Writing Excuses 10.13: Where Is My Story Going?
Key points: Think about a sense of progress. Don’t let the middle be terrible. Here is where you are beginning to fulfill the promises you made to the reader in the beginning, and building trust that you are going to answer the questions. Knowing the shape and promises, you can start doling out information. Think of mysteries — clues, and reveals! Look for the inherent conflicts. Look for underlying structure and pacing. Romances and buddy cop movies, underdog sports story and war movies. Avoid clichés or formulaic writing by understanding what’s really needed, and how the pieces interact. Don’t cut the end off the roast, get a bigger pan. Know what your ending is, so that you can build towards it from the beginning. Look for moments of awesome, a.k.a. set pieces or showpieces, and make sure you aim and set them up correctly. Also, think about your stand-up-and-cheer moment, the climax. Set up your moments of awesome, your set pieces, and your stand-up-and-cheer moment so they mean something to the character, progress the plot, and have a huge emotional impact on the reader.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Where Is This Story Going?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about where our story’s going. Two weeks ago, we discussed the idea of where is my story coming from. This felt like a very natural evolution of that idea. Hopefully, you’re thinking a lot about the structure of your story. I want to start us off with the idea of a sense of progress. I feel this is the most important thing relating to pacing and outlining and preparing a story, once you know where it’s coming from.
[Mary] Yeah. I think one of the things that people… You’ll hear people talking about the terrible middle. But you spend actually the bulk of the story in the middle of the story.
[Howard] It needs to not be terrible.
[Mary] It needs to not be terrible. So what you’re having to deal with is make sure that… We talked about the questions and the promises that you make to the reader at the beginning. This is where you’re looking at beginning to fulfill them, and giving the reader actually a sense of trust that you are going to answer the questions.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes, exactly. This really helps when you have identified the shape of your story already. As Mary talked about two weeks ago, it’s so very important. If you know the shape and you know the promises you’re making, then you can start doling out your information. Two weeks ago, Dan talked about the John Cleaver books being mysteries. He then identified a mystery needs these things, particularly a murder mystery, in order to heighten the tension and in order to give a promise to the reader that, “Yes, this ending is coming. It’s going to be great, and here are steps along the way.”
[Dan] Exactly. Well, and in a mystery particularly, but really in anything you’re doing, once you figure out not only that you need clues, but what those clues are going to be, it helps you put them in. When does that clue get left? At what point does your character figure it out? What is going to be the piece that helps your character put these clues together? Knowing how the crime is committed helps you kind of work backwards and figure out what all little pieces are, and then the structure component comes, what order are you going to reveal all that information?
[Howard] I can’t remember which of our guests it was… I want to say it was David Brin who said that he always recommends that people’s first story be a mystery because of… Because… Rigid’s the wrong word, but because of how the dictates of the structure are so demanding, and how many of those pieces apply in other story styles.
[Dan] They do. If you’re writing a romance, really a lot of it’s the same thing. Instead of a crime, it’s these two characters need to fall in love. Well, why? What are the specific things? It can’t just be, “Well, he’s a basically decent person, and she’s attractive.” You need something more. They need to have a real connection. How are you going to build and then demonstrate that connection?
[Brandon] Right. And there has to be conflict inherent in each of these things. If you’ve identified I’m doing a romance, there should be conflict in the story inherent to the romance. There are lots of different ways to put this in. You don’t have to use any given one of them. But you’ve got to identify what the trouble is. Same with the mystery. What is the danger inherent in the mystery, what is the conflict inherent in the mystery? Finding the clues is really difficult, the murderer is really smart, or… What is the conflict? Is it becoming more and more personal as the story progresses? How is it becoming more and more personal?
[Mary] I also want to point out that the… That although we’re using a lot of novels as examples, these things apply perfectly to short fiction and any type of storytelling that you’re doing. The only real difference is that in a short story, you’re usually only answering one or two questions, whereas in a novel, you might have multiple of these questions going on all at the same time.
[Brandon] Once you start to really see these things and get a vision of their shape, you can start to do the thing where you notice that stories that originally seem wildly different to you have the exact same structure and the exact same type of pacing. One of the ones I like to bring out in my class is a lot of romance novels and a lot of buddy cop movies follow the exact same structure. That one’s kind of easy to see, really. Oh, okay, I can see. You take… It’s a bromance instead of a romance, we make the same sort of story. But when you start to see the underdog sports story playing out in all different genres all the time, you say, “Wow, this really is an interesting plot archetype that you can give the right clues about as you go.” A lot of war movies are underdog sports story movies. They’re the same structure.
[Dan] We’re not suggesting to you that you follow the clichés of these forms.
[Mary] This is the thing that… You’ll hear people say, “Oh, don’t do formulaic writing.” But I think that these are… That this is from not understanding. You can… This is like saying, “Never follow a recipe.” It’s not the recipe that’s the problem, it’s not understanding what the different components do. So if someone says, “I want to write a story, and I understand the ingredien… The elements of it, and I’ll have a young boy and he needs to live under a staircase.” It’s like, “No, those are ingredients.” What you need to understand is the formula, which is you have someone who is disadvantaged and disenfranchised. That is the formula. If you know how those pieces interact with each other, then you know which pieces you can swap out.
[Dan] I studied anthropology for my first year of college, back when I thought I was going to do that instead of English. Pretty much the first day or the first week, the teacher told a story about a family pot roast recipe that was passed down generation to generation. In that recipe, you cut off the end of the roast. Until finally someone said, “Why? What purpose does that serve?” They attracted back to grandma and great grandma and great great grandma, and realized that her pan was too small to fit a whole roast in it.
[Dan] Because they didn’t understand the purpose of the recipe, they were propagating an unintentional part of it.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. You see that a lot in stories.
[Mary] Yes. Jane Espenson has this really interesting thing to say when she’s talking about television writing, which is very formulaic. You have to break at specific points because…
[Mary] Commercials. She says that she likens it to a clear pitcher. You can put any liquid in it you want. The shape of the pitcher will not change, but the liquid is wildly different. You can have Jell-O or chicken soup.
[Howard] I’m really fond… We asked the question at the beginning of the episode, where is this story going? One of the questions that you want to be able to answer is what is my ending. Often, the promise that is made to the reader… Often the suspicion that the reader has, the expectation that the reader has, is something that you are going to defy with some sort of a plot twist. Knowing that you are writing a story in which an expectation is going to be subverted at some point two thirds of the way, three quarters of the way through the story. For instance, the reader thinks, “Well, they’re going to beat the bad guy and kill him,” but, three quarters of the way through the story, they have to team up with the bad guy because there was a problem that was bigger than them both, and is a story about reconciliation. If you know that that’s the kind of story that you want to tell, if you know that’s where it’s headed, that informs your craft all the way through.
[Brandon] Right. You can make those promises at the beginning, you can make multiple promises and you can bring one of the subplots to the forefront and say, “Okay. We are going to deal with this right now. This is really important.”
[Mary] One of the things that I did when I wrote Valor and Vanity, the elevator pitch for it was Jane Austen writes Oceans 11. The reason that I bring…
[Howard] With magic.
[Mary] With magic.
[Mary] Jane Austen writes Oceans 11 with magic. The reason I bring this up is because that gives me two different shapes of story that I needed to, two different promises that I was making to my readers. One is that I was going to deliver a heist. That means that because of that, at the end of the thing, when I get to the ending, the middle all has to be dealing with heisty stuff and the end has to be triumph over the enemy. Jane Austen means there’s drawing room and there’s comedy of manners and there’s relationships. At the end, I have to have a reconciliation between the characters, and I have to have some sort of romantic through line. So I was making two sets of promises that I had to fulfill for my readers. Because of that, that helped me shape what was happening in the middle to make sure that the structure of my story was always delivering those two promises, and taking turns which one would kind of dominate.
[Brandon] I’m going to stop us for our book of the week. A little book that apparently we forgot to do, called Words of Radiance.
[Brandon] Last year.
[Dan] Be fair. It’s so easy to overlook.
[Howard] Oh, that short thing.
[Brandon] Last year, at the Writing Excuses retreat, one of our students came to me and said, “When are you going to do Words of Radiance?” I said, “Of course, we did Words of Radiance already. Didn’t we?” Then we looked, and lo and behold, we had forgotten it because we were waiting until season 10, which was going to be so awesome. We wanted to promo it then.
[Howard] Words of Radiance, a tasty morsel by Brandon Sanderson.
[Brandon] Yes, it is my… The second of the Stormlight Archives. It is read beautifully by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, whom I love and I asked for specifically because I like their style of reading. It is epic fantasy at its most epic. It has a very fascinating structure, for those of you who are interested in structures, because I plotted the entire book as a trilogy. Which I broke up with a short story collection in between books, and then bound together as one novel.
[Mary] That’s why that’s happening.
[Brandon] Yes. So when foreign countries asked if they could split it, which they often do, we gave them the split points, they turned it into three books.
[Mary] Oh, wow.
[Brandon] So, Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. You can get read to you by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial, and you can listen to this awesomely crazy book that I have written.
[Howard] I said morsel. I guess it’s actually a three course meal in Europe.
[Mary] With palate cleansers.
[Brandon] Let’s move on to talking about this idea that Howard loves, which is looking for the moments of awesome. Is that what you just started?
[Howard] Oh, yeah. Apparently there’s another term for it. The term set piece…
[Dan] Set piece or showpiece.
[Howard] Showpiece. I look for… For me, often, it’s I want to draw a spaceship exploding, only I want it to explode like from one side and all this… Okay. Why do we have an exploding space… Why is this even in here? I will often work my way backwards from that. There are lots of fun moments in the media that I consume. When I get to those moments, if they are… If they were done right, if the media was done right, I look at this and I think, “Oh, wow, that was really fulfilling. Everything led up to this moment.” If it was done wrong, say Transformers 4, by the time we get to Optimus Prime riding on a dinosaur, which really felt like a set piece, what I felt like was, “I’ve been ready to go home for 20 minutes. You didn’t aim at this set piece correctly.” So my goal, when I’m looking at where a book is going, where a Schlock Mercenary comic is going, I want to know what those set pieces are in advance, so I spend plenty of time aiming at them and setting them up.
[Brandon] This, I think, is the most common way that novelists plot their novels. Most common way of building an outline. It is Robert Jordan’s method, it is the method that I use before I start my more strict outline, is I start with this. It is aiming for those emotionally resonant moments of… I like moments of awesomeness, but the set pieces, where you say this encapsulates why people are reading my book and the emotional feel I want them to get at the highest impact moments of power.
[Mary] Sometimes it is actually just something that’s cool. Like, I had a gondola chase.
[Mary] It was like I want a… It’s a book set in Venice, I want a gondola chase, and I got one.
[Howard] In Valor and Vanity, you’re using heist format in Venice. So gondola chase is not only a moment of awesome, it’s also something that is heavily suggested by the heist. We have to have a chase scene.
[Mary] The we have to have a chase scene is… This is the thing where I feel like people will fall apart when they’re dealing with a set piece. That they’ll aim for it, but the foundations that their laying are not character-based. That a lot of times, you’re watching the film, you’re reading the movie, and you think, “Why would anyone… Why would you go down into the basement with a flashlight when you’ve heard a scary noise and you know that you’re in a horror film?”
[Dan] The one that always stands out to me in movies is here’s… We’ve just watched this fascinating movie with interesting characters that asks probing questions, and then it ends in a gunfight. Because there has to be a gunfight. Well, if you do the gunfight right, and I would suggest something like Grosse Pointe Blank did their final gunfight, but they did it right because it meant something to the character and it progressed the plot other than okay, we can go get popcorn now and I’ll come back in 10 minutes when they’re done shooting each other. Well, which actually extends into another of Howard’s terms that he coined a few years ago and that I have started using every time I outline, which is the stand-up-and-cheer moment. Which really, what this is, is I guess you could call that the climax of the story, but thinking about it in those terms. Once I’ve strung together these are my moments of awesome… When I put together Fragments, the second Partials book, I knew that I wanted to have a hack in a ruined post-apocalyptic building, I knew that I wanted a poison place, a poison wasteland, and I knew that I wanted this big moment where Kira had to make a very painful choice. Then, on top of that, I knew I needed the moment, the stand-up-and-cheer moment. There has to be that thing at the end where you go, “Yes, you nailed it. Kira, you’re the protagonist of this story and I love you because of what you just did.” If the story doesn’t have that, then it’s just… It’s not going far enough.
[Howard] I was thinking about the term set pieces and moments of awesome. One of the reasons that those are two very, very different terms is that some set pieces are designed to just crush you, the reader. When I told the story of General Tagon and his family and the assassination attempt, I knew going into that that this thing that I was kind of calling a moment of awesome was a terrible, terrible tragedy where the reader is getting deep insight into why the General and his son are so very broken. That was a set piece. That’s the same exact sort of principle. I am aiming for a thing that is going to have huge emotional impact. If I don’t set it up right, it won’t work. If I do set it up right, then not only will it work, it will stand in support of the other things that I want to do with this story.
[Brandon] Excellent. This… I think this has been very helpful. I hope that you listeners are getting a better idea for how to shape your stories and make those promises, and then really drive them to these moments. Dan, you’re going to give us a writing prompt.
[Dan] A writing exercise. If you were here two weeks ago, we asked you to look at a plot of a story that you like or a movie or a TV show, whatever it is, and then reverse-engineer it and figure out what the outline is and what promises are being made in the first section of it. What you do now, and if you didn’t do last week, go ahead and just make something up now. Pick a TV show and figure out the A and B plot, whatever you need to do. What you do now, for the new exercise, is you’re going to take that and flip it. You’re going to emphasize one of the side plots as the main plot and see how that changes the story. Look at what different promises that requires. Look at how that will affect the ending. So alter your outline you built last week, or two weeks ago, by emphasizing a different thread and seeing how that changes [garbled]
[Mary] Be aware that it may change to the main character is.
[Dan] Almost certainly.
[Howard] I think that’s the thing to recognize in this. The thing that you start by doing is saying, “This is now the core story piece,” the piece that was a side piece before. What else do I have to move? How do I need to move them? What do I do to deemphasize them? This is huge fun, which is why we’re making you do it.
[Brandon] The entire story of The Empire Strikes Back is about how do we get C-3 PO put back together.
[Brandon] If everything centers on that. This is what were looking at doing. How do you build a story where we need to get C-3 PO back together?
[Dan] How do you make that meaningful?
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.