Category Archives: Documentation

Defining The Rules Of Your World

globe

Worldbuilding is the process of developing a setting for your story, mostly by gradually revealing that setting to the reader.

Even if your story takes place in present-day Earth, there may be things about the setting that will be unfamiliar to the majority of your audience. Maybe you’re writing about a foreign country or culture, for instance.

Outside of present-day Earth, things get more complex. With historical fiction, for instance: you’ll want to do your research, then figure out how important historical accuracy is for your purposes. Some people want their historical setting to be accurate down to every detail, while others just want the “flavor” of some bygone era.

With a fantasy/sci-fi setting, you’re free to make up anything you want! On the downside, you’ll have to explain that entire setting to your audience, and you’ll have to do it gracefully. Most people don’t want to read whole chapters or books about the setting before being allowed to read the story itself (I’m looking at you, Tolkein!).

When planning your setting, it’s up to you just how detailed you want to get- and really, you can get very detailed. Some people go so far as to invent new languages and laws of physics! But for most of us, that’s overkill. Here are some broader details to consider as a start:

    • A rough timeline of important events and people that explain how the setting got to be what it is
    • Politics
    • Law
    • Religion/mythology
    • Education
    • Economy
    • Technology level, and rough ideas of how fantastical items (ex. ray guns) work
    • How magic and other paranormal abilities work (if they exist)
    • If any alien races/creatures, a rough idea of how they evolved and came to be what they are
    • Culture
    • Geography and climate

This is certainly a TON of detail. But you’ll want to think carefully about it, and document it all in its own special place, because you need a reference manual for your setting. This is often referred to as a “bible.” Your story has to obey the bible at all times, or else you risk plot-unraveling inconsistencies that readers will call you on.

These rules are even more important to document if you intend to base several stories in the same setting.

Here’s another maddening thing about worldbuilding: you may get really excited about the setting you come up with. You may feel tempted to proclaim to the world every last detail- but that’s an urge you must resist. When you get to story-writing, sneak details to the reader on an as-needed basis, and do as much SHOW as possible (for instance, instead of having a character lecture about magic, have a character go through the process of casting a spell).

OK! So much for documentation and story pre-planning. Here are the other docs I’ve discussed previously. Once they’re ready, get drafting!


Outlining: The Key To Finishing That Story

girlatsunset

So, one day you’re going along your business when BOOM! It hits you: a great idea for a story! Awesome! Full of excitement, you launch right in, with tons of momentum behind you. Entire chapters fly from your fingertips!

…then, about 50 pages down the line, it all peters out. The motivation goes away. Ideas dry up. You’d rather barf than return to that hideous thing. What were you thinking?

Your work in progress gets deleted, or shoved aside for “later.” (Which in all likelihood means “never.”)

This happens with your next story idea too. Then the next one. What the hell is wrong with me? you might ask. Why can’t I finish anything?

The thing is, that initial spark of an idea is usually insufficient to get a whole story written, especially a long one. That’s because there’s a big difference between having a cool idea and having a full story mapped out from beginning to end.

If you keep petering out on stories, then maybe you’re just not a seat-of-the-pants type writer (also known as “pantser”). Maybe you should open your heart to the idea of outlining first, writing second.

Outlining is about defining the full sequence of events in the story. You’ll start very basic, then gradually get more specific, always asking yourself, “What happens next?” and “How will my characters react and respond?”

When you’re done, you’ll have full chapters and scenes defined. This is the roadmap you’ve been needing to guide you all the way through your writing journey.

Granted, the specifics are the real bitch. You know your hero saves the day, but for the love of Pete, how? It’ll take a lot of thought, possibly some hair-pulling. But, if you can map all that out- along with all your character-related planning- the actual writing part becomes (relatively) easy. You’ll know what to write, and just have to worry about good implementation.

That’s not to say that surprises don’t happen during drafting. You’ll constantly have better ideas and new takes on things. That’s great, roll with it! Don’t fight it- even if it means (gasp!) retooling your original outline.

Now that you have an outline and notes on character baselines, arcs, and relationships, you’re totally ready to go, right? Nope! Worldbuilding! Where’s the worldbuilding…?


Friends and Foes: Stay Track Of Who’s Who With Relationship Tracking

handshake

All right! Let’s assume you’re plotting your characters for a full-length novel. You’ve used the character sheet to form a baseline idea of where everyone comes from and what they’re capable of. You’ve plotted out character arcs to figure out how the story’s plot is going to affect each character, and how they’ll react in turn.

As you might realize while arc-plotting, these characters don’t exist inside glass bubbles, totally separate from other characters. They (gasp!) interact with one another in various ways. They might make beautiful music together- or, claw each other’s eyes out. How do you know? You don’t, unless you take some time now to think over and plot the progression.

You’re going to identify the most important relationships in your story (ex. Bob and Diane). Then, in a fresh word processing document or notebook, you’re going to spend a few paragraphs detailing the arcs of their relationships:

  • Do these characters know each other prior to the story’s events? If so, how?
  • At what points in the story do they interact?
  • What is their interaction/dynamic like at these each of these points? Respectful, friendly, abusive, etc.? Take their personalities, goals, and history (if any) into account.
  • How does their relationship change during the course of the story (if at all)? Why does this happen?

A lot of these details may, and should, be for your own information only. They won’t appear in the story at any point, and you shouldn’t feel compelled to jam them in. For instance, if two characters have known each other for 15 years prior to the story, chances are you’re not going to painstakingly detail those years of interaction. However, you need some idea of what went on during that time to best determine what the characters’ dynamic is like now.

It’s your job to make that dynamic come alive to the reader. If you don’t know why two characters would do anything for each other, or why two characters have put aside stark differences to cooperate, you may have a harder time selling it.

That’s not to say you have to know every little thing that’s ever happened to these characters- but the more you know about them, the better you understand them, and can weave that understanding into your prose.

So, why write all this down? A few paragraphs per relationship? That’s pages of writing right there! Some writers just “know” their characters top to bottom, in their hearts. That’s sufficient, right?

For some of us, maybe. If you’re dealing with a short story and a tiny cast of characters, you may be able to internalize all that and get on well with it. However, if you’re writing a longer work featuring lots of characters, and each of those characters has a complex relationship with each of the others… well, you may completely forget what you had in mind for them as you’re drafting. You might spend months working up to a particular scene where a new character is introduced, only to go, “Oh, shit! Who is this again?” (There’s also the ever-popular “Wait… didn’t they already have this conversation?”)

It’s always good to have reference notes to fall back on :) That’s not to say your ideas won’t change over time, and that your notes might become obsolete, but they’re still a good starting point.

Also, in the midst of concentrated character-focused brainstorming, you might come upon ideas you never would’ve had if you’d just launched right into drafting: ideas about the characters themselves, and various interesting ways they might clash with one another. I’ve had quite a few “Eureka!” moments that later turned into neat character details and plot twists!

How do you like to handle relationship tracking? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!


The Arc: Character Change Tracking

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Image credit: Imagebase.net)

When you create a character, you start with a collection of attributes. Then a story happens- and if it’s a complicated story, it affects the character. Their attributes change, for better or worse.

Actually, there are two types of character change you may track as a writer, depending on how much upfront planning you like to do. There’s the anticipated character arc you plot out before getting started, and then there are the unanticipated changes that come to you while drafting.

You gotta start somewhere. The character sheet concept helps you brainstorm who the character is at the beginning of the story. Some additional things I like to figure out about characters- if only for my own reference, not necessarily to work into the prose:

  • Physical description
  • Approximate age
  • Occupations, interests, hobbies
  • Temperament
  • Beliefs, philosophies
  • Habits, tics, speech patterns
  • Brief notes on how they feel/act toward other characters (although relationships are something to sketch out in more detail… later!)
  • At least a rough idea of background, upbringing, life story up to this point in time (more important for main characters)

So again, that’s the starting point. The next step is to figure out how the story unfolds from this character’s point of view. Depending on how long the story is, I spend a few sentences or paragraphs summarizing it as though this character is the main character. What events are they involved with? Who/What affects them, and how? How do these things change the character’s outlook, behavior, beliefs, position in life, etc.?

Voila. We have an arc!

In a short story, it may be just a wiggle, or even a flatline. In a novel, it’d better look like the Rocky Mountains.

Having every character’s arc written down in one place is a great starting point for figuring out the really important beats, events, and turning points to show in your prose. These notes are also super-helpful for refreshing yourself on a character you haven’t worked with in months.

But of course, your initial thoughts never stay fixed, or this would be easy. ;) While drafting, you’ll almost certainly come up with different takes on the characters, or stray from your outline. New characters may appear out of nowhere, or old ones may turn irrelevant and be removed.

How the heck do you track all this, especially since change-tracking takes away from writing time?

Well, I’m still figuring out my system. But so far, here’s what seems to be working:

  1. In the manuscript, I use a comment to note something new or different. (ex. “Hey, this guy used to be a soldier. I’ve made him a merchant now.”)
  2. Do my best to go through the manuscript and incorporate that change everywhere it’s relevant. (ex. “Oh shoot, here he is talking about bullets. Let’s change that to silks, shall we?”)
  3. When I’m completely done drafting- i.e., I’m certain there will be no more changes of heart- I create a second version of my character arc notes, review all the manuscript comments, and incorporate the changes that took place.
  4. Do at least one read through the manuscript just for continuity’s sake, making sure I didn’t leave any trace of the old stuff behind.

I don’t get rid of my original thoughts, just in case I ever need them. It’s also amusing sometimes to look back and remember who a character used to be.

We’re far from finished talking about documentation! Keep your eyes peeled for thoughts on character relationships, outlines, and more! :)

How and where do you like tracking this reference material, if at all? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!


Writers Use Character Sheets, Too: Tracking The Present State

spiral_bound_notebooksYou may need a few… hundred of these…

Anyone familiar with pen-and-paper roleplaying games (RPGs) has spent a few hours, and plowed through a few packs of cookies and soda, to set up character sheets. Character sheets define the starting state of a character, and allow a player to track how that state changes throughout the roleplaying campaign.

Most character sheets are daunting to the first-time player, because there’s so much to track. What does the character look like? What are they good at? What equipment are they carrying? What spells have they memorized (if any)? If you’re roleplaying with a thoughtful group, you may also have to come up with a background for the character, and decide what their primary traits and motivations are.

Over the course of the campaign, most of these things change. Hopefully, you filled in your character sheet with a pencil; you’ll be doing an awful lot of erasing and rewriting as your character uses up potions, gets whacked in the head by goblins, and learns new skills. With a good roleplaying group, they’ll grow as characters, too: having their weaknesses and prejudices challenged, banding together with others to overcome obstacles… and earning those delicious experience points.

Your character sheet tells you the character’s state at the present point in time. Now doesn’t that sound useful to someone who has to care very much about character consistency and continuity: namely, writers?

A lot of planning has to go into stories, especially long ones featuring multiple characters. Some writers find it useful to maintain support notes, outlines, and various other “bible” documents outside of the work itself, as reference material for when they themselves forget what this character they haven’t seen in 100 pages was up to.

For novel-length work, I’ve found it really helpful to track both a character’s current state, and how it changes over time (i.e., their arc). I’ll talk more about change-tracking later. For now, we’ll focus on how and what to track about a character’s state in a particular scene, chapter, etc.

First off: there is no right answer. Second: I’m still working out my own system. But so far, using the idea of an RPG character sheet, these are some things I’ve found useful to track about a character’s present state:

  • Mood- how they feel right now, and why.
  • Attitude toward other characters in the chapter/scene, and why.
  • Thing(s) they want.
  • Action(s) they intend to carry out.
  • Item(s) they’re carrying, if any.
  • Injuries/illnesses/weaknesses they currently have, if any.
  • A general idea of their skills and personality.
  • Notes on their present environment- how they feel about it, what’s around for them to play with, etc.

These are all things that can, and should, shine through in various ways while drafting the scene. They’re great for continuity, i.e. not losing track of that whatsit I put in someone’s hands a scene earlier. And, if I’m short on ideas, looking at these notes often gives me an idea of how to proceed with writing that character.

Now, unlike a character sheet, I don’t have one centralized place where I track all this stuff. Since Scrivener lets you attach notes to individual scenes, I tend to note down this stuff in those spaces. Or, I may use comments to do the same thing. (Hey, this character said this because she’s trying to get this other guy in trouble.)

For inventory and injury, I have tried doing that in a separate document, listing that stuff for every chapter. I’m not sure I like this approach because it’s extra work, and takes me out of my work in progress, to go track down the document and scroll to the chapter I’m interested in. Plus, I make copy/paste errors all the time. In the future, I’ll probably attach these notes to each scene as well.

What present moment information do you track about your characters, if any? Where do you track it? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know!