StoryBuilder 1.0: Outline the Perfect Plot!

Now that you have your fabulous main character (and whatever secondary characters you may have scrounged up to accompany the hero in his/her path to glory), and you have a fabulous and fantastical world in which to drop your character, you need a story to tell.  Obviously.

fantasy landscape quest storyYes, plots are necessary, as little as some of us may enjoy writing them.  So in the interest of helping you all in your path to storybuilding glory, here is a plot creator in the method of the previous two posts.  Pick your story-telling options and then find out what adventure your character gets to have!

(Word of Warning: I don’t do plots.)


1. How It Begins

A. With Drama
B. With Danger
C. With Plotting
D. With Something Else Entirely

2. How it Goes

A. An Epic Quest
B. A Political Intrigue
C. War is Brewing
D. Interesting…

3. A Twist Along The Way

A. Betrayal
B. Death
C. Love
D. An Interesting Development

4. How it Ends

A. Triumph
B. Tragedy
C. Romance
D. Well, That Was Odd


Alright, now for the fun part.  Your story is all but plotted and planned!  Wasn’t that easy?  Let’s see what you’ve got:

1. How It Begins

A. With Drama: Your character is minding his/her own business when, in from the darkness, comes a tall figure of notable looks carrying some object of mysterious origin and meaning.  This figure informs your character that s/he is meant for Great Things.  This sounds all well and good until the Great Things turn into a very long and uncomfortable enterprise.  But it will be a growing experience.

B. With Danger: Your character is minding his/her own business when, in from the darkness, comes an assassin who tries to kill your character for reasons unexplained.  Obviously, your character really needs to figure out why his/her life is worth threatening.  As luck would have it, someone else will come along very soon who has at least some of the answers and will join your character on this mission.  Is this new character friend or foe?  Hmmm….

C. With Plotting: Your character is minding his/her own business, taking a nice walk on a late evening. S/he stops in at the local drinking establishment for refreshment and overhears a plot of some sort to overthrow or otherwise upset the local or national government.  Naturally, your character will end up involved.  False accusations of treason are fast coming his/her way, and naturally those will have to be responded to with an outright rebellion.  And it had started as such a lovely walk…

D. With Something Else Entirely: Other children received dolls or toy soldiers on their birthdays.  Your character has, for whatever reason, been gifted by a magical gift-giving fairy with the gift of Importance.  Now everyone and his mother wants you on their side of the latest uprising or intrigue and it is up to your character to find a cause and stick with it or else end up on a quest to retrieve the local chicken farmer’s Magical Missing Egg.  Actually, that doesn’t sound like a half bad quest to start with…

2. How it Goes

A. An Epic Quest: However the story began, it inevitably resulted in a quest.  You, a cranky warrior, a mysterious scholar, someone who may or may not be able to use magic, someone’s whose musical skills are barely tolerable, and someone whose skills and worth are yet undetermined have all found each other through one incident or another and are now slogging through marshes and climbing unconscionably tall mountains in order to achieve the object of your quest.  Not that it is necessarily a literal object.  Maybe your quest is to escape the other members of your questing party because they are very annoying and don’t get along at all.

B. A Political Intrigue: There are about ten different sides to this political debacle, and your character is wading through the morass trying to find out whose side is the right side, or at least the side who is killing the fewest peasants and kicking the fewest puppies.  Your characters makes several friends and allies, only to discover that they are all on opposing sides, but all have their own virtues.  One of them is probably going to end up betraying your character while another will be a love interest.  The question is – which is which?

C. War is Brewing: Rather similar to the Political Intrigue, but with a lot more people on each side and a lot more upfront hacking and slashing.  Your character is, as usual, trying to figure out which is the Side of Right and Truth and Justice, but his/her chosen side will often do morally troubling things which will cause moments of existential crisis.  Everything is leading toward an epic battle, which will decide the Fates of Many.  Your character will hold the key to success… for whichever side s/he chooses.

D. Interesting…: Your character’s singular goal in this story is to become the greatest chef this world has ever seen.  Through war and intrigue and famine and plot, your character strives to hunt down the masters of culinary arts and ply them for their tricks of the trade.  Alas, your character’s nemesis, a pastry chef of no small skill, is lurking in the shadows, sabotaging your character at every turn.  Will your character ever achieve true mastery of the art of the kitchen?  Will s/he ever cook for kings?  And is that charming baker who s/he met along the way trustworthy?  And will your character ever be worthy of attaining the Magic Ladle?

3. A Twist Along The Way

A. Betrayal: In a totally unexpected turn of events, somewhere along the way, that really attractive character who seemed so very trustworthy turns out to not be trustworthy.  Your character spends one, possibly two, chapters reeling from this betrayal and several things go horribly wrong as a result.

B. Death: So, there was this cliff.  And there was rain.  And this one person saw a pretty bird and, well…  Your character and any other companions mourn the loss.  Unless it was someone highly suspected of being a traitor.  Then they stand a ponder the mysterious Ways of Justice before carrying on.

C. Love: Your character was so sure that s/he loved the very attractive, rich, cultured, capable person that s/he met along the course of the story, but now it seems that s/he has fallen hopelessly in love with the annoying, less attractive but not horrible to look at, sarcastic, most often unpleasant other person s/he met along the course of the story.  But who can explain the workings of the heart, anyway?  Odds are, Love Interest #2 will turn out to be long-lost royalty, anyway.  

D. An Interesting Development: Your character randomly gains the ability to see the future, but backwards, whenever s/he sneezes.  It’s all very confusing and mostly useless.

4. How it Ends

A. Triumph: Your character overcomes every single obstacle placed in his/her path, even the ones that are statistically and rationally impossible to overcome (because s/he is that amazing) and the story closes in a sweepingly grand picture of resolution.  Everything is in its proper place.  A golden age is most definitely unfolding before the eyes of your character and his/her comrades, and everything will most definitely be fine.  Unless there’s a sequel.  Then everything will be rubbish again in no time at all.

B. Tragedy: Unfortunately, everyone your character ever loved along the way has perished.  Most of them have perished nobly.  A few seemed to perish for no reason at all except to make your character question all of his/her preconceived notions about heroism.  Now, here at the end, your character stands alone, figuratively or literally gazing upon the graves of so many who have been lost… but it was worth it for the Greater Good.  It was…. Really…. Please let there be a sequel with a happier ending.

C. Romance: On a high, grassy hill overlooking a significant city wherein most of the significant story events took place, your character and your character’s One True Love are locked in a tender embrace as they reminisce on all of the unlikely events which brought them to this place.  Every outlook is rosy now.  All previous misunderstandings and hostility erased by mutual life-saving acts which have sealed their bond forever.  If there is an epilogue, it will probably involve two and a half children, just so the readers are sure that these characters meant it.  If there’s a sequel, well, your character would really appreciate it if there wasn’t one.  Things are great.  Let it be!

D. Well, That Was Odd: Your character is sitting in a small, dark room in the predawn light, blinking fuzzily and rubbing sleep from his/her eyes.  It was all a dream?  That whole story that took up four hundred pages was all a dream?  Your character lies back down and decides that maybe s/he isn’t getting up today.  It’s just not worth it.


And there you have it, the perfect outline just waiting to be filled in with your creativity.  Let me know what sort of story you ended up with!  I’m quite curious what sort of havoc I have wrought.

NaNoWriMo – The end is only a beginning

So it is the last day of the month, the end of NaNoWriMo.

For some of you this is a sigh of relief – the pressure is off.  For others, it is despairing  knowing that you did not reach your goal.  Some of you may be experiencing the joys of a strong finish.  And still more of you are just glad to be done – finished never having to look at that story again.

I applaud you finishers!  I congratulate you writers of a novel in a month!

I, nevertheless, did not finish…strong or otherwise.

But I do not consider this a failing, just a lesson.

I set out to write and see were it took me.  I wanted to have a goal and strive towards it.  I wanted to discipline myself and win the battle against my fickle muse.  In many ways, I succeeded in that cause.  I discovered that if I did “just sit down and force words onto the page” I could bring about a story even if my muse thought otherwise.

I learned that life is full of more distractions that I truly realized.  There are family gatherings, friendly emergencies, daily duties, need for sustenance  and unexpected occurrences that take up time, energy and money.  These interruptions are not all bad.  Some are very good.  These distractions can and will hinder you from enjoying, completing or even actually writing. (This is true for any hobby or extra curricular activity that you do).   If  I am going to be a writer, I am going to need to be more disciplined.  Writing is work but if I wait for the inspiration or the time, I’ll never write.  I need to make the time.  I need to be consistent, purposeful  and resolved in my writing.

Instead of looking at my measly 30,000 word count and thinking that I have failed, I am looking at my 30,000 words as that much closer to finishing an actual story.  NaNoWriMo forced me to write and by writing I worked out many of the kinks in the plot.  I now have a story that is worth finishing.  I am not sure if I am only half way there with my story or not but I have a strong beginning and a hopeful ending.

Keep writing!


Living Your Book: Terrain and Experiencing It

Maybe I’m presuming far too much, but in my experience, most writers tend not to be very physical people.  It seems like the doers of society are often too busy doing to take the time to write and the authors are often too busy authorizing to do!  Perhaps the best of us are those who find time for both.  🙂

This month we’ll be taking a look at something that it is difficult to get on without:  real life experience.  Want to find a way to really spice up your prose?  Here is a key question: Are you just satisfied with living inside your comfortable shell, only venturing out by proxy through your characters?  If so, I doubt your writing is as vivid and powerful as it otherwise could be.  You can unlock your potential, but it will be harder than you ever imagined…but also perhaps more rewarding!


Photo by the author.

The final post in this series is very similar to “Life on the March.”  You can only really learn about terrain by walking the ground, and if you are walking the ground, in any extensive way, you will learn about terrain whether you like it or not!  When we set out on foot for an adventure of our own, whatever myths we might have about the land around us are usually exploded by the tender slap of reality.  It is more than a matter of simple exertion, so merely being “in shape” doesn’t go far enough.   Observing the difference between our expectations of terrain and the inevitable reality of it underscores why it is so important for authors to not only learn facts about nature, but to experience it!

Cars, trains, and planes are all wonderful things.  They make our would a much smaller place, and that means that we are able to do more and go farther than our ancestors ever thought possible.  Like so much of our technology, though, they insulate us from reality.  In particular, they separate us from the land and leave us with no sense of what it really means to move over it.  Worse, if you’re like me and you happen to be a part-time gamer, this is reinforced by (excellent) games like Skyrim, Oblivion, Mass Effect, etc. where your character can run forever over virtually any type of terrain without you so much as breaking a sweat.  For many of us, if not most, all of that results in what amounts to the illusion of knowledge and the foolish self-confidence that comes with it.

Let me give you two quick examples that shaped my own realization of this, the latter of which happened as recently as Wednesday.

Below our house, there is a road that leads down from the gap and into the valley.  When it leaves the woods and passes into the fields, it flattens out quite a bit.  I drove this road for years on an almost daily basis, and if you asked me, I would have called it “flat” (if curvy).

Photo by the author.

That all changed the day my daughter convinced me to go for a bike ride down there.  What from a car seemed to be pretty level turned out to be a long, subtle and yet obvious incline.  Being on the bike made all the difference.  I was closer to the ground with nothing around me.  I could feel weight of gravity pulling me down hill (and holding me back on the way up!).  As I peddled and pushed, I saw the land in a whole new way–one that I didn’t particularly appreciate at the time!  Being thrust out of my comfort zone (if you’ll pardon the hackneyed expression) made me look at that little piece of the world in a whole new way.

Wednesday I had another surprise–this one was far more pleasant, but no less revealing.  I had already been reminded how being on the ground could change your perspective, but I had since been hiking so often that I took for granted that I “knew all that” already.  In the aftermath of the “monster storm” Sandy, I had been able to see steady snowfall on the mountains to the west-northwest from our home.  That area (particularly Cold Mountain) has become a favorite haunt of mine and so when an afternoon presented itself I decided to take off to get some miles in before dark. I thought I might cover one of my favorite hikes–about six miles around the mountain and back over a mowed ridge that offers spectacular views.  If I got the chance to see a little snow, so much the better!

Photo by the author.

As I drove higher and higher, it became clear that there was more than a “little snow.” It ended up varying between as little four inches to as much as two feet, depending on the drift patterns.  I unloaded and took off up a road to the top of the mountain, where I expected I could pick up the Appalachian Trail, if I wanted.  I knew that walking through fresh snow is obviously much harder than dry ground, but I figured I had allowed more than enough time and I knew the trail well.

I’ve covered the trail to the top many times now, and it is a nice warm up for the rest of the trip.  This time I found myself breathing hard, wet to the knees, and moving at about half speed.*   It was almost like being back at my heaviest weight, slogging up the hill for the first time.  It was steeper than it “should” be, and it made me far more tired than I expected.  I cut my trip short by about three miles to make sure I had plenty of time to make it back down the mountain before the road froze over for the night.  The snow made me view the terrain completely differently.  What I previously “knew” as one thing became something entirely different.  It was beautiful (just see the pictures in this post) and worth every drop of sweat, but it reminded me of what I’m really seeing in my mind’s eye when I write a scene about adventurers hiking through a snowy mountain pass.

In both of the cases above, I found that all of our technology had prevented me from understanding the land around me and what it meant to interact with it.  I look back on some of the stories I wrote before all this and I almost laugh.  There was so much missing!  So much taken for granted!  My characters will no longer just cruise across the landscape without comprehending it.  Some will appreciate it, others will hate it, but they will all know it.

As a remedy for this, I have no bullet points to offer.  This really is something that you have to experience.  The lessons learned are eye opening, and worth every step to your writing.


*Now, to anyone who has grown up in a very snowy area, this will be no news at all, but remember I’m originally from Georgia.  🙂

Other Posts in the “Living Your Book” Series

Photo by the author

Living Your Book: Doing Battle

Maybe I’m presuming far too much, but in my experience, most writers tend not to be very physical people.  It seems like the doers of society are often too busy doing to take the time to write and the authors are often too busy authorizing to do!  Perhaps the best of us are those who find time for both.  🙂

This month we’ll be taking a look at something that it is difficult to get on without:  real life experience.  Want to find a way to really spice up your prose?  Here is a key question: Are you just satisfied with living inside your comfortable shell, only venturing out by proxy through your characters?  If so, I doubt your writing is as vivid and powerful as it otherwise could be.  You can unlock your potential, but it will be harder than you ever imagined…but also perhaps more rewarding!


That’s me on the left.

Conflict:  It is something that no good book can do without.  Even my friends who desperately avoid it and are made uncomfortable when there is even the slightest hint of disagreement look for it in their fiction.  As modern authors, we all have generally experienced some kind of emotional conflict, but relatively few of us have ever had anything to do with physical conflict–fighting.  I find this very ironic since so many of us write it into our stories with a tone of complete authority.

My experience with fighting has thankfully been a choice so far and not a necessity. For ten years, off and on, I studied the Japanese art of kendo and, later, its Korean descendant, kumdo.  I have also practiced and tested a bit in a non-traditional form of aikido-jujitsu.  What I learned, particularly from kendo and kumdo, literally changed the way I look at the world, and it certainly changed the way I approach conflict.  After all, there is nothing like standing in front of a person you know could literally kill you and refusing to back down.  When you’ve done that enough, “normal” people just aren’t that intimidating any more!

A year or so ago I did a whole series on “Swordsmanship for Dummies,” (the run of which you can find listed at the bottom of this post), so I’ll focus here on some of the more general themes I’ve learned that might be of use as we write.  In any case, I certainly don’t want to overstate my experience–in kendo or in combat in general.  I am–and hopefully will always be–an amateur, no matter how many “black belts” I accumulate (I have one).

Practicing with the lovely Ahrum Han.  For the record, she was attacking me! 🙂

As we begin, it is also worth saying that martial arts are a very cultural phenomenon.  There is always more than one “good” way to do anything.  While I do believe that there are some martial arts that are better at some things than others, one of the first and most important points to remember is that different cultures develop their warfighting and personal combat traditions along separate paths.  In all cases, cultures take the routes they do for one simple, clear reason:  Doing it that way works for them in their situation.  The people who use techniques that don’t work die, pure and simple.  So, European knights tended to use bigger, slower, heavier weapons because that is what it took to penetrate their opponents’ armor.  The samurai of Japan never had to deal with a massive invasion of the islands, and therefore they generally focused on single combat between two honorable opponents.  Korea, given its location, was constantly being invaded by someone and its defenders were usually out numbered, so it’s martial arts tended toward techniques where a single fighter faced multiple opponents.  Capoeira can look a little strange, until you learn that it was originally developed by slaves who weren’t allowed to learn to fight at all (for obvious reasons); so, they disguised their fighting arts as “dancing.”  In all cases, the fighting styles, weapons, tactics and strategy result from a combination of culture and circumstance.

Here are some other things to bear in mind:

  • Brutal Efficiency:  While we like to think of fighting as flashy and impressive, most serious warriors and the techniques they use are simple, brutal, and efficient.  On the battlefield, martial arts are about one thing–killing your opponent in the quickest way possible (before he kills you).
  • Martial arts (eastern or western) often operate under a complex set of rules or expectations:  Kendo, for instance, has a very strict etiquette that practioners must follow.  Medieval knights had the laws of chivalry.  Even in less developed societies and systems, you generally tend to see some set of expectations that warriors believe they should be able to assume about each other.  When someone violates that code of conduct, it is often (not always) seen as a violation of a significant trust.
  • Conflict takes a toll, physically and emotionally:  Since I started practicing kendo, I’ve had to have two shoulder surgeries because of the damage that the repetitive motions did to my body.  One of my first senseis has had his knee replaced because of what tae kwon do and kendo did to him.  That, of course, was with blunt weapons and full protective gear.  Imagine what being in real fight after real fight would do to you!  I always find it funny when I see an “experienced” character in a story with no obvious injuries.
  • Conflict requires mental toughness:  As I progressed in kendo in particular, I was surprised to see how intellectual it really was.  The best fighters were the ones who could think as well as they could move.  Much of it has to do with your ability to control yourself, think ahead of the fight, and then impress your will on your opponent. As one sensei I worked under said, “You should sweat buckets, and 90% of that sweat should be from mental effort.  Kendo is chess with swords.”  While again this will look different between cultures, it is very often a similar over arching theme between them.
  • The need to overcome nature:  Standing in front of someone who wants to kill you isn’t “natural.”  Your body will choose “flight” over “fight” if you give it a chance.  Most martial arts have one answer to this problem–practice and discipline.  You literally ingrain your techniques into yourself so thoroughly that you can overcome your more basic urges (which never go away entirely).  In short, the greatest warriors take time to create.
Hip tosses are fun! Unfortunately, I seriously damaged my shoulder–eventually leading to surgery–when I failed to roll properly about ten minutes after this was taken.

If you would like to get some firsthand experience, it is easier than you might think: there are plenty of martial arts instructors out there willing to take money from just about anybody in any state of training so long as they have no outstanding medical conditions.  The main question you need to ask yourself is, “How serious am I?”  In my experience, the vast majority of Western instructors tend to teach a toned down form of their art, one that is pitched to a consumer who is unwilling to pay money to be put through the annoyance, pain, and suffering that more traditional arts will demand (and they certainly wouldn’t pay to see that happen to their precious children!).  If you’re out to understand what a “warrior” knows, that may actually mislead you.  If you are willing and able, I would suggest looking into those forms that are as historic an original as possible. On the other hand, you’ll probably find any experience in any real martial art valuable as an author.

Whatever you decide, look into your proposed instructor’s credentials. There are many people out there–particularly the “ninjas”–who will create their own “style,” declare themselves the grandmaster of that style, and then they start opening schools as fast as they can.  It’s always good to know who you’re dealing with.

Anyway, I can say that I do not regret my years learning martial arts.  It made me into a much stronger person with a clearer sense of purpose.  It gave an idea of what it means to fight and how to prepare for it.  If you take the time yourself, I think you’ll also find it well worth your while.

Next Week:  The last installment of “Living Your Book” (for now)–Terrain and How to Understand it.

Other Posts in the “Living Your Book” Series

The Swordsmanship for Dummies Series

How to Write: How You Think

Hello everyone! Last week I talked about how Daleks weren’t that bad of an idea after all (in my opinion, actually quite brilliant) and continued my promise to post some of my own

writing mind map

writing. Well, before we get to that, I’d like to take a look at something that I have been working on for a while now as I attempt to develop my style in fiction, as well as my world building and creativity (yes, that is something to develop; see my post about the cliché shelf). That something is the writing process.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Oh great, another writer telling me how to write.”

Actually, I want you to tell you how to write. It’s very simple, actually.

Learning Things About Myself That Should Have Been Obvious

When it came to figuring out how to do this whole writing thing, I read books about writing, begged for guidance from my writer friends, and absorbed and contemplated countless systems for organizing and developing my fiction writing that seemed generally uncomfortable and unsuited for me.

Then Melissa pointed out something I never thought of: I already know how to write.

I have written tons of essays and research papers for school, and I have a clear approach to handling these tasks. Now, academic papers are clearly different from creative writing in scope and intent, but why should we have to develop two different approaches to writing?

A Matter of Grey Matter

As far as I know (and feel free to add to this in the comments), there are two main ways to approach a  writing project:

  • Building Block: Each piece of the argument is a self-contained project, such that the whole of the essay is a construct of individually-crafted parts. In this approach, the writer works on each section until it is deemed finished, then moves on to the next. According to Melissa, this is how she works.
  • Sculpting: The argument is a solid chunk of writing that has to be tackled methodically and gradually as a whole, not as subdivided parts. The first pass is rough and sloppy, but each revision brings the entire paper closer to the goal. This is how I write an essay.

This is different from the character driven vs. plot driven approach to writing as that is a consideration in developing your ideas. What I’m talking about is how you actually get words on the page. For me, the building-block approach means that before I even start crafting prose, I construct an outline. Adapting this method for my own creative writing is still experimental, but here’s how it works:

  • Stage 1: Basic Events– No details, only simple abstractions such as:
    • -Home
    • -Driving
    • -Car Crash
    • -Hospital
  • Stage 2: Sub-Events– This is where you start fleshing out the events into scenes:
    • -Home (wakes up, thinking while at mirror, sees clock, rushes out door)
    • -Driving (turns on radio, thinks about politics, thinks about dad’s politics)
    • -Car Crash (notices construction, sees lazy workers, phone buzzes, swerves to avoid worker, crashes into dump truck)
    • -Hospital (Wakes up in hospital bed, no one is there, checks clock, realizes no windows, realizes is chained to the bed, armed soldiers burst into room with guns drawn)
  • Stage 3: Fill in Ideas, Reactions – Now it’s starting to get good! This is where you figure out exactly where some of your favorite ideas and lines will go. If you’re like me, the things that get you thinking about a story are scenes, ideas, and lines. I envision a guy waking up in a hospital bed and realizing he’s actually in a shady research lab. I think of a snarky one-liner the character says to the doctor before executing his brilliant plan of escape. I think of the awesome government project that turns my character into an unstoppable revenge machine bent on destroying the cooperation that decided to play God. At this stage, I copy/paste things from notes, copy down scribbled lines, reference diagrams I drew in the margins of class notes (I can’t be the only one who does this). This is where the world-building approach meshes into my writing process, but it’s also where a character driven approach feeds in. Figuring out exactly how a character reacts when and to what is important if you write like I do.

A Long Story Short…

This is all to say, when trying to figure out the best way to write creatively, don’t discount your already established methods for taking on projects. This doesn’t just mean how you write papers, but how you think about tackling assignments at work or how you wrap your brain around renovating your house. You shouldn’t only “write what you know,” you should “write how you think.” Cramming yourself into a mold just because it’s how other people write will only further stifle your creativity and make it harder to do what you want to do.

Well that’s it for now! Next week I’ll attempt to demonstrate my writing process with some flash fiction, along with a breakdown of how I wrote it and why. Until then, how do you write? Is it like how you handle other projects? Let me know in the comments below!