Who’s in charge?

I’m a planner. Sometimes I joke planster (I realize a chapter in my plan wasn’t detailed enough) but I”m a planner. Pantsers complain about the lack of excitement of planning, they forget that if you’re planning on being published, then you not only write the novel, you rewrite it, revise it, edit it, have someone else edit it, proof it again before the print it, etc. The excitement vanishes long before the end of the road.

So I plan. Another argument I get is ‘my characters want to do something else’. I don’t have this problem. Some people would say ‘you can’t just make the characters do something against their nature!’ but I’m not. I know my character’s nature, that’s why I planned the story this way.

This is the goal of those massive character questionnaires you see. Answer these questions and you will know your character. Your character no longer surprises you. One of my writing books even suggests that if a scene feels wrong, stop writing and return to the questions and figure out why the scene feels wrong.

New writers are convinced that when they make an outline they have to stick with it. They hit a blockage, the idea the outline will be ruined — which it rarely is, there’s always an alternate path to the goal — they don’t think about characterization. It wasn’t taken into account when the outline was written and it’s a surprise when it appears to derail the story.


Susan kills Mike. They hate each other and have a massive fight. Susan grabs the gun from the other room and shoots him.

But you never wrote them that way. They were always friendly, joking, there was no tension. The disagreement they have doesn’t seem major enough for Susan to grab a gun for.

So either you can rewrite the entire story to make the characters hate each other, a characterization that should have been thought of before, or you can change the scene to reflect the characters who are.

Susan and Mike are friends, but they have a heated argument while preparing dinner. Mike makes a threatening move; Susan reflexively stabs him with the carving knife.

There are a couple of nice things here. It’s an accident, so it doesn’t matter that they’re friends. The emotional toll is greater on Susan’s behalf because she’s just harmed a friend. If the attack was all that was needed, stab wounds are survivable, even more so than bullet wounds. If she’s lucky, Mike agrees it was an accident when questioned, and she doesn’t even go to court for it.

If he needs to die, then she happened to hit just the right part. Maybe she even made the mistake of removing the knife before the paramedics came. If this was always part of the plan and she hides the body, maybe the fact he was still alive and could have been saved becomes an important part of the story.

Ironically, I named this ‘who’s in charge’ but the answer isn’t you or them. They act as any person would act in their situation. That might make them ‘in charge’, but it doesn’t make them ‘in control’.

Paging the Ducks

I have a problem with my novel in progress. 

My beginning is too trite and overdone, it’s a ‘wake up’ scene, which we trend towards because it’s a literal beginning for us as human beings, but it’s a boring beginning for us as readers (or watchers if this a screenplay).

I’ve moderated Plot Doctoring for years but I rarely post there. I can go in there and give advice about other people’s issues, but I have some trouble even beginning to explain my problems.

It’s a complication with all of our forums. I’d rather have a discussion with a friend about my novel than have to explain it in detail online. I might forget something important, or I might inadvertently imply something inconsequential is quite important to me and the plot. There’s also the ever popular concern, that doesn’t affect me, but does affect others, someone might steal my precious idea. At the rate I’m going you can have it, but that seems the minority opinion – most posters, or more importantly the non-posters, are convinced we troll the forums for their ideas.

As you can guess, most forum posts are lacking in context. It’s not unusual to see a post much like my issue:

Right now, my story opens with my character waking up. I realize that’s a bad opening, but I can’t think of anything else. Help?

I hope you see the problem here. I haven’t even told you my genre let alone what plot I intent to lead into. You don’t know my protagonist is male, seventeen (ages should be specific until you get into the twenties), in a modern day fantasy environment – some would say Urban Fantasy, but that has certain connotations I’m not sure apply.

Even with that second paragraph of information you don’t know enough to really guess activities my protagonist might choose. You can throw out things at random but what’s the chance of any of them being appropriate? Is my character more likely to be going for a jog or playing WoW? I haven’t told you enough to give me help.

Alas, we sometimes get fantastic responses to these.

I’m writing fantasy and in my story the MC finds a key. The question is what it opens?

As you see, really vague, the response:

  1. The key opens the MC’s bedroom window. It was on her mother’s keyring. Now she can leave at night.
  2. The key opens the chest of the MC’s android companion, allowing them to replace some faulty wiring and go on to defeat the evil witch.
  3. It’s a 32-bit encryption key, which is now outdated and worthless. The files it was meant to decrypt were enchanted to react to that particular key, but the people who decrypted them found an unexpected alternative key. They have been using these files for decades without noticing the enchantment.
  4. It is a piano key. When played, it opens the listener’s mind.
  5. It opens a pneumatic tube in the MC’s uncle’s hospital. The nurses keep it locked – but the patients can’t get to it, and the nurses use it all the time, so why are they so careful about locking it?
  6. 6. The key opens a freshly-printed book. There are thousands of copies of this locked book available in every bookstore, but they don’t come with keys.
  7. The key opens the MC’s place of worship. The remainder of the book will be an ordinary religious romance, complete with a spiritual encounter with the MC’s god. The only thing which makes it fantasy rather than religious fiction is that the religion is anything other than Christianity. (#paganrights)
  8. When the key is placed in midair with nothing touching it, and then rotated, a tiny drawer pops open in the air. How do you place a key in midair without touching it? And what’s in the drawer?
  9. The key is universal. It opens ALL locks.
  10. The key opens Chris Hemsworth’s trailer on the set of Thor: Ragnarok.

I actually want to write some of these key related stories. Probably none of these are viable to the poster’s story. It’s their own fault for not giving us enough background.

We need to give a lot of information to get good results. Maybe we can get away with only a few lines, but more complex problems might require explaining a detailed plot to get help. Maybe more than we want to post online.

This is when we pull out the ducks.

They don’t need to rubber ducks, but they are conveniently small and portable. Plot ninjas from previous years, or the plot zombies, or NaNoBots from last year could also work, or even your daughter’s Sir Fluffybutt can fill in.

Place the duck in front of you and explain the issue. Start from the beginning, because the duck is not familiar with your story. Explain everything to the duck, you can trust rubber ducks to keep secrets, they are very trustworthy.

At some point in discussing your novel with your fowl friend you will likely realize the solution to your problem. If not… well, you can always consult a second duck.

Yes, I am encouraging you to have extended conversations about your novel with your rubber duck, your child’s entire stuffed animal collection, your spouse’s chicken shaped salt and pepper shakers, hell, you could even ask Timmy on Chatnano for advice (really, only do this if you are really stuck. Timmy gives terrible advice).

You could discuss the problem with a real live person, but they tend to argue and get bored of your story related problems. The ducks are always willing to listen and to help.