Me: It’s the fifth day. By now you should be, what? Roughly 8,000 words? So, did you do any kind of prepping or planning? Any outlining at all?
You: I did. Wanna see it?
Me: Sure, yeah, lay it on me.
You: *hands over a piece of paper*
Me: This is just a bunch of drawings of dicks. A whole sheet of dong-doodles.
Me: *looks closer* Aaaaaand they appear to be mounting an offense on the Death Star.
You: See the X’s over the testicles?
Me: I do.
You: They’re X-Wangs. Get it? X-WANGS.
Me: Remind me to burn your house down and eat your cats.
You: That’s awfully harsh.
Me: You reap what you sow, Captain Howdy. Anyway — so, if you have no prep, no plan, no mindmapping or outlining, you’re pretty much driving without a map, you’re trapeze-swinging without a net, you’re dirty dancing without the ghost of Patrick Swayze.
You: Wow, Swayze’s actually dead, so — in that movie, Ghost, I wonder if it’s retroactively real.
Me: Wait. You’re — what? No. What? Can I keep talking without your inane interruptions?
You: I DUNNO, CAN YOU?
Me: *hits you in the ear with an open stapler*
You: OW JEEZ CRAP
Me: As I was saying, if you’re operating without an outline — hell, even sometimes when you are working with an outline — you can end up feeling a bit unmoored in terms of the plot, like you’re floating without a tether —
You: I do sometimes feel like an old person lost at Wal-Mart. Somehow I keep ending up back at the tires. Always the tires. I don’t need tires but there I am, at the tires, just endlessly circling.
Me: Yes, I suppose that describes the feeling somewhat.
You: So, what do I do? Am I fucked? I’m fucked. You’re telling me I’m fucked.
Me: I would do no such thing. You have options. First, you could actually do an outline — outline from where you’re at now, but let’s assume you’re not going to do that.
You: That’s good because I’m not going to do that.
Me: That means you’re pantsing it — which is writing by the seat of your pants, not writing without pants. The latter is a hallmark amongst writers, of course.
You: I’ve noticed that you’re letting it all hang out, which is very disturbing to me.
Me: Eyes up here, Howdy. Point is, when you’re going at it without any prescribed notion of where to take the story, you need a the instinct to tell you how to move the story forward — plot, character, theme, whatever — in a compelling, engaging way.
You: And you’re going to tell me how to do that.
Me: I will at least present you with some options, sure — options that help you organically grow the story’s architecture. Like hammering bones into a floppy-fleshed body to give it a skeleton.
You: That’s gross. But at least that metaphor didn’t have poop in it.
Me: We’ll get there, don’t worry. So, part of this whole organic story architecture thing is that you’re creating plot on the fly — you’re a kid with a flickering flashlight stumbling through the dark forest. The first thing to do is let your characters lead the way. Most writers come at their story from the plot side of things — they say, IT WOULD BE COOL IF X-Y-AND-Z HAPPENED. It’d be cool if the spaceship crashed and released moon-wolves into New New New York and then blah blah blah with the thing and the that and the stuff. It’s all very event-focused, very incident-driven. And that can work, but for my mileage it’s too external. The greatest most natural-feeling plot is formed by the decisions of characters. You don’t need to duct-tape the bones to the outside of the body — the characters, actually, are the bones. And the muscles. And the connective tendons. Hell, they’re the whole fucking meatbag enchilada. They will make choices and they will confront their problems with solutions and in doing so plot happens.
You: But I thought you designed a plot and then slotted characters into it.
Me: Some writers do. And that can work. (Realistically, in writing and storytelling, anything can work.) But that’s externally-driven. And, for the writer, it ends up being a whole lot harder to pull off because you’re trying to mash these two things together. Here, look at it this way: Plot does not poop out characters. Characters poop out plot.
You: And there’s the poop metaphor.
Me: I told you we’d get there. Leading with the characters and not the plot also stops your story from having characters who are purely reactive — you don’t want them there just to react to events. Proactive characters, characters who talk about stuff, decide stuff, and then do stuff, are the characters we like to see. These are characters who get ahead of the plot instead of trailing behind it like fumbly puppies. That’s what we mean when we say characters have agency.
You: Lead with characters. Got it. What else, word-nerd?
Me: One more thing on that subject, actually — this is why romance can really work, either as a genre or as a component of your story. Because romance is all character. It’s all about the desires and decisions of people in your storyworld. You can literally get away with your story being a character who loves another character and who spends the entire story trying and failing to make that love blossom. That shit can work. Romance understands that plot is made of people.
You: Trying and failing. Cool. But how does that trying and failing part happen?
Me: Well, that conveniently takes me to the next two components, which are tangled up together in a sort of… slurping story-based 69 position.
You: Not sure if I should be titillated or horrified.
Me: You can check both boxes.
You: What are these two sexually-entwined story components?
Me: Pacing and conflict.
Me: *staples your other ear*
You: FACK GAAAAH okay I mean, oh I am so totally interested please go on.
Me: Thank you. Pacing, right? Pacing is the acceleration and deceleration of your narrative. You want the sense that we’re always increasing speed at the same time we’re gaining height and momentum and yet your tale can’t be all acceleration. That can be too intense and, after a while, downright boring. In practical terms, imagine a road trip that takes you down a variety of roads: backroads and highways and freeways and alleyways, but all the while we still get the sense of increasing speed and increasing danger. A story moves forward, then pauses for oxygen. Then it moves forward more quickly, more perilously: and again, more oxygen. Action danger peril! Then pause for a breath, for recollection, then — MORE ACTION DANGER PERIL. Then pause. The pauses grow shorter. The action danger peril grows not longer but more intense.
You: So, like sex.
Me: Well. Yeah, kinda. Good sex, anyway. Actually, sex is a pretty good example. Because great sex (or at least memorable sex) can all about a lot of moods and feelings coming together. It’s about a variety of positions — Missionary to Doggy-Style to Monkey-Steals-the-Plums to the Devil’s-Triangle to the Denver Omelet. And it’s about the pauses between those position shifts, too — the laughing and the continued foreplay and the awkwardness and the fumbling for protection. Sex is about pacing. And rhythm. And overcoming conflict. And people! Sex is about people.
Me: Anyway. With Freytag’s pyramid, the fact it depicts an incline is interesting — because you can get that sense of cresting a hill, like with a roller coaster. But I also like the idea that story should be a descent — the feeling that there is an intense gravity to the narrative that draws you down, down, down. Every plateau is just another temporary respite from the ineluctable slide. It’s a ride you can’t get off. It’s quicksand. The best stories feel that way, don’t they?
You: I’m going to say yes because I believe it but also because I don’t wanna get hit by a stapler.
You: So sometimes I want to speed up the descent. Sometimes I want to slow it.
Me: Bingo. And you do this in a lot of ways. Dialogue and action tend to speed up our reading; description and exposition slow us down. Conflict is actually a great accelerator — introducing new conflict or amping up an old one (by, say, raising the stakes). Introducing problems, perils, complexities, limitations: if we’re invested in the character, then these conflicts draw us deeper and deeper into the story. And we fall faster and faster.
You: I don’t know what “raising the stakes” means.
Me: You can read this: 25 Things To Know About Your Story’s Stakes.
Me: That’s very rude, that tl;dr thing. And it suggests you’re stupid and impatient.
You: That’s because I am stupid and impatient.
Me: Fine, fine, here’s the gist: the stakes are what can gain or be lost by the characters. The stakes are the combination of the character’s problem and the character’s proposed solution to that problem. It’s what the character wants — or what the character fears will happen. What’s being offered up into the middle of the table in terms of the narrative poker game you’re playing? Or, more dramatically, what’s the sacrifice? In Die Hard, John McClane’s wife and his relationship to his wife is what’s on the table. It’s her life and, by proxy, his.
You: Man, you talk about Die Hard a lot.
Me: You say that like it’s a sin. I’d use more bookish examples but almost everyone has seen Die Hard and, for what appears on the surface like a dipshit rah-rah action movie, it’s actually got great construction that contains a lot of the things that make a story great.
You: I like the part where Professor Snape says ‘the Eff-a-Bee-a-Eye.’
Me: Whatever. Do you understand the stakes, now?
You: Yeah, sure, yes. So, how do I create or… evolve the conflict?
Me: It’s like this: you put a nut on a rock —
You: You put your nuts on a rock?
Me: *ignores you* — you put a nut on a rock and you drop a chipmunk on the ground five feet away, and the chipmunk will run to climb the rock and steal the nut. A simple, uncomplicated journey: the chipmunk wants the nut and he satisfies his desire. Imagine though that you’re an antagonizer, and your job is to stop the chipmunk from getting the nut. Which means complicating the critter’s journey. You dig a trench. You pick him up and throw him ten feet away. You attack him with chipmunk ninjas. You introduce a chipmunk vixen who wants the nut instead. Ah, but now let’s consider the perspective of the audience. Those watching from afar will think you’re an asshole, and they’ll root for the chipmunk. And every time that fuzzy little sonofabitch gets closer, they’ll inch forward on their chairs, eager to see him get that tasty goddamn nut. Every setback will hit them in the solar plexus like a hard elbow. Storytellers think they’re writing for the audience. They’re writing, in a way, to hurt the audience.
Me: *gestures with stapler*
You: See? Sadist. Anyway. So what you’re saying is, I need to obstruct my character’s journey. To complicate his mission and to make his problem harder before I make it easier.
Me: Ayup. This is where I suggest: 25 Ways To Fuck With Your Characters.
You: You say ‘fuck’ a lot.
Me: What can I say? I like a lot of spice in my chili.
You: So, anything else? Or am I free to go write now?
Me: One more thing. Mystery. If you’re struggling to find a way forward, or you’re starting to feel bored — introduce mystery. It can be a big mystery. It can be a small one. But take a number out of your narrative equation and replace it with a variable — a big-ass motherfucking question mark. Question marks are shaped like hooks for a reason: they will hook the reader and drag them deeper into the story. Again, mysteries lend gravity to the tale you’re telling.
You: So, like, who killed Doctor Slobbernuts?
Me: … sure, provided you never ever say the word ‘slobbernuts’ to me again. A murder mystery is a good example of a big mystery — those are usually reserved for early on in the story, though they can also pop in in the middle to accelerate the tale. But smaller mysteries work, too — who sent the character a love letter? Who left the little cairn of smoldering cigarettes on the road outside the house? Why is that orangutan following me, and who gave him that cavalry saber?
You: I may have given him the sword.
Me: You sonofabitch.
You: Revenge for the stapler. He’s hunting you, now. He has your smell.
Me: I’ll get you for this.
You: I know. Any more words of inspiration, slobbernuts?
Me: Listen, just keep it interesting. Boredom is your greatest enemy. Entertain yourself. Switch gears. Have characters make hard decisions. Introduce troublesome choices. Fear stagnation. And try to make everything make sense. Once more: let the characters lead. You do that, with them cleaving to their character traits and doing things that make sense for them (instead of making sense for some external plot) and you’re good to go.
You: Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero.
Me: *stapler to the neck*