Archive for the 'Story Structure' Category

Jul 18 2011

How to Write a Prologue Which Won’t Torpedo Your Manuscript

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.

1. Please don’t just write an infodump of background setup.  If your prologue reads like an atlas entry or history report, you’d probably be better off just cutting to chapter 1 and weaving the background information into the story itself.  Readers will have an easier time learning background information (and will be more motivated to do so) if they see how it relates to the main characters doing interesting things.


2. Please make sure the information is interesting.  For example, please don’t start with a prologue about how the worlds were created and/or epic wars that happened thousands of years ago without really making the information distinct and/or fresh. Faceless Evil Hordes getting (temporarily) thwarted by Faceless Good Armies with Elven Allies?  Probably not so interesting.  Unless there’s something so unique to this history that it really sets the tone for the work, I’d recommend just cutting to the story or somehow making it more lively.  For example, if the universe was created by gods on a drunken dare, that will probably intrigue readers more than hundreds of words about how the evil gods created the orcs and how the good gods created the elves.


3. Keep the main character(s) as involved as possible.  In almost every case, the main character is a better hook into the story than the setting/backstory.  To the extent that the backstory/setting is a hook, you can cover that in the backcover blurb (“In a city where even the pizza boys have superpowers and the Canadian Mafia sells cocaine-laced mayonnaise on every corner, a schizophrenic bartender and his possibly-sentient goldfish must…”). In your story, please show interesting characters doing interesting things (e.g. trying to accomplish urgent goals) as quickly as possible. If main goals are not immediately available, you can use intermediate goals–for example, before Luke Skywalker fights against the Empire, he fights with his uncle about becoming a pilot, which develops his personality and his urgent goal to pursue adventure. If the main character(s) is not present in your prologue, I would highly recommend keeping the prologue as short as possible or eliminating it.  


4. If the prologue functions as a chapter, I’d recommend making it Chapter One.  Mark Evans suggests that some readers are so put off by prologues that they just skip past them entirely.  A commenter below adds that readers might skip over prologues because “if the information was actually important, then it would be included in the main book itself.” I don’t know how common that is, but personally I am so used to prologues being boring that I’m filled with dread, ennui, and an intense desire to flee to Somalia whenever I see one. I have read only 1-2 prologues which have actually contributed to the work.

26 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

May 11 2009

How to Do Multiple Narrators and POVs with Style

1.  Make it clear who’s narrating which chapter. The biggest problem with multiple narrators is that it’s hard to keep track of who is narrating a given chapter.  One way you can fix this problem is by placing the character’s name below the chapter heading.  Or you can use blatant demographic cues.  (For example, someone that starts a chapter by saying “Damn, I hate high-heels!” is probably not a male).  Some publishers even sign off on a tiny picture of the character below the chapter heading.  Do whatever it takes.

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49 responses so far

Nov 17 2008

Common Problems with Third-Person Narration

We’ve already discussed why beginning writers tend to struggle with first-person narration, but third-person narration has its own share of problems.

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15 responses so far

Nov 15 2008

Common Problems with First-Person Narration

First-person narration is tricky. It often suffers from several major problems.

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36 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

“How far in the book should I introduce my main character?”

Unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, I’d say the start of chapter 2 at the very latest.

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19 responses so far

Oct 04 2008

Inane accusations and a question for our readers

Today we got an e-mail that asked “who’s paying you to crank this [expletive] out, the CIA?”  Well, no.  As far as I know, the CIA doesn’t offer grants for superhero novels, even kickass ones with accountants and mutant alligators from Homeland Security.  In fact, judging by my ramen account, it looks like no one is paying us to write this novel.

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One response so far

Apr 24 2008

Five Story Arcs (Central Plot Structures)

This article will help you organize the plotline of your story or novel.

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71 responses so far

Jul 22 2006

Story Structure

In the opening…

Generally, it’s a good idea to show or at least foreshadow the main characters.

Most writing guides emphasize an audience’s emotional investment in the characters.  That’s certainly important, but I think it’s also important for fiction writers to get readers to emotionally invest in the world.   Both of these investments tie in to what’s at stake.  Why should the audience care

The opening should also establish the tone and mood of the piece.  People that buy/read your novel will probably do so on the basis of the first few chapters (maybe just the first few pages).  It’s important not to jilt your readers– if it starts out tragically, it shouldn’t be a light-hearted comedy.

In the body of the story…

If your story is your gun, scenes are your bullets.  Scenes, rather than blocks of exposition that occur in a vacuum, show the characters.  A character in a well-constructed scene will feel a lot more alive to your audience than, say, a character who is described like “Courtney was a middle-aged man that was kind of both proud and insecure.”

Show all the elements the conclusion needs.  For example, if the climax hinges on whether the hero can save the girl, we should see the girl, the hero, and the villain long before the final fight.

I really like plotting by problems.  Your characters have overarching goals and their attempts to reach their goals should create more problems and obstacles.  These problems should be varied, but it will probably be easier to read if the problems get progressively worse.  Save the perfect solutions for the “Happily Ever After.”

In the conclusion…

By the end, your characters should have made some hard-earned gains and your audience should care about whether your hero succeeds.  In the conclusion, show us that everything hinges on success now.

The conclusion, more so than the other parts, depends on how much your villain resonates with the readers. If the villain seems competent or devious or otherwise impressive, your hero will seem much more heroic as he vanquishes him.

Additionally, the villain should only be vanquished by the hero’s actions. For example, this plot would be utterly dissatisfying: the protagonist is held hostage in her home and is finally saved when the cops burst through the door. She isn’t really the hero here because she didn’t actually stop the villain. On the other hand, if she spent the better part of the book trying to carry out a plan to secretly call 911, then she has taken on an instrumental and dramatic role.

Children’s novels are especially vulnerable to the problem that the “protagonist” doesn’t really save the day. Many authors allow an adult step in and solve the problems. This deus ex parentis is a let-down, especially because the readers are kids to begin with.

Throughout the story…

Avoid randomness. One area of particular randomness is naming characters.  For example, one of my professors described a novel where the first character were Alex, Betty, Carl and Donna. Hopefully, you have a stronger reason for naming your characters than that the first letters of their names come in alphabetical order.

The strongest reason to pick a name is that it suggests something about the character.  At its most basic, you’d screw weaker characters with sissy names like “Percy” and “Neville Longbottom” and give stronger characters hard-sounding names like “Jack Ryan.”  For a more advanced look at the use of sounds in character names, please see this article.

Another area that trips up authors is tense changes.  It’s very easy to slip into a different tense, but your readers will probably notice that. I recommend slowly reading through each page immediately after you finish writing it.  This is more effective than finishing the piece and then looking for tense mistakes because your eyes will glaze over after a few pages.  One of my chapters had a lot of tense problems right at the very beginning, mostly because I didn’t really know when the events I described at the beginning occurred compared to the time the story itself was taking place.  I’m pretty sure my latest version has fixed these problems.

Another problem is maintaining a constant narration.  For example, in “Only Human,” the narrator focuses mostly on what Jacob Mallow sees.  But about halfway through, the narrator describes what’s happening across the city even though Jacob Mallow has no idea anything is wrong.  Another awkward narration shift in Only Human is towards the end, when Jacob leaves the greenhouse.  The perspective stays in the greenhouse with Agent Orange.  I knew that was really awkward at the time I was writing it, but I kind of had to show what Agent Orange was doing with his blood.

44 responses so far