Archive for the ‘writing exercises’ Category

This week’s Writing Excuses was about conveying world-building information without resorting to infodumps. Intrusive explanations are one of my pet writing hates, so it was good to hear these professional writers’ tips on how to get it right.

The exercise of course fits the subject:

Take a spec gee-whiz, and have something go wrong with it. Write a scene in which the main character must deal with the problem. Communicate each of the following:

  1. How it works
  2. What it looks like
  3. The main character’s relationship to it

I’m going to try out a piece of sci-fi tech. It’s not exactly a new idea, but it’s one I’m planning on using in a story soon, so it’ll make a good warmup.

Casey’s Face

A twinge ran through Casey’s cheek, putting her immediately on edge. There were only two things that could have caused it. Discounting nervous ticks, to which she had never been prone, there was only one.

Another twinge, and then another. A woman passing her on the pavement gave her a curious look but kept on walking.

Putting her hand to her face, Casey felt the fake flesh of the mask sagging beneath her fingers. Trying to remain calm, to avoid drawing attention and blowing her cover, she ducked into a café, hand still pressed to her face, and hurried to the bathroom at the back. Bolting the door behind her, she stared into the mirror above the sink.

The left side of her face was still fine, showing the features of the anonymous government clerk she had been imitating for the past month. But on the right side, vat-grown muscles were sliding away, revealing their wire frame and, worse yet, parts of her own face.

Hastily, she took the slim control box from her pocket, almost dislodging the wire concealed along her neck. She hit the reset button and the left side of her face reverted to the mask’s blank-faced factory default. But the right remaining a lumpy, fallen mess.

So How Was That?

I didn’t feel like this exercise pushed me much. Because of what I write, and because I hate infodumps, I tend to write this sort of thing a lot. Of course that doesn’t mean I do it well, so let me know, how was that short scene? And if you’ve had a go at this exercise, how did you get on?

bookdesign346Writing Excuses continue to provide excellent writing advice and interesting exercises through their podcasts. And so I keep beavering away at the exercises, and where possible using them for work in progress. This week, I’m working on book three of the Epiphany Club series, Aristocrats and Artillery, using the exercise from episode 10.19:

Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

This dialogue is between Isabelle McNair, adventurer and scholar with the Epiphany Club, and Louis, the King Under Paris. Prussian forces are invading France, Napoleon III has been overthrown, and the war is approaching Paris…

The Dialogue

“Your Majesty.” Isabelle curtsied before the King. “So good of you to see us again at this difficult time.”

“Indeed.” There was a secretive little smile at the corner of Louis’s mouth. “The Prussians draw ever closer, and we both know that a republican government cannot stop them.”

“A situation which only makes my plea more urgent.” She rose and looked him in the eye. “Paris is full of priceless artefacts, sources of knowledge that might be endangered by the war.”

“Or by the ignorance of the Prussians.” Louis nodded. “Take this for example.”

He drew back the cloth on the table next to him, revealing a stone tablet. A tablet like the two in Isabelle’s room back at the hotel, packed and ready to depart. This time he favoured them all with his knowing smile.

“To some it just looks like a rock.” The King ran a finger across the engraved surface. “But to persons of learning it could be a source of great knowledge.”

“Indeed.” Isabelle’s voice remained remarkably calm. “We should ensure that it is safe.”

“We should ensure that the whole city is safe from the invaders. And for that I need all the support I can muster.”

“You will need supporters abroad.” Isabelle made a small gesture with her hand, taking in all three members of the Epiphany Club. “People with influence in foreign governments. Respected organisations that can quickly win diplomatic support for your regime.”

“And I would reward such friends greatly.” The King smiled and pulled the cloth back across the stone. “Once my city and my country are secure.”

Did It Work?

So, readers, what did you think the characters’ motives and subtexts were in that conversation? Is it clear, incomprehensible, actually a little too obvious? Please let me know how I’ve got on.

bookdesign346Doesn’t time fly when you’re writing? It’s May already, and Writing Excuses are a third of the way through their year-long podcast writing course. I still feel like I’m learning a lot from it, and recommend it anyone who’s into writing, especially writing sf+f.

This week’s exercise is:

Pick your gee-whiz, whatever it may be, and describe it in 150 words from ten different perspectives. Yes, that’s 1500 words.

I suppose the biggest gee-whiz factor in my Epiphany Club stories is the steampunk technology, so I’ve picked a moment involving this from the third book, which I’m currently working on. Here’s the emergence of a Prussian tunnelling machine into the streets of Paris, from five points of view (because I only half did the exercise):

Dirk Dynamo

The rumbling grew to a roar, the ground shaking beneath Dirk’s feet. He flung himself to the ground as the road in front of him exploded in a shower of dirt and fist-sized stones.

Out of the hole a vehicle emerged. It was unlike anything Dirk had ever seen before, but it was a moment’s work to see it was built for war. Seven feet high and three times as long, it was covered from end to end in heavy armoured plating, scraped from its journey through the earth. Great wheeled shovels protruded from the front, and small wheels propelled it into the street.

Dirk thought he had seen the future of war in the bloody fields of Gettysburg, but in that single moment he knew he had been wrong. Humans were far smarter than that. Smarter and more terrible.

Timothy Blaze-Simms

As the dirt settled, Blaze-Simms stared at the machine sitting in front of him. His eyes went wide with wonder, a smile lighting his face.

He had considered devices like it in the past, of course. Trackless trains, motorised wagons, that time he’d built a mobile factory. But this was something entirely new.

He pulled out his notebook and started frantically sketching. The armoured plating was clearly thick to withstand bullets, yet streamlined so as not to cause obstructions as it travelled through the dirt. The digging wheels looked to have been influenced by moles’ paws, as well as some of Brunel’s wilder inventions. The engine must be incredibly powerful, and most of the space filled with fuel.

A hatch opened in the roof. A glimpse of its fastening was all Blaze-Simms needed to make a note of the design. Someone was emerging, a gun in their hands.

“Get down!” Dirk slammed into him, knocking him to the ground as bullets whizzed past their heads.

Isabelle McNair

It was quite the ugliest thing Isabelle had ever seen. An ungainly mass of steel, smoke billowing from its rear and dirt sliding from its sides. The roar of its engine was accompanied by the grinding of ridged wheels over cobbles, the clang-clang-clang of its shovel wheels spinning against the street.

Stepping back into the shelter of a doorway, she watched as a hatch opened in the roof and soldiers started pouring out, guns already barking as they opened fire on anyone in sight. Because of course, what else would one do with a spectacular new advancement in transport, if not fill it full of soldiers?

She could imagine the excitement of the men who had made this thing, and of those riding in it. They would be like children with a new toy.

Still there was potential in the thing, if she could just get inside.

Hans the shoveller

Hans grunted as he flung another shovel-full of coal into the boiler. They told him this wasn’t just coal, it was something special, something powerful. Hans didn’t care. It was all just the same when you were the man who did the shovelling.

The floor tilted beneath him. He grabbed hold of the overhead rail as the whole vehicle swayed and then righted itself. The floor was horizontal again. That probably meant they were above ground.

Sparks flew at the disruption, smoke clogging the room and Hans’s lungs. He coughed, a wretched, rasping noise that had only gotten worse through all the weeks of training.

Join the army, they’d said. Fight for the homeland, they’d said.

So much for glory. Hans shifted his grip and kept shovelling coal.

Miura Noriko

The machine crawled down the street, smoke billowing from its rear, soldiers jogging along beside it with guns drawn. They looked ill-disciplined to Noriko, their blue suits impractical, their stances slovenly. Not real warriors.

The machine would be easy prey. It was so European she almost laughed. Bigger, harder, tougher, that was the way of westerners. Cover your machine in enough armour plates and you would make it invincible. Unless you left a hole in the top to come in and out by, or an open pipe to release the fumes. Everything had its weak points, even this.

Still, there was something admirable about it. A thing singular in purpose, all that engineering poured into the single task of digging through the ground. By the standards of these people it was almost subtle, to emerge from the ground beneath your enemy’s feet.

Almost.

Reflecting on the Exercise

The main thing I got out of this was that I’m not clear on what the biggest gee-whiz excitement factor for these books is, except in the last volume, the climax of a hunt for the lost Great Library. Purely from the point of view of getting people excited about the story, I need to think about that.

Writing a scene from different viewpoints is always helpful though, and adding Hans in particular made me look at this in a different way.

Have you tried this exercise? What did you think?

* * *

On a completely different note, today’s the last day my book From a Foreign Shore is free on Amazon, so if you like historical fiction, alternate history, short stories or just my writing, why not check it out?

bookdesign345Writing Excuses 10.16 was, as is often the case, a really good episode. Talking about the importance of the first few lines of a book in drawing readers in, they provided the usual mix of top advice and interesting points to consider. If you’re not a regular listener (which if you write you should be) I particularly recommend this one.

This week’s exercise was:

Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.

In keeping with the advice from the show, I’ve taken one of the beginnings I wrote two exercises ago and adapted that. Based on useful feedback in the comments from Ben and Sheila, I’m using my third beginning, which gets quickly into the characters and plot. You can look at the previous exercise to see the original version. Now for the new one…

My New Beginning

Night was falling as the hot air balloon crossed the Prussian siege lines and reached the walls of the Red Castle. Two teenagers in livery gawped at the steam motor as they took the ropes from Dirk Dynamo and secured the balloon to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt down onto the stonework and assessed his surroundings by the light of burning torches. One hand lay on his holster, ready for whatever trap Isabelle had prepared.

Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled excitedly out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

An elderly servant in a tailcoat held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

What I’ve Done

So what did I do there to try to add extra leads into this story, which will be the fourth in my Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware?

The most obvious thing is in the first line. A big part of the plot and atmosphere of this book revolves around the castle being besieged by a Prussian army. I’ve added that in the very first line, and in future revisions I might also use that to tease out hints at Dirk’s military background.

I’ve added a motor to the balloon to hint at the steampunk genre that’s part of these books – together with the already present rattling gears and gadgets, I hope that sets the right tone.

Speaking of tone, I’ve tried to build up the action and suspense side of both the story and Dirk’s character through the way he behaves coming off the balloon. He’s not just looking, he’s assessing for danger. His hand is on his gun. This is an action hero expecting trouble.

The same lines let me introduce the conflict with Isabelle McNair, who Dirk was previously working with. The story’s other main plotline, and the main one for character development, is there straight away.

Some of the character attitudes and setting were already present. The servant’s formality and disdain for Americans, which creates instant conflict with Dirk. The castle setting. Dirk leading the way as Blaze-Simms bumbles along behind him. I’m pleased with what I’ve added. In some ways I’d like to get more in there, but I was concerned about things getting bogged down. I’ve even trimmed down some of the prose to avoid that.

What do you think? How does this work as an opening? And if you’ve read the previous version, is it an improvement or have I just made a mess – these things do happen. Leave a comment, let me know, and if you’ve done this exercise then please share how you got on.

Oh, and if you like the look of these characters then the first in the series, Guns and Guano, is free from most places you can get ebooks, including Amazon.com.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionAs has become the norm, for this Tuesday’s post I’ve had a go at the latest Writing Excuses exercise, to sharpen my writing skills and hopefully inspire others to give these exercises a go. This week’s exercise was provided by a guest on the show, Wesley Chu:

take something that you’ve already written, swap the personalities of your protagonist and antagonist, and re-write a scene from the story.

I’m under some time pressure this week, so I’m not going to write a full scene, just think about how this role reversal would work in one of my stories – ‘Shadows, Stones and Hungry Ghosts’, from my collection By Sword Stave or Stylus.

The Original Situation

‘Shadows, Stones and Hungry Ghosts’ stars First Swift Footstep, a criminal in a fantasy setting influenced by China and Japan. The story depicts his interrogation by a nameless authority figure, which leaves First Swift Footstep haunted by what may be a spirit or may be a figment of his imagination.

In this original set-up, First Swift Footstep is a chancer and an opportunist. He’s fidgety and somewhat nervous, plagued by his own doubts. He’s willing to cross legal and ethical boundaries where it’s in his best interests.

The interrogator is a figure of calm and stillness. Educated, connected and rooted in the traditions of their country, he understands how to use small gestures to his advantage. It’s his infinite patience, as much as First Swift Footstep’s impatience, that becomes the thread of their confrontation.

Reverse the Polarity!

So what happens when I switch these two around?

Now we have a protagonist and prisoner who is calm and patient, able to resist the techniques used on him by an interrogator desperate for results. Instead of seeing the prisoner slowly worn down, we would see his resisting a range of different approaches to interrogation, up to and including torture – after all, our new interrogator is happy to cross that line. Ultimately, it’s still a story about how much one man can endure, but it’s about external pressures, not internal ones, and the through line is one of resistance to a dark change, not growing insight.

Reflecting on the Exercise

I think that, if I’d looked at another of my stories, this exercise might have created something more interesting. As it is, the reversal makes a story that’s more mundane and less interesting. Though I am fascinated by the character of the new, impatient interrogator, and think he could have a lot of use in a future story, by making the calm, patient, almost flawless man the centre of the story, I end up with a less interesting protagonist.

If you’d like to read the original story, By Sword, Stave or Stylus is free on Amazon today. And if you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or have tried it yourself, please share your thoughts in the comments – I’m always interested in what other people make of these exercises.

It’s that time of the week again, time to delve into the latest Writing Excuses writing exercise. If you’re not already familiar with these, Writing Excuses is an excellent podcast in which four pro genre authors discuss how to write, and I’ve learned more about writing from this show than from any other source.

This week’s exercise:

Take the reverse engineered outline from a month ago, and move a side plot to the main plot.

This is an interesting way to see how focusing on different plots affects the structure of a story. I have to confess, I made a slightly half-arsed job of that previous exercise, looking at the first five pages of a Transmetropolitan comic. Still, I can do this exercise, and maybe take it a little further than last time.

Back to the City

The plot I looked at was issue six of Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s sci-fi comic Transmetropolitan, ‘God Riding Shotgun’. Transmetropolitan follows the angry and often hilarious adventures of journalist Spider Jerusalem, who at this point in the story shares an apartment with his assistant Channon. I identified two plotlines – the main being Spider getting in the face of organised religion, and the sub-plot being about his relationship with Channon.

Turning this around, we would start on page one with Spider and Channon having a conversation, instead of Spider writing an article on religion. We get to see Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it – the status quo – but the focus is on their relationship, not Spider’s work. Spider can still look crazy, and it should probably still feature an anecdote illustrating how weird their future city is, because that’s about establishing character and setting.

Now instead of getting sidelined into showing their relationship on page two, the conversation instead evolves into something about religion, introducing that plotline. Pages three and four take them out of the apartment to go to the religious convention which, in the comic, they get to somewhat later. We’re moving that plot along early on while leaving the other to bubble along in the background.

Which means that on page five, with the characters wandering around the religious convention, we see Channon learning about something objectionable Spider’s done to her and getting angry about it. Probably not what time he’s woken her up – as this is now the main plotline it needs more force. In fact, the convention and its weird religions would now trigger the revelation, subplot helping main plot along. They get into a heated argument in the middle of the convention. The main confrontation is being set up.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Stepping away from page by page detail, it’s interesting to consider how this changes the tone of the plot. In the original, we get a melancholy conversation and reconciliation between the characters midway through, as the subplot between them is resolved, and the comic ends with Spider trashing the convention in spectacular, angry style. We travel through emotional depth to an entertaining showpiece finale.

With the plots reversed, the comic hits the height of excitement and spectacle midway, with Spider making his fuss and probably getting thrown out of the convention. It’s then in the aftermath that we get into the emotional beats of the two characters’ situation, and they reconcile over their shared views on life. That leaves the reader with a very different feeling at the end – a combination of fuzzy and melancholy rather than amused and indignant. It’s a very different experience.

What Did I Get Out of This?

Despite working from the wobbly foundations of my previous work, I found this exercise really useful. It’s made me think about how I want the overall emotional flow of stories to go, and how I can rearrange plotlines to support that. It’s also made me realise that I should spend more time properly studying and rethinking other people’s writing, to get better at my own.

Anyone else done this exercise? How did you get on? And if you haven’t, what stories have you re-written in your head, and what did you change? Come on, you can own up, we’ve all wished for the happier ending from time to time.

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

This week’s Writing Excuses podcast was a Q&A on story structure, talking about different approaches to structure and how to get the most out of them. This ‘pick the best bits’ approach fits well with the exercise they gave at the end:

Make a list of all the awesome things you want your story to accomplish. Then put them in the order in which you want them to happen.

As with the previous exercise about plotting with the beginning and end in mind, I’m going to use this exercise to help me develop a novella I’m planning, Sieges and Silverware. The fourth in a series, this sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification. Major plotlines include a dispute with their former colleague Isabelle McNair, a siege of the castle, a mad scientist on the loose and some covert feminism in an age run by men.

Making it Easy for Myself

If I was working with pen and paper, I’d have to brainstorm all my ideas, then write them out again in order. Thanks to the magic of the digital age I can put them in order as I come up with them, and edit that order if I’m not happy with it. So what you’ll see is the end result.

Hooray for computers!

Plot Away

My list of awesome things, in order:

  • Dirk getting lost in the crazy layout of the castle.
  • A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.
  • A monster hunt through the darkness of the castle dungeons.
  • An argument that addresses the problems for women in gaining influence in Victorian society.
  • Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.
  • A small band of heroes fending off a massive assault.
  • A discussion on the nature and value of nationalism.
  • The discovery of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
  • Ninjas vs Prussians.
  • Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.
  • A desperate airship or balloon flight from the castle as it is captured.

All the Cool Bits

Theoretically, I can see a lot of value in this exercise as a way of starting plotting without losing your enthusiasm for a project. It lets you focus on all the coolest things you want to write, and then turn those into something at least a bit coherent and useful.

But for me, in this instance, it’s proved less useful. I came up with a few interesting things, like the Carry on up the Khyber style dinner party. But whereas the first few volumes of this series were about throwing in lots of new cool ideas, by this point the story is about developing and paying off the stuff that’s already in there. I suspect that cool ideas will emerge from the structure, not the other way around.

It’s fitting with the discussion from the podcast. Not every approach to structure is for everyone, and you use the ones that suit you.

Did you try the exercise? How did you get on? And how do you go about structuring stories? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.

bookdesign345This week’s episode of the excellent Writing Excuses podcast set an interesting challenge in preparation for next month’s focus on beginnings:

Decide on the promises you want to make to your readers in your story. Then outline according to those promises.

The folks at Writing Excuses have talked a lot about the importance of the promises the beginning of a book makes. As a writer, you need to be aware of these promises, and pay off on them at the end, to leave readers satisfied. For more on this I’d recommend checking out some of their episodes on story structure.

Sieges and Silverware

For the exercise, I’m going to do some plotting for the fourth book in the series of Epiphany Club novellas I’m working on. I’m doing this because I need to start planning it anyway, so I might as well use the Writing Excuses exercises for that. With the first two books now at the editing stage and the third one part written, this is the one to get my planning teeth into.

I also find that I’ll put more effort into an exercise if I’m going to use the outcome – hence the use of previous exercises to help plan my Friday flash stories.

Entitled Sieges and Silverware, this story sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification.

Plotlines and Promises

To work out what promises to make at the start of the story, I need to know how I’m planning to end it. The biggest plotlines, and where I want them to end, are:

  1. Following a parting of ways at the end of the previous book, I want to see Dirk and Blaze-Simms get back to cooperating with their former colleague in adventure Isabelle McNair, who currently has the clues they need to find the Library.
  2. This castle isn’t going to be able to hold out against the Prussian forces besieging it. In the end, it falls.
  3. The lord of the castle has been carrying out horrifying mad science experiments, and the story will end with his defeat, so that the heroes get a win.
  4. The lady of the castle has had her husband locked up and been running the place. This plotline addresses an issue bubbling along in all these books, and especially Isabelle’s character arc – the challenge for women of taking control of their lives in a male-dominated society. So I want to end with Her Ladyship moving on to something else, not defining herself in terms of the castle and marriage she was pushed into at a young age.

There are other plots too, but those are the main ones. So, if I want them to end that way, what are the promises I want to make for each plot?

  1. That the tension between Isabelle, Dirk and Timothy is going to be a major problem, and that the guys will deal with what they see as her betrayal.
  2. That we’re going to see this siege through to the end.
  3. That we’re going to find out what’s behind the strange monsters prowling the castle.
  4. That we’re going to see what’s going on behind the scenes of this castle, because the lady is being evasive about what’s keeping her husband from meeting the heroes.

MICE Don’t Squeak

There’s another implied promise to be addressed – Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. Is this a story whose structure is about Milieu (a setting), an Idea, Character, or Event.

Though they’ll all feature, and different plots are more focused on different aspects, I think this is primarily an Event story. It’s about Dirk and Blaze-Simms’s attempt to retrieve what they want from a castle under siege. So it needs to start as close as possible to the disruption of the event starting, and end as close as possible to its resolution.

That’s easy enough. I can start with them arriving by hot air balloon just as the siege begins, and end with them leaving the same way, with what they came for.

What Goes Into the First Chapter

That being the case, I now have a good idea of what my first chapter will look like.

It starts with the heroes arriving by hot air balloon at the castle, where they believe Isabelle is. There they meet her and Her Ladyship, and find that they’ve combined forces. They ask to speak to the lord of the place, but can’t get straight answers on that. As all of this is happening, Prussian forces arrive to demand that the local region join the newly unified Germany, and Her Ladyship refuses, triggering the siege. Just as they’re trying to work out what to do about all this, a body of a servant is found, ripped to shreds.

Hopefully you can see how I’ve set up all the plot threads there, creating an implied promise that they’ll be addressed. When I come to write the chapter I’ll plan it in more detail. For now though, I have the previous volumes to edit, and I’ve rambled on enough here.

What are your thoughts on how to start a story, and how to get the promises right? Have you tried this exercise? Have you noticed the promises in the books you’ve read? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Boy, I'm glad that's not ominous.

Boy, I’m glad that’s not ominous.

There are a lot of different ways you can use randomisation to inspire writing. Phillip K Dick famously used the I Ching to guide him in writing The Man in the High Castle. I’ve dabbled with story dice and flicking through books to pick a word or picture. And this week podcast Writing Excuses used the I Ching both to generate questions and to create a writing prompt.

The Exercise

Randomly generated using the I Ching, this week’s writing prompt is:

Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen, the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty. Who will win the golden crown of glory? Among them all, only the peony stands out.

For me, creativity requires structure as well as chaos. To give this prompt a bit more structure, I decided not to use it to generate something from scratch, but to build on a story idea I’m already working on for this week’s flash Friday piece.

My starting place for the story was inspired by my friend Marios, who was talking about people having to present their academic theses on human skin – more specifically their own skin. It’s an intriguingly grizzly idea, and one that puts limits on what the characters write too. But beyond that high concept, I’ve got nothing for the story. Lets see what this prompt gives me.

Flowers and Competition

The obvious thing is the flowers. My character’s academic field is going to be botany. That opens up potential to look at strange, fantastical plants and their uses.

Conflict is also clearly present in that I Ching passage. The flowers are competing for the one place of high status. I’m going to transfer that dynamic onto the academics of my story. We have two botanists competing for a top prize, job or bursary. Only one can win through the glory of their work. Who will it be?

So, with two minutes’ thought, this random prompt has given me my conflict and some information about both my characters – I doubt I’ll have space for more than two in this flash story. That’s pretty good going.

The Joy of Chaos

I think that these random idea generators work so well at times because they give us rough edges to generate ideas off. The ideas we dream up can sometimes be neat but without the complex or contradictory details that bring stories to life. Randomness adds that.

Do any of you have favourite random idea generators? What are they, and how helpful are they?

And of course you can come back on Friday to see how this story pans out.

Picture by Payton Chung via Flickr creative commons.

Spider Jerusalem - a writer's writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Spider Jerusalem – a writer’s writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Last week, podcast Writing Excuses reached story structure in their year long writing course. The exercise for this episode was:

Take a favorite piece of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.

I’m not going to do this one in huge depth. It’s an exercise you could potentially keep working at indefinitely, and I’m a bit strapped for time. So I’m going to have a look at what’s happening, and what’s being promised, in the first few pages of one of my all time favourite comics – issue 6 of Waren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s science fiction series Transmetropolitan, a story called ‘God Riding Shotgun’.

Page 1 – Bring on the Crazy

The first page is a splash page – a single large image of journalist Spider Jerusalem typing a rant about religion while dressed in a fake beard, a tin foil halo and a robe made from a stolen bedsheet.

The promise it’s setting up is obvious – in this issue we’re going to see Spider’s take on religion. And because Spider can’t write about anything without getting in people’s faces, that means he’s going to end up fighting, verbally or physically, with priests.

But there’s something else as well. The story Spider is writing involves a taser-wielding priest of the Official Siberian Church of Tesla. This indicates that religion has got pretty weird in Spider’s city, and sets up the expectation of more weirdness to come.

Page 2: Subplot Time

Page two sees Spider waking up his assistant Channon, who isn’t happy at the disturbance. The religious angle is temporarily set aside to set up another plot thread – developments in the relationship between Spider and Channon.

This issue sees a turning point, in which the usually abrasive Spider breaks down his assistant’s defensives and is then forced to admit that he’s been acting like a jerk. This page sets that up by showing the status quo we’ll be moving away from – Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it.

Pages 3 and 4: Pick a Fight, Any Fight

On page three, Channon realises that Spider, high as a kite, has woken her up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a way of throwing in a conflict early on to keep things exciting, giving the issue’s main plot time to develop more slowly, and promises future friction between these two characters.

It also moves along the sub-plot about their relationship – the status quo is disrupted by Channon arguing back.

The end result, for now, is Channon questioning how much longer Spider’s body can take the abuse he’s giving it with drugs and lack of sleep. In terms of the series, this is foreshadowing a problem further down the line by pointing out to the reader that their might be a downside to Spider’s wild lifestyle.

Page 5: And Now The Main Action…

Page 5’s central point is a conversation about the huge number of new religions springing up in the city, and ends with Spider demanding that Channon find him churches. The conflict with religious representatives promised on page one is now about to turn into action. The drug-addled journalist is going to go out into the world and find, or make, a religious story. It’s the turn that leads us into the plot proper.

Understanding What Other Writers Do

This exercise made a change from the previous ones, in which I got to be creative. Even just doing it briefly, it helped me to understand what Ellis was doing structurally in building this story, and so to think about how I could use similar tricks. The early conflict in the sub-plot to buy time for the main plot was a particularly neat touch.

If I have time later I might come back and analyse the rest of this issue, because this was interesting and I love reading Transmetropolitan, in all its foul mouthed and angry grandeur.

Anyone else had a go at this exercise, or feel like giving it a try now? Just have a think about the chapter you’re reading or the program you’re watching and see if you can work out what’s going on structurally. Let me know how you get on – share your results or a link to them below. It’ll be interesting for me to see what others got from this.