Long-time visitors will notice that a lot has changed around here. I’ve completely rebuilt the site to be easier to use and to provide more information for those wishing to learn about my books. In addition the site allows me to blog some of my thoughts about my books and about the craft of writing. Check back often for new info!
I want to share a story about one of my failures as a writer.
I intended, once, to write a short story about a woman working in an organ farm. A place where brainless clone bodies are grown in vats, so that their organs can be harvested to save the lives of people waiting for transplants. One of the clone bodies starts kicking the side of the vat, and the woman freaks out. It turns out that it’s just a loose wire–easily fixed–and the body goes on to save dozens of lives.
I thought it was a good, creepy image that I could turn into an unsettling little story. Then I actually tried to write it.
I realized after the first draft that the message of the story was very clear: it’s wrong to grow clone bodies in vats, even if it saves lives. It doesn’t matter why you do it, it’s terrible and awful and disgusting. There’s only one problem. I don’t think that. I honestly believe that cloning is going to lead to enormous advances in medical science. I’ve known people who needed transplant organs and couldn’t get them. They died, horribly.
I tried writing a second draft, changing some details. I added a scientist who comes in and gives a speech about how the clones could save lives. I added a coda where a little girl gets a new kidney and gets to see her tenth birthday.
The story, with the clone kicking the side of the tank, was still awful and nasty. The message was still clear.
A third draft didn’t help at all. The clone kicked the tank. Rhythmically. Mechanically. Like a robot. I couldn’t shake the fact that this little gesture, this meaningless twitch, made the clone human. Made its existence an atrocity.
Okay, why am I dwelling on a story I eventually decided not to even finish? Because there’s a point here about theme.
Theme, what your story is “about”, may be the hardest part of writing. If you try to force it, you often come across as didactic or preachy. The usual advice is that you shouldn’t worry about it. Write the story you want to write, and theme will take care of itself. This is good advice ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and it’s how I usually operate.
At least… I did until I tried to write this story. Now I sit up nights worrying about theme all the time. Did any of my earlier books spread a message I personally disagree with? I’m not a huge fan of gun violence in real life, but I kind of fetishized Laura Caxton’s pistols, and the rocket launcher in Monster Island. By writing all those books about the end of the world, did I inspire people to think there is no future, that we don’t have to worry about climate change?
The unintended parable is one of the great risks a writer runs when they choose not to think about theme at all. I’m not saying you should write a book with the intention of sending a message–as well all know, that’s what Western Union is for. But maybe spare a thought, once you’ve finished your outlining, for what your story says. What it means.
You might save yourself a lot of regret later.
What’s the difference between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy? Both are fictional stories about the suffering of likeable, or at least attractive, heroes. There is an inevitability to their plots–they’re not necessarily formulaic, but everyone can pretty much see where things are headed. Neither of them promises nor delivers a happy ending.
Yet Greek tragedies are held up as being among the finest examples of literature. Soap operas are often derided as trash stories fit only for the most bored and jaded consumers.
I can tell you a soap opera is more dynamic and harder to write than a tragedy. They require bigger character ensembles, more modulation, better pacing. A tragedy is all about sustained affect, a car driving downhill as fast as it can. A soap opera is a rally race, where you need to plan for each stage, every sharp turn well in advance. So why do we roll our eyes when Laura goes into another coma, or Stavros burns down the children’s hospital… but applaud in respect when Oedipus realizes he’s married his mother and then stabs out his own eyes?
Both forms serve the same function: to make you feel pity. The downfall of the characters is unearned, or at least regrettable. The tone is somber, reflective, and bitter. Both forms rely heavily on mood and atmosphere. What separates them is focus.
The story of Oedipus is ridiculous and tawdry, but it’s one story. The play-goer or reader can’t get away from this one man’s journey. On the other hand a soap opera is crammed full of tales of woe. Every character has their own downward arc, and in the best soap operas no one story is valued more highly than any of the others.
When tragedy is singular, and rare, and highlighted, it feels real and strong and relatable. When tragedies are piled atop one another, they suffer from comparison to each other and they become melodrama. Another coma? Another burning hospital? Another husband hypnotized into sleeping with his wife’s younger sister? It becomes self-parodying, often farcical.
When you plot out your story you need to think about how the reader will react to each element, each beat. You need to know how far you can stretch their willingness to feel for your characters. Focusing in on a single character’s misfortune is a powerful tool. It’s tempting to give every side character and extra their own deep, sorrowful backstory, but all that does is dilute your protagonist’s suffering. If everyone is sad, no one’s sadness means anything. If one man is miserable while the world around him is singing in joy, the contrast alone is enough to make him sympathetic.
This isn’t to say that a character’s crisis has to be simple. Complications will arise from your inciting incident, the stakes will pile up, the plot will thicken. And it would be unrealistic to have everyone other than your main character be happy all the time. But focus in as best you can. Drill down on one person’s story at a time. The tighter, the more laser-like in intensity your plot becomes, the more powerful the drama.
Creating a rich and fascinating setting for your story is fun. It’s so much fun. And it can be rewarding, too. The more work you put into your setting, the more detail and depth, the more your book will come alive–if the backdrop seethes and breathes, your characters will feel more real, more anchored, and it’s also like you’re giving them another actor to play to. More business for them to do (“he picked an orange from the vendor’s cart and pressed it to his nose, inhaling the scent of far-off Valyria, while he ignored the viscount’s leading question”), more set-pieces to escape from, more, more, more.
And that’s the trap: too much setting. Setting requires a lot of research (or at least a lot of pondering) and when you learn something while writing a book, the temptation to tell your readers all about it can be overwhelming. You can spend whole chapters talking about the average humidity and rainfall that your Antarctic research station sees. Sometimes readers love this stuff, and eat it up with a spoon. Other times it takes them right out of the narrative. Your plot disappears and your book becomes about polar meteorology. Did you intend to write a book about polar meteorology? If not, well… now you are.
The other way too much setting can get in your way is with the tone of your piece. If your protagonist just lost their spouse, if their kids don’t love them, if they’re dying of some horrible disease… but they live in a land of sun and palm trees and scantily clad beach kids, well… the reader’s going to think maybe everything isn’t so bad, after all.
There is one great solution to both of these problems. Own them. If, during your research you discover a secret love for isobars and thermoclines and rain shadows, for the sake of all that’s holy: go ahead and write a book about polar meteorology! It’s probably a niche book, but who knows? If you can make it compelling, go forth and prosper. If your setting is at odds with your tone–make a point of that! Use it. Use the crash of the sundappled waves to let your character meditate on deep time, on the size of life. Or make them even more miserable because everyone around them is so happy.
There’s a big secret here, one you should have learned in Creative Writing 101, but probably didn’t. Stories change as we write them. The stories we want to tell change. But you should always stay in control. Know what kind of story you want to write, know what it says. Know that you want it to say that. Be ready to change everything on a moment’s notice–but always make changes you want to make.
What’s most important in your story? The plot? The characters (99% of the time, it’s one of these two)? Then setting should exist only and entirely in service to your plot or your characters. There’s an easy rule for this. Ask yourself, before you start to write, whether your story could take place somewhere else. Whether it would work just as well in Kansas. Or the third planet of Altair. Or under the sea. If so, then your setting isn’t necessary. It’s just there for color and flavor. Those are important things, but they’re not super important, and so your setting can be chopped up, mutilated, or safely ignored as you choose.
Was your answer no? Can your story only take place in one particular setting? Would it seem impossible someplace else? Is this literally the only place in the universe this story could happen? Then suddenly setting is super important. Still–you want to work with it. Not in it. Never, ever let it become more important than the people who inhabit it.
Setting is seductive. It’s incredibly dangerous. Don’t let it take over your story–instead, make it work for you.
Pacing might be the most important skill a writer can develop. Pacing is the tempo of your story, the sense of time passing, the sense of things happening in a smooth, organic order. Pacing is everything.
Pacing is crucial to plot. It’s how you build suspense–how you make your reader care about what happens, and how you get them to hang on every cliff with you. It’s how you make it feel like your characters earned their victories and how they climb back from failure, one painful inch at a time.
Pacing is crucial to characterization. A protagonist’s arc is entirely dependent on pacing. Go too fast and it feels like they couldn’t possibly have learned all those life lessons overnight. Go too slow and it feels like they’re spinning their wheels, willfully refusing to learn anything.
You keep the reader turning pages with pacing. Your ending only feels satisfying if the pacing was right. So how do you master this vital skill?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad first: there’s no good formula for it. Ignore all the books about screenwriting that tell you what beat should happen at what minute of the movie. That only gets you so far. You need to get a feel for pacing, an intuitive sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. It take practice, and patience, and trial and error. I’ve always said the best way to learn how to write a good book is to write ten bad ones, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Good pacing comes from experience.
But I promised you good news, too. And for once I’m going to admit, there are two easy tricks that can really help with your pacing, and make your story a dozen times better, like, instantly.
The first is modulation. I see this going wrong all the time in bad books, and I feel it’s something that every writer should learn on day one. It’s super easy. Just never do the same thing twice.
If you have a scene (or a section, or a paragraph, depending on your form) of heavy action, the very next scene should be slow, quiet, and personal. Maybe the protagonist needs to go home and lick their wounds and talk to their besty on the phone. Slow it way down. Conversely, after a long scene of dialogue–do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Have something big and dramatic happen. Or give us a lush, stylistically beautiful scene of setting description, with no spoken words at all.
This gives your reader a chance to switch gears. Time to synthesize what they’ve learned. To catch their breath after the big gasp moment. It makes them feel like time has passed, even if plot-wise both scenes happen simultaneously. The tension drops, or mounts, at just the right time.
The corollary to this, though, is you can never let any element of your story disappear for too long. I’m sure you’ve read a story where the character opens the safe and finds a ticking time bomb… and then we cut to three scenes of the scientist talking to the president about string theory. What the hell happened with the bomb? Your readers will wonder if it blew up off screen. They’ll feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them, which breaks them right out of the story. No, modulation means creating a rhythm. It means alternating between two stories at once, maybe one quiet and personal, one loud and world-changing. Bad news again: even modulation, simple as it is, takes some skill and some finesse.
I promised a second trick, and it’s one it took me years to learn. When in doubt about pacing, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is to slow things down.
It’s understandable. You want to get to the good stuff, right? You’ve got this amazing story to tell, you want to gallop right to the finish line and not look back. Which is good, it’s great that you’re so excited about what’s going to happen. But if you move too fast, your story will feel cheap. A book should never feel like just a bulleted list of events. This happened, then this, and then we learned that, which made the hero do this… you might as well be writing instructions on how to put together an Ikea bookcase.
If your plot feels mechanical and rote, like the characters are just going through the motions… or conversely, if your characters feel limp, like they’re too generic to actually have a sense of personality–pump the brakes. Take time to take stock, to explore the world you’ve created, a little. Let life flow into the story. Let it unfold naturally, and at its own pace, and it will reward you.
Just don’t forget to modulate. As soon as you blow the readers’ minds, give them a chance to catch up. Not for too long, though. That time bomb is still ticking down, the width of a scene away.
It would be impossible for me to overestimate the effect George Romero had on me, both as a writer and a fan.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city was Romero’s muse–he would return to Pittsburgh time and again in his movies. He was everywhere when I was a child. Every Halloween the local television station would show Night of the Living Dead in prime time without edits. Every autumn my mother would take me for back-to-school shopping at the Monroeville Mall; all I could see was zombies roaming the big department stores, like they did in Dawn of the Dead. His vampire classic Martin showed the world what was happening in the Rust Belt in the 70’s. Even his lesser-known works, like The Crazies or Knightriders (you owe yourself to at least watch the trailer) gave us glimpses into a haunted, mirror-world version of western Pennsylvania. This was the world of my childhood, a place of deep, dark forests and crumbling cities, and no one would ever capture it like Romero.
My own career began with a zombie story, one that couldn’t have existed without those childhood viewings of Night of the Living Dead. My vampire series drew just as much inspiration from his work–it’s set in Pennsylvania, but a state drawn as much from Romero’s movies as from my own memories. I’m not sure if I could tell you where one begins and the other ends.
I never got a chance to meet the man. I wish it had been otherwise–if only so I could thank him. An entire generation of horror fans and creators mourns today, because we know exactly how much we owe this man, and how long his legacy will continue. Rest in peace, Mr. Romero. The children of Pittsburgh will always remember you, wherever in the world we end up.
Every character in your story should have a clear motivation. They need a reason to enter the scene, and something they want to accomplish before the scene is over. This goes for a walk-on character who only has one line just as much as it goes for your protagonist and antagonist. If a character has no reason to appear in a scene, then they shouldn’t. Give them something to do!
This might seem daunting at first, but it’s simpler than it sounds. There are only three main motivations: love, money, and death. These are the things that drive people, and attaching one of them to a character is all you need to get them moving.
This isn’t to say that character motivations can’t be nuanced. In fact, these three poles of motivation are what create character depth–and in fact, give your whole story dimension. Imagine, say, a character who feels like they’re not getting fulfillment from their job. That’s simply a character who is feeling tension between the fear of death (that their life will have no meaning) and the desire for money (hence the unfulfilling job). This character might be motivated to quit their job and find more interesting work (that’s a pretty good plot hook), or stick around for the paycheck and grow ever more miserable (which could inform the tone, or create conflict with other characters, or affect their relationships and therefore rope in the motivation of love…).
For most characters, and most stories, you probably want to stick with just one level of complexity here. Pick two motivations, tops, and put them at odds with each other. If other motivating factors come into play as a result of that tension, fine, but don’t dwell on them, or your story can lose focus. That’s for top-level characters, mind you–people who get a lot of lines of dialogue and are intrinsic to the action of the story. Minor characters are usually best given just one motivator. Someone who walks on page just to deliver a crucial piece of information, then never appears again, shouldn’t have a massive backstory. Maybe they’re just doing their job (money) or just wanted to help a protagonist they secretly love… you get the picture.
Everyone claims to like deep, nuanced characters. People who feel real and rich and alive. There’s only one problem. They’re wrong.
If you think of your favorite characters–frankly, any characters you can remember off the top of your head–you’ll think of broad, two-dimensional, larger than life heroes and villains and grotesques. Darth Vader. Tarzan.
Wily E. Coyote.
Narrow characters–those deeply imagined, palpably real people we’re all supposed to enjoy more–are native to the story they inhabit. They can’t exist outside of their setting, their plots, their themes. Memorable characters are the ones who could exist in any number of stories, who can plug themselves into multiple settings. They tend to be action-oriented and aspirational and to have recognizable costumes or tattoos or catchphrases. They stick with you because they have the quality of memes and archetypes. Nuance is the enemy of these characters. What they have instead is rules.
Wily E. Coyote is one of the best examples of this. His rules are never broken–he will always run afoul of his own machinations, he will always recognize when he’s about to suffer the consequences of his actions, he will never catch the Road Runner. If he did, the viewer would be deeply confused.
Rules are comforting to an audience subjected to a surreal world. They give us a framework to know which way to look when everything explodes. People love characters with rules.
Characters like this break many of the guidelines we’re taught in creative writing classes. But they work surprisingly well in genre fiction and they can create memorable stories just about anywhere. Next time you start creating a character and find yourself wondering where their grandmother worked during the war (information which will never appear in your finished story) think instead about creating rules for your character first. You may find that the character starts writing themselves.