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

17.27: Ensembles Behind the Scenes

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

In this, our final “ensemble masterclass” episode, we discuss the nuts-and-bolts, the tips and tricks, the tools of the trade. In short, we talk very specifically about how we do it. Color-coded sticky notes, index cards, spreadsheets, and more…

Liner Notes: Howard’s guest story for Dave Kellet’s DRIVE compendium is now running online! It’s called “History and Haberdashery.

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

Homework: Color-code your outline, and see if it’s helpful.

Thing of the week: Into the Dark, by Claudia Gray.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: What tools do you use to make sure that ensembles work? Colorcode, either print scenes, chapters, or pages in specific colors, or use color-coded index cards or post-its. Or your outlines, POV, characters, subplots. Color-code dialogue! Scrivener cards, with goals for scenes. Scapple. Retrospective reviews as you start revision. Outlining by emotional beats or goals, to keep the thrill of discovery during writing. Use search to find conversational fillers and cliche phrases. 

[Season 17, Episode 27]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Ensembles Behind the Scenes.

[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.

[Dan] Are you sure?


[Kaela] Question mark.

[Howard] That’s definitely Kaela. I can tell. And I’m Howard.

[Dan] Okay. So. We have been recording for a long time. We’re going to talk today… This episode is the final one in our ensemble master class. What we want to talk about is not so much the storytelling side, but the nitty-gritty writing, outlining, revising, that kind of stuff. What are the tools that we use and how do we use them to make sure that we can tell ensembles well? So, I think the best way to start this… Let’s jump right into one of the examples that Zoraida gave us in the outline. You colorcode things. Tell us how that works and let’s talk about it.

[Zoraida] So I have a very intensive editing process. Because it needs to calm all of my anxieties of thinking that the book is terrible. So I colorcode chapters by… If I’m writing in a dedicated point of view, it’s more time intensive to print specific chapters or pages in a specific color, so when I can’t do that, I use color-coded index cards or post-its so that I can see where the text is too long in the story, where one point of view might be taking over. Right? Yes, you can do this by laying out index cards and seeing how many scenes. But I’m more interested in the actual length that these point of views take up. Right? Because I could have an equal number of scene cards or chapter cards, but when the text is actually there, like, one chapter is like 8000 words and one might be five. So I need to understand what’s happening there and what’s going on in these scenes and can something be broken up, does it need to be so long, who’s taking over, who needs more airtime. That’s sort of how I go into editing mode.

[Dan] Your chapters are long. Wow.

[Zoraida] Yeah. I do real short. I’m using this as an exaggerated example.


[Zoraida] I try to do shorter chapters.

[Howard] Sorry. I now have a question. You said your chapters are long. Zoraida, how long are your chapters? In terms of word count.

[Zoraida] So I usually aim for 4000 words. But I was using an exaggerated example.


[Dan] That’s awesome. So, I think that’s an interesting way to do it. So… Because, yeah, I have done… In my outlines, I will frequently colorcode them in terms of which POV are we in or which character or which subplot are we dealing with. But, like you say, that’s only telling me the scene or the chapter, not the actual word count, the volume of the story that’s being taken up. What do you do to be able to visualize that at a glance?

[Zoraida] At a glance? I would have to be super incredible chaotic, and… Or chaotic and organized at the same time, which I know doesn’t make sense, but… If I am writing out of order, I would take all of the chapters of like Suzanne, right? Suzanne Elfshire, and print them out in like blue paper. Then take like Phil James Elfman… These are ridiculous examples… I would print them out, print his chapters out in a different color. Right? So this is what I mean when, like, my process is very time consuming. But I need the child part of writing otherwise I can’t edit.

[Dan] That’s awesome. Also, I think that I want to change our homework for this episode. Write an 8000 word chapter about Phil James Elfman.


[Dan] No. This is really intriguing to me and I like it a lot. So I want to ask a little more. Let’s dig into this. So, when we’re dealing with an ensemble, this is different than just which POV is this chapter in. Because, often, I would say most of the time, you’ve got multiple characters from your ensemble together, because that’s what defines an ensemble. So how do you choose which color to use for a given chapter you’ve got four or five members of the ensemble all on screen at the same time?

[Zoraida] Because I… Even when I do third person, I do third person limited for a specific character. So it truly, that method only… Can only work if the point of view is in the perspective of that one character. Right?

[Dan] Okay.

[Howard] There are… I just called them red letter editions, they’ve probably got a real name, of the New Testament, where all of Christ’s words are in red. It seems to me that… I mean, it would be a ton of extra work, but if you go through and colorcode character dialogue, I mean that’s a ton, a ton of extra work…

[Zoraida] You could highlight.

[Howard] Or, yeah, using highlighting, but regardless, you’ve got to visit every line of dialogue. But then you could back up and stare at the page and say, “Whoo. That’s a whole lot of yellow and not enough green. So-and-so, should they be dominating the conversation, or shouldn’t they be?”

[Zoraida] I like that.

[Howard] With regard to writing tools, I have just started writing with Scrivener. My first ever Scrivener project was a bonus story comic for Dave Kellett. Which worked out just fine. But I’m doing Shafter’s Shifters in Scrivener, and I’ve found that the cards in Scrivener, there’s a text on the card which if you don’t put anything in, it just ends up being whichever text, the beginning of whichever text is actually in that scene. But I would put things on the cards like this scene needs to deliver three clues and this scene needs to establish one character’s opinion. So, goals would go on the cards. Then, as I’m writing my way through, I can look at a scene and say, “Did I deliver those clues? I didn’t. Do I have to go back and fix it? Or can one of them be on a different card? Did this character do what they were supposed to? They didn’t. Maybe I do need to fix it.” So my outline at the high level ends up mapped in a convenient way onto the actual text.

[Dan] Yeah. It’s important, Howard… I’m glad that you talked about that thought process, because failing to meet those goals does not mean that the scene or chapter is broken or wrong. Right? That’s the decision you have to make after the fact, and say, “Well, do I follow the outline and rewrite this or do I follow this new direction and rewrite the outline?” Because neither one is inherently right or wrong, it’s just your process as you go through. Kaela, you are much more of a discovery writer.

[Kaela] Yeah.

[Dan] Or a pantser. So how do you do this? How do… What tools do you use to make sure that the ensemble is coming together correctly?

[Kaela] So, this is made more awkward by the fact that I just generally am a little chaos gremlin when it comes to writing. So I write out of order which makes that even harder. Then I don’t have an outline. I just jump around. When I see a scene in my head where two people are having a big conflict, I’m like, “Ewww!” Then I just go pick around a place in the document and write that out. But, as I feel things out like that, I leave little asterisks in between them, being like, “Eww, this could be… This scene where an important conflict thing happens can be brought to a head because of this thing.” Then I will go back and write whatever other interesting thing I want to. Most of it is instinct, I’ll be honest. But as I’ve been writing more, through the Cece Rios series, I’ve realized I have created more tools for myself. But they end up being more after the fact, because, as a discovery writer, if I write too much like instructional stuff to myself, it loses flavor. It loses… Honesty or something like that. Like, I admire people who can create an outline and then bring life to it, but when I do it, it’s just like stale homework.

[Zoraida] I will tell you the reason why I outline. Because in my debut novel, which came out 100 years ago… 10 years ago actually, almost to the day. Like May 2000… May 2 or May 5, 2012. I wrote that book like a discovery writer. This stuff is… Like, I just put in the stuff that I thought was fun. I love it, it’s like it’s my baby. That’s probably why it’s out of print. But it… I locked myself into a logistical timeline. So an entire trilogy takes place over the course of 14 days because I didn’t outline that first book. So I said never again. Now I’m outliner. Specifically for big casts, when I have an ensemble cast, I need to sort of… I need to know where everyone is. If you don’t like paper, right, like if you don’t like using paper to outline, there’s a program that I also use called Scapple which is by the people of Scrivener. I don’t know if you guys have heard of it. It’s basically just like you can do index cards on it. It’s like 12 bucks or something like that. But…


[Kaela] As I…

[Howard] One of the things… Oh, go ahead, Kaela.

[Kaela] I was just going to say, as I’ve been going through the trilogy, I’m… My cast has grown so much, to the point where I’ve had to have like a good look in the mirror at myself and be like, “Okay. You have to try to organize yourself now. It’s too big for you not to.” One of the big things that’s helped is when I enter revision mode, I go through and I set up a column of like each chapter, the word count, and then what happens in those chapters, the major things. Then, as I’m reading chronologically through it now that it is actually chronologically readable, I will write down what things need to change and like whether somebody doesn’t have enough time or something crucial is left out and things like that. That has helped me, in like as a retrospective sort of thing, for anybody else who’s like me.

[Dan] All right. Let’s take a break for our book of the week. Zoraida, you told us earlier that you write some Star Wars stuff.

[Zoraida] Yes.

[Dan] Including you’ve got a book coming out next year or something that’s part of the High Republic series. Is that…

[Zoraida] Yeah. It actually comes out this year in October.

[Dan] Fantastic.

[Zoraida] Yeah. It’s phase 2 of the High Republic.

[Dan] So our book of the week this week… Say again?

[Zoraida] It’s phase 2 of the High Republic is my book.

[Dan] Awesome. That is really exciting. So our book of the week is Into the Dark by Claudia Gray, which is one of the intro books to the High Republic series. Tell us about it.

[Zoraida] It is one of the young adult novels by Claudia Gray. It follows… It’s in the High Republic era. It follows a Jedi Padawan named Reath Silas who he likes adventure, but only reading about adventure. So he sort of kicked out of the nest from the Jedi Temple in Coruscant and is sent to the outer rim to accompany other Jedi in what is like a big catastrophe that’s happening. While he’s out there, he is acc… He encounters somebody from the enemy side. Sort of he’s forced to grow up and figure out what it means to be a Jedi. So it’s in Claudia Gray fashion. She makes you root for every single person on that ship. She’s great at writing multiple… Big casts that feel like they belong together.

[Dan] Yeah. Claudia is one of my favorite authors. High Republic is a very cool setting about 200 years before Phantom Menace. It’s basically a huge shared world project with a bunch of different authors all writing the same plot in the same characters over time.

[Howard] It sounds supercool.

[Dan] Anyway, we’re excited for you to be a part of it. So, read Into the Dark by Claudia Gray. Then, in October, look for Zoraida’s new book. Can you tell us what it’s called? Is that still secret, or… I don’t even know.


[Zoraida] I was like I just got a hot flash. I was like, “What’s my book title?” It is…


[Zoraida] Revealed. It’s called Convergence.

[Dan] Convergence by Zoraida Cordova.

[Dan] All right. So. Let me… Howard. You had something that you wanted to say earlier.

[Howard] Yes. When… Kaela, when you said outlining takes away some of the… And then you look for the words…


[Howard] To describe what happened when you outline.

[Garbled words]

[Howard] I have the same problem. Part of what I love about discovery writing is the thrill of the discovery. If I did all of the discovery in the outline, I felt like, well, now I’m just bored. What I have realized since then is that if I’m outlining, sometimes my outline is just emotional beats. I will establish, okay, at this point in the story I want the reader to turn the page because they are scared to know what happens next, but they have to know. Here I want them to turn the page because of sense of wonder. Here I want them to turn the page because there laughing at how awesome the dialogue is and they’re hoping there’s more of it. None of those things have any deflation of discovery in them. All of them allow me to write something where I’m actually writing to the reader, and using the magic power of authors to make people feel things with little patterns of digital ink on digital pages. It is sorcery, my friends. Sorcery!



[Zoraida] I will say that at the end of the day, like, I can outline until I have 10,000 stacks of paper on my desk, and I often do, but sometimes I still go off page because the story decides where it wants to go.

[Dan] So. One of the things that we talked about a few episodes ago was making sure that the characters maintain their distinctiveness. That the right characters are saying the right things and that their dialogue doesn’t just kind of blend together into gray mush. So, Howard, what tools do you use to make sure that the right person says the right bit of dialogue?

[Howard] I use… I start with search and replace. Well, not search and replace, but just search on conversational fillers. If a character is interrupting another character because they’ve just had a thought, they might say, “Wait a minute.” Or “Hang on.” Or “No. Wait, wait, wait.” Or something. I will scan through the document until I see one of those. Then I’ll copy it into a search string and see where else I’ve used it. If I’ve got three different characters who all say, “Hang on a minute,” I’ve done something wrong. Now, I don’t like using those cliché phrases anyway. I like finding other ways to do… I don’t want my novel to read like, “You know, you just don’t get it, do you?” That sort of thing that gets used all the time. I don’t want to do that with cliché phrasing. So the other thing that that search lets me do is identify am I leaning too heavily into these conversational shorthands. Is there a way that I can phrase these things differently? But, yeah, it starts with looking for common little phrases, and as I read a character’s dialogue, as I make my way through, often I will find little turns of phrase and I’ll realize, “Wait, that’s something that I know I’ve written before or since or multiple times at least. I need to go find other copies of it.” So I’ll do a search and replace.

[Dan] Very cool. So we hope we’ve given you some good tools that you can use to help write ensembles better. One of those tools is actually our homework. Zoraida? What are we going to ask them to do?

[Zoraida] I’m going to ask you to colorcode your outline. That could be printing in different colors or using different color index cards, post-its. But just take a step back, look at the story, look at the voices, and see what the bigger picture tells you from afar.

[Kaela] As email.

[Dan] Sounds awesome. So. This is Writing Excuses. Huge thanks to Zoraida and to Kaela for joining us on this master class series. Thank you so much for being a part of this. Listeners, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Do you want to go write on a cruise ship surrounded by other writers in the Caribbean? The Writing Excuses 2022 cruise is happening this September and we’d love to have you there. Go to for all the details.