Search This Blog

Friday, June 26, 2015

Finding the Story: Recipes for Writing Fiction (Emerald City Comic-Con 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

A square slice of vanilla cake with lemon frosting and a yellow flower sits on a plate with one bite resting on an adjacent fork. The caption reads: "Oh, this? Piece of cake."

Hey! Want to know what's almost as stressful as moving? One's downstairs neighbours moving. Especially when they decide to stay up to all hours partying because they seem to realize, "Hey, we can't be evicted, so let's make as much noise as we want!"

*sigh* I miss sleep.

But rather than me coping by stress-eating (one thing I am *way* too good at) or writing delicious fictional scenarios in my head about how wonderful the new neighbours will be (that too), let's talk about a different sort of cooking. In his talk given at this year's ECCC, author Michael A. Stackpole breaks down several types of plots with simple recipes he's devised over the years.

* * *

Finding the Story
Michael A. Stackpole

It’s important for him to not suffer writer’s block, so he’s developed techniques to find stories. That allows him to stretch himself as a writer. He needs to be able to judge things and then drop a story in. This is a process panel.

Listen, write it down, retain it more.

He reasons to find a story anywhere (since being blocked is frustrating). Because the worst thing you can do for yourself is agonize over being blocked.

If you find yourself blocked, if the story isn’t working and the words aren’t humming, STOP. Do not continue to push. What it means is that you do not know the characters well enough. You made a decision within 3-5 pages before the story dies that the character does something out of character, which is why the story has died.

Technique: Interview your character.
- Ask your character the same questions asked in a celeb interview in a magazine.
- The more you know about your character will inform the character’s unconscious choices.
- (e.g. Seahawks fans wear their team-themed stuff around the city. You know them by their typical default colors, etc.)
- Having these little details, even if they never make it into the story, inform the story. You learn more about your character.
- Can also apply psychoanalytical books to this (like, 4000 things you should ask your crush).
- Write down the answer the character will give, and the answer they truly think.
- How many secrets do they have in their lives, and how far will they go to keep their secrets secret?
- When you need to write a story, there is some drama or trauma in their lives.

Writers are better than anybody else!
- A lot of stories share a lot of plotlines.
- He doesn’t like the word “formula”. He prefers the word “recipe”. Different people will produce different variants on a recipe.
- This is what drives themes for anthologies, too.

Simple Story Recipes

The Bug Hunt
- The most basic story that gets told
1) Learn that the bug exists. (problem) (eg. A wolf has been stealing sheep)
2) Learn how to kill the bug.  (solve the problem) (eg. How to destroy the wolf – the protagonist learns)
3) Develop the skills and resources to learn to kill the bug. (solve the problem) (how to kill the wolf)
4) Kill the bug. (solve the problem) (or, kill the wolf, etc)
- This same four-step engine is the engine that drives every single problem in every story.
- There isn no problem that won’t work though these four steps.
- When we reach step 4, may fail. So go back to steps 2 and 3, lather rinse repeat until 4) is achievable.
- A novel is a series of these breakdowns.
- Usually linked in parallel, dealing with more problems at the same time.
- Sometimes solving this problem gives you resources and skills to solve more problems later.
- Can break any problem down into these steps.
- You always want to challenge yourself, do the more challenging thing.
- Sometimes it’s possible to have a resolution where the bug doesn’t die, but the protagonist finds other solutions. Or it may set up a problem for later in the series.
- False success; failure to kill the bug but you wouldn’t know it. The bug re-manifests. Or the heroes are tasked with killing the dragon and then the land is overrun by the orcs that the dragon was feeding on. Whether you fail to kill the bug and you know it, or you believe you did and you didn’t, that lack of success leads to more story later.

The Romance Recipe
- You want romance in your story.
- If you have characters capable of being loved, they’re capable of being redeemed.
- Having characters go through that is something we love. We love seeing characters getting together.
- If you can fit romance into your story, do it.
1) Boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, etc). Everything seems fantastic.
2) Circumstances force them apart.
- a) either a misunderstanding or
- b) a hostile third party
separates them. (Circumstances force them apart.)
3) The two lovers overcome difficulties and solve the problem to force them back together again. (Characters go through hell to get back together again. Going through hell: finding bugs, killing bugs, etc.)
- You can play with characters’ availability, obligations, partners, misunderstandings and assumptions
- Just don’t repeat the same situation as readers will see that and get annoyed.
- This will fit into any book anywhere.
- You want your characters to have emotional lives. That makes them more real.

The Murder Mystery
- Suspense, solving crime, always some aspect that can be used.
- Modern Murder Mystery
1) Someone dies.
- In old stories you run into all the characters first, all the suspects. Nowadays you just start with a body.
- Your protagonist needs to be on screen or in the story as much as possible.
- The reader needs to make sense of what’s going on, so start with the body being splattered all over the place, crime techs giving the details, hero
- As a reader’s job it’s to predict they know the ending
- The writer’s job is to throw things off and create a surprise ending
- Whatever problem shows up on the first page of the book has to be solved on the last page.
- Can dress up characters so they look like inconsequential chars and become more important and relevant later.
- Don’t toss out insignificant clues.
2) Suspects are questioned, evidence is examined, someone lies, and we learn a new fact.
- A piece of evidence shows that someone is lying. You break down why they lied. But now they’ve told the truth, someone else has lied.
- Go through the “someone is lying, break them down” process until you
3) Detectives learn facts that expose the lie
- Go through steps 2 and 3 quite a number of times.
4) (optional) Someone else dies.
- New witnesses, new clues, new cycles of steps 2 and 3.
5) After you’ve gone through enough, the protagonist knows who did it.
6) The villain is exposed and captured. (Knowing the bad guy’s identity is not the same as exposing the bad guy.)
- Technically this recipe is a more specific type of bug hunt.

With these three storylines, you can do anything.
- Basic bug hunt: about 4K.
- Beginning novelist: Be over 80K and under 120K.
- More experienced novelists: Can write the longer books.
- Electronically self-pubbed: 50K (avg. length of mysteries and sci-fis of old)
- YA: Character should be 2 years older than target audience.
- Adjust sentence length and word length. The average reader reading for pleasure reads at an 8th grade level. Average sentence length should be about 12 words.
- The human memory handles 12 words very well. Add more, and we lose some.
- The moment you hit a comma, it acts as a new sentence.
- When doing action scenes, the average should drop to 8 words per sentence.
- Use commas and conjunctions to stretch a sentence out.
- Longer sentences make the readers work.
- Use characterization to enhance the story.

Serial Fiction (ongoing story arcs)
- Individual episodes, but an overall story arc.
1. Intro (first thousand words): who the story’s about, what the problem is that will be true for the main line of the story. The problem that will be resolved in the main line of the story.
2. Main. (second thousand words continue dealing with the main line of the story).
3. A
4. Main.
5. B
6. Main
7. Main
8. A
9. Main
10. Wrap it up.
- 70% of this story is dealing with the problem only in this individual story.
- The only parts not dealing with this are A and B.
- A: Soap opera material. Stuff about the life of the protagonist. Can use romance as an idea for example. (In the first A meets someone they might be interested in). In subsequent A, develop it a little more. Key to making the soap opera work.
- If A is a positive subplot, B has to be a negative subplot. Car stolen. Romance problem. Character is in trouble.
- The A and B lines carry on to the next story. The next story, you might have the same things, but in the next story the B fills the A slots. Or we can be dealing with a new problem in the next book.
- Doing a push-pull with the character’s life.
- B is good to be distinct from A but it doesn’t matter.
- Key: Never let the soap opera stuff to be more than 30% of the story. If there’s more main, drop in more A & B.
- Otherwise, once it gets to be more, it forces readers to have to have read all the stories. (And yes, you want that, but you don’t want the story to have to make no sense if you haven’t read the previous stories.)
- A can be negative, and B positive, but you have to have one negative and one positive.
- A and B don’t have to be isolated. They can affect each other, work off another.
- You can have bits of A and B surface in Main, but must keep

Final Thoughts
If you are in a position where you are stuck, throw more characters in, do more things, rather than killing. More characters increase the options. Make it more complicated, not less.
Everything must serve the story.

When do you do the check to make sure the story works?
When working on the next draft, set it down for a bit. Then come back. If you’re yawning, fix it.


  1. Thank you! Thank you for sharing this! Your notes from this class were a lot more detailed than mine!

  2. You're welcome, Ashley! Glad to help! :)