Ok, so up front, I am not yet a writer. I can type out some decent emails and am chugging away at my graduate degree, but I’m still trying to get better at writing. For me, that means writing and learning. My bachelor’s degree was in engineering which means that I like to think in terms of systems and hierarchies. If you are someone who may be a future sci-fi writer, this may be of assistance to you. I am not a discovery writer, I can not sit down at the keyboard without a plot and expect to get anywhere, but I’m also not an obsessive outliner who can plan a scene-by-scene outline. Instead, I’m just learning and trying to figure out what I know I don’t know. Keep in mind that this essay seems to flow in reverse, but when sitting down at a keyboard, it’s very much the order that items are worked.
At the very bottom of writing is the sentence. Nouns Do Things. You have subject then verb. Editors hate adverbs, so if you want to throw one in, don’t include it in your first three chapters or first book that you attempt to get published. People dislike adverbs because they are predigested. If someone types furiously, why can’t their fingers fly over the keyboard? Don’t know, pacing? Description and pacing are mortal enemies. If the narrative, via the pov character, stops to describe the scenery, the reader reads it as the character stops to observe the scenery. Don’t stop in an all out sprint or a fist fight to describe what’s around you. Use verbs and direct/indirect objects to pepper just enough description to color a scene without slowing the action.
Sentences can fall into a pattern that is called a motivation response pattern. I see apple, I eat apple. Motivations are what exists or is happening in the world and the reaction is how the character responds to that. They can have a thought and think that whatever happening is just swell, or they can run away, fight it, eat it, have sex with it. It’s their reaction. For more on this, check out Oxygen-writer’s Journey Edition by John Olson and Randy Ingermanson for practice and Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer for the theory. I may copy over an appendix from Oxygen since the copyright notice lets me copy the appendix which breaks down motivation and reaction lines from the first two scenes of the book.
If you have enough motivation reaction units, you may build them into a scene or sequel. A scene is where something goes from bad to worse and a sequel is where the character picks up the pieces and makes a decision. A scene has a two part structure which consists of the try/fails and the setback. At some point early on in the scene, a goal is stated which is what the character is working towards, this may assist the book goal/plot and scenes work better if they do. The try/fails are what the character tries to do to get towards the goal but fails in execution due to one reason or another. When there are enough fails, then something really bad happens that throws the character off track almost entirely. This is the setback. When the setback is over, the sequel begins. First the character reacts to the disaster, is faced with a bunch of bad decisions and then picks one. For this in practice, check out Jim Butcher’s first book, Storm Front. He pretty much states that his first book was written using this pattern of scenes and sequels.
Next up, if you have enough scenes, you build them into conflict. Conflict is good at every level. If you are decent with dialogue tags, you can make a character’s speech conflict with their body language. If you’re a poet, you can even make sentences conflict with themselves. More importantly, conflict is what drives readers to turn the page. It is what moves and hinders characters and it drives plot. This is why the advice to start the first page with an argument is sound. Arguments are not placid, they have conflict. An info dump that describes the world and back story has no conflict. Two characters arguing about a piece of the world can place the story and anchor the setting while keeping the reader interested. All of storytelling is conflict, all of plot is conflict, if you think your writing is deflated and boring, it may be because you are leaving out the conflict. This is everywhere, whenever you are reading a good story, stop a second and ask yourself what the conflict is that’s keeping your interest.
The conflict reaches all the way up to the plot. There are several different plot frameworks can be used to build stories around. Star Wars and Eragon used Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Journey, so did Iron Man 3 (I’ll write more on Iron Man 3 and Campbell at a future time, but did you know that the kid was the Obi Wan character?). Hollywood and the speakers on Writing Excuses love the Three Act Structure. The first act introduces the theme, characters, setting, and gets the plot running. The second act trains the heroes into plot/conflict fighting machines by having them go through try/fail cycles to hone their abilities. The second act ends when an attempt to resolve the plot goes terribly wrong and reveals the third act. The final act has the climax, ties up loose ends, and ends the story. The Dark Knight Returns is brilliant because its first act is actually a mini three act story that moves onto the second act of the movie.
Now that the small parts are out of the way, there are characters and their voices. Every character should have their own plots and arcs. They should be complete with their own back story, motivations, and way of thinking. All of that boils down to how they see and relate to the world which is their voice. The reason that 3rd person omniscient narrators were run out of town is because the characters could only express their voice through choices and dialogue. With third person limited and first person, the narrative becomes their voice. Everything from the details they notice in the environment to how they describe it is influenced by their character and becomes their voice. For a piece of literature that has perfect use of voice differentiation, I would have to recommend the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Following the characters is setting. The setting is what most new writers work on first and emphasize most. This can manifest in terms of info dumps and drowning the reader in world history while depriving them of conflict. I may write about setting at some point, but every writer can develop a setting and I view the settings to be supports for the rest of the story.
Finally, once everything is fleshed out, there comes the Idea. In my opinion, the idea is the driving factor of the book. It is the theme that colors the book and each character has an idea that shapes their decisions. Some books have muted ideas and rely on plot and characters, which is good, but writers like Ayn Rand wrapped their books around an idea and drove everything in support of it. However, just because a book isn’t driven by the idea doesn’t mean that characters aren’t. In order for a character to be believable, they need to be self-consistent. The easiest way to make this happen is to find their number one ambition (to fit in, to find a mate, to catch all the pokemon) and filter all their decisions through that idea. If that breaks the plot, then rewrites need to happen. Plot can change, character ideas cannot.
There is so much else to learn about writing and I haven’t even covered all the topics that I know I’m shaky on (romance anyone?) , but as I figure things out, I’ll digest them by writing here.