Friday, October 4

The Structure of a Love Story

The Structure of a Love Story

Love is love, but there tends to be a certain pattern to how it progresses, both in fiction and real life.

I’m going to go over three different kinds of love stories and pivot to examine six scenes any romance story must have.

Before I do this, though, I would like to thank Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl for their podcast, the Story Grid, a lot of the material for this blog post came from these podcast episodes:

The Most Important Genre
How to Write a Great Love Story

Okay, let’s get into it:

What is a love story?

That’s an odd question, isn’t it. We know when we are in love. But when we create a character, it’s a good idea to break these things down.

Shawn Coyne defines it like this: The protagonist pursues or runs away from an intimate bond with another human being.

As for the goal of the protagonist, it is to have an intimate relationship with that person.

That may seem like it is too simple to be stated, but if you’re like me it's a big help to have everything spelled out, especially when I'm in the weeds.

The Lovers: Protagonist and Antagonist

Romance stories are different from all other kinds of stories.

Of course the protagonist DOES NOT LIKE the antagonist and vice versa. In fact, they quite often hate each other and want to kill each other.

In a romance, on the other hand, the protagonist and antagonist often end up married. (I know there's a joke in there, but I'm leaving it alone.) Even when the lovers are hating on each other, there is a bond of potential love between them. And that's not generally true of protagonists and antagonists.

But it makes sense. There is a symmetry between the protagonist's and antagonist's goals. Whatever the protagonist's goal is, she will not be able to accomplish it if the antagonist achieves his goal. Similarly, whatever the antagonist's goal is he will not be able to accomplish it if the protagonist achieves her goal. That's true for any kind of story.

In a romance, the protagonist's goal is to form a meaningful relationship with a particular person she is attracted to: the antagonist.

The antagonist is very attracted to the protagonist but for some reason he cannot return her affection. Perhaps he can't reciprocate because the antagonist is scared of commitment, or perhaps he is a crown prince and cannot marry a commoner, or perhaps because he is a reclusive billionaire and she wouldn't fit in, or perhaps he is a vampire and cannot form that kind bond with a human. Be creative.

The key thing is that, initially, there has to be some sort of absolute incompatibility. But, regardless, they are insanely attracted to each other.

When I first started looking at the structure of a romance story it was slightly off-putting to think of the lovers as protagonist and antagonist, but that's what they are.

Make it Clear Why the Protagonist and Antagonist Can't be Together

I've covered this, a bit, above, but it's worth repeating. Make it clear why the lovers, the protagonist and antagonist, can’t be together. So, for instance, in Beauty and the Beast -- one is a beautiful human, and one … well, isn’t human! But, hey, every relationship has its problems.

Also, as for any story, ask yourself:

What are the protagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the protagonist’s biggest weaknesses?
What are the antagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the antagonist’s biggest weaknesses?

Okay, so, let's look at the three kinds of love stories.

Three Kinds of Love Stories

For each of these stories, we need to answer a different question.

1. Obsession

Obsession stories are, I think, the least common kind of romance story.

Obsession stories are about DESIRE.

We’ve all known a relationship like this, one person is crazy in love with another, they are both attracted to each other, but they are just too different and the outcome is tragic.

Here’s the pattern:

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist overcome their extreme differences and transform their relationship into a loving bond?

At the beginning of the story: The lovers despise each other. BUT the lovers are also profoundly attracted to each other. Each acknowledges that being together would be a bad idea.

At the end of the story: One or both of the lovers are dead.

Not my favorite type of story, but there it is!

2. Courtship

I love a good courtship story. Especially after a breakup. Some port, a little chocolate ...

It will come as no surprise to you that the overwhelming number of stories are courtship stories.

Courtship stories are about COMMITMENT.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist commit to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist haven’t made any commitment to each other.

At the end: The protagonist and antagonist are committed to each other and to their relationship.

3. Intimacy

In this kind of story, the protagonist and antagonist are already a couple at the beginning. One or both of them will be tempted to cheat on the other. There is a challenge here: will the couple remain faithful, will they remain together?

There are two concepts here: TRUTHFULNESS and FAITHFULNESS.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist remain faithful to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist are in a committed relationship. Perhaps this commitment has begun to wane because of whatever trials and tribulations they've gone through over the years.

At the end: The couple have re-committed to each other.

One more thing before we get started ...

The Protagonist's Secondary Arc

We know the protagonist's main desire (this will be her desire deep, deep down, although she will likely be in denial in the beginning) is to form a loving bond with the antagonist, but she needs a desire apart from this, she needs an arc apart from her connecting with the antagonist. And, of course, there has to be an obstacle to her completing this arc and achieving her goal.

Let me give you an example:

Don't laugh, but I personally think Die Hard is a romance story; specifically, an Intimacy story.

John McClane's main desire is to reunite with his estranged wife. It just so happens that at the beginning of his journey to do this, someone took his wife and all her coworkers hostage. At that point, McClane’s secondary desire becomes to defeat the terrorists. For most of the movie we are watching Willis's secondary arc unfolding.

As soon as the terrorists are defeated and his secondary goal is achieved, McClane goes right back to trying to reunite with his wife.

I would say this is a romance story because as a general rule the protagonist's highest level goal (in this case reuniting with his wife) sets the genre of the story. 

Anway! Now that we've got all that sorted out, let's look at the essential scenes in a romance novel.

The 6 Scenes All Romance Stories Need

Stories generally have three or four acts. That's not written in stone, they can have six or eight or how ever many you want -- it is just a matter of how you want to structure the events of the story. In what I write, below, I have a three act structure in mind. (see: A Story Structure In Three Acts)

1. The Protagonist and Antagonist Meet

Of course, right? This is a love story, if the lover’s never meet, there is no story.

When the protagonist and antagonist meet for the first time, it needs to be a BIG SCENE. You need to communicate to the reader the essence of each character, you need to communicate that the protagonist really quite likes the antagonist AND that she believes the two of them would absolutely, totally and in all other ways NEVER work as a couple.

Of course the reader knows it probably will work, but this should be a journey FROM lack of hope and lack of love TO hope reborn and love reborn.

But, naturally, before the protagonist and antagonist meet, you need to introduce the main character. And this really is the most important scene. Because, face it, if you don’t get your readers to connect with your protagonist they aren’t going to keep reading. In what follows I’m going to assume the protagonist is female and the antagonist is male. (And, yes, this may have something to do with the port and chocolate mentioned, above)

Unless you are writing a novel that is being told from two viewpoint characters, the protagonist is introduced at the beginning and then the antagonist is introduced at around between the 10% and 25% mark.

Things may have changed since the last time I read a romance novel -- I’m going to have to read another one soon. (I would love it if you would recommend your favorite romance novel!)

Onto the next point!

2. Confession of Love

Whenever anyone says, ‘I love you’ for the first time it is an intense moment. In a love story the person on the receiving end might be scared because they haven’t had the best experience with that sort of thing.

For example, I am a big fan of the TV show Big Bang Theory, Penny broke up with Leonard when he told her he loved her. She was scared because she wasn’t ready for commitment.

Or the thing that initially comes between protagonist and antagonist is, as I’ve talked about above, an inherent incompatibility. He is the crown prince, she is a penniless commoner -- and his mother hates her.

Or perhaps the thing that breaks them apart is the jealousy of one of the protagonist’s friends. The protagonist's bestie could lie to her and tell her that the antagonist is lying to her -- perhaps the best friend tells the protagonist that he has been unfaithful. Or perhaps the protagonist breaks up with the antagonist because she thinks that NOT being with him would be best for him.

By the way, this confession doesn't have to be, literally, "I love you!" It could be a look that the antagonist gives the protagonist, it could be him saying, "I really like you, I would like you to meet my family." And so on.

IN ANY CASE! We’ve come to the end of the first act. It’s time for the …

3. First Kiss

This usually occurs at the midpoint.

The protagonist and antagonist do not have to kiss here, but their relationship goes to the next level. Maybe they have an intense conversation, maybe they hold hands, maybe they kiss -- maybe they make love.  It all depends on the spiciness level of your story. Although, if they make love at this point, you have to figure out a way to kick things up a notch at the end.

4. The Lovers Breakup

This is the All Hope is Lost point (for more about this see A Four Act Structure). Something -- perhaps the protagonist's mean mother -- has forced them apart. There are two things here:

a. The thing that breaks the lovers apart is something neither of them has control over.

b. The breakup seems final.

For example, in the case of the prince and the pauper, the king has died. The prince must choose between taking the throne and his love for the protagonist, a penniless waitress. She sees that the situation is impossible and breaks up with him because she loves him and wants him to fulfill his destiny.

Another thing that is often done at this point is to have the breakup happen over a misunderstanding. For me, personally, this is less satisfying.

For example, the protagonist believes the antagonist has killed someone and, because she loves him and wants to save him, she takes the blame. Of course the antagonist didn’t commit the murder, but now he believes his one-true-love is a murderer and so he breaks up with her, possibly to protect her so she will receive less scrutiny.

At this point we are about 75% of the way through the story.

5. Proof of Love

At the beginning of the scene, both the lovers believe that any further contact between them is impossible. They can not spend their lives together.

But there is something each of them has overlooked. Or the antagonist does something exceptional to show the protagonist that she is mistaken, he really does love her. Or he discovers his love did not commit the murder he believed her guilty of, perhaps the true murderer was her oh-so-negative best friend. Perhaps the popper takes a bullet for the crown prince and this endears her to the citizens of his nation and so now they can get married.

In Die Hard John McClane saved his wife's life and the lives of many of her colleagues. And he did it because he was a good police officer and that was one of the things that had come between them.

Whatever the proof of love is, it needs to be something big, important. And it needs to be foreshadowed.

The Proof of Love often occurs about halfway through the third act.

6. The Lovers Reunite

This is the climax of the story.

As we have seen, the issue -- whatever it was -- that was keeping the lovers apart has been obliterated; it has gone away, it is no more.

This is a big scene. This is the payoff of all the struggle the lovers have been through. Emotionally, just as the All Hope is Lost point was the low point of of the journey this is the highpoint.

If anything is left between the lovers to be set right this is the place to do it. Have them forgive each other and do something to solidify their relationship, something that will make it stronger.

At the end of the story they are happier and more committed than ever.

That's it! By the way, I wrote about a lot of this in an earlier post, 6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have.

If some of the information I have shared has been useful to you and you would like to support this blog I just opened up a Patreon account! If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

BTW, I've combined this post and the next one (5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel) into an ebook: The Structure of a Love Story.

Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again, tomorrow! :-)

Wednesday, October 2

The Structure of Story

The Structure of Fiction

When I was a kid I had absolutely NO idea how to write an entertaining story. I wish someone had whispered the phrase “story arc” in my ear, it would at least have given me a place to start.

The Classic Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey is something we feel in our bones, it is the story of human civilization, but let’s make it explicit. What are its elements? We need:

A character, in a situation, with a well-defined problem, who tries to repeatedly solve it, but he fails and, in failing, makes the problem worse.

At the climax of the story, the hero makes a final attempt to achieve his/her goal. The result of this final attempt -- of the race to the final confrontation -- should unfold from the pattern of the hero’s victories and failures during the rest of the story.

If that sounds a bit mysterious, hang in there, I’ll unpack it.

BTW, that summary was from Philip Brewer’s post, Story Structure in Short Stories.

The Inward and Outward Journeys

Let’s break down the idea of a journey. There is usually an inward journey for the hero as well as an outward journey. 

In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage (inner journey) went from cowardice to courage and (outer journey) from incompetence to mastery. These two journeys, these two paths, come together. Cage does something very brave just before the Final Confrontation and this gets him through the All Hope is Lost point. Mastering his cowardice was essential for Cage winning the final battle.

Again, more about this, below.

1. Opposites are good

This story structure comes to us by way of Larry Brooks's article: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story

Brooks writes:

"Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution."

For instance, in the setup, the hero -- I like using the word ‘hero’ rather than protagonist -- is going through his normal everyday routines -- he struggles with the neighbourhood bully, he is in love with someone completely out of his league, he dreams of taking over the lucrative family business. That’s the hero's ordinary world.

Then something happens. There’s a shift. It could be that the protagonist gets a magical golden ticket, it could be that a young boy, sees a hologram and goes in search of an older, mysterious rather dodgy, character.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf came to Frodo, who had recently inherited the One Ring, and advised him to take it away from the shire in order to protect his community.

Okay. So. Another name for what just happened was the ‘Call to Adventure.’ After anything big happens in a story, there’s a response. In the case of Lord of the Rings, they are chased by the Black Riders.

But what I like about Larry Brook’s way of looking at things is that we really don’t need a lot of fancy names: the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, and so on.

The key, the bedrock, is that something negative happens that derails the hero, and then something positive happens. That’s the pattern. The negative things that happen keep getting worse but the hero manages to keep going. Negative and positive. This back and forth keeps up until the hero and villain fight it out at the end and settle the matter once and for all.

Hook the reader early.

Plant a hook in the first couple of lines. Be bold. Here are a few first lines I think are marvelous:

“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.” (The Cat From Hell, Stephen King)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell)

If you THINK you have a good hook for your novel, but you’re not sure, test it out on your friends -- or even random strangers in line with you at Starbucks -- tell them your hook and watch their face, that will tell you pretty much everything you need to know. Also, do they ask questions? Are they curious about what happens?

I think it’s a good idea to include your hero’s perspective in the hook, although, that said, only one of the stellar opening lines I included, above, say anything about the protagonist (The Cat from Hell). As always, it’s up to you. If it works, it works.

2. Introduce the elements of a central problem as soon as possible. 

We’ve given the reader a hook. They’ve read the first sentence or two, now we need to draw them into some conflict, some problem, that is directly related to, connected to, the central problem of the story. 

Also, we need to fulfill the promise of the hook, or at least give the reader enough information to make them curious enough to keep reading. 

Here are the first two sentences of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” (I know I just shared the first sentence, above, but this is one of the best first paragraphs I’ve ever read):

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Now, I thought the first line was a very good hook, but just look at that second sentence! 

Right away, the reader knows there is going to be a lot that is strange and a lot that is mysterious occuring in the Dursley’s life and the Dursley’s are going to HATE it. I also knew right away that I would find the Dursley’s trials and tribulations humorous, because the Dursley’s seem like perfectly horrible people! (Which they are.)

3. The Ordinary World

Show your readers your character going through his/her daily routine, and show them one problem that he needs to overcome, one thing he/she is failing at.

For example, Harry Potter is failing to fit into the Dursley’s family, he is failing to find people who love him. Of course, it’s not his fault, the Dursley’s are despicable people, but, still, it’s a problem. Why is Harry failing to fit in? Well, he is the offspring of someone who could do magic and the Dursley’s are terrified of that. They are terrified their friends will find out they are related to people who can do magic. They are terrified of being rejected. So, the very thing the Dursley’s are terrified of, they do to Harry Potter. 

I have to be honest, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is one of my favorite stories! Both because it is very fun to read and because it is well structured as a story.

4. Try and Fail Cycles

Here’s the way I think about the construction of a story. The hero starts his journey in the ordinary world, going to his ordinary life. 

He is secretly in love with the lead cheerleader, but she doesn’t know he exists, he gets beaten up for his lunch money, etc. But then something happens that changes his situation. For Harry Potter it was a letter that invited him to attend a school for wizards. 

Generally, at around the 25% mark of a story the hero’s situation changes. Often when something big happens, there are a number of attempts to change but the first couple of attempts fail. For example, with Harry Potter, there were a LOT of attempts to deliver Harry’s acceptance letter to Hogwarts before he ultimately received it.

One movie that is great at demonstrating this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think of the scene where Indy is thrown into the Well of Souls, think of the number of times he tries to fight off the snakes and then his torch goes out, and then he tries to climb a statue, and then it tips over, etc. (I talk more about this in Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles.)

5. Midpoint confrontation

This is where the hero confronts the villain (or where the protagonist confronts the antagonist). Obviously, the protagonist can’t defeat the villain here, if he did then the story would be over! 

What generally happens is the hero learns that he’s wrong about something he believes about the world. He’s wrong about something important, essential, to the problem he is trying to solve. Further, he learns this because he confronts the antagonist. 

For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage, at the midpoint (Spoiler!) discovers that he has been tricked. He journeyed to a location because he thought he could fight the Omega (the Big Bad) but he was met by Alphas (run of the mill bad things). He discovered he was being tricked. That was an important piece of information that significantly changed Cage’s plans.

So, in summary, at the midpoint the hero fails in defeating the antagonist but he learns something vital from the confrontation.

6. The Hero’s Plan: The race to the final confrontation

At some point the hero comes up with a plan. Generally this is somewhere around the 75% mark. Generally, there is some sort of group scene around this point (your main characters meet in a bar, restaurant, etc), the hero has a touching bonding moment with his band of travellers.

Make sure the stakes are clear. What could the hero lose? What would the hero gain?

7. Something goes wrong: try and fail cycle.

The hero is racing toward the final confrontation, but of course something goes wrong. 

The hero’s plan was good, plausible, perhaps brilliant, but something went wrong and it failed. 

This is a try, fail cycle. The hero fails, then he tries something new. Then he fails. Then he tries something else. Then he fails. 

Then, facing certain death, he tries a new thing in desperation, believing that if it works he will die but at least the antagonist will be eliminated. And that is a good thing because it means his family and friends will be safe.

And it works.

Obviously this is difficult to set up. In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist, Cage, was introduced as a coward -- that is what he needs to overcome -- so when the final confrontation happens we need Cage to be prepared to give up his own life for the people in his community, for humanity. And he does.

8. All Hope is Lost

Toward the end of the Try and Fail cycle I just spoke about, the hero will experience an ultimate setback. They will fail, but they will fail in such a way that it seems there is no way back. At this point, often, the A-story (the outer journey) and the B-story (the inner journey) come together. Further, these threads come together in such a way that the hero sees the way out, the way to POSSIBLY win the confrontation.

9. Resolution

Either the hero defeats the villain or not. In popular fiction, generally, he does. And ideally, it should be done cleverly. If you can surprise the reader here, but in a way that makes sense and grows from the hero’s challenges, that is the stuff of which great stories are made.

There’s a reason why stories like Star Wars: A New Hope, Edge of Tomorrow and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark were box office favorites.

I urge you to take a peek at The Structure of A Short Story by Sarah A. Holt, it’s an older post, but it’s much shorter than mine and she has a good sense of humor.

BTW, I’ve begun reading my posts over at YouTube, so if you would rather listen to this, here is the url: Structure of Fiction.

Monday, September 30

How To Write a Good Blog Post

How To Write a Good Blog Post

I'm trying something new. I've released a YouTube video today. What follows is more or less the script for it.

My Story

My Dad was a wonderful storyteller, and I was in awe of him. I wanted to tell stories the way he did but I couldn’t tell an entertaining story to save my life so, to get better, I read a lot about writing.

I’ve improved. I’m not sure I’ve ever told a story as well as my father, but I’ve gotten better over the years.

When I was in school, one of my teachers told me that to truly learn something I had to teach it. About a decade ago, I began a blog about writing. And, as you would expect, over the years I’ve learned a few things about writing. I’ve certainly written a lot!

I started a video blog because the things I’ve learnt have made my life better, and I would like to share them in another medium.

So, for better or worse, here is one of my more popular blog posts, one I wrote a few years ago about how to write a blog post! Actually, though, this advice applies to any writing that isn’t fiction.

As you read this, please keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you, so take what seems right to you and discard the rest.

Here it is.

The Essential Structure of a Blog Post:

1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.
2. Say it.
3. Tell the reader what you said.

That’s it!

It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But it helps create prose that readers find easy to read and understand.

Before we get into that, let’s talk about the title:

The Title

Titles are important, especially for a blog post. The title is the first thing your reader sees. If the title doesn’t grab them, they won’t continue reading.

Make sure the title accurately represents your article. After a reader finishes your article, you don’t want them to feel deceived. Chances are they came across your article because they were looking for a particular kind of information. If, at the end, they don’t have the information they wanted they will feel deceived. Tricked. In that case they will not leave a comment and they will not share your article with their friends.

Perhaps this is just me, but I find that if I can’t create a clear, succinct title then I haven’t thought through what the essential idea of the blog post is. There should one one idea that sums up what I’ve written.

(BTW, don’t worry if you don’t have a title before you start writing. Sometimes what the article is about will come to you as you write your rough draft. But be careful. For myself, if I can’t come up with a title, then that tells me my ideas are jumbled. And that’s bad.)

So let’s break this down:

1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.

1a. Include a hook in your first paragraph.

When I write things like this, I hurry to look at my first paragraph to see if there is a hook. Perhaps this is a case of do what I say and not as I do!

Hooks are good. In both fiction and nonfiction.

BTW, if you’re not familiar with the concept of a hook, it is basically the idea that you need an idea, a thought, that will capture a reader's interest quickly. The example I usually give is of any James Bond movie ever made.

Or, here is the opening line of Stephen King’s novel, IT:

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

Who wouldn’t be curious after reading a line like that? When I read that sentence I wanted to know more about the terror and why it might not end. (BTW, IT is one of my favorite stories.)

2. Say what you have to say.

As a practical matter, I find this the easiest part.

You know what you want to say. Say it.

I find it often helps to break my ideas up into the simplest possible points.

In my original blog article I give the example of writing about why a writer would want to podcast.

For example:

a. You can introduce your work to more people
b. You can introduce your work to people with different kinds of interests, to a different audience.
c. Variety is good. Doing one kind of thing to earn money is fine, but two is better. Why? Because it makes you more financially stable. Financial stability for a freelancer is a very good thing. It lowers anxiety levels.

These points are bare bones. In the article I would expand each one, but this wouldn’t be terribly difficult. I could give examples from my own experience, I could give examples from the experiences of other writers (obviously, cite them), I could talk about advice other podcasters have given. There are MANY options.

By the way, don’t be shy about using another writer’s work as long as you cite and link to it. It helps drive traffic to their blog post. A number of people have done this with my blog posts and I’m thrilled as as long as they cite me and provide a link.

3. Summarize what you’ve said.

When it comes to summarizing what I’ve said, sometimes it seems artificial. I’ve said what I was going to say and then I’ve said it. Why should I summarize what I’ve already said?

My advice is to use your own judgement. Keep in mind, you don’t have to summarize EVERYTHING you’ve just said. Perhaps close with what you think is your strongest point, especially if the post is short.

4. Be Honest.

This is actually the most important thing.

I think for everyone it might be different, but -- especially in the beginning -- I imagined I was sitting at a sunny corner table, having coffee with a writer (my audience) at my favorite coffee shop. Then I just, honestly, told her/him what my research or experience made me think about a particular topic.

And try to be brief. (I’m not sure I’ve ever succeeded in that.)

It’s great to have a blog post that is one or two thousand words long, but you don’t want a blog post one word longer than it absolutely has to be. And that’s a dark art, and we all fail at it, but it is a worthy goal.

That's it for today! Good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Saturday, September 28

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

To outline or not to outline. There are few questions more contentious in the writing world -- and writers (God bless us!) can be a rather contentious bunch.

Here is my tl;dr answer: Ultimately, I think whether you should use an outline depends on the writer, and everyone is different, so there is no one definite answer. That said, I think everyone should try outlining at least once. Otherwise, how could you know whether it works for you?

Stephen King: Reject the Tyranny of the Outline

As you likely know, Stephen King doesn't like outlining. He writes:

“I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes,” it may liberate you. At the very least, it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.” (On Writing, Stephen King)

I think I might talk about Stephen King too much but he is one of my favorite writers. And he’s straightforward, one of the traits I appreciate most in a person. I don’t always agree with King but what he has to say is well thought out and has worked for him over the course of decades, so it’s worth taking seriously.

Stephen King is exceptionally talented. His story, ‘It’ is one of my favorites -- after I read it I couldn’t use the washroom without fear for a couple of decades (especially at night). But, on the positive side, he gave me worlds to live in, he gave me characters I love and who have stayed with me. This may seem like an odd way of putting it, but it’s true: he gave me the gift of his thoughts.

I’m writing about Stephen King here because I think he is one of the best defenders, one of the best advocates, of pantsing.

Pantsing vs Plotting

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of constructing stories:

1. Plot a story 

Let’s talk about plot. In most stories the hero starts off in the Ordinary World, doing what he usually does every day. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, goes to school, wishes he was brave enough to ask Betty to the dance, gets bullied for his lunch money, etc.

This is where you show your readers your character’s soul, often by giving her a mini-adventure (think of any Bond film you’ve ever seen).

Then there’s a Call to Adventure (which is often rejected). The protagonist will be given a foreign dictator to subvert, or tasked with retrieving nuclear weapons from a sexy despot. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Often, the hero meets a mentor who gives him a gift that will aid him on his Journey into the Special World of the Adventure (Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke the lightsaber that had belonged to his father). And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with a strongly plotted story. For one thing, it can help you determine early on whether the story works.

I’d like to make another point before I go on to the next section. You can have an outline without having a strongly plotted story. It all depends on whether an outline describes what is already in your story or whether it describes what you want to have in your story but isn’t there yet. I’ll talk more about this, below.

2. Pants a story

This is the idea that if you develop strong characters that the plot will spring from their actions. You put strong characters in a particular situation and then you say: What would these characters do in this situation? And then you write your answer down. That’s your story.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but years ago I read an article by Thomas Harris where he described writing his book, Red Dragon. His story emerged from what he saw his characters doing, from what he heard them saying. Psychologically, they were living, independent, entities. I think Harris is on the extreme end, he is an extreme pantser, but that’s the idea.

You don’t actually have to see and hear your characters for this technique to work! (Though it would help.)

My Experience

There are innumerable ways of writing a story, and I don’t think one way is intrinsically any better than another, it all depends on the writer using it, what is best for him or her.

When I pants a story -- when I start writing with a few characters and only a couple of ideas rattling around in my head -- I’ll often first write what I like to call a vomit draft. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it! ;)

The vomit draft is just that, I vomit up thoughts, thought fragments -- whatever -- onto the page. I ignore spelling, grammar, research, facts and good taste. No one will ever see one of my vomit drafts but me, it would be like walking out of the house naked.

I use a writing journal and so I scrawl this all out longhand, and that gives me the opportunity to incorporate images out of old magazines if they … how do I describe it? Sometimes an image will pop out at me. For example, I’ll see a woman’s hairstyle and I’ll realize, Yes! That’s what the protagonist’s hair looks like, so I'll cut the image out and paste it into my writing journal. (Yes, my journals look like something out of the film 'Se7en')

When I begin writing a story I try to write the story straight through and to be as brief as possible. If I realize I have to change something at the beginning of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s hair needs to be brown rather than blond), I'll make a note of that, but I’ll keep going.

Okay, my point is that at the end of this messy process I’ll have a pretty good idea of the story, of its shape. From that I can easily put together an outline. So … am I a plotter or a pantser?

For me, an outline is just a snapshot of where the novel is at, not necessarily where the novel needs to go. One of the HUGE advantages of using an outline is that it’s easier to come back to the novel if I have to break off working on it for a bit.

Just Do It

If you haven’t already found a method that works for you, for instance if you’re just starting out and wondering whether you should outline, then outline. At least try it out. Even Stephen King has tried it -- which is one reason he can confidently say it’s not for him.

An outline doesn’t have to be complicated. Just tell the story as briefly as possible and then break it up into sections. Identify the Call to Adventure, the confrontation at the Midpoint, the Final Showdown. Even if you only have those three things it can be a help. Or not.

If you find outlining doesn’t work for you, if you find you don’t need it, then fine!

As always, have a good writing day and I’ll talk to you again soon. :-)

Friday, September 27

Could an Artificial Intelligence Write a Book?

Could an Artificial Intelligence Write a Book?

I want to do something a bit different in this post. I’ve gotten more into programming lately (Python) and I’ve wondered: Could an artificial intelligence (AI) write a good novel?

Back in the day -- say 20 years ago -- we talked about AI but now we’re also discussing AGI, Artificial General Intelligence. That’s what we humans have.

If we create an AGI, and if this AGI can do pretty much everything a human can, will writers be out of work? [5]

(By the way, if anyone disagrees with anything I say here, please set me right! I find the field fascinating, but I’m not a data scientist. You can contact me on Twitter (@woodwardkaren) or leave a comment, below.)

Here’s the question I’m going to try to answer: Right now, is there a text generation program that could write a story that readers couldn’t tell was computer generated? And, if so, what would this mean? Would it put me out of business or, possibly, would it make my job easier?

Deep Tweets

Let’s get specific. Could an AI read all the books by a particular author -- say Stephen King -- and write a book that a group of Stephen King’s fans could not distinguish from Stephen King’s work? And I don’t mean sometime in the future, I mean right now.

Well, something like this has happened. Lex Fridman trained the text generation program GPT-2, created by OpenAI, on the tweets of several well-known people and then asked it to complete this sentence, “The meaning of life is …”

I encourage you to read the article, DeepTweets, it’s fascinating. The program nailed it. Not only did it give an accurate answer but it answered more-or-less in the voice of the person in question. [4]

For example, Fridman trained a neural network on Richard Dawkins’ tweets and asked it to complete the prompt, “The meaning of life is …” Here’s what it came up with:

“The meaning of life is complex and Darwinian. Evolution is a FACT.”

That’s creepily good. I think that's very close to what Dawkins would actually say.

OpenAI and GPT-2

But a tweet is one thing, writing a short story -- a good short story -- is quite another.
To reiterate, we want to know if a text generation program, one available to the public right now, could produce text that not only doesn’t look computer generated but closely resembles the work of a specific author. Specifically, could such a program write a book in the voice of Stephen King that would be so authentic that a panel of die hard fans couldn’t tell the difference between the fake and a real story by King?

I’ve done a bit of research and from what I can tell (perhaps I’m wrong, and if I am please let me know) at the present time the answer is: No.

That said, I think we’ll get there one day.


GPT-2 is, I think, the most advanced model we have right now, at least that has been made available to the public.

GPT-2 was created by OpenAI. To give you an idea what OpenAI’s intentions are, here is their (very short!) mission statement:

“OpenAI’s mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI)—by which we mean highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work—benefits all of humanity. We will attempt to directly build safe and beneficial AGI, but will also consider our mission fulfilled if our work aids others to achieve this outcome.”

As I mentioned, the program that generated this text, GPT-2, was created by OpenAI, a nonprofit lab initially backed by Elon Musk and other tech entrepreneurs. BUT this isn’t the most powerful version of the program.

OpenAI felt it would be too disruptive to release the most powerful, trained, model because it could be used to, for example, post comments or reviews that could not be distinguished from those submitted by a human author. That could become a problem.

Although the fully trained model of GPT-2 has not been released, OpenAI did release one that was almost good enough to use to generate text that couldn’t be differentiated from human generated text.

Here’s a prompt that was given to the program, for it to finish:

“In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains. Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English.”

This is what the program wrote:
The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid’s Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science.

Now, after almost two centuries, the mystery of what sparked this odd phenomenon is finally solved.

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez. 

That’s not all! If you’d like to read the rest of the story GPT-2 produced, check out the article. My take on reading this is that it's not bad! But I don't think it's a thread to writers.

Could AI Help Writers?

At the moment, AI isn't going to put us out of work, but can it help us?

The other day I came across this article from Vox: How I’m using AI to write my next novel, by Sigal Samuel. [2] He writes:

"While some artists worry that AI will put them out of a job — just as it’s expected to do for, say, truck drivers and factory workers — I’ve been more inclined to see it as a collaborator than a competitor. I don’t think AI will be good enough to write a superb novel on its own, but I do think it can be very helpful in a novelist’s creative process."

Samuel has been using GPT-2 to help him get over writer’s block. I could see that working! I’m glad he’s found something to help him keep writing.

If you’d like to download the latest version of CPT-2, there’s the link.


It took me longer than I thought it would to finish this post and I ended up not using some of the research I did. BUT, I decided to leave these notes in because the articles are interesting and I thought you might want to check them out.

1. The rise of robot authors, published by TheGuardian. 

2. How I’m using AI to write my next novel, by By Sigal Samuel over at Vox.

3. GPT-2: 6-Month Follow-Up. Published August 20th, 2019 on

4. DeepTweets: Generating Fake Tweets with Neural Networks Trained on Individual Twitter Accounts, by Lex Fridman.

5. The way I’m thinking about it, an artificial general intelligence would be able to tell jokes, it would have ideas about whether a certain stock is going to go up or down, and it could write a fabulous blog post! Basically -- and sorry to use a reference that might be a little dated -- an artificial general intelligence would be a lot like Data from Star Trek: Next Generation.

6. Here's something interesting: Hugging Face.

Wednesday, September 25

Rules for Writing: Helpful or Harmful?

Hi! This is the first article in a series: Helpful or Harmful? Thanks to everyone on Twitter (all three people!) who helped me choose a name. Seriously, much appreciated.

Each post in this series will examine a different rule for writing. I’ll tell you if I think it’s a useful rule and why. I don’t think any rule is 100% helpful, there are almost always exceptions (at the end of this article I will write about a rule I think always applies).

I’ll also look at my favorite authors’ work to see if THEY follow the rule. If Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman don’t follow a particular rule, I suspect it is not a rule worth following.

Are There Rules For Writing?

As you may know, all my life I’ve been curious about what separates a riveting, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-until-3am story from one you put down after reading two pages.

Now, if you’re thinking: “Writing is art! There are no rules.” You’re right! If one is writing purely for oneself (for instance, in a journal) then, seriously, do not worry about writing any particular way. Look into your heart, be honest, and you can’t go wrong.

Also, if you’re writing a first draft, do not worry about rules. Some writers have reached the point where certain ‘rules’ have become imbedded within them, it’s as though they have a muse who sits on their shoulder as they write, a muse which they ignore at their peril. But, in general, save the rules for the second or third draft.

Finally, if you are doing this as a hobby (you are happy never to make any money from your work) and feel that if others read your work, that’s fine, and if they don’t, that’s fine. If that’s the case, then great! I have known several writers like this and they are gainfully employed in other ways and very happy. I admire them.

BUT, if you want people who are grumpy and starved for time and have a lot of other things to do when they’re not working at a job they hate, if you want these kind of people to read your story from beginning to end, then it’s a good idea to craft your story to be easy to read. It’s a good idea to make your story exciting. 

Yes, I’m talking about popular fiction.

I’m talking about the kind of stories that, when told around a campfire, captivate your audience. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes when you’re telling a story -- if it’s a good story -- they’re transfixed. They lean forward and look intently at you, they don’t interrupt -- and if someone does interrupt your audience tells them to please shush. You have them on the edge of their seats. THAT’s the kind of story I want to read. And write.

Bricklayers have rules that tell them how to do their job well. So do nurses. So do surgeons. So do writers. There ARE things that differentiate an entertaining story from a boring one.

That said, what rules can never do (and I know I’ve said this, above, but it’s worth repeating) is tell you how to write a great story because that comes from the heart. That’s magic. The rules are never for the first draft, they are never for that first burst of inspired messiness you scrawl across a blank page, bringing characters into being, creating new worlds. They are for the (oh so many) drafts that come later.

A Qualification

BUT, that said, I think I agree with Anne Rice that no one set of rules fits all writers. Each writer, each one of us, has a different style. No one set of rules is right for us all.

And, really, in that sense, there are no hard-and-fast rules.

Here’s an example of a rule that isn’t 100% correct. We are often advised to use simple, short sentences. And that’s good advice. But it doesn’t apply across the board. For example:

“I wonder which is preferable—to walk around all your life swollen up with your own secrets until you burst from the pressure of them, or to have them sucked out of you, every paragraph, every sentence, every word of them, so at the end you’re depleted of all that was once as precious to you as hoarded gold, as close to you as your skin—everything that was of the deepest importance to you, everything that made you cringe and wish to conceal, everything that belonged to you alone—and must spend the rest of your days like an empty sack flapping in the wind, an empty sack branded with a bright fluorescent label so that everyone will know what sort of secrets used to be inside you?” Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

That’s a great sentence! [1] When it comes to writing, if writing is magic, Margaret Atwood is a master wizard.

But, on the other hand, I think there are some rules -- at least one rule -- that applies for all writers all the time: don’t be critical of yourself, of your work, as you write your first draft. 

Your First Draft: Just Finish The Story

When you’re working on your first draft, just write. Maybe your work isn’t grammatical, maybe it isn’t even factual! (Please don’t misunderstand, research is essential, but it should wait until a later draft. Trust me, you’re going to cut a LOT of things from the first draft and it would not only halt the creative process to go and ask Google but it could be a waste of time.)

Your first draft might not even be coherent! Midway through your story your main character might go from having brown hair to having blond hair. His/her name might change. It doesn’t matter. Until you finish the first draft DO NOT GO BACK AND FIX ANYTHING! (And, yes, that needs to be shouted!)

Yes, of course, grammar needs to be correct, characters need to be consistent, and you’ll do that. But in the second (third, fourth, etc.) draft.

When you write the first draft of a story, don’t be critical, just write until the story is done. 

I’m writing this as a person who has fallen short of this particular target many times. But when I didn’t finish a story it made it that much easier not to finish the next story. It became easier to abandon a story midway because I was afraid it wasn’t going anywhere. Don’t do that to yourself. When you begin a story, finish it. Remember, it’s a first draft, it probably isn’t going to be a great story, not yet. Finish your story and then, on each successive draft, make it better. 

Or not. After you’ve written your first draft you may decide to inter it in a shoebox that lives under your bed. Your writer’s trunk. All writers have stories that they would never try to publish. That’s okay! You explored an idea, a theme, and it didn’t work out. That’s fine. Take what you’ve learned from your attempt and start writing your next story.

I hope that didn’t come across as preachy, I have no right or desire to preach to anyone. But I do want to encourage you to write, and to write stories a lot of other people will want to read. I want you to write stories that will inspire others, or perhaps just make them feel cosy on a lonely winters night.

All the best, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again in my next blog post.


1. I found this sentence by writing a small, short, simple Python program that gobbles up a book and finds the longest sentence. 

Monday, September 23

Heroes, Dragons and Treasure

Yesterday I published an article about how to write a sequel that readers won't be able to put down. One thing I forgot to include in that article was another way of seeing the hero’s goal. I'd like to address that here.

By the way, what I’m about to say isn’t unique, but I've recently started to think about the hero's goal in a slightly different way, one I've found enormously helpful. I'm going to talk about this new perspective in the hope that it might help your writing life. Here it is:

The hero's goal in any story -- regardless of whether it is a sequel -- is to slay a dragon, claim its treasure and use it to remake themselves and their community for the better.

I think I’ve been expressing this general idea for years, but I don’t think I ever put it quite this way before.

Let's break this apart.


Above, I used the example of a dragon but, of course, that is a metaphor. But dragons work for this; they’re terrifying! I loved the way Game of Thrones depicted them. Who wouldn’t tremble if he saw something like that slowly emerge from the darkness of a cave?

The essential thing is that, in the story, the reader sees the hero confront the thing that terrifies her the most. That’s the hero’s purpose in the story.


The idea of a hoard of treasure guarded by a dragon is easy to grasp and just plain fun! But there is a serious question here:

Why would the greatest treasure be found with the biggest, baddest, dragon?

On one level that’s obvious. Big bad dragons are the ones who have lived the longest (at least that’s the way I’d write the story!) and so have had the most time to collect a massive hoard of treasure/gold. They’re also the strongest and so could possibly take treasure from other dragons.

On another level, I’m not completely sure. Yes, I can see it in the sense that if you tackle the most difficult task possible then, if you finish it, you’ll be the most elated since the difficulty of the task is related to how happy you are if you succeed!

Also -- and this is true in real life -- if we don’t stretch ourselves we’ll stagnate. There is nothing compelling about a protagonist who doesn’t try to stretch themselves -- and this applies to both heroes and anti-heroes. That’s how characters grow. Even anti-heroes believe in something passionately and, eventually, they put everything on the line to defend it.

There’s also this: The treasure represents what we desire, what we love. So it would make sense that what we love the most would be paired with what we fear the most, with what we most dread. Like two sides of the same coin.

Return Home

If all that happened was that the hero overcame the thing they were most afraid of and gleaned the reward that came from that victory, it could be a good story, but it wouldn’t be a complete story. (And that’s okay, not all stories have endings. I’ve gone to at least one movie like that. I would guess you have too!)

I mean, sure, the hero has the treasure so life is great for her (at least for awhile) -- and since we like the hero we’re glad about that -- but to make the story complete the hero needs to take what she's learnt (the treasure she's won) and bring it back to their community, back to the people they are connected to: their family, their friends, their acquaintances. In this sense, the hero’s victory is the victory of everyone. Even your reader.

And, ultimately, that’s what great stories are about: community. Even though a story generally has only one protagonist, the protagonist is telling a story about the community. It is a story about how the growth of the individual, the success of the individual, betters everyone. [1]


What I’ve been talking about so far is the hero’s journey. What the hero’s journey is all about is MEANING. The hero’s goal gives her life purpose, at least within the pages of the book.

A Note On Story

There are many different kinds of story, and often elements of the hero’s journey are subverted in creative and unexpected ways. Of course that’s fine. Just as one should know grammar before one intentionally subverts it, it’s a good idea to know the elements of the classic hero’s journey before one subverts them.

That said, of course a person doesn’t need to know about the hero’s journey before they can tell a terrific story. Absolutely not. But I think it helps. Also, if you’re writing a story and something feels a bit off, knowing the elements of the hero’s journey can help.


1. That’s one of the many things I love about Dan Harmon’s TV show, Community.

Photo Credit: Syd Wachs, Macro photo of five assorted books, from

Sunday, September 22

10 Rules for Writing a Sequel

In the past I’ve shared articles I thought were particularly insightful about what makes a story a good story. This time I'm sharing a video from PSA Sitch.[1]

IMHO, Sitch is excellent at analysis and I love the quirky style of his video creations. I don’t agree with everything Sitch says, but he makes several insightful points about the nature of an entertaining story -- or at least one specific type of story. I highly recommend his video.

I hope PSA Sitch doesn’t mind my doing this, but in what follows I list some of the insights he shared in this video, ones that made me excited about this wonderful, magical, thing we call storytelling.[2]

I’ll provide a more detailed discussion, below, but here’s an overview:

(BTW, everything I write in this article is specifically about sequels.)
At the end of your first story, your hero has gone through his arc, he has achieved his goal (your particular story’s version of the holy grail) and returned to his community and used what he discovered, his prize, to make it better.  
In your next story your former hero needs to be knocked down a few notches, he needs to be ordinary-ish again. The new, younger, hero finds him, rescues him, and in so doing the former hero is symbolically reborn. The former hero and the new hero head off on an adventure together. As they adventure, the former hero teaches the younger hero and this creates a bond between them, one that makes them both better. Stronger. At the end of their adventure they achieve their goal (their partnership was essential for this) and reinvigorate their community.
So, let's get started!

10 Things That Make an Sequel Worth Reading

1. Fall from grace. 

In a sequel, if the series character, the former hero, doesn't have a fall from grace there can be no character arc. If there is no character arc, if the hero of the first story never changes, the protagonist -- and therefore the story -- will be boring.

At the beginning of the sequel, the former hero has lost his way. We need to knock the former hero off his pedestal, we need to humble them. We need to bring him down to the level of the ordinary person. In the first book, at the end, the old hero was larger than life. Back then, he found the holy grail and saved his community. Now he is just like you or I: ordinary.

2. Make the fall from grace realistic. 

As we know from real life, the older one gets, the more life experience one has, the greater the chance that bad things will happen to us. We lose people we love, the world changes in ways that seem to exclude us, and we have aches and pains in assorted places.

Sitch warns against making this fall from grace too big. But if you want a big event to topple the former hero, make him react to it in a way that is consistent with core aspects of his character.

For instance, if hypocrisy really bothered the former hero before his fall then it should still bother him.

Perhaps his one true love died and he now sees the world as a hostile place.

But the thing that brings the former hero down doesn’t have to be a big tragedy. The world -- the real world -- is chaotic. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes the things that batter us are big and horrible and sometimes they are multiple and small. And the more the character hurts, the more they become afraid of the future and fear the unknown. [3]

In the beginning of the sequel, the former hero has become disillusioned. He doesn’t want to take risks because he knows what the cost might be.

3. The former hero, even in his fallen state, needs to be recognizable. 

Have remnants of the former character, the qualities that made readers admire him, peek through even though the former hero is a pale version of his former self. Sure, we need to scuff him up a bit but we still need the audience to reconnect with the character, so we need him to be recognizable.

The call to adventure.

In the sequel, the former hero (the protagonist of the series) will initially reject the Call to Adventure.

The former hero has become discouraged, perhaps even cynical. The new hero is the one who needs to come in and reignite the old hero’s zest for life and, with that, his willingness to face his fear and fight for what he loves.

4. Redeem the former hero. 

When the former hero finally accepts the Call to Adventure he is, in a sense, reborn. Back in the day, he used to hit the mark (literally and figuratively) but then he began missing AND he stopped caring.

Hope is reignited. Eventually, the new hero is able to create a spark of hope or ambition or caring in the former hero. (I write more about this, below.)

Thinking about this in a mythic sense, the new hero is the son and the former hero is the father. The new hero (the son) comes along and revivifies the former hero (the father). Again -- and Sitch stresses this -- this redemption, how it is accomplished, should be related to both the main arc of the story and the reasons for the former hero's (the father’s) rescue/redemption.

The new hero -- the child -- breaks down the old structures of society represented by the father (the former hero) and literally 're-forms' them bringing together what came before with what exists now. Essentially, he creates (re-creates) the world.

5. Have your former hero become a mentor to the new hero.

Have your more experienced and slightly tarnished former hero become a mentor to the new hero. At first this mentoring might be reluctant. The new hero might be very similar to the former hero, to how the former hero was like when he was younger.

6. Give your former hero a consistent philosophy/worldview. 

This is perhaps the most important thing to get right. The former hero must have had a purpose. Yes, sure, he has lost sight of this purpose over the years. He has become cynical and no longer believes in anything

Let's talk about what it means to have a purpose. To have a purpose, a character needs to believe something. They need to have a (even a very simple) worldview.

Sitch gives the example of Spiderman: With great power comes great responsibility. That is his guiding light.

This is an aside: This principle doesn't just apply to heroes/protagonists, it applies to any character that has significant pagetime in your novel. Even antagonists. (Perhaps especially antagonists!)

Take Thanos, the villian from Marvel (this is Sitch’s example). Thanos believed that half the population of the universe had to die to prevent starvation and war. While we understood his goal and even sympathized with it -- who doesn't want to end starvation and war?! -- but the means he was using to attain this goal was evil. But his philosophy/worldview was consistent and understandable and it was a bit part of what made him a great character.

A worldview doesn’t have to be something abstract. 

Having a well developed worldview is great, but it's not for every character. You could just give your character something to care about. For instance, having a child immediately gives life purpose because when you’re a parent you have this small person to take care of. Their survival and well-being becomes your purpose.

7. The new hero’s actions should be what saves/redeems/resurrects the former hero.

The former hero teaches the new hero what he knows. He teaches him his philosophy of life as well as whatever skills his has.

This transfer of knowledge serves two purposes. It bonds the characters, makes them a unit. They become mentor and apprentice.

8. The former hero needs their worldview reaffirmed.

I thought that Sitch made an especially interesting observation here. When one person teaches something to another person, and if whatever you teach them helps them to succeed, then it validates your philosophy. When that happens it feels good! The fact that they were able to pass along something valuable gives that character a sense of worth. This is part of the former hero's redemption. This gives them the courage to face their fear of the unknown and risk everything one more time.

(This could be part of an upswing just before the heroes execute their final plan and race to the finish.)

9. Flaws are important.

Don’t be afraid to make your hero a bit flawed. Perhaps the old hero isn’t happy to see their apprentice succeed. Perhaps we see a bit of jealousy lurking in the depths of the former hero’s heart.

This could be one reason why the former hero wasn’t thrilled to mentor the new hero in the first place.

10. Make your new hero incompetent.

At the beginning of your story, when you first introduce the new hero, make him incompetent.

Also, don’t give the new hero a coherent worldview, make them confused. They don't know what they want to do with their lives, they feel like they don't fit in anywhere.

Why? One reason is that it gives the former hero something to teach, something for them to bond over.

Also, your new hero needs an arc. This means he needs to struggle in the beginning. The way that is done is to put your new hero in situations with characters you've created, characters you've designed to make sure your new hero is NOT going to have an easy time.

What makes a great story? Conflict. Why? Because it forces your characters to struggle. If your characters don’t have to work to overcome obstacles, then when they finally achieve their goal it won't mean anything.

Okay, that's it! Do you have a tip for writing a riveting sequel? Please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you!


1. Spider-Man DESTROYS Star Wars on Wokeness. As you can tell from the title, Sitch includes a couple of political themes in his critique, but the bits about how to tell a great sequel stand on their own.

2. I would just like to say that all the good bits in this article were taken from Sitch’s video. However, inevitably, I’ve filtered Sitch’s bits of wisdom through my own fallible and idiosyncratic understanding of story. So, if the point I made seemed good to you, the credit goes to Sitch. If, on the other hand, it seemed a bit off, blame me.

3. I'll have more to say about this later, but the solution to this is for the former hero to face his/her fears, to confront them head on. Perhaps he/she will succeed in this at first, but probably he/she will fail a few times before he/she succeeds.

4. A Call to Adventure might occur off the page (or the screen). For example, a very short story might begin after the Call to Adventure.


"Writing with a fountain pen." Photograph by Aaron Burden over at Unsplash.

Sunday, September 8

Adverbs: They Can Be Your Friend

adverbs can be your friend

In elementary school, I was given a thesaurus and told, “Go nuts!” Let's just say that my 4th grade teacher never met an adverb he didn’t like. 

To make a long story short, my 4th grade teacher was all kinds of wrong. 

Use Adverbs Sparingly

Though grammar has never been my strong suit, it helps me understand the truth behind the admonition against purple prose. (Stay with me, I will explain this.)

Adverbs and adjectives help communicate a state of affairs by modifying other words. For example, in the sentence, The lazy cat slept on the mat, the word lazy modifies the noun, cat, because it tells us what kind of a cat we’ve got on our hands.

That sentence (The cat slept on the mat) is okay. But there are other, more active, ways we could communicate the thought that your favorite feline is a slacker. For example: The dog chased his ball, the bunny nibbled her carrot but the cat slept. 

Now (of course!) I'm NOT holding that sentence up as an example of terrific writing, but I think it’s stronger. Why? Because it communicates the cat’s character by introducing other characters and comparing the cat’s behavior with theirs and then leaving it up to readers -- to you -- to draw their own conclusions about what sort of character the cat has: lazy. (Or perhaps the cat is just more chill. I think good writing encourages readers to draw their own conclusions.)

Bad Writing Advice

In a minute, I’m going to say something controversial. I’m going to say that one piece of writing advice you’ve been given all your life, advice that seems very good -- advice that, actually, IS very good -- is advice that the best, most popular writers do not themselves follow.

Stephen King is, hands down, my favorite writer of all time and I think that anyone who is serious about improving their writing -- and we all should be interested in that since we all write, even if the only thing we do is tweet -- needs to read On Writing. 

One of Stephen King’s best pieces of writing advice is this:

“The adverb is not your friend.

“Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late. (Stephen King, On Writing)”

And King is right. That’s fabulous advice. He then goes on to say: 

“I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution.”

So, for example, 

“Put it down!” she shouted

Is okay, but 

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly 

is definitely not okay.

And I agree. I have no evidence that Stephen King has ever committed that particular sin (putting an -ly adverb after a verb in dialogue attribution). However, when I searched the 726 books in my dataset (I’ve been a busy little programmer lately) I found that Stephen King was one of the writers who most frequently used the form, “bla bla bla,” she said -ly.

Why do I bring this up? Because I think King is both right and wrong. 

Yes. Using adverbs in attributions is something one should avoid. In the best of all possible worlds the reader will already know how the speaker is saying whatever it is they’re saying (angrily, sarcastically, etc.).

No. We’re human. This is not the best of all possible words. I grew up reading writers who used adverbs in dialogue attribution, Stephen King among them. And, IMHO, it works. I’m not saying that it’s something a writer should do -- I try and avoid it -- but sometimes it’s okay. 

When I read one of Stephen King’s stories there’s a point, a threshold, after which I’m not reading words, I’m inside the story. I’m not reading about characters, I’m looking at them. If using adverbs in dialogue attribution gets your readers there, then so be it.

What is the point of writing? What is the goal? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the years and, for me, it’s this: To snare my reader. I want to transport them to a world, a universe, created in my imagination and amaze them, I want to make them feel as though the time they spent reading my story was time well wasted.

That’s it!

I’m back posting. It’s been a couple of years and a lot has changed in my life. One thing that hasn’t changed is my love of writing and reading. I’m looking forward to the future.

photo credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash