Science Fiction & Fantasy: I Have This Great New World, But….
Ritual Disclaimer: The first rule is that there is no One True Path, and anyone who tells you there is one is selling something.
What follows is a talk I gave at this year’s Writing Workshop of Chicago. There are lots of bullet points and questions with no answers, because the answers are for you to work out. Like I did. Eventually.
I’m a pantser who got lost a lot. I tried to learn plotter techniques, and a few even stuck. My process changed over time–I wrote an actual synopsis for Jericho, my seventh book, and wound up sticking to it for the most part. But some of the plot did change. A few subplots torqued, and a major relationship did a 180. So I wasn’t bored with the writing. I didn’t have to slog through a story that I already knew.
So, let’s talk. Your story has stopped working. It isn’t fun anymore. What happened?
Or maybe it’s revision time. Beta readers and editor are asking questions you can’t answer. Story isn’t working for them. Why not?
- You’ve hit a wall. Written yourself into a corner. No clue what to do next.
- The story in your head is exciting/moving/insert wonderful description here. The story on the page? Not so much.
- Critiqued to death. You’ve revised the story so many times according to others’ comments and your own uncertainties that you don’t even know what you’re writing anymore.
- There’s nothing left to write about. You’ve explained everything so there’s nothing left for the reader to find. Blah plot. Blah characters.
- Character. Plot. Worldbuilding. Are any of these your weak spot? Your least favorite? Do you enjoy one at the expense of the other two? Have they taken over, leaving the other two in the dust?
Back to Basics—all those things you’ve heard before that you may have forgotten
- Character. Motivations. Remind yourself what your protagonist wants/fears. Do the same for your antagonist. Dig deeper—why do they want those things? What’s stopping them? Are you making them work for what they want, or are you handing it to them?
- Plot. Have you forgotten what your story is about? Print out your elevator pitch and tape it to your screen.
- Worldbuilding. In science fiction and fantasy, in addition to plot and characters, you also need to introduce your world to the reader and convince them that it’s real. That’s a lot of extra work, and if you’re not careful, it can take over. Worldbuilding is important, but simply moving through the world is not plot. It can supplement plot and give characters a way to reveal themselves.
- Research—that rabbit hole. Too much information to stuff into one story. Pick carefully. You’re not writing a textbook. But whatever information you choose to make part of your story, make sure it’s well-researched and as correct as you can make it because someone will notice.
- That said, sometimes you will be questioned even when you’re right. It happens, and there’s not much you can do. Sometimes you can cite sources and research. Other times, nothing you can say will make a difference. Trust me–writers all have stories.
- Readers love to be fooled as long as you play fair (no deus ex machina). Don’t do the work for them. Make your protagonist work for the information—don’t just have other characters tell them. Set out the trail of breadcrumbs, and close the plotlines at the end of the book. That’s what the end of the book is for.
- AGENCY. Make sure your characters have the ability to act. Send your protagonist out into the world, Make them work. Those actions reveal their character and move plot forward. You reveal the world and how it works as your reveal character and move plot forward. Your characters’ actions drive the plot, not the other way around. Three horses hitched to that story chariot (if it’s a thriller)/wagon /plow. Plot and character work together. World informs both.
- Don’t lose track of your inciting incident. That event that started the ball rolling. Yes, you have a lot of relationship to reveal, but don’t lose track of your plot. That inciting incident is the first step of your plot. Don’t bury it in tons of backstory about how the protagonist felt about Mom or that bully in school. Hint at all that. Just a taste. Given the reader a reason to keep reading. Even better, a reason to stop and go Oh! when something is revealed and pieces start clicking into place. That’s what’s fun for the reader. The momentum builds and carries them to the end of the story. Don’t deprive them of that.
- Is there such a thing as being too murky and playing things too close to the vest? Yes. You need to find a balance, which is where beta readers and editor can help. Mystery for its own sake can annoy readers.
Plotter or pantser (or a little of each)?
- the type of writer you are may help determine how to approach the problem
- Your plot doesn’t have to derail in order to require reassessment. Your story can be improved.
- The triangle of plot, characters, and world/setting. You can write a decent book with just two out of three done well. When all three are done well, that’s special.
- one of the hardest things to learn about critiquing is when to ignore it
- you need to tell your internal editor to take a hike
- If you’re a plotter—go back to those index cards. Did you miss a step? Did you take the easy way out and let someone do the protagonist’s work for them? That old Sydney Harris cartoon—and then a miracle occurs. Are you trying to make your characters do something they normally wouldn’t do? Have you papered over a plot problem?
- If you’re a pantser, I am guessing that there’s a little voice in the back of your head that said nope at a certain point, and you ignored it. And again, you’re telling yourself that you’ll fix it later, and you are building the rest of your story on that shaky, incomplete foundation and it’s not working.
- Protagonists are the ones who run toward the explosions, but they need compelling reasons to do so or they’re just being moved around to serve plot. Internal motivation. AGENCY.
- Antagonists are the ones waiting for them. They have their reasons, too.
- If you’re bored with some aspect of the story, it’s going to show. What’s it doing there? If you’re bored, the reader will be, too.
Sometimes you just have to throw things against the wall and see what sticks.
- write a scene out of order. That favorite scene you’ve been thinking about for ages.
- write anything. a walk in the weeds that you know is a walk in the weeds. Protagonist and antagonist meeting in a vet’s office. A graveyard. One of those speed dating get togethers
- is there something you love that you can work into your story? Some aspect of your job? Your hobby? Some part of your life that you think is mundane? File off the serial numbers and add it to the pot.
- But. Beware segues that break the mood of the story.
- Often in plot discussions, we talk about movies because they—and I’m mostly referring to genre movies—need to be very tightly plotted. Take a break and watch a favorite movie. Note the twists and turns. How bits of information are revealed. Ask yourself why you love this movie so much, and answer that question. Go beyond that. You love a certain character. Why? Often we like to write what we like to read and watch. Determine why the stories you like work. My two favorite MCU movies are the ones with edges, Winter Soldier and Black Panther. I also love a good revenge flick. John Wick. Kill Bill.
- Visit the Dark Side
- If you’re a plotter, try sitting down and just writing. I know, I know. It’s okay. Put the index cards away. You can do this.
- If you’re a pantser, try plotting a scene. A chapter. A section. No, it won’t ruin the story for you because now you know what’s going to happen–if you’re a pantser like me something is going to find a way to flip on you. It could be that part you were trying to paper over.
- Your process is your process. It may change over time, but if you fight it, it will win. Respect it. If it’s your fate to write thousands of words of stuff only to find that it needs to be trashed? I’m sorry. That was me for 6 books. The first 200 manuscript pages, gone. I still get chills thinking about it.
- Remember that nothing is etched in stone
- Sometimes those darlings really do need killing. Not just words and phrases, but scenes. Entire plotlines. Characters. Relationships. And that brings us to…
The Bad News
You may need to trash a lot
The story may be broken beyond repair
You may not yet be the writer you need to be to write that story
If all this were an exact science, every book would be a best seller.
In closing…who watched Game of Thrones?
What were the McGuffins, those objects that triggered the plot and kept the characters moving? For me, they were the Iron Throne. The Night King.
The plots? Who wins the Iron Throne? What about that Night King?
But the characters are what we really cared about, judging from the outcry at the end. Where did the story start for them? Illicit love. A man misreads, willfully or not, the woman he loved, and the result is the shredding of seven kingdoms, countless horrible deaths, and changed lives all down the line, from prince to peasant.
When motivations are not well thought out. When plot is not well thought out. When characters are made to behave in ways that readers don’t expect because there has been no set-up. When things are rushed. That way lies reader disappointment and one-star reviews on Amazon. Think about the types of information missing in some book or movie the ending of which you hated or didn’t understand. Those could be the sorts of things that are missing in your work that help break logjams and move plot forward.