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How to start a novel

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Jul 9, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I'm at this stage right now and I'm trying to pay attention to how I do it. By "starting" here I mean specifically the period between having the idea for the novel and writing the first scene, so it covers things like initial research, sketching out characters and plot, that sort of thing.

    This is my fourth novel. I've been thinking about it in a back-burner sort of way for some years, as I worked on other projects that I felt ought to come first. I can look at what I've done previously, but I have to rely on memory, which is cagey and tricksey and full of holes and facades. I know in the first one I just plunged in--or rather tumbled in sideways. The next two did stem from ideas that just sort of sprang up and met some larger goals to do with Altearth. Also, I knew that my novel about Fritz (The Falconer) would necessarily be more ambitious and I wanted to get some more experience.

    I have time now to observe and think about the process. Over the years I've accumulated any number of how-to-write-a-novel books and articles and 'sfunny, ya know, but they don't really talk much about this phase. They talk about character arcs and 3-act structure as if I already know what the structure is when I have scarcely begun!

    Anyways, as Mr Swearingen would say, I'm sort of floundering. All you plotters out there, please feel free to chime in. Pantsers: sorry. There'll be no diving in on this project.

    I'm going to post a reply here to say more or less where I'm at right now, but I'd love to hear from others how they go about undertaking a new project.
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  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Here's where I'm at. Which is different from where it's at because Beck already knows that.

    I know my lead. It's Frederick Hohenstaufen, the orphan boy who became emperor. The external story arc is set--all I need do is add giants and trolls and suchlike. One initial objective, therefore, is to research the history, get the true historical version down. The immediate and sometimes concomitant objective is to take note of anecdotes, rumors, and outright fables concerning Fritz, of which there are many. This necessitates reading old histories because they're the ones that tell all the lurid stories. All this toward getting the basic chronology down.

    Very quickly I realized I need tension. Conflict. There are a few dramatic moments along the way, but basically once Fritz hit Germany, the opposition just folded. I can invent as needed, of course, but even then it's just the external story. I need an arc for Fritz on the interior. And there I really am going to have to make up stuff. Which is fine, but it still needs doing because that's going to be the real story. How he changes and why. Without knowing that, I don't see how I can even begin writing.

    So, that much. Chronology (and geography), plus some psychology. If that's all there was too it, I reckon that would be enough to start. Fill out all that, of course, and map it onto a three-act structure or seven-part whatever. Structure it, in short.

    Does that come close to how you've covered the ground between idea and first scene?

    FWIW, I think it would have for me but for a curve ball and a knuckle ball. Those not interested in this specific story can stop here. I'm perilously close to thinking out loud (thinking at fingertips?).

    The curve ball came in the shape of a pope. The historical Frederick had some truly epic conflicts with more than one pope, including the one who initially was his guardian. Altearth doesn't have any popes, but it does have wizards. What if I have a powerful organization of wizards with one in particular who thinks wizards ought to rule even over kings? Caesero-magism! (history geek pun) That would provide a worthy foil.

    The knuckle ball was Otto of Brunswick. When the Hohenstaufen line failed, the Germans elected Otto king. He was a poor choice. The more I read about him, the more sort of sad the fellow seemed. More strikingly, he seemed to be the polar opposite of Fritz. Aha, sez I, I says. Do we have some parallelism here? Reading still more, I came to rather like Otto.

    So now I have a three-cornered story--Otto, Frederick, and Maddig (the wizard). Each with their own agenda, strengths, weaknesses.

    And for me, that was the transition point from idea to story. For all the books and articles, the outlines and notes, maps and pictures--for all that I'd been cooking on the backburner, it was still only an idea. I couldn't have started writing. Not until I had not only my characters, but some idea of who they were, sure, but also and probably most importantly how they would collide.

    No, I don't have my story yet, but I can see it from here. I still have characters to fill out, story arcs to write, get some sense of verbal tics, and a whole roster of secondary characters to line up before I start writing an actual scene.

    And I know you pantsers out there are going to say gosh he's making this all into a lot of work. Yup. Because I've done it the other way, three times now, and I know the price paid. This time I'm going shopping at the other mall. But not Starcourt!
    Devor likes this.
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I'm a pantser at heart, but over the years I've found myself doing more and more work before I sit down to actually write the story. Coincidentally, I'm working on my fourth novel, too. And I have a pile of how-to books that I've read.

    With my first novel, I dove in like many do with very little planning. For me, that project was about learning that I could actually write something that length. My second and third novel, I started with a general idea of what my characters and world were like. I then figured out what problems my characters were facing, what they wanted (Internally and externally), and what they though they needed to do in order to get what they wanted and why they thought that way.

    Building off what I figured out about my characters, I'd do an initial sketch of my main plot, nailing down all the basic things that are needed for a three act structure, inciting incident, breaking into act 2, midpoint climax, etc. I then laid out the individual plots for each of my POV characters using 7 point plot structure basing it off of what I wanted my characters to learn and how I wanted them to change or not.

    Once I had that, I'd start designing scenes in broad strokes. I'd start with all my plots laid out next to each other in a on a spread sheet with the progression of the plot going from top to bottom on a column. I'd refer to that spread sheet as I designed each scene, determining what steps in each of the plots, if any, I intended to advance with it. For each scene, I'd use scene-sequel structure to determine obstacles each plot/character would encounter.

    Each row of the spreadsheet represented a scene, and all the different plots and their steps that scene advanced would all be on that row. Those plot steps that didn't get advanced were shifted down, until the spreadsheet was a staggered grid that acted as a map giving me a visual of how everything was being advanced and by what scene.

    Obviously, I'd come up with new ideas and/or deeper insights and things would have to be altered as I went through this process. But once I was done, I was ready to write, and for my second and third novels, this is where I'd just start going to town like a pantser and just power through to the end. I'd then spend several drafts fixing things I'd overlooked.

    Well, with this fourth book, which I was having problems gaining momentum on, I went a step further in my planning. Instead of plowing through like I normally do, when I got to a scene, before I started writing, I mapped out in further detail what I wanted to happen within the scene, what details I wanted to reveal about the world, the characters, the relationships, and thought deeper about how these things related to what I had written in the previous scenes and where I wanted the story to go.

    I also moved forward more slowly, taking more careful steps. Whereas in the past I would push through even if I was on unsure footing, thinking I would fix it later, I instead would stop and think things through more thoroughly. I would figure out the solution before moving on.

    I'm about a third of the way through my current novel, and I'm finding that I'm liking my new surefooted approach a lot. Though it's slower--a lot slower--what's getting onto the page is, in my eyes, a lot less sloppy in terms of plot, character, and world building. When I peek back on what I have written, it feels like for the most part, things just need a surface level polishing. There don't seem to be glaring holes that need to be filled in. I think in part because I'm moving a lot slower, I'm catching mistakes a lot more easily because I have more time to see them coming and course correct.

    Any ways, that's how I do things. Hopefully, that was clear enough.
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  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    That was brilliant! It was close enough to my process for it to make sense, but I also see where you're already way ahead of me. I have yet to map out the story into three acts with pinch points and all that. I have all the reference material. I understand it. Just haven't used it yet. Because I'll be juggling two story lines (maybe three) for The Falconer, I think it's even more important that I do the additional work as you've sketched it.

    WRT tools, I will probably use Scrivener rather than a spreadsheet, but maybe the spreadsheet will do. I already have one for the historical chronology, not least because it converts historical dates to AUC (ab urbe condite) without me having to do the arithmetic every time. It'd be nice if Scrivener could work in some basic math. Maybe in version 4, which will be roughly ten years after I die. For the Windows version.
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I encounter a lot of advice to the effect: Just start it. You can always rewrite/revise; the first draft can be, and usually is, clunky. Don't get bogged down in world building. Don't think so much about it that you fail to start writing it—or lose interest.

    Then, too, is the example of Brandon Sanderson, who is an obsessive (or merely conscientious) outliner. He has said that over time he realized he worked better when he would use pantsing techniques for discovering, learning more about his characters. (However, still outlining the plot In detail before he begins.) I think these are often bits he writes, including whole chapters from a character POV, that he'll never put directly into a book, never plans to put into the book, but I might be wrong.

    I learned some of outlining's dangers almost immediately when first outlining a whole story. Dangers, for me. I can sit and write an outline in great detail rather quickly, as everything seems logical for what I want to achieve for plot, character arcs, the journey from beginning to end. But then when I sit to write the prose, I discover the outline is sterile. It's not wrong. Those things in it, the plot and character arcs, all the important events, really ought to work just fine. But it's mechanical. It's just the bone structure and might as well have been dead for thousands of years already as be something on the verge of new life. There is far too much missing.

    What's missing?

    I do wonder whether Sanderson's example might vary from person to person, as each person's effort will work if some aspect of the story is discovery written and the rest outlined. Maybe it's the world that is discovered, but character arcs and plot arcs are outlined. Maybe the plot is discovered but the world and character arcs are solid before beginning to write. Meh, I don't know—but should know better than to guess how others operate.

    I have been discovering that I have great trouble when it comes to understanding my characters. This has been something of a shock, or at least was at first, because I could have sat down and spent hours talking about each of my characters if only someone was crazy enough to let me. And patient enough, heh. I knew them. I understood them. But I didn't (and still don't, often enough) know what they were like as hum-drum people. I mean, what's an average day for them? Like sterile outlines, my "understanding" of a character's average day could be a listicle, described as I tick off various things. But a listicle isn't deep understanding. A listicle day isn't a living day.

    This has been an issue for some time. One of my earliest posts on MS was a floundering attempt to put words to this problem: Character Motivation + Primary Goal. Here's something I posted in a later comment to that thread:

    And then, this:

    While initial goals and motivations, prior to any inciting incident, are a part of the issue, I now say this is floundering, heh. I felt at the time of discussion in that post, and worry now, that my problem may be rather strange, perhaps something most would-be and experienced authors don't experience. So, how to describe it?

    Although I've pushed forward past the point, following the advice to "just begin writing," I've discovered this is bad advice for me. :D Those efforts stalled, largely because I have never resolved this issue. (Incidentally, the story I mentioned in the second quote above never even reached the "write the prose" point.)

    My problem is that I've never fully comprehended the initial circumstances, the character-outside-the-plot. Realizing this, I've come to realize also that I might as well not start writing a serious draft until I reach that point of understanding.

    An example of the problem, using my current project, one I've not yet begun writing but am about to start writing.

    I've always wanted to write a story about an apprentice-master wizard duo, despite the fact that it's been done to death. For a change, I've decided to write from both POVs, and have been planning for the master wizard's POV to be the main POV. (Although now I think the apprentice POV will gain more prominence later in the novel.) I have my master wizard's name, his type of magic, his personality type, and much already listicled, heh. I mean, I know some of those points. I know why he lives where he currently lives and why he lives that way—isolated from other wizards and most of society, save for a small village in the boondocks. I know the Significant Event that led to his isolation, the death of a loved one during a war long ago. I know how he came to have an apprentice, the general personality of that apprentice, and the history of that apprentice prior to their apprentice-master relationship.

    But as I started considering the initial conditions of that story, what's going on for him and his apprentice prior to the inciting incident, and even what that inciting incident would be (when it intrudes on their life), I came to a roadblock.

    How do the two of them eat ? Heh. I mean, neither farms much—they have some chickens, a goat for milk, but that's not enough. I know they need to have a relationship to that small village, a kind of patronage in return for magical services. The villagers feed them, essentially. What this relationship entails....I'm still working out, but I think this part at least won't be too difficult for me.

    But what on earth has that master wizard, who has lived there now for 25 years since he self-exiled himself to a cottage just outside that village, been doing every day? Heh. One can only read so many books, or write so many books, or look at so many stars, etc., just so much. I know there is a trope of "the isolated wizard," and I actually wanted that trope. It adds depth to his particular backstory and what's to come. But my goodness, there's something ridiculous in it. I don't want to hand-wave it by reusing the worn-out trope of a puttering wizard lost in his thoughts, studying and developing various new magics, or even having a hobby that he's obsessively absorbed by. That doesn't fit the character anyway.

    The apprentice is not so much of an issue. He's been there, an apprentice, for only about ten years, and he's a) been a basic servant to the wizard, b) been learning some magic, and simply c) been growing from childhood, which involves a lot of various activities normal for children and youths. Plenty to occupy him for every day of those ten years.

    Now, I can easily come up with different listicles for "average days for the master wizard". I imagine if I created a post in the Brainstorming forum, raising this issue, I could get a long list of ideas. Perhaps one or two might be intriguing, yes, and useful; but, a great many just wouldn't fit. Well, the same thing happens when I create such a "post" in the "Brainstorming forum" in my own brain. What is his life, before the inciting incident? A few points just don't create a life.

    I feel all this might seem silly to others who don't have the same problem. For me, it's serious, and the example I've just given is characteristic of every single project I've started. In that old thread, it was suggested that I just need to understand my characters better. While very true in one respect, the issue is a combo nature-nurture issue. I must consider the environment and then consider an ongoing, streaming history for that character-in-environment. And if I don't have a solid footing here, in the initial conditions, then I can't write the rest of the story—even though I really do know how any given main character will react to so many other encounters and events I've already imagined after the plot is in full swing.

    I only just realized, yesterday, while in the shower, after more than a month conceptualizing this story: My gosh, I haven't figured out who my master wizard's master was, so long ago! This was extremely weird, since the master-apprentice theme is quite important for the whole story and the milieu they are in.

    Anywho. To sum up: When I sit down to write the first scene, the first chapter, I need the details to put into it, for making the sentences heh, and having a full understanding of the main characters' initial condition is key for me. I think. Without that start, without the mundane, I can't proceed with the story.

    [TL;DR below, heh. Ran into character limit for posts.]
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2019
    Devor likes this.
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    TL;DR: I don't have a personal success tale that might help others bridge the gap between initial conception and starting the first draft, but only a long-winding, long-winded description of my current state, heh. However, having experienced this state for some time now, I've slowly been working myself out of it. Am I out of it?

    For weeks now, I've been thinking of a new process, a trial process, that I can't seem to shake. I discussed this with DevorDevor in chat recently. I'm edging toward writing the entire first draft in second person, but with a twist. I'll use an omniscient narrator and address each of the two main characters in what will be their third limited chapters in later drafts. A quick example here of what I mean, for the master wizard:

    When you took the boy into your home, it wasn't a sense of duty or compassion for the boy's plight that moved you. It was because he had nowhere else to go and you had run out of ideas. He would make a good servant, and you had lived too long alone. There was that. The cobwebs were everywhere, those days.

    Now, ten years later, as he struggled to levitate leaves in the yard, you thought how much easier his life might be were he able to master even these basic magical tasks. The boy did not seem to worry about his lack of progress in the magical arts and would pick up a broom or a rake with the same aplomb as he might when lifting his fork at dinner. He understood what magic could do for him, but he simply couldn't do it well enough to matter. He understood this as well.

    Was that a breeze, or had his concentration failed?

    The boy glanced at you, as if he had read your mind. But the glance provided no answer.

    My hope is that approaching the tale in this manner will help me suss out the main characters and their lives, perhaps similar to the way Sanderson will discovery write to come to a better understanding of his characters. It feels right. I feel far more connection with the character this way. This may be quite peculiar to me. Maybe I can more fully understand a character's starting condition by connecting in this way. But I'll have to report back on this after I've done it, heh.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2019
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  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Okay, I'm going to talk about my process first, and I may post again later responding a little to the other posts.

    My current story, Smughitter, has caught me in a way that none of my others have. Too be honest I've had some awesome and ambitious plotlines that were then too intimidating to actually write :( . But then I took some time to write fanfiction and it put a bullseye on what I was missing: Character dynamic. "How does this character feel about that character and how do the readers feel about this." It's not that I've never thought about it before, but I'd never built around it. I was always thinking about plot first - was it character driven and who had agency and what did it need to work - but for Smughitter I thought first about how the characters are interacting and then designed the plotline to push them. They're at odds, but I want it to hurt that they're at odds. I want it to be awesome when they finally work together. That's what Smughitter is designed to do. That's why I'm so excited to write it.

    Funny, I just started doing the scene-by-scene spreadsheet thing last weekend. I've got more details and intros to try and manage than I can keep straight in my head. I'm only fully outlined for the first act, with the rest kind of a jumble at the bottom, loosely grouped across three more acts. I say acts but I'm not really using a 4-Act structure. I'm using my own kind of composite structure. It's also kind of a jumble past the first act, which is pretty straightforward. When I get it figured out I'll be sure to post it somewhere

    Smughitter has a few oddities that other stories don't, so I don't know how much this will apply to anyone reading this. The main plot comes out in a pattern. Haifen is a sprite who turns pride into magic, and Aliffe is a sprite cop who's trying to stop him. When Haifen starts his pride-stealing process on a victim, Aliffe can sense it and goes out to stop him. Right off the bat I can space out the story around Haifen's victims and the climax at the end. The first victim is when Aliffe has her major call to action moment, when Haifen explains that he's raising magic to bring back their destroyed sprite homeland and return the sprites trapped when the gate to their otherworld was destroyed, and Aliffe has to double down on her resolve. They mostly only interact when Haifen goes after his next few marks, so each one needs to deepen the feels coming across in their battles.

    In between those fights Aliffe has to deal with the problems created by the hobs and other fairy-type people as well as stuff in her cop precinct, while Haifen knows all those same fairy-people and also has to plan his next target. So I looked at a bunch of fairy-type creatures and developed a bunch of hob characters, then imagined what kind of little side-story they might have, and then picked a few that seemed right for book 1 (i.e., one would introduce the fairy bargain power, one can play a small role with one of Haifen's targets, another can hint at a behind-the-scenes plot that's relevant in the climax, stuff like that). I have to introduce all these crazy hobs early on, though, when Aliffe, new to the city and looking for her suspect, goes around to meet all the hobs and fairy-creatures she can find in the region. So I have to know which ones are important for this book while also seeding enough creative space in the hobs that I can work with for sequels - all in chapter 2.

    Normally with a magic system the main characters learn it gradually as the story goes on. That gives most authors wiggle room to develop parts of their magic system after they've started the story. My main characters are magical, talented, and experienced. That means I have to have my head fully wrapped around their different abilities. And why do two sprites have different abilities anyways? What if there's a third or fourth sprite - would their abilities be the same? I can't decide halfway through the book that, ohh, now Aliffe has a spell she never even considered using earlier. I need to know from the outset. That was a lot of work.

    Finally, I want to show off a cool, fun city setting. So Haifen's different victims and the private stories of the different hobs each take place in new and different locations around the city. So I've had to get a solid grip on what my city really is and why it's a new, fresh place for readers to explore.

    So for Smughitter to work I've had to do a ton of preplanning. But a lot of that comes from having characters who have already been through some serious stuff and are already extremely capable people. Their primary motivation and abilities are already in place on the first page, and they take initiative. There's no mentor to slow things down. They don't have Chosen One magics they need to unlock. We're head first into the deep end. The readers are on book 1, but compared to most fantasy series the characters act like they're on book 3.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Thanks to FifthViewFifthView and DevorDevor for those posts. Very illuminating! What I notice right off is that there are differences between authors *duh* but also differences in how experienced an author is. Also *duh*. Being experienced doesn't mean the process gets easier, but at least the author starts to recognize certain things about himself. And, probably, is more aware of the process itself.

    Beyond that, there are also differences based on the story. Because of the needs of the story, DevorDevor approaches this one differently than some other story (or author). To me this is another knock on how-to books. The variables are so numerous, there'd need to be a how-to for every author and every project! The real learning is personal--maybe, eventually, I'll be able to say "this is how *I* work."

    Even so and still, there's some sort of value in hearing the experiences of others. I'm not entirely sure what that is; I'm pretty sure the value is not predictable. Maybe it's like why a musician listens to other musicians, or a painter looks at other paintings. Except it's more like a musician being in the studio while another musician worked, or the painter hanging out in another's atelier. We're naturally interested in the craft.

    So, please, anyone who has thoughts, anecdotes, opinions, or Verified Truths on this topic, please share!
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  9. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    After closely reading through the replies I was kind of struck by how similar some of them are.

    Anyways, I thought I would add that I also favor a slow approach to writing, and I dialogue my scenes like a script that's easy to edit before I write them.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    How does one dialogue a scene? I can imagine but would rather hear specifics.

    Also, how do you write dialogue before you know your characters thoroughly and before you know how that scene is to play out? Or is that necessary?
  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I write about a page of dialogue, give or take half, with very basic non-dialogue notes about what's happening. It doesn't take long, gives me time to tighten the scene before committing a lot of words/works, and saves so much time in rewrites.

    Just this once I'll grab a sample from Smughitter instead of my fanfiction. This is the dialogue for Haifen's first scene, the second part of chapter 1. I'm actually going to add a little more narrative so that the scene makes more sense to those reading this. It's a working document so it's normally a little more rough on that.

    It's kind of a long dialogue compared to some others, but I think it's pretty clear why I would find it useful to write it this way first. I can make quick and tiny changes to the script on a whim instead of heavier, time consuming changes to the narrative that has to go with it.
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  12. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

    I’ve found something resembling Nabokov’s famous index cards (but on the computer) is the easiest and/or best way for me to find my way into a novel. I’m building it, sort of, working here and there, like a painter daubing at a canvas until a picture — or a plot — takes recognizable form. The result is a sort of disjointed synopsis, enough to give me a direction and often including a lot of questions about different ways I can go with this or that. I figure it’s best (at least sometimes) to leave those until they actually require an answer, but I might well write up two or three different explorations of them.

    In a sense, I experiment. I try out things, I discard things. Anything is subject to change at that stage; this means far less needs to be changed later on. I will certainly include scenes and dialog exchanges in all of this, for later use. Or not.

    It can be noted that the bulk of my novels are short, the majority being between sixty and seventy thousand words. With something bulkier, I recognize I might need more thorough planning — more to keep track of. I got around that in my one and only epic by breaking it into bite-sized (or novella-sized) pieces, each with its own arc.
  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I haven't started a new story in well over a year.
    The books I'm writing at the moment are all parts of the same story, and I did the outlines for all of them before I even started writing the first one. Twenty books all in all. I've removed one of them, and it's now down to nineteen. I'm currently working on the 8th.

    It all started out with a vague idea, where I wanted to show off my world by having my main character go on a journey by train across all of it.

    I had my main character, and I had some kind of excuse for him to go traveling, and I came up with a few interesting incidents that would happen along the way. The whole thing was going to be a novel, and then I decided it was a bit much for me, so I split it into novellas instead. One story about one interesting event happening to one character.

    I also had another character that I had written a few short stories about that I wanted to get to know better. She seemed a lot more interesting, but at the start she didn't have a place in the story, so I had to figure out a way to include that.

    This character, Alene, is one I knew a lot better than the main character, Roy.
    I can't say I knew either of them particularly well though. I had a vague idea of who they might be, and I figured that would be enough.

    I wasn't much for character design at the time though, and didn't focus very much on that part of the story. Roy was pretty much a blank slate apart from a few key facts about how he ended up where he is.

    All in all, I'm not sure there even was a process for starting the story, before going into the outlining phase. It was just a bunch of ideas and hunches and concepts and that I jammed together, and then during the outlining I figured out how to sort of make it work.
    I still haven't really sat down and thought about character arcs in any kind of detail. A lot of that is happening as I get to know the characters better as I write their stories.

    Would I do it like that again if I were to begin a new story?
    I really don't know.
    I probably shouldn't.
    There are a lot of things I wish I'd done differently.
  14. Malik

    Malik Archmage

    I start with the ending, and then plot backwards. This way, everything that happens in the book leads up to the ending.

    When I've gone backwards far enough that I've hit a boring part where everything is normal, I know I'm at the beginning.
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Can you add to that, Malik? How does one plot backwards? Let me try to explain.

    First, there's the climax and then there's the ending. The denouement. I'm going to assume you mean the climax. I'll take my current project, The Falconer. The culmination is that Fritz becomes emperor. Now, becoming emperor means multiple things. You get elected, then you get crowned. Technically that only makes you King of the Germans, but we'll let that slide. I could make either event be the focal point.

    But that's not the exciting part. The exciting part would be Fritz defeating Otto in battle. Everything after would be denouement. And even that isn't necessarily the crucial part. Maybe the character arcs culminate on the battlefield, but maybe that happens just before or just after. In the latter case I'm thinking of the final scenes of Camelot.

    But perhaps I've said enough to show that (for me at least) "the ending" is not always readily identified.

    Let us suppose that everything comes to a head on the field of battle. I'm sort of leaning in that direction, though I'm vague on details. What has to happen just before? Someone yells "charge!" I suppose. But a battle doesn't have to be narrated that way. Just take a look at the variety of ways Patrick O'Brian handles it. Shouldn't Fritz have to make some crucial decision, something where he sacrifices this for the sake of that? Does such a choice come immediately before or further back?

    I quickly get lost. To lapse into metaphor, I can't very well work my way backward when I don't yet know front from back. Or, if you prefer, when there are a thousand paths I could go by, each leading backward.

    That's why I ask for details. Maybe there will be something in what works for you sparks something for me.
  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me, that basic three act map, in practical terms, helps me breakdown the the larger job into smaller tasks and helps me organize the the ideas I come up with when I brainstorm. I'll come up with an idea for a scene or element, and I'll know it belongs in the first act, or second act or end, so I'll throw it into the corresponding "bucket", and I'll do that with all the various ideas I come up with. So, when I start writing, I'll just refer to the first act bucket for ideas and ignore stuff in the third act bucket. I find this simplifies things and prevents me from getting too distracted with stuff I don't need to necessarily be concerned about until later.

    In terms of writing, instead of worrying about getting the characters from A-Z, mentally/physically, I only have to focus on getting them from A-C. When I get there I only have worry about getting them from C-E. It gives me mini-goals to aim for, so I don't go too far off the rails. For example, if the story is a character arc of Bob's transformation from good guy to bad guy, the path may go as follows.

    I'll start with the beginning and end.

    A = Bob is a good dude who helps old ladies across the street, even if they belittle him.
    Z = Bob is an evil ass who pushes old ladies into traffic.

    Then, I'll come up with the pivotal point of no return in the middle.

    M for middle = Bob has had enough of these little old ladies and doesn't take crap from them any more. When he sees one fall he laughs and taunts them for not being able to get up.

    Then, I'll come up with the broad strokes of how he got from the beginning to the middle.

    The inciting incident
    D = Bob befriends a gang of thieves who steal newspapers off porches of little old ladies, but only the ones that aren't nice. And they sell them for big profit.

    Break into act 2 - moving from his status quo world to the story world
    H = Bob, after being yelled at by a nasty little old lady, goes to the gang of thieves for help, and they teach him how to steal newspapers off porches without being caught, but he has to join the gang.

    Then I'll figure out the broad strokes of how he goes from the middle to end.

    Continued decent into bad guy stuff.
    Q = Bob runs into money trouble. Stealing newspapers off the porches of nasty old ladies isn't paying enough. He begins stealing from nice old ladies, too.

    Breaking into act 3 - the culmination of everything learned, driving to the climax Z
    U = Bob continues to steal newspapers, but then finds out that a nice old lady had seen him and is about to report him to the cops. He has no choice in his eyes. He must do the unthinkable.

    So if you read these steps in alphabetical order, you get broad strokes map of the arc from A-Z that I think makes sense in the context of this crappy example. I find doing stuff like this helps me focus my thoughts, because I know each element has a specific characteristic to it. For example, during the inciting incident, the main character has to make a critical choice that will lead them right into the story proper. If they don't make that choice, then the story never happens and their lives continue as normal.

    Hopefully, you can make sense of this too.

    Actually I do this too when I know what the dialogue is basically going to be, but I haven't decided where or how the scene is going to exactly play out. Sometimes if I get all the dialogue written out, for the most part, all I have to do is fill in the scenery what the characters are doing.
    FifthView likes this.
  17. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I somehow missed this before.

    You've got to know your characters really, really well. There's no getting around that. I feel that anything I write before I know my characters will either need to be rewritten or it will trap you in underdeveloped characters. Also it will be hard to write and garbage at the same time.

    Before I dialogue a scene I lie down ontop of my bed (clothed, over sheets) and stare at the ceiling and I wait until a few lines of dialogue come to me. I'm looking for the *core* of the scene. For the dialogue I posted above I already had this idea that he needed to ask about his next target with his contact that I already named Bashter. But that small plot-purpose aside, the real goal of the scene is to introduce Haifen and raise questions about what he's doing. So while I was staring at the ceiling I had this idea that he came bringing gifts, and I thought about what those gifts would be. The core of the scene, though, was the sign, CLEAN WATER free for children. That's when I knew it was time to dialogue. I wrote it around that one point.

    I've read a lot about creativity, and there's two ways that the brain does creativity. You see a prompt - let's say, a Knight - and your brain jumps to a list of ideas connected to it. Explicit creativity is when you sit down and you say, "I need an idea for a knight..." When you do this the brain makes smaller jumps to find connections between things. Knight to helmet and shield and sword and chivalry and so on. If you know what you're doing you can manipulate this process by changing the prompts - instead of a knight let's think about a helmet, who else wears a helmet? Let's say a construction crew. Now let's merge knights with construction crews to do something different.

    Implicit creativity is what people generally dismiss as "inspiration" that comes to you in the shower or on a walk or doing dishes. It's the "muse." But it's real science, there's a real process to it, and you can develop it to a point that you can rely on it quite a bit. When you think about a question and then relax the brain just the right amount it opens longer pathways between your prompt - knight - and the ideas you come up with. Doing it right now for about five seconds the prompt knight somehow took me to a visual of Eustace in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Narnia series (not the movie). First I saw a visual of a cool knight on a horse, it looked like a painting, and in that story they entered Narnia through a painting of a ship. That might not look useful, but the only goal was to find an example of how different the results are between explicit and implicit creativity from the same prompt.

    Okay, so, boring, crazy-sounding science lesson done. My answer to the question is that I have relatively little problem figuring out what a scene is about because of my preplanning, because I know my characters, and because of the process I've developed.
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2019
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Combining MalikMalik and PenpilotPenpilot, I looked again at my Inciting Incident. It's pretty straightforward: there comes a day when the eighteen-year-old Fritz learns he's been elected King of the Germans. Which is somewhat awkward given there's another fellow was already elected same a few years prior. This presents Fritz with a choice: he either moves now, regardless of the odds, or he forfeits his chance ever to reclaim the throne.

    So, while it's not the climax of the book, it is a clear-cut incident from which to work backwards. That caused me to think not in terms of what events might happen before this (Fritz had a colorful childhood), but rather which events would have formed the character he was at that moment. This would include what he thinks about his family, what he thinks about the people ruling in Sicily at the time, his assessment of dangers and enemies, of rewards, what friends he has and his assessment of them, and his own personal hopes and fears. I can then look to the historical events of his childhood, add in my own, jumble them around to make an arc over the first chapter or two that makes the Inciting Incident more meaningful.

    I'm still fleshing that out, but it feels workable. Moreover, I can see possibilities in doing something similar with mid-point and pinch points--the dramatic turning points along the story arc. I think in doing so, I'll be able to choose among the three or four ending possibilities that are floating around right now.

    That's part of the challenge in starting from the end and working backward--I don't yet know the end. Moreover, judging from every story I've written so far, I don't know the end for sure until I've sussed out much of the beginning and middle. Sure Fritz becomes emperor, but that doesn't say enough. I could have Otto die in battle, have Fritz kill him, or have the two make up and become allies in the face of a common, greater foe. Otto could die wretchedly (as he did IRL) or heroically. Fritz might sacrifice a friend to the cause or rescue a friend. There are just too many possibilities, and I don't have a good way to choose from among them until I know more about these two rivals. And about that third party, Maddig Varshone, whose plots may well cause me to write a second book.

    In any case, I'm finding this thread to be especially interesting, and Mythic Scribes sets fairly high standards for interesting! Maybe it's only because it relates to a current writing problem, but the responses have been detailed and illuminating. I hope to hear from others as well!
  19. ***Sorry if this is too stream of consciousness, i wish I had the time to edit and refine each thought in this comment but this thread struck me and here is what I had the time to offer today!

    I suppose the only thing I have to add to the wonderful advice offered above is this.

    If you look at all of the available tools at our disposal when we speak of writing advice, I think sometimes we tend to get too caught up in finding THE way.

    I had my own working breakthrough, in finishing the work I'd started, when I realized that each piece of general advice as it pertains to pantsing, plotting, character, dialogue, scene structure, and the processes is each just one BROAD color available to us in the writer's paint box. (Blue, for instance, is a wonderful color. But do I want to be known for an entire blue period as an artist?) So I applaud your decision to try another way in with this book.

    II am not a pantser. But nor am I a strict outliner. At least, not by the definition of 90% of the how-to books out there. I use both along the way to my goal.

    I won't mention names but several of the authors who have wonderful writing advice blogs or books that i have read and that I read again and again because the advice s a solid starting point, especially in the outlining area, come off as very unimaginative and dry to me as authors. It's as if they are trying so hard to hit every outlined beat and nail every one of the little devices they talk about that perhaps, as a result, their stories fall flat from page one. They hit the opening line, the inciting event but even there, the prose or the dialogue suffers because they have shoehorned it in around those beats.

    If there were aspects of pantsing that felt right or worked well for you, why not blend it into an outlining style and find a range to work within?

    In the WIP I am currently pushing through, if I had held to a firm scene structure and pre plotting, and not allowed intermittent pantsing on a scene or character's path or the multitude of random, loose ideas I had floating about on scraps of paper and store receipts, a good quarter of what I think are the best ideas and twists in the story would never have come to be.

    I get the polar differences between plotting and pantsing and why some gravitate or hold on for dear life to one or the other, but I'd wager for a good number of authors, and certainly for those I admire and follow (it should be noted, none of them have ever written a book on writing but have shared their process on podcasts or in interviews) that it's always a blend, a mix, and ultimately something a bit outside the structure of those by-the-book methods.

    In short, they're the oddballs. They use the tools of the trade as they see fit and not the other way around.

    So I create a basic outline, characters I believe are well developed ahead of my writing the story, I have my three acts noted and an ending in place, Then I write a first draft which is, in truth, half a draft, missing much of the subplot and later to be decided upon story development. Then I throw it away. Not literally. But I take it off the Scrivener laptop and I won't look at it. Then I go through a second round of world building after that for certain aspects of the world or characters pasts and setting that I've made note of that first time through. Then I start the draft all over again from scratch. Why? Well, for one, t'show one f my favorite authors does it but personally, there's this: (Many) Years ago when was a young musician and working in the then very young field (before home computers were truly a thing, think Atari/Commodore etc) of digital media and recording, I encountered a horrible program glitch and lost months of digital data and midi work. Hours of composing and studio time gone. It was crushing, of course. But I had to start all over again from memory. Looking back it's no surprise to me now that every single piece was better the second time around. I believe that is because I didn't just edit and overdub or add takes to those original frameworks to make them into songs. I started from the ground up again but with a far more solid idea of where I was going than I had the first time i sat down to compose them.

    That stuck with me.

    And I've used that lesson again and again in every creative medium I have dabbled in since. Then I tried it when I wrote my last few stories and it was amazing how much better they turned out from where I had them after the initial draft. I never forget a good idea once i've spent the time to write it out in a draft but the ideas become better the second time around without the feeling i have to work with the first draft at all. Wouldn't;t wok for most, and it isn't advice I hear often, but it sure works for other published authors. So why not me?

    All that is to say Skip, go at this and start how you think best and I am sure it will be wonderful, but don't forsake the magic of some discovery for the desire to hold yourself to a structure because it is THE way. You may wish to overcome the downside of your past pantsing experiences and that's admirable, but don't force yourself into a box you don't necessarily fit in on the other end of the spectrum. If one extreme is blue and the other is yellow, that means there are a thousand shades (all greener!) in between. :)

    Stay flexible.

    Oh, and on working back from endings. I do this too. Advice would be this: Don't get too caught up in the actual last pages of the book. For me, I tend to know the end of the main plot/climax when I start any project and I know a fair number of writers who start at that point and work back through the plotting/scenes to the beginning. Still, I won't know the final pages/ending of the story on the page or the last words at that point. They are two different things and, unless I have a wicked line of dialogue that I would want to be that final beat, I don't worry about it until I get there (because i DO write the story from beginning to end after I outline it backwards). All I know is the payoff, the end of each character's story arc and the setting. The rest, the written word by word finish, will come on it's own when I write and usually not in an outline ahead of drafting. It's looser than some outlining.

    If you know the book ends with a battle, then the next step back is not necessarily who says "charge!" but how each of the characters got TO that final scene of the battle. If the battle is long, then it might be a series of scenes figuring out where on the field they were before the final hill assault or meadow sweep or castle siege. Working backwards can leave large gaps the first pass through. That's fine. No dialogue or intricate movements are needed then, just plot their motivation and movement, or means of getting to that ending scene, ( Was someone dear to them killed beside them and they went after the fleeing enemy setting the final conflict? Did they get disoriented and turned round in the midst of the carnage and end up where they should not have been by accident? Did they ride off in a charge with a full compliment of cavalry and meet the enemy head on?) and then go back another scene/step to what action/decision got them to the point of the beginning of that scene.

    I think why it works for some is it's sometimes easier to say, "Right, here is where we are, so what action propelled the character forward to this set point?" than it is to work forward where each action taken can, and often does, lead to a plethora of future possibilities that can send us astray and into the void of discovery writing each one out. When you work backwards, you only have to deal with singling out the previous immediate action or success/failure that got the character there to the current known point in the timeline. Does that make sense?

    When I work backward, I'm concerned with broad actions, settings, plot twists, but no tight moment to moment plotting unless I already have it in mind for a particular scene. That's pass number one. Then I go back and fill in more the next time through.

    Here's one last personal insight. For my current work in progress, the first thing I actually wrote out, where I began, was a scene I never expected to use in the book. It was done to get the setting down and create the darkest sense of the fantasy world that I was imagining. In the story, one of the two characters is part of the main story/plot, though they are not the protagonist and they don't appear again in person until the final act, the other character is more the stuff of folktales, though she exists and is tied to the final reveal. The scene was always part of the backstory of the world. It was written to explore the fantasy mood of the setting knowing the story would be starting in a much different space with only hints at the darker subject matter.

    As I moved forward, I kept coming back to that scene and found that, through it, I could create a whole series of questions and promises for the reader. It ended up months later becoming a prologue (and I am as leery of prologues as any). Now it has everything to do with the plot, each detail in it matters, but it fits nowhere in the body of the story itself as it takes place some 30-40 years before the events of the book. It can't be a flashback in the book because neither character in that scene is in the book soon enough or would have reason to have one and no one else in the world knows of their one and only meeting. I was so sure when I wrote it that it wasn't for the book . . . and I was dead wrong. It IS the book in some ways. If I had started writing and gone with my structure and outline and held myself to it, that scene would never have been given the chance to reach the page and evolve into the story since it didn't exist in the original outline. So a little of both. . . plotting and pantsing, that's what always seems to get me there.

    Wishing you the best of luck Skip!
  20. summondice

    summondice Scribe

    I don't think I have anything of value to add, but I wanted to comment that this is by and away the most useful and dense section of writing discussion I've seen anywhere in a long time. Thank you all.

    For decades I assumed I was a pantser. It's only been in the last maybe month that I've realized how silly that notion was for me: I write all of my nonfiction from an outline, including edit critiques and simple emails...what in the blazes made me think I would be writing fiction any differently?

    My method thus far is very nonmethodical, but it's keeping me going so far, so I'll run with it. My plan is this: I spent months thinking about the characters, like I have for years. This time, thankfully, a plot emerged as well (characters are easy for me...what they do isn't). It was really more of a question: What if a bunch of orphan girls decided to adventure - what would that look like? And over some more months, I've worked out parts of it. In the last two weeks, I found my end while outlining. I'm still missing the middle, but I think that's going to fill out as I add in my other characters.

    For the outline itself...I started it Chapter 1: Name of POV character. Then I walked myself through what should happen there, what I want to see happen by the end, and thought on how the characters move from scene to scene. I filled in as much as I could, just in paragraph form. Once I didn't have more thoughts and ideas about a section, I started a new paragraph and noted how I wanted to transition, and what happens in the next section. I then went on that way until a part seemed like a good chapter break. Mine will largely be based on POV changes, but I have at least one chapter where the POV changes after a short bit into a new chapter because it transitions better that way. At the end of each chapter, I note explicitly what I want to have happening, and a few I've written draft sentences.

    What I've been very careful to remind myself of is that this bit of outlining I'm doing means *nothing*. There is nothing in it that can't be changed. What it does is allows me to discover my story and fill it in without the initial time investment, which means that when it's time for initial revisions, I don't have to feel like I'm killing a bunch of my darlings because I don't really have any yet.

    It then gives me something to throw on a couple of different arcs and see how they fare, and see if I need to drop something, change something or add something, again without that initial "But I spent HOURS on that one section!!!!"

    I can work through major issues like glaring plotholes immediately.

    After I get those bones in place, then I'll begin filling in the rest. And I'll know still that anything can change - it's just the first draft. If major things don't change, I probably didn't look hard enough for what can be made better.

    Again, I don't think I've really added anything to this that others don't already do, but for the sake of pattern recognition, I figured I'd share :)

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