Hard-Earned Lessons

snape study hall

Do your work. You’ll be happy later that you did.

J and I were chatting yesterday as we made the two-hour drive home from his parents’ about what we wish we had known when we started writing nearly 10 years ago. It was such a good list I thought I should share. It’s by no means definitive, and I’ve no doubt other writers would come up with other items, but if it helps anyone avoid the mistakes we made, then it was worth my time.

Structure
There is pretty much nothing easier than writing a giant blob of prose. Writing tens of thousands of words that are novel-shaped is decidedly harder. It’s more than just beginning, middle, and end. It’s advancing character and story, plotting setbacks, making sure the reader isn’t about to nod off or complaining that what you’re telling them is pointless. If I could go back 10 years and tell myself only one thing, it would be to study structure before putting pen to paper.

Chapters
Speaking of structure, how do you know when to end a chapter? How long should it be? What, exactly, ought to go in one? There’s no one answer for every novel, and we’ve intentionally played around with this in different novels, but we had some 7,000 word chapters with 3 POVs, and zero thematic elements tying them together when we started. We write in decidedly more logical chunks these days.

You won’t remember later
Write. It. Down. That brilliant idea that is so awesome you couldn’t possibly forget it? You will. That solution you found and put in Chapter 10 is great, but when you need it again in Chapter 50, you won’t remember if you didn’t put it in the story bible. Really, if we could go back and keep a more organized story bible from Day 1, it would help a ton. And it really would have helped a lot, even if we’d never moved past the original Quartet. Now that we have over two dozen novels in the Myrcia ‘verse, a good story bible is absolutely essential. And for those little ideas that pop up, they all get written down for use later.

Write in order
We thought it would be all awesome and creative to write the scenes that most inspired us as they inspired us. So when we started, we were literally writing scenes from what would become Book 2 before the characters in that scene had even met in Book 1. At the time, it seemed like a good way to get words down, and I suppose it was, but what it mostly did was make revision twice as long as we then rewrote all of those later scenes to take into account earlier material. Sometimes, I still move around a little, but I a) have a much better outline, and therefore, a better of idea of the story as a whole, and b) have made peace with the fact it will entail extra revision.

Sympathetic characters
We thought if we created a character we liked—a smart girl who is ambitious and happy, surrounded by people who also think she’s awesome—the reader would like her, too. Oops. Early betas found her insufferable and much preferred the girl with the crappy family and the worse husband, who was always looking for a way to make her shitty lot in life just a little better. I think we’ve made them both pretty interesting and sympathetic now, but yeah, we really didn’t understand at first that adversity gets a reader on the side of your character far more than showing how popular she is.

Calendar
When you have four POV characters spread over thousands of miles in an era when travel was remarkably difficult, keeping an accurate calendar is a must. We had some general ideas about when things should be happening, but when we plotted out exact dates when things had to happen and figured out how long it would take someone to get from Point A to Point B, we realized the timing was completely off. But, thank heavens for those poor traveling conditions so that freak snow storms could hold people up for a week, and magic allows a message to get to someone almost as fast as by telegram. As I’m about to start an epistolary novel, I’m already dreading my calendar—trying to figure out when someone wrote a letter and more importantly when someone read it, again in a world with much slower travel than today. But I know I will be happy that I did, and just like all of these other lessons, when I think about skipping over them, I do my best to make that my mantra—I will be happy that I did.

~S

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The CW of the 19th Century

 

Pearl Maiden Sculpture

Our hero, Marcus, admires the the Pearl-Maiden’s bust.

Um…let me rephrase that….

Today is Labor Day, and S and I are celebrating labor in the traditional way: by doing as little as possible.  Actually, that’s not true.  S is doing laundry, and I did some dishes.  And who knows?  If the weather isn’t too hot, we might go outside and move some more rocks for our landscaping project.

But we aren’t at work, and that means we have time to write.  S is nearing the end of Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg novel, and I’m working on some revisions.  There’s a wizard character who appears in five books that I’ve written so far, and I’m checking to make sure that she’s written consistently.  I want her to seem as if she’s the same person, but has changed in believable ways over the years.

In other news, I’ve started listening to audiobooks from Librivox.  It’s just something to do while I’m exercising.  All the recordings are done by volunteers, so it would be mean spirited to critique the quality of the reading.  As long as I can follow what’s going on, I suppose the reading is good enough.

The first one I listened to was Pearl-Maiden: A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem, by H. Rider Haggard.  (The title of this post notwithstanding, Haggard actually published it in 1903.)  This was a book I didn’t even know existed until I saw it in the Librivox catalog.  I’ve read Haggard’s most famous works, King Solomon’s Mines and She, of course, and I liked them, so I decided to give it a try.

It was pretty good, but of course as an amateur author, I naturally have to see if I can learn something from it that I can apply to my own writing.  And the main thing I noticed as I was reading (or rather, listening) was just how fast the plot moves.

Let me give you an example.  And it should go without saying that there are spoilers here (insofar as anyone can spoil a book that’s 113 years old).  Bear with me here.

Our hero, Marcus the Roman, is imprisoned because he foiled the scheme of Prince Domitian, the evil second son of Emperor Vespasian, to buy the Christian girl Miriam (our heroine, and the “Pearl-Maiden” of the title) as a slave.  Marcus and Miriam are in love, but she can’t marry him because he’s a pagan.  Miriam, bought by Marcus and freed, is living among the Christians of Rome and earning her keep by making clay lamps.  (She’s an exceptionally talented sculptor.)  While she’s there, her childhood friend Caleb (the antagonist) discovers her whereabouts by accident, when he recognizes a scene from their childhood adventures depicted on one of her lamps, and convinces a guileless shop worker to tell him where the maker of the lamp lives.

Caleb confronts Miriam and threatens to reveal her location to Domitian if she doesn’t agree to marry him.  Miriam refuses, and she’s so good and decent that Caleb becomes ashamed of himself.  He has a change of heart and swears he will help and protect her, even if he can’t ever marry her.  Miriam, realizing that she’s not safe in Rome anymore, escapes and sails off for the east with the help of Cyril, the Bishop of Rome.

Meanwhile, Marcus gets a second trial, this time with Prince Titus, the good elder son of Vespasian, and his former commander in the army, as his judge.  Titus realizes that Domitian is a jerk, and can see that Marcus was falsely accused, but for political reasons, he can’t just overrule his younger brother publicly.  So he commutes Marcus’s sentence to three years’ banishment, instead of death.

(Again, bear with me here.  I promise there’s a point at the end of this.)

News comes back that the ship Miriam was sailing in has sunk, and everyone on it is dead.  Marcus, who is still in prison, waiting to leave Rome, learns of this and wants to kill himself.  But Cyril, the Bishop of Rome, talks him out of committing suicide and discusses heaven with him.  Marcus decides to become a Christian and is baptized.

Caleb forms a plan, with the help of Domitian’s chamberlain, to waylay Marcus and kill him.  But at the last moment, Caleb, remembering that he had promised to help Miriam, has a change of heart, and dresses up like Marcus so the assassins kill him, instead.  Marcus and Bishop Cyril find Caleb’s body, and Cyril tells Marcus he should pity Caleb, instead of hating him.

Marcus and Cyril sail for the east, and they arrive in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt, just in time to hear people singing hymns on a nearby ship.  They go over to join the church service, and who should be leading the choir but Miriam.  It turns out that reports of her death were greatly exaggerated, and her ship didn’t sink, after all.  Marcus tells Miriam he’s a Christian now, and they get married immediately.

Okay, did you get all that?  Good.

Here’s the thing—that’s not the plot of the whole novel.  That’s just what happens in the last two chapters.  And the 27 chapters before that are just the same.  The story burns through plot at an absolutely furious pace.  In S’s words, H. Rider Haggard is “the CW of the 19th century,” referring to the way in which shows on the CW network, like Vampire Diaries and The 100 race breathlessly from plot point to plot point.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all stories move along at that kind of pace, and S and I have found recently that we appreciate shows, like AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, or SyFy’s The Expanse, that take their time.  But it’s important, as authors, to remember that readers want things to happen.  Haggard could easily have made five or six or ten chapters out of the events I’ve mentioned above.  Marcus’s contemplation of suicide could have been its own chapter.  His conversion could have taken up another chapter.  Caleb’s confrontation with Miriam could have had a chapter to itself, too.  And if I’d been writing that story, I almost certainly would have given an entire chapter to Caleb deciding to sacrifice himself for his hated rival, Marcus.  That’s a big moment for the character, and I wouldn’t want to rush it.

But as a reader (or rather, listener), I have to say I didn’t really miss all that contemplation, internal monologue, and navel-gazing.  I rather appreciated that the story got to the point and kept going.  And that’s something to keep in mind as I write my own novels.

J

Just Deserts

Hermione-punches-Draco-harry-potter-30733600-500-211

It felt good for us, too, Hermione.

The other day, as we so often do, S and I were talking about stories and storytelling.  I think we were making supper, and I was chopping up vegetables for salads at the time.  This isn’t necessarily a good time for deep conversation, since I’m using a sharp object near my own fingers, and a certain amount of concentration is recommended.  But on this particular occasion, she said something quite intriguing that made me stop to think, halfway through slicing a radish.

She mentioned seeing people on Twitter and Tumblr who feel that certain characters on TV “deserved better” than they got.  And she said that this was starting to annoy her.

Now, personally this had never annoyed me before, but then I don’t spend much (or really, any) time on Twitter and Tumblr, so I haven’t seen these kinds of complaints.  So then I gave it some thought, in the middle of this radish, and I realized that when people talk about what a character “deserves,” they’re really talking about one of several different things: 1) personal identification, 2) apparent moral rectitude, or 3) the narrative promises made by the author.  And as S and I discussed this, we agreed that whether a complaint about a characters “just deserts” seems legitimate depends on which of the three it is.

Personal Identification
This is the simplest, but, I’m sorry, also the silliest kind.  The reader likes and identifies with Susan, and then something bad happens to her.  Her boyfriend dumps her, she loses her job, her car breaks down, and she has to wait for the bus in the rain.  Now the reader is mad, or sad, or disgruntled, and wishes things had worked out better for Susan, and the reader says, “Susan deserved better!”

As an author—even an amateur one—I have to say that this sort of complaint leaves me scratching my head, because making the reader identify with the character and care what happens to her is, in fact, one of the main goals of storytelling.  A story where only good things ever happen to a character is incredibly dull.  I mean, even in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—a movie about a kid for whom everything always works out—Ferris faces setbacks.  So from the writer’s perspective, this sort of complaint is tantamount to the reader saying, “Susan is so dear to me that I never want a story to happen to her!”

This is closely related to the complaint where viewers or readers say, “I just want (character name) to be happy!”  One of our best friends used to point out, in the context of daytime soaps, that if a character was ever happy, then that basically meant that the character’s storyline would be over.  So, in fact, wishing for a character to be “happy” was wishing for that character to disappear from the show and for the actress playing her to be fired.

The Character’s Morals
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”  As Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest reminds us, part of why people read fiction is for a sense of closure and rightness that real life sometimes lacks.  We want to see good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  We want to see plucky little Oliver Twist succeed.  We love it when Hermione punches Draco Malfoy right in his sneering face.

Some people might find this to be a simplistic way of looking at literature, but I have some sympathy for it.  At the very least, I’d say it’s a perfectly reasonable expectation for a reader to have.  If someone said to me, “I prefer the original Star Wars to Empire Strikes Back because the story is better-written,” or “because the characters are more complex,” or “because the special effects are superior,” I would have to look at that person askance.  But if the person said, “I just prefer stories where the good guys win in the end,” then I would have to say, “Fair enough.”

Narrative Promises
I’ve mentioned the “Covenant of the Arc” before—it’s Blake Snyder’s storytelling “law” that says that every character must change.  It’s an implied promise by the author that when he introduces a character, the reader can be assured that something interesting is going to happen with this person.  When we open up The Lord of the Rings for the first time, in other words, and we start reading about Hobbits and the Shire, Tolkien is implicitly telling us something.  He’s saying, “Yes, I realize these little creatures seem a bit silly and dull right now, but trust me, if you stick around, you’ll see them do something awesome.”  That’s the “Covenant of the Arc.”

As with all promises, though, there’s a danger that at the end the recipient might not feel that the promisor has delivered.  “You promised me this character would matter,” the reader might say, after reading George R. R. Martin’s infamous “Red Wedding.”  “You made me sit through page after page with Robb Stark, and then it turns out I might as well not have bothered.”

Of all three kinds of complaints we’ve discussed, I find this one the most interesting and, frankly, the most legitimate.  The first two really just amount to the reader saying, “That’s not how I wanted it to happen.”  This third one, though, is the reader saying, “You didn’t finish the job.  You promised me this was going somewhere, and then it didn’t.”  The author has, therefore, committed the cardinal sin of all storytellers: wasting the time of his audience.

And so as not to waste anymore of my own audience’s time, I’ll leave it there for today.  Perhaps S will have further thoughts on this later.  Or perhaps she’ll give an update on the story she started writing as my birthday present (which I have now seen and which is wonderful).  As for me, I’m doing my prep work for my July Camp NaNo novel, and maybe next week sometime I’ll talk about that.

In the meantime, however, I’ve got things to do.  Like slicing radishes.

J

Square Pegs in Round Holes

loathing

My silly edit of Maimie McCoy as Milady de Winter on the BBC show The Musketeers.

I want to continue the thought J started in his post Everyone’s a Critic, using The Musketeers Season 3 and the debates over how to discuss it to do so. (It’s pretty much been eating my brain for over a month now, so I might as well, right?) So, be warned, spoilers for the entire series of The Musketeers, although if you’ve never seen a second of the show, I hope to explain my objections well enough my arguments should still make more sense than not.

Story Arc

In his post, J talked about how one aspect of fiction it’s not particularly worthwhile criticizing is premise. You don’t like Outlander because you think there’s too much violence against women, make that argument all day. Don’t like it because there’s time travel, well, time travel is the point. I enjoy the premise of The Musketeers (whether it be the BBC show, Dumas, or any other iteration) of four swashbuckling dudes running around early 17th Century France swashbuckling. But what I object to in Season 3 is what I’m going to call story arc.

Season 3 opens during the Thirty Years War, which has caused a refugee crisis in Paris. One of the main story arcs for the season revolves around a refugee, Sylvie, who is a part of a band of revolutionaries living in a Paris refugee settlement. It’s a story and setting that feels like a cross between the nightly news (refugees) and something out of Les Miserables (revolutionaries in France). What it never feels like to me is a story arc that belongs in a show whose premise is swashbuckling Musketeers swashbuckling around France in the 17th Century.

All of my problems with Season 3 stem from this ill-begotten story arc. I could catalog those problems, but that’s not actually the purpose of this post. (Perhaps another time.) My purpose here is to examine the proper outlet on social media for my feelings of disappointment, and what sort of reaction from other fans I should expect.

If you didn’t like it, why are you talking about it?

This has long been a complaint of people who love a show/book/movie who grow tired of listening to people criticize the thing they love. And I get that. There is a substantial chunk of The Musketeers fandom who have serious problems with the Aramis/Queen Anne/Dauphin Season 2 story arc, and while I never got terribly upset with the people who vented their displeasure with the season, I also never especially liked reading what they had to say on social media. I read several detailed complaints early on when I first joined the fandom, decided I disagreed with those people, and then went on my merry way.

But here’s the thing: if you love a thing so much you join a fandom specifically in order to discuss it, you don’t suddenly want to stop discussing the thing you love when it takes a turn you dislike. The passion hasn’t left. The need to discuss and maintain connections to the people you’ve bonded with hasn’t suddenly disappeared.

This is akin to the “Why don’t you stop watching it if you don’t like it?” argument. I stop watching things all the time. And the things I care so little about that I just quit tuning in every week are the shows I never cared enough about to join a fandom for. I stopped watching Arrow and Flash and Once Upon a Time and Castle. I enjoyed them. Mentioned them occasionally to friends who also watched them. Never joined their fandoms though, because I never loved them enough. That’s why I could quit them without comment. The passion was never there to begin with.

@CreatorPerson

Lo, many years ago, I majored in English in college. I now write fiction in my spare time. I like thinking about narrative and how it works, and like a doctor dissecting a cadaver, I dissect stories as a learning experience. And because, dammit, I find it enjoyable. I want to understand why Emma Woodhouse is so amazing, and I want to know why I just can’t connect to Middlemarch even though I admire it. I’ve often said that I’ve enjoyed discussing Harry Potter more than I have enjoyed reading the books or watching the movies, and there’s a lot I like (and dislike) about that series.

Picking apart narrative is in my blood. Apparently, there are people without that particular gene. I hope one day we learn to leave peaceably, because we will never understand one another.

So, if I’m going to insist upon raging about fiction I once loved but now find heartbreakingly disappointing, how should I go about it? First off, I would never in a million years tag a creator (writer, director, actor, key grip) with my negative criticism. That’s just tacky. Yes, I know they could wander into my corner of the fandom and find what I have said, but it seems to me that if you are an artist and you go picking through social media, you have to take some responsibility for what you see there. Never saying a bad word about an artistic endeavor again because someone associated with it might possibly see it is a good way to end useful conversation about art.

Also, I’ve grown up in the years I’ve spent online. It’s been over a decade since I joined my first online fandom (I still talk to Browncoats every day), and I no longer go out of my way to find people who love all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica just so I can tell them why they’re wrong. (Forum culture 10 years ago was really something! You kids don’t know what mean is. #GetOffMyLawn) There are lots of fans who have enjoyed Season 3 of The Musketeers. And you know what? I’m happy for them! I’m glad the thing they love was something they could love all the way to the end. But I can’t love it, and it’s therapeutic for me and others who are disappointed with the season to discuss it with each other.

And I won’t apologize for that. I won’t say I’m sorry for watching all the way to the end or for airing my views after I watched it. I won’t pretend as though I think I was wrong to write satire fanfics that address some of my problems with Season 3. My disappointment is valid, and my need to discuss it with others who feel the same is also valid. Otherwise, why bother joining a fandom if not to find like souls?

~S

Redeeming Qualities

agency

My silly edit of Maimie McCoy as Milady de Winter in Season 2 of The Musketeers

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding several shows I watch concerning redemption arcs. Fans have been wondering if characters are redeemable, if they have been redeemed, or why they haven’t been. So, naturally, I started thinking about the topic, beginning with what is a redemption arc? And I’m running across a lot of fans who want to see their favorite characters get one, so I’ve also been wondering what precisely the appeal is. And also, under what circumstance a character needs/should have an arc of this sort. To answer that first question about what precisely is a redemption arc, I started with one of the classics of the type, and then began thinking of variations, until ending with the one that’s been most on my mind lately.

(Obviously, this is a topic that can only be discussed with spoilers, but spoiler phobes shouldn’t be too worried. I’m going to spoil three classic stories most of you likely know, and I’m only going to discuss the ending of BBC’s The Musketeers pretty vaguely.)

Sydney Carton—A Tale of Two Cities

Truly the classic redemption arc, Sydney Carton starts the novel lazy, drunk, and selfish, and ends the novel by literally sacrificing his own life to save another man’s. It’s an incredibly satisfying transformation because Dickens makes us care deeply for Sydney Carton and the people and cause he eventually sacrifices himself for. And on a more basic level, we like the redemption arc because we want to believe all people have the capacity to grow and change and become better human beings. We like to think that if we ever fail, there will still be hope for us. Sydney Carton provides that and then some by going the extra redemptive mile by becoming even better than we are and making the sacrifice we all want to believe we would have the strength to make in his position.

But what if his opportunity for redemption had been offered and he turned it down? Is that still a redemption arc? I think so, and here’s an example.

Javert—Les Misérables

After spending hundreds of pages (or dozens of songs, depending on which telling of the story you have in mind), Javert, the quintessential obsessed policeman, has a shot at redemption. For decades, Javert has been searching for Jean Valjean, and when he finds him, Javert could let his hate and obsession go, along with Jean Valjean. He could finally exorcise his demons and be a better, happier person. He could, in other words, finish his redemption arc by allowing Jean Valjean to go about his own life while continuing on with his own minus the unhealthy drive. But Javert doesn’t accept the redemption being offered to him, and instead commits suicide.

So, this is the redemption arc answered in the negative. Is there another way for this to play out? Yes. Yes, there is.

Frodo and Gollum—The Lord of the Rings

Like Javert, Frodo and Gollum are both ultimately offered redemption, but refuse it. All they have to do is cast the One Ring back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. (Aside—How awesome is that line exactly?) And yet, the One Ring has made them both so mad, so enthralled to its power, that neither of them can do it, thus damning all of Middle-earth to an eternity of darkness under the dominion of Sauron. Except, that’s not actually what happens. What happens is the eucatastrophe. A force greater than Frodo, Gollum, or Sauron sees the One Ring destroyed. And that force also decides to grant Frodo the redemption he previously rejected. Gollum isn’t so lucky, but greater forces get to be fickle like that. But as readers/viewers, even if we feel bad for Gollum, we take comfort in Frodo’s arc, that even if we are so blind/stupid/insane to turn our backs on redemption, the possibility exists for us to get it anyway. And that’s a comfort.

Can a redemption arc fail or be rescinded? Like everything in storytelling, execution is everything, so sadly, yes it can.

Milady de Winter—The Musketeers (BBC)

Now, I’m not going to get into specifics. And I’m not even sure where precisely I fall on the issue of Milady’s final outcome on the show. But there are many fans, with whom, even when not in total agreement, I sympathize with greatly, who feel as though the show failed this character in terms of her redemption arc. Through the first two seasons, it certainly seems as though Milady, one, had an arc, and that two, it was redemptive. She is introduced in Season 1 to the viewer as a cold blooded murderer who literally tells a priest while in confession, “I’m not looking for absolution. I want revenge.” By the end of Season 2, she claims she no longer wishes to be a woman who lies and kills—she wants to be a decent, happy person, as she was when she first married Athos. With very limited screen time in Season 3, Milady ends the season (and the run of the show) decidedly closer to the woman at the beginning of Season 1 than the woman at the end of Season 2. Fans of the character, including myself, question if the writers of the show missed an opportunity for a redemption arc here. And even if Milady was never going to stop being in essentials the character to whom we were introduced, some fans wonder if she couldn’t have had more agency in choosing her resolution, rather than feeling as though she were not merely denied redemption, but never offered it or any say in her future.

I think the important lesson I take away from The Musketeers as a writer is that when dangling a redemption arc in front of a character, you snatch it away at your own peril. Again, the belief that we can be better and find forgiveness and happiness is a strong emotion in all of us. Not allowing that to a character who the reader believes deserves it can be immensely disappointing. Although, J made an interesting observation that the important difference between, say, Sydney Carton and Javert is that one of them is the hero and the other is the antagonist. Perhaps Milady could only have redemption offered but not granted? I’m not sure. But I’ll certainly be thinking about it.
~S

 

The Rare Beauty of Satisfaction

asshole garden

(If you’re a Justified fan and haven’t watched the series finale, please do so before reading this. If you aren’t a Justified fan, what’s wrong with you? Go get the Season 1 DVDs immediately. Your public library is a good place to check.)

It’s depressingly rare for TV series to reach a truly satisfying ending. Why is it so difficult to stick the landing in this kind of long form storytelling? Twenty-four hours later, why am I still giddy with joy at the Justified series finale? J and I were trying to remember the last time we enjoyed the end of a TV series as much as we do this, and we came to the conclusion it predates our joint TV viewing days. (For ease of discussion, let’s put that at 2000). In that time, the TV shows we have watched together that have concluded fall into one of three categories:
1) shows with fine but unremarkable endings (Veronica Mars, Firefly)
2) shows with actively bad endings (Battlestar Galactica)
3) shows we bailed on (a long list)
3b) shows we’re happy we bailed on, because it sounds like the ending was horrible (How I Met Your Mother)

But now we can add another category:
4) shows that ended precisely as they should have (Justified)

“We dug coal together.”

For anyone who is still reading but hasn’t seen the show, a quick overview. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) was born and raised in Harlan County, Kentucky, and he left home and made good. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is also a Harlan boy, but he didn’t leave home and he made bad. Raylan, a U.S. Marshal, returns to Kentucky in the Pilot to arrest Boyd, but what makes their relationship so special is not simply that they grew up together, but that before Raylan left and Boyd became a criminal, they dug coal together. As in lamp on your hardhat, going down a mine shaft, digging coal. It takes little imagination (especially as portrayed by two actors with arguably the best chemistry on TV) to see that this fact creates an unbreakable bond. For six seasons Raylan tries to arrest Boyd on charges ranging from drug trafficking to bank robbery and murder, but every interaction between the men is underpinned by the fact that they dug coal together. So when the series ends with Raylan visiting Boyd in prison and the line, “We dug coal together,” it’s impossible to ask for a more satisfying resolution to six wonderful years of storytelling.

So why do so many series fail to end even half so aptly? It seems to me, it’s all about knowing where you’re going from the outset. Justified clearly had this ending in mind when it began, and it left the air when this ending was still a possibility. Many shows begin life not knowing where they are headed. BSG leaps to mind, which is ironic since the point of the show was getting somewhere (Earth) very specific. (From what I’ve heard, this is the failing of Lost, which makes me pleased to have never started that show.) But many shows are victims of their own success and continue beyond their planned, and fitting, conclusion. How I Met Your Mother provides a sad example, and I feel joy every time I hear mention of the ending that I broke up with the show in Season 6 or 7. (I honestly can’t remember which.) And I fear this is precisely the fate awaiting The Vampire Diaries. That show is the story of Elena Gilbert and the Salvatore brothers, and I’m not seeing how the series can manage a satisfying conclusion with Nina Dobrev, the actress who plays Elena Gilbert, leaving at the close of this season.

And as so often happens, as I picked apart why I am so pleased with the Justified finale, I started thinking about what I can learn and apply to my own writing. J and I write virtually all our stories in the same universe, but most are individual stories and not continuing series. Even J’s six book chronicle of a seductress and spy is one long story, so TV storytelling doesn’t seem especially useful in this regard. But there is an exception: my Oleg Omdahl books. I’ve written two novels so far in this series, have specifics for two more mapped out, and general ideas for several more beyond that. As a detective series, Oleg Omdahl can continue as long as I have interesting cases for him to investigate. While I am particular about the continuity of these books, and the characters grow and change, they are standalone narratives, so I can write five or fifty novels. Still, some day, it must end.

I have no idea how, though.

Justified has made me see that my series has no hope of a satisfying ending if I do not lay the foundation at the beginning. So when I return to Oleg Omdahl revisions, I am going to give serious thought to where I want him to end. As I see it now, he could end up dead, alone and at peace, alone and miserable, or with one of three women. Whichever it is, I need the reader to be able to pick book one back up and say “Why, yes, the series had to end precisely as it did because of how it began.” I want to write a series that can only end with “We dug coal together.”

(For more on the Justified series finale, let me recommend Alan Sepiwall’s review and other writings about the show.)

~S

You’ll Never Arc Alone

An unpleasant Third Act surprise.

An unpleasant Third Act surprise.

I’m working on the outline for my next project, and it’s going to be pretty complex.  S and I love NaNoWriMo, of course, but after writing a bunch of NaNo-length novels (i.e. about 50,000 words), I feel like trying something a bit longer again.  My NaNo novels usually have two POV characters.  This new book I’m working on will have 60 chapters from eight different points of view, and it will be somewhere around 150,000 words long.  That’s a lot of plot to keep track of, and a lot of characters who need their own, individual storylines.

When you introduce the reader to a character—particularly a POV character—you’re making a promise: “This guy is important.”  More than that, there is what Blake Snyder refers to as “the Covenant of the Arc” in Save the Cat.  You are promising the reader that this guy is going to do something interesting, or is going to change in some interesting way.  You’re promising an arc, in other words.  That’s fairly straightforward when it comes to the hero; his arc is the plot of the story, after all.  If you’ve forgotten to give him an arc, you’ve got serious problems.  But what about minor characters?

The Monomyth model
One way to craft a minor character’s arc is to take one of the common models of character development and apply it to the handful of scenes where the character appears.   If we were talking about the story’s hero or heroine, each one of these points might represent multiple scenes and dozens of pages.  But for a minor character, you can just have one scene for each stage of the arc.  The number of stages in your arc depends on how many scenes this minor character will show up in.  If, for example, the minor character shows up 8 times, you could try to make each one of those scenes correspond to a stage of Phil Cousineau’s “Hero’s Journey

If the minor character shows up even fewer than eight times, you can try to apply one of the more popular models for plot outlines, like the classic Three-Act Structure, so that your minor character at least has a intro, a midpoint, and a climax.  There are other models, though.  Two that I’ve tried using on my latest outline are the 5-act Shakespearean structure and the 4-act structure from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.

The Shakespearean model
Obviously the five acts traditionally cover the entire play, but I’m using them to represent the stages in the development of one of my minor POV characters.  The first chapter from his point of view introduces him and shows his conflicts, problems, and goals.  In his second chapter, he meets people who are trying to stop him.  The third time he shows up, the conflict reaches its height, and he has it out with one of the people who is picking on him.  In his fourth chapter, we see the fallout from that fight.  And in his fifth chapter, he has a final showdown in which he proves that he’s learned something.

The Story Beat-up model
Another model that I’m experimenting with for my minor characters is the 4-part plot structure used by Jeffery Alan Schechter in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.  Basically, he turns the classic 3-act structure into 4 parts by splitting the second act in the middle.  And each one of these four parts, he says, corresponds to a character archetype: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr.

When the character is an Orphan, according to Schechter, he is alone and out of place.  When he is a Wanderer, he is trying to move toward his goal, but can’t quite get there yet.  Then, at the midpoint of the story, he becomes a Warrior; in other words, he takes charge and becomes active.  Finally, in the last act, as a Martyr, he shows that he is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve his goal.

In Schechter’s book, he gives lots of examples, showing how to use this structure for an entire movie script.  In my latest outline, though, I’m using it to give me an idea of what to do with minor characters who only show up a few times.

Here’s an example.  Let’s imagine a story in which Bob and Susan are the main characters.  They have the main storyline; the story is THEIR story.  And the story will end when they live happily ever after, or die tragically in a blimp accident, or whatever.  But let’s imagine a minor character in their story: a bartender they both know named Steve.  Maybe he’s the bartender in the place where they meet for lunch.  Maybe he’s only going to appear four times in the whole story.  So how can we make sure Steve has his own arc?

Steve as Orphan (alone and out of his element):  Bob and Susan meet at the bar, and we’ll assume their story has been going on for a while now.  This scene might be twenty or thirty pages into the book.  It’s only important to Steve, because this is the first time we see him.  They say hello to him, indicate that they know him, and we discover that Steve hates his job and his manager is a jerk.

Steve as Wanderer (trying to figure out how to move forward, but not successful yet): Bob and Susan’s romance has progressed.  They’ve had a few ups and downs, and maybe twenty or thirty more pages have passed.  They go to the zoo on a date, and lo and behold, they run into Steve there.  He’s looking glum and explains he’s been applying for a job there, but he doesn’t think he’ll get it.  His great dream is being a zoologist, but he never finished his degree.

Steve as Warrior (becoming active, taking charge): The story goes on, and Bob and Susan’s romance has reached a crisis.  Bob desperately needs help (perhaps a ride to the airport or something), and the only person he can turn to is Steve.  And because Steve has failed to get a new job, he’s still at the bar, right where Bob can find him.  Steve tells his nasty boss to shove it, drives Bob to the airport, and Bob goes off toward his happy ending with Susan (or their tragic blimp crash).

Steve as Martyr (showing what he’s learned and that he’s willing to give up something): At the end of the story, Steve realizes life is too short to be stuck in a job he hates.  At Bob and Susan’s wedding (or their funeral, if they died on that blimp), he announces he has quit his job.  He’s foregoing safety and stability, and going back to school to finish his PhD, so he can study marmosets in the wild, just like he always dreamed.

So there we go; Steve only appeared four times in the whole book, but he had a little storyline all his own.  When you follow these models, like Schechter’s four-act structure, or the five-act Shakespearean structure, or the eight-act Hero’s Journey, it becomes a little easier to see what the minor characters should be doing.  They’re not just standing around, passively watching the main characters; they’re acting independently and naturally as part of their own small story.  They aren’t the main focus of the novel, of course, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have an arc of their own.

J

Why Are You Telling Me This?

There are actually a lot of good answers to the question: “Why are you telling me this.” I once heard the brilliant (and recently departed) Mike Nichols say “Because it’s funny,” is perfectly acceptable. However, there are just as many wrong answers. I think much of the bloat in fantasy (especially of the doorstop, epic variety) comes from authors reaching the conclusion that if something is cool enough, then of course they should be telling the reader. But that’s really not enough, is it?

An early critique we received from a friend was that she didn’t believe a lot of the things we were telling her early on would ever pay off. She was right an uncomfortable number of times, but it was exactly the sort of thing we needed to hear. Primarily by shedding passages that accomplished nothing worthwhile, we trimmed a 210,000-word manuscript down to 164,000 even while adding a significant character.

Think about some of the movies that had you squirming in your seat and checking your watch. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson.) For instance, the second I saw Radaghast in the first Hobbit movie, I couldn’t understand at all why Peter Jackson was telling me any of that. On the other hand, David Yates and his screenwriter made a big improvement when adapting Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He massively trimmed the opening, which is one of the most tedious sections in a series I do rather enjoy. The book takes 5 chapters and nearly 100 pages getting Harry to Grimmauld Place so he can get caught up via a massive infodump. And what follows that? Over 20 pages of cleaning. Cleaning! Once you have read the book, you can see JK Rowling was hiding something (that I won’t spoil just in case there’s someone who hasn’t read the books or seen the movies) under layers of red herrings. But more than 20 pages of red herrings is not the kind of answer I’m looking for when I ask: “Why are you telling me this?”

So, why am I telling you this now? Because when I sat down today to blog, every idea I came up with sounded boring even to me. All I could envision was the handful of folks who read this blog talking to their computers (or smartphones, tablets, whatever). And each of them said the same thing: “Why are you telling me this?” A writer’s first duty is to tell the reader something worthwhile. That something can be an interesting fact, a new interpretation of an old thought, or the meaning of life. Of course, “Because it’s entertaining,” is a fine something worthwhile, and thank goodness–entertaining is hard enough without having to change the way all of mankind sees the world.

S