Tag Archives: Elements of a story

Elements of the story: when the novel is not a novel after all

Book- onstruction-sign copy

In the rough draft, the goal is to get the work out of your head, and the concepts onto the page. To that end, I advise you to just write, and try not to self-edit as you go, because you may lose your train of thought.

If we let ourselves drop into the zone, in the first draft we are in story-teller-mode, which is where our best work happens. Yes, our prose is uneven and may contain things we wish had been written by someone else, but all we were doing was getting the idea down:

Thus it was that On departing Billy’s Revenge on this particular job, Lackland and Mags had kept the conversation cordial and polite, but little of substance passed between them. Oh, They joked and laughed, and said all the things that as they would say to with any Rowdy that they were on a job working with, but it felt all wrong. Still, Even so, Lackland did not press for anything more from Lady Mags, although he was full of questions and desperate for answers. 

It’s okay write crap when you are just getting it on to paper. You have to get the basic ideas down before you can craft them into a proper novel or short-story. (That drivel was from the rough draft of my 2010 nanowrimo manuscript. I can get rid of at least 24 words in that paragraph, and although I did replace several words, losing the fluff made it stronger.)

Remember, the rough draft–the first draft–is the proto-story, the just-born infant that is the child of your creativity. You do the shaping when you come back to it in the second draft. Some will stay, and some will go.

This weekend I discovered that one of my works in progress is not really a novel after all.

It was at 85,000 words, but it has occurred to me that it is a novella, because in the first half of the book, 4 chapters don’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I am done weeding it out, the ms may only top out at about 50,000 words.  In some circles that is a novel, but in fantasy, it is half a book.

Still, I’m not going to try to force it to be any longer than it is, because I have nothing of value to add to the tale. I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel. So, now at the end of the rough draft, this book must become a novella.

Those four cut chapters total about 16,000 words. Add to that the words that will be weeded out in the second draft and I would say its going to lose a lot more weight–perhaps another 8,000 to 10,000 words. But why do I think this? Because I am just finishing the rough draft and I have realized several things:

  1. __Hell's Handbasket__400 1Besides the four chapters that must go since they don’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters are mostly background that doesn’t need to be in the finished product. When I went in and removed large chunks of exposition I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Add to that the fact that in the rough draft we will always have a lot of words we can cut (or find alternatives for), words and phrases that weaken our narrative:
  • There was
  • To be

I will also make some contractions, ‘was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not becomes hasn’t,’ etc.

It’s amazing how many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is stronger without them. Many times they need no replacement.

Sometimes we use what I think of as “crutch” words. You can really lower your word-count when you look at each instance and see if you can get rid of these words. These are overused words that fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

  • so,
  • very,
  • that,
  • just,
  • so,
  • literally
  • very

But back to one of my current works-in-progress: why am I cutting an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgA lot of what I have written is good work, but as I said, several long passages don’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertain to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of this tale. However, those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I am saving them in file labeled “Out Takes.”

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing that chapter. But now that you are seeing it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it is bogging things down, and NO–Sometimes there is no fixing it. Just because we wrote it does not mean we have to keep it.

In genre fiction, no matter how much you like the prose you have just written for a given chapter, if the chapter does not advance the story, it must go. The story arc must not be derailed, and sometimes amputation is the only cure.

The Story Arc copy


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Elements of the story: Circumstances and Objectives

the hobbitAt the outset of any good story, we find our protagonist, and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs, and Hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the Situation, which is the core idea of your plot. This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself in the beginning of the story. 

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a respectable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is living a comfortable life in a prosperous, sheltered village, and has no desire to change that in any way. However, a casual, polite greeting made to a passing wizard sets a string of events into motion that will eventually change the course of history of Middle Earth.

the hobbit movie poster 3The wizard, Gandalf, tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition’s “burglar”. The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo becomes a little indignant, and joins despite himself. The next morning he has second thoughts, but the last minute Bilbo literally runs out the door, with nothing but the clothes on his back.

  • How will the story start?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: Objective

the hobbit movie posterA protagonist has no business showing up on the page unless he/she has a compelling objective. If he doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

Bilbo does have an objective. Once he gets past his feeling of having made a terrible mistake, he desires nothing more than to help his friends achieve their goal: that of regaining their lost kingdom. Gandalf exerts a parental influence over Bilbo at the outset, guiding him and pushing him out of his comfortable existence.  But it is Bilbo who has common sense and compassion, who gradually takes over leadership of the party, guiding and rescuing them from their own greedy mistakes. This is a fact the dwarves can’t bear to acknowledge, and also a fact he doesn’t realize himself.

Those turning points where with each adventure Bilbo gains confidence and a tool or weapon he will later need are what make up the best parts of the adventure. That is what you must inject into your adventure, be it urban fantasy or science fiction.

  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is he going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?

Perhaps your tale is set on a space station. What does your protagonist need that is in short supply? What does he have to do to get it?

Perhaps you are writing an urban fantasy. Perhaps your main character is a vampire. He/she requires sustenance–what will he/she do to get it? Or conversely, if a human, what will he/she do to avoid becoming vampire-food?

Protagonists begin their tale in their current surroundings. They are thrown out of their comfortable existence by circumstances, and forced to identify objectives they must achieve or acquire in order to resolve their situation.

hobbit-battle-five-armies-bilbo-posterCircumstances and Objectives combine to form the plot. Character A desires Objective B–and will do anything to acquire it.  Along the way, Character A has a series of adventures that force him to grow and change, but which in the end give him the strength, the moral courage to enable the final resolution.

Thus, whichever you conceive first, characters or objective, you need to know why your character is willing to leave his circumstances and embark on his adventure. That objective must be compelling enough for him to risk everything he values to achieve it.

But what if a side character has such a compelling story that the book becomes about him, and not our hobbit? If you notice that is the case, rewrite your book so that the character with the  most compelling story is the protagonist from page one.

Potential for gain must outweigh the potential for loss–so if he is risking his life, there had better be a damned big payoff at the end, whether monetary or in moral coin. Without that risk and potential for gain, there is no story.



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Elements of a story: Identifying your protagonist

War_of_the_FlowersGreat plots drive great stories, but the best stories start with a character that really moved me. The trouble is, when we first begin to write a story, one character leads to another and soon, each character is vying to tell your their own story. It’s sort of like a family gathering, where they all talk at once, and you love them all.

This makes writing a true stand-alone book difficult. Tad Williams managed to do just that in 2003 with The War of the Flowers.  Theo Vilmos is a thirty-year-old lead singer in a marginally successful rock band. Fearing he is past his prime, he seeks refuge in a remote cabin in the woods. There, he reads a memoir written by a (perhaps) dead relative. This relative claimed he had visited the magical world of Faerie. A series of strange events occurs and before Theo knows it, he too is drawn into a place that is both strange and yet familiar to him, revealing the truth about many things that had always puzzled him.

war_flowersWilliams had another great character to draw on in his little fairy, Applecore, but he kept it contained in one wonderful novel detailing Theo Vilmos’ adventures rather than going too far afield and having to serialize it. This is a model we lesser-known fantasy authors might want to take a closer look at and somehow revive: the stand-alone novel.

We might have a great story in our head, and we may have an awesome cast of characters dying to leap onto the page, but until we know who the hero is, we have no story. From the first page to the last, Tad Williams knew who his hero was in The War of the Flowers, and it’s clear that he never doubted it was Theo Vilmos.

Sometimes  identifying just whose emotional and physical journey you will be following is easier said than done. When faced with a pantheon of great characters, ask yourself these questions (listed here in no particular order):

  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Who’s personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who will be best suited to taking full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

Dragonbone_ChairFrom my point of view, one of the best fantasy series of all time is Tad Williams’  epic, three-volume masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It opens with volume one, The Dragonbone Chair. This is a very different tale than The War of the Flowers, much larger, and encompassing several entire cultures on the edge of disaster.

In this opening volume, Tad had many great characters to draw on, all of whom had strong stories. Indeed, there is a large cast of characters with incredible possibilities, but as a reader I liked that he managed to tell their stories without losing sight of the original story that sparked the series in the first place.

The fact that Williams was able to weave the many threads of such a large cast of characters into one enthralling story and still leave (Seoman) Simon Snowlock as the main protagonist with a gripping story-line  is amazing.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1Yet in this series, Tad Williams does just that. He could have written it as the story of Prince JosuaPrincess Miriamele, Binabik the Troll, or even the Norn prince, Jiriki. They are each compelling characters, with deep, intriguing back-stories, and any of them would have been an awesome protagonist.

Each and every one of the many characters in this series was strong enough to warrant a book of their own, but Simon the kitchen boy remains the central character, and the other story-lines are detailed but remain subordinate to his, fleshing it out and defining his ultimate fate, driving the plot to the final denouement, and the cataclysmic events in Green Angel Tower.

To_Green_Angel_TowerThis juggling act, this ability to not become sidetracked by your wonderful side-characters while telling their story is critical to the progression of your plot. It’s excruciatingly easy to become so enthralled with the story-line of a minor player that you derail your novel in the first draft.

I’m a gamer and I play Final Fantasy type RPGs. I adore side-quests, and I love a little back-story to flesh out whatever tale I’m reading, but just like in a game, the protagonist and the core plot has to stay in motion. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has a lot of side-quests, and a lot of back-story, but despite the opportunities for derailment, it is propelled irresistibly toward the final catastrophic event, and does it in three admittedly large books.

A_Memory_of_Light_cover (1)As much as I adored the Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan seemed to fall into the trap of loving all his characters too much, and wanting to tell each of their truly epic stories in the one series–and it couldn’t be done without aggravating his fans.

Consider this: although it was originally planned as a six-book series, The Wheel of Time grew to encompass fourteen volumes, a prequel novel, and a companion book.  Jordan began writing the first volume, The Eye of the World, in 1984. It was published in January 1990. With Jordan’s death on 16 September 2007, the conclusion of the series was in question, but Brandon Sanderson stepped in and did a masterful job of taking Jordan’s incredible mass of notes and background, along with the rough draft and finished the series’ final three installments.

Stone_of_FarewellIt occasionally happens that you have chosen a protagonist, but another character suddenly seems to have a more intriguing way about him. It is up to you to make a decision–who will be the central character? If, after all is said and done, a different character than the one you originally thought was the protagonist comes to the fore, you must go back and rewrite your beginning to to reflect that.

Deciding who that protagonist will be is a matter of knowing which character has the most opportunity to take full advantage of all the possibilities. The other characters serve only to propel him/her to the final conflict.

Sometimes, as in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, that character is the 14 year old kitchen boy on the verge of manhood, and not the battle-hardened prince with the tragic history.



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