Category Archives: Q&A

17.40: Questions & Answers About Structure, with Special Guest Peng Shepherd

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, with special guest Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd joined us aboard Liberty of the Seas for WXR 2022, and returned with us to the topic of story structures. In this episode we answer questions from our live audience. The questions include:

  1. How do you make sure you’ve got the right number of plot threads?
  2. How do you spread the structure of a given plot line across multiple books?
  3. How do you avoiding having subplots distract readers from the main plot?
  4. What are some strategies you can use to better align character goals with the overall problem of the story?
  5. Are there clear dos and don’ts with regard to story structure?
  6. How do you prepare or color-code bits for running a role-playing game? More broadly: what organizational tools do you use for story structure?

For the answers, you’ll have to give the episode a listen…

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

Play

Write a piece of fiction (or an outline) outside your usual length. See how that changes your structural choices.

The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal
(pre-order now! It releases on October 11th!)

15.31: The Agent in the Room

Your Hosts: Dan, DongWon, Piper, and Howard

You had questions for agents, Dongwon has answers!

  • How do you go about becoming an agent?
  • How do an agent and author work together?
  • At what point do agent and author talk about the “sticky stuff?”

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson

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Make a list of the questions, especially the hard ones, you want to ask prospective agents.

15.15: Dialog

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Listener questions drove this episode, and there are only two of them but they were pretty good drivers.  Here they are:

  • Is it a problem that all my dialog ends up as logic-based debates between characters?
  • What can I do to create more variety in my dialog structure?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Joseph Meacham, and mastered by Alex Jackson

Play

Remove all description. Now remove every 3rd line of dialog. Now rebuild the description replace with body language

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, by Natasha Pulley, narrated by Thomas Judd

14.8: Worldbuilding Q&A #1

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, Dan, and DongWon

We invited attendees at WXR 2018 to ask us some general worldbuilding questions. Here’s what they asked:

  • What cultural stuff do you need to know during the writing process?
  • How do you treat overlaps between real-world religions and fictional religions when the fictional religions are part of the story’s fundamental conflict?
  • How much worldbuilding do you have figured out before you start your first draft, and how much do you discover on the fly?
  • What’s the point in a book beyond which you shouldn’t introduce big worldbuilding elements?
  • How do you ensure that the world comes through as a character of its own?
  • How much change to terminology is too much?

Credits: This episode was recorded live by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson

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What do you do about time in your universe? Spend some time considering how it is demarcated in your setting.

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

13.34: Q&A on Character Arcs

Your Hosts: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, and Howard

You had questions. We came up with answers. The questions are below:

  • How do you fulfill promises about character arcs without being cliché? How do you subvert character tropes without betraying the reader?
  • Do you need to complete each character arc in a single story featuring multiple characters?
  • What separates an iconic character from a caricature?
  • Have you ever had an iconic character necessarily become a character in need of an arc?
  • How do you continue a character’s story after they’ve completed their original arc?
  • How much does a character need to change in their arc?
Play

Trace the skyline of a mountain.  Treat that line, with its ups and downs, as the narrative curve for a character arc.

Fat Angie, by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo, narrated by Angela Dawe

13.21: Q&A on Character Depth and Motivation

Your Hosts: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, and Howard

Our listeners submitted some great questions!

  • How do you fairly and even-handedly write a deeply compelling character you deeply dislike?
  • What’s the best way to discuss a character’s underlying motivations without expressly stating them in narrative or dialog?
  • How well should characters understand their own motivations?
  • How do you make non-violent characters interesting?
  • Can there be too much depth to a character?
  • How do you balance character depth across multiple attributes?
  • How do you make a character motivation seem deep when most people’s motivations are actually pretty shallow?
  • Do you create standard dossiers for your characters?
  • Does your story have to have a villain?
  • How do you know whether or not a character’s voice is working?
  • Do you track words or phrases that are unique to a particular character’s voice?

Liner Notes: Brandon mentioned Howard’s “Tyrannopotomus Rex” doodle as part of the writing prompt. Here it is, should you need visual reference.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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Write a story about Howard’s “Tyrannopotumus Rex.” (Yes, it can be a story about how that’s not what a real tyrannopotomus rex looks like.)

Pitch Dark, by Courtney Alameda

13.12: Q&A on Heroes, Villains, and Main Characters

Your Cast: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, Howard

You had questions about heroes, villains, and main characters. We have answers! Here are the questions:

  • How do you make planned power increases not seem like an ass-pull¹?
  • What do you do when your villain is more interesting/engaging than your hero?
  • How do you know when a character is unnecessary and needs to be removed from the story, or killed off in the story?
  • What tricks do you use when you want the reader to mistakenly believe a character is a hero, rather than a villain?
  • Which is more fun for you: creating a villain, or creating a hero?
  • How many side characters can you reasonably juggle in a novel?
  • What are the drawbacks to making your villain a POV character?
  • If your villain doesn’t show up until late in the story, how do you make their eventual appearance seem justified?
  • How do you get readers to like a character who is a jerk?

Liner Footnotes
¹ We hadn’t seen “ass-pull,” the a nouning² of the idiom “pull it out of your ass³” as a noun before.
² Bill Watterson gave us the verb form of the word “noun” indirectly in the final panel of this strip.VerbingWeirdsLanguage
³ For those unfamiliar with the extraction-from-orifice idiom, it means “make it up on the spot,” with a negative connotation, suggesting that the reader can TELL that this was invented in a hurry.

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Write about a female gamer who is trying to right social injustices using her gaming skills.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone, narrated by Cassandra Campbell

12.48: Q&A on Novels and Series, with Brian McClellan

Brian McClellan joined us to field questions about writing novels and series. Here are the questions:

  • How do you write an ending that is open for sequels, but isn’t a cliffhanger?
  • Is it a good idea to take a large novel, and release it instead as serial novellas?
  • Can you debut with a series, or should you establish yourself with standalone novels first?
  • How do you keep readers coming back for each new novel when there’s a long time between them?
  • Should you have more than just one book done before querying agents?
  • What do you do if your novel turns out to be too short to be a novel?
  • Is it possible to write a series as a discovery writer?
  • How do you foreshadow big things that are a long way out?
Play

Take two books or movies, suggested from friends. Those are parts 1 and 3 of a series. Now figure out how part 2 works.

Hungry Ghosts, by Stephen Blackmoore