Novel Makers Week 1: Goal & theory

Introduction: Novel Makers week 1 and Week 1 addendum.

Your goals

Here’s what we want to accomplish this week.

  • Select the genre of your novel
  • Explicitly identify “what’s cool” for your specific type of story
  • Memorize the key parts of the story model

Discovery questions & activities

Question 1: What do stories do? (2 hrs)

Please answer these questions.

  • What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?
  • What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?
  • What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?
  • What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?

Activities to help you.

  • Read Lesson 1: What in the crap are we doing?
  • Generate Boom List (see instructions below)
  • Discuss ideas with buddy and identify how your lists vary
  • Post your answers to the questions above and your Boom List in the comment section.

Question 2: How does story generate those effects? (8-10 hrs)

Please sketch an answer these questions:

  1. What are the parts of story?
  2. What leads us to get behind a main character?
  3. What makes a character likable or deserving?
  4. What makes characters interesting?
  5. What makes us feel suspense–hope and fear–for a character?
  6. What makes us feel triumph?
  7. What makes us feel puzzlement and curiosity?
  8. What makes us feel insight?
  9. What is the difference between a guided experience and real life? What’s the same?

Activities to help you.

  • Read Lesson 2: How in the world does that work?, including the 27-part series that it links to. At the end of Part 16, you’ll see links to an Alfred Hitchcock interview that are broken. Use this link instead. Here’s the “The Enjoyment of Fear” article as well.
  • Discuss with your buddy any new insights and questions (or even disagreements) you have with the model
  • Post in the comments
    • A brief summary of your answer to 2 of questions 2-9 above
    • Anything you feel is important that the model doesn’t capture
    • One new insight you had during the week. The insight can be something you learned from the model or that you saw on your own or found elsewhere in this week’s study.
  • Memorize items on test guide
  • Take test

Activity Details

Instructions for Generating Your Boom List

  1. Select the genre of the novel you’ll write for this course (you can change later; if you do, you’ll need to create another Boom List)
  2. Identify 10 stories in that genre that you like
  3. List “what’s cool?” for you in each of those stories, then identify the elements that you found more than once
  4. Identify another very different genre. List what’s different between the two genres. (Using a foil should help key delights stand out.)
  5. Write up your Boom List. This is a summary of the story you want to read–all the things you love in that type of story.

Test Guide

The test will ask you to recall the following. Please make sure you can do it from memory without the help of any material. One easy way will be to take notes as you read, then quiz yourself to help them stick.

Problem factors

  • The effects this model helps us understand (Rooting, Suspense, Anticipation, Mystery)
  • The definition of each part of MC MOTHR CAR
  • 2 examples of each type of MOTHR
  • 4 problem intensifiers
  • 2 things that create uncertainty

Character factors

  • 3 things that lead us to feel sympathy for people
  • 5 things that lead us to feel people are likeable & deserving and 5 that make us feel the opposite
  • 10 things that lead us to be interested in a character

Plot factors

  • The first principle of plot
  • 5 ways to put the character at a disadvantage
  • 5 types of conflict with two examples of each
  • 5 examples of growing troubles & surprises
  • All the parts of the Story Cycle (I will ask you to reproduce it)

Structure factors

  • The 3 phases or parts
  • 2 of the things you have to do in each phase to create the experience for the reader
  • 3 reasons why the MC can’t or won’t walk away from the problem with 2 examples of each
  • 3 things that lead the MC to the final showdown with 2 examples of each
  • One reason we might give the preparation and approach in the resolution stage time
  • Definition of a character dilemma with 2 examples

Novel Makers – Cohort 1


42 Responses to Novel Makers Week 1: Goal & theory

  1. Rich says:

    What if what we’re imagining is a field that we can’t think of ten books we could make examples of, but we know the story we’re thinking about (the experience we want to give and have) is in that genre? (I guess I’m more referring to subgenres, but the question remains.)

    • John Brown says:

      Do you know of 10 stories of any kind–novels, television episodes, or movies–that do something similar to what you want to do that you have enjoyed?

      If not, can you think of at least 3-5 exemplars?

      If so, run with those.

      If you don’t know of even three, that’s fine. Your goal of looking at the exemplars is to help you clarify what it is you like. And don’t like. It’s to help you see examples of that so you can see patterns of how it’s done.

      Write your Boom List with what you have.

      But you might also want to post a short description of the type of story you want to write and see if others here have read something like that. If they have, then you have a list of potential exemplars to study.

  2. Anthony says:

    My Boom List and answers to Questions from Question 1: What do stories do?

    My Boom List:
    Non earth setting with varied geography.
    Inclusion of non human races or at least varied human cultures
    World has a history that is evident though not fully revealed
    Action Scenes using the magic
    Magic that enhances human ability
    Fun or interesting characters

    Please answer these questions.
    • What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?
    ? Discovery
    ? Pondering ramifications of actions
    ? Experiencing different cultures, even if contrived
    • What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?
    ? Looking at worlds different from my own
    ? The emergent nature of the magic/science of the world
    ? Races/Aliens different from earth
    • What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?
    ? A setting with some unique or uncommon features
    ? Two nonhuman races that each have their own subcultures, and variety
    ? Magic limited such that the reader knows what my characters are capable of doing
    ? Compelling action scenes with comprehensible events
    ? A technology level somewhere between American Revolutionary period to post American Civil War but pre-turn of the century
    ? Third person limited viewpoint
    ? At least some witty dialog
    • What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?
    ? Any particular message
    ? Multiple viewpoints
    ? chapter epitaphs

    I probably spent about 2.5 hours on this, and I may do some more.

    • John Brown says:

      Interesting, Anthony. It sounds like you really enjoy discovering things that are different–places, peoples, cultures, aliens. And the Tolkienesque feel of a wider world. The call of the tower in the distance. You also seem to like magic as well.

      What genre have you chosen?

      • Anthony says:

        Sorry about that, I thought I copied that line over. I’ll be doing a fantasy in a setting something similar to what Brandon Sanderson does. (Though likely not nearly as well.)

    • Anthony says:

      Question 2: How does story generate those effects?

      8 What makes us feel insight?
      I feel insight as a reader when I have successfully predicted a plot point. I feel best about this when I figure it out just before the author reveals the point. Otherwise I feel the story is too predictable, and uninteresting.
      9 What is the difference between a guided experience and real life? What’s the same?
      A guided experience is always safe, provides excitement, and will build tension leading to a cathartic release, while life is messy. Your problems may be easy to solve, and safe, or they may be very dangerous with no assurance of your safety. Problems can arise that are completely unrelated to one another. No one would read the story of my life. There is too much boredom, there is no building sense of tension, and there is no satisfying conclusion.

      Nothing occurred to me as I was learning about the story model that was important and left out.

      Even though I had been focused on the purpose of the story in my previous attempts to write novels, I allowed myself to get hung up on the structure as others had presented it to me without thinking about the purpose for using a particular structure. I found myself thinking too much about what part of the form comes next, and not what will best serve the story I am trying to tell.

      I also encountered an analysis of the characters from How to Train Your Dragon (the movie, not the book. They are vastly different) and why the resolution worked so well for Hiccup and Astrid. At the beginning they are both filling roles that don’t fit their natures. Astrid is doing well filling the role of dragon fighting viking, while Hiccup is failing. Over the course of the film Hiccup grows to fill the role by using his strengths rather than trying to overcome them, and Astrid takes on a different role that is more in keeping with her nature, allowing her to be more feminine without giving up her strength.

  3. Rich says:

    Question 1: What do stories do?

    • What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?

    1) Escape into a different world and exploration–Discovery.
    2) Living vicariously through another character–Wish fulfillment/Learning/Adventuring.
    3) Mystery, riddle, sense of wonder.
    4) Danger–fear of mortal or immortal dangers.
    5) Overcoming opposition–obstacles, enemies or solving a riddle.
    6) Justice.
    7) Redemption.
    8) Worthy sacrifice.
    9) Deserving characters winning through.

    • What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?

    1) Discovery of an Otherworld/Time period
    2) Unpredictability of the Roguish heroes/Antiheroes (impure protagonists)
    3) Danger and Adventure.
    4) Darkness/Grittiness of the milieu
    5) Mystery
    6) The consequences of Dangerous or Twisted Magic
    7) Escalating danger to the world or characters bearing a fate worse than death
    8) How even in the darkest times, light wins through.
    9) Established tropes being twisted.

    • What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?

    1) A familiar-but-twisted historical milieu–a place where witches, warlocks, monsters and dark things are too common.
    2) A character who is sympathetic and downtrodden, yet by scarred and toughened by the experience. Someone who is capable of doing a job he fears, loathes and has lost much to, from whose point of view stakes are heightened on a mission for a worthy cause.
    3) An adventure through a dark realm fraught with evil, spells, dark creatures, oppressed people and people with dark desires.
    4) Edge of your seat suspense.
    5) Mystery. A problem solved while avoiding myriad dangers.
    6) The satisfaction of winning out against stakes worse than death.
    7) A frustrating search for Redemption

    • What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?

    1) Eroticism/Romance/Love story/Love triangle.
    2) Happily ever after resolution.
    3) An original magic system.
    4) An average or mundane life.
    5) Complete historical accuracy.
    6) Beauty/Purity.
    7) Hard Science.
    8) Politics.
    9) Aliens/Advanced technology
    10) A Good Wizard
    11) Superpowers
    12) Catching a murderer
    13) A large team.
    14) Gender equality or neutral genders/ Sexual preference equality
    15) Car chases.
    16) A MacGuffin.
    17) A clash of armies.
    18) Unicorns (magical creatures).
    19) Magical races.
    20) Comic relief.

    Question 2: How does story generate those effects?

    Please sketch an answer these questions:

    1. What are the parts of story?

    Character, Milieu, Problem and Plot

    2. What leads us to get behind a main character?

    Sympathy or Interest: Hardships, Vulnerability, Underdog, Capability, and Instructive.

    3. What makes a character likable or deserving?

    Their good outweighing their bad. Self sacrificing, Hopeful, Proactive, Hard-working, Benevolence, Protecting, Good humored or funny, Courageous, a lack of willingness to drag others into their problems.

    4. What makes characters interesting?

    Examples of Wish fulfillment, Has Secrets, Danger, Power, Abilities, Wealth, Beauty, Surprise (acts against preconceived notions), Dynamics with other characters, Skill set and Capability.

    5. What makes us feel suspense–hope and fear–for a character?

    Liking the Characters, Understanding the Goal, Conflicts, Tensions, Dangers, Obstacles and Stakes.

    6. What makes us feel triumph?

    Failing before succeeding. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

    7. What makes us feel puzzlement and curiosity?

    We’re puzzled when we don’t understand something or there is a lack of clarity. Curiosity is when the readers are given enough to form a question, but not the answer. Or, when an opportunity for knowledge is cultivated.

    8. What makes us feel insight?

    Arcane knowledge. Specialty information–knowledge gained through career specifics, areas of expertise or learning–doled out in inner dialogue or taught to another character.

    9. What is the difference between a guided experience and real life? What’s the same?

    1) A guided experience moves toward an intended experience with a specific ending, while life can be chaotic and aimless.

    2) Guided experiences can be manipulated to skip or cut boring parts, confusion, repetition, generate sympathy.

    3) People are people. Whether they’re in a fantasy realm, a technologically advanced future, a dystopian future, trying to find their ways out of danger (from evil or man), lonely and looking for love, trying to find a murderer, stop a crime, pull off a crime, or break a regime’s hold over a people, they have lives that can be lost, hopes, dreams, aspirations, anger, heroism, cowardice, fear, loathing, hope, love, and some people rise when they are at their worst.

    Boom List:

    • A dark realm/milieu where they are more accustomed to darkness and evil that we are. Even what’s good is tainted by darkness.
    • Protagonists have been tempered by their milieu–they’re gritty, impure, reluctant, rogues or antiheroes–but they are capable/skilled characters.
    • Danger where the stakes are greater than just life or death. (Souls, damned eternity, evil unleashed on the world.)
    • Demons, creatures of darkness, familiars, monsters, witches and warlocks, and the darker side of human nature. Twists in the common views of those things.
    • Magic is evil (or thought of as such, and is mostly truth), and is of a religiously evil origin.
    • Secret lairs, forts, caches filled with artifacts, secret histories, tomes, spell components and specific weapons/gadgetry.
    • Thriller-like danger. (The protagonist is hunted, attacked and otherwise obstructed in life-threatening ways.) Adventure.
    • A mystery/secret which must be solved/discovered while dodging death.
    • A light in the darkness which gives hope to the downtrodden and beckons the attention of the forces of darkness.
    • A charismatic or unexpected villain.

    • John Brown says:


      Looks like you’ve been hard at work! Good job. And that you have a very good sketch of the type of experience you want to deliver.

      About how many hours did it take you on the two questions?

      We’re puzzled when we don’t understand something or there is a lack of clarity.

      If the clarity you’re talking about here is the who and why, then I agree. If it’s confusion with the text itself, I would suggest that’s probably not the type of lack of clarity we want. If you think about a murder mystery, it starts with a deal body and a bunch of clues and a bunch of questions–who did it, why, how do these clues stack up, etc. But all of that, especially the questions, is very clear in our minds. 🙂

  4. Rich says:

    This particular story is Dark Fantasy.

  5. John Brown says:

    Just an FYI. I’ve got a busy schedule of presentations and panels this weekend at the Life, The Universe, & Everything writing convention. So I’ll be reading all the posts, but it may be slowly 🙂

  6. AndrewV says:

    I’ve got the first question done. The whole thing probably took me about 2 hours. I’ll work on Question 2 soon.

    Question 1: What do stories do?

    • What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?

    “The Deep Conversation” – Two (or more) characters who have to discuss a subject in depth, particularly about an intriguing aspect of their situation I had not considered. This also works when discussing major life themes, but only if they relate to the story and are not preaching to the reader!

    “The Difficult Moral Choice” – The viewpoint character must make a difficult choice. Something painful and debatable. And certainly one that could blow up in his face.

    “The Valiant Man” – I love to see a hero fight the impossible odds for the right reason. Gray and anti-heroes are just fine and add spice to the soup, but I love to see a classic hero in action. The trick seems to be in not making the hero boring while still retaining the classic feel.

    • What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?

    “The Dramatic Battle” – The armies/navies line up. Both have something to lose. Each has a compelling figure or viewpoint character that I care about (either positively or for comeuppance purposes).

    “The Political Intrigue” – I love the combination of ‘seedy political maneuvering’ and ‘character just trying to do the right thing’. I also love watching the political chess board take shape in my mind.

    “The Vast Universe” – Sense of wonder is very important in SFF. I love to see a living, breathing universe trick me into believing I just got a glimpse into an alternate dimension, courtesy of the author.

    • What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?

    Some statements I’d like to compel people to say about my book:

    “I thought I had it figured out, but that twist got me.”
    “That battle was set up so well by what came earlier.”
    “It made me laugh in places.”
    “This book made me think about things.”
    “This world is huge but it didn’t overwhelm me.”
    “The action scenes really drew me in.”

    • What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?

    A complete naval gazing experience
    A huge focus on romance
    A huge focus on hard science
    A literary experience

    • John Brown says:

      Good job, Andrew. Interesting bullet about those conversations.

    • AndrewV says:

      Part Two:

      Question 2: How does story generate those effects?

      Please sketch an answer these questions:

      1. What are the parts of story?

      Setting, problem, character, and plot

      2. What leads us to get behind a main character?

      Sympathy, Vulnerability, Worthiness

      3. What makes a character likable or deserving?

      Courage, Humor, Charitable nature, Willing to sacrifice, Action oriented

      4. What makes characters interesting?

      Power, Ability, Humor, Surprise, Enigmatic

      5. What makes us feel suspense–hope and fear–for a character?

      We feel suspense by what the character lacks. It could be knowledge or power, but it could also be unity with other vital parties.

      Correct me if I’m wrong… but suspense is like a rickety bridge hanging between the reader/character and the character’s resolution. It is up to the author to make sure that bridge is made of fraying ropes and decaying wooden slats instead of solid steel and asphalt.

      6. What makes us feel triumph?

      Success proceeded by failure or struggle.

      7. What makes us feel puzzlement and curiosity?

      Lack of knowledge causes puzzlement, but lacing the knowledge gap with promise induces curiosity.

      8. What makes us feel insight?

      Insight comes when we’ve been given all the puzzle pieces and the picture has begun to take shape in our minds.

      9. What is the difference between a guided experience and real life? What’s the same?

      A guided experience has been structured for the enjoyment of a person or group of people. Real life is certainly structured (birth, life, death, afterlife) but it is not designed for enjoyment.

      Boom List:
      • Large fleets
      • Faster than light travel
      • Ansible like communications
      • Easily visualized action scenes
      • Tough, resourceful hero
      • A sultry, cunning, vile villainess
      • Well foreshadowed twists
      • Contact/Interaction with aliens
      • Consistently raised stakes
      • Big guns
      • Powerful Armor
      • An epic sense of adventure

      If you couldn’t tell… I’m going Space Opera here 🙂

  7. John McClain says:

    I probably spent a bit more time on this than you estimated. I did the activities for both questions before starting the test. I probably have 2-3 hours on question 1 and 10-12 hours for question 2. I generated 10 pages of notes along the way. Once I actually started the test, it went fairly quickly.

    Genre: Military Science Fiction

    Boom List:
    1. I like the underdog: outnumbered and/or outclassed.
    2. Powered armor.
    3. Professionalism.
    4. EXotic settings, non-terrestrial life.
    5. Science that has “some” basis in reality.
    6. Starships.
    7. Artificial intelligence.

    Question 1: What do stories do? (2 hrs)

    •What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?
    1. Immersion in a world of the author’s creation.
    2. Experiencing a perspective other than my own.
    3. I like novels where the author gets the details right.
    4. I enjoy the rollercoaster ride of emotion as the protagonist resolves his/her problem.

    •What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?
    1. They’re war stories.
    2. Common themes are duty, loyalty, honor, loss, betrayal, vengeance, etc.
    3. Technology that doesn’t exist outside of novels but might one day.
    4. Settings far from Earth can allow for a sense of being on the frontier.
    5. Adversaries can be other humans, aliens whose psychology we can understand, or inhuman (bugs).

    •What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?
    I will attempt to deliver something similar to what I’ve outlined above.

    •What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?
    1. Overly descriptive sex scenes.
    2. I won’t restrict myself to hard science.

    Question 2: How does story generate those effects? (8-10 hrs)

    1.What are the parts of story?
    Setting, character, problem, plot.

    2.What leads us to get behind a main character?
    Sympathy (hardship, underdog, vulnerable)
    Likeability (unselfish, courageous, hardworking)

    3.What makes a character likable or deserving?
    Unselfish, funny, courageous, hardworking, modest.

    4.What makes characters interesting?
    Power, ability, extraordinariness, beauty, humor, danger, secrets, surprise, variety.

    5.What makes us feel suspense–hope and fear–for a character?

    6.What makes us feel triumph?

    7.What makes us feel puzzlement and curiosity?
    Twists and surprises.

    8.What makes us feel insight?
    Learning why a character does something.

    9.What is the difference between a guided experience and real life? What’s the same?
    In a guided experience, emotions are guided by the text. The manner in which emotion is generated is the same in both cases.

    • John Brown says:

      More battles 🙂 Just did a panel yesterday with Larry Correia on action plots. It was SF, illegal arms runners.

      • John McClain says:

        Any chance that panel will find its way to YouTube? 🙂

        You know, I read a lot of Military SF and usually don’t have a shortage of story ideas. But, when I looked at the genre I’d posted, I drew a complete blank. I was afraid I was going to have to alter it a bit. But I started to think about what I’d written in my BOOM list and story ideas started to flow. I even thought of couple of things I left off the list (nanotechnology and FTL communication).

      • John Brown says:

        Someone did record the audio, but we didn’t have anyone filming it this year, alas. But next year we’re going to expand it to two hours and really get into it. Maybe we can do it then.

        Looking forward to seeing your story idea.

  8. Bret Booher says:

    Question 1:

    •What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?

    ?transference to a new world or experience. This plays into wish fulfillment. I’ll never be able to hulk-smash much more than an empty pop can or see “ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.”

    ?The fun of adventure

    ?Mystery, riddles, puzzles, complexities

    ?ascension and triumph

    ?falls from grace

    ?revulsion and horror

    ?the classic romance of the Victorian age

    ?passing the torch, progression from one person or generation to another

    •What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?

    ?I love me some steampunk and its derivatives. Dirigibles and trains, science that seems at once accessible and yet so fantastic. Swashbuckling gunslingers, gentleman’s clubs and secret societies, mystery, wonder, fun, automatons, pseudomagicscience, mad scientist and world changing inventions, Victorian period, historical connections

    •What is the experience I will attempt to deliver? Fun, Secret societies, automatons, good versus evil, pseudomagicscience, mad scientists, mystery, fun, Victorian inspired, adventure

    •What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver? straight up Victorian period, historical connections

    Boom List:

    • Setting is Victorian inspired. Misty, crowded streets. Definite social classes. Gentlemen’s clubs and secret societies

    • Protagonists are skilled at what they do be it scientist or detective. And while they’re good, they are often just outside the realm of accepted upper class. They’ve fallen in some way and have something to prove.

    • The antagonist has to be some kind of leader that uses religion or technology in a way that threatens the world/universe/ space-time continuum

    • protagonists often start discovering that they are behind and have trouble catching up

    • Magic is mysticism and limited

    • steam engines, dirigibles, clockwork men, bionic animals and people with wind up and spring loaded parts, pseudo-science of the 19th Century is alive and real

    • mystery and intrigue, ratiocination

    • A god-save-the-queen nationalism that is questioned by the protagonist

    • A villain that more often than not has legal support

    My brief summary of my answers to 2 of questions 2-9

    4.What makes characters interesting? Mystery, depth, if they have something the characters I’ve invested in need, desires of their own, the best characters–even side characters, have desires that could warrant their own stories

    5.What makes us feel suspense–hope and fear–for a character? If we think the character could fail or die. If we’re care enough about the character’s success while believing it isn’t guaranteed or if we think it is guaranteed if we worry about the price it will exact, then we hope and fear for the character.

    Insights? I’d say insight or confusion: A group of adrenaline junkes line up to jump off a very high bridge. There are two basic lines: one for bungee jumpers and one for parachuters. The bungee chord and the parachute aren’t the main draw, they are simply the things needed for an enjoyable experience. The experience is the free fall.

    What does any of that have to do with writing? That Hitchcock video had a segment where he said he really didn’t care about content, he was interested in giving the audience an experience. I look at some of the motifs and trappings of genre writing and I think that’s content, not the experience, but I do like the way one set of content delivers the experience better than others. So I look at the Boom list and such and I wonder am I really detailing experiences or characteristics of the genre? If I go to far with this, my brain goes down the rabbit hole and I lose a few hours.

  9. Greg Baum says:

    Genre: Mystery (with some cross-over to thriller)

    Question 1:

    What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?

    Scenes with high stakes (whether that be an action scene or a tense personal scene); beautiful writing; memorable characters (not always likable, but fully fleshed); detailed settings; serious intellectual work behind the writing; emotions of fear, suspense, love, respect, beauty, awe; tight, sparse prose; (self-)sacrifice

    What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?

    The reader’s role in problem solving; twists / surprises; clashing characters (conflicting motivations); rising tension (fear / concern for the protagonist); slow, unfolding complexity of situation

    What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?

    Engaging characters (both lovable and hate-able); fear and concern for a well-liked protagonist; worsening problems (both external and internal); strong prose; satisfying conclusion after a series of twists and surprises; growing suspense; a serious (non-saccharine) ending

    What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?

    Elaborate world-building; excessive backstory or explanation; a completely ‘happy’ ending

    Boom List:
    The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (great twist, good writing, interesting characters)
    Murder on the Orient Express (great twist, good writing, interesting characters, cool setting)
    Live Wire (great twists, multiple plot threads running, fast-paced, satisfying but sad resolution)
    Tell No One (great twists, made me very curious, fast-paced, decent ending)
    The Affair (fast-paced, tight prose, interesting characters)
    Joyland (great characters, great prose, great setting, decent twist)
    The Big Sleep (great writing, great setting, great characters, doesn’t pull punches)
    The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (amazing writing, great setting, amazing characters with internal and external conflicts, wonderful resolution)
    The Maltese Falcon (great characters, great conflicted motivations, decent writing, doesn’t pull punches)
    Faces of the Gone (interesting main character, good setting, good suspense / rising tension, good writing)

    Recurring elements: great twists, writing, characters, and settings; endings that are serious and don’t pull punches

    Alternative genre: Epic fantasy
    Differences between the two: Epic fantasy focuses more on world-building, often favors novelty over quality, both the story and the writing are frequently diluted by scale, tendency to rely on plot over story.

    My boom list: I want a story that has tight, spare, sparkling prose and an equally taut plot. I like good twists. I like characters who are complicated, who face internal and external dilemmas, and who are involved with other characters with competing motivations; at the end, I want my story to have a serious ending that is satisfying without being sentimental.

    Question 2:

    What are the parts of story?
    Setting, Character, Problem, Plot

    What leads us to get behind a main character?
    Interesting, Underdog/Vulnerable/Marginalized/In trouble, Deserving

    Additional elements not captured by this model:
    Beauty—Yes, genre fiction in particular centers on emotional experience and plot, but I believe the best books—both genre and otherwise—also aim to be beautiful (and, by extension, true). To paraphrase Stephen King: “It begins with the words.”

    New Insights:
    I read most of this material years ago, when John first posted it, so the content itself wasn’t new. What was new, to me, though, was having something click. With many of the novels I wrote, I felt myself struggling to map different story models (3-act structure, Dan Wells’s seven-point thing) onto the narrative with greater or lesser degrees of success. In the last two novels I’ve written, I’ve attempted to follow Stephen King’s advice to resist plot and instead to focus on excavating the story (which I think is similar to Dean Wesley Smith’s advice to write into the dark). I believe my writing improved, but I still harbored doubts about the approach I was using—was I failing to include some key structural component, I wondered. Re-reading John’s advice (years later, with more experience and more models under my belt) helped me let go of those last concerns. I was already persuaded by John’s emphasis on functional elements, but re-reading this material at this point was very freeing.

    Did I miss an email or a link to the test? Couldn’t find that anywhere.

    • John Brown says:

      Boy, I’m really looking forward to everyone’s story ideas, including this one, Greg. And it looks like I have some thrillers to add to my never-ending reading queue.

      Test will be available early next week.

    • John Brown says:

      Glad to hear you felt the material was freeing. It’s interesting the different perspective a few novels brings.

  10. Joshua says:

    Sorry about running a little late. Question 1 took me about an hour and a half. I’ll have Question 2 up a little bit later.

    Question 1: What do stories do?

    What are the parts of story that I love?
    ? Action, Adventure
    ? Immensity, Mystery, and Wonder of a world that feels real and is fun to explore
    ? Selflessness / Feats of valor and bravery
    ? Problem solving / Creative solution making in the face of danger
    ? Characters who view the world in unique and interesting ways
    ? Falling in love (not necessarily romantic love)

    What are the parts of the genre I love?
    ? New worlds and cultures with deep histories
    ? Thrilling storytelling

    What experience will I attempt to deliver?
    ? Adventure and acts of bravery
    ? A world that is both realized and yet still mysterious
    ? Characters with goals
    ? Unusual relationship dynamics*

    What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?
    ? A romantic subplot
    ? Multiple POV characters

    *I feel like I should explain this lest you gentlemen get weird ideas about me. I grew up in foster care, the typical nuclear family model is a bit of a mystery to me. A beta reader of mine put it more eloquently than I could by saying, “Your characters tend to band together in little duct taped, makeshift families.” Until I had it put to me that way I hadn’t realized that was a running theme I used; even if this wasn’t an experience I wanted to deliver, I’m not entirely sure I could write it out of my stories.

    • John Brown says:

      Boy, don’t write that out. Unless you want to. But that’s zing for me. Sounds totally interesting. It reminds me of the beginning of Bloody Jack, which I absolutely loved.

  11. Rich says:

    I’m really not sure how long the questions took me, as I can only access the internet with any kind of peace sporadically. (I have three kids: two confrontational teens and a special needs pre-teen.) I would guess three or four hours in total.

    As for insights: I’ve heard the whole break down the novel bit before, but it was always either break it down OR enjoy it, never both–so I went with the enjoy option. And I’ve broken things down by genre and story part, but I’d never considered tearing down the elements of the stories *I like*. Never considered looking at the elements I thought were cool across the storytelling spectrum. Basically, I’ve had it pounded into me that “Books aren’t movies,” because they’re two different mediums. So, when I started looking at the elements I liked across the mediums for the first time, it was the first time I was able to identify the specific genre elements (not the motifs, as I was discussing with Bret).

    Watching the Hitchcock video (and reading the article) showed me the opposite: it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing (what the film is about), it is effecting the audience on an emotional level that we’re trying to achieve. That is: suspense is the key element in any genre.

    In summary: Learning how to identify what I like about a genre and how to apply suspense in it were so clearly illustrated that if they weren’t insights proper, what I gleaned from them was just as valuable.

    I don’t think I memorized much on the 27 SFWA posts–I don’t know if my brain will work in that fashion–but I got the gist, and am not afraid to reference them as needed.

  12. Rich says:

    I took me the longest time to read the 27 installments.

  13. Mike Fenton says:

    Question 1: What do stories do? (2 hrs)

    Genre: Fantasy

    What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?
    I love seeing good people sacrifice and struggle.
    I love a little bit of tragedy.
    I love a good punch in the gut from a story.
    I love the bittersweet noble ending.
    I love sequences (action or not) that build tension in the reader.
    I love plots with sharp turns and reversals.
    I love headstrong, bitter or sarcastic characters (Tyrion Lanister, Sand Dan Glokta, Locke Lamora).
    I love “Stand up and cheer” moments.
    I love long form stories.

    What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?
    I love a good magic system with solid rules, but still a little bit of mystery. I want there to be a solid foundation for readers to understand, but leaving the rest to be a mystery.
    I love the journey from solving small problems to eventually overcoming the seemingly impossible challenge at the end.
    I love a world or setting that has it’s own mysteries.

    What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?
    I want to deliver characters who are flawed, but people love them for it. I want to produce a world that provokes curiosity and a sense of wonder in the reader. I want my PoV characters facing tough choices and stuck in no win situations. I want the reader to see the character suffer against what seems to be insurmountable odds and then I want the characters to go outside the box to rise up to meet the challenge.

    What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?
    While I love world building, I don’t want to wander away from a focus on story and character. As a reader, I hate it when an author gets lost in his own world.
    I don’t believe in the “ambiguous ending” (See the Sopranos or Inception).

    Question 2: How does story generate those effects? (8-10 hrs)
    Please sketch an answer these questions:
    What are the parts of story?
    Problem, Character, Plot/Structure, Setting

    What leads us to get behind a main character?
    Sympathy for the Character. The character has to have attributes the reader will attach to.

    There must be a problem or set of challenges that the character faces that will cause your target reader to root for the character .

    What makes a character likable or deserving?
    Their motivations and deeds. Readers like characters who generally have mostly admirable motives/goals and who act to achieve those goals. Readers will generally forgive less than noble short cuts a character takes if the sum of their deeds are generally noble.

    What makes characters interesting?
    Position: The character can hold a job or title that grants them power over others or access to information, secrets or things that most people do not have.

    Extraordinary Skills/Abilities: The character is very good at “something”. This could be magical powers or it could be extraordinary skills with a computer. The character can be completely incompetent in other areas, but as long as they demonstrate competence in one area they will elicit respect from the reader.

    Wish-Fulfillment: The character is one with which the reader can related.

    Dichotomy: Readers like characters that push against our assumptions.

    Peril: Readers will empathize with characters who are at risk through no fault, or little fault of their own. If it is their fault the best approach is to have the potential consequences of their actions far outweigh the “crime”. Readers tend to have a strong sense of “fairness”. A character who is being treated unfairly will more likable.

    What makes us feel suspense–hope and fear–for a character?
    Readers tend to feel suspense when they are uncertain that the character will achieve their desired goals or they are sure that something awful is about to happen and the character is sure to fail.

    I would also say that when a character is in a situation that they will likely succeed but the cost is obviously so severe that it may not be worth it (death for example) then the reader is feeling suspense.

    A good plot twist that turns success into failure also builds suspense. It demonstrates that the characters can fail and might fail.

    What makes us feel triumph?
    Characters overcoming adversity. The larger the challenge and the longer the build up the better the sense of triumph. The term I love for this is the “Stand up and cheer” moment.

    A solid series of “Try/Fail” cycles followed by a “Stand up and cheer” climax.

    What makes us feel puzzlement and curiosity?
    Introducing mystery and causing the reader to ask questions. Hopefully not by having the characters ask the questions for the reader.

    What makes us feel insight?
    Taking the pieces of the story and figuring out things just before the character’s do

    What is the difference between a guided experience and real life? What’s the same?
    The Guided experience is designed to produce a range of emotions in the target audience and will hopefully conclude in a satisfying fashion. While real life can and will produce the same emotions it is is not structured and often does not have a satisfying conclusion.

    New Insight: I’ve mostly picked up new things from taken a look at the genre novels that I love. While I’ve analyzed them in the past I found new things in their structure that I liked.

    Boom List Notes

    Stories I love

    First Law Books, Joe Abercrombie – Joe’s ability to produce extremely flawed characters that I still love. The shades of Gray in the story. The voice of several of the characters are also excellent. Sand Dan Glokta and Shivers have become model characters for me.

    The world has lots of old lost magic which gets me invested into the mysteries of the world.

    Red Country/The Heroes/Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie – While all of these are fantasy novels, they also merge in other genres. Red Country is a fantasy with a western spin. Best Served Cold is a Revenge novel. The Heroes is a military fantasy that takes place over a 3 day Gettysburg-like battle. They are set in the same world as the First Law Books. I put them on this list because they demonstrate that just because you a writing in one Genre, you should pull inspiration from many.

    Joe also does some great “Stand up and Cheer” moments for his characters.

    Song of Ice and Fire, GRR Martin – A Game of Thrones is a text book example of how to easy a reader into a huge world. It is also an excellent example of pacing (not so much with the later books). In books two and three Martin does a masterful job at taking Jamie Lanister and producing a sympathetic character despite his crimes.

    Martin also does an excellent job in the first few books at focusing on what matters in the world and controlling information the reader gets. Many fantasy authors would focus on the details of a battle. Martin tends to skip battles and deals with the aftermath instead. He will often have events that of significance to the world occurs off screen and the reader is left hearing a report of the events. This puts the reader in the same position as the PoV character when it comes to trying to determine the accuracy of the information.

    I also loved the politics of the first few books.

    George is a master of quick characterization in his early books. Out side of perhaps Star Wars, I can’t think of a series where people obsess over very minor characters as much as they do in ASoIaF.

    Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan – World Building and Scope. While at the end Jordan had expanded his story to a degree that was far too large, the first three books are an excellent example of how to easy the reader into a huge epic fantasy world.

    As with the First Law books, WoT is full of old world mystery and hidden secrets.

    As with the Abercrombie books, Jordan could write some excellent “Stand up and Cheer” moments. Even if you slogged through a slow book where nothing happened, often those last 50 pages were epic.

    I often loved Jordan’s abstracted melee combat style.

    Bloodchild, Octavia Butler – Not fantasy, but it could be with some minor changes. A punch in the gut short story where the main character is forced to make some hard decisions.

    The Seer King, Chris Bunch – The voice of the main character carried me through this series. I also love how Bunch handled a military fantasy. Also a great underdog story.

    The Name of the Wind, Pat Rothfuss – World Building. Excellent character voice. How to build a plot with alot of mystery.

    The Name of the Wind also showed that Politics is intriguing, no matter what the scale. Be it Game of Thrones or a School of Magic.

    Once a Hero, Mike Stackpole – How to do an Epic Fantasy that spans 500 years in about 120,000. Epic does not mean word count. Keep it moving and concise.

    Curse of Chalion/Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold – Excellent Voice and a perfect example of how to use non standard fantasy heroes.

    Boom List.
    1 I’m using a low magic medieval fantasy world as a baseline.

    2 Old World with hidden secrets laying around to discover.

    3 One or two characters with a strong voice.

    4 Politics. Specifically people in power who wish to manipulate or block our heroes from accomplishing their goals.

    5 A group characters with mixed motivations.

    6 Focus on a team of 4 – 6 characters focused on a specific set of goals. Not everyone in the team will share all of the same goals.

    7 Tough choices for that team, both in terms of moral and in terms of sacrificing personal goals for team achievements.

    8 While the team members have personal desires, they are bound by a strong sense of patriotism. They will all be forced to question the status quo of their government and if they wish to take actions to change it.

    9 Consistently raised stakes. Initial success leads to new problems. “Yes, you got what you wanted BUT….” situations.

    10 A focused story, but a sense of a larger world.

    11 Action – Combat with consequences

    12 Magic that has solid rules that the characters understand (initially) but beyond that there is a lot of mystery.

    • John Brown says:

      Great work, Mike. And easy to read formatting 🙂

      What makes us feel puzzlement and curiosity?
      Introducing mystery and causing the reader to ask questions. Hopefully not by having the characters ask the questions for the reader.

      What makes us feel insight?
      Taking the pieces of the story and figuring out things just before the character’s do

      I’m not clear what you’re referring to with the first question. But if it’s that the character can’t explicitly state the question, then let me have you rethink that answer. There are many effective stories when the MC specifically and explicitly asks the question. In fact, I think the majority of them do this. What is this thing? Who dun it? What happened? Where did the virus come from? What’s causing this?

      I would also suggest that while insight can be felt by the reader coming to the answer before the character, that’s not necessary. Insight also comes when the character explains the facts. It’s the moment of putting the pieces together after having struggled with them. This is why in many mystery stories the MC or criminal will explain motive and method and we’ll have the dots connected for us.

      Good work!

  14. Mike Fenton says:

    Feedback on Week 1

    Time wise I spent about what you estimated on both parts.

    Over all I thought the week one material was good. I liked that the approach to story building was very different from other techniques I have read.

    One Minor Note: I would have liked the SWFA posts to be condensed to a single PDF or epub. Being in the northeast, we got hammered this week with storms and my internet was out at times. It would have been nice to have the document where I could read it offline.

    Having the material in another format means you are not dependent on someone else’s server and it gives people more options to consume the material.

  15. Mark Holt says:

    I don’t understand what you mean by “identify another very different genre.” Do you mean one that I also enjoy, or does it just have to be different? I’m not sure why I’m doing this. If I choose Kabuki theater, I know it’s different from what I like, but how does that help me?

  16. Mark Holt says:

    Genre: Epic/Heroic Fantasy

    What are the parts of the experience of novels that I love?
    Getting swept up/swept away in another world
    Seeing characters sacrifice and deal with loss
    Stories of redemption and hope
    Romance except the kinds I don’t like, which is most of them

    What are the parts of the experience of the genre that I love?
    – Experiencing heroism
    – Wielding magic
    – Watching swordfights, barfights, wizard fights, monster fights, and
    all forms of general badassery.
    – uncovering ancient secrets/unlocking mysteries

    What is the experience I will attempt to deliver?
    – a fantasy high on the worldbuilding/hard magic scale
    – a story of victory through impossible odds
    – how good is changed when it is faced with evil

    What types of things do I not feel compelled to deliver?
    – a detailed romance outside of the main plot
    – characters who act childishly or conform to stereotypes
    – narrative that is overly episodic
    – didactic or heavy-handed themes

    Boom List
    – Complex magic system which allows characters to specialize and achieve
    different types of mastery. Also affords the opportunity for tons
    of surprise in spite of adequate foreshadowing.
    – Secrets both revealed and hinted at–in the history of the world,
    within buildings (secret passages), in the magic, in the plans of
    POV characters, and in the geography itself. The more ancient the secret,
    the more interesting it is. Love to know how it was kept secret and why
    now is the best time for it to be revealed.
    – Characters who currently represent, or who are destined to achieve, the
    absolute pinnacle of some form of human endeavor. Explore what it costs
    them to get there.
    – Formal testing/trial/ordeal as a means of advancement or qualification
    – Specific details about the use of violence. I love finding out awesome
    reasons why some characters become more badass than others, and watching
    them along the way.
    – Villain must be way more powerful than protagonist and all his friends,
    and should be way smarter, too (or must seem so for most of the story)
    – Though the world enjoys plenty of civilization, the characters are thrust
    to the edge of it, beyond the help of laws or mores.
    – Characters don’t have to be angels, in fact they can be quite flawed, but
    they have a code they will let the earth burn before they ever break. Part
    of the story might be the character himself discovering where he
    truly draws the line
    – Valediction for someone who lost everything for the best of reasons
    – If there is a love story, it should be between people who I would like to
    be around myself.

  17. Mark Holt says:

    Question 2:
    – what leads us to get behind a main character?

    I have thought a lot about this. So much of what used to be taken for granted about sympathy is changing in my genre (fantasy). The rise of the “grimdark” subgenre is perhaps the foremost example, but all over the wider genre, characters are more morally ambiguous than they used to be. Obviously, a large part of the audience still wants to root for the good guy. However, it seems many authors are developing a preference for other traits that readers want to root for even more. Ability, as you defined it, is definitely one of the first things that comes to mind.

    I read Mark Lawrence’s Thorns trilogy and was totally sucked in, even though Jorg Ancrath is about the worst good guy you’ve ever run across. He lies, betrays his friends, hurts those who love him, even kills innocents. But he gets the freaking job done, and, when he does it, it stays done. He lives in a brutal world, and he’s survived some hardcore shit, so we forgive part of what he does, we watch the rest of it in morbid fascination, but either way, we’re on board for his story.

    In the Fable series of video games (also fantasy), the player can decide between good and evil decisions. Should I kick that child? Kill that merchant for no reason? It doesn’t matter; once you evade the police, the only lasting effect is your character’s alignment, which gradually shifts as you play. Some story options are only open to you if you’re good, some only if you’re evil. The game itself reserves judgment. I struggled with this and eventually stopped playing for that reason, but the games are hugely popular.

    One pitfall of this, as you may guess, is that the choice of protagonist and antagonist can eventually be sort of arbitrary. Just flip a coin and follow one, and hope you don’t get it wrong (or maybe you get it wrong on purpose. For an example of this, read anything by Joe Abercrombie).

    So, whether because writers have discovered new traits that make a character someone the audience can get behind, or because the audience is being trained to respond to those traits, it seems we are more interested in decisive, capable main characters than in nice ones.

    Considering the type of person whose biography I’d choose to read, I can’t say I blame them.

    – what makes us feel insight?

    I chose this question because I think so many fantasy books overlook the powerful ways to convey insight. One of the most oft-repeated rules of writing is “show, don’t tell.” Sometimes, this advice can be overlooked without too much trouble, but if the character has a realization and we are simply privy to his thoughts–it just isn’t satisfying. So how do you “show” someone reaching an insight?

    Before I started writing, I was a film student. In my acting and directing classes, we learned about the techniques of exposition. “Exposition” to a fantasy writer usually means something he has to trick the reader into swallowing, because it’s world-building exposition. But character exposition requires no spoonful of sugar, because it’s part of the exact medicine the reader picked up the book to get. And in film it can be fairly straightforward–surround the character with those things that are extraordinary about his worldview, his lifestyle, etc., but have him react to them as he would of course do–as something he sees every day.

    Consider The Godfather. At the beginning of the movie, at his sister’s wedding, Michael Corleone explains to his date, Kay, how his father, the Don, helped Johnny Fontaine get his start in show business. From just a few lines, we get tons of information about the family business, Michael’s distance from it, and Kay’s naivete. At the same time, the setting (a wedding) strikes a powerful contrast, showing the veneer of civilization and respectability that must be maintained. The rich and powerful attend the wedding, and the FBI take down their plate numbers. They don’t need to tell us this is a mob family, we get it, and so many of the ramifications become clear without being spelled out precisely because of how we get it.

    Resolving a conflict through insight is closely tied to what we know about the character who has the insight–that character’s exposition. This tie is especially important in a book, when we can’t truly “show” anything. The writer has to give us the means to understand the reasons for the insight before we learn of the insight itself. She has to withhold some things (and hopefully reveal something in what is withheld), and to expose others, so we know enough about the character, his culture, his family, his past, his motivations, to have the at least the possibility of reaching that insight before he does. Then we don’t have to be told about the insight. We don’t even have to be shown–we show ourselves, and thereby get the feeling of discovery that we come to great stories to find. What many fantasy writers fail to see (and so they opt for two wizards shooting beams at each other) is that it is this feeling, and not the insight, that resolves the conflict.

    I think your model of story is a great one. I would like it to be formatted closer to an outline style, with terser and more descriptive titles. I understand that’s not the way you originally wrote it, but for it to work as curriculum it should be formatted as curriculum and not as a several posts of equal length. (I get the impression you’re already doing this.)

    I also think we should study the topics dealing with beginning at the beginning of our course project, with only enough exposure to the middle and end to help us avoid making unwitting decisions against the model that can’t be reversed later. When we have written a first draft of the beginning, we study the theory of the middle, then we write the middle, etc. I say this because, though I am firmly in the outliner camp, I foresee some difficulty for those pantsers among us making as much use of the theory as the outliners will. Your curriculum, when fully developed and formatted, should be equally accessible and useful to both. (or available in two forms perhaps?)

    The information on proportion should be presented last, as it seems to me to be something that will be considered almost entirely in rewrites. (How will someone know when they have reached 10% of a book that hasn’t been written yet?)

  18. John Brown says:

    Great, thoughtful post, Mark.

    A few responses.

    to have the at least the possibility of reaching that insight before he does.

    Must we reach it before the main character does to feel an aha? There are Lee Child stories where Reacher knows it before the reader. Same goes for Patrick Jane in The Mentalist or Sherlock. And I still feel a sense of aha and insight when the truth is revealed. We might be talking about two different effects with the same name. But it’s something to consider. For me, insight comes after struggling with the puzzle or mystery or question. No struggle, no big sense of aha. The bigger the struggle, the bigger the aha feels. But I haven’t found, for me, that it’s tied to knowing it before the character. Same with triumph.

    I’m not quite sure I understand your suggestion for something formatted more in outline style. Can you give me an example so I can see more clearly what you’re suggesting? 🙂 And are you talking about the last part of the series on structure?

    Thanks for the suggestion to focus on the parts when we’re about to write them. It’s a valid way to break up the material. I do have some activities planned along those lines, so we will be doing some of that for sure.

    The stuff on proportion has two purposes. First, I wanted to show that the idea that there is only one proportion that works is false. There’s a huge range in successful novels. I want folks to know that up front before folks start so they don’t lock themselves into anything as they are writing.

    Second, we will be setting up rough estimates for the number of events in our novels before we write. Seeing the range will give folks an idea of the number of events they can play with for each phase for their size of novel. Of course it may change as they write, but it’s nice to know beforehand. Even if you only want to do the most basic of sketches.

    As for the pure pantser, the person who sketches by simply writing draft and refuses to do it any other way, I think you’re right–some of the techniques I use may not be something they are inclined to try. And, frankly, I don’t know how to help them pants their way through it because while I leave a lot of gaps in my sketches, I’m not a pure pantser.

    I think there’s probably a lot they may apply, but I can’t imagine writing without a sketch of the story. No wait, that’s not true. I can imagine. That’s how I used to write. And all it netted me were the beginnings of five novels. I just don’t know how to finish a novel that way.

    I know Lee Child and Dean Koontz swear by it. Although Koontz in his book on how to write a bestselling book back in the ’80s swore by an outline. Or at least a one or two page sketch. But that man has done this almost 100 times now. I think he knows the form well enough to do it on the fly. Cornwell said the same thing in his comments.

    If someone’s willing to sketch, via draft or other means, to the point of defining their story setup. Then I think it will help because they can use it as they go. But if they don’t want to sketch even that, they’re on a different path.

    So I guess that’s the long way of saying that I don’t know if this material will ever be of as much use to pure pantsers as folks who find it helpful to do some sketching up front 🙂

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