Writing Fiction—Planning the Truby Way


Anyone who hangs around fiction writers or our blogs soon deciphers that there are supposedly two types of authors—seat of the pants-ers and outliners—though James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure (Writer’s Digest) identified a third sort of in between writer.

I’ve identified myself as the latter, at least when I write fiction. When I journal (or blog), I definitely write on the fly. For this blog, I pick a topic and pour out my thoughts as they come. When I journal, I don’t even pick a topic!

On the other hand, when I write non-fiction formally—the articles I did for Victorian Homes, for example—I carefully research and plan.

Fiction seems to fall in between.

But I’m currently dreaming up a stand alone fantasy to write when I complete The Lore of Efrathah (I’m revising the last book, now titled Against Blood and Fire.) I had one plot point and no characters, though I knew the story would take place in Efrathah before Lore. But who would it be about, what would it be about, what would happen?

No thoughts, but no hurry either. Until a few weeks ago, when I was in Borders with our little group of SoCal speculative fiction writers (Mike Duran, Merrie Destefano, Rachel Marks, and me), and Rachel pulled The Anatomy of Story (Faber and Faber) by John Truby from the shelf.

I was excited about the book because it put a premium on theme, something few other writing books seem to do. But once I had my copy, I realized it was more than a book that discusses the elements of stories. The subtitle is accurate: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.

Well, I don’t know about the “master” part, but I do know that by setting out to follow the steps, I am building a story. And the great part, as Truby says, it is organic. It isn’t a formula where you plug in character type A in slot B, then fifty pages later shift to Act II.

All that to say, I am becoming a firm believer in plans. I’ve run across several blogs/writer comments in which writers are obviously well into their story and they do not know what will happen.

One said his character was accused of a crime, of which he was innocent. Or not, because he did have a good motive to commit said villainous deed.

Well … doesn’t it MATTER early on if your character is a villain or a hero? I mean, is it OK to switch part way through a story? Or will the author, of necessity, have to go back over that earlier ground and rewrite, putting in the appropriate foreshadowing and character attributes of a villain?

Either way, it seems so unnecessary to me if an author would sit down and think the story through first.

Sure, changes happen as a story unfolds. The character must act in a way that is consistent, so in a given scene, the appropriate and necessary action may be one the author had not anticipated before hand. Hence new possibilities open up.

But using Truby’s organizational structure, there is a framework that serves to hold the story in place so it doesn’t wander.

Here are some pertinent quotes:

Most writers don’t use the best process for creating a story. They use the easiest one …

The writer comes up with a generic premise, or story idea, that is a vague copy of one that already exists …

He thinks of the opponent and minor characters as separate from and less important than the hero. So they are almost always week, poorly defined characters.

When it comes to theme, our writer avoids it entirely so that no one can accuse him of “sending a message” …

He comes up with a plot and a scene sequence based on one question: What happens next? …

Often he organizes his plot using the three-act structure, an external imprint that divides the story into three pieces but doesn’t link the events under the surface. As a result, the plot is episodic, with each event or scene standing alone.

Instead of the above, Truby says the process he is detailing will allow you, the author to

construct your story from the inside out … With each chapter [of The Anatomy of Story], your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

This latter is exactly what I’ve experienced so far. I think I’m being won over. I’m not outlining. I’m not filling out character charts. I’m thinking and answering questions and imagining and recording in a precise way what each new layer of my story will become. I hope. 😕

What I Learn about Writing from Avatar


Those of you sick of this subject, feel free to click on over to a more interesting blog. I won’t feel offended (or even know!) 😆 I do have a tendency to camp on a subject (see ten-plus posts on The Shack, for example), but just so you know, I really tried to spark thoughts on a new topic. I visited other blogs, thought about the book I just finished, about what I read in my quiet time, and current events. Sorry, nothing there to share with you all.

So I’m back at Avatar one more time. I’ve thought about how this movie really seems to have three or four level. I identify the story level, the theme level, and the creative presentation level.

  • The story level includes the plot and character development (though some people might divide these two, which I would not disagree with).
  • The theme level includes the religious views and the sociopolitical ideology.
  • The creative presentation refers to the visual effect.
  • Most people agree that Avatar came up short on the story level. Sure, it had a sweet romance, but nothing was a surprise. From the moment Neytiri rescued Jake, it was apparent they would fall in love and that he would ultimately join the Na’vi.

    In addition, the characterization was weak. In a three hour movie, we learned very little about any other member of the Na’vi. And the earthlings were pigeon-holed neatly in their roles—the gun-happy military guy, the greedy and stupid capitalist, the tough on the outside but tender on the inside woman scientist, the geeky co-worker.

    I question whether anyone would come if Avatar, as written, were presented in the theater. I suspect the scathing reviews of the story would have the play shut down after the first week.

    The second level has to do with the message. Here Avatar either succeeded hugely or failed miserably, depending on whether or not you agreed with what James Cameron said. Some people camp on the environmental message or the anti-technology message, depending how you look at things. Some viewers wept because of the portrayal of the military while others wept for the loss of the Na’vi’s tree home.

    Another group of us either laud the movie or criticize it because of the religious views it espouses.

    On this thematic level, Avatar is steeped in controversy—never a bad thing for sales. But does it make for a quality movie?

    The last element is the creative presentation. This movie was a visual experience. I felt transported. I lived on Pandora for those three hours. I found myself frustrated with the sections of the movie that showed Jake on the military/commercial/scientific base and away from the real world of Pandora.

    Those latter sections made me feel as if I was running across the rim of the world after having been in a wheelchair for years, as if I had learned to ride a flying creature past the floating mountains. It was beautiful, stunning, exhilarating. It was an experience.

    Which brings me to what I as a writer learned about this movie. Reading should be an experience. Through story, characters, setting, the writer should transport the reader somewhere else.

    But not having the benefit of 3D or first-time technology, writers can’t afford to have flat characters or a warmed-over plot (and certainly never both in one story!) Nor can we afford to be heavy handed with our themes.

    Still, the goal for the novelist is the same—take the readers somewhere. Into the lives of your characters, into the world you’ve created, into the high-stakes issues you care about. Let them experience—beyond the adrenalin rush, beyond the tear-jerk moment. Transport them Elsewhere and keep them there to the last page.

    In the end, I have to believe such a book is more powerful, influential, timeless than Avatar can ever be.

    Now if I just knew how to write like that …

    Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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    So You Think You Can Write


    Sometimes I feel like those contestants on shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. You’ve seen them—people who seem absolutely clueless that they have no business on a stage, who for all the world seem genuinely to believe they should be the next Idol or America’s favorite dancer. Meanwhile the judges are laughing behind their hands, and sometimes cutting them cruelly to their faces.

    But isn’t writing fiction a lot like that? We writers slog away putting together a story we like, peopled with characters we care about. But what does everyone else think? Do they see the scene the way we do when we paint it with words? Do they know the characters in depth the way we do?

    And how about those judges, the editors and agents and contest judges we send our work off to? Are they laughing behind their hands? They’re human, after all, and entitled to an opinion. But how do I know their opinion of my work isn’t disdain?

    Maybe, just maybe, I don’t belong up on that stage. It’s a question I ask as I prepare yet another proposal to go out.

    Is the opening strong enough? the title catchy enough? the writing good enough? Does the proposal sound too formal? or not professional enough? Do I accurately represent my story? or do too much so it looks like I’m trying too hard? Did I include enough marketing information? or too much?

    Yesterday I wrote about conferences, and one thing that happens at even the small ones I’ve been to is appointments with editors and agents. So any number of writers are in Denver this week meeting with professions in the hope of finding out if they’ll be going to Hollywood or getting a ticket to Las Vegas.

    For writers, I think that next step is an editor or agent saying, Go ahead and send me a proposal (or full manuscript). With that request, maybe we can at least put to rest the idea that the professionals are getting a chuckle at our expense.

    But what about that next round and the next and the next. What about after the contest is over and the hard work of marketing a book becomes a reality?

    In it all, it seems to me there is one and only one thing a Christian writer can know for sure: God knows what He’s doing. He hasn’t forgotten a single one of His children. He will complete the work He’s begun in us. And most likely, He’ll use writing and the writing business to shape and form writers into His image. No matter what happens on stage.

    Having Something More to Say


    I actually have two things in mind. First, the proponents of theme-less fiction or at best unintentional themes, say that God receives glory because of the artistic quality of the work.

    I take issue with that position on several levels. First, when Scripture talks about beauty, the passage that some use as a proof text to support the idea of art intrinsically glorifying God actually says nothing of the kind. I’m referring to the passage in Exodus where Moses receives instructions for the building of the tabernacle and making the priestly garments: “You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2)

    Clearly, the holy garments served the purpose of glorifying God but they were also to be beautiful. In other words, they were functional and artistic. Their God-glorifying capacity didn’t arise from their beauty. Otherwise, I suspect the golden calf mentioned some chapters later would have been classified as God-glorifying instead of idolatrous.

    I also take issue with the position that theme-less stories will glorify God by their artistic merit. I do not believe that theme-less stories are artistic.

    When a theme is well-crafted, it is woven into the fabric of a story in such a way that the reader is not clubbed over the head. At the same time, if someone asks what the author was saying, most readers will be able to give their own version of the author’s vision. It’s not a secret, not so subtle as to be missed.

    Non-Christians who did not recognize the Christian symbolism in Narnia nevertheless understood Lewis was saying sacrifice triumphs over evil.

    A true artist will handle theme in such a way as to preserve and protect it while enhancing it all along the way. It needs a gentle hand and firm intention, subtle strokes and adept suggestions.

    Stories with Something To Say take thought and care and planning and patience and … artistic skill. They are more than paint on a canvas. They become pictures that convey life and truth and yes, beauty.

    Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 3:05 pm  Comments (4)  
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    The Art of Storytelling, Part 7


    This is probably the last in this series. The February issue of Writer’s Digest has fueled a lot of my thoughts and I’m reaching the end of the articles dealing with fiction.

    The one I read today reaffirmed some of the things I’ve learned about plot, but also said succinctly what I think inhibits some writers. From Steve Almond‘s Fiction column, this month’s article, “The Great Plot Test,” in which he discusses common problems he runs across in teaching fiction:

    The truth is, we often can’t see the bad decisions in our own work because we’re too narcissistically attached to it.

    Yep, the truth hurts at times. But he said what I bumbled around a few days ago. “Too narcissistically attached.”

    Years ago, in a long forgotten article or writing book, an author wrote a well-remembered statement that if we have lines in our story that we really love, those probably are the first we should cut. I disagreed! Vehemently! Why would you cut something you knew to be good?

    Finally, finally I get it. The lines themselves were standing above the story, and that’s backwards. The writing, as much as the characters, plot, setting, foreshadowing, description, symbolism, dialogue must serve the story.

    If I write a pretty line I refuse to cut, I am no longer serving the story with that line. That’s not to say I need to cut a line because it is pretty. But I do need to be willing to cut it.

    Lo these many years later, I’ve been lopping off favorite lines right and left.

    Writing fiction really is odd. I mean, it is a form of communication, so it’s me writing something I want to say to … an unseen and unknown group of people “out there.” And, if I do my job well, those people won’t think about me at all. They will feel attached to my characters, perhaps, and after the fact become aware of me, but if I intrude in the story, they very well may put the book down, or at best skip the pages where I am visible.

    The point is, those lines I love just might be the ones that intrude. At least, I need to consider that possibility.

    One more line from the article. Two of the common problems Almond finds in his students have to do with plot/character issues. The first is plot drift, in which the action is not driven by the character trying to achieve his greatest desire. The second is plot shallowness (my term—Almond says the author fails to push hard enough). Here’s the crux of this last point, and I’ll end here to let you mull it over:

    My point is this: Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forching him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

    Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm  Comments (6)  
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    Books That Last – The Nancy Drew Model


    Not every book is intended to last. Some writers are perfectly fine writing fast and hard for a market that craves another one just like the other one. Surprisingly, however, even books that don’t intend to last sometimes do.

    Nancy Drew comes to mind. Good stories. Fast reads. Formulaic plots. Yet, in the face of many an imitator and many a ghost writer, Nancy Drew has lasted. Why?

    I think two factors come into play: tension and a larger-than-life character.

    Nancy Drew was a smart, independent teenage girl long before Title IX came into being. She lived an exciting life that many a young girl dreamed of living. And not much has changed. Today’s liberated women have become enslaved by the things men have been bound by for years. So the take-charge Nancy still resonates.

    Unfortunately, it’s the plots that suffer in these mysteries. No archenemy steps up to be Moriarty to Sherlock Drew. And yet the authors found ways to create tension. Nancy, captured and tied up. How will she escape this time? Will she find the note in the base of the clock? Can she rescue her friends in time and still stop the thief?

    The questions aren’t deep, but there is no doubt what her goal is, so readers hold their breath and cheer her on. The problem is in remembering any of the story the next day, or next week, or next month.

    Too many stories suffer plot problems while also lacking a character that resonates. These are the books that will not last. Some of them may actually be initial commercial successes, but unlike the Chronicles of Narnia, no one will be buying them forty years later.

    The added dimension that long-lasting books have is depth. There’s a point greater than entertainment to the writing, though entertainment is surely a by-product found in abundance.

    And what creates depth? Ideas. Ones that make readers turn the story over and over in their mind for days after they reach the last page.

    Back to the beginning. Some writers aren’t aiming to create the Great American Novel. They want to entertain, much as I’m sure the Carolyn Keen ghost writers did. But what would these writers think if they knew young girls today still read their work? Would they be pleased, wishing only that their relatives were pocketing a royalty check? Or would they cringe in horror, wishing they had included depth in their stories?

    Probably some of both.

    Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 6:22 pm  Comments (8)  
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    Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 2


    So what keeps the reader reading beyond those early pages?

    I mentioned engaging characters—ones that are interesting, well-drawn—but the truth is, good characters aren’t enough by themselves. These well-drawn characters must also do something interesting and believable.

    In my adventures through Christian fiction (what I’ve mostly read since becoming a full time writer hoping to publish with a Christian publishing house), I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

    And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

    Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

    In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to root for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

    Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

    That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

    Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin (or was it Merry) looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

    In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can root for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

    Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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    The Chief Means of Marketing – Part 5


    What makes a novel interesting? What makes a blog post interesting? (And don’t forget, interesting is one of the necessary ingredients if what we produce is going to be buzz worthy).

    I don’t think the answers to those two questions are necessarily the same. Fiction, I’m convinced, is interesting primarily if the story is interesting. Perhaps you’ve read here more than once Story trumps all.

    But even saying that, there may not be agreement about what makes a story interesting. Some will say it’s the characters. Others will say it’s the plot. Still others will say it’s the way the story is told—the language the author uses. A smaller minority might say stories are interesting if they take the reader to a new place or show them something new about the world, life, history.

    The main thing that each of these seem to have in common is the new factor. Yet writing instructors will say time and again, there are no new stories. I’ve read on blogs and in instruction books that there are ten basic plots. When I was in school, we learned there were five basic themes.

    Off hand, one might think science fiction or fantasy has the easiest road, for surely those of us writing in the speculative genres have the newest, oddest, strangest stuff with which to construct stories.

    But therein lies a danger. New for the sake of new isn’t interesting either. And new that is so odd it doesn’t seem to connect to reality isn’t interesting. In other words, readers want something new but familiar, and something different because the story requires the difference.

    In addition, I’m more and more convinced that readers will become attached to a story primarily if they become attached to a character. What, then, makes a character interesting?

    Again, if you brought in a hundred fiction writers, you might have a hundred different answers, but here are some broad brush strokes that I believe are needed to make a character interesting.

    1) He or she must want something. And the story must be about them going after what they want. Without that central something that the character is trying to achieve, find, win, readers have no reason to be in the protagonist’s corner, hoping and fearing with him or her.

    2) He or she must have some admirable qualities. It seems so much emphasis is being put on making characters seem real, some authors are forgetting to make the character likable or admirable. One of the complaints of the movie Prince Caspian was that the screenplay writers changed Peter from a noble character to one with angst. Fortunately other characters were still depicted with strengths, so movie goers didn’t seem to have a problem backing the side of good.

    3) He or she must have some weakness. This is the point that has become blown out of proportion, in my opinion, but the answer isn’t to swing the pendulum clear to the other side and depict characters that are unnatural in their goodness. Plots aren’t interesting if they have no conflict, and characters aren’t interesting if they have no internal struggle.

    OK, there are other factors, but I’ve gone on too long as it is. Your turn. What makes a character interesting?

    Published in: on July 15, 2008 at 2:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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    Piquing Curiosity


    Yesterday I mentioned some things that cause confusion—conflicting facts, improper motivation, a lack of adequate details to ground a scene, and a lack of foreshadowing. In trying to avoid confusion, however, I’m opening myself up to another novel killer—a boring story.

    Well, maybe not a boring story but a story told in a boring way. I suggest a story can turn boring for several reasons.

    First, the characters are flat (synonymous with cardboard, two-dimensional, stereotypical). A character who is not well-rounded is predictable, lifeless, a mere placeholder. There is no surprise, no wonder, no passion in such an individual.

    The point here is to avoid oversimplifying characters in order to avoid confusion. Instead, a character, like a real life individual, should unfold in increments. Readers are not going to expect a detailed character sketch when the protagonist first shows up on the page. Rather, there will be a process of getting to know him through his actions, words, and thoughts. In fact, that process should continue all book long. Part of what will keep readers engaged is this getting to know the characters on an ever deeper level.

    A second thing that makes the telling of a story boring, in my opinion, is a predictable plot. Again, it would be easy to fall into this writing pattern in an effort to avoid confusion. Even a “standard” premise, such as a romance, where the reader knows going in that boy and girl will meet and marry (or fall in love—I just liked the alliteration of meet and marry 😉 ), the story can be interesting, even exciting, because the how unfolds in an unexpected way.

    The real plot question I think an author should prompt in his reader’s mind is, How will the protagonist overcome? And the secondary question might be, Or will he? Overcoming, I think, is at the heart of plot. Yes, the character must want something and must want it desperately. This something must matter. But it is in the overcoming of the obstacles that stand in the way of the character obtaining his desire that has readers sliding to the edge of their seats and turning pages as fast as they can.

    But if the obstacles are ho-hum, nothing new, seen that one coming a mile away, or if they make the character look foolish because he didn’t see them coming a mile away when the reader did, the plot will fail to pique curiosity. Who is curious about what he is sure will happen?

    A third area that can spark curiosity in the reader is the story world. What’s it like in this place, whether it’s the world of a research scientist working in a name university, a missionary starting an orphanage in Indonesia, an astronaut landing on Mars, or a hobbit traveling in Middle Earth. Again, readers won’t want to know all about this place up front. Just as the author must introduce the characters gradually, so must the story world unfold gradually.

    Steve Almond gave a good way to determine what needs to be revealed when. I quoted it yesterday, but I think it bears repeating:

    [Readers] don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

    Makes sense to me. 😀

    Published in: on June 18, 2008 at 10:03 am  Comments (2)  
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    Confusion or Curiosity


    So I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.

    Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.

    Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. In her comment to yesterday’s post, Sally Apokedak said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.

    I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.

    Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off Steve Almond‘s examples in his Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.

    He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

    Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.

    The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

    A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

    But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

    The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

    Helpful guidelines, I think.

    Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 10:49 am  Comments (2)  
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