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]

How I Write: Brainstorming

How do I start a book or a short story? Let me share a little.

Every story starts with a seed: something that catches my attention and won’t let go. It may be an image, a character idea, a plot concept, or something else. The main requirement is that it seems fertile enough to dig into in more detail.

How do I dig? I get some paper and I scribble down anything that I might be able to connect to the seed. For example, let’s say I get a cool idea about aliens showing up on Earth. I’d start scribbling down images, plot tricks, characters, etc. about alien arrivals: probably all the things I’d like to see in such a book, but that other books haven’t done (or at least haven’t done well).

This is similar to a mind map except that I’m not a very visual person, and at this stage, I don’t care about connections between concepts. Basically, I’m just making a huge list of elements I might throw in. This process has elements of a Rorschach test, since it’s “This makes me think of that” but I don’t care. All I want is several pages of stuff that I can draw upon as needed.

Eventually I transcribe this list into Evernote, which is where I keep most of my writing notes. (I’ll talk about note-keeping in some future post.) I’ll also sit down with a plain old word processor and write about the ideas. This is essentially talking to myself about the ideas, except that I write them down. The notes tend to be on the order of, “I could do this…and maybe there’d be a character like this…” Et cetera.

This is all just wrestling with possibilities, not actual concrete planning. What I could do, not what I will do. I’m getting a feel for the territory. And I don’t want to censor myself at all. Good ideas, bad ideas, who cares? Get them out of my head and down on paper. Later on, I can be choosy, but not yet.

Inevitably, some of this stuff will be cliché, but no problem. I want to get the clichés out of my system, so I write them all down too. Now is not the time to be critical.

So that’s how I start creating a story. In some future post, I’ll talk about the next phase: deciding whether I’ll actually write the story and if so, what will be its heart.

[Photo of pen and paper by Mushki Brichta [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

IWATH

Recently, the tor.com web site published a lovely article by Leah Schnelbach offering words of writing wisdom from David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and several other novels).

If you’re a writer (or want to be one), I strongly recommend reading the article itself. But let me highlight the concept of IWATH, short for “I was there.” An IWATH moment in a piece of writing is something that makes the reader believe that the writer/narrator had to have been there when the action took place. It makes a scene seem absolutely real.

In my mind, IWATH means a detail so distinctive that it doesn’t seem like something generic that a writer might just toss in without thinking. For example, imagine a suburban backyard. There are lots of “standard” things you immediately think of: a patio, a barbecue, a swing-set, a vegetable garden, and so on. Some backyards may not have all of these things, but the features are common enough in backyards (at least in North America) that in a piece of fiction, they won’t attract much attention.

In other words, such details aren’t memorable. They’re what you’d expect. They don’t make you feel as if the writer is describing a specific backyard at a specific time. They give you a backyard that’s vague and generalized: one that doesn’t feel truly real.

An IWATH detail stands out as something that isn’t the same-old same-old. It needn’t be aggressively weird, just non-generalized. For example, the teenagers of the house may have placards laid on the lawn and they’re painting protest signs because they’re going to picket their school the next day. At the moment, they’re debating the pros and cons of putting an asterisk in place of the U in FUCK.

Suddenly, the scene is specific: not just any backyard, but a backyard belonging to a specific family whose members do specific things, and this is a specific time on a specific day. Whatever happens in the yard may have nothing to do with the protest at all—the business with the signs may just be a background detail. But it’s a non-generic detail. It seems like a real thing, so it makes the rest of the scene seem real too.

My first writing teacher, W. O. Mitchell, called these impertinences: details that make a scene feel real because they aren’t what a writer would just trot out when writing on autopilot. The tor.com article says that Mitchell tries to put three IWATH moments into every scene. If you’re a developing writer, that’s a great goal to aim for.

[Picture of clouds from flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: August 16, 2018

More things I like:

Anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
I mentioned this in a previous post but I want to recommend it again…partly because I’ve now seen the whole series, and have started to watch it again from the beginning. So many little things in the series take on a completely different meaning once you understand what’s really going on. One particular character’s lines never mean what you originally thought they meant. Well worth watching and re-watching.
Casual Reading: The Princeton Companion to Mathematics
It’s big and expensive and frequently goes over my head even though I have a master’s degree in math…but I still had to own the book and don’t regret buying it. I’ve been working my way through it for several years now; I try to read a bit every day. It really is the best advanced-level introduction to the entire field of math that I know of. And here’s a cheat: if you think you might be interested, download the free sample of the book from Kindle. You’ll get lot of free reading so you can see if it’s your cup of tea.
Writing technique: Writing longhand
I do most of my writing at the computer, either in Scrivener or Microsoft Word. But if I really get stuck, I sit down at the dining room table and write longhand on loose-leaf paper. Writing longhand is a different experience than keyboarding. It happens at a different speed, and with a different mind-body orientation. If my brain is in a rut, or if I find myself inhibited when writing a particular scene, writing by hand almost always gets me out of the rut. Sometimes I write whole stories by hand. I think it gives them a different feel from the work I write by computer. Give it a try.

 

A Simple Exercise in Plotting

For those who want to work on creating plots, here’s a simple exercise I got from Impro by Keith Johnstone. It gives you practice at bringing things together into a (relatively) integrated whole.

Start with three sentences describing unconnected actions. For example:

The tree swayed as the wind increased. Two ships passed each other in the night. My brother got out the deck of cards.

(You can create these sentences yourself or have someone else do it for you.)

Once you have your three sentences, write three more sentences to tie all the actions together, as in

I got out my own deck, and as the ship where I was held captive sailed past my brother’s, we felt each other’s presences and simultaneously turned the top card. I could tell we had both turned over The Storm. The wind that had previously been scouring the land immediately veered seaward, heading directly toward us.

(I promise I had no idea that I’d go in that direction when I wrote the original three sentences.)

This is the sort of exercise can be used as a warm-up whenever you start writing. It takes less than two minutes, and can kick your imagination into gear. Note that you aren’t going for a finished story; you’re just bringing separate actions together into something more unified.

Don’t overthink the exercise, or try to do anything brilliant. As with most improvisation, it’s better to do what strikes you as obvious rather than straining for something clever. You’ll soon find out that your “obvious” often takes other people by surprise. They may even think it’s brilliant.

[Picture of ship Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Youngamericaclipperblackandwhite.jpg]

Writing Description and Exposition: Combo

Last week,I showed an example based on the principle that A descriptive passage is the story of a particular character’s encounter with a person, place or thing. I noted that things would be completely different if I wrote a description of the same thing but from a different person’s viewpoint. So today, let me do that.

It was the second time I’d ever been in a lawyer’s office.

The first time was in a flea-bitten fire-trap in a neighborhood where even the rats carried switchblades. The lawyer was a guy who smelled like he washed his clothes in cheap whisky…but to be fair, I smelled the same way at the time. (It was not a good period in my life.) But surprise, surprise, my “legal eagle” knew his way around a courtroom. Or maybe he just got lucky. Either way, he kept me for going down on a bogus count of B&E, manufactured by a cop who lost his temper because he couldn’t get me on thirty-some real B&E’s I’d committed around the city.

But my first lawyer died the very night he got me set free. I took him out for a celebration drink and he keeled over right beside me in a dirty little bar. It scared the piss out of me. Also the alcohol. I got into a program and came out embarrassingly sober.

Mind you, I didn’t give up being a thief—I just stopped stealing while drunk. Which is why I went for years without being caught, and why (when my luck finally had a hiccup) I could afford to hire the incomparable Bethany Pruitt.

Her office resembled the kind of place I now used my talents to burgle: up-scale, chic, but not matchy-matchy. I particularly liked the two paintings on the wall in the reception room. Both were dreamscapes full of stylized figures of naked people. I walked up to the receptionist and before she could even put on a professional smile, I said, “Those paintings are lovely. May I ask who’s the artist?”

“Nellie Chang,” the woman answered immediately. “She shows with a gallery just down the block. Ms. Pruitt greatly admires Nellie’s work.”

Useful information. I made a mental note to visit the gallery after hours and pilfer a few canvases. Art can be hard to fence, but I knew several buyers who’d be happy to acquire the work of an up-and-comer in the early stages of her career. Good investments, and all that.

The receptionist and I had a nice little chat about who I was and whether I had booked an appointment. I’d taken the liberty of hacking into the company’s computers to place myself on their appointment calendar, but apparently that didn’t count. To my astonishment, the office still operated on paper, and I wasn’t written down in the official appointment book. The situation took several minutes to sort out, after which I was escorted down to a room with an even greater quantity of paper shelved on the walls in the form of law books. It all seemed so twentieth century! Still, it’s harder to change words on paper than in The Cloud, so for all I knew, Bethany Pruitt ran the most secure legal firm in Manhattan.

Now notice all the things going on here. The first few paragraphs provide exposition in the form of a story: how the narrator nearly went to jail. We get a sense of the character’s voice, attitude, and profession. Then we return to the present to get on with the business at hand. We don’t know exactly what the narrator has done, but we can guess that (s)he stole something and got caught. The specifics will no doubt emerge in conversation with Pruitt.

By the way, the artist Nellie Chang should play some role in the ensuing story. I have nothing in mind—I’m just making this stuff up as I go along—but if Chang gets this much attention on Page 1 of a story, readers will expect to see more of her. The first few pages of a story always create expectations in the reader’s mind; you have to recognize that and deal with it. (You don’t have to fulfill reader expectations, but you have to address them. You can have Chang appear in all kinds of ways, some more predictable than others…but you have to use her somehow or readers will wonder why you mentioned her at all.)

I hope this helps illustrate some principles about description and exposition. If you have any questions about description or exposition, feel free to submit a comment!

[Photo of paint brushes by terri_bateman [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]