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: Set-Pieces

Once I have the keel of a book, it’s time to build the story around it. I do that with a sequence of set-pieces.

In Hollywood, a set-piece is a block of action: a car chase perhaps, or a meet cute (where two people who will eventually become lovers meet in an unusual way, often leading to an initial clash of personalities). But when I’m writing, I use the term more loosely. I think of a set-piece as a sequence of one or more scenes that all take place in the same general setting.

For example, the initial set-piece for They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded is a block of scenes all taking place at Waterloo Regional Airport. In the final version of the book, the lead character (named Jools) moves between various places in the airport—from a plane to the tarmac, to a luxury lounge, to a baggage handling area, then back to the lounge—but my initial plan for the book just said AIRPORT.

My plan also had a list of things that should take place at the airport. I wanted to introduce Jools and her world for people who hadn’t read Book 1, and to demonstrate various aspects of her character and her abilities. I also wanted to introduce several new characters, re-introduce old ones, and hint at major players in the action to come. I definitely wanted to show the super-weapon that everyone will be fighting over throughout the book (as specified in the keel). Finally, I wanted a superpowered fight that would cause mega-damage, because what’s the point of writing about superheroes without mass destruction?

My initial plan didn’t have a lot of detail or a through-line of the action. It was just a list, pretty much unsorted, of people and points that should be covered before Jools left the airport. The list included a lot of cool stuff I might throw in (as generated during brainstorming). However, I didn’t cast anything in stone, and there was quite a lot of hand-waving.

For example, the book features a modern day Robin Hood and his gang: they may be villains or not, but they want their hands on the super-weapon. So my plan called for one of Robin’s gang to appear at the airport and try to steal the weapon. However, I didn’t bother deciding what the would-be thief was like. I could come up with that later. Maybe some other set-piece would require a particular type of “Merry Man” and I could backfill the same character into the airport action. Or I could leave things undecided and dream up someone entertaining during the actual writing.

I like to leave openings like that in my plans. If I nail down too much in advance, writing the book becomes boring and forced.

So the first set-piece was AIRPORT. I continued on with the other set-pieces of the book, each placed in a different setting, to ensure an appropriate degree of variety during the course of the novel. (Other set-pieces included UNIVERSITY LAB, MEMORIAL SERVICE, and several different blocks of action in SHERWOOD FOREST. Read the book and find out how it all goes together!)

But let me point out that my initial plans for set-pieces are mainly external. For each set-piece I want a setting, a few plot elements, and which characters may be present. But I don’t think about the internal aspects of characters. I leave that for the next phase of planning: establishing character development arcs. I’ll talk about those next time.

[The photo of the airport and airplane is of RGIA Airport in Hyderabad, India. It was taken by Abhinay6597 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0%5D, from Wikimedia Commons. It is definitely not Waterloo Regional Airport.]

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: June 29, 2018

More links…

Eye Candy: National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year pictures
In the spirit of my recent post about Eye Candy, the National Geographic just released a whole bunch of gorgeous photographs. Well worth clicking through them all.
Book: Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri
A police procedural thriller set in Italy. The sleuths are both suffering from serious cases of PTSD, making them flawed but sympathetic. Lots of action, but with realistic consequences—whenever there’s a fight, one or both heroes usually end up in the hospital. I’m reading the sequel now, and it’s good too.
Awards: The Aurora Awards
If you’re Canadian citizen or landed immigrant, why not sign up to vote in the Aurora awards? It costs $10 (Canadian) but if you sign up now, you get a substantial voter’s package containing lots of great stories and book excerpts. And (cough cough), you can also vote for my stuff if you feel so inclined.

Sharing: Tor.com Novellas

A novella is shorter than a novel and longer than a novelette. Definitions vary, but the Tor.com line of Novellas uses a word count of 20,000-40,000 words. (For comparison, an average novel is about 100,000 words.)

Tor.com novellas offer a great cross-section of modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Because the line emphasizes diversity, you’re apt to find books full of fresh ideas seldom seen in other SF work. At the same time, you can also find great examples of “cozy” old mainstream SF (like the Murderbot stories by Martha Wells that I mentioned last week).

What’s so great about novellas? It’s been said that the novella is the “natural” length for SF: long enough to develop an idea in detail, but not so long as to wear out their welcome. Also, let’s be honest, novellas are cheaper and faster to read than full-length novels. In addition, novellas cost less to print, so the publisher can take risks on stories that may be more cutting-edge than conventional tales.

One way or another, I’ve enjoyed all the Tor.com novellas I’ve read. In addition to the Murderbot stories, here are some of my favorites:

 

To be honest, I didn’t realize how many Tor.com novellas I’d read until I started making the above list…and that’s not counting a number of books that I have on my Kindle waiting to be read.

So by all means, check out the line. All the novellas are available digitally as well as in trade paperback; many (or maybe all) are also available as audiobooks.

And if you don’t usually read science fiction/fantasy/horror, these novellas are a great place to start.

Sharing: June 17, 2018

More stuff I like:

Book: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This made me laugh a lot: wry and honest cartoons about being an well-meaning misfit.
App: Feedly
Feedly is an RSS subscription reader…and if you don’t know what that is, you should. RSS is method of summarizing and syndicating blog posts. Almost every site you care about creates its own RSS information; software like Feedly can look up that information and tell you about any articles posted since the last time you checked. In other words, RSS readers let you follow blogs and quickly find out what’s new. I use Feedly as a fast way of checking many different web sites, so that I’m always up to date. (And by the way, you can use Feedly to follow this web site too, i.e. jamesalangardner.com. Never miss a posting!
Web Site: Reductress
Reductress is The Onion but with articles slanted toward women. Some of the articles are only titles…but the titles are so great, adding content would only spoil them. So yes, I just read Reductress for the headlines; it is a wonderful use of my time.

Sharing: June 15, 2018

More items of interest:

Book: All Systems Red by Martha Wells
The first novella in the “Murderbot” series. Murderbot is a part-mechanical part-organic security unit who has managed to disable its control module. Surprisingly, this doesn’t lead to a killing spree—Murderbot just wants to watch soap operas while doing the minimum amount of work required to keep up the pretense that it’s still under human control. Murderbot is utterly charming, so I’m glad there are several more books to come in the series.
Web site: Quartz (qz.com)
One of my favorite sites for news. Quartz covers the same sort of topics you see on many news sites, but from an international perspective. I believe it’s based out of India, although it hires writers from around the world. It also deals with items of interest from places other than North America and Europe—always with good explanations and first-rate graphics.
Web comic: Questionable Content
I feel embarrassed mentioning this, since anyone reading this blog probably reads Questionable Content already. But if you don’t, you should. I might note that the series has been running since 2003, so there’s a lot of backlog available to read. It’s evolved quite a bit since the early days, but I still think the comic is worth reading from the very first strip. (You won’t know how truly lovable Bubbles and Hannelore are unless you have years worth of context.)