Tag Archives: outlining methods for writers

Storybuilder Inc. — Step 4: Character and Setting Profiles

In the last step of Storybuilder Inc., I talked about developing your story into a 3-part outline. Did you manage to capture a unique, gripping end scene then build a bridge to it from an unlikely beginning? If so, then it sounds like you’re growing a good story.

Today I will talk about organizing the characters, settings, and world details that are no doubt taking shape as you knead out your storytelling dough.

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Dealing with the clutter

A story is easy to manage when it’s only one sentence. Even the simple paragraphs that make up your 3-part outline are manageable. But you are going to write more than three paragraphs, and every one of them has to be important.

Fortunately, your story is like a tree. Even though there are countless leaves, they all trace back to the trunk and main branches. You can think of the story’s paragraphs as the leaves. The shoots that bear them are the characters, the main branches are the settings, and the trunk is the premise. And as it grows upward, it grows downward—those oft-forgotten roots also known as world building.

Characters

As tempting as it is, do not write anything about your characters in your outline. Here’s an example to show you why:

Let’s pick on Bob, aka seed #1 from last week. Remember him?

Seed #1: “A depressed marathon runner discovers joy when an injury sees him in the care of the woman who was to blame for his family’s death.”

“Bob” started out as a depressed marathon runner, but when we developed our end—

Bob (the marathon runner) holds Cynthia’s (his nemesis) hand as she dies from her cancer and whispers the words he’s never dared: I forgive you.

—we discovered his name, along with the name of his nemesis, Cynthia.

Then came Bob’s wife and children, when we developed our beginning, and let’s just say when we were writing out the middle we realized Cynthia has a best friend named Sandra who is Mormon and quit smoking ten years ago. Hmm… Sandra, who is the Godmother to the son Bob lost (whose name is Caleb, after his grandfather), and best friend to Jane–Bob’s deceased wife. Just to make things more interesting, let’s decide that Sandra and Jane grew up practically as sisters and were always close, and the reason Sandra quit smoking ten years ago was because her father died of lung cancer and she vowed to never do the same. Oh, and Cynthia is a voracious smoker, and consequently, ever since Jane died, Sandra got to know Cynthia better (Jane dislike Cynthia because she found her conceited) and started up again, and boy is she ever going to feel terrible when Cynthia dies of the same thing her father died of.

Scribble, scribble, scribble. Soon my sheet for the 3-part outline is covered with notes.

If you got mixed up reading that paragraph, imagine how you’d feel trying to pry that information out of your outline. And it only gets worse. What happens when I decide that Jane had blonde hair? That Bob has a zebra tattooed on his upper thigh (remnant of an Africa trip from his youth)?

There are plenty of useful courses, books, and workshops on character profiling, and I’d encourage you to read them to get ideas, but whatever you use, make sure you create your own little sheet for every character. Decide what’s universal (eye color, hair type, facial build, height, age, weight, build, ethnicity, distinguishing marks, etc.) and place them on your sheet. You don’t have to fill them in, but at least for every character you “meet”, you will have those places available to fill in information when the time comes. I like to have a part of the page just for early childhood events, for motives and goals and personality quirks. Because I write fantasy, I usually draw personal sigils or say a bit about their dress style–basically, you make your own rules, just as long as you stay organized.

Settings

The same principle applies to settings. You will want to create your own profile sheets for settings, but there are a few different tricks required to manage them effectively.

This time, I’m going to pick on bounty hunter Steve:

Seed #2:  “When a bounty hunter bent on capturing the bad guys finds out he’s the bad guy everyone’s after, he chooses to forge a new identity and abandon his quest for justice.”

If you remember back to Week 2, Crash Test #4, we’ve tailored this premise not to focus on too many details. Characters are not named; neither are settings. But the ending brings about some more questions:

Steve (the bounty hunter) shoots his best friend (Jim, a.k.a. “Patches”) when he discovers he’s a mole and their whole friendship was a lie. He decides to flee the country he’s been proud of his whole life, disgusted with its hypocrisy.

So, Steve has a country, and he flees his country. Where to? Let’s decide it’s the US (San Diego, California), and when he leaves he sneaks on board a trade ship bound for China. The captain’s a fat short man with a thin, black mustache and he doesn’t speak a word of English, but the lanky, corrupt businessman from Hong Kong does, and that’s what counts. So here we have this vivid end scene taking shape, and a boat to set it on.

Let’s find out a little more about that boat. It’s a giant freight boat that carries fish and corpses. Yep, you read that right (the answer to that puzzle is in the businessman’s profile page). Speaking of which: Captain? Businessman from Hong Kong? Ah, right, time to make a character profile for them—they don’t belong in the setting profile.

Get the idea? Just as it’s important not to clutter your outline with character notes, it’s important not to clutter your setting profiles with character details. Write out what’s important about the settings. (Though you can mention who is met there. Maybe there’s a mute Japanese girl who stays in a one-bunk room next to Steve.) Draw a pictures, floor plans, layouts, schematics. Do research. In the case of your trade boat, you might want to look for real-life cases and add some facts to make it more realistic. You’ll find this gives you ideas too. Research is a great way to develop your settings, and to catch silly mistakes—like, for instance, the fact that the steamboat I originally picked wouldn’t fare well across the Pacific Ocean (nor would Chineses smugglers use one).

World Building

As your story expands, so does world building. It’s there whether you admit it or not, and like characters and settings, world building can be organized too.

Remember Ren?

Seed #3: “An elderly woman discovers her lifelong dream to free her people against an insane king when she worms her way into his court and turns him into her play-thing.”

I think she’s my favorite of the three we’ll be continuing with for our examples. Mad King Burt Left-hand would get quite the profile card, I think, especially when we realize that he’s afraid of birds, and that’s the apparent source of his madness (actually, he’s not insane at all—it’s a ruse to trick the nobles into thinking they have the upper hand). His castle court would be a wonderful setting to develop, and the inevitable nobles who come with it. But what about these nobles? They come from lands afar, right? Even if they just belong to the city, they have to come from somewhere, and when I fill out their profiles I’m going to be putting those details in. Like Lin Lon, the East Ambassador, who wears the traditional Shae (twin pins) on his left sleeve.

I might wonder what Shae are, and what they symbolize, and might know, right away, that they come from the Xialu Dynasty, a symbol of unity when the Six Empires united under the Twin Empresses. But I’m not putting that in the setting sheet for King Burt’s court, nor am I putting it in Lin Lon’s character profile.

The simplest solution is to create a profile for the East Empire. In this, I can jot down any details I might need. Because this story about Ren and the Mad King is set in an imaginary world, we’ll be making nation profiles as the need arises, and nations have things in common, just like characters do: flags, noble houses, government, resources, exports, imports, notable characteristics, history—the list goes on, depending on the story and your imagination.

You might do this with social groups as well. For example, Lin Lon also belongs to a group of supremacists called the Luminaries, who think the intelligent must create a new order to guide the simple-minded. So does Daisy Gerranallo from Pampallinia (in the northeast). We would need a group profile for the Luminaries, and if you find that you have lots of groups, you might want to categorize certain attributes as well: philosophies, oaths, rites, influences, members, and so on.

If you use magic, or magical creatures, you might want to have profiles for magic guilds or different creatures (I have ones for the various types of Unborns and Dread Lord sects in my own story). Fortunately for Ren, Burt’s madness and the plotting poppinjays are the extent of the magic she has to deal with.

It’s all about keeping your roots straight so your story tree has a lot of support as it grows.

One word of caution…

World building, character profiling, and setting sketches are whole universes unto themselves. Spend as much time as you’d like on them, but make sure you’re mindful of the balance between story development and profiling.

A good rule to follow: build the story, and stop to profile only when the story calls for it. You’ll find that once in a while, the story will send you on quite the profiling adventure.

From 3 to 9

Now we’re ready to move to the 9-part outline, which will be next week’s topic for Step 5.

I hope your stories are evolving, and if you’re just joining this week, pick your own pace. These posts will be collected and used as a free online resource on my blog once the series is over.

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Graeme Brown is an epic fantasy author. His first published story, The Pact, is available for KoboKindle, and other ebook formats through Burst Books.

 

You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog, Fantasy Writing Journey.

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Storybuilder Inc. — Step Two: Crash Testing a Premise

Welcome back to Storybuilder Inc.

Last week I talked about a premise and how to make one by connecting to your character. How did that go? I’d love to hear about the characters you connected to when you asked those questions.

Today, with Step Two, I will talk about how to put your premise through some important crash tests before it’s ready to zoom you away into story land.

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Do you really know your premise?

So you’re ready to move to the next step. You asked the 6 questions I recommended, you spent some time sifting through the answers to find the best one, and now you have a statement that tells you about your character, his or her conflict, and what happens as a result of it. Now you’re ready to go. Right?

Possibly. First, there are some tests to take to make sure your story is ready for some of the walls you might encounter.

Crash Test #1: is your premise unique?

There are so many stories. Because there are so many, there’s no way to stop them from overlapping, but you can always give yours a spin. Here is an example of how you might innovate your design:

Hazardous: “A man meets a woman and they fall in love.”

Passable: “A marathon runner discovers his tender side when his recovery from a car accident sees him in the care of his nemesis.”

Ultra safe: “A depressed marathon runner discovers joy when an injury sees him in the care of the woman who was to blame for his family’s death.”

Powerful storytelling is concrete and specific. A good premise is no different. Make sure your story germ isn’t a square, red car, but instead a 16-valve 2013 Honda Civic Sedan with a crystal black pearl exterior.

Crash test #2: Does your character’s conflict have a clear resolution?

Do you know the ending? A good story is an ending, with a gripping beginning and middle to propel you toward it. When you develop your premise, make sure you discover the ending that you want to build toward. If you see a man in a room who decides he must cut his hand off to get free, then ask yourself what would bring him to that point. (If you’ve seen the movie Saw, ten you know the answer to this question. As a fun exercise, try writing that movie as a premise and see what you come up with.)

Hazardous: “A bounty hunter must go out and catch the bad guys.”

(this is just a beginning)

Passable: “A bounty hunter goes out to catch a notorious criminal, only to discover that the criminal is actually him.”

(this is a beginning, with a middle)

Ultra safe: “When a bounty hunter bent on capturing the bad guys finds out he’s the bad guy everyone’s after, he chooses to forge a new identity and abandon his quest for justice.”

(now we know the end)

Crash test #3: Is your premise focused on your character and his or her conflict?

You might have something unique, and you might know the ending, but remember that a premise is about a character, not a city or an empire or a bowl of soup. Readers are pulled into stories that they relate to, especially if they feel like the experience of the character could just as well be theirs.

Hazardous: “A kingdom uprises against a tyrannical ruler and turns him into a puppet.”

Passable: “An woman frees her people against a tyrant king when she worms her way into his court.”

Ultra safe: “An elderly woman discovers her lifelong dream to free her people against an insane king when she worms her way into his court and turns him into her play-thing.”

As the writer, you are going to create characters who your reader will relate to. This means you need a premise that is highly personal and vivid, connecting you to the deepest emotions of your central character and the many other characters he or she is connected to.

Crash test #4: Do you focus on relevant details?

You might know your character’s name. You might know what kind of eyes she has, or what kind of house she lives in. You might know that the final encounter will take place in a wood with a crystal orb called the Veil of Brem that steals three souls for every one it generates. Great! That might help you when you start your 3-part outline. It doesn’t belong in your premise, though.

Hazardous: “The city of Ellanor is great and mighty, with golden domes and snake-tamers, and wonderful conflicts are soon to abound, awaiting the unwary slave girl Ellan Dor, who keeps the city’s only dog hidden under her table (except when he comes out to eat bacon, or scones on Tuesday) and will soon prove to be the key to her success over the underground slave-masters called the J.J.R, because the dog contains a spiritual enchantment that the dictators of the first dynasty tried to eradicate to cement their reign.”

(an elevator pitch that ends in awkward silence for the rest of the ride)

Passable: “An unwary slave girl overthrows her city’s dictator government when she discovers that her dog’s bloodline is enchanted.”

(an elevator pitch that elicits a nod from your prospective agent or editor)

Ultra safe: “When a slave girl discovers her connection to an ancient priesthood, she destroys her nation by becoming the very enemy its leaders subjugated its people to vanquish.”

(an elevator pitch that results in an invitation to submit)

When a premise is loaded with detail, it is easy to miss obvious flaws. If you expect your reader to believe that a dog will defeat tyrant rulers because it has a spiritual enchantment, then you might be in for disappointment. On the other hand, if we trim away all the unnecessary garnish, we realize our premise isn’t very practical. A premise must be unique and interesting, grounded emotionally in a character, and coupled with a resolution, but above all it must be plausible, or your story will go up in a puff of smoke.

Crash test #5: Are your themes implicit?

A good story explores deep themes and bundles up memorable experience with profound meaning. You might realize your story is about ambition vs. humility and the seeming contradiction that the latter is more productive than the former. But as a writer in the day of modern fiction you want your themes to peek from between the lines, not offend your reader with earnest words of their presence.

Hazardous: “The Merchant’s Shop is about power and humility, centred on a craftsman who unintentionally takes on a position of power, while his eldest son’s schemes to supplant the king lead to his beheading, thus invoking the age-old message that true success comes unintentionally, while the ambitious enjoy it only for a season.”

Passable: “A craftsman unintentionally takes on a position of power, while his eldest son’s schemes to supplant the king lead to his beheading.”

Ultra safe: “A humble craftsman is beheaded for treason after he raises a rebellion to stop his son’s attempted usurpation of the throne.”

Themes that are implied deepen your story, making simple actions meaningful. Trimming away descriptions of what your story should invoke forces you to craft actions that show rather than tell, and your reader will thank you for it.

Your spine gets stronger

Last week we talked about your premise as a spine. This week we talked about it as a car. Either way, it will need to withstand many adverse forces. I hope this helped you take the premise you began with and hone it further. You will not have a perfect premise yet, but putting it through these 5 tests will help prepare you for the next stage of storybuilding.

Next week, we will talk about Step Three: the 3-Part Outline.

Keep your evolving stories to yourself it you’d like, or share them here. Feel free to post your progress, and jump in at any time.

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Graeme is an epic fantasy author. His first published story, The Pact, is available for KoboKindle, and other ebook formats through Burst Books.

You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog, Fantasy Writing Journey

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Filed under Graeme's World, Storybuilder Inc. Outlining and Storytelling Process