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Describe your process-- how story, world, and characters are created. (1 Viewer)

Llyralen

Senior Member
Use the questions below or feel free to go off-script and let us know how it works for you.

1. Do you think of the outline and scenes and characters for your story for a while before writing it down? Or just sit and write with no plan? Or a combo of the two?
2. What comes to you first? An over-arching concept? A character? A scene or predicament? A setting? The conflict for a scene? Or something else?
3. When you're thinking of over-arching concepts or character arcs would this come first or very last in your process?
4. When thinking of a character, does the character come to your mind because that's the character needed for the situation? Or do you construct characters based on people you know? Or a combo?
5. Does setting become very clear in your mind? At what point? Before you sit down to write, or when you're making sentences?
6. At what point in the process does your mind create scenes? Before you write it anything you've got it all? Make them as you write? A combo?
7. When have you got a good idea of the ending? Before you even start? At the outline? Who knows? When you get to the end?
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Use the questions below or feel free to go off-script and let us know how it works for you.

1. Do you think of the outline and scenes and characters for your story for a while before writing it down? Or just sit and write with no plan? Or a combo of the two?

I think about it for a while, usually-- most often for years and that's my problem. Historical fiction requires research and I'm always greedy for more research. The only thing I've completed, a novella, came together quicker under a deadline earlier this year. I had been thinking of many of the ideas in it for a long time--actually the bare-bones concept came to me 25 years ago in a very powerful dream. With a deadline that particular idea came together with the setting that was required for the anthology the story will be published in. There was also a lot of historical research to do as I went along.

With the other historical fictions I'm working on, it's like the characters come to me in a scene right before I go to sleep or upon waking. A certain concept or feeling will come with the time and the setting and merge with what I'm learning in my life. A certain character will appear who needs to experience all of these things. I will admit that my MCs have strong aspects of myself, especially at first, because I'm putting myself into that time period and figuring out what I would need in order to portray the overarching concept or growth arc. This leads me to other characters and scenes. What needs to happen to best show this point? Best show this learning experience? All of this has to come from things that I've already experienced or would experience in this same situation, so in a way characters are based on things that I know, but it doesn't FEEL like that. It feels like what comes to me in order to make a point, concept, or learning experience. When the character and their motivation becomes stronger, I will play around in my mind with the character with different things going on in the history in order to bond their growth-arc well with the narrative from history. In a nut-shell, I'm crafting everything together to create a certain learning experience for me and my readers, or trying to.

2. What comes to you first? An over-arching concept? A character? A scene or predicament? A setting? The conflict for a scene? Or something else?
Usually the concept, but sometimes with historical fiction when I'm digging into the research it's the place and history itself and whatever I'm learning in my life that kind of bond together to make a character that will experience learning a certain concept. Then the scenes come-- unfolding how it will be learned. I sometimes have to consciously push myself to think of what the conflict is in each scene, since I usually don't analyze them when they just come. But sometimes in analyzing them for conflict, I can make them sharper and see opportunities for ones I didn't think of at first.

When I'm researching, I usually go to GoogleEarth first and walk around and get an idea of a place, even if what is happening was long ago. The land lay-out isn't always the same, though, so I'll start looking into archeology for those answers. Archeology sometimes provides great lay-outs of towns. I usually do that first and then I can look into everything cultural like architecture, music, food and mode of eating, family structure, language, etc.

3. When you're thinking of over-arching concepts or character arcs would this come first or very last in your process?
Oh, I kind of double-asked this. The individual "stuff," like what the wall-paper looks like and things like that, I figure out when writing sentences.
4. When thinking of a character, does the character come to your mind because that's the character needed for the situation? Or do you construct characters based on people you know? Or a combo?
I did answer this. I don't directly think of characters as being like people I know, but they might be a conglomerate, maybe. Other than the main character, I have to think of conflict or harmony with others and why, so what the supporting characters' motivation is. I get some of this from the dialogue which comes to me while writing sentences, but also from the emotions and story my MC needs to experience Anyone who knows me knows I look at Jungian archetypes and I really think it makes it easier. You end up thinking of your character in different ways if you recognize that a character is a "sage", for instance. It means they are also pretty passive, so that is something to get past unless that is a side-character. Motivation needs to be known strongly to the author for each character.

I'm going to be writing a well-known historical figure coming up. I've read his writing before, but I will need to read more. He will keep me on my toes! And that will be a new experience.
5. Does setting become very clear in your mind? At what point? Before you sit down to write, or when you're making sentences?
I think I answered this too with my GoogleEarth walks, but what is directly at hand (tangibles) is either already in a scene for me, or I need to figure it out while I'm writing sentences. One of the things I study in archeology is what items this world uses. In Scandinavia, wood for almost anything carved, for instance, but for the Greenland Norse they use soapstone or maybe even walrus ivory if it is something nice. These kinds of things will be immediate to my mind if I've done my research well and if not, this could stop my progress while I look this all up for a day. Eek! Is it any wonder that I only have the one story?
6. At what point in the process does your mind create scenes? Before you write it anything you've got it all? Make them as you write? A combo?
Some scenes I figure out as I go-- except that I usually always knew where the story was headed. Usually I will have structured or outlined enough to know that some scene is coming but I just haven't seen it like a movie in my mind like I have with the scenes where my characters come to me. As long as I know all my character's motivations, then the dialogue should come easily enough. It's always fun to see what comes up. I do know it is hard for me to hold back on romance. Sometimes I just want the characters to start to get along, but instead they end up best buds with sparks and I have to re-write those scenes and try to draw it out. LOL.
7. When have you got a good idea of the ending? Before you even start? At the outline? Who knows? When you get to the end?
I need/want that ending before I start. Not line for line or detail for detail, but if I don't have where my character will land yet, I haven't researched enough. If I don't have that landing yet, there is no way I'm going to write many chapters and end up at a dead-end. I could think up other book ideas that would have endings long before I would want to do that. I've got to know where I'm headed and that the whole over-arching thing is worth it to me and that I emotionally have a great deal of passion to tell this story and concept--- enough to get through the difficult middle to the end.

Note: I believe that if my character really has something important to say then it's a book that I will actually write, otherwise I'd never get to that particular story, would I. It helps if I am in love with the place, what is to be learned from it, and my characters like as if it were one of my children. Sometimes I enjoy all that to myself, though.... my happy playground before falling asleep or when waking up on weekends.
 
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JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
1. Do you think of the outline and scenes and characters for your story for a while before writing it down? Or just sit and write with no plan? Or a combo of the two?

In a long story, I usually figure out the high points first and fill in later. For a short I'll wing it - I'll know more or less what I want and then assemble the pieces on the fly. What works stays. What doesn't gets cut.

2. What comes to you first? An over-arching concept? A character? A scene or predicament? A setting? The conflict for a scene? Or something else?

Could be any of the above, really.

3. When you're thinking of over-arching concepts or character arcs would this come first or very last in your process?

Last considered, probably, but character is what the carries the weight. If it's otherwise well-written but out of character it gets tweaked or scrapped.

4. When thinking of a character, does the character come to your mind because that's the character needed for the situation? Or do you construct characters based on people you know? Or a combo?

Very seldom do I consider my characters the best fit for the situation. On the other hand they're the ones who showed up, so you work with what you're given.

Situation calls for a hero -> No heroes available -> There's this guy -> He'll figure it out, but it probably won't be pretty

Occasionally I'll base one off the appearance of somebody I know. Occasionally I'll borrow some of their personality. One thing I decided early on was that doing both at once is probably tempting fate

5. Does setting become very clear in your mind? At what point? Before you sit down to write, or when you're making sentences?

Understanding your setting beforehand is crucial to get the individual scene across. You can't effectively write high-stakes conflict if the piano keeps moving from the parlor to the guest room. Pin down the set dressing first. Then turn the characters loose.

6. At what point in the process does your mind create scenes? Before you write it anything you've got it all? Make them as you write? A combo?

Scene is a result of ingredients (characters + setting + conflict). Each allows a certain degree of a flexibility and each has constraints. For my going project, most of the story takes place inside a 10x12 shack. Being a nominal horror story, that kind of small area is easily secured and theoretically defended with the tradeoff that it's also mildly claustrophobic and doesn't leave much room to retreat. It's also a rundown dump with few amenities, so there's that.

7. When have you got a good idea of the ending? Before you even start? At the outline? Who knows? When you get to the end?

I don't plan endings, generally. Long ago I figured out there's too many wild cards in my mental process to have an absolute lock on what transpires at the end. The big story movements are pretty set. Everything else is in the air until it's on paper.
 
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VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
1. Do you think of the outline and scenes and characters for your story for a while before writing it down? Or just sit and write with no plan? Or a combo of the two?
It depends on the story. In most stories, I have a couple of characters in mind, and the rest populate the story as I need them. In my murder mystery, I detailed two dozen characters before I even started my plot outline ... along with the identity of the murderer, his accomplices, the five victims, the hero's allies, the red herrings, and the folks who only add color or incidental information.

These days, I DO always write a synopsis, but I'd be damned if I ever stuck tightly to it.

2. What comes to you first? An over-arching concept? A character? A scene or predicament? A setting? The conflict for a scene? Or something else?
Generally, I get a pretty simple idea first. A group of adventurers operating out of a central base led to my first novel. A detective with Multiple Personality Syndrome ... which led to him being possessed by 20 spirits. An epic adventure in a haunted house (been done, but I have my own spin if I ever write it). A ghost who lures people to die as he did, then gets mad at the guy who put an end to his trap. Then there is the novel PiP and I are writing, which came out of one humorous email chain.

I expand the basic idea into something that becomes a novel length treatment, figuring out steps in the story which sell the premise.

3. When you're thinking of over-arching concepts or character arcs would this come first or very last in your process?
Concept first, characters second ... UNLESS ... the character concept drove the story in the first place, like my possessed detective.

4. When thinking of a character, does the character come to your mind because that's the character needed for the situation? Or do you construct characters based on people you know? Or a combo?
My characters enter to fill a plot need. Certainly, they can resemble people I know, or characters I've read, or even me ... or something completely new to me.
5. Does setting become very clear in your mind? At what point? Before you sit down to write, or when you're making sentences?
Both. If my characters have a stable base, that's a foundational element. However, other settings appear on the fly.
6. At what point in the process does your mind create scenes? Before you write it anything you've got it all? Make them as you write? A combo?
Some scenes come from my synopsis. MOST scenes arise from the next thought that entertains me.
7. When have you got a good idea of the ending? Before you even start? At the outline? Who knows? When you get to the end?
I typically understand how the novel is going to end when I start it. The specific MOMENT it ends usually surprises me. I've shared before that I typically end scenes or chapters when I write a line which declares "I'm the end of this scene". The same thing happens to me when I end a novel. I write a line and realize it's strong, and there is nothing more to share about the story.

GREAT questions, Llyralen. These are the kinds of discussions which can not only spark ideas in others, but help authors focus on their own process and strengths in ways they may have never specifically addressed to themselves.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
In a long story, I usually figure out the high points first and fill in later. For a short I'll wing it - I'll know more or less what I want and then assemble the pieces on the fly. What works stays. What does gets cut.
For me winging a short piece would work if their motives were very clear to me.... but I'd also need an idea of where I was headed. Is that the kind of thing you mean when you say you know more or less what you want?
Last considered, probably, but character is what the carries the weight. If it's otherwise well-written but out of character it gets tweaked or scrapped.
Do you mean that you will write scenes that on reflection aren't something your character would do that get tweaked or scrapped? Or how does this work.

For me if what the character motivation is strong enough (and it really needs to be in order for me to actually write this thing) then I will change the story line or really whatever needs to be changed in order to bow to it, because I won't write the whole story otherwise. Oh, EXCEPT I have one story I've been thinking of for a long time where the concept is important enough that everything has to bow to the concept, including character. I'm not ready to write it yet. I need to get more experience in action scenes first.
Very seldom do I consider my characters the best fit for the situation. On the other hand they're the ones who showed up, so you work with what you're given.

Situation calls for a hero -> No heroes available -> There's this guy -> He'll figure it out, but it probably won't be pretty

Occasionally I'll base one off the appearance of somebody I know. Occasionally I'll borrow some of their personality. One thing I decided early on was that doing both at once is probably tempting fate
This is interesting as some of the things I will read about archetypes will say things about picking an archetype for a situation. And I love the idea of 'who showed up, so you work with what you're given." That feels like real life right there. I wasn't very clear, though. I meant to ask do you make characters who will learn a certain thing. Like making Ebenezer Scrooge in order to learn the things Ebenezer needs to learn. More like matching character to the concepts and growth arcs, but maybe that does require forming what over-arcing growth or experience you want to give first.
Understanding your setting beforehand is crucial to get the individual scene across. You can't effectively write high-stakes conflict if the piano keeps moving from the parlor to the guest room. Pin down the set dressing first. Then turn the characters loose.
There is a lot to gain from that setting. I have a hard time articulating what exactly it does for the writing if it isn't there. I guess it's like the canvass. You've got to have it in order to paint. I could work on this part of my worlds more, I bet it would naturally just flesh out my scenes better, otherwise I am just relying on dialogue. Paint in my mind the houses, where the trees are, etc. All my really meaningful scenes that come to me came with the setting. Hmm. I think I will be a better writer if I work on this more. Eureka!
Scene is a result of ingredients (characters + setting + conflict). Each allows a certain degree of a flexibility and each has constraints. For my going project, most of the story takes place inside a 10x12 shack. Being a nominal horror story, that kind of small area is easily secured and theoretically defended with the tradeoff that it's also mildly claustrophobic and doesn't leave much room to retreat. It's also a rundown dump with few amenities, so there's that.
It sounds interesting!
I don't plan endings, generally. Long ago I figured out there's too many wild cards in my mental process to have an absolute lock on what transpires at the end. The big story movements are pretty set. Everything else is in the air until it's on paper.
I think knowing big story movements would work. I like that term. There are some wonderful surprises that happen when you're writing and I think it's nice to accept these gifts when they happen. However... I haven't had enough experience with endings to know if good surprises will happen for my endings, so for some reason I'm still shoring my bets by figuring out a ending in advance.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
It depends on the story. In most stories, I have a couple of characters in mind, and the rest populate the story as I need them. In my murder mystery, I detailed two dozen characters before I even started my plot outline ... along with the identity of the murderer, his accomplices, the five victims, the hero's allies, the red herrings, and the folks who only add color or incidental information.
You're right, I'm getting lots of ideas from this thread and noticing skills I can work on. This sounds like a really fun story! I've only tried to write one mystery and kind of gave up. When I think about it, I think I gave up because there were too many characters. I should go back to it and write character sheets and basically organize. Cool!

These days, I DO always write a synopsis, but I'd be damned if I ever stuck tightly to it.
No need to be a slaves to our own ideas!
Generally, I get a pretty simple idea first. A group of adventurers operating out of a central base led to my first novel. A detective with Multiple Personality Syndrome ... which led to him being possessed by 20 spirits. An epic adventure in a haunted house (been done, but I have my own spin if I ever write it). A ghost who lures people to die as he did, then gets mad at the guy who put an end to his trap. Then there is the novel PiP and I are writing, which came out of one humorous email chain.

I expand the basic idea into something that becomes a novel length treatment, figuring out steps in the story which sell the premise.
This is something I didn't really clarify or ask about is premise. I think premise is different from concept and I think it's interesting that I didn't think of this. Premise can be the idea from which the story operates and expands. Cool!

Concept first, characters second ... UNLESS ... the character concept drove the story in the first place, like my possessed detective.
Yeppers. /nodding.
My characters enter to fill a plot need. Certainly, they can resemble people I know, or characters I've read, or even me ... or something completely new to me.
Another way of crafting that I didn't touch on, nice.
Both. If my characters have a stable base, that's a foundational element. However, other settings appear on the fly.

Some scenes come from my synopsis. MOST scenes arise from the next thought that entertains me.

I typically understand how the novel is going to end when I start it. The specific MOMENT it ends usually surprises me. I've shared before that I typically end scenes or chapters when I write a line which declares "I'm the end of this scene". The same thing happens to me when I end a novel. I write a line and realize it's strong, and there is nothing more to share about the story.
How nice to recognize that last line as if it is a surprise! No wonder you love writing!
GREAT questions, Llyralen. These are the kinds of discussions which can not only spark ideas in others, but help authors focus on their own process and strengths in ways they may have never specifically addressed to themselves.
Thank you! I've really enjoyed this too, hopefully we can see even more answers. =)
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
How nice to recognize that last line as if it is a surprise! No wonder you love writing!
It's not just the last line. Some scenes come as a surprise, and MUCH of my dialogue comes as a surprise, line by line. Much of that started with my characters Ket and Anlette in my first novel. Anlette became a major focus only in the last act, but her dialogue was absolutely the beginning of all my dialogue since then, and I get kudos for it. How does an impromptu fictional character become a muse? She filled a utility plot need, and then she took over. Her dialogue sparkles in that book, she dominates the sequel, and she infuses other characters as I continue to write.
 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
For me winging a short piece would work if their motives were very clear to me.... but I'd also need an idea of where I was headed. Is that the kind of thing you mean when you say you know more or less what you want?

Do you mean that you will write scenes that on reflection aren't something your character would do that get tweaked or scrapped? Or how does this work.

Put it this way: each story is based around a character. For the longest time I thought a character necessarily had to grow or change for the story to be a success, but lately I'm not sure. I think so long as you reveal something about them they can be more or less who they were at the start.

Before I get moving I try to find out what the story is supposed to do. Are we improving or lessening the character's circumstances? Are we testing them? Is this an expedition to demonstrate some facet of their personality that might otherwise go unseen? A static character in an action set-piece can work. A deep character doing nothing of major import can work, too. The magic of the process comes in by slinging all the development on the reader; the character is the same, the world is not materially effected in any deep sense, but still you impart the perception that there was something worthwhile in all this. Perhaps some little piece of truth or universal wisdom. Maybe a few good turns of phrase. Possibly just something that makes the reader think Yeah. Yeah, that's about right.

Granted, I'm off in the weeds and ignoring most every solid piece of writing advice out there. This may be a terrible idea. But following other peoples' instructions never got me anywhere, so here we are.

For me if what the character motivation is strong enough (and it really needs to be in order for me to actually write this thing) then I will change the story line or really whatever needs to be changed in order to bow to it, because I won't write the whole story otherwise. Oh, EXCEPT I have one story I've been thinking of for a long time where the concept is important enough that everything has to bow to the concept, including character. I'm not ready to write it yet. I need to get more experience in action scenes first.

Story has to fit the character (and probably the other way around). If your protag is a burnt-out cubicle dweller whose life is out of control, going zero-to-hero when the aliens show up is going to ring somewhat false. Likewise if your protag is a decorated police officer, their standing by and watching the commission of a felony is going to raise questions. Sometimes you have to allow that you have a perfectly good plot that doesn't work with your character. And if you're aiming for character-driven, you can either scrap the plot or rewrite it until it unfolds in a way befitting the people who have to act it out.

Essentially, it's deciding whether you want to lead with your plot or your people and accepting that what you want to happen and their natural reaction are going to be a poor fit.


I wasn't very clear, though. I meant to ask do you make characters who will learn a certain thing. Like making Ebenezer Scrooge in order to learn the things Ebenezer needs to learn. More like matching character to the concepts and growth arcs, but maybe that does require forming what over-arcing growth or experience you want to give first.

I have a sort of a two-part maxim that's seemed to work so far. To wit:

1) a character at the end of their arc should at some level be recognizable from who they were at their introduction, and
2) under no circumstances should the character at their introduction be able to accurately predict the end of the arc

This generally holds up irrespective of story length.

Scrooge was still Scrooge, albeit a better version of himself. Darth Vader was a reckless kid with powers beyond his understanding that grew him into a galaxy-wide villain. Sometimes characters improve. Sometimes they get worse. But barring traumatic brain injuries an individual is always going to carry trace amounts of who they always were; they may bury those pieces deep, but they can't ever completely set themselves apart.

It sounds interesting!

Maybe one day it'll even be finished. Might be a while, though.

I think knowing big story movements would work. I like that term. There are some wonderful surprises that happen when you're writing and I think it's nice to accept these gifts when they happen. However... I haven't had enough experience with endings to know if good surprises will happen for my endings, so for some reason I'm still shoring my bets by figuring out a ending in advance.

The surprises are what make it worthwhile.

Nothing can touch that feeling when you're rolling along with your plotting and you look back over everything that's come before and realize you can put together a much harder-hitting scene that pulls the threads together without need of coincidence or left-field surprises.

It's the sense that not only is this workable, but also that you earned it.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Granted, I'm off in the weeds and ignoring most every solid piece of writing advice out there. This may be a terrible idea. But following other peoples' instructions never got me anywhere, so here we are.
Maybe that's where your misconception about your writing springs from. EVERY RULE is valid, until you break it and improve on it. I don't know if you break them, but your writing simply works. Every bit of it I've ever read. Buy some Nike's and Just Do It. ;-)
 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
Ground to air missiles. Blow the living shit out of the rules when it works!

Ahem.

I would like to formally state that any armaments currently in my possession or under my direct control are reserved strictly for the defense of myself and my legal territorial boundaries to include the borders of the city dump* and that there is absolutely no cause or justification for any inspection or further investigation by the United Nations or any other extra-national governing body, and that the pursuance of such action will be construed as a blatant act of war.

We now return to the scheduled thread. Thank you, and please leave your cheeseburger wrappers where I can find them.

*Also Saturday nights and the 4th of July.
 

Lawless

Senior Member
By and large, my creative process is spontaneous. (An ironic observer would say "chaotic".)

I recall pretty well what it was like when I decided to participate in the flash fiction contest on this forum.

To write a story as short as 650 words had so far been inconceivable to me and I didn't have the faintest idea what to write about. In order to get at least some kind of inspiration, I took the three highest-rated stories from the previous month and picked from each one the 3rd word from the 10th row (or something like that, can no longer remember exactly). I didn't actually read the stories, because I didn't want to end up imitating any of them.

(I know, I could have just as well picked three random books from my shelf.)

Now I had three words. I meditated around them a little and came up with the phrase "a little house in Mexico" or something like that. Then I walked around and did normal everyday things and pondered what I could possibly write about a little house in Mexico. Eventually I thought the house could be in El Salvador instead, and I could use a few events from the life of a former girlfriend of mine who was from there. Now I had the general idea of a story.

Then I wrote it down and put it into a logical structure and by the evening I had a story. Only it was much longer than allowed, so I spent several days cutting it shorter and cursing the pervert who had come up with the limitation.

The next month, I was already able to just sit down and write a story. Strangely enough, I didn't have much idea in the beginning how the story would end. That's unusual for me. During the writing, though, I somehow got an idea and ended up with a haiku-style story with two parts and an unexpected turn in the middle. Amazingly, when I had finished it and did the word count, I was actually within the limit!! (Still had to do some editing, of course, but it was nowhere near as much work as the previous month.)

So I have learned that it's possible to write stories 650 words short. And I must apologize for having thought badly about the person who came up with the length limit.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
@Lawless I couldn't get my story under that count the other month and was also trying. 650 is pretty short!
This is interesting how it sounds like you've trained your brain to be able to come up with stories. It's so interesting to hear how this happened in such short time as well. It's exciting! =)
 

Lawless

Senior Member
2. What comes to you first? An over-arching concept? A character? A scene or predicament? A setting? The conflict for a scene? Or something else?
In the beginning is some kind of an idea. Once I saw a curious and mildly weird scene in a dream just before I woke up, and thought of building a novel around it. I wrote it down, and then a few ideas for scenes and characters came to me and I wrote them down too, and now it's waiting for its turn.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
So I have learned that it's possible to write stories 650 words short. And I must apologize for having thought badly about the person who came up with the length limit.

@Lawless I couldn't get my story under that count the other month and was also trying. 650 is pretty short!
This is interesting how it sounds like you've trained your brain to be able to come up with stories. It's so interesting to hear how this happened in such short time as well. It's exciting! =)
Typically my "raw story" for LM comes to 700-750 words, and I have to cut from there. I do have the advantage, mentioned in the other thread, that my first couple of million words in the business demanded I write to spec. It does take practice.
 

Lawless

Senior Member
1. Do you think of the outline and scenes and characters for your story for a while before writing it down? Or just sit and write with no plan? Or a combo of the two?
I have Word files, one idea for a novel or a story in each. Now, suppose there's a file I haven't touched for years, but suddenly an interesting scene for it occurs to me. Then I write it down. And the file may remain untouched for several more years.

When I make the decision to take one of those files and start writing the novel seriously-like, it may have any number of scenes, ideas, characters, whatnot. It might have an idea for a structure and it might not.

The first novel-sized work I completed was a history book parody. The decision how to go about writing it was easy. I knew in which countries it would be set, I knew which time period it would handle, so I just made a table, each row corresponding to one year, and placed certain crucial events into it so that they would occur logically. Then I put the already existing scenes (not many) where they belonged and began filling out that timeline with events.

A few times I got carried away a little and realized: OMG, I just made X happen, but according to my plan, Y is supposed to happen in the same place the next year. That resulted in some rather crazy fast turns in events, but I think it was actually a good thing because I'm always very concerned with making things make sense, so that little unplanned craziness saved the parody from ending up too serious.

When I chose two novel ideas to work on seriously next (two because I get bored easily when doing the same thing all the time), it was very curious that one of them had the events and no characters, the second one had the characters and no events.

This means, I had a very clear idea of the general plot of the prospective novel #1 and had lots of events and physical+political background written down, but I hadn't the faintest idea of one single character. So when I decided I'll start writing it seriously, I had to do some hard work coming up with a number of central characters to carry the story before I could even set to writing the very first scene.

The prospective novel #2 was in the almost opposite situation. I had a pretty clear idea what the two central characters would be like and how their relationship was supposed to develop, but I had only a vague idea of the first scene, so when I decided I'll start writing it seriously, the first thing I did was to make up the plot, a line of events that would plausibly make that relationship develop the way I wanted it to.

What I meant to say with all this is that it can happen in any number of ways. There are no patterns, except perhaps that I tend to come up with events more easily than with characters.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Put it this way: each story is based around a character. For the longest time I thought a character necessarily had to grow or change for the story to be a success, but lately I'm not sure. I think so long as you reveal something about them they can be more or less who they were at the start.

Before I get moving I try to find out what the story is supposed to do. Are we improving or lessening the character's circumstances? Are we testing them? Is this an expedition to demonstrate some facet of their personality that might otherwise go unseen? A static character in an action set-piece can work. A deep character doing nothing of major import can work, too. The magic of the process comes in by slinging all the development on the reader; the character is the same, the world is not materially effected in any deep sense, but still you impart the perception that there was something worthwhile in all this. Perhaps some little piece of truth or universal wisdom. Maybe a few good turns of phrase. Possibly just something that makes the reader think Yeah. Yeah, that's about right.

Granted, I'm off in the weeds and ignoring most every solid piece of writing advice out there. This may be a terrible idea. But following other peoples' instructions never got me anywhere, so here we are.
This is where I want to start talking specifics because this is something to really explore in my current piece. Sometimes characters are static and it's their resolve that you're watching for. I've been looking for this in stories and thinking about this because I have a character whose resolve is what is being tested. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is a character who also doesn't change, but who you keep watching to see if she changes and to see if her will power changes. Her resolve is about her sister, about standing up for others who she cares for, about seeing her world the way she sees it and continuing to do what she thinks is right requiring bravery and sacrifice. Her view and caring in general doesn't change, but that change is what we are set up to look for the whole time and it is tense. It is a lot of pressure on the character and I remember saying to my husband "If I took every female character I've ever loved from Austen and the Brontes and put Katniss next to them, Katniss is who I care about the most and who has made me cry the most and I don't think this is anywhere near the caliber of those other books and the book is even annoying to me." But it's the set up. We are set up to HAVE to believe in Katniss and that's what we want to keep alive. Killing Prim (the sister) at the end of the trilogy hurt like a punch in the stomach to me, I could hardly breathe. Katniss' resolve did somewhat die in the end to drugs and alcohol and it was a slowish death with only the spark of Peeta Malark to make you think maybe Katniss (her inner self) may have survived and come up through the rubble and was something we could still count on-- so that was tough in the end, really disappointing to me. I thought Katniss should have been the new Hamish in book 2, though, and we would have seen if we could count on her in that setting too. I hope you've read these so that I'm not just rambling--- but honestly I haven't seen any authors talk about this set-up and it's something my story has and maybe yours it sounds like and it IS out there in books and movies, but maybe it just hasn't been analyzed yet.

I was watching a video with an author talking about tension/stakes in books and he said everything was about death, but not just physical death. He put it as: physical, professional, or psychological. I would add spiritual death and emotional death. I had been thinking about adding elements to increase the stakes in my book to really put her through the ringer spiritually and emotionally--- and you can't exactly kill someone physically who is reincarnated as themselves and have it be a big deal, so there isn't much use of threatening her with that-- so I was thinking of her resolve which is her relationship and somehow ruining that and letting her go through the steps of rebuilding herself.. With more thinking, I realized we don't want our characters to experience these deaths if this is the thing we wanted to stay alive and that the author set up for us to want to stay alive. Like Katniss' sister and Katniss' spirit to continue.. When the thing that you've set up to make your audience want to continue dies, that's when their story is really over and there is nothing else about them as interesting unless there is then a second book with some kind of pheonix rising theme to it, but it would be a reincarnation of the character, not the trial of the first story. The first story was basically killed off, if that makes sense. I was thinking about Don Draper's wife, Birdie or Betty in Mad Men and how tense and afraid for her I was when she found out Don was not who he says he is. I turned the channel because I thought I could hardly stand it and there was a thriller scene on the other channel and I thought "I'm so much more afraid for Betty that she will find out than I am about this person's life. My take-away is that it can be set up to be very intense. That was the real death of Betty's character in my opinion, even when her character continued. But the thing we had wanted to live because of how the story was set up had died.

I hope I am making sense and that it is of interest to what you are writing, otherwise this has been a really good thing for me to analyze this week-end.
Story has to fit the character (and probably the other way around). If your protag is a burnt-out cubicle dweller whose life is out of control, going zero-to-hero when the aliens show up is going to ring somewhat false. Likewise if your protag is a decorated police officer, their standing by and watching the commission of a felony is going to raise questions. Sometimes you have to allow that you have a perfectly good plot that doesn't work with your character. And if you're aiming for character-driven, you can either scrap the plot or rewrite it until it unfolds in a way befitting the people who have to act it out.

Essentially, it's deciding whether you want to lead with your plot or your people and accepting that what you want to happen and their natural reaction are going to be a poor fit.
I'd tell you about the set-up/concept I referred to, but I'd be getting very specific and it would be all about my writing. The goal is for the whole thing to make a powerful message. No poor-fits, hopefully.
I have a sort of a two-part maxim that's seemed to work so far. To wit:

1) a character at the end of their arc should at some level be recognizable from who they were at their introduction, and
2) under no circumstances should the character at their introduction be able to accurately predict the end of the arc

This generally holds up irrespective of story length.

Scrooge was still Scrooge, albeit a better version of himself. Darth Vader was a reckless kid with powers beyond his understanding that grew him into a galaxy-wide villain. Sometimes characters improve. Sometimes they get worse. But barring traumatic brain injuries an individual is always going to carry trace amounts of who they always were; they may bury those pieces deep, but they can't ever completely set themselves apart.
Nice. True in real life too. Change is not easy and usually we don't make big changes without some hard hits. Making those conditions where someone has to change and showing that need and the contrast can be very powerful.
The surprises are what make it worthwhile.

Nothing can touch that feeling when you're rolling along with your plotting and you look back over everything that's come before and realize you can put together a much harder-hitting scene that pulls the threads together without need of coincidence or left-field surprises.

It's the sense that not only is this workable, but also that you earned it.
=) I hope to have more experiences like this... and it should keep me going.

EDIT: I know this is a wall of text already, but there is an epiphany going on with these ideas for me and I want to type it out. I realize it's really the death of whatever you've set the reader up to feel is the stakes. When Katniss took Prim's place she was saying "More than my life, I care about Prim," and this set us up to know the hierarchy of what was important to care about and protect. Through the book other people stood in the place of Prim, Katniss risking herself to care about Rue or Peeta or Prim just kept establishing the importance of these people to Katniss, those she wants to protect. That's what we are set up to care about. Katniss' life is secondary but necessary for her to keep protecting those she loves. Brainwashing Peeta is like torturing Katniss and killing Prim was almost as bad as disabling Katniss, so this was what was tough. The death of everyone Katniss cared about really would have killed her psychologically, story over. It's interesting also how far the reader will go with enduring our characters suffering but I think if the author isn't aware of what they've set up as the stakes then I think I've seen authors "kill" the thing we were set up to care about and lose their audience. Hope is usually an important contract between reader and author-- hope in whatever has been set up for us to want like the characters want it. I'd have to explore that more as well, what with Game of Thrones. I think with GoT we were only promised action and that in the end we would find out the winner and those might have been the only author/viewer contracts.
 
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