Archive for the 'Plotting' Category

Feb 21 2016

Inactive Protagonists

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Are there any circumstances under which a highly inactive protagonist would be more promising dramatically than a more active protagonist? E.g. a main character that is weakly unenthusiastic about participating in the plot*, or opts to do nothing in situations where almost every protagonist in the genre would have taken some sort of move (like a superhero story about someone that develops superpowers but doesn’t want to be a superhero/villain or otherwise interact with superhero activity).


*Weakly unenthusiastic: not all that promising. In contrast, I think someone who’s being coerced into doing something but actively rebelling/sabotaging is helluva more promising.

9 responses so far

Feb 03 2016

Incompetent Protagonists

Under what circumstances (if any) would it be possible to make a grossly incompetent main character likable and engaging? Are there any cases where making the main character consistently incompetent would make a story more interesting?

26 responses so far

Jan 27 2016

How Disney writing has changed over time…

God, how many hours of counting character lines must have gone into this? Thanks, researchers!

One response so far

Nov 17 2012

What Makes a Hero?

In Skyfall, M remarks offhandedly that “orphans always make the best recruits” as secret agents. She doesn’t explain, but I would infer that she means that commitment matters more than anything else in her line of work, and that a person with a family won’t be as fully committed because they somewhere to leave to and may have been raised with more inhibitions than someone with a harder upbringing.


In your story, are there any traits or demographic characteristics which are unusually important for your heroes (or villains)? In particular, if you have a team of heroes, what are they looking for when they choose members? (For example, what should a superhero team be looking for besides superpowers? If a team takes random people off the street on life-or-death missions because they happen to have superpowers, does that strike anybody involved as desperate and/or crazy? If not, why not?) If you have a main hero, does he/she have the trait in question? If not, how does he/she get around that?

11 responses so far

Nov 02 2012

What to Do When You Discover That Your Story Is No Longer Original

Did Hollywood or a well-known author just ruin your day by releasing a story that looks strikingly similar to something you’ve been independently developing for years? Here are some ways you can develop your story in a different direction.


1. Focus on unusual character traits. There have been a LOT of superheroes that are brilliant scientists, but Iron Man’s protagonist has a very unusual combination of traits. Whereas most scientist characters struggle with something like shyness, Tony Stark is hyper-charismatic and his main flaw is impulsiveness/recklessness.


2. Give the main characters unusual goals and/or motivations, preferably which tie into unusual decisions. For example, in most national security thrillers, if a character gets framed for a major crime, the character’s quest will center on proving his innocence and/or getting revenge on the people that have framed him. In contrast, Point of Impact’s protagonist is a backwoods hermit who responds to a framing in a very unusual way. His first move is to break into an FBI-guarded morgue to recover the corpse of his dog (who was killed at his house when the criminals were planting evidence against him). The protagonist’s sense of honor causes him to jeopardize his chances of succeeding at the main plot over a point of honor that wouldn’t matter much to most protagonists.

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27 responses so far

Jun 15 2012

Three Powerful Tips To Heighten Story Tension

This article reveals three powerful ways to play ‘games with time’ when crafting a story. They build suspense and engage the reader’s interest. Stories that master narrative pace get published. 


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5 responses so far

May 14 2012

This Premise Sounds Brilliant: Redshirts

Published by under Plotting

From John Scalzi’s Redshirts:

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.


Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.


Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission.Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

13 responses so far

Apr 26 2012

13 Reasons the Police Might Oppose a Superhero

If you’d like to use the police as an antagonist but aren’t quite sure why they might oppose the superhero, here are some  possibilities.


1. The superhero is investigating sensitive cases.

  • The hero might be challenging cases that have already been “solved.” If the superhero can show that the police & district attorney have convicted/arrested the wrong person, it will make the police look bad, could open up them to lawsuits, and could jeopardize careers.  Also, the police will probably be skeptical about whether the superhero knows more about the case than the police investigation was able to find. What if the superhero is wrong?  If a superhero even looks into the case, that could create unwanted media attention for the police and prosecutors.
  • Major politicians (e.g. the mayor) might pressure the police if the superhero is tackling politically sensitive cases (for example, if the suspect is a politician or major donor or if the case is highly publicized).
  • The case is likely to implicate police officers or otherwise make the police look bad. For example, anything involving police brutality, corruption, police misconduct (e.g. why did the police drop the case against Lex Luthor? Did the mayor put them up to it?), etc.


2. The superhero refuses police commands (which will especially irritate police if the case ends badly). For example, if the superhero tried breaking into a hostage situation while the police were still trying to negotiate a surrender, that would make the police livid (particularly if any hostages then got injured or killed). If the superhero does something that causes the police to get heavy media and/or political criticism, the police might throw the superhero under the bus to protect themselves. “We had this case completely under control until Captain Doomsday showed up!”  (The superhero would probably disagree with that claim–if it looked like the police had the situation under control, the superhero probably wouldn’t have charged in).

2.1. The superhero is too rough. If the hero has a history of gratuitously injuring criminals, getting bystanders/hostages injured, and causing serious property damage, the police might think they’d do a better job on their own.


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2 responses so far

Apr 16 2012

How to Shorten a Novel Manuscript Which Is Too Long

Generally, I would recommend submitting an adult novel manuscript at 80-100,000 words. Here are some tips for shortening your manuscript if you’re considerably over that. (NOTE: Please don’t shorten your manuscript until you’ve actually finished a draft! Until it’s finished, completion should be your #1 goal).


Substantive Changes

1. If you have too many main characters, please eliminate and/or merge some and/or demote some to minor characters. If you’re an unpublished author, I’d recommend limiting yourself to at most 6 main characters (protagonists and antagonists total) that will require substantial space.


2. Eliminate and/or merge side characters.  Individually, a side character doesn’t take as much space as a main character, but there are usually more SCs and it’s generally easier to reduce their roles because they have a smaller individual effect on the plot.


3. You can eliminate or pare back side plots. What the characters are doing when they’re NOT pursuing the main arc of the book? Is it worth the space?

  • Relationships between major characters and side characters.
  • Anything a side character does without developing a major character.
  • Anything characters do in their daily lives or day jobs (e.g. when they’re being Bruce Wayne rather than Batman).


4. Make the main plot more efficient.  For example, remove intermediate steps in the main conflict which don’t contribute enough to tension and/or character-development.  For example, in the last book of of the Hunger Games series, the main character spends about 6300 words taking down an intermediate obstacle (a fortress standing between her and the main enemy). The fight wasn’t terribly interesting and it didn’t show us much about the characters we didn’t see elsewhere. The author could probably have shaved off a few thousand words there.  Another possibility is making the villain’s scheme less monotonous/repetitive. For example, if you had your villain and hero racing around the world to gather 9 plot coupons, it might help to cut that down to (say) 5 so that you have more space for each intermediate step and readers have less cause to grouse (“Oh, God, another Pokemon badge?“).


4.1. Another way to make the main arc more efficient is to shorten the buildup to the inciting event. For example, if your superhero action novel takes 20,000 or 30,000 words to give the main character superpowers, you might be burying the lede too much (assuming the superpowers are the most important plot development early on–if the action is secondary to the story, that might not be the case).


Phrasing Changes

5. Convert some/most of your adverb phrases into shorter verb phrases.  For example, “He moved quickly through…” could be “He ran through…” or “He raced through…” Your book probably has hundreds of adverbs*, so you could probably save a page or two here.

*To count your adverbs, have your word processor find all of the examples of “ly ” in your manuscript.


5.1. Root out passive and/or unnecessarily long phrases. For example, “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” can be shortened to “Dead leaves covered the ground,” saving you seven words. I’d recommend having your word processor finding all examples of “there were” and “there was” and rephrasing most of them.


6. Glance through each of your chapters for unnecessary words/phrases and eliminate them. For example, if somebody has just thrown a plate at the wall, you don’t need to tell us he’s angry or surly. Additionally, the word “then” is usually unnecessary in sequences of events. For example, in “Mike did X and then he did Y,” you don’t need to tell us “then” because it’s obvious that Y came after X. (Otherwise, you would have put Y first).

12 responses so far

Mar 26 2012

13 Ways to Develop a Story That’s Too Short

If you haven’t yet reached your word-goal for your novel (probably 80-100,000 words for a professional-length manuscript or 50,000 for NaNoWriMo), here are some ideas for making your book longer without just dragging it out.


1. Add a new complication. If something goes wrong with what your characters have already done or are doing, it will take them time to resolve the complications. I would recommend using this extra space to develop characters and/or advance the plot and/or raise the stakes. For example, in the Hunger Games series, the main character (spoiler) survives a Rollerball-style death match, but her new fame makes her a symbol of a brewing rebellion and puts her family at risk of government reprisal. Before, (only) her life was at stake, but it gets even worse for her.


2. Add intermediate scenes, ideally fleshing out character development and/or smoothing out the plot with necessary details. If you’re inserting a scene between A and B, it should add something you didn’t have before.


3. Add another goal or a change of goal for a major character.


4. Expand scenes you’ve glossed over. For example, if Silence of the Lambs had been shortened by paring back the conversations between the main character and side-antagonist Hannibal Lecter, the plot would probably have been much less interesting. In this case, additional material with a side character developed a main character and gave the main character a few tantalizing scraps of information with which to accomplish her goal (find the main antagonist before he killed again).

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16 responses so far

Jan 07 2012

Possible Problems and Obstacles for Superheroes to Face Besides Supervillains

Here are some possibilities.

1. A lack of money.  Superheroics can result in injuries, but anybody with a secret identity probably wouldn’t want to reveal those injuries to an insurance company.  (Otherwise, they’d need to lie to the insurance company or reveal their secret identity).  Second, a lot of superheroes spend what must be substantial amounts of money on their superheroics.  For example, Peter Parker is practically on the verge of starvation (and has been evicted at least once), but he’s still buying high-grade flame-retardant fabric for costumes. Even a wealthier team like the Fantastic Four could have financial difficulties sometimes.  Their headquarter alone would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year (in financing/interest, property taxes, maintenance, insurance to protect nearby buildings from FF science, building upgrades, etc).  Government agencies might face budgetary restrictions, particularly if they’ve antagonized Congress/Parliament.


1.1. Troubles at work and/or school.  Superheroes don’t have very much control over when supervillains attack, so they frequently have trouble maintaining a regular work schedule.  Superheroes can take some steps to minimize the damage to their day jobs, but a worker that’s frequently late and/or absent without leave will probably get in trouble with his/her boss and/or school.


2. Physical stresses of a highly dangerous job.  For example, injuries stemming from fights or overexertion, a lack of sleep and/or time to recuperate, exposure to highly dangerous chemicals or alien symbiotes, mild aging (Batman’s at least in his 40s), etc.

2.1. Mental stress and/or combat fatigue. 


3. Pressure from friends/family/loved ones to give up or minimize superheroic activities.  They may be concerned about the superhero’s well-being because it’s such a dangerous job and/or the superhero might not be well-suited for the job.  Alternately, a spouse or lover may feel that the toll on their relationship is getting too high, particularly if he/she has been kidnapped or nearly killed before.


4. Disagreements with other protagonists (superpowered or otherwise).  For example, Lucius parted ways with Batman over philosophical differences.  Superheroes might privately and/or publicly hold each other accountable if a mission goes awry. Alternately, if there’s a crime or disaster where multiple superhero groups respond, the groups might have trouble cooperating–the teams might be very different philosophically, tactically, demographically, etc.  If a super-SWAT team and a team of superpowered high school students both respond to a hostage crisis, there are a variety of reasons the SWAT commandos would not want to trust the students with any responsibility.  Peter Parker is good at many things, but he’s not extremely methodical and probably doesn’t have much experience with hostage situations.  Alternately, the high school students might have trouble cooperating with the SWAT team, if they’re convinced that the SWAT team is so gung-ho they’re going to get a lot of hostages killed and/or the SWAT commandos don’t have the right superpowers for this situation and/or are using a more standard set of strategies against a completely unpredictable adversary.


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26 responses so far

Oct 27 2011

Hero Brainstorming Forum

Do you have any questions about how to write a hero for your story?

37 responses so far

Oct 09 2011

Reasons Your Characters Might Not Use Secret Identities

A few days ago, I covered some of the pros and cons of writing secret identities.  But that covers why YOU the author would want to use them or not.  Why might a character decide not to use them?  Here are some possibilities.


1. The character’s loved ones are mostly superpowered and/or not in harm’s way. For example, if the character is a superpowered alien, chances are his family members are, too, so protecting them from danger is a bit less essential. Alternately, in Booster Gold’s case, his family is hundreds of years in the future, so he doesn’t have to worry about them getting hurt.


2. The character has family/friends to worry about, but a secret identity is not an option. For example, Alicia Masters might be safer if Ben Grimm had a secret identity, but there’s no way for someone that looks as unusual as The Thing to pull off a secret identity. In The Taxman Must Die, one of the main characters is a mutant alligator that wants a secret identity (because anyone badass has enough enemies to need a secret identity, he reasons), but he surlily discovers that Clark Kent-style glasses don’t give a mutant alligator much of a disguise. (He attributes it to his poor acting skills).

2.1. The character’s origin story was caught on tape or otherwise too public to try a secret identity.  Perhaps the New York Times or Daily Bugle had someone covering that new exhibit of genetically modified spiders and happened to notice that one went missing–it’s not TOTALLY implausible that journalists might do something competent, right?*

*Despite CNN’s best efforts to suggest otherwise.  More on Casey Anthony at 9.


3. The character has loved ones, but is so scary that nobody’s brave enough to mess with them.  For example, if a criminal happened to find out the connection between Alfred and Batman, he’d have to be pretty damn nuts to take a shot at Alfred unless he was really looking forward to pain. Bad career move.  If you have a problem with Batman, it’d probably be less suicidal to gun directly for him (so that at least you’re not distracted when he comes for you).


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24 responses so far

Oct 03 2011

Pros and Cons of Using Secret Identities in Your Story

+: Secret identities provide another avenue of conflict/danger that helps develop the characters outside of combat.


-: Your readers have probably seen secret identities used quite a bit before.  It’s arguably the most cliche, conventional aspect of superhero stories.  If you go down this path, I’d recommend having it play out in unusual ways.  For example, in Kick-Ass, the protagonist’s attempt to protect his superhero identity from his father leads to a touching and darkly comical scene where the father mistakenly infers that the son was a victim of a sexual crime.


+: It’s a fairly easy way to build coherence between the superpowered side of the story (e.g. what Spider-Man is doing) and the non-powered side of the story (what Peter Parker is doing).  Another possibility that’s pretty well-worn is showing how his superpowered side affects his non-powered life.  For example, Spider-Man 2 covered how hard it was to come up with time for both.  Another possibility would be showing how the strains (injuries, stress, other damages) of one affect the other.


-: Especially in stories where only a villain or two uncover the secret identity, secret identities tend to cause side-characters to act atypically dumb.  Many investigative journalists interact with Clark Kent or Peter Parker every day but don’t ask any awkward questions about how Peter Parker comes up with so many more phenomenal Spidey shots than anyone else or wonder how Superman’s face looks awfully familiar.  If you do go with a secret identity, I’d recommend having the secret identity depend on whether the main character can successfully thwart the side-characters’ suspicions, rather than just making the side-characters too dumb/incompetent to get suspicious in the first place.


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22 responses so far

Aug 09 2011

8 Reasons Authors Don’t Complete Their Manuscripts


1. The author is working on too many projects to finish one. It’s far better to complete one manuscript than to go halfway on two. Most publishers won’t consider an unfinished novel manuscript from an inexperienced author.


2. The author is unwilling and/or unable to set time aside for writing. Alternately, perhaps the author sets aside a regular time, but is not consistent about actually using it. If you put aside one hour per day for writing, you can pretty easily write 1-2 pages. (Actually, I’d like to phrase that more confidently. If you can sit down for an hour and do nothing but write, you WILL write at least 1-2 pages. If you can do 1-2 pages a day in sequence, you will have a manuscript drafted within 6 months). If you’re writing at your computer, I’d recommend turning off the Internet because I find it tends to reduce productivity.


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52 responses so far

Jul 26 2011

17 Stock Plots

By themselves, these ideas are not terribly inspired.  They’re “stock” plots because they’re generic enough to work in a variety of series.  If you use a stock plot, please spin it so that it feels distinct to your series rather than just a forgettable filler issue.


1. The most basic superhero story structure is that a supervillain needs to steal a few related MacGuffins to enact his evil plot.  This gives the superheroes several chances to try to stop the villain, building up the stakes for a climactic struggle with everything on the line.

1.1 Alternately, perhaps the supervillain is trying to kill several people with a common connection, like the heroes, cops/prosecutors, judges, jurors, witnesses and/or scorned caddies that put him away last time or somebody else he has a grudge against.


2.  The villain has some sort of fitting thematic connection to the hero.  For example, if your hero’s main flaw is his trust issues, maybe the villain is an Iago that plays on his mistrust/paranoia.


3.  A character receives a mysterious and potentially dangerous gift, like an artifact or an encoded message or a key or a free ticket to Detroit.


4.  Something or someone from the heroes’ past comes back to haunt them.  For example, Batman: The Animated Series had an episode based around Alfred’s commando experience long, long ago.  Alternately, perhaps it’s something from the villain’s past.


5.  Someone the heroes really look up to and/or respect is in trouble.  For some reason, superhero TV shows often cast this person as Adam West, the lead actor in the horrible 1960s Batman show.  (Who the hell looks up to Adam West?)  More soberly, Dark Knight endangered Harvey Dent.


6.  A major villain is introduced.  A villain’s origin usually lays out his motivation for becoming a villain and establishes an initial conflict with the heroes.  It may also explain where his superpowers and/or supernatural abilities came from, if applicable.


7.  Someone that’s not quite a villain just developed superpowers, and it’s up to the heroes to keep these new and difficult-to-control powers from ravaging the town.  There may also be a personality shift involved: “Have you tried not being a rampaging monster, Dr. Jekyll?”


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12 responses so far

Jul 17 2011

Building Coherent Scene Transitions

Generally, I think most scenes should build on their preceding scenes.  Here are some transitions that  might help.

1. A character gets a text/call or otherwise learns something that relates to the next scene.  For example, pretty much every Law and Order case gets saved by a phone call notifying the detectives that the harbor unit just found the body in the river.  Whatever the detectives were talking about before the phone call, this is a really easy way to pivot the story towards the next scene (investigating the body).

2.  A character does something in the first scene that leads into the second.  

  • BAD: John talks with his romantic interest in scene 1 and fights with his boss in scene 2.  This will probably feel awkward because the two scenes don’t appear to be connected in any way.
  • BETTER: John has a spat with his girlfriend in scene 1 because she thinks he’s not making enough money.  The fight makes him late to work (scene 2).  At work, John’s boss gets upset that his personal issues are affecting his work and informs him that he won’t be getting a promotion/raise.  This is more coherent because we can see much more clearly how the two scenes are related.

3.  The first scene somehow foreshadows the next one.  For example, if Spiderman finds some OsCorp gear at a crime scene (like a Power Rangers mask or something), it’d make sense if the next scene had Spiderman trying to figure out how Norman Osborne (the Green Goblin) was connected to the crime.  If you’re not ready to have him leap into that part of the case yet, maybe it’s just a side-element of the second scene.  For example, maybe Peter Parker goes to school the next morning and thinks more about the case in the background, while the focus of the second scene is him doing something else like talking to Mary Jane.  Maybe his conversation with Mary Jane somehow leads him to realize something about the crime he’s looking at and/or is somehow otherwise thematically appropriate for some issue he’s dealing with as a superhero.

4. I would generally recommend keeping your plot arcs more related than not.  For example, if the book is about John, his romantic side-arc shouldn’t feel like a completely different story than his job struggles.  One way to fit them together into a single story is to do scenes where they both come into play.  For example, in the above example, John’s late to work because he got in a fight with his girlfriend, so we can see how the problems from one arc bleed over into the other.  The solutions can also bleed over.

5. The trickiest sort of scene-transition is probably between different point-of-view characters that have not met and aren’t obviously connected yet.  Let’s say you’re writing a novel where the two point-of-views are a superhero and supervillain that haven’t interacted yet.  Even though they haven’t met, you could still probably make the separate narratives feel coherent by having them deal with some common issues.

  • Common themes: For example, maybe both characters are dealing with being really special and/or having more power than the average person could dream of.
  • Common events: For example, maybe both characters have been influenced by the same event (or very similar events).  If the origin story features the villain’s father dying to save the future hero, the villain might grow up bitterly thinking of the father he never had and the hero might regard his sacrifice as a noble example to try to live up to.
  • Foreshadowed relationship: Well, it’s pretty obvious in this case that a superhero and a villain will clash, but foreshadowing the relationship might be helpful if it’s not patently obvious to readers. (For example, if the second character only gradually becomes villainous, readers might get bored with him if they don’t get some impression of why he matters).

5 responses so far

Jul 14 2011

Green Lantern Was Good for Something (Learning How Not to Write)

Published by under Green Lantern,Plotting

Novelist Jami Gold has two articles about learning from the Green Lantern movie: How Not to Write Characters and How Not to Plot a Story.
I’d also use Green Lantern to show why scenes should usually have some transition explaining why a character goes from doing A to doing B.  One of the transitions between a scene of GL talking with his geek friend and a scene of GL talking with his love interest is the geek randomly asking “Hey, doesn’t a superhero always get the girl?”  First, the line comes out of nowhere–they hadn’t been talking about romance or the lady until the geek tossed that line out.   Second, the line probably doesn’t work well as a transition because it doesn’t create a good reason why GL would want to go talk with his love interest.
There are so many easy ways to switch a scene without anybody noticing the seams.  For example, the protagonist-geek conversation could have been interrupted by a phone call or a text from the love interest.  Then it would have made sense for the geek to start talking about romance and it would have given GL a good reason to talk with his love interest.  Additionally, depending on what she said in the call/text, it could have added some urgency to the impending protagonist-love interest scene.

4 responses so far

Jan 26 2011

How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently Challenged Heroes)

Some tips for fixing a Mary Sue, a protagonist that is insufficiently challenged by his or her story.

1. Give the character flaws, ideally one he’s accountable for. Most unchallenged characters have a bevy of strengths but few well-developed flaws.  One approach is to play up the character’s strengths so much they sometimes become liabilities.  For example, in Point of Impact, Nick Memphis is unfailingly loyal, even though it ruins his career.  Virtually any strength taken to an extreme could create obstacles for the character.  For example…

  • Being too smart could create social obstacles for the character (see Flowers for Algernon or House), impatience with less intelligent people, overconfidence, a willingness to jump to erroneous conclusions on too little information, etc.
  • Being too nice could lead to gullibility/naivete, a reluctance to confront someone even when a confrontation is necessary, or a handicap against tougher (and maybe more brutal) foes.
  • Being too honorable could result in situations where the character loses because he/she refuses to take the most effective course of action available.  At its most cliche, perhaps a superhero stops chasing a gang of villains so that he can defuse a bomb or free a hostage from a deathtrap.  But that only affects a scene.  More significantly, a villain can manipulate a hero’s sense of honor so that he/she does something that shapes the plot.  For example, Cassius draws Brutus into the assassination plot in Julius Caesar by exploiting Brutus’ honor.
  • Being too brave could result in reckless mistakes.  The character’s overconfidence might get him hurt, and possibly bystanders as well.  For example, if a superhero tries to rush a hostage-taker without any sort of plan, hostages will probably get shot.
  • Being too committed to one’s goals (even honorable goals) could result in obsession and/or a willingness to sacrifice friends, morals, bystanders, and anything else to achieve the goals.

2.  Have the character make some decisions the audience won’t approve of. If the character is so purely heroic that readers will probably approve of every decision he makes, he probably doesn’t have much moral complexity.  Usually, that’s not as believable or interesting as giving the characters some human edges.

3.  Have the character make difficult decisions. Difficult decisions distinguish the character.  If the character is just making banal decisions that 90%+ of the genre’s protagonists would make in the same situation, the plot probably isn’t giving the hero enough room to distinguish himself.  Let your hero show how different he/she is with some decisions that most other heroes wouldn’t make.  For example, the protagonist in Point of Impact, Bob Swagger, is on the run after he’s been framed for an assassination attempt on the President.  The people framing him planted incriminating evidence in his house, but they had to kill his dog to sneak inside. Almost every action protagonist in this situation would probably have started by trying to take down the conspiracy.  Swagger starts by breaking into the FBI-occupied morgue where the dog’s body is being held as evidence so that he can properly bury it.  It really helps develop his character: the dog is the closest thing he had to a friend and he feels honor-bound to return its loyalty.  It also gives the villains reason to panic and ratchets up the tension.  If this guy is suicidal enough that he’d risk a high-speed chase with the FBI over his dog, his dead dog at that, what’s he gonna do to them?

4. Challenge the character! Raise obstacles high enough that it will be interesting for the character to overcome them.  For example, if your character is the most powerful superbeing in your story, the potential for interesting straight-up action is probably pretty low because he’s more powerful than his opponents.  For example, The Watchmen couldn’t have done much with a straight-up duel between invulnerable hero Dr. Manhattan and semi-powered villain Ozymandias.  Instead, Ozymandias challenged the heroes with his stealth and subterfuge, buying time so that he could make his survival so valuable to the heroes that they wouldn’t dare to kill him.   Another approach would be to try challenging the character in a sphere where his superpowers aren’t very useful.  For example, in a superhero romance, a guy that’s used to solving his problems with violence would have to try a very different tack to wooing the girl of his dreams.

5. Have the character face some morally gray obstacles. I would really recommend against making everyone that opposes the hero a straight-up bad person. For example, maybe the character’s friends aren’t 100% supportive of everything he does, maybe his coworkers/bosses have reasonable disputes with the character, or maybe there’s an antagonist whose intentions are pretty pure, etc.  If there’s no approach for a character to disagree with the hero without coming off as a bad person, the hero is probably not morally complex enough to feel fully believable.  (Hey, even Gandhi and MLK took some flack over their pragmatism).

59 responses so far

Jan 22 2011

Types of Story Strange Horizons Has Received Too Often

Published by under Fixing Cliches,Plotting

Strange Horizons has a list of stories it receives too often.  Here are some that I think are especially unpromising.

  • Person is (metaphorically) at point A and wants to be at point B. The character walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  • Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.  (“It was a dream” or “It was insanity” are bad enough, but “It was a story the character was writing” is uniquely loathsome).
  • The main reason for the main female character to be in the story, and to be female, is so that she can be raped.  (Can I add “or so that she can fall in love with the protagonist?”)
  • People whose politics are different from the author’s are shown to be stupid, insane, or evil, usually through satire, sarcasm, stereotyping, and wild exaggeration.
  • Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.  (Or any video games, unless you’ve been licensed to create a licensed work).

I’d like to sort of dispute Strange Horizons’ complaint about works that “[claim] that superhero stories never address the mundane problems that superheroes would run into in the real world.”    Yes, many superhero stories do handle such mundane, everyday situations, so such a claim is obviously incorrect.  But I don’t think it would be cliche, or otherwise problematic, to address everyday life in a superhero story.  Hell, at least one publisher (This Mutant Life) specifies in its submission guidelines that it’s looking for such submissions: “Stories which deal with the everyday lives of people with unusual abilities or physical characteristics are ideal [for us].”

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Aug 22 2010

Organizing Your Story With Cause and Effect

If you’re worried that your manuscript isn’t as coherent as it could be, mapping your plot can be extremely helpful. To do so:

  1. List the 25-50 most important events in the plot.
  2. Place one event each on a post-it note.
  3. Organize as many of the post-it notes into a cause-and-effect chain as you can.

For example, here’s a political thriller with two main plot threads. (I wouldn’t recommend more than 3 plot threads).

For more information on how to use your map to tighten up your plot, see below.

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9 responses so far

Aug 06 2010

Robert Mason’s Idea Bank

Robert Mason is collecting plot ideas in a publically available Idea Bank.  Here’s my contribution: The hero has to stop a plan set in motion by a villain that has already died. How will a flying brick save the day if it’s not clear who needs to be smashed? What good will a psychic be if the main “henchmen” are actually innocent delivery boys that have no idea what they’re delivering?  How can somebody like Jack Bauer stop a villainous plot if there’s nobody left to torture?

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Jul 25 2010

13 Ways a Friendly Cop Can Help Superheroes and Urban Fantasy Protagonists

In most superhero stories and some urban fantasy, the protagonists know at least one friendly police character. Here are some ways police characters can help the heroes.

1. Alerting the heroes when there’s a problem too large for the police.  Common examples include superpowered robberies, jail breaks, and supernatural/occult/magical serial killers.

2. Crowd control (clearing out civilians during or before a superpowered brawl).  This helps explain why civilians don’t get killed in the crossfire and gives the police something to do besides watch the fight.

3.  Helping the heroes avoid legal trouble.  Or, if the cop is REALLY friendly, helping them break out of jail.

4. Helping superheroes maintain a secret identity.  “This picture of Superman turning into Clark Kent is obviously fake.  At the time it was allegedly taken, I was with Clark Kent on the other side of town.”  Alternately, this might help any protagonist avoid a case of mistaken identity/imposters.  “That bank robber wasn’t the real Harry Dresden! I was discussing a case with Dresden, so the the robber must have been a shapeshifter.”

5. Passing along messages and packages to the heroes, particularly from a villain.  When the Joker wants Batman to see something, the easiest middleman is the police because it wouldn’t make much sense if the Joker knew where to find Batman.

6. Delaying and/or thwarting hostile police officers. In many cases, some police officers are against the heroes, particularly if an antagonist impostor has torn up the town or the heroes are not very careful about collateral damage.  In urban fantasy, some police officers may be uneasy about working with a sorcerer, werewolf or other supernatural creature.  (“I went through six days of testing before I could take my firearm into the field.  How about your wand?)

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9 responses so far

Jul 08 2010

What are the Costs and Benefits of Multilingual Characters?

Published by under Plotting

I was rereading through comments and found this one very sharp.

I’ve never understood the appeal of the power to speak all or several languages in works of fiction, I’ve seen it numerous times in fan fiction, but it never really made sense to me. The whole point of characters going to places where the language barrier is an issue is, well, primarily because the language barrier is going to be an issue, with a few exceptions in a few plots, and discounting fantasy works. Why send Captain Superior to China if the fact that he is an American-born superhero isn’t going to matter? Couldn’t he just stay home and skip a panel or two of flying? How is it exotic if he can just wander into any McDonald’s and order like it was any other Friday?

I agree that it’s important to cut out extraneous elements.  However, I think there are some situations where foreign languages would add something to the story even if the main character can speak them.

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7 responses so far

Jun 30 2010

Generate your own plots!

Step 1: Randomly pick an inciting event, an antagonist, a protagonist and a goal.


  • cheated on
  • kidnapped
  • impaled on a national landmark
  • thrown out of a window
  • mentally mutilated
  • disowned
  • fired
  • hired
  • drafted
  • mugged
  • kicked down the stairs
  • put in the poor house
  • brutally murdered
  • psychically ravaged
  • drop-kicked in Times Square
  • publically serenaded
  • mistaken for a felon
  • exiled
  • sent on a one-way trip to Djibouti
  • interrogated
  • sold a [adjective] pet
  • implicated
  • sold into slavery
  • deceived
  • misidentified
  • sued
  • infected
  • ruined
  • mistakenly tackled
  • swindled
  • blacklisted
  • judo-chopped through a wall
  • poisoned
  • framed
  • drunk under the table
  • thrown into a pit of carnivorous gophers
  • beaten in the World Series of Poker
  • outed as a superhero
  • humiliated
  • betrayed
  • forced to read Twilight
  • thrown into a wood-chipper
  • blackmailed
  • tricked
  • nearly decapitated
  • rear-ended
  • magically turned into a man-eating llama

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14 responses so far

Jun 08 2010

Bullies as protagonists? A writing exercise

Bullies are a very common, almost ubiquitous obstacle for young protagonists.  More often than not, I feel they’re stale, one-dimensionally malicious characters with incredibly thin motivations. (Hell, even Galactus has a better reason for consuming the Earth, and he’s apparently a cosmic dust cloud now).

If you’d like to use a bully, one alternative I’ve never seen would be to do a bully as a protagonist. I’ve never seen that before. You may be thinking something like “of course, because such a character would be so unlikable, you dumb ****.” Granted, likability would be a challenge.  However, if Kickass’s tween serial killer and adult serial killers like Sylar or Dexter can be likable, and I think they are, a likable bully is feasible. (However, making the bully likable might be harder, because it’s harder to give a bully good intentions, whereas you can have the serial killer prey on bad guys). So our writing exercise today is to come up with as many possible story hooks for a bully protagonist, preferably one the audience likes even if they don’t want him to succeed as a bully.

Here’s what I came up with…

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12 responses so far

May 04 2010

End Your Chapters or Issues with a Bang

Published by under Plotting

Especially early on, end your chapters or comic book issues with a cliffhanger to keep readers hanging on.  That doesn’t mean that you have to place a character in grave physical danger.  Here are some other options to convince readers that something interesting is just around the corner.

  • A new character makes an exciting entrance.  Somebody that enters a scene doing something unusual will probably pique our attention more than somebody that just sort of ambles on stage.  For example, if Amy is working for a debt collection agency, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting if her new partner just walked up and introduced himself like anybody else would.  But if the partner walked into her office wearing a bulletproof vest or SWAT gear, then we’d wonder what Amy had gotten herself into.
  • The reader and/or character(s) learn or find something shocking or fascinating. For example, you can reveal the tip of a new iceberg.  “Detective Smith had been so sure the butler was the killer, but he had to reexamine that hypothesis after discovering the butler’s decapitated body stuffed under the kitchen sink.”  What we learn for sure (that the butler is dead) is not quite as interesting as the questions it raises: If he’s not the killer, then who?  What else did we get wrong about the case?  Why kill the red herring?  Seriously, who stashes a body under a sink?  It’s what we don’t know that will make us want to keep reading.
  • Foreshadowing danger. Detective Smith finds another decapitated body, but this time the killer has painted a message on the wall with the victim’s blood.  YOU’RE NEXT, JIM.  Who’s Jim?  Why does the killer want him dead?  Can the detective save Jim in time?  Why would the killer leave a message?  Please note that this danger does not have to be physical–it just needs to threaten something really important to the character.   For example, if the protagonist is the new girl at school, you might end a chapter with her inadvertently causing some grave slight to the head cheerleader.  We’ll worry about how the cheerleading squad will get back at her.
  • A character is placed in immediate danger. In silent films, this meant tying up the damsel to the train tracks, but it doesn’t have to be physical or involve an antagonist.  For example, if Ironman’s flying around and suddenly his jets cut out.  Or if a recovering alcoholic (like, ahem, Ironman) reaches for a beer.
  • Something interesting is about to happen or starts to happen.
  • The characters are on the verge of doing something interesting. After Caesar crosses the Rubicon, heads are gonna roll.  The only question is whose.
  • The characters are introduced to an exciting (often mysterious) new location. Something that makes us wonder “what’s gonna happen here?”  For example, if the characters discover a secret room in somebody’s house, what will the characters find there?  Why was it being hidden?  What else is the character hiding?  How far would the hider go to keep it hidden?

Cliffhangers are even more important for comic books, I think.  A comic book writer needs to push readers to find and buy the next issue, which takes more effort than flipping to the next chapter of a novel.

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13 responses so far

Apr 29 2010

Examining Your Story

  • In your first few paragraphs, do we learn anything interesting (particularly about the main character or critical elements of the setting) that will make us want to keep reading? Is it something that differentiates him from other protagonists in similar stories? If not, it is probably not very interesting. For example, telling us that Johnny goes to school blurs your book with roughly a bajillion others. Telling us that Johnny goes to a school for reformed pyromaniacs does a much better job of differentiating the book from its competitors.
  • In the first few pages, how do your characters and writing make themselves stand out? (As opposed to, say, just another picked-on student that becomes Spiderman a superhero).  For example, Kickass starts off with a bit of dark comedy.  On the first page, we see a superhero about to fly and we’re led to believe it’s the protagonist taking a bold step towards a glorious future.  Instead, the guy hits the pavement and the main character adds something like: “That’s not me, by the way.  That was a guy with a history of mental illnesses.”  Right away, you know we’re NOT talking about another Spiderman series.
  • Okay, so starting with a wannabe superhero accidentally committing hara-kiri probably wouldn’t fit your book.   What’s something you could do to launch your story with something truly distinct to it?  (HINT:  Unless the character’s morning routine involves something truly bizarre and interesting, DO NOT START WITH A CHARACTER WAKING UP).  One way to differentiate yourself is to freshen familiar material by using an unexpected tone or putting it towards a different goal.  For example, the comic I’m working on is hardly the first to open with the protagonist narrowly avoiding an assassination.  But it’s probably the first to do so for comedic purposes.
  • On page 100, does anything interesting happen?  What about page 212?  Don’t let your book stall in the middle.  Keep developing characters, adding plot wrinkles, unexpected complications, etc.  On page 230, is anything at stake?  Do characters pursue their goals with the same (or greater) intensity as on page 1?
  • One thing I see often is that the author successfully sets up the hero’s journey in an interesting way but then the journey itself is sort of bland.  Plot coupons are probably the most common problem there.  (The heroes must collect __ pieces of ____ to do _____, like destroy 7 Horcruxes to defeat Voldemort or collect 8 badges to become a Pokemon master).  Using plot coupons makes sense in a video game, sort of, but it tends to weaken suspense by making the plot predictable.  For one thing, it’s pretty much 100% guaranteed that the heroes will destroy the first six Horcruxes because the plot would break if they didn’t.  To some extent, you can generate suspense along the way to destroy the first six Horcruxes, like leaving readers asking which minor characters will die or who will get romantically involved, and kickass execution has saved many poor concepts before, but it is almost assuredly not the best concept you can come up with.

10 responses so far

Apr 22 2010

Pet Peeve: Unprepared Characters That Should Know Better

I hate it when characters that are experienced and/or (supposedly) competent fail to plan ahead.

1.  Does the character try to plan for the superpowers and capabilities of their opponents? On Heroes, allegedly competent and well-equipped organizations routinely stumbled into slaughterfests because they used SWAT-style raids to try to overrun targets with crazy powers.  Let me lay this out right now: any plan that involves close-range combat with somebody that can outrun a fighter jet or stop time is idiotic!  As soon as the target sees anything, (s)he turns on his/her superpower and everybody else dies.  A better plan would be something like killing the target by long-range, perhaps by sniper rifle or bombing the house while the target is asleep.   Alternately, you could interfere with the character’s ability to use his powers.  (On Heroes, it is amazing how rarely the Company uses the power-nullifying Haitian).

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11 responses so far

Apr 06 2010

How Heroes Find Crime

Your superheroes will probably stop crimes at some point.  So how do they find it?  Here are a few options.


1. The most common option is just going on patrol. Most readers and editors will give you the benefit of the doubt that a modern city has so much crime going on that a hero can stumble upon armed robberies without too much trouble.  (Even though that’s probably not realistic–see #12 here for more details).


2. The hero may have access (authorized or otherwise) to what the police know. For example, maybe he has a police scanner, has hacked police radios, has a friend on the police force, or is otherwise contacted by the police on particular cases.


3. The hero might be contacted directly by a victim. For example, if a company has some reason to resolve a crime without getting the police involved, maybe it’ll contact a hero instead.  This would make sense particularly if the police in your story aren’t particularly competent or honest.  Or maybe the victim was somehow involved in some illegal activity (like a prostitute, an illegal immigrant, etc).


4. The hero may have access to what the criminals know. For example, maybe he has an informant, has bugged an important phone, interrogates a captured criminal, etc.  Any one of these could indicate where and when an impending crime will occur.


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14 responses so far

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