Browsing the archives for the plotting tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

The Virtuoso Writer’s Cheat Sheet


A year or two ago on Codex, I put out some ideas for a kind of writing checklist, things to keep in mind that tend to be good questions to ask about a successful story. Some good additions and improvements were made, resulting in a very pithy list of questions that I post on my wall, “The Virtuoso Writer’s Cheat Sheet.” The idea is that anyone who can keep all of these things in their head at once and act effectively on them is pretty much a fiction virtuoso. For the rest of us, there are walls and scotch tape.

You may not agree with the implications of every one of these questions, and I hope you won’t think that every question is supposed to apply to every story. For instance, Sauron doesn’t have sympathetic traits, but he makes a pretty decent villain for a fairly popular story.

Regardless, asking myself these questions about my stories in progress or about stories that I’m about to edit is awfully useful to me, and maybe it will be to you, too. If you have a story that’s been rejected a number of times but that you particularly love, you might want to run it through this to see if it turns up any possible flaws or limitations you might not have noticed.

Much of this material is stolen (thank you Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Codex members, Tim Powers, etc.) Comments are welcome.

* Always some kind of conflict or tension?
* Stage directions subtle, but enough to prevent reader confusion?
* Distinctive character voices (diction, topics, vocabulary, personality, etc.)?
* Would a real person talk like this?
* Length of speech logical for the situation?
* Can reader tell who is speaking when?
* Everything said because of what the characters want, nothing strictly for the reader’s benefit?

* Where’s the light coming from?
* Are several senses engaged on each page?
* Is the scene clear from the description alone, without your extra knowledge as the writer?

* Are descriptions specific, sensory, and fresh?

* Conveys character(s); at least a hint of conflict; and setting?
* Originality in first few paragraphs?
* Opening problem, hook, or other draw?

* Not easily confused with the title of another book or story?
* Suggests the kind of story?
* Offers something intriguing or attractive?
* Sets the right tone?
* Easy for one person to pass on to another?

* Satisfying, yet unexpected?
* Resonates with beginning and/or theme of story?

* Has sympathetic traits?
* Actively trying to achieve a goal?
* Realistic motivation?
* Offstage time accounted for?

* Leaving out unnecessary words or phrases?
* Mood and/or foreshadowing conveyed through word choice?
* Tension level conveyed through word size, flow, harsh/soft sounds?
* Active construction wherever possible?
* Use of strong verbs and nouns?
* Minimal use of adverbs and adjectives?
* Avoiding distracting repetitions (rare words only once in a book, non-structure words once in a paragraph or page)?
* Avoiding weak modifiers very, slightly, just, quite?
* Avoiding sensory crutch words like looked, appeared, seemed, heard, sounded?
* Avoiding self-contradictory language (impossibly tall, slightly unique)?

* Struggling with some important flaw?
* Sympathetic, likely to attract the reader?
* Actively trying to achieve a goal?
* If more than one, are they about equally engaging and sympathetic?
* Protagonist the person with the most to lose?
* Acts unusually, and shown in situations that demonstrate it?
Story concept
* Something significant that the reader might care about at stake?
* Both internal and external conflicts present?
* Taking into account reader expecations for genre/subgenre/story model?
* Decent capsule description of story automatically sounds compelling and attractive?
* Something about the story that’s attractive and enticing to readers?
* Character’s goals feel important to the reader?
* Has inherent conflict, or is the conflict just incidental?
* If a standard story type, doing something unique that justifies the story?
* Some elements of this story blow the cool meter?
* Powerful moments that create compelling, unusual images?

* Do mysteries naturally arise in the storyline without artificially withholding information?
* Inciting incident, character response, disaster?
* Driven by character, not author?
* Enough tension at any given moment?

* Taking into account time of day in each scene?
* Describing an actual event rather than summarizing when possible?
* Each scene contributing to the story in at least two ways? (e.g. characterization + tension, immersiveness + stakes, etc.)
* Each scene essential to the story or strengthens/propels it?

* Readers care what happens to them?
* Names easily distinguished from one another?
* Based on an understanding of real people instead of on movies, other books, or stereotypes?
* Any characters who would be more effective if combined into one?
* Each important character has an implied past, friends, family, a job, something they would be doing if the story weren’t happening?

* Chosen POV the most effective for this story?
* If first person, justified by the character having a distinctive voice or special way of seeing things?
* If not omniscient, is POV clear and consistent?
* Are changes in time, place, or POV character clearly tagged as such from the start?
* If multiple POV characters, are the transitions smooth?
* Do POV changes propel the reader on rather than making them start again cold?

* For scientific/tech details, math checked?
* Factual subjects handled accurately from knowledge or research?

1 Comment

That Certain Something


Here’s the apparent job description for “Writer (fiction)”:
Write engaging, vivid stories about compelling characters in interesting situations, structured effectively, that come to a satisfying and interesting ending.

You would think that would be enough, that if you consistently filled those expectations, you would be set and able to consistently sell your writing. And sometimes it is enough: sometimes that satisfies the need. But maybe you’re doing all those things, and your writing still isn’t consistently selling.

Here’s the kind of rejection you get for work like that: “Dear Writer, Thanks for sending me The Great and True Story of a Girl Scout Assassin, but I’m afraid it’s not for me. It was competently written, but it just didn’t have that certain something I’m looking for that raises it above all the other competently-written stories that cross my desk. I wish you the best of luck in finding another home for it. Sincerely, An Editor You Won’t Be Working With”

This is maddening, because it says “you did a good job, but for some reason it still didn’t make it.” Editors talk about stories not rising above the others, of liking them but not loving them, of them not standing out.

So what makes a story rise above its fellows, inspire love, stand out? The intuitive response would be that it does the things we talked about better. The characters are stronger, the plot is more compelling, the description is more vivid. But usually standing out is going to mean something else, and it’s going to differ from writer to writer and sometimes from story to story. The stories that rise above are not just more competent than the stories that don’t, although more competent is always better.

The stories that rise above have multiple, surprising features that hit people where they live. It’s unlikely that some single addition to your (ideally) already competent fiction is going to make it rise above: instead, one feature toward the beginning might make the reader tentatively fall in love (in a Platonic sense) with the character, while another throughout the novel might be a constant source of stifled laughter, and another …

Well, I’m trying to be specific about something that is general, that arises from the special talents of the individual writer. Instead, let me try to offer a list of some of the kinds of things that can make a novel rise above:

  • An exceptionally vivid setting, like Twain’s Mississippi River town of St. Petersburg or Frank Herbert’s Arrakis
  • A character who is fascinating to watch at his or her work, like Tolkien’s Gandalf or Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Frank Abagnale’s self-depiction in Catch Me if You Can
  • An endlessly entertaining voice, like most of Twain’s or Vonnegut’s work
  • An idea that is so rich and fascinating that it helps drive the story and locks the reader in a sense of wonderment that sticks, like Pullman’s daemons or Stevenson’s Jeckyll and Hyde tranformation or Asimov’s Laws
  • Intricate and surprising plotting with secrets and revelations, like Rowling’s entire Harry Potter saga or the movie Identity
  • Painfully important stakes that make the reader desperately sympathetic with the character, like the destruction of the Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
  • A character who inspires an unusual amount of sympathy, like Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Wally Lamb’s Delores in She’s Come Undone
  • A situation that provides wish-fulfillment, like (again) the Harry Potter books or Abagnale’s Catch Me If You Can

There are others, probably many others, but I hope those will suffice for examples.

To successfully offer “that certain something”, there are four things you have to do:

  1. Be strongly competent in as many of the aspects of writing as possible. A few good features will not rescue a fatally flawed or badly-executed story.
  2. Employ not one, but multiple “rise above” features, which could be any number of things
  3. Do all of this in a way that only you can do it, writing with a deep sense of passion for your subject
  4. Make choices in your writing that find opportunities in your readership. (Tolkien had to find the concept of the One Ring highly compelling, but if the idea didn’t resonate with so many readers, it wouldn’t have flown.)

I don’t claim to have mastery of rising above, or even that all stories that rise above do so in the ways I’ve talked about. There’s not even always a clear line between great competency and transcendence. But my key point, I hope, will be of some use to you: a good story is all very well, but what features in your writing set that good story ablaze?

No Comments

%d bloggers like this: