Writing Excuses 10.9: Where Is My Story Coming from?
Key points: Where is your story coming from? Emotional impact and appeal. Genre and tone. What is your intention, what are you trying to do with this book, what reaction do you want the reader to have? What answer are the readers looking for, what question are they asking? MICE helps set the question. What question makes the reader go to the next chapter? Not just cliffhangers, you want deeper questions everywhere. Key: What is going to happen because of what just happened? Make sure there is a main question. Avoid writing to make your writing group happy, or introducing new questions to generate tension. Look for conflicts in the original questions. Knowing your starting point helps determine your structure. You may not want to outline, but even discovery writers need to know their tone, the promises they are making, and your intention.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Nine.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Where Is My Story Coming from?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] All right. So. Where is my story coming from? This month, we will be talking about structure. We have hopefully primed you well with talking about other aspects of preparing your story. We’re going to focus on starting writing your story next month. This month, we’re doing structure. Specifically, the emotional impact and the emotional appeal of your story.
[Mary] So one of the things that I find when I’m sitting down to write is that I make a couple of decisions about the genre that I’m going for and the tone that I’m going for because that’s going to inform a lot of the things. Pretty much everything.
[Brandon] It’s really important. In fact, in some ways, tone is more important than genre. Because you can, within most genres, write such a wide variety of stories. If you’re going to write a mystery, you can write anything from a cozy to a Dexter-type story, which are so wildly different, yet are shelved right next to each other. The same with fantasy. So knowing your tone is really important. A lot of people skip that in their planning process.
[Dan] Yeah. I find it very useful to think, “What am I trying to do with this book? What is this book intended to accomplish? What reaction am I trying to evoke in the reader?” Then that gives me a sense of how quickly I want to pace it, how long I wanted to be… All of these structural questions that come out of the basic intent.
[Brandon] Yeah. I… One thing that I’ve started asking myself that when I started I never did was, “What answer are the readers turning the pages in order to discover?”
[Brandon] What question are they asking? This is really vital.
[Mary] See, I’ve been doing that question since I took Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp because of the emphasis with the MICE quotient on the question that you start with. For new listeners, the MICE quotient is an acronym. We’ve got an entire podcast on it. So we’re just going to link to that in the liner notes. Sorry. [Milieu, idea, character, event in http://www.writingexcuses.com/2011/08/07/writing-excuses-6-10-scott-cards-m-i-c-e-quotient/]
[Brandon] One of our better podcasts. So we just want you to listen to that once it came out because it worked really well.
[Mary] But one of the things about that is that you start with a question. I’ll just use one of the things. MICE is an acronym. So if you start with a character story… Or an event story. An event story starts with something going wrong, something that disrupts the status quo and it ends when you restore the status quo. So the question is, “How can I restore the status quo?”
[Brandon] Right. Right. That’s a question for yourself. But for the reader, when they finish a chapter… Ask yourself this, when they finish chapter whatever, what question are they asking themselves that makes them go to the next chapter? Is it, “Will these two people get together? Will they ever become friends? Will… What was hidden behind that door?” What question is it? The deeper and more important you can make those questions to the relevancy of your tone and story, the better they’ll be. We’ve talked about before how more important it is to open the door and see something awesome and then stop your chapter as opposed to just not showing what’s behind the door because not showing what’s behind the door is a simple, cheap question that can be answered in one sentence. But…
[Dan] How you react to it.
[Brandon] Showing them something that changes…
[Dan] I want to point out that this is so much bigger than putting cliffhangers at the end of your chapters. You don’t want those easy questions. What you want are questions that are deeper. Like, “Will these people ever become friends again? Will this emotional rift get solved?”
[Howard] One of my favorites in idea stories and event stories are what are the rest of the implications? Where is this going? This feels bigger than what I’ve already been told. I want to see more.
[Mary] I find that will… All of these questions are useful, but one of the ones that I found most useful is, “What is going to happen because of what just happened?”
[Brandon] Right. Yeah, that’s a great one. That’s again, the open a door, something revelatory happens, and now we must read on to find out axis
[Howard] It’s kind of a distillation of all of those, really.
[Brandon] Now it doesn’t have… You don’t have to have one question…
[Brandon] People are reading for. Though in a given scene, you’re going to probably have motion on a couple of questions or one primary one. You can have multiple questions, but when I find people… When their plots are going crazy and things are not working for them as new writers, it’s often because they don’t understand the question that is the primary question driving their story. They are trying to create conflict that distracts from it or that overwhelms it, and leaves us unsatisfied with the primary questions. While you’re doing something else, you’re not having progress on that main question.
[Mary] I think a… Oh, sorry.
[Howard] If the question that you find yourself asking and attempting to answer is, “What can I do in this chapter to make everyone in my writing group happy?”
[Howard] I mean, that is a fairly common mind state to be in, and that is… The title of the episode is Where’s My Story Coming From? In that event, your story’s coming from exactly the wrong place.
[Mary] I also think that one of the questions we hit… Or one of the things that will happen is that people will find themselves introducing new questions in an effort to generate tension, rather than looking for opportunities of conflict around the original questions.
[Brandon] Yes. Now, this podcast in specific, we’re talking about outlining the origins of your story. Taking what you’ve done the last two months and propelling it into an actual story. We’ll talk about where your story’s going in a couple of weeks when we get back to it. But right now, we wanted to drill down on this. So let me ask, when you look at a story, do you ask yourself this question, “Where is it coming from?”
[Dan] Yeah. I want to talk a bit about the new John Cleaver book which is coming out in a few months. Coming out in June. What I did there, and this is what helped me put the structure together, was I layered two of these different questions together. So first of all, there’s the mystery story. How does this new monster work, how will we stop it, and what is John going to do? But then on top of that, look at the tone. The tone I kind of chose for this book is John is lonely, John is all alone, John doesn’t have anyone to rely on. So looking at those two things together, it was much easier for me to say, “Okay. As I’m putting together the chapter, when does the mystery start to overwhelm the emotional half? And when does the emotion start to overwhelm the mystery half?” Then I can kind of shuffle those two different threads together more efficiently.
[Mary] Now we talk a lot on the podcast about combining two ideas. But this is another area where if you combine two things, it becomes more interesting. Like, if you had… If the emotional tone was all just frantic, then it would be less interesting than having this contrasting one.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Mary has it this year.
[Mary] Yeah. This year?
[Brandon] Week. Week.
[Mary] It’s been a very long podcast. What I want you to do is to…
[Brandon] Our book of the week?
[Mary] Yes, I’m going to… I’m going to fake the fact that I was going to look at the wrong part of the page…
[Mary] I could have covered that.
[Dan?] Possum! Nope.
[Mary] What I want to suggest is that you listen to Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. This just won the Hugo award, the Nebula award, the Clarke award…
[Brandon] Beat me.
[Mary] It beat Brandon. This is a really phenomenal book. It does a lot of very interesting things with the characters and the way the characters… The main character, in particular, impacts the plot. So I think it’s a really good book for you to listen to. One of the things that she does in this is that this is a character who used to be an entire ship. An artificial intelligence, and because of reasons, is now just one individual. So it’s somebody who used to have multiple consciousnesses, multiple POV’s, and now is down to only one. It’s really interesting, and she gives you some points where you actually get to… There’s some memories where you actually get to experience all of these multiple POV’s all at the same time. It’s narrated by Adjo Andoh… Oh, excuse me, Adjoa Andoh. For those of you who are Dr. Who fans, she played Martha’s mother on Dr. Who. She’s a really lovely, lovely voice to listen to.
[Howard] Oh, fun. So, Hugo, Nebula award-winning, and more than just that. Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie, narrated by Adjoa Andoh at audiblepodcast.com/excuse where you can listen for free with a trial membership.
[Brandon] Now our listeners may be sitting here thinking, “Okay. You’re talking about emotional imp… Or you’re talking about tone, what does this have to do with outlining? I want to create an outline. Isn’t this what structure is all about? Why are we not talking about outlining, why are we talking about emotions and things like this?”
[Mary] Well, because you have to know where you’re starting from before you can sit down and actually come up with your structure, which we’ve hinted at a little bit. So what I find is like any story, anybody’s story that you’re looking at, has stuff that happens before the story starts and has stuff after the story ends. What you’re looking for in the story is the part of the story that will fulfill these promises. The this is the tone I’m going to give you, this is the story I’m going to tell you. So you’re looking with your outline, trying to figure out where the beginning and where the end is. I want to say that even if you’re not an outliner, which is a spectrum, outlining to seat-of-the-pants. Even if you’re not an outliner, it actually is useful to sit down and kind of figure out the shape, the general shape of the story that you’re trying to tell, so you know where that starting point is.
[Brandon] I’m glad you picked that up, because that’s kind of why I was pitching the question. Not everyone is an outliner.
[Dan] You got it right.
[Brandon] Some people get… Outlining actually ruins their story. Stephen King has said before if he outlines his story, it writes the life out of it, and he’s not excited about it anymore. Which is a really important thing to know, that if this is not working for you, it’s not a tool you should use. But I think everyone can benefit from understanding the tone and the promises they’re making early in their story and the ones they’re going to want to pick up on later on when they get there.
[Dan] Well, not just the…
[Howard] My style… Oh.
[Dan] Not just the promises, but as we said, your intention, where you want this story to end up, where you want the reader to end up.
[Howard] My style, for the first eight or nine years, 10 years of Schlock Mercenary, my writing style really was very heavily discovery focused. Often, where the story was coming from was I want to have an adventure in… On a planet that does this. I want to play with medicines. I want to play with whatever. That was where the story was coming from. So at the outset, I’m making promises to myself. These are things that are going to feature in the story. That’s a really, really loose structure. The things that I didn’t realize I also planned to have… That I knew that I was writing a science fiction, a space opera adventure that was humorous and upbeat. So structurally, there were going to be punchlines, there were going to be running gags, there was going to be an upbeat ending, and if I was going to leave something unresolved, it needed to be something that was small enough that I could get away with introducing it two thirds of the way through the story. I was doing all of that unconsciously. Now I do that very consciously, and I write those things down in the outline. For me, that hasn’t written the life out of the story. It’s prevented me from three quarters of the way through the project, realizing that I’ve painted myself into a corner and it’s time to get a jackhammer.
[Dan] Okay. So let me follow in a similar vein, talking specifically about some of my stuff. The John Cleaver books are mysteries really, more than anything else. Which means that I know structurally there are going to have to be clues revealed, there’s going to have to be red herrings to throw you off that look like clues but aren’t, and once… There’s going to have to be scenes of revelation, there’s going to have to be new bodies found that the killer has left behind. All of these things are structural points that I can start putting together in order, and then looking at them and going, “Okay. Well then, how can I feather in this other side, the emotional side?” Then I know in more or less in order what’s going to happen. Then, once I know that order, I can discovery right the rest of the way through it.
[Brandon] Yeah, when we talk about discovery writing, I often like to reference George Martin’s description of it which is gardening. You take something that’s growing, or maybe even taking and shaping a bonsai tree. You’re not going to cut off all the branches. You do know the shape of a tree, and kind of what you’re shooting for. You may take this tree and edge it in different directions and encourage it in different directions as you’re growing it, but you still know what a tree looks like and what your end goal is generally going to be. In the same way, as a writer, if you’re a discovery writer, just sitting down and just going any random direction without using the elements of structure and storytelling is going to end you up with a bad story. Learning the different types of stories that can be told, learning about what types of promises are fulfilled regularly by authors, and how it works, this is all going to help you even if you’re discovery writing. Maybe especially if you’re discovery writing because you can do it more instinctively if you’ve got all that in your brain.
[Howard] There was an episode of Sherlock, the BBC TV series, and I can’t remember the name of the episode, I’ll look it up and we’ll get it into the liner notes. But it’s the one at the wedding where Holmes is talking at the wedding. I remember looking at that episode two thirds of the way through and thinking, “They’ve kind of just built a clip show. This feels very, very random.” Maybe it wasn’t two thirds of the way through. But I was at least halfway through before the structure of the show revealed itself to me. It was a lot of fun. Very, very satisfying. Because at the outset, it really did feel like the writers did not know where they wanted to go when they started, and so they were putting down random stuff, but by the end of the book they tied it all… End of the book. End of the…
[Dan] The episode.
[Howard] The show, they tied it all together. In a really fun way.
[Dan] Yeah. That’s my favorite episode of that show, in large part for that reason, that it makes you… It changes what you think the structure is part way through, and you realize, “Aha!”
[Brandon] That’s great.
[Dan] All of these things that didn’t look like they had a purpose, totally have a purpose. Now you have to be very careful if that’s what you’re trying to write. Because really, what you’re doing is making very indeterminate promises to your reader.
[Howard] Yeah. I really don’t think… I do not think that they wrote that without outlining.
[Brandon] Well, what they probably did is they were relying on the fact that you like the show already. This isn’t season one, episode one. They… That… You could do…
[Mary] You’ve already got a buy-in.
[Brandon] Really cool things. Yeah. This is the same reason that I was able to get away with some really bizarre structural things in the Stormlight Archives. Because I had momentum as an author, I had a lot of trusting readers, and those readers who didn’t trust me could trust in the fact that a lot of people did and were buying the book and saying nice things about it. Which allowed me to break some structural conventions in ways that had great payoffs.
[Howard] Oh, conventions is such a better word than rules. Good call.
[Brandon] I’m going to give you your writing exercise for this month now. Once again, we will give you one this week that you can use, and then we will be building upon it throughout the month, so that you can… We can kind of take you along this path with an exercise. But also, if you don’t want to do it, any of the given ones can be done on their own. This week, what I want you to do is take a favorite piece of… A favorite story of yours. It can be in any medium. It can be a television show, it can be a short fiction work, it could be a novel, whatever. I want you to look at it and I want you to reverse-engineer the plot threads that are involved in it. I want you to build an outline.
[Mary] When he says a favorite story of yours, he means not something that you wrote, but something that someone else wrote.
[Brandon] Oh, yes, I should have said that.
[Howard] That episode of Sherlock would make a great choice because the structure is so funky.
[Dan] Is so wacky.
[Mary] although I would recommend doing something in the medium that you work in.
[Howard] Yes, yes, yes.
[Brandon] That might be. I like doing this with television shows and movies…
[Brandon] And applying them to books.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Brandon] I think you can… The thing is… Yeah.
[Mary] That’s actually what I did with Valor and Vanity is…
[Brandon] Right. You looked at heist novels.
[Mary] Yeah, I reverse engineered…
[Dan] If you are… If you still consider yourself a beginner and this seems imposing to you, pick a fairytale. Pick something simple that you… That will be a little easier to deal with.
[Mary] What you’re looking at with this is what are the scenes, what does each scene do, and what are the promises that are being made in those scenes.
[Brandon] We want you to look at multiple plot threads. Don’t just look at one. Figure out what you think the main plot is. Figure out what you think the secondary plots are. Build an outline out of those. Then identify those promises. Look and see what promises in the first 10%, whenever that is, however long it is, take the first 10% of it and see how the creators of that piece were making promises to the readers right from the get-go.
[Mary] While you’re at it, don’t forget what we talked about in the character module, and make sure that you’re also looking at what the character conflicts are, too.
[Howard] Oh, my gosh, their heads are going to explode.
[Mary] But they’ve got a whole week to do it in.
[Brandon] That’s right. In fact, they’ve got two weeks.
[Mary] Two weeks. That’s right.
[Brandon] Because next week will be a wildcard, during which we’ll just have a regular writing prompt, not an exercise. So you’ve got two weeks to work on this till we come back. I also want to give you a little warning on something else. We are going to be, at the end of this month, doing a new feature we’re doing this year, the Project in Depth that we’ve done in the past. We’re going to pick one of our projects and we are going to dig into it, referencing the months that have come before. For instance, we’re going to reference structure and character an idea development for Howard’s story.
[Howard] We’re going to go through Parallel Perspectives, which is the 13 page bonus story at the end of Massively Parallel, which you can pick up at store.schlockmercenary.com. This is a lot of fun. First of all, I’d love if you bought one of my books. We don’t know yet if I’m going to be able to have this out in digital format. But if it’s available digitally, it’ll be available there as well. Store.schlockmercenary.com. Massively Parallel.
[Brandon] We encourage you to get that early, because we will be doing this the last week of this month. Every month that has a fifth week in it, or a fifth day in it of Sundays, which is when we do these podcasts, we will be doing one of these projects. So go pick up Howard’s. Read it ahead of time so you can follow along as we discuss the really interesting structure of this bonus story. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.