#117: Story Beginning Choice Paralysis

Dear Story Nurse,

The first draft of my fantasy novel came out as a messy tangle of scenes. I’m now trying to turn it into something more coherent as I edit, but I’m struggling to pick out which of about three options should be the opening section. Sometimes I think one looks good, sometimes another.

Option 1 is chronologically first, set about three years before the main events, and sets up/reveals a lot of the emotional landscape behind the rest. It’s close to my heart, but other than the emotion shifts, doesn’t have a lot happening.

Option 2 is where the first draft started, an apparently small event with a lot of undercurrents swirling around underneath. It’s the event where the main character’s life is first pulled askew from what she wants it to be, if not quite upside down.

Option 3 is a busy action scene with the main character and her entire village turning out to cope with an immediate disaster. It’s also her first encounter with one of the antagonists.

I’ve had both positive and negative feedback on all of them, which makes it harder to decide. It feels like I need to decide before I go further, because which one I choose is going to have serious implications on how I unknot my tangle of a first draft.

How do I make this sort of decision when all the options seem equally good at different times and I keep second guessing whether I’ve picked right?

—Split Decision (they/them)

Dear Split Decision,

The three options you’ve come up with fall neatly into three very common categories of story opener: prologue, protagonist introduction, and in medias res. All of them can be perfectly fine ways to start a fantasy novel (though these days there isn’t a lot of love for prologues). In order to choose one, you need to understand the narrative purpose of each. You also need to know what kind of book you’re writing. You suggest that choosing an opener will shape your revisions, but I suggest that you need to pick a direction for your revisions and then go with the opener that suits the book you decide to write.

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#116: When a Pantser Becomes a Plotter

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hi Story Nurse,

(This is my third time writing to you! I love the website so much! You have helped me a lot with figuring out my writing, both when answering my qs, and when answering other people’s qs! Thank you!)

I have a pretty banal question — since graduating college and becoming a Human with a Job, my mental illness has gone from Severe to Manageable. Most of that has been my good work — I went to therapy intensely, I carefully figured out what my best and most healthy coping mechanisms were, I started avoiding obvious stressors etc. This has lead to a variety of realizations about myself — without depression and anxiety, I’m actually a tidy person! I really love baking! etc.

From other mentally ill people I have learned that this is actually pretty common, but it has caused one small snag. I used to be a pantser — I would come up with a plot question, Stephen King-style, and then write a novel based on that. But now, I can’t do that anymore! I need an outline! I need an incredibly detailed outline. But I don’t know how! Especially since sitting with characters and learning their personality through writing was an important part of my process I still seem to need… Help?!

Thank you!!!!!!!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#113: Getting Beyond the Beginning

Dear Story Nurse,

Lately, I keep coming up with setups for stories – complete with hooks and challenges I think will be really fun! – and then I look at all this space afterwards and have no idea what to put there. I guess I give the characters problems, but I get stuck trying to find the actual solutions. I keep trying to plot and getting really tied up in knots, and then writing scenes just to get into the story and losing interest quickly because I realize I’m just building a path as I go and it’s going nowhere in particular.

Any tips for getting unstuck and figuring out middles and ends?

—But to What End (she/her)

Dear But to What End,

That sounds very frustrating. You’re certainly not alone in having trouble getting past the beginning of your stories. On the life and mindset side, I’ve answered similar questions from people who are recovering from stressful events, getting back to writing after a long time away, stuck on “should”, and having trouble staying focused. On the craft side, I’ve helped writers who get carried away with big ideas, can’t choose among several possible endingsdon’t know how to make endings feel smooth, and have protagonists who aren’t active enough to push the story to a conclusion. If any of those sound similar to your situation, those posts may be helpful.

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#112: How to Get Characters out of Bed

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I write plot that isn’t porn??? Sometimes the characters have got to get out of bed, or they’ll chafe!!!

—angelsaves (she/her)

Dear angelsaves,

This is a delightful dilemma. My immediate question is, what do the characters want that isn’t sex? I don’t mean instead of, but in addition to. Because even when someone really, really, really wants sex, they want other things too, related or unrelated to the sexual desire.

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#104: Blocked When Switching from Fanfic to Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a mostly-retired fanfic writer trying my hand at original urban fantasy. I would very much like to be able to write from an outline, but I’ve been going completely blank when I try to plan my original stories compared to fic. However, my most typical process has always been to more-or-less happily ‘pants’ through a very very rough draft and then mold what I find into a story shape. That’s worked ok in the past, but now that I’m attempting original fiction in earnest, I’m encountering a problem that I would have found utterly comical to imagine happening to me.

In fanfic circles, I was known for writing doomed star-crossed lovers and other sorts of intense angst from canons that were full of horror and suspense. Villains were frequently my most favorite characters and I wasn’t shy about letting the heroes make enticing yet oh-so-regrettable choices.

Now that I’m writing my own original fic, which is supposed to be about decadent and frightening vampires, everyone’s behaving like a flawless paragon of reasoned maturity and working out their problems and desires in the most responsible ways possible. And so every plot conflict I try to set up is quickly defused, nothing scary or suspenseful ever gets to happen, and not one of my characters is willing to step up and do any of the villainous or catastrophic things I enjoy so much in other people’s stories.

It’d be one thing if I was discovering a heretofore unknown love of writing slowburn coffee shop original universe fic, but that sort of thing has vastly more tension then what I’m generating. I’m boring myself to tears!

I’ve never been unwilling to torture a character I’ve loved (quite the opposite) and I don’t think that’s all or even most of what’s happening here. It almost feels as if I’m afraid to get in some sort of trouble for having any of my characters behave anything less than ideally. I don’t know where that would be coming from, as I’ve never had any anxieties or confrontations regarding that with my fanfic. Perhaps borrowing someone else’s characters allowed me to fearlessly explore their pain, flaws, and terrible decisions because I wasn’t the one responsible for them.

I just want to be able to write stories that are fun for me to write, however dark or fluffy they turn out to be. Instead, all I’ve been writing are pages and pages of bland mush that I had hoped to find quite spicy. Your wisdom is appreciated.

—Defanged (they/them)

Dear Defanged,

There’s a lot going on here! I suspect you’re primarily hampered by two things: a focus on characters as the source of your problems, rather than as a reflection of them, and the habit of comparing your original fiction writing with your fanfic writing. Your letter scratches the surface; now it’s time to dig deeper.

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#98: How to Write Without Plotting

Dear Story Nurse,

I work in a different creative industry, but books and stories are what that pushed me to pursue it. I want to put something out into the world that resonates with other people the way my influences resonated and shaped me. Something that’s good enough for someone else to care about it. Fantasy worldbuilding and character-making are such joyful exercises of the imagination, and I want to do something exciting with all these fun toys I come up with! But wow, turns out I hate making stories maybe?

Or rather, plots and narratives are agony for me. I thought that since I’m delighted by intrigue and puzzleboxes it’d be enjoyable to construct those things myself. Turns out I’m full of it. I hate scrounging around for premises, I don’t care about the whats and hows and whys of events, and everything is just a thin excuse to make my characters have a Point. All I want are for my characters to Feel The Deep Feelings and for things to have been Very Important because of Reasons. I want to be good at this and to do practice stories and sharpen my skills, but the exercise of the craft never seems to give back even a drop of fun. Trying to force the vague shifting silhouettes of a “story” into a concrete narrative shape is a joyless chore. Why pour my very limited time and energy into something that I seem to hate actually doing?

Yet I’m still never able to make peace with the idea of truly giving up and letting go. I keep burning with the desire to actually Make Something. I believe if this desire exists inside of me so strongly then it must be tied to something real. But it feels like I don’t have any stories in me, just the places where they could happen and the people they might happen to, someday.

Can you bash yourself over the head with something you hate enough times until it becomes fun? Is that possible? Is this all really very normal?

—Not a Storyteller? (she/her)

Dear Not a Storyteller?,

I’m sorry that plotting is giving you such a hard time. It sounds like you’re very clear on which parts of writing fiction are fun and satisfying for you, and which ones aren’t. That’s important! And you’re not alone in loving some parts of writing and disliking others. For some people the struggle is with voice; for some it’s character creation; and for some, like you, it’s plotting.

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#80: Adaptation and Creation

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning stages of a trilogy adapting my Dungeons and Dragons character’s story to a novel format. It follows my character through her training as a knight, her fall from knightly society and loss of her homeland, regaining her honor, gathering allies and assets, and reclaiming her homeland from the rule of her half-brother and stepmother.

The first and last parts were left up to my imagination so I’m having an easier time outlining them. But the “regaining her honor and gathering allies bit” which will make up the bulk of Book 2 was played out in-game. And I’m completely stuck on how to adapt it.

I don’t want to use the campaign story because it belongs to the Game Master and my character didn’t really have a connection to the central conflict besides that fighting the bad guys was the Right Thing To Do. But I can’t think of new villains and new tensions for my character!

I have a feeling that brainstorming, developing my setting and side characters, and reading other fantasy novels for inspiration will help, but if you have any other advice, I would be most grateful.

Yours,

Book 2 Blues (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#59: Accepting Your Writing Style

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a fantasy writer currently trying and failing to kick my brain into producing a novel. The problem is that I have lots of story ideas, but no plots. All of my ideas are for cool settings and themes and imagery and emotional beats, not plots and conflicts and scenes. Even when I force myself to come up with a problem in my world and a character to solve it, I am immediately unenthused. I’ve tried to write through my boredom before, and I have three documents full of irredeemably listless garbage to show for it.

I think one of my major problems is that all of the problems I want my characters to solve are enormous and complicated and vague. For example, I’m currently kicking around a fantasy idea where a corporation-run government has driven everything it considers useless or harmful to extinction, and has sterilized and leashed magic to specific words and gestures. Now magic is striking back, choosing prophets to speak for it and worming wild roots into the cracks of buildings to shatter them. It’s SUCH a cool idea and I’m so excited about it, but there’s no really concrete beginning and end and one thing that one character can do with a satisfying ending.

How do I take a messy pile of colors and feelings and turn it into a thing with bones in it? Please help, Story Nurse!

—Perplexed Plotter (she/her)

Dear Perplexed Plotter,

That does sound like a challenge! Fortunately for you, it’s a challenge that many other writers have also faced, and there are some good resources and time-tested tricks for you to try out.

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#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

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#53: Avoiding Repetition in Episodic Work

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m working on a series of short stories that follow the same set of characters. Each story is about 5,000 words and needs to stand alone as an episode: a conflict needs to be introduced, the characters need to react to that conflict, and some kind of resolution should happen by the end of the story.

As I write more stories, I’m noticing that the way I introduce the conflict of the month is getting repetitive. Since this series follows the crew of a spaceship as they do odd jobs across the galaxy, each story starts with them either getting a new job or picking up a distress call.

I feel like I’m endlessly repeating the scifi equivalent of “So this dame walked into my office…” How do I vary the way I introduce the conflict that sets a new story in motion?

—Keeping It Fresh (she/her)

Dear Keeping It Fresh,

This type of challenge crops up a lot in episodic work. Fortunately, that means there are some well-established ways to handle it. Continue reading