I’m so tired of advice on how to plan stories that assumes you’re writing one of three types of stories: a paint-by-numbers Hero’s Journey, an equally formulaic romance, or the sort of deep, literary thing that’s more about the character’s inner journey than whatever the story looks like it’s about.
I’ve got nothing against any of these story types, by the way. I don’t read formulaic versions of the first two any more and tend to get frustrated with the third, but I know they have their audiences and that the first two sell far better than my weird not quite literary, yet not quite normal sci-fi stuff does.
What I have a problem with is how much of the stuff for writing the first and third assumes that the advice they’re giving is universal. The first is probably self-explanatory, but the third, the lit fic type stuff . . . rather than trying to explain what I find so fucking stupid about trying to apply it to every story, I’ll illustrate, using Jake Becomes Mithoska, which is about a dude suddenly getting promoted to the equivalent of Admiral of the Fleet right as a war goes from terrible to “This is our last chance; if this doesn’t work, the whole galaxy will fall.” These are paraphrased versions of some of the questions on a list of questions that are supposed to be very helpful in planning a story.
- What is your main character’s treasured secret desire?
You remember way back when I did the post ranting about character building questionnaires and I ranted about questions having built in assumptions? Yeah, we’ve got that here again. Jake doesn’t do secret desires. His desires are to minimize the good guy casualties, to have some time with his family and pets, and an endless supply of his favorite caffeinated beverage. That’s it. He’ll tell those to anyone who asks. Nothing secret there.
- (This one I’m not paraphrasing because I need to rant about it so much) What is the worst thing that could (and hopefully will) happen to your hero?
What the everloving fuck?! “And hopefully will”?! No. Just . . . no. The worst does not always need to happen. I repeat, the worst does not always need to happen. Sometimes . . . hell, frequently, in my opinion . . . just the threat of it is enough.
Besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen to Jake? Well, he could survive the war but lose everyone and everything he cares about and, oh, yeah, two — eventually three, probably — galaxies would fall to a species that consider humans cattle. And Jake could survive and live with the guilt that he couldn’t prevent this. And that’s totally a story I’d want to read.
Oh, wait. No, it’s not. I’d much rather read about someone preventing things from getting that bad. There’s enough darkness in the world. How about some of us authors try to put a little light out there? (Also, in the current political climate, I’m really uncomfortable with reinforcing the idea that things have to hit rock bottom before they can get better . . .)
- Why can’t your character live with their conscience if they don’t get what they want?
Because what he wants is the fucking survival of lots and lots and lots of people? Really, if Jake doesn’t get what he wants, his conscience is going to be the least of his problems . . .
- How can you make the temptations irresistible?
Looky, it’s another question with a built in assumption! This isn’t that kind of story. Nothing and no one tempts Jake.
And if anyone tried to, he’d punch them. He’s a really straightforward kind of guy, with a moral and ethical code he does not violate.
- When do your characters realize they’re in danger?
I see this one so often on planning stuff for all three of the types of stories I mentioned at the beginning of this that I can only assume everyone else in the world has forgotten about the fact that stories can start in media res. In this one, Jake does realize during the story just how bad things have gotten, but “in danger”? Yeah, that happened when Sweytz first got involved in the war, about two years before the story starts.
- Do the supporting characters that try to stop your character’s plans know about his secret desire?
You know, I’m pretty sure that the enemy generals really don’t give a fuck what Jake wants. They’re pretty sure he wants their troops dead — that’s kind of obvious from all the shooting at them his ships do — and that’s all they really care about.
But that doesn’t mean that I wrote a goddamned Hero’s Journey story. Not all war stories are the Hero’s Journey. But that’s a separate rant for some day when I don’t need to be getting ready to go to dinner.
- What does your hero expect that won’t happen?
He’s a military commander. He knows better than to expect anything but the unexpected. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and all that.
Then there were follow-up questions about what the hero does and what the antagonist does that makes it not happen and . . . this and the secret desire thing seemed to be really crucial to the sort of story this questionnaire is to help write.
- Try to imagine all of the places your characters can go in the search of their objective.
Oh, Jesus Fucking Christ! All of them?! My setting covers three major galaxies and a couple of satellite galaxies! How about I make shit up as I need it? That work for you?
(Okay, now I think I see the point of this question at least. Apparently this started as screenwriting advice, so you would be more limited than in a book. One of these days I’ll manage my rant about how screenwriting advice doesn’t apply to story writing without swearing and abusing caps lock and bold . . . maybe.)
- What are the social reasons for the antagonists’ actions?
Uhmm . . . they want to conquer the galaxy because their war leader has convinced them it’s a good idea/manifest destiny sort of thingy? Oh, and because they think they’re the only ones who are truly sapient beings. I don’t think this is the sort of thing this question was really aiming for.
- What characters can go through something similar and find a different solution?
What sort of different solution is possible to “let’s prevent the bad guys from conquering everything?” Going “No, let’s let them”?
Well, I guess that is possibly what some would do. No one I’m going to write about though.
- Is the main character naive and/or weak?
This is the first question under the section titled “Character Growth”. I presume I’m supposed to answer yes and then the next questions will show how he grows. I really, really, really wish people would get over the idea that character growth means, well, the Hero’s Journey, ultimately . . . farm boy who knows nothing to savior of everything. There are other sorts of character growth. Like in this, Jake goes from halfheartedly considering ways to get out of running the fleet to realizing that, while he may hate the job, he has no choice but to do it to the best of his ability.
In other words, no, Jake isn’t naive or weak. I mean, I guess since this is technically a later installment in what will someday be a series that takes him from an eight-year-old son of a ranch hand, at the very beginning of his story he is, but he’s also eight. And for an eight-year-old he was pretty strong, ridiculously strong-willed, and smart.
- Are the chances for the desired outcome and the despised one equal?
Nope. Well, maybe, in a “million to one odds happen nine times out of ten” story logic sort of way, but using actual logic . . . nope. I’m pretty sure that’s where excitement comes from. I hope I wasn’t supposed to say yes to this. Though if I was, it could explain why I can’t finish so many books and movies these days . . .
- What feared confrontations does the main character try to avoid or postpone?
Again with the assumptions! Jake . . . well, I’ll just put it this way: his wife makes him swear an oath to his gods that he won’t sacrifice himself unless there is totally and completely no other choice. This is not a guy who tries to avoid confrontation.
Wait, I take that back. He tries to avoid blowing up a pirate ship with a dolt for a captain. Because he doesn’t want to kill people just because they’re serving an idiot. But there’s no fear there. He would have done it in a heartbeat if he had no choice.
- Can the antagonist be made to see the error of their ways through the fear of shame or loss of face?
. . . Hell no. My antagonist is doing this because they want to eradicate and/or enslave other races. They clearly don’t give a flying fuck how others feel about them.
Seriously, have you ever read a book where the antagonist was made to stop being an ass because it would be embarrassing if they didn’t?!
- How should the audience feel when the story is over?
With any luck, they’re chuckling at Jake’s exasperation as once again something keeps him from getting to go home without one last problem. Because I like happy endings.
I know that happy endings are, for some reason, considered horrible by some right now. I don’t give a fuck. I just finished a book yesterday that was wonderful until the end. The end failed, in my opinion, on two counts: 1) it was a fucking obvious sequel hook, and 2) I walked away from the book depressed . . . this is not how a reader should feel after an exciting climactic battle that the good guys won. Especially if you want the reader to buy the next book in the series, which the obvious sequel hookness of the scene made clear was the whole goddamned point. (The previous book in the series ended much better, with a scene after the heavy dramatic, everything changes forever, one that lightened the mood considerably.)
And if you consider it a spoiler that the galaxies won’t fall . . . then you must be really new to my writing. I don’t do depressing endings.