Stabilization

Yesterday, I wrote about Destabilization: you can say that a story begins when one or more characters have their lives destabilized, and that the story ends when their lives are stable again. To add to this, let me talk about the forms that the final stability may take.

One possible type of stability is going back to the status quo that existed at the beginning of the story. You often see this in books for kids: all problems have been solved, all monsters are defeated, and everything is back to “normal”. This is fine for children—many kids haven’t learned to cope with change. Furthermore, it means the same story can be read multiple times, and a series of books can be read in any order.

But it doesn’t work well for adults. Adults know that things never stay the same, and they like to see people dealing with change. So even if a threat is defeated (or a puzzle is solved, or the protagonist manages to get home after a difficult journey), adults want to see characters develop. The experience should leave the characters stronger, or wiser, or more wary, or something. Otherwise, the whole experience meant nothing. (That’s perilously close to “It was all a dream”. Haha, everything was pointless!)

The newly established stability doesn’t have to be “nice”. If a character gives up hope, that’s still a form of stability. It may not be an enjoyable result, but it is an ending and may be suitable for some stories.

(You can get away with “downer” endings in short stories more than in novels. Consider horror stories, for example; plenty of them end with the protagonist dying in some gruesome way. However, ending a novel with everything awful may be too grim to satisfy readers who’ve spent hours of their lives on the book.)

Stability doesn’t mean that every loose end has been tied up. Stories that are part of a series almost always have loose ends; a dangling thread in Book 1 may start the plot in Book 2. But even stories that will never have a sequel may have loose ends. If so, I think it’s useful to acknowledge the loose ends in some way. Otherwise, readers may just think that the writer fumbled the ball. By acknowledging I mean something like, “George never did find out where the dagger came from,” or something like that. (Preferably something more elegantly phrased, but still.)

One way or another, a story begins when the first domino falls. At the end, readers should feel that there are no dominoes left, even if the dust hasn’t completely settled. If dominoes are still in motion, the story just isn’t over yet.

[Photo of dominoes by Peng [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Destabilization

The latest episode of the Writing Excuses podcast dealt with how to finish a character’s story. During the discussion, they described good plot structure as circling back on itself. I understand what they meant, but I worry about the concept being misinterpreted; beginning writers may think that you have to end up at the same place you started, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes this does happen (as in the classic Hero’s Journey), but plenty of good stories don’t make this kind of circle. So let me put my own spin on the point.

Stories begin with some kind of destabilization. Something pushes or tempts one or more characters to break their routine. For example:

  • The characters leave home, temporarily or permanently
  • A new person enters the characters’ lives (often summarized as “A Stranger Comes to Town”)
  • The characters encounter a puzzle and decide to solve it (this is the plot of most mystery stories)
  • An event occurs which makes it difficult or impossible to continue with the status quo
  • Some incident, large or small, induces the characters to make changes in their lives

Now it’s possible for things to occur without destabilizing the characters’ lives. Lots of people go on trips without being changed, and a typical police detective solves plenty of “mysteries” without being strongly affected by them. A situation only becomes “story-worthy” when characters truly are destabilized.

(And let me say as an aside, new writers are sometimes reluctant to destabilize characters. Few of us like being destabilized ourselves, and if you identify with your characters, you may be inclined to keep your characters cool and unaffected by whatever happens. This is a mistake—characters should never skate through plot situations. Even James Bond has to sweat.)

So if a story starts with destabilization, how does it end? When the characters’ lives are more or less stable again. You don’t have to resolve everything—life is seldom so neat. And “stable” doesn’t have to mean “happy”; characters may end up dead or in terrible circumstances. (See, for example, the ending of Hamlet.) But an ending will feel like an ending if there’s nothing that’s going to propel much further change in the situation.

In other words, you can look at story structure as starting with a state of stability, then getting destabilized, and eventually returning to stability again. The final state may or may not be similar to the initial one; it could be wildly different. But if the final state feels stable, the audience will understand and accept that the story is over.

[Photo of Leaning Tower of Pisa by Saffron Blaze [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Forays

After several past postings on how I write a novel, we’ve reached the point where I can actually start writing. At this point I have:

It’s now time to start some real writing.

I begin with forays into the story. Usually this means writing the first ten pages or so a bunch of times. I want something that has the right chemistry: specifically a tone of voice that will sustain my interest for the months it will take me to write the first draft.

After all, if I get bored, I’ll have trouble finishing…and of course, if I get bored, readers will too. So I need to find a voice that grabs my attention. If I’ll be writing from multiple points of view, I need to find multiple voices that catch my ear.

I’m not one of those writers who believes my characters actually exist. I know the characters are just inside my head. At the same time, when I write from a character’s viewpoint, I’m giving free rein to some specific part of my psyche. I’m putting myself into a particular frame of mind and seeing what comes out. I want the result to be organic, without other parts of my brain trying to horn in on the act.

So I need to find a voice that ignites emotional sparks. It has to be someone who can face what’s going to happen and react in engaging ways. The character will be affected by the needs of the story and the character arcs I’ve envisioned…but the arcs I’ve made at this point are all provisional. If a character goes in other directions, that’s great. That’s part of what “being organic” means. And hey, if it all goes off the rails, I can always rewrite the darn thing.

So I write the first few pages numerous times. Five? Ten? More? And I usually write it all longhand, because writing with a pen makes my brain go slow and feel around for what’s waiting to come out.

Eventually, something clicks. When that happens, I know it. I’ve found the spark: the way into the story.

Then all I have to do is write the first draft.

[Map of forays during the Age of Discovery by Universalis [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Going Somewhere with Characters

Recently, I’ve been discussing how I start a writing project: beginning with a seed and brainstorming, then establishing a keel, and generating a list of set-pieces.

The set-pieces give me externals: a varied group of settings and action elements. But I want my stories to have internal value too. In particular, I want the main protagonist and other characters to go through significant changes, inside as well as outside.

There’s an element of risk here. I’m talking about the starting stages of the project. If I’ve done any writing at all at this point, it will just be playing around with possible voices and with viewpoint options (first person, third person, past tense, present tense, that sort of thing). Usually I like to establish such choices as part of the keel—at the very least, the keel has to specify whether the book will be told from a single person’s point of view or from multiple viewpoints. So I may write a few sample pages, but nothing cast in stone.

This means that I don’t really know the characters yet (unless I’m writing a sequel to a previous book, and even then, there are bound to be new characters who play substantial roles in the story). As a result, I have to be cautious when it comes to dictating how characters will change throughout the book.

I can only start by tentatively deciding a few traits about each character, but I recognize (a) that these traits may change, and (b) that they may fade in significance as new traits arise during the actual writing.

As an example, take Kim Lam from All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. At the outset, I decided that Kim was a geology student and third-generation Chinese-Canadian. I also knew that Kim was withdrawn because of a high school relationship gone bad, and that her character arc throughout the book would be gradually tearing down the emotional walls she’s been hiding behind.

But I didn’t start out knowing that Kim was non-binary. When I first wrote the passage where she describes what kind of clothes she usually wears, I simply intended her standard outfit of overalls and a nondescript shirt to be an outgrowth of her emotional walls. She didn’t want to project any sexual image.

During the writing, that all changed. It surprised the heck out of me when Kim eventually came out as queer. I remember thinking, “Crap, am I really going to do this?” There are obvious risks when a cis-het white male writes a gender-queer Chinese person who started life as female. If I did a bad job, it would be awful.

Then again, I could feel the rightness of what I’d discovered. In the book, Kim talks about evolving into her non-binary identity: “I knew what didn’t work, but it took a while to find out what did.” That echoes what happened during the writing. But once I realized Kim had to be non-binary, that identity became such an essential part of the character that some traits devised while planning the book just faded into the background. (By the way, for those who care, Kim ends the book by taking new pronouns and shortening zir name to K.)

So before I begin a book, I decide on a few characters traits and provisional character arcs. But I expect those to change during the actual writing. I love when they change during writing. That means the characters are starting to come alive.

[Diagram showing an arc of a circle by Cburnett [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Set-Pieces II

One thing I forgot in my previous write-up on set-pieces: set-pieces are relatively modular. By this, I mean that you can swap them out and replace them without changing much else in the story.

For example, I mentioned the meet cute as a common set-piece in movies. All that’s necessary for a meet cute is that the two leads meet in some entertaining way. Also, at the end of the scene they usually have to have developed a certain attitude toward each other (often initially hostile).

For a good meet cute, your couple might meet at work, or in a gym, or at the dentist’s, or in a fender-bender. It doesn’t matter. All that the plot requires is that they meet and establish that starting attitude.

So let’s say your original plan is that the two will meet when their dogs get into a fight at the dog-park. But once you start actually writing the story, you might get a better idea. As you develop the characters into more rounded people, maybe you decide that one of the romantic leads likes to do science fiction cosplay…so maybe the meet cute will happen when that person is dressed as a Klingon. The Klingon locks their keys in the car, and is trying to break in when the other person (a cop) shows up.

So you try writing that scene. If the result isn’t as good as you want, then you can try something else. Plotwise, it doesn’t matter as long as the two meet.

You can replace a set-piece with something very different, if ever you come up with something that will serve the story better…especially if you think of something that better reflects other parts of the story (e.g. character traits that you discover as you write). Eventually, you’ll have to smooth everything out into a well-connected whole, but that’s what revision is for. When you’re just starting to write a story, your set-pieces are provisional and replaceable. You want them to be good, but you shouldn’t consider them cast in stone.

How I Write: The Keel

Continuing my series on How I Write

Brainstorming gives me a long list of stuff that I could put into a particular book: possible ideas, images, characters, plot elements, etc. but all just written down scattershot, without any effort to turn them into anything coherent. Once I have that, it’s time to come up with a keel. (By the way, this is my own terminology, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else came up with it before I did.)

In a boat, the keel is something heavy attached to the bottom of the hull. It’s the heaviest part of the boat; in rough seas, the keel is heavy enough that it keeps sinking downward, and that’s what keeps the ship upright. (In the picture above, the keel is #5.)

In a story, the keel is what gives the story weight and keeps the narrative from flopping over whenever the going gets rough. The keel is related to theme (i.e. what makes your story matter). It’s also related to plot: it lies at the heart of the story’s actions. It’s the part of the story you consider indispensable. As you write the story, everything else is subject to change, but the keel is going to stay. It’s what makes your story what it is.

(At this point, contrarians may ask, “But what if you decide that the keel really needs to change?” Since you’re the writer, you can do anything you want…but if you change the keel, you simply aren’t writing the same story anymore. The keel of Romeo & Juliet is “star-crossed lovers who die”. You can write a version where one or both lovers survive, but at that point, it’s stopped being Shakespeare’s story.)

The purpose of a keel is to provide stability and a sense of purpose. If and when I lose sight of what the heck I’m doing in a book, I come back to the keel. “This is what the book is about. This is what holds the book together. This is what I don’t want to lose.” The keel should be weighty enough and engaging enough to make writing the book worth my time.

So let’s talk about my forthcoming book, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded. It’s a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, and I wanted GUN to take place shortly after EXPLOSIONS. I brainstormed a lot of cool things I could do in the world I’d created, including superhero hi-jinks, new things to do with the Darkling monsters who run everything, buildings I could smash in the Waterloo Region, and so on. I also brainstormed ways in which the characters could develop, themes I might explore, tropes to use or avoid, etc., etc.

After two days of idea generation, I had a huge list of possibilities. Then it was time to come up with a keel. Here’s what it was.

  • The new book would center on Jools, who was a central character in the previous book, but not the main protagonist.
  • It would deal with her drinking problem, which would be matched by a growing tendency to go into uncontrollable bouts of inventing weird devices.
    In other words, her alcohol addiction would start running in parallel with the possibility of becoming an out-of-control supervillain inventor.
  • Finally, the action would center around a weapon created by a serious supervillain, as Darklings and various super-types all tried to claim the weapon for their own.

I’m hiding some things here since I don’t want to give major spoilers for the book—for example, my real keel contained stuff about the book’s ending. But the points above give you the idea. They were my “rules” for the book: the keel that wouldn’t change, no matter what. Dealing with addiction made the book more than lightweight fluff…but dealing with everyone chasing a superweapon guaranteed plenty of opportunities for action.

Whether or not you write with an outline or by the seat of your pants, having some kind of keel is crucial. Next time, I’ll talk about what you do once you have a keel in place.

[Ship diagram by Jimmy P. Renzi (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: October 9, 2018

More things I like:

Events: The Norfolk County Fair
I dropped the ball on this because I should have made the recommendation a week ago when the fair was actually open. Or perhaps I should have made the recommendation a month ago when you could have decided, “Hey, that looks like fun!” and then picked a date to go. Sorry about that. But the Norfolk County Fair is exactly what a county fair should be: a midway full of rides, booths full of junk food, and barns full of cows, horses, rabbits, chickens, etc. You can see giant pumpkins, try to win a stuffed animal at games that are probably rigged, and buy apple cider straight from the farmer. I’ve been going to the fair for decades; I wouldn’t miss it.
Book Series: The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
This series comes to mind because I spent last weekend at VCON in Vancouver, where I got to hang out with Charlie a fair bit. The Laundry Files series is funny, and icky, and full of surprises. It’s also a shining example of a long-running series that has never fallen into a rut—every book brings something fresh to the table and keeps events moving forward. The series never flinches from doing the next thing, even if that means…well, having the world taken over by Lovecraftian horrors. (Quick summary of the series: a British intelligence agency fights the apocalypse. Spoiler: eventually, they lose.) The next book in the series, The Labyrinth Index, comes out October 30 and the advance material I’ve seen looks great.
Podcast: Writing Excuses
Writing Excuses is a long-running podcast about writing, jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler…plus a number of guest contributors, almost all of whom are also writers. The podcast is in its 13th year, running like clockwork every week. It’s full of good talk about writing: an excellent resource for writers of all levels of experience, from beginners to professionals. If you’re a writer, it will teach you things and get your juices flowing. Well worth listening.