Writing Excuses 4.24: Random Storytelling

James Dashner and Julie Wright join Brandon and Dan at CONduit in Salt Lake City, and may end up wishing they hadn’t. Brandon throws sets of story concepts at the crew, and asks them to quickly frame serious stories with a solid settings and cool characters.

The  first set of story elements:

  • Church accountant
  • contact lenses that ruin your vision
  • brain implants

The second set of story elements:

  • Hell for English Majors
  • Key that will lock any door

The third set of story elements:

  • Janitors are trying to take over the world
  • They’re going to be stopped by a superhero with no arms
  • It can’t be silly

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan

Writing Prompt: This whole episode was made of writing prompts. Pick one!

Fun Random Fact: Howard worked as a church accountant for a while and he owns contact lenses that do, in fact, impair his vision.

Freaky Bonus Thanks: We couldn’t have recorded this episode without help from our friends at Dungeon Crawlers Radio.

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38 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.24: Random Storytelling”

  1. I love these types of episodes! Some of those story ideas were actually very good, especially the English majors in hell. I love listening to writing excuses on Sunday night.

  2. The first one reminded me a lot of an idea I had a while back regarding bad vision being an actual result of evolution – meaning that it had to offer an evolutionary advantage. I read about Kim Peek and how he basically can look at a page and remember the whole thing, but he’s terrible at reasoning or deducing context from information.

    The idea was that bad vision was like a filter for the brain, since if you had perfect vision all the time you would be overwhelmed and the brain would be struggling just to store the information, with no ability left to make sense of it. You needed “good enough” vision to survive and avoid predators and stuff, but if it was too good you would go insane with all of the extraneous data and an inability to filter through it.

    These contact lenses could provide the same purpose. Maybe not make it so you’re blind, but so that you wouldn’t need to use the filtering capacity of your brain since you outsourced it to the lenses.

    I’d say that the church accountant is a sort of idiot savant who is great with numbers but terrible with reasoning for the very reason implied by my original premise, and he’s stuck doing the accounting since he’s devoid of the creativity and reasoning ability that are required to do much anything else.

    Anyhow, brain implants are developed to improve the recall and computing power of normal people so that they’re as good as the idiot doing the accounting and no longer need him for that job anymore.

    In this world you get killed off if you don’t have a valuable skill to provide, so the only way the idiot can survive is to “get” creativity and reasoning ability.

    The whole story would hinge on his discovery and creation of the contact lenses.

  3. It awesome to hear the creative process of people enjoying them self. To me naive as it might seem it seemed strange that this part of the process that do not come natural but must be thought, with of course is the case if you do not hang around with people that constantly discuss stories and characters.

    For those who need to practice this part of the creative process I want to recommend the card game “Once upon a time” when the whole thing is about spinning the fairytale cards on your hand into the tale being told. Kids are usually brilliant at this and the deck is beautiful.


  4. “Once Upon a Time” is a delightful game, but I resent it ever since a bunch of local writers I’d never met got together at my place and we decided to play that game instead of just sitting around and talking. There were interesting people in my home, and we were pouring all our creative energy into a card game. ARGH.

  5. There is power in how hands move.

    It is the janitors, of course, who discover a magic system where, after watching hands mishandle things, they can turn the power of that hand motion back onto the person who, for example, dropped litter onto the floor and then walked away. Having discovered this power, they decide to use it.

    But there’s this one man who is inadvertently in the way of their schemes, and they can’t seem to catch him doing anything with his hands. He keeps them in his pocket, and walks around looking like a bad-ass because he oversees people and gives orders without ever doing anything himself.

    More bad-assery on his part includes scenes where, being physically threatened by the janitors, he doesn’t raise a hand to defend himself, takes a punch to the face stoically, says something clever, then walks away. There’s even a sex scene where spying janitors find him sitting back and relaxing while a hot lady does all the work. The janitors figure that he must know about their plot and magics, and is a powerful and mysterious magician standing against them.

    The janitor who turns against the evil plan decides to go to this man for help in his plot to sabotage the other janitors, but the janitor ends up revealing himself to a man who knows nothing—his image is the only thing keeping the janitors from realizing the only thing standing between them and world-domination is a helpless man who stuffs his sleeves to hide the fact that he has no arms.

    That’s the story I’d want to read! Fun podcast today.

  6. The great thing about the Janitor idea was that janitors work everywhere. Even the most top-secret labs or command centers need to be cleaned. So the janitors don’t have to be lifelong janitors, they could be operatives of a massive brotherhood/organization bent on world dominion/destruction. They get jobs, earn trust, work their way into the deepest depths of our world governments then one day.

    BAM! Directive 66 is initiated.

    The hero could be one of those janitors, initially disillusioned by something traumatic in his/her life, they strike out at what they see as a corrupted world full of bloated corporations and governments. Thinking perhaps in their distressed ignorance that the janitorial organization seeks to merely eliminate the corrupt and make the world a better place.

    However once his/her mission is complete, they are sought for elimination—as they are tagged as a component in the organization that does not hunger for the true goals of the organization (revealed only to a select few). However they miraculously escape through a foible on the part of the assassin and become a somewhat unwitting savior of mankind as they attempt to right their wrongs.

  7. This was the funnest episode that the crew did at CONduit. The random ideas all came from the audience, and I was the one who suggested both the key that can lock any door and a hell that only punishes English teachers. Brandon changed it to English majors, but he used both of my suggestions in the same exercise, and I must say that I was thoroughly pleased with what the Writing Excuses team came up with.

  8. Hi guys,

    I’ve been listening to writing excuses for years now, and normally find the episodes informative. The best thing is that you are very specific about what you want to teach, or say, and then you say it.

    However, I feel like I’ve got to point out something I find rather disappointing about this and your previous story ideas episode: You aren’t working out stories!

    If you want to call this a story premise workshop, or a first-half-of-a-story-idea workshop, then go ahead. It’s fun, and shows just how cheap and easy ideas are.

    The hard part of constructing a story isn’t the initial idea. It isn’t the clever setting, nor is it the cool character. Stuff happening after the setup doesn’t make a story either. It means there is a setting, and a character, and some events. But that’s it!

    The hard part of the story is how to make the events at the end of the novel pay off the promises at the start of the novel. This is VERY HARD! And it is neglected in almost every writing resource. That it is so hard is the reason why 99% of people write half a novel, and then give up. The setting, the character, the initial events, are all easy and fun. Putting together the end suddenly hits them in the face, and they realise that they don’t actually have that little thing you call a STORY to put in their novel.

    So, please, the next time you do a “Story Idea” workshop, please, please, please don’t leave off the ending of the stories. Better yet, do a workshop where you come up with a great ending of a novel, not a beginning, and work backwards from there.

    For example, a film like The Usual Suspects didn’t happen because someone said “Hey, what would be really cool is if some police arrested some criminals. Then this merry band can then get together to steal drugs from under the police force’s nose, and go to LA to sell it again.”

    No way. What actually went through the writers head was (spoilers) “Hey, how about a story told by a criminal mastermind, one that conceals his true identity, and that passes off his alter-ego as a blameless, places the blame on someone else, and all the while convincing the interrogator that he doesn’t want to tell this story. Then the very last shot can be the reveal, and the police interrogator crestfallen that he’s been duped.”

    Then the whole story can be constructed in reverse. The opening scenes, the entire story, can be filled in as needed.

    THIS is how the greatest stories of our time are constructed. Brainstorm the closing scenes of your story, not the initial scene, and then you can really say you are working on story.

  9. @Luke: I’m sure you didn’t mean to come off as arrogant as you did when you stated “THIS is how the greatest stories of our time are constructed,” because while you’re right in one regard, you’re also WRONG.

    Okay, now I sound arrogant, but as a moderator I’m supposed to.

    See, you don’t always start with an ending. You always start with an idea, or a pair of ideas, or an image — some sort of germination point. From there you can build characters, setting, or plot in any order. At some point, yes, you need to come up with a great ending and then work your way back into the story and refine everything so that ending fits, but even THAT process is not how ALL the greatest stories of our time are created.

    Despite being wrong, you’ve generated a good suggestion for us. You’d like to hear us brainstorm endings from these story germs. Duly noted.

  10. In defense of the podcast, I’d like to point out that the W.E. team has had several episodes already dealing with fulfilling promises to the reader, along with how to approach climaxes and endings. I know many prospective writers have trouble with endings, but that does not invalidate the idea put forth by the podcasters that you can start a good, and even publishable, story with just an idea. Or, in this case, several interesting ideas thrown together. Some of the potential books discussed in this podcast are ones I would like to read someday.

    Sometimes you start your story with an ending, and sometimes the ending comes to you as you write. Sometimes, it’s an absolute shock, even to the person writing the words. All of the stories proposed in this podcast have a dazzling variety of potential endings, if you are imaginative enough to foresee where the stories are going. And remember, this podcast is for aspiring writers OF ALL DEGREES. Some of the people listening are still learning how to brainstorm, and some people are learning how to do endings, and some people only need to learn how to shmooze their way into a publisher’s radar screen. The W.E. crew can’t address all of these people in one episode. That’s why they archive their past episodes, so that you can sniff out all the ones that are relevant to you.

  11. The reason why people are being sent to hell who are not supposed to be is because of all the clerical errors the numbers priest is making, and there is the second book.

  12. I love these brainstorming podcasts – though I say that silly should be allowed. (I like the suggestion above about brainstorming endings for these – I am one of those who needs an ending to write towards.)

    As for the specific stories, I must point out that English majors, particularly those who were so objectionable they have been consigned to Hell, could NEVER bring about a revolution because that would involve actually taking action. They’d have to break into the engineers’ Hell for anything to actually get done. :-P

    On the other hand, janitors COULD take over the world. :-)

  13. I think the janitorial cleric lost his arms trying to save the English majors from their hell because he was using special contacts that were supposed to enhance his strength but instead made him lose his vision. The End.

    I loved hearing the process that goes into writing stories. What better way to write or come up with a story than to throw ideas off each other?

  14. @Howard.

    I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, but I really do believe that a story isn’t a story without an end. A collection of good ideas can be a setting, or a character, or a series of events, or some cool character moments, or some fun scenes, or some good ideas of the direction a narrative can go.

    My only problem with these brainstorming episodes is the terminology. The guys say they are story ideas. I disagree. Saying something is a story, without even MENTIONING that it has to have a ending, is setting up many people, in their next novel writing project, for failure. Because, as we all know, ideas are easy. Cool characters are easy. Coming up with the ending is hard.

    I watched Dan’s story structure workshop on youtube, and he went into it a bit more. By knowing what your character is going to do in the climax, you know where they have to be at the start.

    I know the guys have done podcasts on endings before, as I’ve been listening for years now. I know that they know stories have to have strong endings. I’m just concerned that they pass off two ideas and one character as a story, when in fact they are providing nothing more than the opening third a story.

    Brainstorm endings!

  15. And once again I have to disagree with Luke.

    “Because, as we all know, ideas are easy. Cool characters are easy. Coming up with the ending is hard.”

    Maybe for you, Luke. But you are not the rule. Through attending cons and workshopping, I have gotten to know quite a few writers, and over 90% of the ones I meet have trouble with ideas and trouble writing cool characters. The most frequent question that published authors like Brandon get is “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never had problems in this regard, but many people have, and so it seems quite appropriate that the podcast have many episodes about generating the ideas that begin a story.

    Secondly, endings are not hard. Not for all of us, at least. Granted, many of the people who have trouble brainstorming also have trouble with endings, but there are still plenty of people who have no difficulty with finishing a story once they’ve started. Endings have always been my strongest suit, and I find that once you’ve brainstormed the good idea behind your story, it only takes the smallest shadow of insight to see where your characters are going, what the story is doing to them, and how it all must naturally end.

    But if you need a writing prompt, then how about this: Write a story about an English major with a key that can lock any door, and make the story end with the English major’s death and subsequent descent into hell.

    Now you are truly out of excuses. Go write.

  16. @Luke Burrage: For some people ending is the hard part. No one argues that. For some people it isn’t.

    Endings is all about carefully weaving all the threads you used in your story to a ingesting finish and fastening them. That far away from the early conceptual work this podcast was about. A podcast already with an extra angle on how to find characters with fitting conflicts for the story.

    Complaining about not finding anything about endings in the episode is like complaining that you didn’t find any orange juice in you milk. You should be grateful is wasn’t there. It would been a mess.

    Using the word story… Well I think its appropriate. In the early stages of the development a story might lack a lot; plot, character, themes, beginning, middle, ending, language and style. Technically you could argue you should call it a proto-story until it got all that but that but that would just be unwieldy. I would greatly prefer that Brandon, Dan, Taylor and co kept on calling it a story.

  17. Stuff happening does not make a story. Characters existing doesn’t make a story. Ideas for settings doesn’t make a story. Ideas for gimmicks doesn’t make a story. All are helpful, and all may be hard or easy, depending on who is coming up with the ideas.

    Just saying “The story will be about this” doesn’t actually mean the story exists. Saying “Oh, don’t worry, the end will work itself out once you get going” doesn’t mean the story exists. Saying “Endings are not hard” does not mean the ending exists.

    No matter what else you say, without an ending, the story is nothing more than a collection of ideas, events and characters. They could be the best in the world. They could be so good, you manage to get a book deal just from the initial idea. However, and I believe this quite strongly, without an end, you don’t have a story.

    I read Brandon’s Warbreaker, and the end of that was very strong. All of the cool ideas and character and magic and swords, all would have been wasted without the ending. And I know he structures and plots his stories out very clearly. The ending was telegraphed all the way through, and everything paid off. How was he able to do this? He had the ending in mind, right from the start. He didn’t work out the story from the start, he worked out the end, then worked out what journey the characters could make to get there, and THEN he had the start. From then on he can flesh out the world with cool ideas, and make sure the characters were varied.

    I’m not saying everyone should work like this, but I think it’s disingenuous to pass off some ideas for story elements for a story. This podcast just wasn’t a story brainstorm, it was a cool-ideas and character brainstorm. Story is something more.

  18. And an ending all by itself doesn’t make a successful story, Luke. I find it touching that because the final product has the ending telegraphed all the way through (in WE-speak, that the promises made through the story are kept), you think that Brandon wrote it all in one go, and it was perfect. Do you think he didn’t revise it a few times?

  19. @Ed: No, no. Luke is suggesting that our brainstorming is backwards because the process for writing a story is to conceive the most important part first (the ending) and then work backwards from there.

    This is a valid process.

    It is not the only process. Not by any stretch. And that’s what I’m taking issue with, and why I’m declaring AGAIN that Luke Is Wrong in this piece of absolutism. Yes, endings are important. No, you don’t need to start with them. Yes, we’ll talk about endings again someday. No, that doesn’t invalidate this ‘cast at all.

    @Luke: The phrase “no matter what else you say,” sounds an awful lot like “I’m right, shut up.” You’re not having a discussion. You’re shouting at us to see the world in your way, and the louder you shout, the more likely we are to stop listening.

  20. I’m just wondering if the guys have done a podcast about doing Science Fiction and Fantasy with a more diverse cast of characters. For example, having a cast (non-token) that is not all white and is more culturally diverse…

    ‘Cause I’ve noticed in the bookstore more and more YA and fantasy with a multi-cultural cast. So I think having good tips and tricks to write outside of ones own culture/familiarity is a good topic to cover… how to not make them token, not taking it too far, etc.

    You had one about writing about the opposite sex… so how about covering a more global look since we live in a global world?

    Might be good since there seem to be some requests on character building too, if you haven’t already covered this. If you could get on LeGuin to cover this topic as well… I think I’d scream for joy.

  21. Hey guys, calm down a bit. I’m not shouting, nor insisting that working out the ending first is the only way to do things. My own novels are split between those where I’ve had the ending first, and those where I’ve had some cool ideas first, and then worked out the story from the start.

    I think I’m being quite clear in what I’m saying, and that is that for a story to be a story, it has to have certain things. An ending is one. When coming up with ideas for stories, how the story ends is as every bit as important as all the other things that you have so far brainstormed on the podcasts. Starting points are important. Characters (which was a bit more of the focus in this podcast) also important. Clever things like keys that only lock doors are also very important.

    What I’m saying is that endings are very important to a story, and without an ending, you really don’t have a story at all, you just have a series of events that may or may not lead anywhere. Just like without a beginning, a story can’t really have an ending, a story with just a beginning without an ending isn’t much of a story, if one at all. A single event might be good for a short story, but even that should have some kind of structure that leads it through to the end.

    My ONLY criticism of this episode, and of the other brainstorming podcasts (all of which I highly enjoy) is that there isn’t a single mention of how any of these ideas might end. Not how they will end. Not even IF they will end, or how far along you expect the story to go. No, the whole concept of the story HAVING an end is missing.

    I’m just asking for a bit of balance, and the next time you do a brainstorming session, focus a little on how one of your ideas might end.

    I’ve written four novels now, but started many more. The ONLY times I’ve finished a novel is when I’ve had the ending clearly in mind. And EVERY time I’ve started writing without the end worked out first, I’ve made it only half way through, then stopped. This might just be a failing for me, and writers like me, but I’ve come across quite a few of us.

    Also, I’m not trying to have a discussion. That might sound a bit abrupt, but I’m simply leaving feedback for a podcast. I’m trying to get across my point of view, so in the future your podcast can be more helpful to me and people like me. My views on what makes a story might not line up with yours, but a word like “story” is a nebulous thing, and no two people have the same definition.

  22. I’ve emailed Luke so that the less pleasant portions of this discussion can be carried out elsewhere, or (better yet) not at all.

    “Brainstorming Endings” — it’s on the list now. It’s a good suggestion.

  23. Personally I like the idea but would love to see it taken even farther. It would require multiple ‘casts with the 15-18 minute time frame, but might work better that way. Start with some portion of brain storming (characters, theme, world, situation/what-if/plot/whatever you want to call it) and over several episodes build on the one set of ideas.

    For the people who think ideas are easy, it still shows interesting ways of piecing them together (something I know I still need to work on, at least) and in general getting the feel for context of how one section of ideas (say, theme) can affect choices in others (what archetypes do/don’t fit in that theme).

  24. The Writing Excuses Crew has discussed the possibility of brainstorming something on the ‘cast and then turning it into actual fiction product for your consumption, ‘casting highlights of the creation process along the way.

    It would be really cool, but it’s also a huge amount of work.

  25. I like that idea, but there’s something about it that seems a little . . . reality show-esque to me. (Maybe because, in the real world, a lot of ideas get tossed or otherwise never make it to fruition, but there would be an unrealistic amount of pressure to make *this* idea work, for the sake of the podcast.)

    Maybe you could do a “fly on the wall” type podcast where we sit in on a writing group and listen to critiques and discussion about a work in progress. That way we’d still get a feel for the dynamic of that part of the writing process, but you wouldn’t be tied down to following that particular work from beginning to end.

  26. Ok, lets see if the blog will let me post this time.

    I figured that might be the case, building the ENTIRE foundation of a story is insanely hard, as anyone who’s done it knows. But I’d rather ask and be told it’s too much effort than not ask :).

    Just keep on being awesome and I can live without that particular bit of awesome ;)

  27. Howard: That WOULD be really cool. But yes, a tremendous amount of work.

    To be honest, I think listening in on a critique group session would be of limited use since none of us would have the familiarity with the work which would make it meaningful. (Also, you’d have to find somebody willing to have their manuscript dissected in public.) Besides, critiquing an already-written manuscript or portion of a manuscript is a decidedly different part of the process than coming up with story directions or story endings.

    Regarding what Katya said about the artificiality of it, though… It’s certainly true, but I think that’s just something we have to deal with when doing things like this. Critique groups, for example–I love them. I think they’re fantastic (I know they have been for me personally). But taking somebody’s manuscript and having a detailed technical discussion about it with ten of your friends? It doesn’t GET much more artificial than that. ;)

  28. I really liked what The Writing Show did with their Slush Pile Workshop. The listeners sent in the first chapter of their current work. The host of the show then reads aloud a first chapter she picks for that episode. When she thinks an editor would stop, she ends her reading and gives a critique on what she thinks of the chapter up to that point. I am simplifying of course but you get the idea.

  29. Hum… while we’re suggesting ideas, how about brainstorming complications? At least I’ve run into some would-be writers who can figure out a cool beginning, and a great ending, but the middles… sag? They’ve got this straight drive from problem to solution, without the complications in the middle that really make the story. So — do a podcast on filling in the middle, and … now we’ve got a three-act story!

  30. Wasn’t that last bit the Lord Ruler? Excepting the 1000 year reign part and the fact his abilities are not inherently unique, that’s more or less his story.

  31. perhaps for the second story, perhaps the guy was sent to hell accidentally due to a clerical error!

  32. Oo, had an idea for how the contacts can fit into James’ story;
    The kid who has a fear of numbers has to wear them at school or he’ll end up catatonic,
    And in the end, this means that he is the only person immune to the numbers priest and thus the only one who can defeat him. (Indie and the snakes type stuff)

  33. Hell for English Majors? Isn’t that every internet chat room, ever? >.>

  34. Way late, but I have to say that James Dashner’s numbers idea holds intrigue for nerds.

    James, my friend! Write it!

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