and the other character who can do this or other little minor thing, and together they can all do this… Overcome this big evil. But also, that starts falling into the same thing that Kaela was talking about. You go back to the 80s and 90s, Chris Claremont run of X-Men and they were introducing new characters constantly. Because it is really fun to think, “Okay, what if there was a character who had this cool power? Or was from this background?” You can really see him just kind of letting his imagination run wild and introducing more and more characters constantly, which can lead to bloat. That is what is really bogging down The Song of Ice and Fire series, because there’s just more and more characters and we’ve got to give them all their weight and their time. It becomes a bigger and bigger house of cards with every new person that you add.

[Howard] A very common story structure for the ensemble, and I… we complained about it last week with one of the seasons of The Expanse and one of the seasons of Stranger Things, is that when you answer the question are we stronger together by splitting them apart…


[Howard] Then you bring them back together and it’s wonderful for the audience because it’s something we’ve all been waiting for. Boy, I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen enough of this… I’ve actually written enough of this, that it’s not that cool all by itself. Also, there’s other ways to ask that question. One of my favorite ensemble moments, the question of are we stronger together, is in an episode of Doctor Who, and I think it may have been David Tenon as the Doctor, I don’t remember the name of the… Of Rose’s friend, the goofy kind of dumb guy who ends up going along on some of their adventures. But at one point, he’s got K-9… He’s putting K-9 in the boot of a vehicle or something, and he says, “Oh, my gosh. I’m the tin dog.”


[Howard] He has this realization that he doesn’t belong on the team.

[Oh, wow]

[Howard] He’s useless. He’s the tin dog. It’s such a… It’s a fun, soul-searching moment, and it’s the sort of thing you can do without breaking the ensemble up. You just have one of the characters have this realization I’m not helping, I don’t think we’re actually stronger together. I think you’re better off if I stand over here and keep score. That’s… The point here being we want to ask that question, are we stronger together, we want to answer it with a resounding yes. We can do it in ways other than just showing and they come back together and everybody goes rar and we win.

[Right! Yeah!]

[Dan] I’ve got a question I want to ask about this exact thing, but first, let’s do book of the week. Kaela, you’ve been telling us about Cece Rios.


[Dan] You got a new book, book 2 in that series comes out. Tell us about it.

[Kaela] That’s right. So, it’s a sequel to the first book, obviously. That’s how series work, I guess.


[Kaela] I’m so excited about this one. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s dual point of view. You get Cece’s adventure and you get her older sister Juana’s adventure. The set up is that Juana has realized that part of her heart is missing. Her heartbeat… Her heart isn’t beating, part of her soul is missing, and it’s stuck in Devil’s Alley. In order to get it, she has to go in by herself. Cece tries to go on an adventure to go get it herself, first, but Juana goes instead in secret because she wants to fix it herself. She’s tired of being saved by her little sister.


[Kaela] They go on a wild adventure. She ends up teaming up, Juana ends up teaming up with Lion, diving into Devil’s Alley on their own. Cece begins to uncover some secrets about dark criaturas, how they were made, and maybe even her curandera powers. Woo hoo. For anyone who’s read the first one, context. Yeah, I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be taking a lot of the themes of the first one and going deeper with them and giving some nice resolution for the pretty hard things that Juana went through in the first book. We get a little bit more context about what happened and how she’s dealing with it. So… Oh, yeah, then of course, the big hook. We end up meeting and facing the king of Devil’s Alley himself, the king of fears, El Cucuy. So… Very proud of that.

[Dan] Awesome. That is the title of the book, Cece Rios and the King of Fears. Remind us of the title of the first one, again, if people want to start at the beginning.

[Kaela] Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls.

[Dan] Desert of Souls. By Kaela Rivera. Go out and grab those now. You can get the first one, the second one is up for preorder, I hope.

[Kaela] Yes.

[Dan] But it comes out this fall. So, anyway, great.

[Dan] Let’s get back to this question then. So, let’s talk about this idea of are we stronger together, and then how season two or book 2 or whatever breaks that group apart. In something like Stranger Things, while we have complained about oh, no, but I wanted to keep my team together, I love the ensemble interaction, it was ultimately a very satisfying story the way they told that. Compare that to something like the TV show Heroes. Where season one was let’s bring the team together, are we stronger together, yes, we are. In the end, the final episode, they’re able to defeat the big bad guy. Then, season two, they broke them apart and told that same story of coming back together and it was not satisfying. It was frustrating. What is the difference? What makes that, that kind of severing the team, how can we tell that in a way that works versus what are the pitfalls that make that not work?


[Dan] It’s a hard question to just throw right in your faces, because it’s not in the outline.

[Howard] In the…


[Howard] In the Joss Whedon Justice League… Might have been in the Zack Snyder as well, I don’t remember because that one was way long… When they introduce Flash, Bruce Wayne says, “I’m putting together a team.” Flash says, “Nn, I’m in.” “I haven’t even told you what…” “Nn, I need friends.”


[Howard] Flash’s desire to connect is what, for me, held that whole team together. I think our desire for connection is what draws us into an ensemble. If you break that ensemble apart, you are taking away my friends. Stop that. You’re a bad person.


[Kaela] I think that… Like, I’m actually okay with breaking up ensembles. But…


[Kaela] Like, you have…


[Kaela] Howard just decries my name for the rest of my life. But I feel like you have to do it in a way that’s giving you more dimension that you wouldn’t have another way. Like… Okay, once again, cartoons. Duck Tales.


[Kaela] But the new version.

[Yoo hoo!]

[Kaela] The new version of duck [garbled] Ooo-hoo! So, like, towards the last season of it, there was a whole episode where everyone had to split up because there was multiple things they had to get. Right? They paired them up in some really unexpected ways. Like, they had Lena, who is one of the magic characters, who is best friends with Webby, and then they had Huey… Huey, Dewey, Louie… Yeah, Huey. I’d never seen those characters together. So I was suddenly like, “Wow, what in the world are they going to be up to?” It was fascinating the way that being with Lena ended up helping Huey through his whole… His last character arc thing that he needed to get through. I was like, “That was so unexpected and satisfying.” That, like seeing… Sorry, go ahead.

[Zoraida] No, I was going to say, like the unexpected part. I mean, when I first watched Lord of the Rings, everybody starts off together and then they break apart into different groups. I think I’m okay with things like that. Where it’s like we have now… We’re delegating. Right? Everyone has different tasks. You go to Mordor. You go over here. You’ll get some allies. But that has to happen after pre-establishing a big win, or why we are here together, why we are a collective. Then… Because then, when you break it apart, when somebody dies, it is that much more impactful because we have invested. As a reader and a viewer, like once I’m invested in characters, I feel like they’re somebody I know. That’s really the goal for me, like, creating characters like that.

[Dan] Yeah. I think, for me, what makes something like Fellowship or Duck Tales work, these places where they have broken the fellowship, they’ve split the ensemble, and it still works, is that they’re using it as an opportunity to tell some new stories, to combine characters in a new way. Community was great at this. You very rarely got for example, a Jeff Winger and a… Now I can’t remember Yvette Nicole Brown’s character. They rarely had stories together. But when they did, it was fascinating because of how rare it was. It was like, “Oh, this is a side of them I have never seen before, because they bring out different qualities in each other.”

[Howard] The foosball episode.

[Dan] You compare that against something like the second season of Heroes or the fourth season of Arrested Development where they weren’t really doing anything new. They were… Second season of Heroes was the exact same story as the first season of Heroes. They’re apart, and they’re going to come together over time. So they weren’t using that as an opportunity to reveal new things about the characters or to delve into new aspects of who they are as people. So it… I think that’s really the separation.

[Howard] Yeah. That’s… That feels like the crux of my complaint, is that if you’re doing it just to answer the question are we stronger together, yes we are, look, because we came back together, everybody’s happier, and our readers, our viewers, like it more. That’s just formula. That’s just canned green beans. But if you give us something fresh, if we’re exploring new story bits, then I’m okay with it. Like with Fellowship, we still had an ensemble. We still had Legolas and Aragorn and Gimli as a small ensemble. So…

[Zoraida] Yeah, they’re just like [bigapeas?] One thing I want to add is, like, also once you have all these great casts and ensembles established, right? And they’re stronger together, what happens when you bring in a foreign entity? Right? Like, there’s this episode of Friends where they are all hanging out at the apartment, and then somebody knocks on the door. They’re like counting each other. They’re like, “Well, we’re all here. So who is at the door? Who has come to interrupt our carefully curated space base?” Right? Of course, it’s Rachel’s sister or somebody who like brings in chaos, and then creates tension in the group.

[Dan] Yeah. I think ultimately that’s why so many people consider the ending of How I Met Your Mother to be unsatisfying is because they couldn’t figure out how to solve that problem. They had built, over six or seven seasons, this really strong ensemble cast with the fundamental promise of we’re going to add a new character to this eventually. They never really were able to. I thought that Cristin Milioti did a phenomenal job as the mother…


[Dan] When she finally appears at the end. But the writers didn’t really know what to do with her, how to bring her in, how to disrupt those ensemble mechanics in a way that let her really feel like she was part of it. So they eventually, I think, kind of took the coward’s way out and wrote her out and went with Anne what’s her name. But…

[Dan] Anyway. We have let this episode run just a little long. We’ve got homework. Kaela, this is your homework this week.

[Kaela] Yes. Okay. So, both practically and in a way that should help your writing generally, I want you to sit down. Take out a piece of paper. And, like, an actual pen. Physically. You could also do this digitally. But, like, try it. Create a connection map for your characters. This will both help you keep track of everybody, but it will also help you understand how they interact with everybody in the group. So, make connections between like… Describe first what their relationships to each other are, like, each person. What their relationship to each other person in your ensemble is. Then, one challenge in that relationship. Then, one way they enhance each other, or have an interesting something. It might not be enhancing sometimes. You don’t know. But you’ll find out that way.

[Dan] All right. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Do you want to go write… With us? Register for the 2022 Writing Excuses Cruise at Hope to see you there.