Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Beginning Your Story: Concentrating the Heat

By now you should have a bunch of ideas calling out to you, demanding to be explored in your story. How do you make sure your reader feels the same way? By turning up the heat. The heart of your story is conflict and the key to good conflict is highly motivated characters pursuing conflicting goals.

Relationship Map

  1. Write the names of all the important characters (who you believe will substantially influence the plot) arranged in a circle. You may also include names of organizations that are involved if you have not yet created a character to represent their interests.
  2. Draw a line connecting your protagonist and your antagonist.
  3. Above the line write the main issue they have in common.
  4. Below the line write the approach or value about this issue where they disagree.
  5. Repeat for all your listed characters.

For example, in Kingdom of the Stone, Karux (the protagonist) and Amantis (the antagonist) agree that the scattered human tribes need to work together to protect mankind from approaching inhuman threats. Where Karux and Amantis disagree is that Karux wants to recruit the surrounding villages into a cooperative effort to feed and protect themselves while Amantis feels the best approach is to control them through fear of the angorym, coercion through controlling food sources and the threat of violence from his growing army. During the course of the story, this conflict escalates into literal all-out war.

Karux’s allies, the elders of Har-Tor, agree with Karux that the refugees of the northern valley must be protected and provided for, but disagree on where their priorities should be and how to use their limited resources.

Every major character should have areas where their goals intersect (forcing them to interact and not just avoid each other) and areas where their goals diverge (creating tension or even open conflict between the two.) Even a loyal sidekick, who unquestioningly supports the protagonist, may start to question the protagonist’s actions if the cost of pursuing that goal becomes too high and the sidekick feels he needs to protect the protagonist from himself.

If two major characters agree on everything, you should consider combining them into a single character. Each character, like each word of the narrative, needs to pull its own weight. Excess characters, like excess words, will only bog the story down. It should be mentioned, however, that sometimes two or more characters may function as a single character, (e.g. the twins Fred and George in Harry Potter) but if any character does not add additional tension or conflict through a unique point of view, they don’t need to occupy your limited story space.

You may discover certain patterns emerging through this process. Alliances may form or shift adding extra complications/interest to your plot. Or you may find holes where a character needs to be added or an extra character that needs to be cut. You may even discover your protagonist through this process or discover your real protagonist is a different character than you thought. That’s all good. You’re getting to know your story better.

We’ll talk about protagonists soon, but first we’ll discuss how to refine your ideas through the Idea Filter with one last use of our already over-extended metaphor...

Next time – Beginning Your Story: Focusing the Fire

Friday, February 26, 2016

Beginning Your Story: Setting the Fire

You started with a spark of inspiration, a story question or a situation worth exploring. You've brainstormed all the related ideas, themes, characters, situations feelings, even symbols or mental images this idea inspired through mind-mapping, previewing and visualization. Now it's time to get cooking.

Find the Hottest Coals

First: set all that work aside (you'll need it later) and walk away. Clear your head. Think about something else. In fact, don't think about story at all.

Second: find your mental creative place (a quiet room, or put on your headphones and blast your favorite music, go for a walk, or even just wait until a certain time of day when you feel the most relaxed and creative) and summon up those feelings and images that first inspired you.

Third: without referring to you notes, write down the four or five key ideas you feel are absolutely necessary, the things which resonate with you the strongest, the reason you want to write this story.

Pile On the Fuel

Now get in touch with your inner seven-year-old child and ask questions, lots of questions. Pick the first item on your short list and start writing down questions. If the item you're thinking about is a thing or a place, be sure to ask about the people behind it. Who made it, or made it significant. What important thing happened there or with it? If it's about a person, ask what important changes have occurred in their life when the story starts. What do they want to change? Why haven't they done so before now? If the item is more abstract, ask yourself what about it makes it cool, creepy, attractive, frightening or maddening and what kind of people, places or things do you associate it with.

Don't worry about whether or not the questions seem silly or even make sense. Just jot them down quickly You're goal here is to trick your subconscious into giving up its secrets. When you've gone through each item, go back and answer these questions. Again, work quickly. Write whatever springs to mind. If some questions or answers stand out, go back and ask more. You may even find yourself in a dialog with yourself, asking and answering your own questions as you look for the meaning behind the things you want to write about.

No matter how strange this dialog may seem, assume that nuggets of pure gold are hiding within. You are telling yourself what you want to write. Like a young child, your subconscious may not explain itself very well or lose site of the pig picture under a mound of odd details so be prepared to look at these ideas from all angles as you search for the secret connections and purpose behind them all.

When you do go back afterward, focus on the people, groups and organizations behind the story. Look at their history and motivations. Look for patterns, who works together with whom and why? Where do they agree and disagree? The heat of your story comes from conflict and conflict comes from strongly motivated characters pursuing incompatible goals or using incompatible methods to achieve them.

At this point, you may already have a full story in your head. If you gone through all the steps so far, you should, at the very least, have the essence of one ready to be put together. All you have to do is find your focus and concentrate the heat.

Next time – Beginning Your Story: Concentrating the Heat

Beginning Your Story: Chasing the Spark

Once you have that spark, you'll need to gather up all the toys (story ideas) that you want to play with. There are probably many methods of mining the subconscious, here are a few that have worked for me.


What is it about the spark the most fascinates you? Does it evoke a particular emotion? Does it promise interesting conflict? Does it explore an interesting point of view?

  1. Write it down in the middle of a blank piece of paper and circle it.
  2. Giving yourself only a few seconds, without thinking, quickly write every idea—no matter what—the first idea provokes.
  3. Afterward, review the results, and draw lines connecting these new ideas to your first idea.
  4. Select the most interesting of the new ideas, circle it and repeat the process.
  5. Continue until you fill the page, run out of ideas or feel that you've got enough ideas to work with.
  6. Finally, look over the results. Which ideas repeat? Which stand out as most interesting or important? Which seem to group together? Which seem to contradict or oppose other ideas?

You may find ideas for characters, conflicts, settings, even snatches of dialog, forming early in the process. Write them down and keep mapping. You may only need to do this process once or you might want to do this several times over several days, each time focusing on different core ideas which the first map produced. When you find all the elements you need to form The Sentence you know you are nearly there.


Close your eyes and imagine your story is finished. You're holding it in your hands. It is exactly the type of story you'd hoped it would be and, fortunately, brilliant reviewers think the exact same thing. (That's why they're brilliant.) Write a review of the finished story. (Which you haven't started yet.) Feel free to describe it as the best, most amazing, most profound work of fiction ever written, but describe why it is. Describe the characters, the themes, the plot, the setting, etc. Describe how it feels to read it. Describe why others should read it. Describe how and why it will change your readers' lives and what they will get out of it. Once you've calmed down, go back and look at it, underlining the ideas you want in your story.


I don't spend a lot of time on Pinterest. In fact I wouldn't have created an account there at all if I hadn't stumbled across some Pinterest boards while doing image searches for a book set in Japan. I tend to use it primarily when researching settings and then after the plot is well established. But there is a long tradition of writers cutting out pictures of people who resemble characters and places to be used as settings. If you are more visually oriented, try starting the creation process by seeking out and collecting images which evoke the feelings and ideas you want your story to convey.

Whichever method(s) you use, before long, you should find yourself with a bunch of fragments that need to be drawn together into a story. (Assuming the story hasn't already assembled itself.)

Next time – Beginning Your Story: Setting the Fire

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Beginning Your Story: Finding the Spark

Beginning Your Story: Setting the Fire(I've been doing some writing about the process of writing, essentially trying to work through my own process while at the same time digesting a lot of reading on the subject. I've been posting these thoughts elsewhere, so I thought I should probably post them here on my much-neglected blog as well.)

Beginning Your Story: Finding the Spark


"Where do you get your inspiration?" From the numerous interviews, articles and blog posts I've read by and about authors, this seems to be one of the questions authors most fear. Some have admitted to having vague or flippant stock answers on hand to deal with it. I suspect many fear this question because they don't know how they do what they do and worry the day may come when they can't manage it when they need to.

The Source

The idea usually bubbles up from the subconscious, a "what if?" question, and not just any "what if" question, but one which captures the writer's imagination and demands to be answered.

Writing coaches have numerous tricks and techniques to tap into that subconscious such as word association games or guided imagery prompts. (If you know of any good ones, please share or post relevant URLs below.) The best approach, particularly when you're feeling frustrated, may be to just not think about it. Go out and do something else, clean the house, run some errands, get out of your normal rut. Relax your mind, watch a new movie or read a new book.

I believe writers are naturally curious people who like to "look behind the scenes," who wonder how things really work, and who like to take ideas apart then put them back together in novel ways. At some point you will, now doubt, find yourself saying, "That's interesting and all, but what if..." and you'll have your story spark.

The Spark

It may start with an interesting character: A crown prince who discovers he's actually a commoner raised to become a sacrifice to save the true heir to the throne. How will he react? Kingdom of Shadow

Or an interesting situation: To save his first love, a shy Japanese teenage boy must prove to a Shinigami (Japanese death god) that love exists by making it fall in love with him, without his girlfriend finding out. How might he do it? Courting Death

Or an Interesting setting: A secret war taking place in our own world between two strange supernatural forces that grant mysterious agents supernatural powers. It includes intrigue and espionage, rival shadow societies competing for lost or forbidden knowledge and a spreading curse that involves the undead and stranger things from other dimensions. What kind of things might happen here? The Awakened

Unconsciously or consciously, exposing yourself to interesting new ideas and asking what if, stirs the coals that produce the creative spark. Once you've identified it and learned to recognize it, you need to chase it.

Next time - Beginning Your Story: Chasing the Spark