Showing posts with label the mysteries of outlining. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the mysteries of outlining. Show all posts

Thursday, October 25

Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Yesterday I promised to write an article about the last tool Mary Robinette Kowal introduced in her (terrific!) workshop at SiWC last weekend, The Mysteries of Outlining. Namely: "Yes, BUT ... / No, AND ..." Another name for this might be "How to write a scene: conflicts and setbacks".

Characters need setbacks

If your main character got everything she wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: be mean. Give your main character setbacks, lots of them.

Conflicts & Setbacks

Your main character has goals, he wants things. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie he finds the ark but is captured and, along with Marion, sealed inside an ancient burial vault and left to die.

What follows is one of the BEST sequences of conflicts and setbacks I've come across. Let's start after Indie finds the ark.

Conflict: Does Indie find the ark?
Setback: Yes, BUT he is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Remember that it is established early on in the movie that Indiana hates snakes. Spiders and all manner of creepy-crawlies he's fine with, just don't bring him near a snake! (And, yes, I know that there's no logical reason why there would be THAT many snakes in an ancient burial vault, but the scene still works.)

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

Conflict: Will Indie and Marion escape from the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Setback: Yes, BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indie needs to get it back.

After every goal Indie achieves there is a setback. I just noticed we didn't come across a "No, AND ..." so lets keep going.

Another FABULOUS sequence in the first Indiana Jones movie--especially from the perspective of what we're talking about here--pulling the reader through a scene, creating conflict and using setbacks to create narrative drive--occurs at around 01:16:33 where Indie decides he's going to commandeer a plane. He fails in the end and it blows up but the sequence of goals/conflicts and setbacks is memorable.

Conflict: Will Indie commandeer the plane?
Setback: No, AND Indie is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Conflict: Indie and a bad guy fight. Will Indie win?
Setback: Yes, BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indie (AND the pilot sees indie and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Conflict: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indie. Will Indie escape being hit?
Setback: Yes, Indie dodges the pilot's bullets BUT the pilot keeps shooting.

Conflict: Indie is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indie, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Setback: No, Indie is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Conflict: The pilot takes aim at Indie, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indie survive?
Setback: Yes, indie survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indie fights the Man-Mountain on the ground below.

Conflict: Marion climbs into the cockpit to remove the pilot and stop the plane from moving. Does she succeed?
Setback: No, AND she gets locked inside the cockpit.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

One thing I want to point out before I go on to the next section and talk about scenes is that the stakes for our hero gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indie just wants the plane and gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge guy he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire.

At the end of the scene an ocean of gasoline is rushing toward the burning remains of the gas canisters while the Man-Mountain continues to beat Indie to a pulp and, of course, the whole camp has noticed the gasoline barrels explode and is rushing to investigate. It's really quite something.

Scenes & Sequals

To flesh out this discussion let's talk about the larger picture. Conflicts and setbacks are parts of scenes and a novel is made up of scenes and sequels.

Scenes are where the action takes place, where your character has conflicts and setbacks until the end of the scene and he or she attains their goal, or not, as the case may be.  

Sequels are where your character reacts emotionally to what's happened, where he or she reviews the facts of their situation and perhaps wonders if their plan is working or whether it needs to be changed. Basically a sequel sets your character(s) up for the next scene and gives your readers a bit of a break from the fast pace.

I'm not going to talk about sequels here, except to point you to Jim Butcher's post on the subject.


Here, according to Jim Butcher, is the basic format of a scene:
Point of view character: _______________________
Goal: ______________________________________
Conflict (scene question): ______________________
Setback (scene answer): _______________________

POV (Point Of View) Character

Both Mary and Jim say the same thing:
Make your POV character the one who has the most at stake. 
Jim Butcher qualifies this by saying it should be the character who has the most at stake emotionally. If one character may lose his cousin who he never liked and doesn't care about and another may lose his cat who is their best friend then make Cat Guy your POV character.

Keep in mind that, like all writing rules, if you know what you're doing you can break them.


The goal needs to be ACTIVE and it needs to be SPECIFIC. Michael Hauge advises writers to think of it in movie terms. How could you show the character's goal on the screen? It should be something concrete such as (these are Jim Butcher's examples) "Get out of the room alive" not "Do something to save the day".

Conflict: Will your character succeed? WHICH character will succeed? Your hero or the antagonist?

Conflict is whatever will make your character fail in reaching his or her goal.

Between characters. Conflict happens between characters, not between a character and the environment. In the second Indiana Jones scene the plane--specifically its propeller--acted as a threat to Indie, he could have been killed by being forced into its blades, but it was used as a prop, the conflict came from the Man-Mountain trying to force him into the blades.

Conflicting goals. Conflict happens between characters trying to achieve different goals. Antagonists have goals too, ones that, if fulfilled, would prevent the hero from reaching his or her goal. Jim Butcher writes:
All this really means is that you need an antagonist with the same specific, attainable goal, the same kinds of emotional stakes, as your protagonist. Once you've got the right kind of set up, the scene almost writes itself. (Scenes)
If only!


For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four answers:
1) Yes
2) Yes, BUT
3) No
4) No, AND
We've covered this, above. Briefly, "Yes" won't get us anywhere. The hero needs setbacks because if his goal were just handed to him that would be very dull. The hero doesn't get everything he wants until the end of the book--and sometimes not even then!

"No" can work but it can be frustrating and cast your hero in a bad light. Use sparingly.

The other two, "Yes, BUT" and "No, AND" we've covered, above.

So, what are you waiting for! Go write a killer scene. :-)

Update (April 28, 2014): I go into this topic in more detail in Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles.

Other articles in this series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories

Other articles you might like:
- Jim Butcher On Writing
- NaNoWriMo: How To Reach Your Daily Wordcount
- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work

Wednesday, October 24

The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories

The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories

Yesterday I talked about Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop The Mysteries of Outlining and promised to show how this could be used in conjunction with Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient to create killer stories.

Let's get started!

Nesting MICE Story Types

The power of structuring your story with MICE comes through when you start to nest story types. Let me give you an example. Let's say I'm writing a murder mystery. Usually murder mysteries are Idea Stories. They focus on the question: Who killed X and why? In an Idea Story the story is over when the problem--finding the murderer and explaining how the murder was done--is solved. But let's say I want to write my murder mystery as a Character Story rather than an Idea Story.

I can do this. How? By nesting story types.

In my main story I would focus on the widow and her changing role in society (a character structure) but since I want my story to also be a murder mystery I would have an Idea Story subplot where I ask the question: Who killed the widow's husband and why?

Close out subplots in the proper order

When you nest story types it's crucial to close them out in the proper order. I would need to close out the Idea Story subplot first and only then, at the very end of the book, close out the Character Story by showing that the widow had found a new role in society (or, if I was writing a tragedy, that she failed to do so).

If I had ended the story after the murderer was found and before the widow's fate was resolved my story would be incomplete and my readers dissatisfied.

Multiple subplots

Each subplot of your novel can have a different story structure. Just because your main story is, say, an Idea Story, or--as with Lord of the Rings--a Milieu Story, doesn't mean that you can't have subplots that incorporate other story types.

Using Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient to help outline a story

As I mentioned yesterday, Mary Robinette Kowal taught a workshop on The Mysteries of Outlining at SiWC. You don't need to read that post to understand this one, but it might help. In any case, to make things easier to follow I'll include the updated list of actions we developed for the story of Rapunzel:

List of actions:
1. Parents steal a Rapunzel plant
2. Baby born
3a. Witch/enchantress takes baby
3b. Rapunzel locked in tower
5. Grows hair
6a. Prince out hunting
6b.Rapunzel sees prince and calls to him
6. Prince climbs tower
7. Witch discovers Rapunzel has been seeing the prince
8. Rapunzel is tossed out of the tower and left to fend for herself in the wilderness
9. The witch strikes the prince blind
10. Rapunzel and the prince find each other
11. Rapunzel's tears give the prince back his sight
12. Rapunzel and the prince live happily ever after

The question: How are we going to tell this story? Which action will be start with? Where will we draw the line between backstory, story, and postscript? In the wikipedia version of Rapunzel there is no backstory or postscript, all the events from 1 to 12 are included.

So, again, how are we going to tell this story of Rapunzel? We can help decide this question by choosing a story structure. Let's try out each in turn.


Let's say we want to tell Rapunzel's story as a Milieu Story. This means our story will begin when our main character, let's say that's Rapunzel, enters a strange new world and that the story will end when she leaves it.

The only way that fits is if we begin the story at (3b) when Rapunzel enters the tower and end it at (8) when she leaves it. We wouldn't throw out points 1, 2 and 3a, they would simply become backstory and we would work them in at the appropriate time. It would be a sadder story, though, because we would leave Rapunzel learning to be free, learning to feed and clothe herself, learning to stay alive in the great wild forest.

The prince's story could be a sub-plot, one we might decide to write as an Idea Story. In this case the question/problem would be: How can the prince free the princess from the tower? The story would end when the question is answered at (8). We would have to change the outline a bit so the prince's arc would end before the story ends at (8) so we would need to swap (8) and (9) in the outline.


If we were telling this story from Rapunzel's point of view we might be most interested how she'll get away from the witch (question/problem: How will Rapunzel get out of the tower and escape the witch's power?) in which case we'd begin at (3a) with the witch taking the baby and putting her in the unscalable tower. The story would end when Rapunzel left the witch at (8).


If we wanted to write Rapunzel as a Character Story how we began would depend on who we wanted to be our main character. If Rapunzel, we could start when she entered the tower as a baby (3b) or when the prince came into her life (6b), most likely the latter, since it's difficult for a baby to be unbearably dissatisfied with their life! The story would end when Rapunzel found her new role in life as queen at (12).

If we wanted the prince to be our main character we'd start and end the story at roughly the same place, at (6b) and (12).


The Event Story is about the world being out of whack and the main character has to restore order. For this kind of story it would seem easiest to take the prince as the main character. He's out hunting and he sees a beautiful maiden locked in a tower. Perhaps she doesn't call to him, perhaps he hides behind a tree and sees the witch climbing down Rapunzel's golden locks. He becomes outraged at the injustice of keeping a young maiden locked up in a dusty old tower and vows to set things right.

To tell the story this way we'd have to change our outline slightly. Instead of Rapunzel seeing the prince and calling out to him, the prince would see the witch leave the tower and would go and investigate, so we'd need to change (6b). This story would end when the prince had restored order to the world and had taken Rapunzel home to be his wife and queen at (12).

Alternatively we could have Rapunzel realize that being locked in a tower by a witch isn't normal. At the moment she realizes this, at the moment she realizes the woman she had thought of as her mother is actually her jailor, the story would begin--probably somewhere around the time Rapunzel has grown her hair (5). Everything before that would be worked in as backstory. The main story would end when Rapunzel's world was put right and she was part of a family (12).

Choosing a MICE type depending on who you use as a main character

Instead of choosing a story structure and then figuring who we want our main character to be and where the story should begin, we could choose a main character and ask which MICE type would suit that point of view the best.

Well, that's it for this section! Do you have any questions about Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient and how to use it in an outline? If so, please ask!

Tomorrow we'll look at the last of the tools Mary Robinette Kowal introduced in her workshop The Mysteries of Outlining: Yes, but ... / No, and ...

I was wondering, those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, how is your preparation coming along? Any tips or tricks you'd like to share?


This article is part of a series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories (Current article)
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Other articles you might like:
- Dialogue: 7 Ways of Adding Variety

- Amazon Ranks Authors In Terms Of Their Book Sales

Tuesday, October 23

Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining

This post is a continuation of Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story where I explain what Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient is and go through the various structures: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event.

My goal today is to show how MICE can be used when outlining but to get there we first need to be initiated into the mysteries.

How To Create An Outline

This material is based on Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop The Mysteries of Outlining I attended at SiWC this last weekend. Mary has a great website (love the black cat!) and an incredible selection of articles on how to read aloud.

I was going to use a different example from the one Mary used in class--Sleeping Beauty rather than Rapunzel--but she knows what she's talking about and I'm still learning, so I hope Mary won't mind if I use her example.

Please keep in mind I scribbled this in my notebook, there was no handout, so any mistakes are mine, not Mary's.

1) Write down all the events of the story

This is easier for us since we're working from a story, Rapunzel, that's already written. When you're outlining a story being created you'll write down all the events you know take place.

Mary stressed that outlines are fluid and meant to help you as a writer, not to lock you in, so just because something is in your outline doesn't mean you're committed. Mary compared an outline to a roadmap. If you have a roadmap you can see where you're going; it helps you stay on track and to reach your destination without unnecessary detours.

But perhaps you want to detour.

When you're on a roadtrip to Los Angeles from Seattle you can decide to take a detour and see the grand canyon, but it'll cost you. If you think the detour is worth it, then go for it! In fact, you may decide that instead of going to LA you'd much rather go to Vegas. You can do that too, but that's a very different road trip and there will be a cost. Your outline helps you see what that cost will be and evaluate whether it's worth it to you.

To sum up, an outline is a tool to help you reach your goal of finishing your book. It helps you keep track of both where you are and where you want to go. It can also help to reveal plot holes and help you get around them.

List of actions:
1. Parents steal a Rapunzel plant
2. Baby born
3. Witch takes baby
4. Grows hair
5. Prince out hunting
6. Prince climbs tower
7. Witch discovers prince
8. Loss
9. Blindness
10. True love

2) Look for plot holes and fill them in

Look at what you have so far and figure out where the plot holes are, then fill them in.

We need to insert "locked in tower" between (3) and (4) and between (5) and (6) should say something about Rapunzel seeing the prince and trying to attract his attention.

3) Look for duplication

Are any scenes serving the same function? Can you roll them into one?

For instance, we might show Rapunzel is lonely by writing a scene where the girl watches a nest of birds and tearfully waves goodbye to the chicks as they fly away. We could use this scene to show how lonely Rapunzel is, now isolated she feels. We wouldn't then also need a scene where Rapunzel brushes her hair and thinks how lonely it is in the tower. We've done that.

4) Flesh out the scenes

For each event--these will becomes scenes--write down:
a) What happens.
b) When it happens.
c) Where it is.
d) The character arc.
e) The time of day.
f) Who is the main character of the scene.

Outlining: Multiple Points of View

In part (1), above, we wrote down a list of actions. These actions are going to get us from the first event: the parents stealing the witch's plant to the last one, true love. (Mary did a great impression of The Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride. If you ever have a chance to take one of her workshops, do! It's a lot of fun. Moving on .... )

Balancing point of view (POV) scenes
For each scene decide which character has the most at stake, that's the POV of the scene. Now look at which characters have POVs and if you need to balance them. To balance things you may need to change what's at stake for a character within a scene.

For instance, lets look at the scene where the prince climbs the tower for the first time. It seems reasonable to write that scene from the prince's point of view because he seems to have the most at stake. He could fall, the witch/enchantress probably would do something nasty to him if she came back and caught him, and so on.

But if we needed for Rapunzel to have the point of view we could talk about how much it hurt to have someone climb your hair and how much she would be in trouble with the witch were the prince discovered.

When NOT to give a character a POV scene
One thing Mary stressed was that if a character has nothing at stake then you don't write a scene from their point of view.

POV and your main character
Keep in mind that, all things being equal, the character you start with will be the character your audience most identifies with and so that is the character you need to end with. For instance, if your first scene is told from Rapunzel's POV then you need to end with a scene from Rapunzel's POV.

Outlining and the MICE Quotient

Wow! This post is a lot longer than I thought it would be.

Although this section was what I had intended to get to, it's what I've been working up to, I think I'm going to leave off and come back tomorrow. My post yesterday was lengthy and contained a lot of information so I don't want to overload anyone.

Please do come back tomorrow and I'll (finally!) talk about how to use the MICE quotient with your outline to create a killer story. :-)


Here are all the articles in this series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal And The Mysteries Of Outlining
- The Mysteries Of Outlining And Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Other articles you might like:

- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work
- What to do if your book isn't selling: Tips from Johanna Penn

Photo credit: Barnaby Kerr Photography