John C. Wright’s Patented One Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction

Note: this is a reprint of an article I wrote in January of 2011. I reprint it here as a companion to my previous article on how to get published.

Here is the John C. Wright patented one-session lesson in the mechanics of how to write fiction.

A word of explanation:

I wrote the following to a friend of mine who is a nonfiction writer of some fame and accomplishment, who was toying with the idea of writing fiction. We batted around some ideas and I have been encouraging (read: pestering) him to take up the project seriously.

He wrote back and said that while putting the logical format to a work of nonfiction was clear enough, he was not big on this artistic and poetical stuff. I took it upon myself to show him the logic behind the stuff that dreams are made of.

So here is what I wrote to provoke him to write, and I share it with any and all comers who wish alike to be writers.

For my part, I am eager to share my trade secrets. I do not fear competition. Unlike every other field, my value as a writer goes up, not down, the more competition I have: because more science fiction writers means more science fiction readers, a larger field, and more money in the field.

So I think everyone should try their hand at writing. I cannot read my own work for pleasure, after all.

* * *

Let me try to encourage you. First, get that book I recommended, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Maass. Second, actually set aside time to write your novel, time when you are not allowed to do anything else or find any other distractions. Sit and stare at the blank page for four hours. The tedium will either break your brain or break open any writers block.

I am so totally not kidding: if you want to learn Kung Fu, you must learn to break bricks with your head. If you want to be a fiction writer, you must learn to stare at a blank page with nothing but your name on the top without flinching, without weeping, without getting up to get a beer to fortify your faltering courage.

How it is done? How does one fill in the horrid pallid blankness of the blank paper, as monstrous as the whiteness of the White Whale sought by Ahab? Good question. There is a craft to it, a certain mechanics.

Let us take an example of a hypothetical first chapter of a hypothetical book. Let us pretend the book is called OLD MEN SHALL DREAM DREAMS.

CHAPTER ONE: THE NIGHTMARE OF NOTTING HILL

At first, I thought he was carrying the corpse of a child.

My professor of Applied Military Theology, Colonel MacNab came walking slowly into my little room in southeast London, the little oblong box on his back, and a cold and grim look on his features. I stood up and pulled off my cap, and MacNab scowled. “Not to worry. Its not human. We think. Clear a space and give us hand, there’s a good lad.”

It was dark except for the moon, and the streets below had been cleared of traffic. The only noise from outside was the clatter of an antiaircraft gun being pulled by a team of horses up the lane to toward the churchyard, and the swearing of the teamster.

I pushed the papers I was grading to one side, and the pint of bitter to another. This unfortunately put it into the Professor’s reach, and while I was hauling the small coffin off his shoulders to the table, he helped himself to a long swig at my drink, which I thought most unsanitary of him. “You have terrible taste in ale, lad!” he exclaimed, wiping his mustache on his sleeve and raising my mug for a second long pull. “When are you going to stop drinking this penny-shop swill? Did you make it in your bathtub?”

I drew the blackout curtains and lit a lamp from the fireplace. He bent to open the casket lid.

Whatever I was expecting, it was not this. I crept slowly closer, raising the lamp, and the yellow light spilled over the little body. It was no bigger than three feet, dressed in a bright green jacket, complete with folded cuffs with brass buttons, a waistcoat with knee breeches. It looked like a gentrified yeoman or squire from the last century.

The hair on its head was dark and curly, as was the thick hair on its bare feet. There was some stubble on its cheeks, enough to prove this was no child. The eyes had not been sewn shut, and one of them was open, showing a milky white slit behind, watching me sardonically. The body had been packed in little fragrant leaves, so there was no smell. The decomposition was not advanced: the skin was colorless and dark, and pulled back slightly from the lips.

“Was this what the German agents were trying to smuggle out of Notting Hill?” I asked MacNab. “A circus clown? Why did they bury him in costume?”

MacNab snorted, “Clown! The Oldfoots of Southfarthing are not a large clan, but their roots go back to the origins of the Shire. He is Odro son of Otho. Or so the letter we recovered in his vest pocket says. The fairytale languages department translated it.”

“Who is he?”

“An imaginary being. And not one the author had in the forefront of his mind. It comes from some background material he toyed with and never wrote down. At first I thought it was another Oompa-Loompa, but Dahl over at the Home Office says it comes from a world even more divorced from Mundane Earth than his. Look at how solid, even after death! This is the third complete manifestation. You recall how much trouble the second manifestation gave the Department.”

“Are you sure this is a manifestation? It looks so … normal. Not dangerous a bit. Are you sure this is not a midget?”

“A midget who can vanish through a hedgerow without stirring a leaf, who can throw a dirk across a crowded street and through the mailslot of a door to hit a brownshirt in the leg, and who can talk to birds and cab horses and get them to do what he says? Oh, he led us and Jerry a merry chase indeed. He was talking to someone or something in the river before the German agent did him in.”

“German agent?”

“Or the agent of a darker power. We did not recover any bodies, and there at least three on the team. The motor launch the villains meant to make their escape upon was pulled underwater by some powerful creature, a giant squid of something, and was lost with all hands. The police are dragging the river now.”

“A giant what? There is nothing like that in the Thames!”

“And nothing like Mister Otho Oldfoot of Southfarthing. We think he comes from a completed universe, not a fragment. I asked doctor Smithwork to come by and do an autopsy, but I will wager a whole evening of drinks that Smithwork will find no cause of death. There is no bullethole, no stab wound.”

“Poison?”

“Spiritual poison. He was slain by the Great Fear.”

“But–then why ask Dr. Smithwork to come here? Surely the campus laboratory…”

“I see you still have your little statues and trinkets hanging up all over your flat. Virgin Mary. Saint George. Saint — who the hell is that with the dog? — and I sure you said your beads. We might have need of all that superstitious fa-de-la before the night is through. You have a crucifix? Put it on. You have any holy water, holy oil, sanctified communion cookies? We may need something to throw at the shadow when it materializes here.”

“Layman are not allowed to carry around the blessed Host to throw at people.”

“Who said anything about people?” Professor MacNab grunted and took another swig from my mug, scowling. “Ach! You drink swill. Can’t you afford to buy something better?”

I took my crucifix from a drawer, crossed myself, and donned it.

“Do you have anything — a cross, a bible?” I asked him.

“Course not! I’m a man of science.”

“And if the shadow that wields the Great Fear is manifests here?”

“I’ll hide behind you and cry like a girl, as befits a man of science.”

There came a knock at the door.

The first thing to make up when writing is a conceit, a pretend thing, a false to facts idea that the reader will accept for the sake of the story. It has to be pretend, because if it is real, you are writing nonfiction.

The conceit it is actually the easiest part of the writing process: everyone has ideas for good stories. Every professional writer I have ever met carries a notebook in his back pocket (or her purse) to jot down story ideas as they come to him. Conceits for stories occur to most bookish people between once a week and once a day, but only pros write them down and remember them. That is why we are called “conceited.” That is also why pros react with snorts of scorn when amateurs ask us where we get our ideas. In the first place, no one know where ideas come from, and in the second, they are commonplace, and in the third, ideas are insignificant. The significant thing is the execution of the craftsmanship in carrying out the idea.

The conceit for the hypothetical novel OLD MEN SHALL DREAM DREAMS that the Inklings (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams) were secretly involved in a British project to investigate Nazi interest in the occult, and that some of the material in their famous books was, of course, a reflection of some real things their work for the government ran into, but were not allowed to reveal due to the Official Secrets Act.

Now every book has a beginning. The same story can start in one of two places: in media res, like Paradise Lost by Milton, starts in the middle of the action, rather than from the beginning, like the Book of Genesis by Moses.

If you notice what I did in this short scene, you can learn to do the same.

If you have ever performed a striptease act in stiletto heels atop a sleazy bar and gotten drink-besotted yet lustful customers to thrust large denomination bills through the g-string barely covering your swaying shapely hips to brush against the luscious tickling smoothness of your warm yet naked velvety skin, you already know the technique. But (ahem) since you and I are grossly overweight middle aged men, and the visual image involved here requires we wash out our brains with Listerine, you might need the technique explained in a more step by step fashion.

It has to do with showing just enough onstage to create in the mind of the audience that something more, something interesting, is next to come. The writer lures the reader into turning the page.

The first line is the “hook.” By mentioning an arresting image, the corpse of a child, but saying that something, whatever it is, is not the corpse of a child, the paragraph automatically provokes the reader to wonder what it is. What is not a child’s corpse but would be mistaken for one?

Curiosity is the most powerful and simplest of the lures to trick the reader into turning the page. Whole books and whole genres, called Mystery stories, entertain a large segment of the reading world just with the lure of curiosity and nothing else.

The exact same number of words could indeed put across the exact same information, but if the answer is given the reader before the reader has time to wonder about the question, the paragraph provokes no curiosity, and will seem oddly flat. Consider the same story opening with, “A dead Hobbit from Tolkein’s universe was brought by MacNab to my flat in London during the Blitz.”

The second sentence contains a second hook: the phrase “Professor of Applied Military Theology” is comical, but interesting, and the tells the reader what kind of story this is. The reader now knows he is not in our real world, and he wonders what kind of world he is in. A science fiction reader, in particular, will automatically start to wonder what the laws of nature and unreal conditions of that unreal world might be, that there would be such a class as Applied Military Theology.

The line “Don’t worry. It is not human.” is another pure negative lure. The reader automatically wonders, if it is not human, what is it?

The “Don’t worry” is there partly for ironic effect, since most people would find the presence of a dead nonhuman humanoid more disturbing rather than less. Humor, particularly dry humor, acts as a lubricant to make it easier for the reader to slip further into the story. You as a writer are trying to cast a spell like a hypnotist, trying to make the reader forget the real world for an hour and believe in the make-believe world as if it were as real. Everything that lubricates and makes the process easier is a plus.

The “Don’t worry” is also partly for character development. MacNab sounds unsympathetic about the death of the nonhuman he is carrying, or perhaps he is merely so hardened by war as to be unsympathetic to any death.

The second paragraph establishes the time and place, not by saying “Dateline: London, during the Blitz” but by including details specific to that period. There are many periods in history where teamsters drive horses, and many where there are anti-aircraft guns, and blackouts, but none where there are all three together. The reader makes an unconscious act of imagination, and fills in details of scene and setting.

It is especially important in a science fiction setting, where the reader assumes that the setting it is not our world, to establish immediately that the setting is very much like our world. By the second paragraph, the reader knows this story takes place not far from real history, but that it differs from our world by the introduction of one abnormality: a small corpse that looks like a child “but it is not human.”

The third paragraph is character development. A first person viewpoint character needs very little, the reader will automatically assume the viewpoint character is like him unless told otherwise. The other character in the scene is given a single personality quirk — he both steals a drink and complains about it, and he does not have particularly drawing-room manners. This is meant to be funny and endearing rather than annoying, and to portray in one stroke a brusque or absent-minded fellow.

Since we have by now established a setting and given him a name, the reader can be trusted to fill in the details of some sort of stereotypical Oxfordian professor, perhaps a blustery, bossy or jolly type. It is important to trust the reader (because you have no choice not to) to fill in lifelike details. The bit of business of stealing a drink establishes that the two character are friends. The use of the word “lad” and other clues show that the professor is either the older or the superior of the viewpoint character.

Please note that the technique for establishing character is the same as the technique used for establishing setting.

The paragraph does NOT say, “MacNab and I are old friends, despite that he is my mentor, and we were at ease with each other, even during desperate and dangerous situations. He helped himself to my drink without asking while my hands were full, which I thought was annoying, but forgivable. We share things like friends, but sometimes he shares more of my things than I do of his.”

What the paragraph does instead is put on clues that are unique to relationships of that kind, so that the reader deduces, rather than is told, that the relationship is one of that kind, a close but unequal one.

Again, having MacNab steal the drink but then complain about it, is meant to be funny, or at least ironic. Since MacNab makes several comments about drinking, the reader fills in the blank that he is a hard drinking man, who has (or who imagines he has) a discriminating taste in alcohol.

Notice the difference a small change in one of these clues can have. Had MacNab taken the drink, but instead of calling it bathtub swill, sighed and said, “Sorry to nick your drink, Old Man, but running is thirsty work! I’ve seen things this night — well, never mind what I have seen. Fear can dry your mouth out, that’s all. And too much fear — damn, I am parched, that’s all.”

This would have been of a different tone, but still setting out hooks and lures. The speaker interrupts himself, and does not say of what he is afraid, or from whom he was running, and this provokes reader curiosity again. It also would set a slightly more serious and menacing tone than the tone I selected. Selecting tone is a matter of judgment. The only general rule is that the tone should reinforce the general tone of the story. Don’t start a horror story with a joke; don’t start a joking story with a horror.

There is a certain delicate judgment involved in character development, since the selfsame words which strike one reader as funny will strike another as repellent. The only solution there is to be careful about first impressions, and to keep a certain consistency to re-enforce the impression you want to persuade the reader to create in his imagination.

This, by the way, is why writers use stereotypes. Far from being the evil thing all the rest of the world regards them as being, writers cannot write without stereotypes of people, places and things, and this is because our entire art consists of creating the illusion of a complete picture or a complete world out of a splinter or fragment of description, with the reader’s imagination filling in the majority of the details. One cannot do this without knowing what pictures the reader is likely to have in his imagination beforehand.

What the writer wants not to do is to be asked by the writer to use the stereotype in his head in a tired, trite, shopworn, or expected way, because then the reader notices, and is rightly put off, by the trick being pulled on him.

The defining characteristic of stereotypes is that they are unadmitted, unthinking, unconscious and unselfconscious, and using a stereotype in an expected way brings to the reader’s attention that he has these stereotypical sets of assumptions floating around in the back of his mind — and many a reader (especially readers who think of themselves as thoughtful) is a little miffed to discover that these unthinking assumptions are there, or are being played upon.

A reader whose stereotype assumptions differ from your own is even more aware. I recall reading a short story where, for example, nothing was described of the character aside from that he was a CIA agent. The writer expected me to fill in the details, so I (who come from a military background) filled in the details of a stalwart and patriotic member of the intelligence community. The writer (who must have come from a different background) told the story as if the character’s sinister and malign nature had been established — because, to him, the stereotype of the CIA agents is sinister and malign. And for me the spell was broken.

One way to avoid that error is to make sure that you use at least two stereotypes, preferably two stereotypes that contradict each other when describing any one character. In Tolkien, for example, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is both a dragon-hunting adventurer friendly to elves and wizards and also an overweight avuncular old bachelor who complains about guests hanging on the doorbell all day. Kal-El of Krypton is both a heroic Herculean strongman and also a mild-mannered reporter. Fu Manchu of the Si Fan both a criminal conspirator and also a dignified Mandarin too proud to break his word and a scientific genius. Note that each of these qualities could be described (or, better yet, adumbrated) in a sentence or two, but that the character also possesses an opposite quality.

While Bilbo, Superman, and Fu Manchu at one time or another, have been denounced as being stereotypes, note their enduring popularity; and compare them to the relatively flat and uninteresting versions of their less famous imitators, Curzad Ohmsford of Shady Vale, Marvelman, and the Mysterious Wu Fang. If you said “Who?” at these names, my point is made.

What makes Bilbo different from every other knight errant is that he is a short little stay-at-home squire. What makes Superman different from other vigilante supermen is that he is a hick farmboy trying to make good in the Big City. What makes Fu Manchu different from other crime lords is his code of impeccable honor. The first two are heroes you can feel sorry for; and the last is a villain you can admire.

The next paragraph is the first satisfaction of the curiosity provoked in the first paragraph. The thing that is not the corpse of a child and not a human being is described. The details are meant to fit in to some sort of picture the reader is forming in his mind, but not fit nicely or precisely, so that the reader can sort-of tell what is going on (we do not want the reader totally lost at sea, lest he put the book down) but not allowing the reader to see all that is going on.

The reason for this is allure: it is like the strip-tease mentioned above. When the nubile young doxy pushes the loop of fabric off her shoulder, and turns away, and looks back over her shoulder with half-lidded eyes, it is meant to allure the filthy old voyeurs in the audience into seeing the beginning of the curvaceous delight of the bosom exposed, but not all, not quite, not yet. A young woman taking off her bra when no one is looking does so in a more businesslike way, and the allure is minimal.

The paragraphs after each serve two purposes at once. Each one is supposed to answer, or partly answer, the readers’ question about what is going on, but them also to raise a new question or new twist on an old question. Pacing is the art of placing the questions and answers not to close together and not too far apart to keep the reader turning pages.

You tell the reader the corpse is not a human being. This raises the question of what it is. Then you mention German agents to make the reader raise the question of what the Germans are up to. Then you tell the reader what the corpse is: a short humanoid dressed in green and yellow. You mention what slew the corpse, something called the Great Fear. This raises the question of who or what is the Great Fear. Then you tell the reader what the German agents were up to, trying to smuggle the hobbit down the Thames. Then you mention Darker Powers. This raises the question of what are the Darker Power and what kind of dread and hellish thing do you use a crucifix rather than a Tommy Gun to face? Then mention that they may be coming here. Then there is a knock at the door.

It is a simple pattern with many variations: question, distraction, second question, first answer, second distraction, third question, second answer, and repeat. The longer the pause between question and answer, the longer the reader is kept lost at sea.

The biggest question, will the hero slay the villain and get the girl, has to be introduced in the first chapter kept until the last chapter to answer. So you either have to introduce the villain, or the clue leading to the henchmen leading to the villain, in the first chapter, or you have to introduce the girl and make her seem lovely to the reader. If your hero is a Hobbit rather than a Frenchman, you are allowed to introduce a lovely bit of home and hearth and beloved countryside rather than a lovely girl.

The villain can be anything (animal, vegetable or mineral) that the hero hates or fears or needs to overcome.

The clue that starts the thread that leads to the villain can be a very small thread indeed. Consider the following opening of two paragraphs, eight lines in total:

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

“Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved ; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.”

The thin thread here is that, of course, it is too much of a good thing that anyone should possess perpetual youth and inexhaustible wealth. That thread leads step by darker step to a magic ring, which turns out to be a cursed magic ring, and the curse is from the darkest of Dark Lands itself. Mr. Bilbo’s perpetual youth is not just unnatural, it is a gift from the pit of Hell, and the Witch-King on a black steed is already being drawn and lured toward peaceful Hobbiton by the dread ring, the Ruling Ring, the One. The Witch King is but a lesser shadow of the Great Shadow. And the gold band on the stubby hand of the silly little hobbit man is the power that can enslave the will, darken minds, corrupt souls, and ruin the world. The thread leads all the way to the Cracks of Doom.

Tolkien knew what he was doing, for he actually introduces his villain in the second paragraph of page one. The reader wonders at the long life of the harmless country squire, and may perk up his ears, but he is not yet to suspect the chain leading back link by link to the Dark Tower. The question of “Why is Bilbo so lucky?” leads, question by question, to the question, “Now that Frodo is broken by the Ring, and put it on his finger while standing in the very Cracks of Doom in the center of the Dark Land, how can the world be saved when destruction seems certain? And where did that wretched Gollum go?”

Just as the villain does not need to be a villain, so too the the girl does not need to be a girl, or even a human being, or even a physical thing, she only needs to be something, anything, precious to the hero that he seeks and follows and vows to win. She can also be at the end of a very long thread with many twists and turns, but the beginning of the thread has to be in chapter one.

All the little questions follow smaller arcs within the chapters.

Please note the difference between a science fiction reader and a normal reader or “muggle” at this point. A muggle has a very low tolerance to no tolerance for being lost at sea when it comes to matters of unearthly or extraterrestrial props, setting, events. If the scene is too strange to him, he will not make the imaginative leap to fill in the details, his mind will be blank of images, and the strangeness will repel rather than allure. He will say, “but that is not real!” and the hypnotic spell will break, and he will close the book.

Science fiction readers are the opposite. They like the sensation of being lost at sea and not knowing what is going on, and will wait with the patience of Job to be allowed to figure out the unreal reality, provided, of course, that you play fair with them, and actually have a real unreal reality to figure out.

Let me emphasize two points:

Point one: First, this willingness to be lost tends not to work across genre boundaries. The reason why a collective groan of disbelief rose up to heaven from the massed fans of STAR WARS because of one line in one scene in PHANTOM MENACE, when the Jedi says Jedi powers are based, not on a mystical energy field binding the galaxy together, but due to microscopic bodies in the bloodstream. The groan was because the genre boundary had been crossed.

A mystic energy field is something everyone sort of recognizes from New Age ideas, or Theosophy, or Oriental humbug. It is a simple and clear idea, and it is a mythic idea, from a fantasy story or a fairy tale, including fairy tales taking place “Once upon a time long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The mystic energy field fits the mood and fits the tone because it fits the genre of the fairy tale.

Microscopic psionic organisms are a “nuts-and-bolts sf” sort of idea, not from fairy tales but from “hard” SF, the sort of thing Larry Niven might invent to explain esper powers of Gil Hammond or of the Thrint Slavers, but not the sort of thing found in the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. It was tin-eared on the part of George Lucus, it broke the mood and thus broke the hypnotic spell of the story, and that is why every fan groaned. It violated the boundary between fairy tale conventions and hard sf conventions.

Imagine the difference if, in the first STAR WARS movie, in the first scene where Luke meets Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan is called “a student of mind science” rather than “that crazy old wizard” and, instead of handing Luke a magic sword of his father, Obi-Wan pulled out a hypodermic needle and announced, “Your father was biologically programmed to be a Telek. You have the genetic ability too! I will inject you with psycho-mitochondria cells. These will enter your blood stream and allow your body to produce and generate the psychic energy forces that the Telek can produce. It will be painful, but your body can adapt. Are you willing?” – that would have been in the same mood and tone as the stupid scene in PHANTOM MENACE where a Jedi Knight does a blood test to discover whether a moppet is a Jedi, but it would have established a very different, and very unfairytalelike, story universe.

The science fiction reader, unlike the muggle reader, will “grant” you at least one unreality on which the rest of your reality is based. The reader knows darn well Time Machines do not exist, but if you want to tell the story of the Morlocks munching on Eloi of AD 802701, the reader will grant the Time Machine as a courtesy to you, the teller of the tale, to get your hapless hero to the time and place of your setting that you may tell your tale.

Science fiction readers are more generous with their imagination than other readers, and science fiction writers should be grateful for the latitude they allow to us, or get the heck out of the business of science fiction writing, so say I.

Science fiction readers do demand that we writers play fair. Once we make an implied promise, we must carry through on the promise, or else the readers feel not merely disappointed, but cheated, as if we lied to them. One implied promise made in the scene given above is that there is a realistic world behind all these dropped hints.

If you write a paragraph where someone makes references to the Department in charge of manifestations from other universes and fairytale languages and so on, you are promising that you, the writer, have already thought through all the logical implications and the background of such a conceit, and that the details will be present in the story each in its proper place at the proper time, and that the ending of the tale will follow from the beginning in an unexpected but logical way, given the unreal conceit.

The writer promises that he has thought through the implications of a version of World War Two where the Allies and Axis Powers have secretly made contact with creatures from nearby imaginary universes. Having Hitler become a Ringwraith when he brings through Sauron to Berlin in Chapter Six keeps the promise, since this is a logical outgrowth of the conceit. Even having MacNab discover that his own world is imaginary to yet a third world, where he with trembling fingers turns the pages of a book called OLD MEN SHALL DREAM DREAMS by John C Wright keeps the promise, because it is a logical outgrowth of the conceit. You, the author, have to make up whether the Inklings are inventing the universes they write about, or are merely sensing or discovering them. You have to know, before it happens, what would happen if Aslan the Lion, summoned by the Allies, joins a last ditch night mission over Berlin, accompanies the inventor Caractacus Potts in his flying car and the good witch Eglantine Price on her flying four-poster bed, to confronts Sauron the Great in the nave of Saint Hedwig’s Cathedral at midnight while the city burns.

This is true both for science fiction and for fantasy. You have to know how the system works, or the reader will sense that you are just guessing. As above, then Lucas had the Jedi power operate by microscopic bloodcells, he betrayed that he did not know how his system worked.

Mystery writers, by the bye, are under the same constraint. They make the implied promise to the reader that the murder in Chapter One will be solved before the end of the tale, and solved by some reasonable means, not by a miracle (miracles are not allowed, not even if the detective is Father Brown) and that the murderer will not be the person everyone first suspects. If that promise is not kept, the readers are not just bored, they are outraged, just as if they had been defraud of their book buying dollar and their book reading time.

Point Two: Second, and much more significant is the point that the writer never tells the reader anything unless there is absolutely no other choice.

Instead the writer lets the reader figure out things from hints.

If you can help it, you never say, “It was London during the Blitz.” You say, “Out the window a horse-drawn cart was hauling an anti-aircraft gun.” If you can help it, you never say, “He and I are old friends and don’t stand on ceremony.” You say, “He stole my drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.”

You show the readers clues and trust them to figure out the details. This rule is so significant that it has its own name: “Show, don’t tell.”

The next few paragraphs establish the plot. Plots are about conflict. Conflict means (1) someone we like wants something VERY BADLY and (2) someone or something else whom we like less is standing in the way and (3) someone we like is going to take a reasonable step to get the something he wants VERY BADLY and (4) the reasonable step will go badly wrong in an unexpected way, but in a way that in hindsight seems logical or reasonable.

Then you repeat. The thing that goes badly wrong means that the someone we like had to take another step to get around the bad wrongness and back toward the something he wants VERY BADLY. He takes the next step, and everything goes even more badly wrong.

Then he loses his map. Then his flashlight falls into a stormdrain and he has an asthma attack and his seeing eye dog dies. Then the cop pulls who him over for speeding while driving drunk in the nude turns out to be the short-tempered father of the bride he is marrying tomorrow.

Then it goes more badly wrong for the someone we like, much more badly. Then the party is attacked and scattered by a band of goblins, and then the Gollum is on his trail, and the lure of the Ring is slowly destroying his mind. Then he finds the blasted corpses of his foster parents killed by Imperial Storm Troopers, and his house burnt to the ground. Then Lex Luthor chains a lump of Kryptonite around his neck and pushes him into a swimming pool and fires twin stealth atomic rockets at the San Andreas Fault in California and at Hackensack, New Jersey.

And the spunky but beautiful girl reporter falls into a crack in the earth and dies.Then he is stung by Shelob and dies. Then he is maimed by Darth Vader and discovers his arch foe is his very own father, and he loses his grip and falls. Then he steps out unarmed to confront Lord Voldemort and dies. Then Judas Iscariot kisses him, Peter denounces him, he is humiliated, spat upon, whipped, betrayed by the crowd, tortured, sees his weeping mother, and dies a painful, horrible death and dies. The he is thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale and dies.

Then he gets help, gets better, arises from his swoon, is raised from the dead, the stone rolls back, the lucky shot hits the thermal exhaust port, and the Death Star blows up, the Dark Tower falls, the spunky but beautiful girl reporter is alive again due to time paradox, and he is given all power under heaven and earth and either rides off into the sunset, or goes back to the bat-cave, or ascends into heaven, and we roll the credits.

That is how a plot is done. The someone we like is the protagonist. We have to like him. He does not have to be pleasant, he can even be a repellent in many ways but we nonetheless have to get caught up in his life and adventures.

The something in his way is the antagonist, and it can be nature or a person. We do not have to hate the antagonist, and, indeed, some of the more memorable antagonists are men who might have been friends under other circumstances.

The thing he wants VERY BADLY is the McGuffin, the whatsits that drives the plot.

The reason why he wants it is his motivation, and you have to invent a deep and tear-jerking motivation, something that gets a hook in the reader, or otherwise the reader will put the book down and go watch a rerun of Gilligan’s Island on TV.

The McGuffin is usually important in order to make it clear why the someone we like wants it so VERY BADLY. No one ever wrote a gripping story about an election to the local school board, unless (under the hands of a crafty writer) the someone we like has some reason why he absolutely, positively must win the election and get on the school board or else something he (and we) greatly fear will come upon us.

The cleverest writers give the someone we like not one but two things he wants VERY BADLY, and then puts them at odds with each other.

I love Romeo but hate his Montague family. I love the Shire but want to travel like Uncle Bilbo and see elves and dragons. I love Lois Lane but I have to act like a mild mannered dweeb to hide my powerful secret lest my effectiveness as a crimefighter be compromised, so the girl I have a crush on has a crush on my alter ego and won’t give me a date. I love Jerusalem and would gather her people to me like a hen gathering chicks beneath her wings, and yet her people kill the prophets sent to heal and save her. I love Oz but I want to go home. I think I will miss you most of all, Scarecrow.

You see, none of this conflicts are about things people only sort of like. It is always about love. You may think me blasphemous to use the Passion of the Christ as an example of drama, but not so: this is the one true story, the greatest story ever told, the tale of tales even as Christ is the King of Kings, and all truly inspired fairy tales and fiction have to contain some echo or reflection of the One True Tale, or else it is no tale of any power at all, merely a pastime.

The most powerful and potent tales, even when they are told awkwardly and without grace or poetry or craft, are stories of paradise lost and paradise regained; sacrifice, selfless love, forgiveness and salvation; stories of a man who learns better.

This is why, even in the rather brainless fairy tale setting of STAR WARS, Darth Vader has his soul saved when he sacrifices himself to slay the Emperor and save his son. I thought it was awkwardly handled, even stupidly, in that final scene (my gripe is that it was supposed to be a scene of powerful temptation, but the Emperor had nothing to tempt Luke with), but the power of selfless love, sacrifice, and redemption still nonetheless brought a tear to my eye.

This is why in the second STAR TREK movie WRATH OF KHAN, the powerful scene is the selfless sacrifice of Spock as he steps into a radiation-flooded engineering chamber to make a final and desperate repair, laying down his life for his friends. Greater love hath no Vulcan.

This is why Superman, instead of putting on a crown and declaring himself World Ruler, has to live as a mild mannered and painfully shy reporter who cannot get a date, and why he must fight crime in secret, with no one knowing about his double life: it is a sacrifice. He sacrifices the praise and love and companionship he craves in order to save mankind.

This is why Frodo cannot retire to the Shire with a pot belly and a breastpocket full of medals and ribbons and awards, sitting at the local pub and regaling wide eyed hobbit-lad with tales of his exploits in the Great War. He is sacrificed, and must depart across the sundering seas, having served without reward.

That is conflict. That is motivation. Together they make plot.

You read a book from front to back, but you write it from back to front, either knowing the ending (if your write by plot) or knowing the mature version of the hero (if you write by character arc) or know the mood you want to create (if you write by theme). Once you have the end result you want firmly in mind, you work backward step by step.

Do you write by plot? To have your hero saved by the malice of Gollum, you must introduce Gollum in an earlier chapter.

Do you write by character arc? You cannot have Mattie Ross be a loving and mature young woman at the end unless she is an unlovable and immature arrogant young pushy judgmental know-it-all at the beginning, and you cannot have Rooster Cogburn be a lovable crusty old one-eyed Marshall at the end, unless he is an unlovable arrogant crusty old one-eye hard-drinking curmudgeon at the beginning.

Do you write by theme? To establish a mood of radiant glory when Aslan rises from the dead, you must have the four children recoil with wonder at the mere mention of his name when Mr. Beaver speaks it, even though they do not know the name, because the mood of wonder leads to the mood of glory.

The patented John C. Wright one-session lesson in how to write is not your last lesson. A good second lesson is to read a book you like and reverse engineer all of its tricks, figure out exactly how the writer does his sleight of hand, by what craft he crafts his spell, and put yourself mentally in the shoes of the stage magician, not the audience, and look at everything backward, from the reverse side.

And that second lesson is not the last lesson. To be a writer, you have to teach and train yourself how to write until it becomes second nature. I mistrust all “how to” books and articles (including this one) and suggest instead the best method to learn is to try and fail and try and fail again.

Now comes the hard part. To be a writer, you must write. To be a professional writer, you must sell what you write.

Go to it.

8 Comments

  1. Comment by Inkblot:

    A pleasure to see this in print once again – despite your self-deprecation, it’s some of the best writing advice I’ve ever seen, probably in large part thanks to the eminently practical example you offer. Thanks for re-posting.

  2. Comment by CPE Gaebler:

    Noo, why must you break my heart once again with this excellent tantalizing tidbit of writing that may never become a finished work? :(

  3. Comment by Mary:

    Hmm.

    Excellent though Writing the Breakout Novel is, it is not intended for a person new to fiction writing. I think too much of it may go over his head before he gets the basics down.

  4. Comment by RachelK:

    Thank you for the wonderful advice! As someone making the transition from short stories to novels, I’m going to get a lot of use out of this.

    In terms of the difference between sci-fi readers and muggle readers, Orson Scott Card made an excellent point in “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.” He noted that you must not, under any circumstances, use metaphors in the first page or two of your science fiction or fantasy story because the reader, not knowing the rules of the universe, may take the metaphor literally. (Muggle readers are less likely to do this because they’re able to recognize it as a metaphor, not a new rule.) Card’s example was a story he read that mentioned a “reptile bus” in the first paragraph. He and every single genre-savvy reader he knew immediately pictured genetically engineered dinosaurs that were being used as public transportation and were confused that this technology was never mentioned again. The muggle readers (correctly) pictured a bus divided into sections so it could twist around corners like a snake.

    I got to experience this confusion first-hand when I read a horror story with an opening line that was something like, “Brad first saw the demon boy while fighting his way through the zombie crowd at Macy’s.” By “zombie crowd,” the author meant “a crowd of dull-eyed, zombie-like shoppers shuffling in to make one purchase before going home to their microwave dinners,” but by writing “zombie crowd,” he made me picture a bunch of zombies. I spent the whole story wondering where the zombies went.

  5. Ping from Are you interested in writing fiction? | Catholic and Enjoying It!:

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