Hello Hello! This post is going to be a little different from the usual Personal Process series, since this week it’s a special request from my good friend Katie Koontz. I interviewed her about her character Bolte for an earlier post, and when she asked me to cover character tropes, I wholeheartedly agreed! Today, I’m doing a deep dive into how tropes are used in storytelling, some fun ways to play with them, and offering a few exercises to think about how they impact your story.
Tropes as Tools: Definitions, and how they differ from cliches.
There are a MILLION definitions out there but for the sake of this article, I’m going to use the broadest term: A Trope is a storytelling shortcut or motif that conveys information to the audience. If you notice a pattern, plot device, symbol, or archetype in three separate pieces of media, it could be classified as a trope. In fact, even the Rule of 3 is a ubiquitous trope. Every piece of media has them, and they aren’t objectively good or bad, they just exist. Saying you’re trying to write without tropes is like saying you’re going to write without a font.
Most writers have a serious love/hate relationship with editing. Rereading your old writing is a special type of painful, but the process of refining the words into something beautiful can be thoroughly satisfying as you watch your skill with writing grow. I’ve been editing the first draft of Storge recently, so I am closely acquainted with that feeling, but I’ve figured out a method at works for me and makes the job a whole lot more enjoyable. It won’t be perfect for everyone, but I thought I’d share it in case you could learn something from it!
For context, when I say I’m editing the “first draft”, I mean I’m editing the first completed draft of the story. It’s the first full manuscript I’ve finished, not the very first set of words I put to page. I started several variations of the story before realizing I had too many plot holes and characterization problems to continue. Then I would quit drafting after few chapters to go back to the drawing board. There were a few reasons for that original block. First, Storge is a very complicated story and I didn’t have enough experience or skill to execute it yet. Second, I was still figuring out my own process and didn’t yet know that I needed a detailed plan in order to tell that kind of story. I think this draft is the 5th version, but it’s the only completed one, which means its the only one that really matters for the sake of this discussion. All of my planning and scrapped drafting ahead of time helped eliminate a lot of plotholes and teach me about my writing process, but it’s not what’s actually being edited today.
I’m also planning to self-publish, and so this guide is geared to that end goal. I do not know where beta readers and professional editors fit into the querying and traditional publishing process, so I’ll hazard a guess that it’s best to go with what the professionals say. Additionally, this process focuses on long novels, but it can also be used for short stories and other works. The steps just would take less time and require fewer cycles of double checking. I wrote this to be as cohesive as possible, but you can always scale it down if needed.
That being said, now what? I’ve got a finished manuscript – how do I even start making sense of this 110K word thing??
When I first started writing this post, I thought it was going to be an easy one to write. When I first started worldbuilding the world of Laoche, I found a bunch of question lists I liked online, and put them together into my own questionnaire that I thought encompassed everything you could possibly need to worldbuild. I’d just copy/paste that list of from my “blanks” document, mess with some formatting to make the enigmatic WordPress happy, and be on with my day. That’s when I stumbled across this website, a comprehensive worldbuilding checklist that includes more details than I could ever hope to come up with. It’s a great resource, and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference, but now I realized that I could just share this instead, and be out of a blog post. Instead, I’ve decided to explain how I decide where to start worldbuilding.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the world past the point where it’s relevant to the story. Big lists of things to consider don’t help with this either, because it’s easy to feel pressured to answer all the questions up front and build yourself a cage made of potential contradictions, or so overwhelmed that you consider switching to contemporary Earth. It’s also very easy to focus on your plot and characters so much you forget to put infrastructure into the background of the world, then struggle to fit in unique settings around the existing story that fit the themes.
I think it’s the most useful to start by asking cause and effect questions like, “What about the world influences the way my characters think?” and “What do I absolutely need to know to inform the plot?” These lists are supposed to be a guide where you can pick and choose what you want to work on, and what works for the story, then ignore the rest to figure out later, so your outline-stage worldbuilding can be as detailed or vague as you need it to be. If you find you need a certain gesture or fashion description as you write, then you can just come up with it on the spot, choosing what makes sense in that moment. Then add a comment or highlight to that section so you don’t forget what you came up with later. Your editing self will thank you for it. That all being said, I want to share my process on how to approach what aspects of worldbuilding in what steps so that I don’t get so overwhelmed and work on the most important things first.
Welcome to the second entry in this series of Personal Process posts! This series is keeping with the theme of the month, and for February I’m going to be talking about outlining and plotting, since I’m neck deep in planning The Laoche Chronicles and this gives me the chance to both share some behind-the-scenes with you, as well as give you some tips on how I make outlining work for me. This is just my process, and I’m not saying it’s the end all-be all for plotters, just another method that you might be able to learn from and adapt to suit your storytelling needs.
It works particularly well for very complicated series, but if I’m working on a more straightforward contemporary novella, I’ll skip over the whiteboard step and go straight into the document outline. For short stories, I might just make a bullet point list of Stakes, Beginning, Middle, Climax, End, Character Drive. I find that knowing how to tackle all the different angles leads to a better understanding of structure in general, so I find it interesting to study all the different scopes, then change this process to fit the needs of my current WIP.
Step 1: Brain Dumping
At this point, I probably have some semblance of a premise and characters for this idea, and possibly also an endgame idea of where I want to take the story but not middle or clue of how to get from point A to point B. This is where I collect ALL the thoughts. Usually, I do this between phone notes and a document on my laptop for brainstorming, but I also use voice memos or whatever else works. I’ve drawn ideas on my hand in pen during a life guarding shift before and just taken pictures of my inked-over arm before I have to jump into the pool again. It happens. In any case, you have ideas.
Welcome to the first of the Process Posts! This is a series that will be going live on the 2nd Friday of every month talking about how I personally develop a certain aspect of the writing process. Sometimes, seeing a different perspective on part of the writing process can be helpful in figuring out what method would work best for you, so I wanted to share mine! Of course, this is just my way of doing it, and I’m not claiming it’s the best that it universally works for every project, so feel free to chime in the comments with your own suggestions so we can learn from each other. 🙂
Step 1: Brain Dumping and idea gathering
As far as I can tell, there are two main approaches to character creation – ground up and plot down. Ground Up characters are the sort of OCs that pop into your head with a concept or image or premise, but you have to figure out how to fit them into a story. Plot Down OCs are the sort that arise out of a need for a specific role to be filled in the story, and then you have to create a character out of a few required traits to fit that the bill. This part of the process is where I’m just gathering ideas on how to turn a concept into a person and collecting them in one place. I use a lot of daydreaming, making playlists, finding aesthetics on unsplash and pinterest, reading through prompt blogs and saving everything that catches my attention. This is also the stage when they get a name and the beginnings of a personality.
I don’t know about you, but I hoard ideas like a dragon haha. When you’ve got several years of pinterest boards and phone notes and screenshots there’s no lack of potential for plot hooks and backstory. One of my recent favorite methods is going through my “Everything Playlist” (2114 songs and counting lol) and picking out songs that fit their story arc and point of view on the world. For the Ground Up characters, they help brainstorm what sort of character arcs work for them and how they react to certain situations, and can be the start of a backstory for Plot Down OCs. If you want an example of this, I have the playlists for all my Storge characters linked on the WIP page. I’m building playlists for the Laoche characters now, and Weswin has proved amusing because in-story, he’s a wandering bard. Coincidentally, he’s also the one with the longest playlist. 😛
When I started to write this blog post, I searched “time management quotes” into google only to realize I hated pretty much every single one of them. Aside from the annoying misattributions, these sort of motivational platitudes that guidance counselors post on the bulletin board outside their office seem to have one thing in common: that they put fault on the person reading them for not being good enough. They say, “if you just worked a little smarter, or were more self disciplined, or were better at prioritization, you’d be able to achieve your goals.”
I’m not going to get into all the numerous ways this saccharine shallow positivity can quickly turn toxic. Most of us writers are also students, have busy jobs, family obligations, major life changes (and take your pick of crisises, thanks to 2020) that demand absurd amounts of time away from our chosen crafts. A lot of the time, there’s several of these in play at once. Life gets busy. Sometimes, you find yourself in over your head, having done the math, realizing that you barely have time to get a full night’s sleep, much less open a document and even think about putting words down.
The intention of this post isn’t coming from a guilt trip of “I can do all these things and still write, here’s how you can too!”, but rather a shared exhaustion I’ve noticed in the writing communities I frequent. At the end of the day, we might be too tired to write, yes, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t love these stories and want to return to them. I easily get frustrated and sad when I can’t be creative because Real Life gets in the way, and sometimes beat myself up for not being able to do it all. So in light of last week’s post on my September goals, my purpose in writing this post is rather to suggest some very simple coping methods that I use to help keep me in a creative mindset so I don’t go crazy in the interim, and can get back into the flow of writing faster when the time does present itself. They won’t be perfect for everyone, but I hope you’re able to find something useful out of this ramble.