Cliffhangers, Resolutions, and Tension

Last time, I discussed conflict as the engine that drives a story forward. Conflict is one of the primary ways to create tension in a story.

Tension not only makes the reader want to find out what happens next, it is a valuable tool to direct pacing — how fast or slow the story feels.

Chapters Follow Tension

We are so used to seeing chapters that it’s easy to just accept them as the normal unit of construction for a novel. However, chapters are a choice. Some books eschew them entirely. The reason that they’re so common is that they’re useful for breaking the story into discrete sections.

The length of chapters can influence pacing, with shorter chapters tending to feel faster, and longer chapters tending to feel slower. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, and the complication has to do with tension.

Tension ebbs and flows throughout a story, and tends to follow an arc. The conflict, mystery, or other source of tension is introduced, then the tension increases to a peak where it is most problematic or concerning to the characters. Finally, the tension proceeds to a resolution where it stops being relevant.

Chapters tend to feel like good units of story when they follow one of these arcs of tension.

Resolutions or Cliffhangers?

Looking at the way tension ramps up and down, an obvious chapter structure is to start with the introduction of a source of tension and end with its resolution.  This structure provides a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. It makes the chapter feel like a little self-contained story within the larger narrative.

An alternate structure utilizes cliffhangers. A chapter with a cliffhanger ends at the peak of the arc of tension. This is a critical moment when the characters are really struggling, and there is no resolution yet in sight.

If several cliffhanger chapters follow one after another, it results in a structure where the chapters are offset against the tension. The middle of the chapter is where arcs start and end, and the end of the chapter is where the tension peaks.

Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger like this creates the maximum impetus to the reader to keep reading. This style of chapter is often used in fast-paced thrillers to achieve that heightened feeling of action and suspense.

Balance

Pacing is a tricky thing. A novel that is constantly high-tension or continually escalating tension can wear the reader out, to the point that they become inured or annoyed with the continuously high stakes. There are a variety of tropes (this, that, the other, etc.) to describe this kind of narrative, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls.

One of the ways to add variety to the narrative, and to even out the tension is to alternate between fast- and slow-paced sections. A  fast-paced chapter that ends in a cliffhanger could be followed by a chapter that ends with resolution. You may also choose to increase or decrease the tension within a sequence of chapters to follow larger arcs in the story.

With multiple characters or sources of tension, different arcs can be interleaved. One arc can be ramping up as another is resolving. Of course, this adds complexity as all the different elements play off each other.

Cliffhangers and Consequences

Tension plays a major role in pacing, and the structure of chapters is closely related to that. When sections feel too fast or slow, adjusting chapter breaks or the arcs of tension within chapters can help. Tension in each chapter also contributes to the larger arcs of the story.

It may feel comfortable to always end your chapters with a clean resolution, or always go for the cliffhanger, but it’s worth understanding both options and keeping them as tools in your writer’s toolbox. The choice to end a chapter on a cliffhanger or a resolution is a relatively small one, but the consequences go beyond that chapter, across the rest of the story.

Types of Conflict in Fiction

Read any book about writing fiction, and it will probably have something to say about conflict. Conflict is the engine that drives characters to action, and it’s the force that drives readers to keep turning pages in order to find out what happens next. When a story lacks forward momentum, or it feels like the characters are being pushed around by the plot rather than pushing their own agendas, I find that it’s often due to a lack of conflict.

Conflict provides two vital services. First, it makes outcomes uncertain. Characters aren’t going to get what they want easily. They’re going to face hardship. The reader doesn’t know what will happen next. Second, it lets the reader gain a stake in the outcome and invest in the story. As social creatures, we naturally form bonds, even with fictional characters. We will latch onto a character and root for them to win. We will worry if it looks like they won’t succeed, and we’ll share in their joy when they do. We will empathize with them.

Mechanics of Conflict

Despite all of the attention conflict gets as a vital component of a story’s plot, the actual mechanics of creating conflict are frequently glossed over. How does an author create conflict and use it to drive the story?

If you do a quick search for “types of conflict,” you’ll see lists of varying sizes. Are there eight types of conflict? Four? Five? This is one of those topics where you can split hairs as much or as little as you like. The categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. For this article, I’m going to discuss three broad types of conflict, and some ways they can be implemented.

  1. Antagonistic Conflict, or character vs. character
  2. Internal Conflict, or character vs. self
  3. Situational Conflict, or character vs. nature/fate/God

Antagonistic conflict is when characters conflict with one another. As the name suggests, this often takes the form of a protagonist and an antagonist. This form of conflict has the advantage that the conflict is fully embodied in the characters. Many readers love a villain they can root against as much as they want a hero they can root for.

Internal conflict is when a character is uncertain or conflicted about what to think, say, or do. This can be more challenging to depict in a dramatic way, since the conflict is really inside the character’s head. The inner conflict often needs to be “externalized” as dialogue or action to really be understandable and compelling.

Situational conflict provides some external force for the character to fight against. The danger with this type of conflict is that the force is too amorphous or lacks the personality of an antagonist. Some authors would suggest that the situation or force is an antagonist, but I personally don’t feel obligated to personify something like a natural disaster.

It’s important to understand that these different types of conflicts can and do overlap. A character may have the situational conflict of being in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, overlapping antagonistic conflicts with the warden, guards, or other inmates.

Examples

From these three types of conflict, let’s dig down into some common examples. Try to correlate these examples to some experience you’ve had in your own life. We may not encounter such extreme conflicts as we see sometimes in fiction, but we all experience challenges. It’s often easier to understand and write these situations by relating our own, everyday conflicts to those of our characters.

Character wants or needs something that’s hard to get.

I like to think of this as a sort of default conflict for any character. We all have things we want and need, and some of those desires will be unfulfilled. Goals are simply wanting something and taking action to get it.

This basic conflict could describe a heist to steal some valuable artifact, or a romance where one character seeks to win over another.

Several characters want something they can’t all have.

This is almost always antagonistic conflict, pitting characters against one another for something each one wants. It can sometimes be connected to an internal conflict, where one of the characters decides that they don’t actually want to compete for a shallow goal, and turns to a more deeply fulfilling goal.

Examples of this are coworkers competing for a promotion, or a love triangle where two characters compete for the affection of a third. It could also take the form of a Hunger Games-style battle for survival.

Character wants two incompatible things.

This is usually an internal conflict. The character has two or more mutually exclusive desires. Usually this comes down to a choice, where the character has to pick one thing and let go of the others. Sometimes it may turn out to be a false dichotomy, and they manage to figure out a way to get everything. It might put the character in a position where their survival depends on violating their moral convictions or beliefs. They can stay true to themselves to the bitter end, or give something up to fight another day.

Examples include the workaholic who has to decide between wealth and success in business and a fulfilling family life; or a teen whose divorced parents move apart figuratively and literally, leaving her wondering where and how to live her life.

Character’s core belief is challenged.

This is often situational and internal conflict. An event or situation forces the character to rethink something vital to their personality.

The classic example of this is the priest who has a crisis of faith. It could also be the hotshot surgeon who gives up medicine after an important surgery goes awry. It might even be the parent whose child commits some offense that puts them at odds with the rest of the family.

Characters with incompatible personalities are forced to work together.

This tends to be mostly antagonistic, as different personalities butt heads, but you may also have situational elements pushing together people who would otherwise stay far away from each other.

This style of conflict is the basis for some classic genres like the buddy cop story, and many romantic comedies where the couple hate each others’ guts…right up until they don’t.

And many more…

These are just a few patterns of conflict. To discover more, a good exercise is to go through some of your favorite books, movies and TV shows, and try to briefly summarize every conflict you can spot.

Driving the Story

We’ve covered these three types of conflict — antagonistic, internal, and situational. We’ve skimmed the surface of how they can be deployed among characters. What good is it? If conflict is a tool, what do we want to achieve with it?

Conflict springs from the wants and needs of characters. It drives them to action, advancing the plot. It keeps the reader invested and gives them a means to measure the success or failure of the characters.

A short story may only have a single conflict that drives it, but longer forms tend to deploy multiple conflicts throughout the story. A series of conflicts may be chained together sequentially, but they can also overlap across different time scales.

In The Lord of the Rings, the ultimate conflict is the Fellowship and their allies against Sauron and his armies. They need to destroy the Ring of Power before Sauron’s forces march across Middle-Earth.

Within that vast conflict, there are dozens of smaller conflicts that play out within and across chapters. The hobbits hiding from the Black Riders on the road to Bree. The battles for Helm’s Deep and Gondor. The interplay of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum as Sam tries to protect his master, Frodo tries to reform Gollum, and Gollum schemes to steal the ring for himself.

Similarly, if you look at most modern episodic TV dramas, you’ll see some ongoing conflicts, perhaps across the entire run of the show. Then there will be smaller conflicts in each episode, across multiple episodes, and perhaps from season to season.

Chaining and overlapping conflicts in this way provides multiple threads to pull the reader along. Resolving smaller conflicts is also satisfying. There is a sense of closure, and of the story moving forward.

Resolving conflicts is also a central part of character arcs. An arc just tracks how a character changes over time, and resolving conflict inevitably makes characters change. If the character got what they wanted, then they’re no longer motivated to chase that thing. Perhaps they’ll pick a new goal. Similarly, if they failed in their quest, that will change their behavior. They might seek revenge, or turn toward a new goal.

The end of a conflict also often marks the end of a character’s involvement in a story. A beaten antagonist may be dead or irrelevant. A character who resolved their inner conflict may no longer be interesting for the plot to follow.

It’s also informative to look at where conflicts get resolved, and where new conflicts are created or ramped up. Looking at the example of buddy cop movies, you’ll often see that the conflict between cops is resolved just in time for them to work together to stop the real big antagonist. In those romantic comedies, the two leads frequently realize their true love around the end of Act II, only to have some additional complication come between them, providing the conflict to finish off the story.

Writing With Conflict

The next time you write a story, try doing a pass through it and noting all of the conflicts, the characters involved, and their resolutions. Look for chapters that feel weak, or characters that lack motivation. Is there enough conflict, and is it pushing the characters in the right directions? Is it resolved in a satisfying way? Does new conflict pick up the slack when other conflicts end?

Conflict is the engine that pushes a story forward. By evaluating stories as a series of conflicts, you’ll gain an amazing set of tools for creating action, suspense, and excitement.

Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

I recently wrapped up a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’ve been running for over a year. This is the longest that I’ve run a group, and it’s been a fun experience with a lot of lessons learned along the way.

Many of those lessons are specific to D&D and to table-top role-playing games in general, but I think there are a few that apply to writing fiction.

What’s this D&D Thing?

Even if you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, you may be at least vaguely familiar with it through the various ways it has popped into the broader cultural consciousness over the years: the 80s cartoon, the references in Stranger Things, or the myriad video games that draw from it directly or indirectly.

If you’re not familiar, D&D may seem obscure and confusing. It’s often portrayed in pop media as the sort of thing that obsessive nerds obsess over (and they certainly can be, on occasion). But these games really aren’t as cryptic or complicated as they’re often made out to be.

Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular table-top RPG. Table-top RPGs (or TTRPGs) are simply games where players collaborate to create a shared fiction, with rules. Depending on the game, the rules may be extremely complex or very simple. They may or may not have some element of chance — usually involving dice. Ultimately, a TTRPG is about creating a story with some friends.

Many TTRPGs have a special position: a player who runs or otherwise facilitates the game. In D&D, she’s called the “Dungeon Master,” in other games it’s often the “Game Master.” It’s often the responsibility of this person to provide the setting and the scenario, while the other players bring characters who will move about and interact in that scenario.

Now that we have a baseline understanding, I want to talk about what I learned playing these games that can be applied to writing fiction.

Lesson #1 — Give Your Audience What They Want

Dungeons and Dragons is typically played in Tolkien-esque high-fantasy settings, but there are other settings you can use, and TTRPGs in pretty much every genre. The campaign I just finished is called “Curse of Strahd,” and it’s based on classic monster horror: vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, and even a sort of Frankenstein’s monster.

However, it’s important to realize that genre goes beyond these “which-shelf-is-it-on” kind of classifications. In TTRPGs, many groups focus on combat and the rules-heavy play of slinging spells and swinging swords. But you can also craft scenarios where the players are solving mysteries, or perhaps socializing with the movers and shakers of the world, trying to convince them to take particular action. Some groups may be interested in romance or sex in their fiction (while others will be vehemently uninterested).

Of course, few groups want only one thing, like pure combat or nothing but puzzles or social encounters. Furthermore, each of your players are likely to have different preferences. You have to balance everyone’s needs and provide a variety of experiences to keep everyone happy.

For a game master, talking with your group of players and understanding what they want to get out of the game makes a big difference when trying to craft a setting and scenario that they’ll enjoy playing.

For an author, you have to know your audience. Know what you like, and make sure you’re writing something you enjoy. Beyond that, who are you writing for? Can you imagine an “ideal reader” of your story — the theoretical person for whom the story is perfect? Can you distill a small list of things that you’re trying to give your audience?

Lesson #2 — The World is Always in Motion

An RPG called Dungeon World introduced me to the idea of “fronts.” They’re like the story version of weather fronts — something that blows in periodically and ushers in change. Fronts are a way to keep track of the things that are happening in the background of a game world.

For example, maybe the players are content to hang out in a comfy town for a few days, carousing and spending their treasure. Meanwhile, you know that the northern kingdom is preparing to invade the southern kingdom, and the king of the dragons is awakening from his thousand-year sleep deep under the mountain.

In a TTRPG, you may be the game master, but you do not control the players or their characters. Still, the world around them is a living, breathing thing. Stuff happens, whether they’re involved or not. So when they take their week-long vacation, the northern kingdom may be marching their armies. Perhaps Dragon Peak erupts, and the great dragon king takes flight, turning green valleys and hamlets into scorched wasteland.

There is a cost to inaction. Further, there may be no “right” choice for your characters. If they do one thing, their inaction elsewhere will still have a cost.

In your fiction, your characters may not cooperate, just like those players in your table-top game. Characters have to have agency in the world and make choices in keeping with their personality. If characters are forced into a plot where they have to do things that they don’t “naturally” want to do, you end up with soap-opera plots where the characters are just dolls being shoved around in predestined sequences of events.

Sometimes this can work to your advantage. The character can ignore their noble destiny and go do what they want. The world won’t wait for them though, and those fronts keep on moving. Villains have their own agendas, and aren’t about to accommodate the good guys. Whenever your characters are doing something in the foreground, things should still be happening in the background.

Lesson #3 — Good Ideas Can Come Out of Improv

TTRPGs are, in many ways, improv games. The GM can prepare and plan, but only so long as they can guess what the players might do. Inevitably, players will come up with unexpected and often creative solutions to problems that the GM couldn’t prepare for.

Likewise, the players may know the setting, but they don’t know the scenario like the GM does. They get only the information they can glean from the GM’s description and perhaps some lucky die rolls. Then they have to act on that information as best they can.

Often, the best and most memorable moments will come from a player doing something completely unexpected and off-the wall in a tense situation. As a GM, sometimes you just have to smile and throw away all your plans, because a player thought of something better.

When it comes to writing fiction, I’m an unabashed planner, but even the most organized and prepared of us have to do some improvisation sooner or later. If a scene feels wrong, we sometimes have to stop and ask ourselves, “is this really what that character would do?” Or perhaps we just feel there’s something missing, some spark of life. We may have to try a few different ideas to make something interesting happen, not knowing which will work out.

Lesson #4 — Feedback is Important

When running a TTRPG, it’s important to be excited by the story you’re trying to tell to your players. It’s also important to watch how those players react to that story. Are they invested, working together, trying to overcome impossible odds? Or are they distracted, disinterested, or apparently struggling to figure out how to participate?

Running a good campaign involves bringing in elements that you think your various players will enjoy. It also requires that you gauge whether those things actually worked the way you expected them to. Sometimes this is as simple as watching how they play and reading the room. Sometimes you have to explicitly ask if everyone is getting what they want out of the game.

This is the flip-side of lesson #1. As you’re writing, it helps to think about your “ideal reader,” and what will entertain your audience. Once you’ve got some draft pages, you can actually go out to that audience (at least some small bit of it) and ask what they think.

Family, friends, beta readers, writing groups or critique circles — however you can get it, feedback is vital. A book is a big project, and it’s almost inevitable that each of us will forget something, make mistakes, include a plot hole here or there. Feedback followed by careful editing can turn a good manuscript into a great book.

Interested in TTRPGs?

That’s all for the writing lessons. Perhaps in another year of running sessions I’ll find a few more to share.

If all of this talk about table-top RPGs piqued your interest, now is a great time to get into the hobby. It’s more popular today than it has ever been.

Am I Good Enough to Write This?

Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is probably best known for its assertion that the way to become great at something — anything really — is to practice it for 10,000 hours. Similarly, author David Eddings (and apparently a few others) claim that the key to becoming a good author is to write a million words, then throw them away and really start writing.

“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”

David Eddings

Some writers will hear these claims, crack their knuckles, and start typing with relish. They’re delighted to learn that success is as simple as aiming in the right direction and putting in the time and effort. Others (including myself) are a bit less enthusiastic. A million words equates to ten or eleven substantial novels. Ten thousand hours is 417 days-worth of writing, without sleep, meals, or bathroom breaks. Not to mention the unshakable feeling that there must be more to greatness than simply plowing forward stubbornly.

However you quantify it, we know that writing is a craft that can be refined over a lifetime. Whether you believe in innate artistic talent, practice and study do make a difference.

That’s all to say that sometimes, it can be daunting to write. It’s normal for writers to have deep insecurities about their own skill. Writers are readers too. We see the incredible feats of our favorite authors. We can cite examples of phenomenal writing, and we see every time we don’t quite measure up.

Be Afraid, but Not Too Afraid

Have you ever had an idea for a story that you loved, but you were afraid to write it because you thought you could never do it justice? Have you ever started to write what was sure to be your greatest story ever, only to have the words flow out of your brain, down to your fingers, to flop, sad and desiccated on the page; a pathetic imitation of what you saw in your imagination?

Being a writer requires a specific cognitive dissonance — the ability to believe that you are writing something brilliant, while simultaneously seeing all the flaws in that work in order to edit them into oblivion. It’s a knife’s-edge mental balancing act, and it’s awfully easy to fall off one side or the other.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

One of the traps that writers, especially inexperienced writers, can fall into is the belief that they have great ideas, but lack the skill to do them justice. They have the idea that could be the next bestseller, if only it was written by someone with more expertise. Sometimes this takes the form of a fear that they might be a one-hit-wonder, who only ever has the one great idea. It would be a terrible waste to squander it.

I call this a trap because it’s almost certainly not true.

That Idea Isn’t Special

How many awards are there for novels, poems and short stories? And how many awards are there for cool ideas?

That’s because ideas aren’t that special. We become writers because we read things that inspire us. We start coming up with our own ideas. Every writer is an idea-generating machine. You may feel like it’s a slog, but you can come up with story ideas, if you put your mind to it.

A great writer could take a downright mundane premise and create a mesmerizing story from it. Many have. Ideas only become great in the execution.

Even more dangerous is an idea that’s put on a pedestal. When you think of that idea as “the perfect idea,” the one that you may never live up to again, it’s hard to move past it. You might hold on to that idea for years. You might even obsess over it.

I know, because I’ve done it. You can wear down an idea over years, like a worry stone. You can keep adjusting it, refining it, or just tweaking it here and there. It can feel like you’re accomplishing something, but if you can’t bring yourself to translate that idea into an actual story, then all that thought and effort and obsession is useless.

That obsession also precludes other ideas. How many new ideas could you play around with in the time that’s being spent worrying about that one idea? Sometimes our minds are like a warehouse, and we need to clear out those ideas to make space for new ones. Dwelling on the old can prevent you from moving on to something better.

You’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better

If you write for years with some regularity, I can easily prove to you that you’re getting better. Go back and look at something you wrote a year ago. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Those pieces will certainly be different. You may have preferences of voice and style that have changed. You’ll also notice a lot of improvements that could be made. You’re so much better at writing now.

Gladwell didn’t claim that a switch flips at the moment you hit your 10,000 hours. Every day you practice, you learn something, even if you aren’t always aware of it. It’s a slow and steady progression. You can improve your skill at dialogue, or at description. You can develop your voice, and you can learn to build deeper, more sympathetic characters.

Isn’t it strange then, to believe that you can get better at all of these things, but not at coming up with good ideas? It’s a skill like any other, and it develops through practice. Granted, if you’re brainstorming ideas, you can’t expect all of them to be amazing. But you can trust that the writer you become in five or ten years is going to be better at coming up with good ideas, just like they’ll be better at dialogue and characterization.

The ideas you come up with today are for present-you to write. Trust future-you to come up with their own great ideas to write about.

Diamonds Have to be Polished

First drafts suck. Sometimes second and third drafts suck too.

One of the times when that special brand of authorial cognitive dissonance is really tested is in writing a first draft. Ideas are like clouds. They’re soft and vague and beautiful. You can stare up into that bright blue sky and see all sorts of amazing shapes.

Words are flexible, but they’re less flexible than ideas. Those nebulous ideas seemed so good partly because you could ignore the missing bits, the conflicting bits, the bits that just plain don’t make sense or haven’t been thought through properly. When you put them down on the page, that luxury immediately goes away. They’re solidified into a rough, mangled form that will never live up to those gauzy visions in your mind.

Don’t confuse that first draft with the polished end-product it will become. Don’t compare the perfect idea to the worst form your story will ever take.

Don’t Wait

If it feels like a great idea, try writing it now. Expect your first draft to feel bad, and look forward to closing that gap between idea and execution in the revision process. If it still doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. Just consider it part of your 10,000 hours, or million words.

Trust that you’ll have better ideas and be better able to execute them in the future. Make room for those new ideas by not obsessing over the old ones.

And in case you weren’t sure, the answer is “Yes, you are good enough to write that.”

Writing Schedules and Avoiding Burnout

I struggled for years with motivation to write and periodic burnouts, and I know I’m not alone. For every author I see putting out a book every year, there are many who struggle to meet their word-count goals or lament their inability to write every day.

We want to get more done, or worse, we feel like we “ought” to get more done. When we fail to live up to that (sometimes unrealistic) standard we set for ourselves, we lose hope and even feel a lack of self-worth. Writing requires emotional energy, and when that energy is drained by these perceived failures, we can burn-out: unable to write until we refill our tanks.

Agile Writing

I’ve found that the most effective way to avoid burnout is to be honest with yourself about what you can actually accomplish. That sounds simple, but it takes some real work to figure out just how much you can do, and it’s not a static formula — it can change over time.

My day job is in software development, and I often find that writing software is similar to writing fiction. It’s not always obvious going into a project how much effort it will take. The software industry has spent decades and untold millions of dollars trying to better understand how to estimate the time and effort necessary to complete projects.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the modern Agile software development methodology, and how we can apply some of its lessons to writing.

Prioritize, Break Down, Estimate

To get things done, you have to know what things you’re doing. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to jump into an exciting project head-first, without realizing that you don’t entirely know what the whole project entails.

Any large pieces of work get broken down into the small tasks that compose them. Having “write novel” as a task isn’t useful. Split it into individual scenes or chapters (or developing a character, etc., etc.)

Before you can work on a task, it needs to have an estimate. This is your guess as to how long it will take. You can try to estimate in real-world hours, but many agile teams find that counterproductive. They’ll often use a small set of options, like T-shirt sizes (S, M, L, XL) or nonsense units like jelly beans (1, 3, 5, 7, 10 jelly beans).

Having a limited set of options avoids wasting too much time trying to zone in exactly on a perfect estimate, because it’s unlikely any estimate will be perfectly accurate anyway. If it’s not quite an M, it’s got to be marked as an L. If it feels like four jelly beans, it needs to be marked as a 5.

Units that aren’t actual time will be useful later on, when it comes to evaluating your estimates. You might decide that a S is a day of work initially, and later come to realize that it’s more like two days of work. That’s no big deal. But if you use real-time estimates, you’ll have tasks marked 1-day that are actually 2-days of agile-time. Your estimates will get confusing quickly.

I like to use Trello for tracking my writing tasks, but there are plenty of other applications that will do the job. You can also use good old-fashioned index cards or post-its.

Sprinting

The Agile process breaks down time into “sprints,” which typically range from a week to a month. At work, I use two-week sprints. For my own work, I use one-week sprints.

At the start of a sprint, you estimate how much work you can get done. Then take tasks from the backlog and put them on the sprint until the estimates fill up the time you allocated for the sprint. If you can’t fit exactly, it’s better to go under the estimate than over. Try to be honest with your task estimates, and how much you think you’ll be able to finish.

Next comes the real work! Pick tasks and finish them. If you get them all done and you still have time left, you may want to grab another task or two from the backlog. On the other hand, if you don’t get all the tasks done, that’s okay. Think of each sprint as more than an organizational tool. It’s an experiment. The goal of the experiment is to research how much work you can typically get done in a sprint. Don’t worry or freak out if a sprint goes badly. (In fact, it’s pretty normal for a first sprint to be a bit of a mess.) Instead, get ready to evaluate your progress and make adjustments.

Reviews

The sprint is finished. It may have gone well, terribly, or about as expected. The first few sprints are more likely to be rough, as you’re learning the process and have rougher estimates. You may discover that you thought (or hoped) that you’d be able to get a lot more work done than you actually did. That’s good. The experiment yielded some meaningful results.

In the Agile process, a review is held at the end of each sprint. This is an opportunity to evaluate how things went. Look over the work that was finished. Firstly, be proud of what you accomplished. Then, spend a little time thinking about the estimates for your tasks and for the sprint as a whole.

If you were able to get everything done with ease, consider adding more estimated time to your sprints. But be wary! Sprints will naturally vary. Like all solid science, results have to be repeatedly verified before they can be taken as fact. Before you make wild changes, look for trends across multiple sprints. This will be much more reliable than a single result.

If you weren’t able to get everything done, first look at individual issues. Did some take longer than estimated? Sometimes this happens when tasks aren’t broken down well enough, or aren’t clearly defined. You’ll find pretty quickly that smaller tasks are easier to estimate accurately than larger ones. It’s easier for bad assumptions or unexpected snags to throw a large task off-course than a little one. You might also find that a task ended up being harder than expected, in a way that was difficult to foresee. Don’t stress too much about it.

In software, there are two things that most teams work constantly to improve: breakdown of large tasks into small ones, and accurately estimating those small tasks. But there are other problems that can mess up a sprint. Sometimes the real world steals away your writing time — your in-laws decide to stay for a week, you have a family emergency to work out, or a broken furnace needs your attention immediately. Consider the circumstances around your sprint. It’s normal that you’d get less done in that kind of situation. You can take solace in a new sprint and a fresh start.

What’s the Point?

When Agile started getting popular in software, a lot of teams balked at it. Some still do. Why do all that obnoxious estimating and review? It’s more time in meetings when the “real” work could be getting done. You might feel the same way at first. Try sticking with it for a while.

Firstly, the planning and review that feels so onerous when you’re starting out becomes easier and even satisfying with practice. Breaking down tasks becomes second nature.

More importantly, this is a way to evaluate your expectations, your actual output, and why they might not be aligned. If burnout happens because we expect more from ourselves than we can deliver, then we need to come to grips with the gap between those two things.

Your sprints may show that you finish 75% as much task-time each week as you first expected. Your sprint reviews might make it clear that you’re consistently under-estimating how much time chapters take to write. They might tell you that you have an outside interruption almost every week that keeps taking time away from your writing. Understanding these problems is the first step in addressing them.

Ultimately, you may find (as I did) that you just can’t get as much done in a week as you wanted to. That can be okay too. I have a regular 9–5 job and children. I’m an inveterate planner who doesn’t write that quickly. I have to accept that I can’t write at Stephen King pace. And that’s okay.

Story Seeds

This post was inspired by Lucy Mitchell, who recently asked “Does your story require more cooking time?” She talks about how we often get so excited about an idea that we want to write it immediately. But many of these ideas are half-baked – they’re missing something, maybe several things. That excitement to write runs into a brick wall, and the story has to be thrown away or shelved.

These problems take many different forms. The story might start strong, only to fade early in the first draft. It might seem great in your head, but feel flat and dull on the page. You might find yourself in a very cool setting with no characters to populate it, or have an amazing character who just doesn’t fit into the world. You might have a story where the characters go through the motions, pushed around by the plot.

In response to Lucy’s post, I’m going to dig into how early story ideas can transform into a full-blown story. You’ll never have everything figured out when you first put down words; there are always problems to solve along the way. So how do you know that your ideas are detailed enough to support you as you write? How can you tell if an idea needs more cooking time?

Seeds and Stars

Each story is unique, and each has some collection of elements that connect in a unique way. They usually don’t start fully-formed. Little ideas eventually lead to other ideas and begin to glom together. A character may start out as an idea for the clothes they wear, an ability they have, or some event that shaped them. A setting might start from a single image (real or imagined), or a place fit to a specific purpose.

I like to call these little bits “story seeds.” Like a tree, they grow and branch out in unpredictable ways. A story is like a forest grown from many of these seeds.

You could also think of these ideas like tiny bits of debris in space. Eventually, they stick to each other. Finally, they become so dense that they collapse to form a star. When a story fails to come together, it’s often because it doesn’t have that density. The ideas aren’t enough to support all the necessary parts of a story.

Do Your Seeds Meet Your Needs?

Writing fiction is amazing because you can do almost anything. There are always new books coming out with voices, characters and ideas that are so fresh and different that they change the way we see the world. Despite that, there are also a relatively small set of elements – characters, settings, scenes, viewpoints – that we can identify in almost every story. Granted, you can find avant-garde stories that lack one of these key building blocks, but if it works, you can bet that the author was very much aware of the limitations they were working under.

Stories thrive on cross-pollination. It takes many seeds to become a forest. It’s easy to get excited by a shiny, cool idea. Keep that excitement up! It may be the centerpiece that ties everything together. You just need to make sure that there are enough other ideas to fill out a complete story.

Before you start the story proper, evaluate your story seeds. Write down all the exciting ideas you have. Write down anything important that you think you know about the story. Then think about structure, and those standard story elements. What sets the story in motion? Do you have characters with some kind of goal and some kind of conflict making things difficult? Do you have settings for those characters to populate? Do you have some ideas for the journey they could go on (a.k.a. the plot) and do you have an idea of how they might grow or change as a result? Where does the story end?

If your story seeds don’t at least give you some options to explore for each of these things, you may have some rough times ahead. You can write for a while, but eventually you will run into a part of the story where you need to know that missing thing. You’ll be forced to stop and figure it out, or muddle on until it becomes apparent that something is dreadfully wrong.

If you’re not sure, try some simple outlining or summaries. Don’t let this scare you if you’re the sort of writer who prefers to write by the seat of your pants. You don’t have to be a full-on planner. Try to write a sentence or two about the beginning, middle and end; or try to describe the inciting incident, some complications, and the resolution. Can you describe your characters in a couple sentences? What do they want? What do they worry about?

Cultivating

One of the most important habits you can develop to grow ideas into stories is to write those story seeds down. Every time you think of a fun bit of plot, an interesting character quirk, or a scrap of dialogue, write it down. I’ve used an “idea notebook” for this in the past, but I now use a OneNote file that gets synced between my phone and computer.

Once you have an idea file, make the most of it. Read through it occasionally, and especially when you’re thinking about what to write next. This is like watering those sprouts. Different things will pop out at you at different times, and you may suddenly see a connection between two previously independent ideas. If you have a day where you just can’t write, open the idea file and try brainstorming. See if you can add a couple new ideas to the list. You might find it easier to come up with random thoughts for the future than it was to work on that manuscript. You could even find some inspiration in the file for the project you’re procrastinating over.

Letting it Grow

Some stories just need time, and you may decide that the critical mass of ideas just isn’t there yet. That’s fine. We all have an amazing secret weapon in the subconscious. Spend time thinking about your proto-story, and then mentally put it back in the cooking pot. Even when your conscious mind is busy with other things, those ideas will continue bubbling away. Eventually, you’ll come back to it, and and give it another taste, asking those same questions about character, setting and plot, and it’ll be so good you won’t be able to resist it any more.

6 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

The phrase “writer’s block” gets tossed around a lot, to the point that it has become a trope or boogie-man in the modern mythology of what it’s like to be a writer. The truth is that there’s no one thing that stops us from writing. Like any other job, writing is harder some days than others. Sometimes we have good reasons that the words aren’t coming. Other times, it’s a mystery why the muse has abandoned us.

Likewise, there’s no single formula to overcoming writer’s block. Everyone writes differently. Some find a routine and stick with it throughout their lives. Others have to catch a few words here and there, or need variety to stimulate their creativity.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for me. Next time you find yourself staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor, give one a try.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Thomas Mann

1. The Jump-Start

I discovered something about myself a few years ago. I’m often pretty bad about chores like cleaning, laundry, and dishes. What I realized was that all I needed to do was get myself started. I’d enter the kitchen, notice some crumbs on the counter, and decide to wipe it down. Then I’d clean the little island counter. Then the stove. Before I knew it, I was doing dishes or cleaning half the kitchen.

Getting started on a task is often the hardest part, especially when it feels big or unpleasant. It’s like diving into cool water. The initial plunge is the hard part, and then you get acclimated and comfortable. It’s easy to agonize over the opening of a new book, or even the first few words in a regular writing session. If I can get myself into the middle of a sentence or paragraph, I’m much more compelled to keep going.

Make a deal with yourself. Instead of thinking “I have to finish this chapter,” or “I need to write 2000 words today,” just tell yourself to write something small: a sentence, a paragraph, or perhaps a few lines of dialogue. Sometimes your writing session just needs a jump-start to get the engine running.

If you find this works for you, you might even want to end your writing sessions mid-sentence, even if you know how the sentence should end. It will give you something you can immediately start writing the next time.

2. The Deadline

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Douglas Adams

Trying to be creative while up against the clock might seem unappealing at first, but deadlines can be a tool. When unlimited possibilities are overwhelming, it can be hard to come up with something concrete. Deadlines enforce limits. If you want to get your writing done within a time limit, you have to stop thinking, stop planning, and start putting words on the page.

Self-imposed deadlines can take many forms, but to really be effective, they need some sort of external accountability. You’re more likely to get it done if the alternative is telling someone that you failed.

If you’re working on a rough draft, you might hold yourself accountable to beta readers, friends, or a writing circle. If you’re writing short fiction or poetry, you might be able to find a fitting contest, anthology, or magazine that has a limited window for submissions.

You may not need a particular person to hold you accountable. Committing to a schedule, participating in challenges like NaNoWriMo, or writing daily or weekly blog posts or serial fiction might be enough of a push to keep you going.

3. The Speed Demon

Sometimes you’ve got an idea, but you just can’t find the right words or place to start. Well, it turns out that’s a problem for future you! Here in the present, all you have to do is write a pile of words that sorta, kinda get the point across. Write fast, and let that poor sucker, “future you,” worry about editing that hot mess into a beautiful manuscript.

How do you force yourself to write fast when you’re already struggling to write anything at all? You could try applications like Write or Die, The Most Dangerous Writing App, or Flowstate. These apps can play angry noises, flash, or even start to delete your words if you stop writing for too long, helping you learn how to write fast and stop worrying about the quality of the content.

If these tech solutions don’t appeal to you, you can still go old-school. Challenge a fellow writer to a word-count race. Put on a your favorite speed metal playlist and try to write a hundred words by the end of each song. The important thing is to get those words out. You can make them better later.

4. The Prompt

Creative cross-pollination is a real thing. A story that’s floundering may be missing some vital idea that will make all the disparate pieces fit into place. It can help to get away from the story, especially if you bring something new back when you return to it.

One of the best ways to reset the writing brain is with prompts. If you aren’t aware, writing prompts are popular. They’re everywhere. You can find hundreds with a quick internet search. If you prefer something physical, there are writing prompt journals, books, calendars, and cards.

If you prefer higher stakes, try looking for a themed contest. Many contests require a specific genre, setting, or topic. Find one in your wheelhouse, or try something you’ve never written before. You might even turn your writer’s block into a cash prize.

5. The Spike

Stuck trying to get a story from point A to point B? Not sure where the story is going? Too many possibilities, or no way forward? Try a spike.

I blogged about writing spikes in a previous post. In short, a writing spike is a little writing experiment to figure out where a story should go and how it might get there by trying different possibilities. Spikes are designed to be thrown away, so there’s no pressure to make them perfect.

6. The Great Outdoors

Do you always write in the same place? Use the same computer or the same notebook? Write at the same time of day or week? Routine can be grounding, and it can help to carve out time when schedules are tight. Routines can also become dull and stale.

A change of scenery, a different time of day, a switch from pen to keyboard or vice versa – all of these can help break that block.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Try, and try again. Ultimately, overcoming writer’s block requires trust that more words will come. Sometimes just eking out a few words leads to a flood. Sometimes the words have to be bad so they can be made better later. Sometimes it takes external motivation or a change in scenery to make writing feel fresh and new again. And what you thought was terrible may turn out to be pretty good on re-read.

Do you have any favorite tricks to help you get past writer’s block? Let me know in the comments.

Guessing the Future for Science Fiction

Taking on the role of oracle is one of the greatest joys and biggest challenges of writing science fiction. There’s something magical about reading a story that unveils entirely new ideas, technologies, or shifts in society, only to see those things come to pass a few years down the road.

It can be equally interesting to look at less accurate “futures” from bygone eras and see how they turned out wrong. What does the hopeful and often hubris-filled science fiction of the post-WWII era say about the society that generated it? What about the gritty and depressing dystopias crafted in the ’80s?

Guessing the future isn’t easy. Occasionally, we get it right and look prescient. More often, we get it wrong in some way or another. But we can at least perform our due diligence by building our fantastic futures on the mundane foundation of the present.

Hard and Soft Science Fiction

There is a stylistic split in the genre of science fiction. It’s not a hard line; it’s more like a gradient. “Hard” science fiction does it’s best to extrapolate from the present in a straight line. In hard SF, the future should be explainable. It should follow logically from what we see in the present. “Soft” science fiction cares less about explanations, crafting futures that are convenient to the story, without worrying so much about the through-line between the present and the future.

In practice, no science fiction story can completely describe all the events and technologies that led from the present to that particular future. There is no perfectly hard sci-fi. And some stories will simply have less to explain. They won’t be as concerned with the technological nitty-gritty of the future.

Still, when we think in these terms, it’s easy to start placing different stories somewhere closer to the hard or soft end of the spectrum. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is fairly hard, concerning itself greatly with the details of the technology and grounded in cutting-edge space travel research. Meanwhile, Herbert’s Dune books or the Star Wars movies are fairly soft. The setting and the technologies serve the story, and little explanation is provided for their provenance.

More distance from the here and now, be it temporal (“a long, long time ago”) or physical (“a galaxy far, far away”) is going to add softness. The future imagined in Dune is so many thousands of years in the future that the intervening time couldn’t possibly be accounted for within the text. In fact, after Herbert’s death, a whole swath of Dune books were written to fill in some of that intervening time.

Focus

If you accept that your story is going to be soft science fiction, you may not have to worry too much about extrapolating. Perhaps you’re writing an allegory, where the future setting only serves to contrast with the present day. Perhaps you’re writing a fantasy story, and the backdrop of spaceships and laser swords are purely aesthetic.

Assuming you’re writing harder sci-fi, you’re going to need to decide what your areas of focus will be. Do you want to explore future technologies? Do you want to explore how they might change life for individuals, or across larger swaths of society?

Science fiction must tell a story, but it has the added burden of building and explaining its world as the story unfolds. Every story has a limited number of words it can spend building the world. By choosing specific areas of focus, you can maximize those words, and cut passages that stray too far from those areas.

Find the Starting Points

To build a future, you have to start in the present. There are always interesting things happening in the world. Which of those things relate to your areas of focus? This is the research stage of the project, where you’ll need to look at what trends or technologies already exist, or perhaps what scientists are actively studying in the field.

For example, let’s look at some technologies I’m interested in for one particular story. I’m interested in augmented reality (AR), intertwining of digital and physical worlds, and the increasing power of hackers to affect physical objects and systems as they become integrated with the internet.

For this project, I would look into the various VR headsets and the sorts of applications people are running on them. What about low-cost alternatives, like Google Cardboard? What about prototypes like Google Glass? The AR functionality on modern smart phones allow me to see what furniture might look like in my house before I buy it. What else can I do?

I might also look into recent hacks that affect real-world systems. Iran’s uranium enrichment program was hacked to break their centrifuges. The US has a variety of concerns about the safety of their electrical grid.

For the combining of digital and physical worlds, I could dig into mobile games like Pokemon Go that follow the user’s real-world location to change the game-state, and use AR to project game objects onto the user’s surroundings.

Extrapolate

Once you have some starting points, you need to begin extrapolating. What are people researching today? What isn’t possible yet, but might be possible with one or two simple advances?

Computing power, internet speeds, and many other “base” technology enablers tend to increase steadily over time. If the only limitation on something today is the speed of computers, chances are good that the limitation will go away in the future. The price and size of popular technology tends to decrease over time as well. Any technology today will likely become smaller and cheaper in the future.

These are surface-level extrapolations. To go deeper, you need to think about how the technology might be used, and what it might enable. What might good and selfless people want to do with this technology as it advances? What might evil, selfish people want to do with this technology? Can it be an enabler of other technologies or societal shifts?

Technologies do not stay isolated. They don’t live in silos. They cross-pollinate, mix, and work in tandem. Sometimes they obstruct one another. How might this new thing affect other technologies, positively or negatively?

Back to the example of AR, digital/physical crossover, and hackers.

I imagine a future where AR is ubiquitous. It’s powered by mobile devices (something that’s already happening). It’s displayed on glasses (similar to Google Glass), and it’s controlled with a strap around the fingers, for motion control (a streamlining of Nintendo’s console controllers, Microsoft Kinect, and many similar technologies). I imagine that AR could use mobile location technology to provide location-relevant data. A bluetooth “beacon” might also transmit to nearby devices.

With this kind of ubiquitous AR, physical objects might be unnecessary in many contexts. A clothing store might not bother with a sign out front, or even outfits on mannequins. A sign that appears to nearby shoppers in AR could be cheaper and more eye-catching. The AR outfits in the window could be tailored to each individual shopper and their search history, or on a carousel that displays hundreds of options, one after another.

The crosswalks on the road could be virtual, communicating with local traffic to determine when it’s safe to walk.

On the other hand, hackers could graffiti an AR storefront without the bother of buying spray paint and sneaking out at night. They could graffiti hundreds of storefronts from their basement. Perhaps they could convince passing mobile devices that they’d made a purchase as they passed by. If they were nefarious enough, they might alter the crosswalk algorithms so pedestrians step out in front of cars.

Technology and People

Even the hardest, most tech-oriented science fiction has characters with motivations, goals, conflicts, and challenges. Technology is only interesting in context with people, even if those people are aliens, robots, or sentient jars of mold.

Technology sometimes affects us at a personal level, affecting our behavior as individuals. Sometimes these effects are more powerful in aggregate. Many of us are familiar with the changes in personal behavior we’ve seen in the rise of social media. As societies, we’re still in the process of working out how those changes will ultimately affect our politics and our social discourse.

Technology can affect our behaviors and the ways we interact with one another. One hundred years ago, relatively few businesses had branches in multiple countries, and those branches were more independent. Now, many people in large corporations have regular phone conversations and video meetings with their counterparts around the world. Products and services are launched globally, and directed by corporate leaders halfway across the world.

Back in our example, how might ubiquitous AR affect interpersonal interactions? If I run into an acquaintance on the street, and I don’t remember her name, a quick image search of her face could help me find it and avoid embarrassment. Of course, the privacy implications of this type of technology is considerable.

We already see many people absorbed in their phones on public transport and in public spaces. When AR makes your entire range of vision into a screen, will that exacerbate the effect. Will we finally be isolated in our own little virtual bubbles, as many doomsayers have been complaining about for years?

Final Thoughts

Extrapolation is hard. Of the thousands of works of science fiction that are produced, only a few are going to hit the mark, and only some of the time. However, even if we can’t always guess the actual, literal future, we can at least produce futures that are logical, well thought-out, and internally consistent.

Internal consistency means making sure that one technology doesn’t preclude or contradict another. Some technologies are mutually exclusive. Betamax and VHS can’t both take over the world. CDs and Zip drives don’t live side-by-side indefinitely.

On the other hand, conflicting technologies can precipitate interesting societal conflicts. Does it make sense to have a future where people grow organs in labs to increase their longevity, while also developing the technology to upload human minds into computers? Maybe not. Or maybe this is what precipitates a global crisis, where we have to decide as a species whether being human requires a specific physical form or not.

If you find yourself having trouble, you might be tempted to go into the far-flung future, because there’s so much room for things to happen in the intervening time. Instead, try getting as close to the present as possible. Extrapolate tomorrow. Practice working your way outward.

Have you seen any new technologies that inspired you? What did you extrapolate from them? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you in the future!

Writing Spikes

My day job is software development, and once in a while I find some useful crossover in concepts between programming computers and writing fiction. Today, I’d like to take one of those software concepts – the “spike” – and apply it to fiction.

What is a Spike?

In software development, a spike is an experiment. It is writing code in order to answer a question or test a solution to a problem. Implicit in the idea of a spike is that this is “throwaway” code. It’s not expected to go into production.

When to Try a Spike

The goal of a spike is to take an infinite number of possible storylines and reduce them down to the best one. The most obvious place to try a spike is when you know your story could go in several interesting directions, and you’re not sure which one is the best option. Think of your story in terms of alternate universes. Each choice, each universe, differs at this specific point. As the author, it’s your job to find the most interesting universe, and discard the others.

A less obvious opportunity for a spike is when you don’t know where your story is going next. You may be doing some exploratory writing, and run into a bout of writer’s block. Or you may still be working on your outline. Often, when we feel like we have no ideas, we’re really just letting our inner editors censor us. Chances are, you have some “bad” ideas that you’re reflexively throwing away. Instead, use them as fuel for a spike.

The other useful time for a spike is when you reach an important inflection point in the story. This could be a major event for some of the characters, a big reveal, or a turning point in the plot. These are the moments that people talk about when they discuss books they love.

This might seem like a strange place to experiment. These moments are often the seeds of a story that first take shape in my mind, and make me want to write it in the first place. Why mess with a good thing?

Well, the human mind is lazy. Tropes and stereotypes thrive in comfortable, familiar territory. When we run with the first idea that comes to mind, those same well-worn, rehashed ideas can start to sneak in.

If these are the shiniest, most important bits of the story, shouldn’t they be as great as they can be? The worst that can happen is that you come up with bad alternatives, and you confirm that your original idea was the best.

The Steps of a Spike

You can do a spike during outlining, while writing, and even in revision (although you may end up making even more work for yourself). You just have to tailor your scope and output to where you are in the writing process.

First, get your mind into brainstorming mode. Define all the options. If you have a hard time coming up with possibilities, consider setting a specific number of options, and forcing yourself to come up with at least that many. Sometimes, great ideas come when we’re struggling, and we force ourselves to reach for the strange or unexpected. These options don’t have to be detailed. A list of bullet points is enough.

Once you have enough options, you’ll need to decide how many you want to pursue. A good default is three options, but this is entirely up to you. You may only have one – an alternative you want to try. Spikes are a balancing act. Remember, they’re designed to be disposable. You’re going to do some work, and then throw some of it away. Let that free you. That work isn’t wasted – it’s ensuring that whatever you decide to keep is the best it can be.

Next, it’s time to define the limits of your experiments. You can set a number of pages, number of words, or a time limit for each option. Once again, balance is key. Spend too much time or too many words on too many options, and the project will never be finished. The goal is to be confident about which option is best.

Evaluating the Results

Again, every spike is an experiment. You made your choices, and you wrote something for each one. You may have some additional notes as well. These are the results of your experiment. Now, you need to evaluate them.

If you have a confidant, spouse, editors or beta readers, and they’re willing to take a look, you may want to solicit feedback. They might see something special that you missed in one of your experiments. They might also catch a gaping plot hole. They might react more or less strongly than you expected.

Whether you get feedback from someone else, it’s time for a final decision. Evaluate each of your pieces and pick with the confidence that you’ve now thoroughly explored your options.

Finally, do some revision. If you felt hemmed-in by the time/page/word limits you set for yourself, now is your opportunity to expand and improve. Maybe you thought of something in paragraph ten that you could have set up more effectively in paragraph two. Like a science experiment that gets refined into a commercial product, you can take your proof of concept and polish it to perfection.

That’s it! A spike really isn’t complicated – just a controlled comparison between a set of options. But it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes it’s okay to try things out, even when it might feel like a waste of words. You never know when that strange idea you set aside might change your story for the better.

Outlining vs. Exploratory Writing

It’s the classic battle of writing styles! Is it better to plan a story down to the smallest detail before you begin writing, or fly by the seat of your pants, figuring out everything as you write it?

Of course, this is a false dichotomy. If you really plan a story down to the smallest details (the actual words), then you’ve written the story. And you can’t really write a story without having some sort of starting point. But there is clearly a spectrum between extensive preparation and very little preparation.

Like so many religious wars, adherents on both “sides” have strong feelings about the right way. I’m going to talk about feelings, because there’s a strong emotional component to writing. But there are logical and structural components to writing as well, so we should consider those too.

First, let’s define our terms.

What is Outlining?

At first glance, it may seem silly to even ask, but I often find that taking the time to define something sheds light onto what I’m actually trying to accomplish. Let’s take a crack at it.

An outline is a recipe for a story. In software development, we would call it an algorithm. It describes the story by breaking it down into small, ordered ideas.

A recipe has a limited level of detail, but different recipes might be more or less specific. They will probably tell you a temperature to preheat the oven, but they probably won’t tell you to open the door to put things in, or close it afterward.

The outline of a story has many more axes along which it can be more or less detailed. It could describe the plot of a novel in a few paragraphs, in chapter descriptions, or down to individual scenes. It could map out the emotional arcs of characters, or the flow of conversation in important dialogue. It could track the locations of characters or the web of their relationships.

In short, an outline can track many different aspects of a story, but it’s generally going to break them down in terms of the plot, and usually chapter-by-chaper or scene-by-scene. It will usually place them in chronological order (although it may be out of order in a non-linear story).

What is Exploratory Writing?

Exploratory writing starts with one or more ideas – “story seeds” or anchors that start to define what the story will be about. From there, you simply write to find out what will happen next.

Much like exploring a new land, you don’t know what’s ahead. You might try a path, only to discover that it leads to a dead-end and you have to back-track. You might also go a long way, only to turn back and see that there was a much better way you could have taken.

Exploratory writing embraces the idea of discovering what a story should be by going through the process of writing it.

The Feeling of Writing

There is an emotional, and some would say spiritual, aspect of writing. More than one author has connected the act of writing to the sculptor “discovering” the statue embedded in a block of marble.

When the words just seem to flow, it can feel like writing a story is more an act of discovery than a work of skilled craftsmanship. The story seems to already exist, somewhere out in the ether, and it’s the author’s job to snag it from thin air and pin it to the page.

Being a conduit for the power of a muse like this feels good. However, there are dangers to this brand of writerly mysticism. It rejects the agency of the author in their own story. It favors blind intuition at the expense of forethought and careful craftsmanship.

The Illusion of Discovery

People have been telling stories for thousands of years – before cities, before agriculture or writing. Human brains are built for narrative. Just as eyes will see phantom shapes when exposed to complete darkness, human mind will find stories and narratives in meaningless coincidences and mindless systems. It’s the fuel that drives everything from conspiracy theories to astrology.

In modern times, stories are more ubiquitous than ever before. There is an incredible abundance of stories across a wide variety of media. We are all inundated with narrative and steeped in stories from birth. An amazing side-effect of this media-rich environment is that it trains our writing intuition. We learn, instinctively, many of the shapes that stories can take.

Intuition is the brain’s subconscious pattern-matching system. We train our intuition by feeding in examples – in this case, stories. Unfortunately, intuition is an unconscious process. Recognizing that a particular pattern or trope “feels right” doesn’t automatically give you an understanding of why it works, or what the trade-offs might be. Analyzing those patterns and working to understand them helps us to improve, tweak, or fix the bits that don’t quite fit.

Pre-Editing and Post-Editing

Let’s assume for a moment that all good stories need revision. I’m going to write a first draft, and if I rewrite it several times, it will be better in some way after each revision.

In my personal experience, when I write without an outline, I end up with a rough first draft. I’m discovering what the story is about as I write it, so it’s meandering. It starts down a path, then veers off in another direction as I find the “good stuff.” The tone of the writing sometimes changes as I try to figure out what sound matches the plot. Character and their motivations may be muddy and confused.

In this case, the revision comes after the first draft, and it’s a lot of work. A lot of things need to be cut, changed or rewritten. The cost of not following a recipe is that it may take a few attempts before you manage to cook something tasty.

If we call traditional revision and rewriting “post-story editing,” then one of the advantages of outlining is that it allows for “pre-story editing.” It’s much less effort (in terms of number of words) to write the outline than it is to write the entire story, but it forces you to do a lot of the same work – figuring out the story beats, defining character motivations and arcs, and so on. Some of the problems that would eventually be obvious after writing the story out are also obvious when looking at the outline. But the cost to fix the outline (in terms of number of words) is considerably less than the cost of rewriting those portions of the completed story.

Of course, some problems just don’t reveal themselves until you get deep into the details of the story. Even with a great outline, you’ll still have problems to resolve as you write. But there’s a balance to be struck here.

The Obligatory Razor Mountain Part

Ultimately, I want to write a good story. I want to shape it into the structure that works best for it. Razor Mountain is going to be a serial. By outlining up-front, I can make sure my mysteries have pay-offs. I can make sure I’m not painting myself into a corner. I can plan my characters’ plot arcs. I can more easily keep track of the non-linear portions of the story.

However, I also want to be open to happy accidents. I want to be able to discover things about my story and incorporate them. Having an outline doesn’t preclude this.

You might say, “How can we incorporate new ideas if we already have an outline of the story?” Well, the answer is to change the outline. The outline is a guide, a recipe. A good chef tastes the food while cooking. Maybe it turns out to need a little more seasoning here and there, and they make adjustments in the middle of the process.

The outline is the clear path. It’s a way of knowing that there’s a guaranteed line from the start of the story to the end, and it’s a good path. But you can still veer off and come back to it if you notice something scenic along the way.

Even better, an outline is a record of the challenges you faced as you first built the story, and also a list of ways you thought to solve those challenges. You might think of other ways as you write. New ideas can be plugged into an existing outline to see how well they work. Maybe the new idea causes some problems. Good! Now you know the problems you have to solve if you want to incorporate that idea. You can see the trade-offs and make informed choices.

Looking Behind the Curtain

I have been in the process of outlining Razor Mountain as I wrote these last few posts. I think it’s interesting to see how other writers work, so I may end up posting my outline and other prep materials. Since this will obviously spoil the plot of the story, I may wait until it’s done. It might also be interesting to compare the initial outline and the completed story.

Are other writers interested in this sort of peek at another writer’s process? If so, would you rather be able to see everything as it happens, or get more of a recap at the end, to avoid story spoilers? Let me know what you think.