Tag Archives: plotter vs. pantser

EXTREME PLOTTER’s dilemma: following through to the end


Somewhere in the process of writing the book, whether at the very beginning (I did), or somewhere along the path because things seem confused and nonsensical otherwise, a plotter looks for the story structure, and makes some important decisions.

They are not cast in pig iron.

They can, in principle, be changed – many a novel has ended up somewhere else.

But the extreme plotter makes few decisions lightly, because it will affect everything else in the story if structural changes are made.

The point of plotting is to free the imagination to create

And it does.

A solid structure makes it easier for some of us to launch the flights of fancy that say ‘this is how this happens,‘ because it will fit the rest of the story, and connect the pieces that go through it to what came before and will go after.

But it doesn’t account for dragging your feet

If you find out you don’t want to write something.

For whatever reason, the plan is going to cause you angst.

You, the writer.

You are going to read this later and weep.

You are going to allow something to happen that you will forever look to and say you wish it hadn’t happened. In fact, you are going to create it that way.

When you planned what was going to happen to these people

you didn’t know them as well as you do now, when the setup that has been coming for 267,000 words leads to an action at least one of the characters will regret – and you made them do it.

It is still perfectly logical, from that setup, that they will do it.

But you don’t wanna.

The logic is unassailable.

You cannot get to the END any other way.

Believe me, I tried.

But now the actual deed must be done, the betrayal executed, the trap laid sprung, the consequences invoked.

It is daunting to someone who is happier when the world and people work their problems out in some reasonable way: all three main characters will be forced through the wringer, and each one will have to do something they don’t want to do.

I lost my nerve there for a while

For some reason, it helps to spell it out and then share the process and the details that cause me agita.

I have known this day was coming from Day #1.

As few details may change in the actual telling.

But it’s happening, and it’s my fault, and I am not lifting a finger to save these characters from their destiny.

I’ll accept responsibility, but they’re going to that end, kicking and screaming.

Thanks for listening.

I think it’s all part of life, real and writer’s.

Please weigh in.

When there’s been a hole in your writing

Lighthouse at night at end of pier. Text: What can change a writer's voice and style? Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt


The Holy Grail for authors is to be recognized from their writing, because it’s distinctive and personal and memorable. It’s called voice, and goes along with having a style, sometimes for series, sometimes for all your books.

It is an interesting milestone when you find you have developed such features.

And the question I’ve been asking myself since all the garbage happened (starting way back in November of last year) is: Am I still myself as a writer?

Life events change people

And writers are people.

On some of the days I’ve been able to write since the side effects of medications have mostly been out of my system, I have noted with some pleasure that I seem to have learned how to do writing the way I do it – faster.

The process hasn’t changed – I gather a lot of bits my plotting process has decided will be in a particular scene, fill in some lists I have made for myself with such things as ‘What is the heart of this scene?’ and ‘What would happen if this scene weren’t here?’ and such, and start organizing the material into beats which make some kind of sense to me – and then the actual writing seems to flow, dreamlike, from all the little pieces, as they show me where they belong.

Maybe it’s faster because I’ve stopped second-guessing myself: most of the material will fit in, and occasional bits will be postponed, and very rarely a piece will be added to an earlier finished scene.

But I question such gifts.

Is it real?

And is it still me?

I don’t want a reader to notice that something ineffable has changed, and Book 2 feels wrong.

I won’t know the answer to this for a while, but I made a plea to my beta reader to be especially aware of the concept of change as she reads the new material (my method is to send it to her, polished, a chapter at a time).

I’m not sure what the heck I will do it I’ve been changed in my writing by the recent health events. I will accept that maybe the speed has come because I value my tiny bit of functionality even more, now that I’ve experienced how it can disappear completely for months on end.

But first I have to know.

I await her judgment. If she’s not sure, I will get more readers from those who loved PURGATORY, and beg them to look at a couple of chapters.

It’s a scary thought – and one of the things that’s been worrying me along with the obvious aftermath to health problems.

If you notice

anything specific in my NON-fiction – comments and posts and emails – that makes you wonder whether I’m still here, please let me know.

I have literally run to the end of my DIY ways: I can’t tell. And I don’t know why I’m slightly uneasy, unless it’s simply the kind of unease that makes you question EVERYTHING once you trip over something that shouldn’t have been there.

Oh, and: has this ever happened to you?



Is it a mistake to gut your readers emotionally?


To give them the biggest emotional journey you can, the most stress and pain they can take vicariously?

At least, it is your job to consider their feelings – and how you’re going to invoke them – if not as you write, then at least before you publish.

You owe your readers a thorough exploration of the questions raised by the story. If you present one action, and only one reaction, you’re preaching. Which is fine as long as you know what you’re doing, and some writers and readers are perfectly fine with that.

But not me.

Mountains, anyone?

Real-life choices are made with options. Fictional choices are made with a lot MORE options. Just because writers can. There is no budget needed when a writer says, “Overnight, a mountain had moved in front of her window.” A few black marks and it’s done. Less than a minute of writing time, and we have a new mountain, right where I say it is.

So there’s no excuse such as “it’s too expensive” or “where am I going to get a mountain?”

Since I write realistic fiction, I do have limits that I choose (and shouldn’t use dream sequences with new mountains very often). But the mountains of K’Tae, where Kary sets her SF novel (if you’ve read Pride’s Children, you know what I’m talking about; if not) were necessary for her plot on an inhospitable planet, and cost me practically nothing. Nice, eh?

Readers’ reactions to roller coasters, emotional

Leaving out those who like their fiction tame, and those who prefer a lot of physical action, gives me readers who want to know how the appearance on a single TV interview can make such a difference in the life of a woman who normally hides, due to a carefully managed illness, from any publicity. How much can she take? What does it do to her? How does she cope before, during, and after a roller coaster comes into her life?

Do we want her to get off? Do we care where the ride stops? Is it even a possible ride for her and the other people involved?

Readers deserve an author who takes into account their emotional journey, presents each relevant event as the only possible next event, has a sequence of emotions calculated to lead them through a scene, chapter, book in an inexorable progress (Noooo!) to the only possible end to the story, and then dumps them at the station wanting more.

Margaret Mitchell did that continuously through a very long Gone With the Wind, and left us at the end wanting the more which either she didn’t plan to write, or didn’t get the chance to. And which was so badly mishandled by the writer her estate hired to do the sequel that I won’t mention it – which disappointed many.

How to engineer a roller coaster:

Planning, planning, and more planning is how I do it.

My tools (the books I consult most frequently while setting the journey up) are:

  1. Writing the Blockbuster novel, in which Albert Zuckerman masterfully takes apart several important and well known scenes (from The Godfather, GWTW, and Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg) showing how it’s done.
  2. The Fire in Fiction, in which Donald Maass carefully shows how to create conflict in every element of a scene (from landscaping to literally nothing happening).
  3. Wired for Story, where Lisa Kron shows how to make a reader empathize with a character with a thorough understanding of how the human brain works, and how we feel.

I start a scene, for example, by asking myself what the character needs to go through emotionally for the scene to work for me.

Then I start working out whether some of the emotions cluster in groups. If so, a smooth transition from feeling to feeling within a group gets planned.

I ask myself where the scene starts, what the emotional changes in the character have to be, and where the character needs to end.

Once I have the character’s path and the actual events working to give a transition which makes some kind of sense, I work out how to get a reader to identify – and take the same journey. It has to be a believable journey. In real life, people go through circular emotional journeys, coming back again to the same thing, over and over, repeating themselves. If you do that in fiction, readers will notice.

You don’t get to take that trip in fiction because it’s boring. Once a character achieves insight over something, the reader expects him to remember that insight.

That’s because stories are the highlights of life, condensed, told as quickly as possible so that readers can get many vicarious lives. My kind of stories, anyway.


That’s where I’m at right now: writing the very first scene in Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD. In the midst of taking the reader expectations left at the end of PURGATORY into account, setting a new direction for the next level of exploration, making sure the reader gets dragged into Andrew’s head for the battle (yes, Book 2 starts with Andrew), making sure a few old questions get answered, and even more new questions get lodged in the reader’s consciousness, and planning that very long ride up from the station to the tip top of the track and then…?

Thing is, the starting point is partly determined by where Book 1 ended, and where I know Book 2 ends and Book 3 begins.

But I know it has to kick things up to a new level, so I get out my trusty software tools, and my slow brain, dump all the marketing and promotion stuff which has been bedeviling my existence, and start chuckling at what I’m planning to do.

Because the Roller Coaster Designer gets to take the ride over and over and over until it’s as good as she can make it.

Gentle Reader: do you like roller coasters?

Thanks to Stencil for the ability to make up to 10 free images per month. I’ve enjoyed using their easy tools – and every month they give me new choices. I will get a paid account as soon as I need more images – I’ve only explored the surface of what’s available.

I you like my prose, consider purchasing my fiction. It’s written by the same person.

I’m planning to put up a few short stories in a polished form as soon as I can create covers.

Encouraging new writers: on the edge and without a net


Two things before I go into this post:

Thing the first: Today is the last day of the Kindle Countdown Deal for Pride’s Children.

Thing the second: There is the story of the violinist who approached the master, asked that the master listen to him play and tell him if he had talent. The master nodded his head wisely for a time, and then told the violinist, “I’m sorry, but you have no talent. Do something else with your life.”

Years later, the violinist again approached the master. He said, “I am so grateful for what you told me. I focused on other things. I am happily married, have two beautiful children, and have had success as an accountant. My life has been good. But I have always wanted to ask you how you knew back then that I had no talent.”

The master looked at him. “I didn’t listen. I tell everyone who asks that question the same thing. But the ones who have talent never pay any attention to my answer.”

Blast from the past

I found this among my many notes to myself, abortive attempts at blog posts, ideas captured when they happened.

I’m glad now I never listened.


FROM NOVEMBER 18, 2013 – [a thank you to my readers-along]

Before you finish your first salable novel and publish it, almost everyone you know will think you’re a few chocolate bunnies short of an Easter basket. Why? Because of statistics (which I’m too lazy to look up, and wouldn’t trust anyway) that say that many novels are started, few actually finished.

And most people never start that book they say they want to write.

‘Salable’ has changed dramatically in the last five years. It now means ‘finished enough for me to throw up on Amazon etc., and good enough to sell a few copies.’ Even given how easy the ‘publish’ step is now, relatively few people actually get to that point, because the requirement to finish a longish and complicated story is the dream-killer.

Once you are published, traditionally or self-, you are on a different track. Your work is out there, in public, and people can actually buy a copy with money. People can leave reviews, and argue about your plot points over at Goodreads, and comment on Amazon about your characters and themes.

Before that is the point I’d like to address: the novel is started; maybe outlined, plotted, and first-drafted to the point that you’re pretty sure you know where you’re going [or, for pantsers, that you’ve already gotten there because that’s how pantsers know they’re within sight of the finish line]. Now comes the hard part: finishing the writing, editing the manuscript, and getting it ready for market.

The question to be answered first has to be: why bother to nourish new writers? Aren’t there already too many writers and too many books out there? Well, yes, and most people would find enough reading materials out there to read continuously for the rest of their lives even if every writer out there stopped producing anything new immediately.

So, then, why encourage writers? It has to be because you are still looking for something new, because readers can read far more than most writers can produce, and are still out there clamoring for more. If you like mysteries, and read Sue Grafton’s novels of Kinsey Milhone, you can read far more than she could ever produce. If you like Travis McGee novels (I love them), John D. MacDonald isn’t around to produce any more – the best you’re going to do there is find a new writer who reminds you of the flavor of Travis – and who is still writing new stuff. Otherwise, your only option is to back and reread Bright Orange for the Shroud. Again.

So we encourage new writers.

Someplace along this line from conception to novel birth out of the Amazon river is the Temple of Lost Hopes. You know where you’re going, but finishing seems like the impossible dream. No one is giving you stars on Amazon because there is nothing there to praise or deride, and your feedback supply comes from whatever you’ve cobbled up in the form of readers – alpha, beta, familial, and friendly. You stop at the Temple to find a guru. You are desperate. The burden of finishing on your own has gotten gigantic. Nobody cares. Nobody knows what you’re going through.

For writers who are writing and editing live, as I am, this is the point at which a little encouragement from those following along (if any) has an effect far disproportionate to its size. The beta reader stands in for a hoped-for host of future readers; I have gotten to the point where I write ‘to torture Rachel,’ because if Rachel reacts correctly to a scene, I have written it correctly. I KNOW ahead of time I’ve written it as well as possible, because Beta Reader isn’t being given crap (in this way my beta reader is more like a focus group for a movie than a critiquer or a proofreader or a writing partner), but the confirmation comes from getting somewhere near the desired effect.

There are readers – or at least people who click as far as the novel’s text on your website/blog (this is all the information you get from WordPress – it’s called ‘views’). If those readers seem to come back – and an occasional ‘Like’ is registered by the statistics division of WordPress, and an even more occasional actual Comment is left behind as proof they were not ghosts – the effect on the writer is transformational.

I can live for days (writing days, finishing this thing we are pursuing together) on one of those tidbits.

So, if you are nurturing a writer along, what can you do? Not much if you are not exposed to the process – and this is the state of most writers: they write privately until it’s good enough to publish, and then market like crazy when it’s available for sale.

You’re already doing the hardest part: reading the THING as it goes up, live, in pieces, every week. This is enormously valuable.


Couldn’t have done it without you guys.

From my tribe to yours:

Merry Christmas to all, and happy holidays to those with other traditions. Peace on Earth, goodwill to humankind, is real and possible.

The fractal nature of plotting a novel

This is a ‘crazy way Alicia writes’ post – be forewarned.

I just came in from a wonderful bike ride (I can’t walk, but I can ride reasonably well), with all kinds of questions floating around in my mind about the nature of the future – mine – which one set of people are pretty convinced will require taking my back apart and ‘stabilizing’ it – with no promises of anything, just the possibility of ‘preventing further deterioration,’ and I am not in a good mood about it.

Having written it all out – you don’t want to read it, not yet – and decided how to use the fury to write a particularly useful little piece in the current chapter (I’m revising Chapter 16, and looking at 16-20 – the end of Book 1 of Pride’s Children – as a unit), and having found myself some options in a yoga book I already had, I had to get out in the Spring air.

But Hamilton Square is gorgeous in the spring – pink and white and yellow and deep magenta everywhere, the dogwoods and cherry trees are littering the streets with their pink and white confetti, and I am musing about the internal structure of writing that attempts to resonate (or so I tell myself) to think of more important things.

[Mathematical weirdness begins

Humans are subconsciously aware of the fractal nature of reality, and, when they look at stories, see the same nature.

Does that make any sense? The simplest comparison is the ‘beginning, middle, end’ nature of every piece of writing. We’ve all had the ‘Huh?’ reaction to the ending of a piece of writing that just stops rather than resolves (non-fiction, newspaper articles in particular, does this intentionally), and the annoyance of a confusing beginning that makes the reader have to work too hard to figure out where she is and what’s going on, with the confusion surrounding a muddled middle that meanders.

Dramatica is fractal by design. The choice of ratio has been 1:4, and this structure gives rise to all the complications you could possibly hope for. It is possible to see more complexity in the degree of your fractal (1:6 or 1:8), less likely to see everything as black and white (1:2 – a yes/no option for every choice), or splitting things into 3 at each level, but it would be possible.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat shows a four-part structure, too (he uses three Acts, but his second Act is twice the length of the first or third Acts); when he lays his ‘beats’ out on a corkboard, he uses four lines, the middle two of which correspond to Act 2. He divides his 40 ‘scenes’ into roughly four groups of 10.

Just as going from 1D to 2D to 3D to 4D in mathematics raises the level of complexity (for those who don’t have differential calculus in their backgrounds: be happy – and skip this part), there comes a point where the basic difficulty has been illustrated, and the number of dimensions makes obvious how the equations are going to go from now on. For me, this happened between levels 2D (two variables) and 3D (three – duh!), because the addition of that 3rd variable resulted not just in another variable to deal with, but complicated cross terms between different possibilities: for 2D (x,y), the only possible cross term was xy. But for 3D, cross terms were not just xyz, but xyx, or xzy, or other combinations of three of the variables, and it was NOT obvious how to create the next level of complexity in how the variables affected each other – regardless of how many times my math textbooks left the 3D version as ‘an obvious extension of the text for the student.’ Lousy texts, lousy teachers, lousy methods – because it was easier for them to leave the longer equations out. They were extremely difficult to figure out for a novice, and I spent wasted hours at it. Going from 3D to higher dimensions – and yes, the dimensions go to infinity, though most calculi go no further than maybe 20 or so additional dimensions – WAS more obvious.

I’m seeing that effect now, as I revise the design of the end of Book 1. There is a mathematical felicity to the design that I hadn’t even realized I was building in. There must be some ‘story structure’ in my brain, because Book 1 is 20 chapters, and the last ‘Act’ is Chapters 16-20, but I’m pretty sure I was NOT being deliberately mathematical when I laid out the plot, figuring out what happened in the story that took it where it went.

The fractal nature is evident at each level: chapters have scenes, scenes have beats, beats have paragraphs, paragraphs have sentences…

And the beats are like mini-stories, with an introduction, setup, conflict in the middle, and some kind of resolution at the end, with ends to sentences, paragraphs, beats, scenes, chapters, Acts, and the individual Books, each calculated for effect – as are their beginnings.

So at each level, I get to tell a story, and assume that the levels above and below will take care of themselves – because that’s the way they are set up.

Where is the ‘writing’ part? The Art?

The variability comes in the writing. Beats are never rote or formula – each takes however long it takes in time to write and space on the ‘page.’ Some stories can be told with four words, others need a lot more.

But in a similar way as the coastline on a map shows the same variation in its inlets and promontories as you go closer and closer – or farther out into space – stories have an inherent graininess – mine, anyway – that I find somehow satisfying. The pieces interlock and fill a level, the levels have the same ‘feel’ to them – but on a different scale.

And I’m finding a deep satisfaction in re-visiting the levels prior to doing the actual writing/revising, a feeling of ‘Yes!’ – this has to happen HERE, and that has its place THERE.

I may be the nuttiest writer on the planet – and I shake my head sometimes at the complexity that my mind insists on building into everything I tackle – but I’m having fun again, after the low spot where I wondered if this whole process is worth the enormous amount of time and energy it consumes.

Mathematical weirdness ends]

Go out there and enjoy Spring if it is happening where you are. I love the States, but I grew up in Mexico City, and there really aren’t any seasons there (okay, two: dry and rainy, with a bit of cold around the Christmas holidays so you can wear your woolies to the Posadas when you sing in the street and carry the statues of Mary and Joseph).

My natural tendency with nice days is to think, ‘Okay – the weather is now the way it is supposed to be always, and it will be there tomorrow and forever after,’ which is not true, and conflicts violently with the known fact about New Jersey’s weather: if you don’t like the weather, wait two hours – it will change. Hard to outgrow your childhood imprinting. So I ‘forget’ to go out and enjoy the pretty – and it becomes something else, and I missed it. And the next day rains. Or is muggy. Or freezes.

Don’t imitate my bad habits. Go, ride, walk, breathe.

What are you doing to celebrate the beauty of the Spring?

Writing the triangle story: bending Dramatica to the writer’s will

I seem to be attracted to writing triangles. My work-in-progress, Pride’s Children, is an adult love triangle. A play I wrote, Tangled Webs, is another triangle story, this time about a young woman who finds out she’s adopted – and is the bone of contention between her two mothers.

I am fascinated by triangle stories: Agnes of God, by John Pielmeier, tells the story of a young nun who has an unexpected child – and the fight over her soul between the Mother Superior of her convent and the court-ordered psychiatrist who must try to figure out how the baby ended up dead. Eleemosynary, a play by Lee Blessing, tells the story of three generations of women in a family.

A proper triangle has two-person interactions between each pairing. The interest comes from the rotating interaction between three characters – if a story is merely that a guy is interested in two different women, and picks one over the other, it isn’t what I call a proper triangle: the women MUST interact separately of their interaction with the man, for it to pique my interest.

So what makes a proper triangle story? Continue reading

Story as mosaic: using Dramatica as nucleation sites for the individual tiles

ennucleation/nucleation* sites

I don’t see a lot of people talking on the self-publishing forums about using Dramatica to plot their novels. I do.

As I’m re-writing/revising/editing/re-visioning my novel-in-progress, I’m returning to the Dramatica text boxes I blithely filled in (encoded) years ago with the ideas that came from the story-as-it-was, and deepening my understanding of each of these items, as the scenes I assigned the ‘apps’ – the Dramatica appreciations (elements) – to come up for review. Continue reading

For writers who are plotters, the answer to What Goes Where may be Dramatica

[ETA 11/27/15: Want to see if you like the results of plotting with Dramatica for structure? Pride’s Children: Purgatory, Book One of the trilogy represented by the whole storyform,  is now available at Amazon – see sidebar.]

Kate Paulk, over at MadGeniusClub, postulates the question today, What goes where? She is a pantser (writes ‘by the seat of her pants’), but wants to know, “So, plotters, where the heck is the secret decoder ring to doing this at a conscious level? This pantser would really like to know.”

MY answer depends on how willing you are to have scaffolding in place when you write, and how much you know about what must go into each scene before you try to figure out who does/says/thinks what when. Continue reading

Beats: micromanaging the action – Scene template, Part 6

Fiction is not real life. There is purpose to fiction, order. Reproduction of reality is both impossible and boring. Things happen as the author arranges them to happen, and the author is in charge of selecting, out of the huge number of events going on every second, which will get chosen and which will be detailed.

If the author tells you the color of the bathroom fixtures, there had better be a very strong story reason for wasting words on such trivia when they could have been used to tell you about the main character’s childhood – and how it influences her choices right now.

Writing fiction is fundamentally fractal:
The book has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a story.
Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a smaller part of the story.
Each scene is like a short story, complete in itself – with a beginning, middle, and end.

But it doesn’t stop there. One of my favorite tools is breaking up what happens in a scene into a series of beats, each beat a tiny chunk of the action with a purpose, and a beginning, middle, and end. In the scene template it looks like this:

First beat: Description of first unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Introduction – How scene starts (evokes FIRST LINE)
New – What happens to get scene going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

Beat: Description of unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Transition – How scene continues from previous beat
New – What happens to get beat going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

(repeat as many times as needed)

Each beat has a single nugget of information for the reader, a single piece of the puzzle: the Conflict. Each character in a beat has a goal – and that goal is in conflict with the goals of the other characters in the beat. And in each beat, one and only one character wins.

Why micromanage to this level? Because it is the most efficient way to get and keep the reader’s attention.

If you’ve ever fed a baby, you know how this works. Your goal is to get the food into the baby without taking forever and driving yourself crazy. (The baby’s goal is to play with his food and maximize the pleasant parts of the interaction.) The most practiced feeders keep up a constant stream of spoonfuls going into the little maw (along with patter – you have to have patter – Here comes the train!) so junior neither gets bored nor chokes. Anything missed is collected and re-offered. The next spoonful is prepared and ready as soon as the current one is swallowed, but not offered a moment before that – because that distracts the baby from the bite IN her mouth. An attentive parent keeps up just the right serving size coming, and balances out the favorite sweet potatoes with the required amount of protein, planning the experience so it all comes out even, and a reasonable amount of dinner ends up INSIDE baby.

In other words, the feeder PLANS and EXECUTES the delivery, a bite (beat) at a time.

The food (information) comes in right-sized chunks, at appropriately-spaced intervals, just as the baby is ready to swallow (absorb) it. This is the author’s JOB.

The more complex the story, the more the author has to control the delivery of the pieces to avoid confusion – and keep the story moving always forward.

In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman calls these beats ‘Story Points’: he details Chapter 45 of Gone With the Wind, showing how Margaret Mitchell relentlessly keeps the story moving forward by delivering one blow after another, in pieces just big enough for the reader to grasp before being assaulted with the next one.

The experience of the reader is PLANNED. Which is as it should be: the writer already knows the story, and is trying to get it across to the reader in the most exciting way possible.

For me, planning a scene as a series of beats, each with its own internal logic and conflict, makes it easier to write, because I can hold a whole beat in my head, as a unit. Think flash fiction. Thing anecdote. Think haiku. Heck, think Lego building blocks.

If I know the goals of the characters in a beat, I can choose which character wins – and build up a scene out of a series of win/lose moments between the characters. I can deliberately alternate to create a scene that is an argument between the two characters, showing first one winning and then the other. I can create the impression of a cowed character – by showing the other character ‘winning’ all the interactions, one after another. I can escalate the conflict – by showing the ‘win’ getting more extreme in each beat.

Again, I find it helpful to write play scenes as a way to duplicate the experience of being constantly kept off balance by what comes next. Theatergoers are spoiled: they want SOMETHING happening every moment – or they get bored and start to fidget. And once I have the spine of the story, with anticipation going into each beat, conflict in the middle, and a tiny bit of resolution at the end followed by things getting even worse, all the rest of the story information (setting, theme, backstory, …) can be tucked in as decoration.

This works for plotters in the planning stage – and pantsers in the revision stage. In revision, I take all the good bits, number them, literally cut them into strips, and group them into blobs that somehow ‘go together.’ Then I organize a beat out of each stack of strips by putting them into some kind of order that makes sense out of them, leading up to, through, and out of a tiny piece of the story.

As a side bonus, if I need an outline or a synopsis, the fractal nature of writing fiction surfaces again: a list of chapters provides a one-two page summary. A list including the titles/descriptions of each scene provides a more detailed outline twenty to thirty pages long. And if I need an incredibly detailed outline, I simply add the beat descriptions within the scenes.


First line, Last line, and in between – Scene Template, Part 3

Continuing on using a scene template, and what I have found useful to put in it. The template I created is available on the Writer resources page.

Before proceeding, I’m not sure this is as helpful for a pantser-type writer as for a plotter. I am the latter, mostly because I hate going down the wrong path for too long. My writing is physically difficult, and I want to get the actual words just right too early in the process, so I edit too soon. Then I have the common problem of getting too attached to my own words, and hating to toss things which have to be tossed.

For the tossing, I have a new solution: cut scenes. Movie DVDs often have a section with scenes which, for some reason or another, usually obvious once you see them, a scene was cut from the final movie. Only some of these scenes are restored in a Director’s Cut. I always watch them on the DVDs, and almost always agree the cut was necessary, but some creative instinct led to them being written and filmed in the first place, and that is usually instructive.

Now, back to the template.

One of the central parts of my template uses two concepts:
First line/last line – the combination is important (inspired in part by Juliette Wade’s post on TalktoYoUniverse.com and by Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, Chapter 3 – Scenes That Can’t Be Cut).
And Outer turning point/Inner turning point.

The second concept comes from Donald Maass’ excellent book, The Fire in Fiction, which is, at this point, the book I consult most often when actually writing a scene.

On the principle of “If you don’t tell your story WELL, no one will ever find out it’s a good story” – which basically means that you don’t have an idea and a plot, but that you actually have something someone would enjoy reading in EVERY scene of your novel – Maass points out the necessity that in every scene something external has to happen/change as a trigger to what follows (he calls this the Outer turning point; I label it OTP), and that this leads to something happening internally in the pov character (ITP).

This is the heart and soul of a scene: the basic answer to ‘What happens in this scene?’ and ‘What is the purpose of this scene in the book?’

In my template, I make this very clear to myself by having a little section that looks like this:
FL: The actual first line text
OTP: Happening that leads to change
ITP: Internal change in response to happening
LL: The actual last line text

I don’t write the scene, and I don’t edit the scene, until this part is very clear.

The FL/LL combination is equally important (though it sometimes doesn’t come together before the writing starts). It is the line that draws you into reading the scene in the first place, and the line that makes you want to read more. The HOOK to the scene, and the HOOK to continuing. Sometimes the lines come from just asking myself what is the first thing I want the reader to know, and looking at what I’ve written in a first or subsequent draft.

I know instinctively, but not necessarily efficiently. The true or ‘best’ first line is often in there someplace within the first two paragraphs, but there is a rightness, an Aha! feeling, a sense of satisfaction when I find the exact placement, the precise piece of information, drag it into the first position AND format it correctly.

For example, I may find the exact right beginning somewhere in the internal monologue of the pov character, as a general thought: ‘She thought he probably knew what he was doing.’ Which becomes a single short line at the beginning: ‘He knows what he’s doing.’ The writing is cleaner, shorter, more pithy. And by making it a direct, close, deep thought, its importance is raised from one-of-many to the important thought.

This process and this template section has a second benefit. If you string them together for all the scenes in the chapter, a 4-line block of text for each scene, you have the basics of a synopsis of the chapter.

Here is an example from the WIP, Pride’s Children, three sequential scenes, one from the point of view of each of the three characters, in outline format:

FL: The next heartbeat hurt as adrenaline surged. My God, why do you torture me?
OTP: I’ve got thirty seconds – it’s HIM
ITP: He’s shy?
LL: “…I still have work to do.” Damn. That’s exactly the wrong thing to say.

FL: Damn—what did I do?
OTP: She’s putting her work aside to be welcoming
ITP: She doesn’t want to talk about HER work
LL: Since when do I crave peace?

FL: Finally! And where the hell is Grant?
OTP: Bianca finally gets to Grant at wrap of scene he’s directing
ITP: She loses major interest when Andrew is not there – can Grant tell?
LL: I need so many things from him [Grant].

I’m still working on the details – it is WIP – but the thought of what I’m trying to achieve helps me focus on each scene as a linked and necessary part of the story.

It also helps shorten the beginning and the end of scenes, and makes me get to the point. Without the specific written focus in my template, I tend to wander, decorating the beginning with setting and other description – all of which, if necessary, can come later, after the reader is committed to reading the scene.

And all of which, if necessary, can be cut.

Since I tend to write very long, including everything that might be relevant, this is good practice: FOCUS, Alicia. FOCUS.

Curiously enough, having a good strong beginning and end, and something important happening in the middle, doesn’t hurt the actual word production, possibly because the brain knows exactly which muscles to attach to which parts of the skeleton to get it to move.

BTW, I now have the WIP in Scrivener, and I’m dividing up the various parts of the template into the attached subdocuments Scrivener provides, such as the Synopsis card. But that’s material for another post.


For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical (not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously. So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.


* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.

Skeleton of a Story – Scene Template, Part 1

We are like gods creating when we write. We are also like the movie version of Dr. Victor Frankenstein: we take ideas from all places, cobble them together, dress them up in fancy words, and let them loose on the world.

Before we send them out, though, all those pieces have to hang together. They have to tell a story. And stories are written in scenes, and, if the story is long enough, the scenes are organized into chapters.

After many years, I have a pretty stable version of my chapter and scene templates. I’ll explain what I put into a scene template in a series of posts. Feel free to use and adapt.

I am a Plotter. In writer terms it means that whatever stuff I accumulate for the story, I will eventually still need to give myself a pretty complete structure to work around. The basic story questions are all in hand before the major writing starts. I suppose, for me, it is that I hate losing interesting bits – I would rather not create them in the first place: creating is hard. Even when I just write, and follow my bliss like a true Pantser, it is only exploratory writing, done just as much as necessary to provide the first glimmerings. I’m not saying plotting and outlining and similar structural methods are the right way, or the only way (clearly they are not); only that it is MY current way.

I do my main plotting in Dramatica. Though Dram has a steep learning curve and arcane terminology and downright frustrating questions to answer, I find that when I’m done the story feels complete. YMMV. So the first thing I gather for the scene is a list of appreciations – bits of character, plot, and theme, and what they call ‘genre’ which is what KIND of story it is within the category of similar stories.

There are other systems of structure. I also include in the scene structure things like Save the Cat beats (STC appreciations), and story pieces from The Key structure created by James N. Frey. This would be a place to add ‘stuff’ from any other plotting system you want to use that seems to fit best in this particular scene. For me, a complete structure from beginning to end, a list of Chapters and Scenes, each with the ‘stuff’ (appreciations in Dramatica-speak) that has to be illustrated in there somehow, is a requirement to avoid leaving something out. I write erratically, with a small part of a usable brain, when it feels like it – without a structure to return to each time, I would be lost.

The template collects all the bones of the scene, every piece of information I have created for the structure. I fill in the template before I attempt to write the scene.

In revising each scene, part of my process is to X-ray the structure to see if it still works, and if the answers I’ve filled in previously still accomplish the ‘Purpose of the scene in the book’ as a whole. If not, I set the muscles and skin aside, rearrange the skeleton, put such pieces of flesh back on as still twitch, add new flesh as necessary, and cover with regrown skin. Kind of like forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan does on the TV show Bones – except I expect my resurrected scene to get up, skate around, and hold hands nicely with the rest of the scenes in the book to crack the whip.

Below is the chapter and scene template*, with the framework of the chapter template around it. I’ve already discussed the Questions – the main one answered by this scene, and the Questions I leave scattered behind like breadcrumbs – in Part 1. It is my job as storyteller to ask and answer these in such a way as to help the reader create the experience of story; it helps to actually write them down.

Chapter & Scene template, Page 1

Chapter & Scene template, Page 1

Chapter & Scene template, Page 2

Chapter & Scene template, Page 2

Each scene in a chapter is a short story: it has a beginning – and a FIRST LINE. It has an end – and a LAST LINE. In the middle is a collection of beats, one per event in the scene. Each beat is a tiny chunk of story, and a set of them, in some deliberate order, makes up what happens in a scene. So far, obvious. I’ll describe more in future posts.

*Download .pdf version (.doc or .docx available on request):

Chapter and Scene template

Chapter-only template

Scene-only template