Mapping Dialogue

Dialogue is a cornerstone of fiction. It’s also one of the hardest things to write well. Dialogue isn’t like real life conversation. Let’s face it—real conversation is often not that interesting to someone not directly involved, and doesn’t always serve a purpose. Dialogue in fiction can’t afford to be dull and meandering. It has to be pulling its weight.

Mapping dialogue is a way to plan, analyze, or fix dialogue by looking at what it contributes to the story. It’s all about deciding what the dialogue should accomplish, and then figuring out how it can accomplish it. It won’t turn dull dialogue into snappy conversation—but it will ensure that the dialogue is at least moving the story forward.

Dialogue mapping can be used when outlining or planning, to make sure the dialogue achieves a narrative goal. It can also be used in revision to tighten up dialogue that isn’t getting the job done.

Finding Purpose

Dialogue, like anything included in a story, should have a purpose. If it has no purpose, it can be safely left out, the way you’d leave out a character’s irrelevant breakfast, or that bathroom break they took between scenes.

To understand the purpose of a given conversation, you need to look at the state of the story before and after. What does the conversation change? In what way does it move the story forward? You can think of this in terms of how the dialogue contributes to the MICE quotient thread that contains it. The conversation itself may also be a small thread of its own. Either way, it needs to contribute to the bigger picture in some way, or the story is just treading water.

Since a conversation consists of two or more characters, this before-and-after effect can be broken down for each person. Each character has their own goals, and each character may change, or change their goals as a result of the conversation.

  1. What is the state of each character at the start of the conversation?
  2. What does each character want at the start of the conversation (in the story, and in this particular interaction)?
  3. What is the state of each character after the conversation?
  4. How has each character’s goals changed after the conversation?

These individual character differences add up to form the total change in the story from a given piece of dialogue.

Dialogue is Conflict

Dialogue has two main story purposes: information sharing, and conflict. However, information sharing isn’t terribly interesting without some sort of associated conflict. It can become interesting if the information is incomplete, incorrect, or not given freely.

As an example, consider a detective trying to solve a murder. If they ask the witness, and the witness explains exactly who the killer was, how they did it, and why, then the story isn’t interesting. However, if the witness only saw a fraction of what happened, the detective has to make inferences and combine information from other sources to solve the crime. If the witness doesn’t want to help, the detective needs to find a way to change their mind or trick them. If they lie, the detective needs to discover the lie. These “twists” on basic information sharing are all forms of conflict between the characters.

This conflict is caused by interactions between the characters’ goals:

  • Characters with similar or identical goals may try to work together toward a common cause. In this case, the conflict is something external that they team up to fight.
  • Characters with opposing goals will try to succeed at the expense of each other. One or the other may end up “winning” the conversation, or it may end in more of a tie, with the tension remaining or ramping up. They may get something useful from the conversation, or it may just increase their animosity for one another.
  • Characters with different, but not opposing goals may make a trade where both try to gain something from the conversation.

Action in Dialogue

Sometimes characters just talk, and sometimes they act without speaking, but often the two go hand-in-hand. When mapping out dialogue, it’s important to consider the actions that the characters will be taking while they talk. Are they just sitting in a room, or are they in the middle of a heist, trading quips between the safe-cracking and zipping down elevator cables?

Scenes can really start to pop when the characters’ actions in a scene drive one thread of the plot, while the characters’ dialogue in that same scene drives a different thread. The two characters may be stealing the diamond so they can pay off their debts to the deadly villain, but they can also be flirting in a way that ramps up the sexual tension, or trying to work out which of their fellow criminals ratted them both out.

Of course, sometimes the action and the dialogue go hand-in-hand, both advancing the same story thread. But beware scenes where only the action or dialogue is doing work. Meaningless dialogue during important action, or vice-versa, is a missed opportunity.

Charting a Course

Here’s a simple example with some of our heist dialogue in a table with a column for each character, and actions (in parentheses).

NatashaFrank
(slides down elevator shaft first)(slides down elevator shaft second)
Comments about the view from below. 
 Asks about Boris’s suspicious behavior recently. Is he the traitor?
She trusts Boris—he saved her in Amsterdam. 
(Works on the vault lock until it opens)(keeps watch)
Asks about Rocky—he knew things about her dad that he shouldn’t. 
 Agrees that Rocky is suspicious. He seemed to be snooping when they were planning the job.

The important thing is to list out the segments in order. Dialogue is give and take. In a typical conversation, each segment will lead logically into the next. When mapping dialogue, it typically looks like a series of actions and reactions.

Sometimes the characters will exhaust a topic and move on to something else, but even that requires planning. If one of the characters has more to say, they may not want to shift topics. If there is a break, one of the characters will usually start a new topic that pertains to their goals at that point in the conversation.

Mapping in Revision

Dialogue maps can be useful for editing, by providing a tool to analyze dialogue that’s already written. If a piece of dialogue doesn’t feel right, a dialogue map can reveal structural problems. Does the conversation flow naturally from the characters’ starting points and goals? Is there conflict? Does the flow of the segments back and forth make sense? Do the characters leave the conversation with new goals or knowledge? What changed?

Because dialogue maps are a structural tool, they won’t help with voice. A piece of dialogue can be perfectly functional in pushing the story forward, but still come across as stilted and artificial. Dialogue maps describe the content of the conversation, but not the exact wording.

The other important function of dialogue maps in revision is in making sure that changes to dialogue don’t break the structure. I often find that I want to change something that a character says in the middle of a conversation. Maybe I come up with a single line that I really want to include. Because of the nature of dialogue as back-and-forth, one change can result in another character’s response no longer making sense. Sometimes a change to one segment requires that the next segment change, and the next segment, and so on.

With a dialogue map in hand, it’s much easier to embark on this kind of reworking with an understanding of what that conversation has to accomplish. Even completely replacing the entire conversation is possible, so long as it starts and ends with the same character states and goals, and the appropriate action still happens.

To Map or Not to Map?

Depending on how you write, you may want to do some dialogue mapping before writing, as a guide through the conversation. It can be especially useful when more than two characters are involved or there’s a lot going on in a given scene.

If you’re less inclined to plan, you can always write first and ask questions later. Mapping dialogue after the fact is a great troubleshooting tool for a scene that feels “off,” or even as a way to decide exactly what a meandering conversation should be about.

Mapping every single conversation may be overkill. It can be a lot of work. But it’s a useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for addressing one of the biggest challenges of writing great stories.

The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.

Milieu

Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.

Inquiry

Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.

Character

Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.

Event

Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.

How to Research for Fiction

No matter what you’re writing, at some point you’re going to have to do some research. It may be the details of exoplanets or ion drives for sci-fi. It may be mythology or medieval society for fantasy. It may be the royal court of Victorian England for historical romance. Every genre and style of story can benefit from some kind of research.

However, research can be challenging. Sometimes, the information you want is difficult to find. Sometimes it doesn’t exist. When I started my novel, Razor Mountain, I quickly discovered just how little we know about prehistoric humans more than ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes, there’s far too much information available, and it can be completely overwhelming. It’s easy (and dangerous) to get sucked into endless YouTube or Wikipedia links in the middle of a writing session.

There’s a great discussion around research for fiction on episode 15.41 of the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that the best question to ask is “How little research can I do?” I take that to mean, “how can I do exactly enough research to write this thing well?” Research can be fun or frustrating, but ultimately it only has measurable usefulness if it contributes to the writing getting done.

When trying to limit your research, there are three important questions: when to research, what to research, and how much to research.

When to Research

Research can be done before, during, or after the first draft of the story.

Before starting the actual writing, you may have an outline, but you will be at the point where you know the least about your story, and therefore the least about what you need to research. However, before writing is a great time to do general research about a particular setting, a culture, a time period, or other broad parts of the story’s milieu. This kind of undirected research is a great way to find new ideas that will feed into the story and the characters.

N.K. Jemisin suggests traveling to places that you’ll use as settings in your stories. Of course, that’s only feasible if the setting exists in the modern world (or you can glean something about the past from visiting the present). It’s also time- and money-consuming, and not always practical for many writers or smaller projects. Sometimes Google Maps street view is good enough. However, if you’re making money from writing, travel can sometimes be used as a tax write-off, and a great excuse to see new places.

During the actual writing is when it’s easiest to find smaller details that need to be researched. These may be simple facts or figures to look up, like the three tallest mountains in the U.S., or more general ideas, like what types of fruit you’re likely to find in the green room of a Chinese TV talk show. It’s more rare to suddenly realize you need broad knowledge of a particular setting or culture, but that can happen as well, especially of you are an exploratory writer, and you’re discovering your plot as you go.

After writing the initial draft, research is sometimes an important part of editing. Things that didn’t make sense or need to be expanded may require research.

Putting Off Research and Filling Blanks

Research, especially at a broad level, can be infinite. You can know the answer to the three tallest mountains in the U.S., but if you’re researching the Canadian punk scene in the mid-1970s, you have to go in knowing that there is no end-point. The research is done when you feel like you have enough to write the story.

This mindset of “how little can I research” helps to avoid the problem of research as procrastination. Writers find a million ways to procrastinate, and research can be a dangerous one, because it feels useful. If it’s not putting words on the page, it’s really just a form of entertainment, not productivity.

This kind of undirected research can completely derail a writing session. In Writing Excuses 15.41, Cory Doctorow suggests using the old journalist notations, TK (for “to come”) and FCK (for “fact check”). When you’re writing, and you need a fact that you don’t know, just throw TK or FCK into the manuscript with some placeholder text and keep writing. This can also work when you need to remember something from earlier in the story — was the murder weapon in the study or the library? Just TK it and keep writing.

These strange abbreviations are sequences of letters that tend to not show up naturally in English, so it’s easy to search for them later. You can always come up with your own notations, but I’d suggest you use something that’s easy to search out in a manuscript. You might dedicate time to a research session instead of a writing session, going through these notes and finding what you need to fill in the blanks, without worrying about it detracting from the day’s word count.

Plot or Detail?

Sometimes, research will be needed for details, and sometimes the result of the research will directly affect the plot. The details and little bits that bring the world to life can often be FCK-ed for later. It doesn’t really matter what fruit is available in the green room. It won’t affect what the character does when they go on TV. On the other hand, if you discover that there really aren’t any talk shows on TV in that country, that may derail the next couple of scenes.

It’s important to differentiate between these detail and plot-vital questions. Skipping over a plot-vital question and continuing to write may backfire when you get to the research and the answers turn out to be incompatible with what you’ve written. This is a recipe for depression, as you’re forced to throw away hard work and change the course of the plot.

Details, on the other hand, are relatively safe. They can usually be put off for later research without much consequence. It’s important to understand the difference.

Using What You Know

One of the best ways to avoid research is to already know things. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Chances are, you’ve lived in a few places. You may have a job, and probably know other people who have jobs. You’ve been places. You’ve seen things.

“Write what you know,” is such well-worn writing advice that it borders on trite, but it is undoubtedly the best way to avoid research. In Razor Mountain, I decided that one of my protagonists is a former software developer from Minnesota. That happens to be my current job, and the place I live. There are plenty of other things that I have to research for that book, but any questions that come up about living in Minnesota or working in software will probably be easy for me to answer with my own experience. By using what I know, I can do less work and get the same quality result.

Just be aware that using the same knowledge over and over, to the point of it being a crutch, can be obvious to your audience, and even get a little boring. Not all your protagonists have to be writers, Stephen King. There are other professions.

Don’t Rely on Tropes and Stereotypes

Just because you want to limit your research doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners, especially when it comes to people and their cultures. One of the reasons old movies and books with minority characters are so often cringy is because they rely entirely on tropes and stereotypes for those characters and cultures.

Some of this can be avoided by finding readers who live in the places you’re depicting, or come from the same culture as your characters. These days, those people are often called “sensitivity readers.” They’re living research assistants, with the personal experience that you’re lacking. Whatever you call them, they invaluable.

When working with this kind of reader, it’s even better if you can work with them as you write. It’s better to ask questions up-front to avoid plot-breaking discoveries. And your reader will definitely appreciate reviewing work that already works hard to understand who they are or the culture they come from. Of course, like any person who works in a professional capacity to help improve your writing, you may have to pay them. This is skill and knowledge that you’re getting from someone else, and it’s as valuable as something like editing or cover design.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Research can make stories feel more real, but it can also be yet another form of writerly procrastination. It’s important to ask “when, what and how much,” as you delve into research. If you can use what you know, you may be able to skip that research and spend more time writing. If you can TK or FCK those detail, you can avoid derailing a productive writing session and come back to that detail later.

Research may seem like a daunting thing that requires travel and first-hand experience, but there’s a lot that can be discovered through the internet, and even through your local helpful librarian and (gasp) books. If you can find experts on a topic, they can be a great resource too. When it comes to depicting a culture or group that you aren’t a part of, finding readers and consultants to fill in those gaps in understanding can be a necessity.

Don’t let research scare you, but don’t let the allure of knowledge distract you from actually getting the writing done either.

Reblog: NaNoPrep: Signing Up and Getting Started — Connie J. Jasperson

Last week, I talked about the good and the bad of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write the entire first draft of a novel in the month of November. Now, November is almost upon us. Are you going to participate?

If you’re on the fence, or you’re just not sure where to start the whole process, take a look at Connie J. Jasperson’s latest NaNoWriMo prep post for a guide to getting a project set up on the NaNoWriMo site.

If you don’t like to plan, you can just start writing after Halloween midnight. If you’re an inveterate planner like me, that strategy might feel overwhelming. Luckily, Jasperson has you covered, with an entire series of NaNoWriMo prep posts linked at the bottom. They’ll get you figuring out your setting, characters, story arc, and more.

Check it out on Jasperson’s blog, Life in the Realm of Fantasy…

The Good and Bad of NaNoWriMo

It’s almost November. If you’re a writer on any sort of social media, you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month. It’s affectionately known as NaNoWriMo and spearheaded by a non-profit company whose founder started with the simple idea of writing a novel in a month. Modern participants do the same thing, specifically striving to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.

In recent years, I’ve come to have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. For many writers and non-writers, it’s an awesome event. For others, I think it’s counter-productive, and may even turn some people away from writing.

My Experience

I have six different years logged on my NaNoWriMo account: three are successes (at least 50k words in the month) and three are failures. I’ve participated more times than that, but I either didn’t track progress or they got lost in some revamp of the website. (Fun fact: one of those failed projects was a very early idea for Razor Mountain, the novel that I’m currently preparing to publish serially, years later.)

I am a planner, so I’ve come to realize that my success in a project like NaNoWriMo is mostly dependent on whether I’ve put together a decent outline before November. The best I’ve done without an outline is something like 10k words before the story stopped dead and I realized I needed to rework what I had written to have a path forward.

However, an equally important factor for me is how much free time and energy I have. Over the years, I’ve done NaNoWriMo when I was single and when I was married, when I did or did not have a job, and before and after I had kids. I’ve observed just how much my living arrangements and family situation can affect my ability to dedicate a month of evenings to a single project.

At least one year where I failed was the result of falling behind in the first week, and realizing I simply didn’t have the time (or energy to write) that I would need to continue, let alone play catch-up.

What Works

NaNoWriMo was built to encourage people to write. It is especially focused on new and inexperienced writers, even people who have never tried to write fiction before and don’t think they can. The promise of NaNoWriMo is this: you don’t have to be an expert to write a novel; you just have to keep writing one word after another until you’ve stacked up 50,000 of them.

For some, this is a revelation. Writing has a certain mystique (that many writers are happy to encourage) as a process that requires some particular innate talent or even some important credential like an MFA. The truth is that anyone who is literate enough to put words on paper or screen and persistent enough to put down a lot of them can write a book. NaNoWriMo doesn’t claim that book is going to be a bestseller (or even close to publishable), but for some folks, the experience of simply writing a book is enough, even with nothing more expected beyond that. And plenty of people have gone on to do the work, past November, to get that novel published.

The event has developed a huge community, with hundreds of local groups across the globe alongside geographically dispersed virtual groups. Those who are unsure of themselves can search out one of these communities that fits their needs and helps encourage them.

NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that does great work with a small team. In addition to the online events, it facilitates a Young Writers program that encourages kids to write.

What May Not Work

NaNoWriMo has expanded exponentially since its early years, and tried to provide more options than the “traditional” November event. There’s the project planning NaNo Prep in September and October. There’s the editing and revising “Now What?” series in January and February. There’s Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July, intended to be a less structured way to work on writing projects. Even for the November event, the website will happily let you set whatever word-count goal and timeframe you want for your project.

There’s clearly an ongoing effort to expand the brand here, but NaNoWriMo remains known for one thing: writing a 50,000-word novel in November. After all, it’s built into the name. As much as they’re trying to encourage a variety of options, most people will get involved in the “real” NaNoWriMo, and that has a structure that is going to work well for some people, and poorly for others.

Many will come into the event with little or no outline. If they’re planners like me, writing a whole novel like that may feel impossible. Some will find that they don’t have the time or energy to write 1667 words each day, and feel like setting a lower word count goal is cheating.

In short, a lot of people will fail at NaNoWriMo for a lot of different reasons. If they’re new or inexperienced writers, they may not even understand exactly what those reasons are — especially if they are seeing forum posts and tweets where other writers seem to be having great success and a good time. They’ll just think they’re bad at it.

NaNoWriMo is all about encouraging people to try writing, but in these cases it is very possible for new writers to think “this is what writing is like,” and get burned-out. There are as many different ways to write as there are writers, and some of those ways just don’t jive with “50k in November.”

Don’t Take This Too Seriously

I don’t want this to read like I’m ragging on NaNoWriMo. The organization does a lot of great work. They’ve probably encouraged hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t to try their hand at writing a novel. They try to demystify writing for young people, and help them tell the stories that matter to them. They’re clearly trying to cater to a variety of writers with different styles and techniques.

NaNoWriMo has gotten huge. It’s hard to miss it if you’re tuned in to writing stuff online. I worry sometimes that people who don’t fit NaNoWriMo will be turned off by it; that they won’t realize they don’t have to follow prescriptive writing advice or a monthly goal to be a “real” writer.

If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, I encourage you to do so, if not this year, then next. Even if you think you couldn’t possibly write 50,000 words in a month. Just take it one word at a time.

But if you discover that you can’t do it, or it’s a terrible experience, that’s okay. You’ve learned something about the kind of writer you are. Try it again next year. Prep differently. Or do your own kind of NaNoWriMo with your own goals and limits. To succeed at writing in a way that works for you, you don’t need a website that tells you how much to write and when. You need to find something internal that drives you to write. Then it’s just a matter of putting one word after another.

Reblog: Kishōtenketsu for Beginners — Nils Ödlund

If you’re a consumer of any kind of modern media, chances are pretty good that you know something about three-act structure. You may use it in your writing. You may recognize it intuitively from books, movies, TV and stage. But those three acts are not the only way to structure a story.

Today, I want to send you over to Mythic Scribes, where Nils Ödlund discusses Kishōtenketsu, a four-act story structure with roots in Asian classics.

Recently we presented a series of articles on three-act structure here on Mythic Scribes. This inspired me to try and write an article about a kind of four act structure known as Kishōtenketsu. It’s used in classical Chinese, Korean, and Japanese narratives, and is often mentioned as an example of a story structure without conflict.

Now, I’m not well versed in narrative theory. I find it interesting, but I’m far from an expert, and most of what I know of writing I have figured out myself (though the forums here on Mythic Scribes have been invaluable in doing just that). As such, this article will really only scratch the surface of Kishōtenketsu.

I’ll begin by explaining the word itself and the basic principles behind the story structure. I’ll then show two examples of stories told in this way, and finally I’ll give a few tips I’ve found useful for wrapping my head around this whole concept.

Read the rest over at Mythic Scribes…

Word Count Isn’t Everything

After months of outlining, planning and prep, I’m now putting words on the page for Razor Mountain, but my daily word counts are pretty low. I’m only averaging a few hundred words per day. If writing were a competitive sport, you might not want me on your fantasy team*.

Writing Twitter is full of authors posting their daily wordcounts, and with November (and NaNoWriMo) right around the corner, we’re sure to be inundated with the usual strategizing as people look for ways to get their daily 1,667. Certain authors, giving advice to newbies, suggest that you’re not a proper writer if you’re not outputting a certain number of words each day or week.

In fact, a new writer would be totally reasonable to look at all of this and come to the conclusion that word count is the best measure of a good writer. The truth, as usual, is more complicated. Sometimes, word counts can be a useful tool. Sometimes they get in the way, and there are better measures we can use.

Why Do We Obsess over Word Counts?

Writing projects, especially novels, are a ton of hard work. One of the easiest ways to get through a ton of work is by breaking it down. And the best way to break down a big task is to set lots of small goals. So really, it should come as no surprise that writers are naturally drawn to word counts.

A word count gives you an exact quantification of your writing. It’s a progress bar. Factories are often evaluated by how many widgets they can pump out per day, and writers are just word factories, right? A day where you write 1,000 words must be better than a day when you write 500.

The truth is that writing isn’t just filling up a progress bar. Each word occupies a unique place in the work (even if it is the tenth instance of “the” in the chapter). You may find that ten paragraphs in a row just flow out with little effort, but a single sentence takes hours to get exactly right. You may spend ten times more effort on your first page as any subsequent page. Word counts can be a useful measurement, but they start to become a problem when complex, creative work is reduced to a mere number.

When Are Word Counts Useful?

Let’s not completely malign word counts. They can be a powerful motivator. I’ve certainly fought the feeling of not wanting to write any more by telling myself that I just have to finish another 100 or 200 or 500 more words. Breaking down big tasks into little goals is useful, and sometimes a word count is a quick and easy goal to set. Even more important: the feeling of satisfaction when that word count goal is completed often feels better than the mere feeling of having written “some”. It’s a quirk of the human brain that measurement results in more satisfaction.

First drafts are the best time to use word count goals. This is the magical time when a story transforms from ideas into actual words. It’s the most writingful part of writing, and the time when generating lots of words is the most useful time to measure your word-making speed. For planners, it’s the time when the story takes shape. For exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”), this is the time to discover what the story is. Since exploratory writers may end up throwing away more words and rewriting more heavily once they know the shape of the story, word counts are often going to mean a little less for them. Still, words = progress at this stage.

Finally, word counts are important for publishing. Most outlets that publish short fiction have word count requirements for what they will publish. These can be hard requirements (“nothing over 5000 words”) or limitations that make it harder (“we publish fifty short stories, but only two novellas per year”).

Genres also have expected word counts. Your high fantasy novel may be 200,000 words and everyone will yell “huzzah,” but you might have a hard time selling a cozy mystery at half that length. This is especially important if you’re trying to get a literary agent and/or sell to traditional publishers. Even when self-publishing, readers of particular genres have expectations. There will always be books and stories that break these conventions, but it’s going to be a harder road, and it’s good to be aware of that.

When Are Word Counts a Problem?

While word counts can be useful as motivators, they can also be demotivating. Many prospective novelists who struggle with NaNoWriMo will know the pain of visiting the forums and seeing others posting word counts far above the curve. Authors who have spent years on a book may cringe when they notice a popular series writer putting out multiple books per year.

The problem here isn’t low wordcounts. It’s the soul-crushing pastime of comparing yourself to others. There will always be writers who are faster and more prolific. Of course, they all have their own struggles in life, but we know nothing about them, while being intimately familiar with our own. Amazingly, even in this age of social media, most of us make this mistake from time to time. We compare what we know of our own lives to what little we see of others, from the outside, looking in.
Even when we focus on our own writing, there are times in the process when word count just doesn’t mean much. For example, when doing research, or revising drafts.

Planners usually do a lot of research up-front. Exploratory writers may wait until they have a working draft and have a better idea what the story is about. Either way, a very productive research session may only produce a sentence or two in fiction output. In these cases, it may be better to write down a list of questions you’re trying to answer. This can act as a checklist, and a way to measure how much you’re getting done.

When a draft is done, and the remaining work is to revise, edit, and polish, word counts are at their most misleading. This often involves cutting words, rearranging, or adjusting a particular sentence until it sounds exactly right. Don’t rely on word counts as a measure here. Instead, consider tracking what you need to revise scene-by-scene or chapter by chapter. Many writers also gather feedback, make a checklist of things to improve, and then make a revision pass through the whole story for each one particular issue at a time.

There’s No Measure for Quality

No matter what measures you choose at different stages of the writing process, there will come a point where they fall short. There is no quantitative way to measure how good the writing is. It’s purely a matter of taste.

Quality is in the eye of the beholder. You may choose to take feedback from those you trust, but you are the arbiter of your own writing quality. You have to decide when you’re satisfied. Is it worth it to spend years writing and revising a single work? Or is it time to say “good enough” and move on to something new? There are Stephen Kings in the world, and there are Harper Lees, and a huge spectrum between.

To Count or Not to Count?

Goals are good — they help us plan and judge how well we’re executing. But goals don’t have to be word counts. Think about what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and set your goals accordingly. Use word counts for early drafts, where they’re a better indicator of progress. Use them as little motivators, and as guidelines for your chosen genre and/or publishing path.

Avoid the temptation to compare yourself to others, and don’t confuse quantity for quality. Understand what you’re trying to accomplish.

How do you feel about word counts? Do you see them as a motivator, or a demotivator? Do you use any other measures to decide how well your writing is going? Let me know in the comments.

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.

Reference Desk – #3 – Scrivener

What’s the Good Word (Processor)?

Scrivener is a word processor and organizational tool for writers. I’ve been using it for years, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. This might seem odd, when we have good general-purpose word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, and good general-purpose organizational tools like Trello. However, what I like best about Scrivener is the combination of organizational and writing features, and that it caters specifically to writers rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

Weaving a Story

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m more of an outliner and planner than an exploratory writer, but the truth is that my process always varies from project to project, and it’s never perfectly linear. Some of my plans change in the process of writing, and ideas that started out vague necessarily become more detailed as more words land on the page. Planning, organization and writing are interleaved.

When an idea starts to develop in my head enough to resemble a story, I often start by putting down a few paragraphs in a plain text or Word file. Inevitably, I quickly reach a point where I stop and evaluate: I have som ewords – maybve the start of the story, or a scene that interests me – and some ideas. This is the point where the text file suddenly feels useless. I need to organize my thoughts, extrapolate from them, and figure out how they might fit together.

Usually, that’s the point when I open up a project in scrivener. Within a project, I can have many files: chapters, character descriptions, research notes, and anything else I want to track.

Scrivener's "Binder" - a simple file tree

This might seem like a small thing – a collection of files in a simple hierarchy – but I find it much more effective to have everything for the story one click away (as opposed to files in a collection of folders). Even when I’m in the middle of editing or writing, I can quickly find my notes. Scrivener includes some templates for characters and settings that you can use or ignore, as you prefer. Parts, chapters and scenes can also be broken down in as much detail as you would like. I personally prefer to have each chapter in its own document, but you can choose more or less granularity.

Outlining

When I write the outline to a novel, I generally take a two-pronged approach. First, I tend to write out chapter summaries in sequence, in a single file. When I start writing a chapter, I take that summary and paste it into the chapter document’s “synopsis” field.

In addition to the file tree, Scrivener has a cork-board view. In this view, you can see notecards with the synopsis of each chapter (or even each scene, if you like). Reordering is as simple as dragging notecards on the board, or documents in the tree.

Writing

When it comes to writing, Scrivener doesn’t compete for the most comprehensive formatting options. It can’t do the fancy layouts of something like InDesign or Publisher, or even Word. It gives you the standard tools you’d expect: text fonts, colors, sizes, emphasis, alignment; a handful of preset options like quote, heading or title; and some basic layout elements like lists and tables.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. I’m not designing a magazine, I’m writing fiction. That said, you may find the options a bit limited if you’re trying to put together something like a travel guide, where you have lots of pictures, maps, or charts among and alongside your words.

If you like to split up your long works into individual chapter or scene documents, you can easily see them combined together by selecting multiple documents in the tree and selecting the “composite” view. Scrivener will instantly stitch all the documents together in the order you specify (with or without page breaks).

Project Tracking

Scrivener allows you to set word count goals for an entire project, or a single session – useful if you’re tracking progress for a deadline, or participating in something like National Novel Writing Month. You can also pull up stats like word counts or printed/paperback page counts for the entire project, or an arbitrary selection. Tools like Word Frequency can even occasionally help you spot your writerly tics.

There are also color-coded labels and keywords that can be applied to documents and searched. This is honestly not a feature I have ever used, and it seems a bit clunky, but if you’re incredibly organized and want to put in the extra effort to be able to cross-reference certain things across many documents, it may be useful. For me, the full-text search has generally been adequate.

Other Features

Scrivener includes a few other features I haven’t used, mostly because they’re for other styles of writing. It supports scriptwriting in a number of different formats. It also handles bibliographies, citations, and footnotes. It includes some simple tools for translating or looking up terms via various websites (e.g. thesaurus and dictionary.com).

Backup and Sync

Unlike many products today, Scrivener is a desktop application. There is no web-only option. It’s available on Windows, Mac, and iOS, and the different versions must be purchased separately (although they’re still relatively cheap, and there are slightly discounted bundle deals).

Scrivener also doesn’t handle its own backups or syncing between devices. It does offer some support for integrating with Dropbox for backup and sync, and I’ve found that this works pretty well between my Windows PC, somewhat outdated MacBook Air, and my phone.

Scrivener is not a cloud application by any stretch of the imagination, and this is one of the few places where I personally feel there is some room for improvement. I don’t particularly want an online Google-Docs-style editor, but seamless syncing with less setup would be nice.

Publishing

Scrivener provides some import and export options, which are mostly useful if you want to pull in plain text files or get them out of Scrivener as plain ol’ text. It also offers “compilation” options, which combine the text of the chapters or scenes into a single file, with many formats available. This can be used for e-publishing (epub, mobi, PDF), or to import into other tools (Word, Open Office, HTML, Post Script, Final Draft, LaTex). You can even print, if you prefer words on paper.

Try it Out

Scrivener is one of my most-utilized writing tools. It’s not perfect, but it contains a blend of features that really work well for me. In a world where everything seems to be subscription-based, I also appreciate their customer-friendly business model. They offer a 30-day free trial (that’s days-used, not calendar days), and if you do buy, it’s a one-time purchase to own the current version forever.

It’s also worth noting that they have modest student discounts, and they typically offer discounts for participants of NaNoWriMo in November, if that’s something you’re into.

Check it out at Literature and Latte.

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.