The Thrill of Chasing Dragons

A sinus and ear-infection germ has been working its way through my household, and last week it was my turn to get it. So I’ve been sick, hacking and coughing, and sleeping poorly. One of the side-effects of being sick is that I tend to remember my dreams. The combination of sleeping lightly and waking up often just happens to put me in that liminal space between conscious and unconscious thought.

I’m telling you this because I dreamed up a story. I’m sure some of you are groaning as you read that, and justifiably so. I’ve had a few dreams in my life that felt like stories to me, right up until I tried to turn that vivid-but-vague dream imagery into an actual outline on the page, and was forced to admit that it didn’t really work. Dreams are often interesting to the dreamer, but that doesn’t mean they organize themselves neatly into the shape of a narrative, or that the feeling of the dream can make it onto the page.

The Irrational Excitement Phase

The truth is that I dreamed up some elements of a story, and as I wrote them down, I found myself naturally filling in the bits and pieces. I dreamed of dragons that were actually extra-dimensional, Cthulhu-esque monstrosities, and an ancient king who had managed to trap the Dragon Queen deep in the earth. I dreamed about the deep caverns where the dragon’s psychic echoes reverberate and create all sorts of monstrosities, and a vaguely witchy woman who was hell-bent on getting down there and releasing the dragons once again.

As I wrote that down, I came up with protagonists, a pair of siblings descended from that ancient king, who had lost touch with their roots, but still had stories passed down in their family. All of it is wrapped in Arthurian legend—the ancient king as Arthur, the witch as Morgana, the Grail as the macguffin with the power to unseal the dragon. Then I started thinking about the back-stories of these siblings…

This is one of my favorite feelings when it comes to writing. I start with the core of a story, and it spreads out like a web in front of me, as fast as I can write it all down. This is the feeling that many writers get, that the story is being transmitted directly to their brain from somewhere else, that the block of stone knows the statue inside of it, if only the sculptor will listen and strike the right places.

I like to call this the “Irrational Excitement” phase of story creation. At this point, the story is small and vague, and every new idea feels like an epiphany. There are tons of things that are undefined, so it’s easy to grab onto those threads and come up with exciting new ideas.

This phase is “exciting” because new pieces of the story feel easy to create. There are no broken parts. There are no difficult problems to untangle. There’s just the most fun parts of the story, and not enough detail to cause problems.

This phase is “irrational” because it feels like those problems will never come.

The Intractable Problems Phase

Of course, they do. Stories, especially novel-length stories, always run into challenges and roadblocks.

As I fill in more and more of the pieces, the characters and settings and back-story and motivations, certain things come into conflict with each other, other things remain unclear. I can’t come up with a satisfying idea to fill in a particular blank. Bits are too tropey or boring.

This is the nuts-and-bolts, getting-stuff-done part of writing. It’s the part that consists mostly of solving one problem after another, and it can get exhausting. It seems like this is the place, mid-book, when the finish line still feels impossibly far away, where many writers hate writing the most.

It can be really hard to push through this phase, but once you do, you approach the end and get that extra burst of motivation that comes with actually finishing the thing.

That’s why new ideas are so dangerous at this phase.

The Danger of Jumping Ship

When I’m deep in the Intractable Problems phase of Story A, the brand-new idea for Story B is incredibly appealing. I’m elbows-deep in all the problems of Story A, while Story B is this lovely little vague sprite with no problems whatsoever. I can just pull the threads and come up with new embellishments, one after another. It’s easy. Surely Story B must be a better story altogether.

Of course, that’s just an illusion, a trick of perspective. It’s important to remember that Story B is too young to have sussed out all of the difficult bits yet. With time and care, it will grow into an adult story, with its very own special problems to be figured out.

This is why there’s so much advice out there for authors that begs them to just finish their stories. Successful authors understand this cycle, and how appealing Story B feels. They’ve felt that draw before, and probably succumbed to it once or twice. But they’ve also pushed through the Intractable Problems phase and gotten to the finish line, and they understand that as bad as it sometimes feels, all those problems are actually completely tractable.

Some people get in a vicious cycle of following those shiny new ideas while leaving the old stories behind right when they’re at their most frustrating stage of development.

Harness That Energy

Over the course of years, I’ve developed the belief that the energy of the Irrational Excitement phase can be channeled for good. Jumping into a new story you love is one of the best feelings you can have as a writer, and you should absolutely enjoy it! When that new idea is delivered into your brain (or arrives in a dream), immediately jump on it.

When I had that dream, I hurried to write it down. Then I spent an hour or two turning it over in my mind and expanding it. I came up with a few characters, some back-story, and a couple of proto-scenes. I outlined some of the things that I thought should happen later in the story, not worrying too much about how to connect those dots. By the end of that time I knew I had enough material to actually make a story out of, and it would probably have to be a novel. I had expanded the ideas enough that I could just start to see the hints of some problems that would have to be figured out.

Then I set it aside, and I worked on blog posts and Razor Mountain. It was a fun burst of creativity, and it was extremely productive. I got to enjoy that “new story feeling,” and I wrote down enough that I can pick it up later. But I have other projects that I’m committed to, and that means I can’t write a new novel right now.

That creative energy is a fantastic thing to harness, but it’s important to control it rather than letting it control you. For me, it helps to remind myself that every single story I’ve ever written felt like that at first, and pretty much every one of them had some point where I had to struggle to figure out how to finish it.

Not only that, but I can use a new story as a carrot to dangle in front of myself when the going gets tough. “Just keep writing Razor Mountain,” I’ll tell myself. “Pretty soon you’ll be done, and then you can work on that dragon story you were so excited about. Or one of the other fifty things in your brainstorms folder.”

Indulge, But Limit

In short, indulge in those new stories, but only for a little bit. Savor that burst of creative energy, and harness it at its peak. Don’t let it distract you from what you’re already working on. If you get those story seeds down on paper, they can be surprisingly patient, and you can pick them back up when it’s time for the next project.

Reblog: Why It’s Important To Finish Your S**t — Chuck Wendig

Have you started a writing project, only to feel your enthusiasm wane partway through? Do you find yourself with notebooks or folders full of half-baked ideas? Are you thinking about putting aside the current thing for a much more exciting thing you just thought of, right now?

Well, Chuck Wendig is back with a motivational and deeply bizarre rant/list of eight reasons why you should finish the thing you started.

Point is: whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo or not, I want to remind you:

It is vital that you learn to complete what you begin.

Finish. Your. Shit.

I know. You’re stammering, “Guh, buh, whuh — but I’m not really feeling it, I have a better idea in mind, it’s hard, I think I’d rather just lay on my belly and plunge my face into a plate of pie.”

I’d rather do that, too.

I mean, c’mon. Prone-position face-pie? Delicious. Amazing. Transformative.

[…]

Here’s why I think it’s essential to learn how to finish what you begin when it comes to writing, no matter how much you don’t want to, no matter how much you’re “not feeling it,” no matter how much pie you have placed on the floor in anticipation of laying there and eating it all.

(If you’re not familiar with Wendig and are squeamish about cursing, violent imagery, or deeply weird metaphors, be aware that this post contains quite a lot of all of those things.)

Check out the rest on Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds…

Storytelling Class — Conflict and Tension

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was conflict and tension.

(Well, okay, that’s not quite true. This one was actually a few weeks ago. I wrote it up and promptly lost it in a drafts folder. Here it is now, better late than never.)

We always start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write?

What Did We Read?

Well, it’s been a few weeks, but back then I was finishing off a re-read of Scott Pilgrim on my own time, finishing Dune with my oldest child at bedtime, and I was dabbling in the comic Preacher on Kindle Prime.

Meanwhile, Freya was reading a Long Walk to Water, reading the second book in the Wildwood series with my wife at bedtime, and wrapping up the final book of Harry Potter.

What Did We Write?

I worked on Razor Mountain and worked on some short story ideas—one about time-travel performance art and one about the confusion of being unexpectedly reincarnated.

Freya continued to work on Amber and Floria.

Conflict and Tension

The main topic for the week was conflict and tension.

A lot of writing advice and literary analysis focuses on conflict as the engine that makes all stories work. I think people like Lincoln Michel have made pretty good arguments against that being true.

For one thing, a lot of literary analysis ascribes the label of conflict very broadly. Man vs. man, man vs. nature/god, man vs. self, and so on. Many of these can be better described as “tension.” There may be a conflict between two or more people with antithetical goals, or there may be tension between a person with a goal and a particular force or situation that makes that goal difficult to achieve, like societal norms or physical constraints.

Even though conflict and tension don’t drive all stories, we’re going to talk about them today because they do drive a lot of stories.

Heroes and Villains

Stories about heroes fighting against villains might just be story conflict in its most distilled form. This is mythology. It’s classic fantasy. It’s superheroes. It gives us two great focal points in the hero and the villain, and secondary characters can be placed clearly on one side, or live in the ambiguous space between.

People Who Just Don’t Get Along

Conflict doesn’t have to be as cut and dried as good vs. evil. It can be much more nuanced. Most of us run into interpersonal conflicts in our daily lives, and just as we (usually) wouldn’t ascribe hero status to ourselves, we don’t treat those who disagree with us as “villains” either. These conflicts aren’t about right and wrong. They’re just people disagreeing.

All it takes for conflict to happen is two or more people who have goals that are at odds with each other. They may even have the best of intentions, they may hold no malice for the other, but only one of the two can achieve their goals.

Person vs. Other

Conflict gets less conflicty when it’s no longer about people who are at odds with one another.

Person vs. Nature is a story like “The Martian.” It has only one or two minor cases of interpersonal conflict. Most of the story, everyone is working together. The tension comes from Mark Watney being trapped, alone, on Mars, and everyone trying to get him back home and safe.

Person vs. Self is about a character’s dissatisfaction with themselves, trying to become something different (or fighting an inevitable change all the way). My favorite discworld novel, Going Postal, has a surface-level conflict between the protagonist, Moist Von Lipwig, and his business rivals and the city’s autocrat. But the deeper conflict of the book is Moist, an inveterate con man, slowly becoming a responsible, honorable, and even kind of nice human being.

No Versus at All?

Other things can drive a story that don’t involve conflict. Kishotenketsu, for example, suggests an entirely different framework for evaluating stories. Form and language can drive more literary-minded stories. However, I’d consider those kinds of structures to be extra challenging modes of the craft.

Conflict and tension are great story engines, easy for readers to enjoy, with infinite variations available to the author. Conflict is the reasonable default for most stories.

That’s it for this week’s topic. We took a short break from these “classes”, but summer is almost here, and summer vacation along with it. With less school work, we’ll be trying to take more opportunities for reading and writing just for fun.

Reblog: What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story? — Susan DeFreitas

Today’s reblog comes curtesy of Susan DeFreitas, guest posting on Jane Friedman’s blog. She asks us, what makes a story feel like a story? It’s not just the causality of events — one thing leading to another leading to another, although that’s important for a coherent narrative.

Instead, she argues that it’s the protagonist’s internal problem that makes a good story feel like more than a series of related events.

Sure, external trouble will get your reader’s attention: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late, she’ll get fired, because her boss is a jerk. And because her boss is a jerk, she hasn’t had a raise in the last five years, and she can barely afford to pay her rent.

There’s plenty of external trouble in that scenario—enough, given the right execution, to keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. But if there’s no hint of some internal trouble the protagonist is facing, within the first twenty-five pages or so, chances are, our attention as readers will flag.

Internal trouble might be something more like this: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late one more time, she’ll get fired. She hates her job, though it’s the professional one her working-class mother was so proud of her for getting, so she feels like she can’t leave it.

She goes on to describe a few ways we can highlight that internal trouble, to give our stories the feeling that they have meaning, and are going somewhere.

Check out the rest of the post at Jane Friedman’s blog…

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part III)

Having gone through the first four volumes in Part I, and the next four volumes in Part II, I finally arrive at the end. Just when the heroes seem to be at their strongest, rescuing a whole host of characters from Hades, Tom gets whisked off to another world entirely, leaving the others behind on an Earth that’s rapidly falling into a chaotic maelstrom of stories and reality.

Sometimes a Crossover is Less Than The Sum of Its Parts

The ninth volume of The Unwritten is a crossover with another (and arguably bigger) Vertigo series: Fables. I have only read a couple of the Fables books, so I know the basics. The Fables are castaways from fairy tale worlds, with the main series focused (at least initially) on a group living in modern day New York. Having not read the whole series, I had to make some assumptions about what’s going on in this crossover.

From what I can tell, Tom finds himself in an alternate version of the Fables universe where pretty much everything has gone to shit. One of the protagonists has become an antagonist here, and another is imprisoned. All the Fables are on the run from an evil that has nearly succeeded in taking over all of their worlds, with his seat of power in the hollowed-out shell of New York city.

Of course, this could also just be much further down the O.G. Fables timeline than I have read. I don’t know.

This illustrates an inherent problem with crossovers. Your target audience is people who enjoy both of these stories, but many people will only be fans of one. They will have little or no background in the other story. You can’t make assumptions—you have to explain everything that matters to the crossover story, and ideally try to avoid boring your core audience who already understands.

However, an even bigger problem than not knowing is not caring. I haven’t read all the Fables books because the ones I did read didn’t make me excited enough to go buy more. I was excited about The Unwritten. All I really wanted out of this story was to see what happens to Tom. However, Tom spends a good chunk of the crossover storyline stuck in his wizard alter-ego, Tommy Taylor, which was always intended to be a Harry Potter pastiche. The story is mostly a Fables story, where the “real” Tom gets one big confrontation and one big revelation at the very end.

As a result of all this, I found Volume 9 to be the least interesting to me, personally. Everything Tom got out of this storyline could be summarized in a few paragraphs in the next book. In fact, it is. I have no doubt that die-hard Fables fans find much more to enjoy, but for me it was one big aside to the main story.

Don’t Give Characters a Breather

As authors and as readers, we sympathize with well-written characters and often want them to be happy. But they can’t be happy. They always have to be in a tug-of-war; they always have to be struggling. Whenever they succeed, there has to be a new challenge waiting in the wings—preferably a bigger challenge, or the momentum of the story begins to peter out.

As Wilson Taylor says, “Nobody ever lives happily ever after, Tom. If that were to happen, the story would have to stop. Because it’s sustained on the endless agonies and exertions of the hero. The twists and turns of the plot resemble a maze. But they’re the very opposite of a maze. There are no wrong turnings. Just one way through, and one end point. At the close of each book, we promise…a respite. A moment’s peace, and a moment’s all it is. But believe me, lad—that’s as close as you’re ever going to get to a happy ending.”

The End is Never Really The End

And on that note, the very last page of The Unwritten is a title page. It has the credits listed, like the start of any other issue. And then you turn the page, and it’s done. Armageddon has more-or-less happened, and nearly all of the mainstay characters have disappeared. Only one is left. But rather than end on this note of “victory, but at what cost?” we get a title page. The tantalizing expectation of something more. Our last character is heading off in search of the others. It’s the beginning of a new adventure that we don’t get to see.

It’s a bold move, and one that clearly annoyed some people, going by the reviews. It worked for me, because I don’t mind ambiguous endings. In stories and in real life, the beginnings and endings are all a matter of where you choose to start and end the story. The characters were around before the first words, and at least some of the characters, the world…something…will continue on after the last words.

As authors, we tend to think a lot more about the backstory, the bits that happen before the first words. Those inform everything that happens in the story itself. But it’s also worth thinking about the post-story, the epilogue, even when it doesn’t get written. The trajectory of the characters and world after the events of the story inform the story as well. The real world didn’t magically appear the moment you were born, and it won’t disappear into the void when you die. A good story will feel the same way, like things are going to keep happening, whether the reader is there to see them or not.

A Tiny Bit of Review

As I’ve said before, I’m not very interested in writing traditional reviews. Instead, I prefer to look at a story and see what useful ideas I can pull from it. But I’ll indulge a little bit here.

I really liked The Unwritten. I read through the entire series, and then I went back and skimmed through a lot of it as I was writing these three posts. Even on cursory examination, I picked up on things I had missed the first time. I look forward to letting the story rest for a while and giving it a thorough rereading in a year or two.

It’s not without its weak points. It dragged for me in the Fables issue, and there were definitely a few plot points that worked on an emotional level and made a nicely-shaped story, but didn’t make logical sense for me when I stopped to think about them. Overall, they don’t detract much from the work. This is my second-favorite Vertigo series, after the incomparable Sandman, and in my top five favorite comics series of all time.

I guess I’m just a sucker for a “Power of Stories” narrative. I already think that stories have the power to shape the way we see the world, and in The Unwritten, stories have that power literally as well as figuratively. The universe bends to the story and the ways we interpret it. It’s a sort of mass hallucination. One that I’m happy to partake in.

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part II)

Last time, I took some lessons from the first four volumes of The Unwritten. This time, I’m going to look at volumes 5-8. These volumes encompass some interesting turning points in the series. The heroes seem to have defeated the “bad guys,” even if it does come at a high cost. The mysteries deepen, a few new major characters are introduced, and some old characters come back.

What really makes these volumes great is that they don’t just continue the story that was started in the first four. They take it in new and unexpected directions. Each question that gets answered introduces yet more questions. All in all, it sets up the last three volumes so that you really have no idea what to expect as the story comes to its conclusion.

Moving the Goalposts Can Be Exciting

The first few volumes set up a shadowy cabal as the villains who cause all sorts of trouble for the protagonists, especially their chief henchman, Pullman. All of the bigwigs in the cabal are largely interchangeable and never characterized in much detail. It’s Pullman who is causing trouble on the ground for the heroes while the leaders of the cabal are safely hidden, and he’s the one they have to worry about. But Pullman is also the one villain who is given a back-story, revealed in drips and drops.

When the heroes actually have some success bringing the fight to the shadowy cabal, it might seem obvious that Pullman is just a Man in Front of the Man trope. But his motives turn out to be quite different from a “standard” villain. Almost exactly halfway through the story, the entire direction of the plot turns in a new direction.

Tropes are dangerous. If the reader thinks you’re just retelling a story they’ve heard before, they’ll quickly lose interest. However, tropes can be useful building blocks if you want to subvert expectations.

Tropes are just story elements that show up over and over again. They’re the canyons gouged by the flow of stories over the centuries, the comfortable shapes that stories like to fall into. A savvy reader will see parts of a trope and anticipate that the rest is forthcoming. However, you can make them a little less certain by including some elements that break the trope. Eventually, you can tear the trope apart in some unexpected plot twist, and it can be immensely satisfying. 

Sometimes these twists seem obvious in hindsight, but as a reader it’s very easy to get pulled into those deep currents that tropes provide. It’s a great way to disguise where the story is going.

Exposition Can Be a Reward

The Unwritten is great at introducing characters right in the middle of something. Tom Taylor’s dull life is turned upside down within the first few pages of the first volume. Lizzie sets those events in motion, but not in the way that she hoped. And Ritchie meets Tom in a French prison right before it explodes into chaos. The story forces the reader to hit the ground running. First, it shows you who the characters are and makes you care about them. Only then, and slowly, does it start to reveal their back-stories and the paths they took to get here.

By making you care about the characters first, the story makes exposition exciting. We want to know more about these people. How the heck did they get in these situations?

If these parts of the story were told in sequential order, they would be less interesting. They’re the lead-up to the exciting action that makes up the bulk of the story. But by withholding them for a while, they become a reward for the reader. Even better, they offer an opportunity to understand why the characters are the way they are. Learning about the events that shaped them provides new context to everything they’ve done so far in the story.

Epilogues Can Be Prologues Too

Almost every volume of The Unwritten, each major story arc, ends with a seemingly unrelated episode. After seeing the latest exploits of Tom, Lizzie and Ritchie, we might be transported to the Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired Willowbank Wood, to meet Pauly the lovable rabbit, who sounds a lot like a New Jersey mob thug and seems a bit out of place. We might be taken back a century or three to see the exploits of various famous storytellers and how they became entangled with the cabal. Or we might meet Daniel, a directionless young man with a degree in literature who finds himself taking a job that involves reading books all day with hundreds of other people in a featureless underground bunker.

Each of these little stories is an abrupt jump to a new time and place, with new characters. Each one eventually ties in to the main plot, but when the reader first encounters them, they seem like non-sequiturs. In this quiet lull at the end of an arc, when the story has just answered some questions and provided a small, satisfying conclusion, a brand-new big mystery is introduced. Namely, “who are these people and what the heck is going on?”

The next volume invariably jumps right back into the story of Tom et al., leaving these epilogues hanging unresolved for a while. Later on, when they tie back into the main story, there’s an “aha!” moment. These parts of the story are made more exciting simply by being told out of order. They’re also a great way of keeping up the tension in the parts of an episodic narrative where tension has just been relieved (at the end of an arc).

But Wait, There’s More…

The Unwritten is a big series, and I have one more post in me before we get to the end. Next time I’ll be covering the last few things I learned from the final volumes: 9-11. See you then.

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part I)

The Unwritten is a Vertigo comics series published from 2009 to 2015, written by Mike Carey. I picked up the first few trade paperbacks by sheer chance, when my wife found them at a garage sale and thought they looked interesting. After devouring those four, I bought the remaining seven books in the series.

The Unwritten takes place in a world similar to ours, and follows Tom Taylor, whose father published a massively best-selling series of books starring a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. Tom makes a meager living on the convention circuit by virtue of being the character’s namesake. Early in the story he becomes the target of a secret society that uses stories to manipulate and control the world, and finds out that his father was somehow involved with them as well.

The Unwritten is a modern comics masterpiece that intertwines its own original story with real history and dozens of famous works of fiction. It starts with the classic idea that stories have the power to change the world, and then asks what would happen if that were literally true.

This is a big series of books, so I’m going to cover it in a couple posts. First, volumes 1–4.

Everything is a Gun on the Mantle

Callbacks are powerful, and The Unwritten makes liberal use of them. Characters  are often introduced in short scenes where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The story steps away, only to revisit them later and explore them more deeply. Scenes from the Tommy Taylor novels and from other works of fiction are shown early in an episode and become relevant later on. And some ideas keep coming back again and again, like the vampire, Ambrosio, never quite being dead for good.

These callbacks use the principle of minimum necessary information to pull the reader along without bogging down the story. But they’re not just one-and-done. In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig calls this “echoing.” The gun on the mantle need not be thrown away as soon as it’s fired. It can be fired again and again. It can turn out to have historical significance and emotional significance. This layering of narrative makes the reader feel rewarded for simply paying attention, seeing these through-lines keep building and building.

The Unwritten covers a lot of history, back to the very first stories and ahead to the end of the world. But that history is doled out carefully, in small helpings. It takes most of the series for the reader to finally see the whole picture. Each new plot twist seems inevitable, because the groundwork was laid for it by the elements that came before.

Leave Breadcrumbs

I skimmed through the books again as I was writing this, and I immediately discovered several tiny references that I had missed the first time around. These were little clues about what was going on, and which mysteries would become important later. Missing them didn’t hurt my enjoyment of my first read-through, although I’m sure they’d add to the experience of a reader who caught them. Perhaps it’s even better to catch them on a re-read, and discover that I can still find new things in a story whose shape I already know.

Breadcrumbs like these also give the reader an important sense that the author knows where the story is going, which is particularly relevant in episodic media like TV and comics. Many of us have been burned by stories like Game of Thrones or LOST where the authors threw down exciting mysteries and conflicts, but couldn’t come up with commensurate payoffs because they didn’t have a clear plan for the end. Breadcrumbs and callbacks let the reader know that the author is leading them somewhere. It’s hard to enjoy a story until you trust that the author is going to bring you somewhere interesting.

Form Follows Function

The Unwritten plays with a variety of different forms. News broadcasts show up in several places as a series of small TV stills with a ticker along the bottom of the “screen” and the voice-over text just below. There are also times when the characters are browsing the web, and pages of various sizes and shapes are shown shuffled and overlapping, to give the sense of time passing in a jumble of scattered information.

Stories from ancient and recent times are interwoven into the narrative, and are illustrated in different ways. The medieval Song of Roland has washed-out colors and heavier line work. The Tommy Taylor books-within-the-book are slightly more cartoony. Dickens looks like woodcut. The Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired fictitious Willowbank Wood is all pastel watercolors. The Nazi propaganda Jud Süß is black and white, with the red of swastikas providing the only color.

Beyond the visual style, the prose itself changes between these different types of stories. Even more interesting are narrative jaunts, like the issue that reveals Lizzie Hexam’s past. Rather than give the reader a definitive version of events, we get a choose-your-own-adventure story, and different branches paint the characters as sinister or sympathetic, in their own control or manipulated by others. The result is a character whose back-story exists in a quantum superposition of different states.

Sometimes, the way the story is told is what makes the story worth listening to. Memento just isn’t a very interesting story if it’s told linearly. House of Leaves would lose its punch without the multiple frame stories and the parts where the text starts wandering around the page and turning back on itself. The ordering of the narrative and the presentation are the layers of the story that the reader directly interacts with. Even if they aren’t the “meat” of the story, they are responsible for a lot of the flavor.

More to Come

Next time, I’ll dig into volumes 5–8.

What I Learned From Scott Pilgrim

I recently re-read Scott Pilgrim, a six-part comic series by Canadian author Bryan Lee O’Malley. It’s a silly slice-of-life about video games and indie music and trying to figure out how to be an adult. I’m pretty squarely in the target market for this nerd-comedy masterpiece.

As usual, rather than do a traditional review, I’m going to look at what we can learn from the series to use in our own writing.

Tell Your Audience What They’re Getting Into Right Away

You can’t please everybody. If you’re writing something that hits home for you, chances are it will work for somebody else, but there will also be readers who just aren’t interested in what you’re putting on the page. The clearer you are up front about what the thing is going to be, the sooner your reader will know if it’s for them or not.

The first few quick scenes of Scott Pilgrim introduce nearly the entire (sizable) cast of the first book. The very first words encapsulate the inciting incident. It starts with dialogue that is pretty representative of the banter throughout the rest of the series.

Pretty soon, we get into running jokes, like labels when introducing people (“Scott Pilgrim, 23 Years Old, Rating: Awesome), labels introducing scene changes (“The Next Day or Something”). The band starts to play, and along with panels showing close-ups of instruments, there are tiny lyrics printed in the gutters and chords in case you want to play along.

It’s clear this is going to be a goofy story that isn’t afraid to be a little weird, about a bunch of young adults whose idea of a good time is hanging out and making fun of each other.

You Make the Rules

Scott and his friends live in Toronto. Nothing special. Except in school you learn weapon proficiencies. And snacks and soda don’t have nutrition facts, they have stat boosts. Of course, America is a little different too—Scott’s girlfriend has to explain to him the standard American practice of traveling via subspace bypass (conveniently marked by doors around town with little stars on them).

Why not have a story populated by poor, mid-twenties indie rockers where someone occasionally punches a hole in the moon, or gets into an impromptu anime battle where the loser explodes into fifteen dollars (Canadian) in coins, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an extra life or power-up.

A lot of ink is spilled to talk about careful, consistent world-building in fiction. The truth is that sometimes you might just want to write something crazy, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s not entirely internally consistent. Maybe it doesn’t make a ton of sense. If it’s fun and entertaining enough, people will love it anyway.

Write What You Know

These words get thrown around a lot, but I think Scott Pilgrim is a great example of how to do it right. It’s an absurd, unrealistic comedy that borrows liberally from video games and anime. It’s also set (mostly) in very real places near where the author grew up. In fact, the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie went out and filmed at a lot of the exact places shown in the comic.

Bryan Lee O’Malley pulled from those real settings, used real friends and acquaintances as templates for characters, and then threw in a heaping helping of his indie rock, anime, and video game influences.

It feels like a crazy, unique mish-mash, despite pretty much all the individual pieces being heavily inspired by other things. It works because it’s the crazy, unique mish-mash of things the author loved, and we all have our own unique collection of influences that we can impart into our own works.

How to Get It

Scott Pilgrim was originally a 6-part black-and-white series (with a tiny bonus episode for free comic book day). It has since been collected into multiple box sets, most of them now the colorized version, which I would recommend. They are not that easy to find these days, and a bit expensive if you’re not used to the prices for manga-style comics. They are also available in a pretty excellent e-book format for Kindle/Comixology, including a lot of bonus material that is apparently not even available in some of the newer box sets.

What I Learned From “Damn Fine Story”

Chuck Wendig is a silly, silly man, who has written a number of bestselling books. My first introduction to Wendig was his book of goofy morning Twitter affirmations, You Can Do Anything, Magic Skeleton.

I recently finished Damn Fine Story, his book about storytelling (and yes, he calls out storytelling as a distinct craft from writing). The book delights in silliness, a sort of gonzo absurdism that lends flavor to the underlying soup of writing craft.

Wendig uses a handful of pop culture references like Die Hard, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illustrate and embellish his points, making the book fairly approachable. He also uses stories from his own life to illustrate a few of his points, proving that terrorists and lightsabers aren’t strictly necessary to craft an interesting narrative.

Characters are the Nexus of Story Elements

If Wendig has a central thesis in Damn Fine Story, it is this: “Character is everything.” He makes a compelling argument that most of the elements of a story are derived or depend on the characters in that story.

The story starts with an interruption to the character’s status quo. Their main problem is this interruption, and it’s what drives the plot. Conflict and tension comes out of the character’s actions as they attempt to resolve that problem to their own satisfaction.

The plot should never control the characters. While unexpected things can, and should, happen to the characters, it’s how the characters act (and react) that makes the story. Characters must have some measure of agency, some ability to affect the world around them and fight for what they want. Characters fighting to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals is what makes plot happen.

The Inner Emotional Story Drives the External Action

One of the key ways characters drive the story is through their own arcs. But a character arc is inherently internal. In most stories, the world around the character may change. The character may physically change. What really pulls the reader in and keeps them invested is the character’s own emotional inner journey. The character may come to grips with their own deficiencies and improve themselves, or they may discover that they’re not as good and kind as they thought, once push comes to shove. By overcoming adversity, they may discover that they had the strength in them all along.

The bigger the external stakes are, the more important the internal stakes become. Huge problems like galaxy-spanning wars and terrorist attacks make for exciting action, but they’re not something familiar and relatable. On the other hand, feeling like an outsider or wanting a more fulfilling job might be things that hit close to home for a lot of people. The inner conflicts faced by characters are often “smaller,” but that’s also what makes them relatable. A relatable inner journey coupled with a thrilling and extravagant external conflict can make for compelling fiction.

Good Characters Are Relatable

Along those same lines, good characters must be relatable—not necessarily in every way, but in some way. None of us are space wizards (probably), so any space wizard you write needs to have some other aspect to their character or personality that feels more familiar to the reader. Maybe your space wizard is a young adult and eager to get away from the place they grew up. Maybe they’re unsure of themselves. Maybe they try a little too hard to be act cool, or to fit in with the cool space smugglers and furry aliens.

Relatability can come in the form of “good” characteristics, but it doesn’t have to. Foibles and weaknesses can be just as relatable. Each of us has a few weaknesses we’re all too aware of. Protagonists are often a mix of traits we can aspire to and less desirable traits we can recognize in ourselves. Even villains should be relatable, though they may take particular negative traits to extremes.

The craziest and wildest stories still need a core of understandable, relevant concepts that readers can map to their own lives in some way. When the story (and especially the characters) are too hard to understand, they’re impossible to care about. If the reader doesn’t care about them, then the story stops being interesting. The stakes don’t matter.

Questions Keep the Reader Reading

As Lemony Snicket said, always leave something out. Every open question is a string, tugging the reader along. Every answer is a small victory. Scenes that end with a question or unresolved conflict keep the reader turning pages.

Wendig says, “Tease satisfaction, but be hesitant to deliver it…Reveal too little and the audience will feel lost. Reveal too much and the audience will feel safe and bored.” You have to ride the razor’s edge. Start with plenty of questions, then progressively answer more and more of them as the story goes on, with the most answers and biggest answers coming at the end. When you run out of answers, you run out of story.

More Wendig

Damn Fine Story is one of several books Chuck Wendig has written on the craft of writing. I enjoyed this one, and I’ll probably be checking out some of the others. If you’d prefer to try Wendig in small doses, you can check out his twitter. For larger, less frequent, and possibly more writing-related content, try his blog, Terrible Minds.

Reblog: Conflict is Only One Way to Think About Stories —Lincoln Michel

Lincoln Michel always delights me with his thoughtful posts about writing. He occupies an interesting position as one of those rare authors who is deep into both literary and genre fiction. In this post, he continues his grand quest to convince Writing Twitter that there is no one true way to write a story.

In response to the question, “Do all stories have conflicts?” he takes us on a journey through Aristotle and Freytag, kishōtenketsu, Vonnegut’s “character fortunes,” and other ways to think about and model a story.

The point here is these are all different metaphors, different models, to think about stories. None of them are “right” or “wrong.” None of them are universally applicable to all types of text that one might call “a story.” At the same time, these models are frequently overlapping and a single story can be mapped onto a dozen different models.

Read the rest over at Lincoln’s Substack, Counter Craft…