Saturday, July 9, 2011

On Writing: Dan Wells' Seven Point System

Dan Wells is an author I have a lot of respect for. He's one of the three (now four) authors involved in the Writing Excuses podcast, and I've enjoyed his "I Am Not A Serial Killer" series. So when I heard that he'd done a lecture on story structure and posted it online, I knew that it would be worth tracking it down and sharing it here.

So here is his five-part series on story structure, as well as his seven point system.

Here are my thoughts:

I'm not a very organized writer. Shocking, huh? I write via discovery, sitting down with a noodling idea and working out things as I go along. While this process can be fun, sometimes I find that I get overwhelmed with the enormity of the writing tasks I've set myself up for, and find my path littered with half-finished and partial first pages and half-drafts. Writing is a time commitment, after all, and my time these days is somewhat limited.

Making the best use of that time, then, is a goal for me. Trying out new methods to get my brain in gear is helpful. Using this method of outlining might help me brainstorm my stories more effectively, get me past those bits of writer's block that trip me up occasionally.

On the Seven Point System:

Starting with the end and then working back to the beginning isn't a new idea to me...I've been exposed to it before. Oddly enough, it was through another RPG, Changeling: The Lost. Apparently, stealing ideas from RPG manuals works really well.

The problem I have in implementing this is that I usually start my stories from an interesting premise. A thief has to brave the dangers of The City of Shadows for seven nights. A mad artisan kidnaps people, replaces them with duplicates, then pits the duplicates against the originals because he wants to prove his imitations are superior to the real thing. Five serial killers converge on my hometown. These are the hooks that grab me and make me want to write.

 In the past I've started stories with this premise, but then choked because I couldn't write up to the really cool bits I wanted to include without delving into what lead up to the situation. Now I think that applying this method to my structures might help me get past those kinds of bumps by giving me a roadmap to follow. I consider this sort of outlining a brainstorming exercise, not something that I'm going to be locked into. That's the best way to deal with outlines if you get your joy from discovery writing, I think. noodle around with a structure, write a bit, and if the characters start going off in odd directions then follow them without regard for the path they're traveling. The outline is a tool to get an idea in the ballpark. I suspect I'm going to be applying this to the Fourth Night of TotE, and maybe looking at the remains of the Third Night through that lens--figuring out where I want to end up, and then working back from there.

The trouble is that I think I've got a lot of story cycles working at once in the part I'm writing now, so I need to figure out which bits go with which storylines before I can look at the resolutions of each. Applying this sort of thing to a work in progress is always a bit tricky.

On Ice Monster Prologue:

 I'm wondering if I need to write up a prologue. If I were to write one, it would probably cover the botched job that got Gaven into this situation in the first place. Or perhaps I should go further back, and show the botched job that ruined Gaven's life and made him the man he is at the start of the story. One in Calisapas, one in Miir. I don't know which would work better, to be honest, and I'm not at all convinced I need one yet. maybe I can handle one of those stories as a prologue, the other as bits of flashback. Still mulling things over. How much of Miir comes through in Gaven's experiences? How much do I need to set up beforehand? A small number of people who've read my story get a bit confused, since Gaven is a native to the world but not to Miir. It's a weird little looking-glass for a work, and I wonder just how much exposition is necessary. How should I establish that Gaven is a foreigner? Show his last job in his old environment, or his first job in the new one? Lots of thoughts going on.

On Try/Fail Cycles:

This concept is one I've heard before, but it's good to have a deeper explanation presented. Gaven's whole experience in Miir, at least for the first two nights (and in the future nights as well) are parts of the Try/Fail cycle.