Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Inserts

Characters are often the first thing a reader falls in love with. Building a detailed and dynamic character can be difficult. Thankfully, there’s plenty of ways to practice.

As an exercise: Pick someone you know in real-life. Describe them as the main character in a story. Think about how they act, walk, talk and any habits or quirks they have. You can also try writing them as a villain for an added challenge.

Then: Insert them into a short story. Try rewriting a fairy tale to feature them or even putting them in the place of a character in a show or book you enjoyed. How does the story change to accommodate them? How do they solve some of the conflicts of the story?

Posted in writing

Story Bibles

If you’re a writer and you’re in the midst of editing, or even writing a series, you probably want a place to keep track of all the details of your story. It’s incredibly useful, especially if you want to write a series. Bonus points: if you do a lot of roleplaying and need or want to write your own campaign, having a story bible set up for your in-world conflicts, NPCs and lore makes it easier to keep your campaign more or less on track (sorry, but I can’t promise the same of your players).

A story bible is essentially a document or several documents that keeps the details of your story or stories together. This prevents things like character details changing unexpectedly halfway through the story. It also helps keep worldbuilding and relevant setting details in one place so you don’t have to go hunting for particular details.

There’s several ways you can keep a story bible. If you’d prefer a hardcopy, a binder or multi-subject notebook is a good option. This way you can section your bible off as necessary. Digital options include things like Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, or even something like World Anvil or Notebook.ai to keep your bible sorted and on track. Depending on your preference and how you work best, you may find one option better than the other. I personally prefer to keep a digital copy of my notes in OneNote because of the search function.

Although your story bible should work for you, there’s a few sections you may find helpful to keep in it.

Character Notes. This is a good place to keep things like detailed descriptions, character sketches, backstories and family trees. I usually create a small section for each character so I can keep track of their character arc during edits.

Setting Notes. Depending on the genre you’re working in, this can easily become a massive portion of your story bible. Everything from notes on legal systems to lore can be placed in your setting notes. For speculative writers, this spreads to include bestiaries, cultural analysis, maps and even engineering schematics as necessary.

Story Notes. Editing and writing in general tends to create a multitude of different notes—outlines, and even thematic notations. Having a story-specific section makes it easier to keep all your editing tools in one place. A lot of my plotting notes end up here, but I also try to keep a list of any flash pieces relevant to the story, world or characters here.  This way if I need to reference something for a flashback or thematic reason, I can easily reference back to the original piece.

What are some of the things you keep in your story bibles? How do you prefer to keep them?

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Handling Multiple Countries

It’s a little unlikely that you’ll have only one country for worldbuilding. Although your story or even your game campaign may only take place in one particular country, as a general rule humans don’t do great in massive cohesive groups. Add in a couple of different races and you’re almost certain to have at least a couple of different countries in your world.

Where you have multiple countries, you also have multiple chances for conflict. Politics is often the basis of how a group of people govern themselves. When you have different groups, you often have different ideas of how they should be governed. In itself that can be the basis for conflict between countries. Resources are yet another place where varied opinions might clash—that includes not only food or minerals, but also land.

A good way to manage multiple countries might be to figure out where their conflicts potentially lie. Start with cultural differences. Do they have differing religions? What about language? Are there certain actions which might be considered respectful in one culture, but odd or even insulting in another?

Now consider the resources your countries have. Animals, plants and building materials are major resources for civilization at any stage. Following that, decorative items such jewels or dyes are often traded back and forth.

With your resources and cultures figured out, look at how well they can be meshed together. If one country is drowning in a particular resource the other one considers holy, it’s possible trade agreements will be reached. This is where imports and exports come in. Countries doing a lot of trade are likelier to set aside their differences and may form alliances in times of war. Keep in mind this isn’t always the case—owing another country a lot of money doesn’t breed much goodwill on either side.

A final thing to consider is how easily people can immigrate from one country to another. How easy is it for citizens of one nationality to becomes citizens of another? What steps do they have to take, and how does this changed based on which country they’re coming from and going to?

Posted in writing

Character vs. Plot Driven

When it comes to moving your story forward there are usually two driving forces: plot and character. Because each one drives the events in a story a little differently, this gives us plot-driven and character driven stories.

With plot-driven stories, the events drive each other forward. High taxes from the king cause a famine in the kingdom, which leads to bandits stealing from the rich nobles to help feed the poor. Cause and effect directly affect what happens next.  Often, plot-driven stories have a predictable outcome. The murder is solved, the couple gets married, etc.

Plot-driven stories often feature static characters.  Arguably if you replaced any of the characters in The Lord of the Rings you’d have largely the same story. The ring would still be destroyed, Aragorn (or his replacement) would still take the throne. This is because the events happening are more important than the character development.

With character-driven stories, the reactions to each event drive each other forward. The high taxes cause anger which causes riots, which causes a civil war, which leads to the division of the country. In this case, emotions and motivations push events forward. Endings can be a little harder to predict because they’re often focused on internal goals instead of external conflicts.

Because the focus on character-driven stories is heavier, they rely heavily on character arcs and development. In The Hobbit, replacing any of the characters gets a little trickier.  Replacing Bilbo leads to a few less questionable incidents (the trolls, anyone?). Replacing Thorin probably avoids the fight over the Arkenstone.

The main difference between character- and plot-driven stories is where the focus is. A story focused on external conflict lends itself more to a plot-driven structure. The conflict must be resolved in some manner, and as a result, events push forward to that inevitable resolution.  A character-driven story is less about the end goal and more about the changes a character goes through during the course of a story.

If you’re wondering which one is better, the answer is neither. As a writer you may find yourself preferring one style over the other, but neither character- nor plot-driven stands firm as a ‘better’ option. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Going back to The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit you can see that a character-driven story like the Hobbit gives way to a plot-driven story such as the Lord of the Rings.  If Bilbo never steals the ring, then the ring never needs destroying. And, as above, with high taxes and a famine sweeping the land from our plot-driven example, it makes sense for a motivated Robin Hood to start stealing to help his community.

Which storytelling style do you prefer to write?

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Unheard

If you’ve ever had to be in the same room as someone on the phone, you’ve also had a huge chance to listen to half a conversation. The half you hear is just as important as the unheard half.

As an exercise: Take a two-person conversation from a story (yours or someone else’s). Designate Character A and Character B.

Now, remove all of Character A’s lines. Using B’s half of the conversation, come up with two or three possible responses to each line of remaining dialogue.  How does the conversation change when you only have one half to infer information from? How might changing this conversation change the story?