Archive for the 'Plotting' Category

Mar 11 2010

Please Don’t Use Uncontrollable Superpowers to Angst Readers

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.

One of the more frustrating things I see is when an author tries to give a character a guilty backstory but one he is utterly not responsible for.  For example, the character’s powers might manifest by killing the town and/or pretty much everybody she knows.  (Please see the TV Tropes Power Incontinence page for more examples).

If you want this character to feel guilty about her backstory, why not make her actually responsible for the accident?  For example, instead of having uncontrollable poison-massacre powers*, which is merely awful luck, maybe the character has powers that he uses in a reckless or ill-conceived way.  For example, maybe a flame-controller accidentally blows up a neighborhood by lighting up a gas line.  It’s still unintentional, but at least this gives him a choice to regret and atone for. Overcoming that will be more dramatic than “Gee, I’m sorry I was born to be a town-killer.” If the goal of the story is to have the character atone for his sins, it probably won’t be too dramatic if he’s not actually responsible for the sins in question. Or, if the character’s powers are completely uncontrollable, perhaps the character played some role in acquiring them, like participating in some poorly thought-out scientific experiment.

*Which are a losing Superpower Lottery ticket if ever there were one.   Pretty much everybody else in Heroes has something cool like superstrength or flight or time-travel.  Poor Maya.  Even the psychopathic serial killer has more control over his face-ripping telekinesis than she does.  (Also, he spent  a lot less time moping about his body count than she did).

8 responses so far

Feb 27 2010

Name That Superhero Funeral!

Superhero funerals are so common that they have their own page on ComicVine and usually so bland that they tend to run together.  Given a transcript for three pages from a superhero funeral, can you name the series? If the writing were actually distinct, that wouldn’t be difficult.

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11 responses so far

Feb 17 2010

Bad Decisions Make Badass Stories

Whether you’re writing a thriller or a romance, an unbroken chain of victories for the hero is probably not very interesting. Come on.  Even Batman makes mistakes.  Unlike most good decisions, poor decisions and ineptly-executed plans create consequences that the character has to overcome, which lets you raise the stakes for the heroes and make the journey more difficult.

Here are some further suggestions about bad decisions.

1.  Please connect the poor decision to an aspect of the character, like a personality flaw or a fear or a defining attribute. For example, if a superhero is exceedingly self-confident, it makes sense that he’d rush into battle without figuring out whether he’s gonna get beat around the block.  In contrast, if a generally well-prepared protagonist acts uncharacteristically hasty without a good reason, you’ve inadvertently given him an idiot ball.  That’s a problem because it isn’t true to the characterization you’ve given him thus far.

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Feb 14 2010

When the Villain Beats the Heroes, Don’t Just Let Them Go

If the heroes are defeated but the villain lets them walk away, the manuscript is probably dead on arrival.


If the characters can lose without anything bad happening to them, nothing’s at stake. Give your villain some chance of beating the hero once and for all, or there’s no point reading the story. If the closest your villain can come to victory is releasing the heroes with a stern warning, that’s just pathetic.


If you are absolutely sure that you want to release the heroes, please at least give the villain an adequate reason not to kill them or take them prisoner/hostage.  Here are some reasons that are probably NOT adequate.

  • “Next time I won’t go so easy on you!”  Don’t bother having a fight/confrontation unless something’s at stake.  Also, you and I both know that the heroes will beat the villain next time, so this is empty bluster. When the heroes lose, make sure that there are consequences. For example, in Star Wars, Luke lost a hand, Han got captured, and Obi-Wan died after losing various fights.
  • “You better join me next time, or else!”  Not too bright.  If the villain just defeated the heroes in combat, how useful could they possibly be to him?  Also, wouldn’t you rather have lieutenants that don’t have a history of trying to kill you?  Finally, if you really want to do this, please have the villain be more proactive than just letting the heroes walk away and think his offer over.  For example, have him poison a hero or take one hostage so that he can blackmail the others.
  • The villain’s only goal was to show off or make a meaningless statement. “Now you know my true power!”  Ick.  Again, make sure there is actually something at stake.   If the loss has no consequences, readers won’t care.
  • The villain is too nice and/or stupid to kill (or capture) the foes he has beaten in combat.   If so, he’s probably not much of an obstacle. Unless you’re writing a comedy of errors, please make your villain competent.  Beating a wuss isn’t very impressive!

Here are some reasons that might be sufficient.

  • The villain advances a major goal by releasing the hero/heroes. For example, the Joker infects Batman with the disease that is slowly killing the Joker, to force Batman to find a cure. Or maybe the defeated hero is some kind of Trojan horse.  For example, the antagonists in The Matrix inject a homing device into Neo so that he will lead them to the other protagonists.
  • The hero is saved by a plan he sets in motion. It’d probably be undramatic if the hero were saved by backup bursting through the wall at just the right moment.  (Guardian angels!)  But you could give the hero some role in saving himself.  For example, perhaps the hero knows he’s losing and has to survive until help can arrive.  Perhaps the act of calling for help is difficult and the hero has to figure out where he is before the cavalry can save him.  Don’t just make him (or her) a passive damsel in distress waiting around for a rescue.
  • The villain has a compelling reason to take the character(s) prisoner/hostage instead of killing them. Even though imprisoning heroes (particularly superheroes) has rarely accomplished anything, it makes more sense than just letting them go.  At the very least, this gives the villain a bargaining chip to deal with any remaining heroes. Or maybe one villain keeps the hero alive because it will help him in some antagonist-vs-antagonist conflict (hat-tip: Slick).
  • The villain tries to interrogate the hero. Perhaps the hero knows something which would help the villain defeat the other heroes.
  • The hero has previously done the villain a tremendous favor and the villain is more fair than murderous. A villain might intelligently choose to spare someone that previously spared him, for example. If the villain is known for honoring his debts, others will be more likely to offer him favors on credit. See also: the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.
  • Killing the hero in the near future will be less problematic than killing him now. For example, a villain might pass on an opportunity to kill someone publicly rather than waiting for the right moment where he could get away with it. A supervillain might pass on openly killing a hero because it might create fatal problems with either the hero’s teammates… or with the hero’s villains. For example, the Joker has vowed to kill anyone that killed Batman because Batman is more fun than anyone else he’s fought against, and the mobs might kill Batman’s killer because protection money tends to go to the scariest player (i.e. anyone that killed Batman). See also: Sid the Squid in The Man Who Killed Batman… Killing Batman never works out well for anybody but Batman.

54 responses so far

Nov 13 2009

A suitably brief guide to conciseness

  • “Does this develop an important character or advance the plot in a meaningful way?”  If not, it’s a strong candidate for deletion.  (To make scenery meaningful, draw it into the story– let characters interact with it or use atmospherics to develop the mood, etc). 
  • “Is there a better, faster way to show this?”  For example, rather than go through a scene establishing a minor character’s incompetence, perhaps you can just mention some of his spectacular failings in passing. 
  • “Is this redundant?”  I’d only recommend hammering the same point repeatedly if it’s really important. 
  • “Am I focusing on what is most important?”  Don’t waste our time on the small stuff.  Spending 25 pages searching for a minor artifact is probably unacceptable but spending hundreds of pages getting Ulysses from Troy to Ithaca obviously works. 
  • “Is this coherent?”  If it’s just a minor tangent that goes nowhere, get rid of it.  Additionally, try to tie together plot points as much as possible.   For example, if the superhero has a day job, ideally his work contributes to the plot in some way.  Maybe he uses his skills as a journalist to investigate Lex Luthor.  Maybe his struggles to hold down a pizza-delivery job show how much he’s sacrificing to be a superhero.   

4 responses so far

Oct 24 2009

How to Give Your Writing Urgency

1. Use a ticking clock. That helps remind us what’s at stake for the characters.  Perhaps a bad event is timed to go off at a particular moment, like a bomb set to blow up in eight minutes or fairy magic that ends at midnight.  However, a specific time is not required; for example, the protagonist in DOA has been poisoned and has only about two days to solve his own murder.  Ticking clocks are also interesting because they often force characters to move more quickly, cut corners, etc.  Desperation is dramatic.

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3 responses so far

Oct 01 2009

Sharpening Your Concept With a Two-Sentence Synopsis

What’s your story about?

That question usually sets off a rambling and unappealing description of the novel or comic book.  As part of your query, you need to describe your book in 1-2 sentences (I’d recommend 10-30 words).  New authors often have a great deal of trouble doing so– they’re so intimately familiar with all the details of their work that it’s hard to see what the big picture is.

As a writing exercise, I’d like you to boil down a lengthy work into 1-2 sentences.  That’s not easy.  It forces you to make tough decisions about what is absolutely essential to the core of your novel or comic book.  It also provides you an response when someone asks you what your book is about. Having a simple, elegant introduction available is crucial.

Here’s an easy way to write a two-sentence synopsis.

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100 responses so far

Aug 24 2009

How to Beat Disbelief and Immerse Readers


  • Characters should act consistently.  It’s usually better to err on the side of a trait being too strong/consistent than too weak/half-hearted.  When characters grow and change, his change should be caused by something understandable and visible.  Don’t leave your readers wondering why this character is acting like that.
  • Powers like time-travel, memory-alteration, impersonation and sometimes resurrection can make it very difficult to understand what is going on.  (Is that memory real or imagined?  Who remembers what? Who’s dead?)  I would not recommend adding these powers lightly.  If readers are confused, they will be jarred from the story.  Don’t make the reader work to understand the basic facts of your story.
  • Don’t be coy with readers.  If the point-of-view character knows something relevant (like backstory or something he knows or can observe), the reader is entitled to know the same.  I strongly recommend against trying to create drama by having the POV hide information from the readers.  “Surprise, I was the killer all along!”  If you hide information that the reader feels entitled to, he will probably feel angry rather than satisfied when you finally reveal the truth.

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5 responses so far

Aug 13 2009

How to Avoid Info-Dumping

Info-dumping is when a story gives too much information, too quickly. Nicole Denis provides a useful introduction to the problem and offers some tips about how to use different scenarios to avoid it.  I have some suggestions of my own.

1.  When characters are conversing, give them an objective of their own, NOT “informing the readers.” This will reduce “as you know, Bob” dialogue where characters speak about information they already know.  Such dialogue is fatal because it lacks urgency– nothing is at stake if both speakers already know the information being discussed.  Contrast that with a conversation where an investigator is trying to grill a hostile witness for information.   High stakes usually make for more interesting scenes.  Another problem when the characters lack in-story motivation is that it compromises the audience’s respect for the characters.  If the characters aren’t doing anything except what the author wants them to do– even when it doesn’t make sense for them to do so– it will be hard for them to suspend their disbelief.

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15 responses so far

Aug 08 2009

Scaling Your Story: How Epic is Too Epic?

How epic is your story?

  1. The hero has to overcome a problem that isn’t life-and-death (like most romance).
  2. The hero has to save himself or another character from serious danger (like most action).
  3. The hero has to save a city (like most superhero stories).
  4. The hero has to save a nation or species (like most epic fantasy and national security thrillers).
  5. The hero has to save the world(s).  (This is pretty rare outside of epic sci-fi).

Here are some suggestions about how to handle the scope of your story.

1.  It’s rarely a problem when a story evolves from #1 to #2. For example, it would be pretty easy to write a story where a journalist covers a story that becomes ludicrously dangerous.  First, the change in epicness is fairly slight.

Second, the author has a variety of ways to prepare the reader.  For example, you can foreshadow the danger.  Or you can gradually ratchet up the violence– first a witness dies under mysterious circumstances, then the journalist gets death threats, then his brakes suddenly stop working on the freeway, etc.  Preparing the reader is important because otherwise the reader might be disoriented when you change the stakes.  If your readers have no reason to suspect that the journalist is in danger, they may be confused rather than thrilled when a mysterious man suddenly draws a gun on him.

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14 responses so far

Aug 01 2009

Conveying Knowledge the Point-of-View Character Doesn’t Have

One of the tricky parts about first-person narration is that the story is largely limited to what the narrator knows.  What if you want to cover an event that happens without the narrator?  Here are some possible solutions.

1. Even if the character isn’t there, he can still make inferences afterwards. For example, the protagonist of a detective novel almost never witnesses the crime he’s trying to solve.  But he can still come up with some conclusions about what happened just by examining the crime scene.  Observations work outside of crime scenes, too.  For example, let’s say the protagonist notices that his girlfriend is noticeably less interested in him after his ex-girlfriend has a chat with her.  The protagonist isn’t sure exactly what happened in that conversation, but he can probably narrow it down to a few possibilities.  He can also talk to people that might know more than he does.  For example, even if his girlfriend isn’t returning his calls, he might be able to get a hold of one of her close friends.


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9 responses so far

Jul 16 2009

Cover Your Plot Holes… It Could Be Funny

Plot holes are a point in a story where something happens for no believable reason. Indeed, sometimes the plot hinges on a plot hole.  For example, why would a criminal put snakes on a plane rather than kill the witness in a more conventional way?


1.  Plot holes are an opportunity. Most plot-holes can be explained– often humorously!– with a few lines.  Aren’t there easier ways to kill someone than putting snakes on a plane?  “You think I didn’t exhaust every other option?  He saw me!”  This hand-waving helps readers suspend their disbelief.  It isn’t logically air-tight, but it doesn’t have to be.


2.  Readers are generally receptive to your explanations, even if they’re flimsy. Not offering an explanation is almost always worse because it makes it look like you don’t see the problem.  That ruins your authorial credibility.  It also makes it hard for readers to suspend their disbelief.

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18 responses so far

Jul 07 2009

How to make travel-scenes interesting

Many novels, particularly fantasies, spend a lot of time on traveling scenes.  Here are some suggestions to keep the journeys smooth and interesting.

1. Don’t give the journey more length than the goal merits. If the characters take a 20-page trip through the wilderness to find something minor, readers will probably feel annoyed.  In contrast, a journey that is absolutely critical to the plot might span hundreds of pages.  For example, if the book is about settlers on the Oregon Trail, then almost all of the book is probably going to be in transit.

2. Make the journey urgent. For example, the characters are running out of time and/or they are in danger.  Urgent journeys are usually more interesting.  Urgent journeys also go farther to develop how impressive the characters are.  Anyone can get around the world, but doing it in 80 days in 1872 is pretty remarkable.

3.  Use the trek as an opportunity for character development. A strong journey usually requires chemistry between the characters.  Chemistry is hard to pin down, but it generally entails a bit of conflict and style.

4.  Show us some new scenery. In a fantasy, this is a great opportunity to use your imagination.  Why should travelers should stay away from the Mangled Forest?

5.  Stay away from redundancy.   For example, if the characters defend themselves from bears one page, it would be pretty boring if they had to fight off wolves or wild zebras or rabid gnomes or whatever a few pages later.   Also, don’t spend too much time building the landscapes. Show us just enough to build a mood.

6.  A journey depends on effective use of low-intensity pacing. Unlike, say, a car chase, a journey is going to consist of scenes that are mostly unintense.  There may be brief intervals of intense action (probably combat), but those will get redundant fairly quickly.  In general, suspense and/or spookiness usually go farther than a battle royale rumble through the jungle.

7.  If at all possible, just cut out the description of the journey by having the narrator tell us that the characters made it. If you can do that without eviscerating the plot, chances are that the journey isn’t important enough to draw out.  Readers will really thank you for glossing over minor, boring details.  (For example, see our review of Empire of Ivory).

15 responses so far

Jun 24 2009

Key traits of interesting jobs

Many, perhaps most, real life jobs have a fairly narrow and specialized focus. For example, most people of a company’s employees work for a particular department and newspaper reports usually focus on stories related to their section of the paper. In general, I’d recommend giving your heroes jobs that are more flexible because it gives more opportunity to entangle the character in the plot and add new developments.

Here are some aspects that can make a job more flexible and plot-friendly.

1. Get the character out of his office. Offices are mostly bland, forgettable, comfortable and safe. As far as readers and interesting stories are concerned, they are Kryptonite. I’d recommend giving your character a lot of work outside the office because the real world is harder to predict and gives you more opportunities to work in new scenes, danger, seedy characters, etc.

2. Please avoid making the character the boss. Usually, the boss has the least interesting job in the building. Privates and flunkies usually have more at stake than a general or a business magnate does. In addition, low-level work is generally more interesting. I’d much rather read about a platoon patrolling hostile streets or a corporate flack trying to steal corporate secrets than about the men that decided to send the patrols or steal the secrets.

3. As much as possible, I’d recommend having the hero spend his time working in situations that are high stakes and/or heavy on conflict. E.g. if the character is the CEO, it’d probably be easier to create interesting situations if most of his problems can’t be resolved just by telling people what to do (like unreliable employees, dissension in the ranks, embezzlement, corporate sabotage, labor unrest, whatever). If the relationships within a company are usually tidy and well-controlled, it might help to have the characters interact with outsiders. For example, if a police officer has to convince a reluctant witness to testify, that’s a better opportunity to show how impressive he is. In contrast, if the cop could just order the witness to testify because it’s the law, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or impressive. (Technically, a cop probably could order a witness to testify, but persuasion may be necessary (e.g. if the case is dangerous, the witness is wary of police, the witness has a good relationship with the defendant or a bad one with the victim, and/or would be creating major problems for himself by admitting that he was there).

4. I’d recommend making the hero accountable to a tough boss. Characters like JJ Jameson tend to add a lot more dramatic potential than friendly bosses like Perry White. They create more of an obstacle for the heroes and usually make the heroes seem more likable.

29 responses so far

May 17 2009

Six Superhero Plots That Need to Die

1. Shrinking. First, this is a horribly cliche type of one-off story.  Second, it is pretty much impossible to do anything fresh with it. The characters get shrunk, deal with some tiny obstacles (usually including a cat or some other suddenly dangerous animal), and then get their size back. What else could you do with it?

How can I do it right? Have the character stays shrunken for longer than just an issue.  It’ll push you to develop the formula in a fresh direction, and hopefully one more fertile than “and then they discover a microscopic civilization!” E.g. it seems to work fairly effectively in Ant-Man, where the character spends most of his time full-sized.

2. Body-swapping. One character switches bodies with another, usually involuntarily.  The drama usually comes from the characters having to survive despite having different powers or different roles than they’re used to.

How can I do it right? This isn’t necessarily bad, but it has been done extensively.  It tends to work best if the characters have to keep their identities secret.  If Jim and Luke can just tell everyone that their bodies have been swapped, it’s not really an interesting obstacle.  But if Jim and Luke can’t talk about magic or the supernatural hijinks they’re involved in, then body-swapping makes it that much harder for them to maintain the masquerade.  Give them difficult situations they can’t duck.  For example, “Luke” suddenly has a piano concert and “Jim” is now the starting defensive tackle.  The only way for them to protect the secret is to learn (or feign competence in) something totally new.  Good luck!

3. Age change. The villain or an accident causes a character to get drastically younger or older (usually younger).  This is even worse than shrinking because a hero turned into a baby is no longer a character so much as a prop.  Also, these episodes/issues tend to be overwhelmingly cute.  Ick.

How can I do it right? I’d recommend trying it like Big or Thirteen Going on Thirty or Seventeen Again. The story follows the character as he enters another stage of life. How does he handle his new predicament?  That’s an interesting situation.  In contrast, babies can’t do anything but cry.

4. World War II time travel. Time travel is not a problem in series that have been built around it, but “let’s do an issue set in World War II!” is shoot-me-in-the-face bad.  The villains are one-dimensional, there’s no chance the writers will let the heroes lose and it’s cliche.

How can I do it right? Realistically, you can’t and I wouldn’t recommend it.  However, if you’re dead-set on trying anyway, maybe try something more creative than sending the villain back in time to help the Nazis.  One alternative would be having the heroes try to stop a well-intentioned “antagonist”–say, somebody who lost his family in the Nazi death camps–from going back in time to kill Hitler because killing Hitler might lead to Germany winning the war with a competent leader.  This setup is stronger because the villain is more morally complex and because sneaking in to guard a hostile target is inherently more dramatic and challenging than an all-out assault.  Also, the outcome is less guaranteed/predictable, particularly if the story is set towards the end of the war.  Perhaps the story ends with the heroes and assassin agreeing to stage Hitler’s murder as a suicide, but only when the Allies’ victory is guaranteed.

5.  Underwater adventures, particularly with Atlantis. It’s very hard to do an interesting aquatic tangent.  Have you ever heard anyone wish that Aquaman or Namor would show up?  Me neither.

How can I do it right? I think your best bet is to set most of the story in a sealab or a sealed city under the waters.  The less time the characters spend in submarines or swimming, the better.   Also, this kind of story might work better as a series focus than as a tangent.  It’s not that aquatic stories necessarily suck (please see Finding Nemo or The Little Mermaid), just that an aquatic setting is usually a waste of time for land-bound heroes. Additionally, few land-bound heroes have powers well-suited to interesting underwater fight scenes, so it might help to have the climactic battle in a sealed environment like a domed city or in a coastal city above the water.

6.  Saving helpless women. (Hat-tip to commenter Heather).

How can I do it right?  At the very least, if she’s going to get herself kidnapped or otherwise endangered, maybe it’s because of something she did besides dating the hero?  For example, in Iron Man, Pepper Potts endangered herself by sneaking into the villain’s office to steal his computer files.  Sometimes Lois Lane is a competent investigative journalist.  Give your characters a chance to be something besides just The Screaming Girlfriend.  Maybe even you have some female characters that aren’t love interests!  (A revolutionary concept, I know).

UPDATE: If you’re interested in plots that don’t need to die, I think this list of stock plots might help.

210 responses so far

Nov 28 2008

Writing Tip: Give Your Characters Urgent Goals, Not Joy Rides

Giving your characters urgent goals will help make your story dramatic and interesting.  For example, let’s say John wants to go to prom, but his parents won’t let him unless he does well on a chemistry test.  Will he actually go to prom?  That’s a dramatic question.

Unfortunately, many manuscripts introduce the character without a goal, hoping that readers will trudge along until the character actually has something to do.  Don’t trap yourself into something like this.

CADET DAVIS:  In this first chapter, your hero doesn’t do very much except for walking across town and chatting with another character.  What’s the point?  What’s he trying to accomplish?

AUTHOR:  He’s introducing himself and the setting.

CADET DAVIS:  That’s what you’re trying to accomplish.  What’s his goal?  What’s at stake for this character?

AUTHOR:  Well, nothing, not yet anyway.  In a few chapters, he’ll find out that he has to realize his destiny by going on a quest to stop the villain.

CADET DAVIS:  If nothing’s at stake now, why will readers find this chapter interesting?

AUTHOR:  *silence*

Unfortunately, if publishers or readers find your manuscript’s first few pages boring, they will not keep reading.  From the earliest part of your story, your main character needs to have a goal.

So what do you do if your hero doesn’t know what his main goal is yet?  For example, at the start of Harry Potter, Harry doesn’t know that his primary goal is to “go to Hogwarts and thwart Voldemort.”  He doesn’t even know that he’s a wizard.  J.K. Rowling used temporary goals to tide us over.  For example, “read the letter that Uncle Vernon is trying to hide from you.”  Those goals made him interesting even though we didn’t know anything about his magical destiny.

What sort of temporary goals work? Anything that has high-stakes for the character.  It doesn’t have to be life or death, of course. (Harry Potter only needed to obtain a letter!)

What sort of temporary goals don’t work?  Joy rides.  If a character is trying something just for kicks, or to have a good time or just because he’s curious, the stakes are probably not high enough for him for us to care.  One main exception to the rule against joy rides is that sometimes, deep into a superhero story, you can briefly show the character trying out his new superpowers.  That will stall the plot, but that’s mostly OK because we need to know what the hero is capable of.  Also, by that point of the story, you better have convinced readers that you have a plot or you are screwed anyway.

34 responses so far

Nov 22 2008

Is Your Hero a Chosen One?

A Chosen One is a hero that is passively chosen for greatness, like Eragon.  Readers typically prefer characters that make their own destiny.  This quiz will help you diagnose and fix the problem.

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51 responses so far

Nov 07 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Make Your Story Intriguing, Not Cryptic

Many stories create suspense by withholding important information (like the killer’s identity, in a mystery) until the end. But publishers usually reject works that are cryptic. How can you make your work intriguing (good) rather than cryptic (painful)?

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23 responses so far

Sep 15 2008

The difference between a convoluted plot and a brilliant one…

Many beginning authors think that they can create a brilliant plot by adding layers of deception, betrayal, double-agents and triple-agents, lies wrapped within feints, etc.  It can be done well, but more often it’s a recipe for a horribly convoluted plot. Rather than seeming brilliant, your plot will probably come off more like this assessment of Metal Gear Solid.

These convoluted characters usually try to show that their characters are brilliant because they make freakishly accurate predictions about what other characters will do. At its worst, that devolves into a game of “I know you know I know” that will leave your readers writhing in agony. A genuinely brilliant character should use plans that leave the audience wondering why they didn’t think of that. Typically those plans are simple and rely on predictions that seem obvious in hindsight. Let me demonstrate.

In Justice League, Batman tries to find the Joker by convincing his assistant, Harlequin, that the Joker has ignominously replaced her with another woman. (Transcript below).  One aspect that really impressed me about the scene is that Harlequin doesn’t immediately turn against the Joker.  Instead, Batman merely increases her doubt of him, so that she goes off to confront him… And Batman secretly follows her!  It’s more believable because it requires a less significant shift from Harlequin.

BATMAN: Where’s Joker?

HARLEQUIN: After all these years, you still think I’d give up Mr. J.

BATMAN: Why not?  He gave you up.

HARLEQUIN: That was a long time ago.   He’s changed.  We’ve been to couple’s counseling.

BATMAN: I’m talking about right now.  Haven’t you been watching?  [He points at a screen showing Joker with his new female sidekick.]  The way he touches her hair.  The way he rubs her shoulders.

HARLEQUIN: You mean Ace?  She’s just a kid.

BATMAN: Really?  Then why is she with him when you’re in the cold?

[Harlequin slaps Batman, but goes to confront the Joker.]

2 responses so far

Sep 06 2008

Don’t Let Your Characters Walk Away from the Quest

Let’s say you’re writing a book about a candidate trying to join the Navy SEALs.  Unless there’s something holding him there, he can always walk away if it gets too hard.  That’s a lousy plot.  There’s no consequence for failure!  If failure is an acceptable option, we probably won’t care whether the character succeeds.  You can make this story more dramatic by adding personal urgency.  For example, perhaps the SEAL candidate had a brother or father that died as a SEAL and he sees it as his life’s mission to finish the job.

Here are some other suggestions to keep your characters in the story.

  1. There is nothing to return to. The Empire killed Luke’s family.  (Careful, this is a bit cliche).
  2. Too much is at stake to walk away. In The Day After Tomorrow, the protagonist doesn’t have to trek from Philadelphia to Manhattan, but it’s the only way to save his son.  Alternately, the characters in LOTR have no choice but to fight their genocidal enemies.
  3. The character physically cannot walk away. If your character is in prison, he can’t avoid the local thugs.  His only choices are submission and resistance.  Alternately, she may be trapped on a spaceship with a killer alien.

5 responses so far

Sep 05 2008

John August on Coincidences in Fiction

John August did a post on writing a plot that isn’t contrived.  He focused on the role of coincidence. I found it highly useful…

Given a choice, try to find cause and effect. One event happens because of something else we’ve seen — ideally, something the hero himself has done.

Instead of having the hero accidentally overhear a key conversation, get him actively trying to listen. Or have an interested third party steer him in that direction — perhaps for his own reasons. At every juncture where a reader could ask “Why did that happen?”, try to have an answer that isn’t, “just because.”

CADET DAVIS ADDS: The most contrived plot I can think of is Heroes season 2.  Please consider the following…

  1. In the last two minutes of the first season, Sylar is nearly killed by a crowd of ten heroes but somehow slinks away into a sewer.  No one, including a psychopathic MPD victim or the police officer who was seriously wounded by Sylar, thinks to make sure that he’s dead or otherwise accounted for.
  2. The Company captures Sylar and keeps the formerly-superpowered serial killer in a zero-security facility with a single attendant that is tasked with restoring Sylar’s powers. There’s no reason to suspect that Sylar would have made a good employee under any circumstances, but how were they hoping that this would turn out?
  3. Sylar kills the attendant and walks out of the facility.  He tries to return to the US to find Suresh, but he drops of famine along the side of the road.  The first person to come across him is Maya, another superpowered person that’s looking for Dr. Suresh’s father.  What a lucky break!  Sure, why not come along?
  4. In spite of being wanted for murder and presumably not wanting to attract suspicion, Maya and her brother take Sylar along.  Do not pay attention to the gringo in the back seat!
  5. Peter’s failure to consider the possibility that Adam is evil starts out as implausible and gets so unbelievable that it strains the suspension of disbelief.  Peter knows the following facts:  The Company has held the virus for 30+ years without using it.  Shortly after Adam escapes, the virus is unleashed.  If you’re wondering whether Adam’s escape is related to the release of the virus, you’re already 5 episodes smarter than Peter.

2 responses so far

Jul 14 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Avoid Looking Backwards

Don’t have your characters spend too much time musing about events that have already happened in the story.

When characters are preoccupied with something that’s already happened, the author has probably lost track of where the story is going. You can give your story forward momentum by drawing our attention to what’s just around the corner. If someone tried to kill the protagonist yesterday, we will care more about what the assassins are planning for tomorrow than what the character thinks about the attack today.

If you are interested in building on what has already happened in the story, it will probably be more effective to try to have your characters investigate the mystery. But an investigation is very different than just musing with your friends and confidantes. An investigation will add evidence, either by looking for clues or trying to get witnesses to talk. Investigations are superior to musing because the search for information adds more to the story than just talking about what has already happened. (There’s also more potential for conflict, particularly if someone’s trying to sabotage the search).

Here are a few common scenarios that frequently lead to characters musing about the past.

  1. Musing about the death of a loved one, particularly one that  sacrificed himself to save the protagonist.
  2. Romantic failures.
  3. “Why me!?!”

5 responses so far

Feb 24 2008

Index: Writing Guides

How to Improve Your Characters

  1. How to Introduce Major Characters
  2. How to Name Characters (Superheroes and Otherwise)
  3. How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently-Challenged Characters)
  4. How to Develop Interesting Characters
  5. 15 Interesting Motivations for Villains and Heroes
  6. A List of Character Attributes
  7. Writing Male Characters
  8. Please Don’t Model Your Characters on Your Friends
  9. Don’t Make Your Villains Unnecessarily Evil
  10. Why Secret Origins Usually Fail (“Leia’s my sister!?!”)
  11. How to Make Your Character’s Job Interesting
  12. How to Use Characters with Mental Disorders
  13. Don’t Let Minor Characters Steal the Show
  14. How to Make a Character Likable
  15. Please Don’t Use Generically Nice Characters
  16. Writing Villains Vs. Writing Heroes
  17. How to Make Your Love Interest a Real Character (Banana Slug)
  18. Be Careful With Crying Characters (Marissa)
  19. Female Characters: Awful Vs. Awesome


How to Improve Your Titles

  1. Is Your Title Stylish Enough?
  2. 10 Common Mistakes of Novel Titles
  3. Even More Ways to Blow a Title
  4. How to Write Titles That Sell (Novels and Chapters)
  5. Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 1)
  6. Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 2)
  7. Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 3)
  8. Your Title is Bad… (Part 4)
  9. Your Title is Bad… (Part 5)
  10. Your Title is Bad… (Part 6)
  11. Your Title is Bad… (Part 7)
  12. Your Title is Bad… (Part 8 )
  13. Your Title is Bad… (Part 9)
  14. Your Title is Bad… (Part 10)


Introductions and Prologues
  1. Prologue Tips
  2. How to Write Excellent First Lines
  3. How to Survive to Page 2
  4. The Five Worst Novel Introductions
  5. How to Write Strong Introductions (Novels)
  6. Don’t Wait to Introduce Your Main Character


Structuring Your Story

  1. Writing a Novel’s Synopsis
  2. End Your Chapters With a Bang
  3. Chapter Checklist
  4. Organizing Your Story With Cause and Effect
  5. How to Handle Backstory
  6. How to Do Multiple Narrators and POVs With Style
  7. How to Convey Information the POV Doesn’t Have
  8. Be Careful with Sequels
  9. Common Problems with First-Person Narration
  10. Common Problems with Third-Person Narration
  11. Organizing Your Plot: Five Kinds of Central Plots
  12. Story Structure
  13. Cover Your Plot Holes– It Might Be Hilarious


Becoming a Professional Writer

  1. Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Inexperienced Novelists
  2. Another Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Inexperienced Novelists
  3. Why Is It So Important for Authors to Read Widely?
  4. Rules of Professional Behavior
  5. Mental Issues in the Workplace
  6. Think Like an Editor (Marissa)
  7. How to Communicate with Agents and Editors


Plotting and Pacing

  1. How to Build Coherent Transitions Between Scenes
  2. Start Your Story As Everything Goes Wrong
  3. When the Villain Beats the Heroes, Don’t Just Let Them Go
  4. Make Your Story Interesting with Urgent Goals
  5. Automatically Generate a (Goofy) Plot
  6. Your Introduction Should Not Read Like an Atlas
  7. Don’t Let Your Characters Walk Away from the Story
  8. How to Make Traveling Interesting
  9. How to Beat Disbelief and Immerse Readers
  10. Plot Elements That Should Not Be Added Lightly
  11. How to Avoid Info-Dumping
  12. Training Scenes


How to Avoid Common Writing Mistakes

  1. 5 Common Mistakes of First-Time Authors (Part 1)
  2. 5 Common Mistakes of First-Time Authors (Part 2)
  3. 5 Common Mistakes of First-Time Authors (Part 3)
  4. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 4)
  5. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 5)
  6. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 6)
  7. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 7)
  8. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 8 )
  9. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 9)
  10. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 10)
  11. If You’re A First-Time Author, Do Not Self-Publish!



  1. Dialogue Checklist
  2. How to Use Dialogue Tags Effectively
  3. Common Dialogue Mistakes
  4. Keep Your Dialogue Tight
  5. How to Punctuate Dialogue
  6. Please Don’t Use Bad Accents


Other Writing Mechanics and Miscellaneous

  1. How to Write Memorably
  2. How to Beat Writer’s Block
  3. Don’t Quit Your Day Job!
  4. Show, Don’t Tell
  5. How to Write Gripping Scenes
  6. Write Concisely!
  7. Eliminate Gimmicks in Your Writing
  8. Don’t Abuse “There’s”
  9. 9 Words That Usually Shouldn’t Start a Sentence
  10. A Few Notes on Punctuation
  11. Make Your Story Intriguing, Not Cryptic
  12. How to Do Settings and Scenery Well
  13. Don’t Tell Readers What the Character Isn’t Doing


Learning Writing Skills from Published/Aired Works


Genre Writing and Resources

  1. ANYTHING SUPERHERO: How to Make Interesting Headquarters for Superheroes and Villains
  2. FANTASY OR SUPERHERO ACTION: How to Keep Your Superpowers and/or Magic Extraordinary
  3. ACTION: How to Pace an Action Scene
  4. ROMANCE: Common Pitfalls of Romance (ReTARDised Whovian)
  5. ROMANCE: How to Make Your Love Interest a Real Character (Banana Slug)
  6. COMEDY: How to Write Comedy
  7. COMEDY: How to Write Parodies (Tom)
  8. DETECTIVE/MYSTERY: Probing for Inconsistencies


Research and Resources
  1. A Writer’s Guide to Guns and Firearms
  2. 7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do
  3. An Introduction to Bounty Hunting


Editing and Refining Your Work

  1. It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks
  2. How to Take Criticism Well
  3. Applying “Rules” of Writing to Your Work
  4. Twenty Questions to Ask Before Submitting Your Story
  5. 100 Questions to Test Your Story
  6. Style Checklist
  7. How to Make the Most of Beta Reviews


Getting Published and Self-Publishing

  1. Length Guidelines: How Long Should Your Novel Manuscript Be Before You Submit It?
  2. How to Format a Novel Manuscript
  3. How Novel Manuscripts are Evaluated
  4. Why Do Good Manuscripts Get Rejected?
  5. How Long Does It Take to Get a Novel Professionally Published?
  6. 10 Reasons Novel Manuscripts Get Rejected
  7. List of Instant Rejections
  8. Teresa Hayden’s List of Novel Rejections
  9. 16 Reasons Your Novel Manuscript Got Rejected Before Page 1
  10. Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 2?
  11. Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 20?
  12. What is a Query? How Do I Write One?
  13. Sharpen Your Story With a Two Sentence Synopsis
  14. More Two-Sentence Synopsis Tips
  15. Marcus Hart Explains: How to Self-Publish
  16. How Much Will It Cost You to Self-Publish?
  17. Why First-Time Authors Should Not Even Think About Self-Publishing
  18. Why Self-Publishing Might Work for You


Target Audience

  1. How to Write for Kids (Tom)
  2. How to Write for Kids (B. Mac)
  3. Your Readers Are Not the Same as You!
  4. Market Trends: Teen Literature is Selling Quite Well


Social Commentary in Fiction

  1. So You Want to be an Opinionated Author
  2. Writing About Racism

29 responses so far

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