Being a Better Writer: Going Vertical

I’m back! No longer diseased! Well, not fully. And still with a recovering knee injury, but those things take time, or so I’m told by the doctors. But I am well enough to write write write at last! My mind is clear! And so after a long, unwelcome delay, we’re finally getting back to a follow-up post I alluded to some time ago.

That’s right, remember that post I wrote on Horizontal and Vertical storytelling a few weeks back? Because today’s post was originally, before I came down with disease that made me cough my lungs into a bowl, going to be the follow-up. Lousy timing, but what it means for readers today is that I suggest going back and reading that first post if you don’t remember the details behind it. Because I’ll give a quick, one-sentence recap related to today’s topic at hand, but after that I’m diving right into the thick of things, so if you’re not caught up on what horizontal and vertical storytelling are, you’ll want to read that link up above first, and then come back for this post.

Right, the preamble is out of the way, so let’s dive into it. Let’s go vertical and give our stories some depth!

Now, what some of you are probably thinking at this point, or were even thinking after that post a few weeks ago, is why I wanted to do a post on exactly this topic. After all, explaining to someone what horizontal writing is and how to do it? That’s pretty straightforward, since almost every story we’ve even been exposed to growing up (especially Hollywood action-blockbuster style stories) are horizontal focused. Point A to point D. Action beat to action beat.

We’re familiar with this kind of approach, and it’s what most think of when discussing stories. Hit the point, move to the next point, then the next, and so on and so forth. While not technically correct to call it such, for many this is essentially how they think of storytelling. Again, it’s not correct, but for a layman it’s pretty accurate.

My point is, explaining horizontal storytelling to someone is fairly easy and straightforward because most people understand how to tell a horizontal story. It’s familiar and easy to grasp. Vertical storytelling, on the other hand, is something that a lot of people aren’t familiar with up front. It’s not nearly as often talked about, nor as often recognized, though it can be present in many entertainment items you may have enjoyed.

So, with that as our backing, how does one go about building a story that has vertical elements?

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Plot Problems

Hey hey! I’m almost back to full health, and it’s been far too long since a Classic Being a Better Writer post went up on the site!

New? Unsure what those words meant? Let me clarify! Being a Better Writer is a writing feature that’s been running for almost four years now, posting every Monday. These posts cover a wide, vast assortment of topics, from subplots to mystery to dialogue, all with the goal of helping writers young and old improve their craft.

Of course, with almost four years of weekly posts collected here, the simple act of an archive binge suddenly becomes quite daunting … hence the Classic posts. Classic posts collect a few older posts on a related topic and offer a brief look at them as well as a link to each for nice, easily accessibly bingeing.

This week? We’re looking at plot problems with larger narratives, and how you can catch them early or fix them! So dive in! Click those links! And if you like what you’re reading, don’t neglect that Patreon button on the side!


Playing Out Your Puzzle Pieces—
As a new writer, nothing is more daunting than looking at someone else’s book with all it’s intersecting plot threads and carefully doled out clues and thinking “How on earth do I do that?” To a new writer, it seems like an almost insurmountable task: There are all these different parts of the story, and all of it seems to be fitting together just so the guide to reader to figure things out or move along with the story at the same pace as the characters … And once you stand back and look at it, that’s quite a bit of work!

And, to be fair, the average English class that many are going to have gone through in their high-school years has very low odds of touching on this, which only compounds the problem. For new writers, it just seems like something that writers do, but no one is explaining how. Again, this is why I encourage taking creative writing classes if they’re available to you—they’ll teach this kind of stuff and more.


Character Versus Plot—
Effectively—and understand that I am for the purposes of today’s concept, grossly simplifying—every story out there, written, told, or seen, rides a sliding scale into one of two categories: They’re either a character-driven piece or a plot-driven piece. That’s it. These are your options, and understanding which your story is going to be, as well as more importantly, how to achieve this, will play a part in determining the success of your work.


Avoiding a Sagging Middle—
Well, let’s take a look at an old principle of storytelling, one that most, if not all of you, should be familiar with: The concept of rising action. We’ve spoken about this before, actually, when discussing pacing (twice, actually). But the core idea is that you want to give your readers and ebb and flow to the tension of the story. As time goes on, the tension rises, the reader gets sucked in, we have a climactic moment of some kind, and then the story eases off for a bit and lets the reader relax.


The Meandering Story—
All right, before we go any further, we need to clear something up by determining exactly what a meandering story is. It’s not a story that stars a lot of twist and turns, no. Rather, a meandering story is one that loses sight of its end goal.

Now, when I say this, I don’t mean that the characters lose sight of the end goal (or maybe don’t know what that goal is). No, that’s fine. Characters can lose sight of things all you want. That’s just part of the story.

Instead, what I’m talking about is a story where the plot has lost sight of the end of the story. It’s forgotten where it’s going, or is confused about its ultimate objective, but rather than stop and try and figure things out, it just keeps going, like an energizer bunny, despite the fact that it has no idea where it’s headed. It wanders from plot point to plot point, searching for some vague sense of purpose to drive itself forward. Or maybe it has an idea of where it wants to go (like “X needs to defeat Y”) but has no idea how to get to that point, and so bounces across every possible solution, one after another, until it finally clicks.

 

 

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Being a Better Writer: Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling

Welcome back readers! I apologize for the lateness of this post, but I had a physical therapy appointment this morning, and that took up the early part of the day when I normally would have been writing this post.

Physical therapy? Yup, you read that right. Those of you who’ve been keeping tabs on all my posts will know that several months ago I twisted my knee at work and tore my meniscus. Since then, it’s been a slow recovery (aided only with gnashing of teeth by my employer, who let me sit for 30 days without medical treatment or work, one day short of the maximum allowed by law) that has been greatly aided by physical therapy. My knee isn’t back to full ability yet, though it’s definitely getting better (thankfully, as knee injuries suck). And physical therapy will wreck you! Or at least, it’s wrecking me. I am sore afterwards. But, like I said, getting better. It’s a good sore.

Good thing, too, because the amount of money my employer is spending to avoid spending money on medical care is, quite frankly, insane. Later this week I have to go back to a different doctor for another check-up. Now, physical therapy is under the guidance of a doctor. Why are they sending me to another doctor? For independent confirmation that I need physical therapy and am still injured.

That’s right. They’re so suspicious of doctors that they’re paying other doctors to confirm that the first and second doctors aren’t trying to cheat them. Personally, I think that says more about the company than it does about the doctors, but that’s just me.

Anyway,  you’re not here to read about that, so let’s get things moving. Starting with the announcement that this is the first topic off Topic List X! The big 1-0! We’re here at last! And I’m glad, because there are some good topics ahead!

Starting with today’s. Today, we’re going to discuss horizontal and vertical storytelling: what they are, what they mean, how they work, how they differ, and of course most importantly how you can use them in your work.

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Being a Better Writer: Fleshing Out Ideas – From Idea to Story

Welcome back, readers, to another Monday post of Being a Better Writer! Sorry for the delay. As many of you likely guessed, I was given a morning shift at work to deal with. Half-shift, but even then there’s the prep time around it, afterwards, travel time, etc … Hence why I’d rather sell more books. But that’s a case for another post. Being late, better I dive right into today’s topic!

Now, I don’t actually remember the circumstances by which this topic came to be on the list (could have been LTUE), but either way, the topic is a good one. Hang out in a writing-centric thread online or attend a writing workshop—sands, even look in the comments of a public page for an author or attend a panel—and eventually, probably fairly quickly, you’ll hear a question or  comment that’s a lot like the following:

I have this great idea/concept/story/character, but the moment I try to sit down and write them, I just run out of steam. I can’t get it/them written. How do I do this?

Now, the exact phrasing may vary, but trust me, you’ll here the sentiment, echoed from a number of beginning writers. And you won’t even have to wait long. It’s a question that comes up all the time.

And you know, to be fair, it’s not exactly a bad question. A poor one, maybe, but not a bad one. And it’s one that’s often reflected by the faces and situations of many more in whatever assorted audience is present than the one who asked. Crud, I’m certain that it’s a question that some of the authors who have been forced to scramble for an answer themselves once voiced, though perhaps internally.

But … it’s still a poor question. I certainly wouldn’t call it a good one. Not poor enough that it isn’t worth tackling in this post, but not the best question either.

Why? Well, let me answer that before I get into the deeper-roots behind the question. The question is a poor one because 90% of the time the individual asking it is asking for a silver bullet. A solution that doesn’t exist. I entirely suspect that if, when asked this question, whoever was asked responded with “Well, are you using X program?” or “Are you sitting in this kind of chair?” there would be a massive sale of said product in the audience that had asked.

Again, I shouldn’t batter these poor souls too badly. After all, they are beginners. But as beginners, when asking this question, the answer they get is hardly the answer they want (and sometimes, they’ll tell you). They’re inexperienced enough to think that all it takes is an idea, a pen or a keyboard, and a little bit of writing, and boom! Story! And the problem with that is that, as all writers know, there is no silver bullet. There’s no magic “thing” or element that anyone can just do to take a story from an idea to a finished product (or at least a halfway competent one). And in that regard, the question is poor.

Now, that said, it wouldn’t take much to “fix” it so that we can give it a real answer. If we rearrange it a little, tweak a few of the words a bit, we get something much more workable. Something like:

I have a good idea/story/concept/character, but the when I sit down to try and write it, I start having trouble. How do I take it from an idea to a finished work? What are the steps there?

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Being a Better Writer: Story Bibles and Other Forms of Story Organization

Well, after a wild weekend consisting of both roller coasters and more viewers in a day to the site than I normally see in six months, I’m back! To those of you who are regular readers, hello again, and to any of you who are new, I hope you like what you see and stick around!

Right, down to business, or brass tacks, or whatever other work-based colloquialism you might be able to think of. Today I’m tackling another reader request topic, but before I do, I’ve started to notice a trend with these. Lately, a lot of the requested topics have been—How to put this?—mostly on one side of the writing spectrum. Dealing with structural topics, such as organization, motivation, or the like, rather than close-in topics like characters, tropes, or plots.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ve noticed the trend, hence I’m not going to be using requested topics all the time as I’d like to keep BaBW from focusing solely on one aspect of writing like that. As important as things like motivation, goals, and other bits “surrounding” the act of writing can be, I don’t want to write solely about them for a long period of time because there are readers out there who want to hear about characters, pacing, tropes, and other fun topics that you’ll run into in the act of writing. So in the future I’m going to try to make sure to balance that a little better, as I feel that lately a lot of the topics I’ve discussed have been that “infrastructure,” for lack of a better word, surrounding writing that doesn’t as commonly prove to be an issue with writers.

That said, this week’s topic probably rests somewhere in the middle between those two points. Story bibles, along with other forms of story organization, are a particularly common tool in the toolbox of most writers, even among those that are primarily the “write-as-you-go,” pantsing sort. No matter what someone is working on, there’s usually a point where it can’t hurt to have a little bit of a reminder sitting there to help them keep track of what they’re working towards. Or to have something to serve as reference material.

Now, this is actually trickier to write about than most would probably expect (and certainly moreso than I expect the reader who requested this topic guessed), and not because of how tired I am (pretty tired) but more because this is one of those topics where so much of it boils down to both individual preference between authors and the story itself, changing from project to project. For example, while I usually create a story bible for most of my works, there have been times when I have not. The forth-coming Colony, for instance, despite being a juggernaut of a book and universe, never had a story bible. No, the most I ever wrote up for it was a few lines about one of the main characters back when I was starting out, and a simple checklist timeline of “This needs to happen by the end of the book.” And Colony is one of my longer epics to date.

But it didn’t need a story bible. Though to be fair, it was also a book where I wanted to see how I did pantsing a story, so not having one was deliberate (Knowledge gained from this experiment? It took me twice as long to write Colony—six months—as it did the similar-length story Beyond the Borderlands I wrote right after it which had a full story bible).

My point is that there’s no “right” way for me or anyone else to follow here. There’s no set “proper method” for doing a story bible. There’s no right way to do an outline. At the end of the day, whatever assists you in getting your story written is what you want, and that can be anything from a large, complex story bible to a simple checklist of events you want your story to wind its way across.

No, in this case, the only thing that could be said to be “correct” is that the outline, checklist, bible, or whatever else you create does its job in helping you formulate and write your story. As long as it does that, its good. That’s all it needs to do!

Right, now, that all said, there are undoubtedly a few readers out there who are looking for a few pointers on where to start, so let’s go a bit past the name. Let’s look at story bibles, but also a few other other frameworks of organization and planning that various authors make use of.

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Being a Better Writer: Avoiding a Sagging Middle

All right! And we’re back with today’s follow-up to one of our more recent posts! Remember? The one about health?

Okay, I’m actually joking. This isn’t a post about that. But it was too good an opportunity a joke to pass up. Sagging middle … anyway …

No, today is another topic by request, but it’s not about that sagging gut. Well, it’s not about the sag you were just thinking of, but the one you probably thought of when you first saw the title to this BaBW post. You know, the one that you’re worried about finding in the middle of your story.

Yes, that middle.

So, let’s dive right in. We’ll do that by first asking this question for those who may not have heard the term: what is a sagging middle?

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Being a Better Writer: Playing Out Your Puzzle Pieces

Welcome back, readers, to a Monday post that’s actually on a Monday! BaBW is back to its proper day once more! So, to commemorate the occasion, what’s today’s writing topic?

Puzzle pieces.

I can see the curious, questioning looks even from here in the past, so let me explain a little further.

One of the questions I get asked from readers—especially those who are about to make the transition to new writers—is how I’m able to fill my books with such complicated plots and keep everything moving at a steady pace at the same time.

This is a legitimate question. I want to stress that up front. As a new writer, nothing is more daunting than looking at someone else’s book with all it’s intersecting plot threads and carefully doled out clues and thinking “How on earth do I do that?” To a new writer, it seems like an almost insurmountable task: There are all these different parts of the story, and all of it seems to be fitting together just so the guide to reader to figure things out or move along with the story at the same pace as the characters … And once you stand back and look at it, that’s quite a bit of work!

And, to be fair, the average English class that many are going to have gone through in their high-school years has very low odds of touching on this, which only compounds the problem. For new writers, it just seems like something that writers do, but no one is explaining how. Again, this is why I encourage taking creative writing classes if they’re available to you—they’ll teach this kind of stuff and more.

But, that aside, point is, most young writers see a full, complex story and wonder how on earth an author was ever able to keep everything straight. Crud, some don’t. Read through a Sci-Fi book the other day (giving an author I’d read before another shot because the premise of the book was very unique, even if I’d been disappointed in an earlier work of theirs) where the author didn’t dole out their complex story well—at all. Here’s how it ending up playing out: You got the opening chapters, introducing the characters, and giving you roughly 80% of the information you needed to know for the conclusion of the story. Then, following that was most of the book, roughly two dozen chapters of the characters just making their way to the conclusion while talking but never really doing much for the story other than “We go from here to the their, this ending is stressful.” Near the end of that bit, which was most of the book and pretty dull, we got another 10%, and then the conclusion happened almost immediately, bringing with it the last 10%.

Do you see the problem? The book had a great premise and an interesting idea, but the author didn’t know how to dole the information out. The result was a massive dump of exposition at the beginning, and a small one at the end with the final bits the reader needed … and then everything in-between was just sort of  … there. It could have been summed up in two or three chapters rather than twenty.

Or the story could have doled out its puzzle pieces better, distributed them evenly across those intervening  chapters, and given them some purpose to the overall plot (as opposed to the “And we’re traveling … and we’re traveling … and we’re traveling …” that the story became). Something that would have given them impact on the story, rather than just being happenstance.

Right, so that’s the second time (not counting the title) that I’ve used that term, so it’s high time I explained what I mean when I write it.

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