Plotting advice for fiction writers

Some damned good fiction advice from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, just back from teaching the Viable Paradise science fiction/fantasy writing workshop on Martha's Vineyard. Rules 3 and 4 are particularly nice stuff, just the sort of thing I find myself paying attention to as I work on the sequel to Little Brother:

3. Recycle your characters. Give preference to characters already used in earlier episodes, or to characters connected with them, when you’re peopling later events. Characters are made more interesting by being reused, and it increases the overall consequentiality of the story. One-time single-purpose characters are occasionally necessary, but they don’t support as much weight.

Cherish your good secondary characters. They’re infinitely useful.

4. See if you already have one. Whenever you need something new — prop, plot thread, setting, minor character — go back through the parts of the story you’ve already written and see whether you can find it there. It’s surprising how often the exact thing you need is already sitting there in plain sight.

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  1. 3. Recycle your characters. Give preference to characters already used
    in earlier episodes, or to characters connected with them, when you’re
    peopling later events. Characters are made more interesting by being
    reused, and it increases the overall consequentiality of the story.
    One-time single-purpose characters are occasionally necessary, but they
    don’t support as
    much weight.

    Counterpoint: Star Wars prequels. The first three were great because of the sense of scale they only had to hint at, and then we discovered there were only 5-10 people of any consequence in the universe.

      1. Better counterpoint: the expanded Tolkien universe. Christopher Tolkien has devoted years of his life to churning out discarded bits and pieces from dad´s writing desk, wich do nothing except expand on the characters from Lord of the rings.

        Hard-core fans seem to love this for some reason, but more casual readers like myself are left with an image of  an extremely petty and rather incestious little universe; a world where every single character has an unhealthy obsession with his lineage and where no grudge is ever forgiven or forgotten.

        1. …a world where every single character has an unhealthy obsession with his lineage…

          Tolkien explicitly calls that out on several occasions as the reason for the downfall of his civilizations.

          1. Exactly. Wich is why the posthumous books with their total focus on the genealogy of various characters kinda undermines that vital point, wouldn’t you say? 
            At least thats the impression I get from talking to people who liked  Christopher Tolkiens later books: the message they take from it all is that heritage and birthright  is Very Important Stuff.

    1. Um, are you not missing the point somewhat?  That is exactly what Star Wars is – it’s a fable about 5-10 characters.
      The rest of the universe does not exist save to support that story.  This is true of most self-contained novels – once they try to expand, the limitations become ever more apparent.  (Look at how any genre tv show that goes past two seasons gets tangled in ever-greater continuity knots.)  But the Star Wars story always was one story and only one story – that of Anakin and his family – and the prequels didn’t pretend to be anything else.  Those who tried to expand the universe are the ones who exposed the inherent flaws, but to his credit, Lucas clearly never really intended it to work coherently anyway.  It’s a myth-cycle, not a living place.

      1. Having Anakin build C-3PO on Tatooine  isn’t a limitation of the universe. Your point about continuity knots is backwards. Genre TV’s limitation is that only so much coincidence and storyline can happen to the 5-10 characters before it becomes boring or convoluted and breaks the suspension of disbelief. I posit that there was no good reason to have so much recycling in the prequels aside from fanservice in aid of selling more merch.

        In broad terms the 2 sets of movies are equal, the reason the 2nd lot gets trashed is: a) We’re not 8 anymore and b) The ludicrous contortions to try and link them together eg Jango Fett being the clone mold, Anakin/Vader being from Tatooine, R2-D2’s involvement etc

        1. “Genre TV’s limitation is that only so much coincidence and storyline can
          happen to the 5-10 characters before it becomes boring or convoluted
          and breaks the suspension of disbelief”

          ENHANCE!  

          I always thought most genre TV shows just binned reality in favour of whatever works for them, you have scifi shows with FTL travel,  police procedurals deliver 6+ months of forensics lab work in a matter of seconds and never have the morgue stacking bodies.

          Tatooine, a planet in the outer rim, furthest from anywhere upon which nobody would willingly visit unless they had to but is also near a major and busy hyperspace route. It’s also a binary system and desert planet yet it’s indigenous hominids are white, even after multiple generations being born there.

          In some respects R2-D2 is the hero of the rebellion.  He’s never wiped in the films, so knows Anakin = Vader, flew with Anakin and it’s only when Vader disabled R2 during the trench run that Luke mysteriously makes a novice mistake and bimbles right in to Vader’s sights… so who, exactly, was flying that X-Wing and who was the passenger?

  2. Hmm, one thing though:

    Strong characters who assess, decide, and react quickly are especially good for holding the reader’s attention“.

    What if you want to tell a story about people who are not like that? Rule #1 seems to rule out Russian writers like Tolstoy or Goncharov. Not to mention Cervantes, btw. Or Beckett. Anyway, this may not detract from the validity of Hayden’s points: One should not confuse “good advice” with “only possible way to do it”.

  3. I don’t think counter examples are terrifically relevant.

    Rules on writing (like how-to rules of most human endeavors) are intended as general tips to help move things along. Obviously, they are intended to be discardable, but only if you can intellectually justify the decision.

    i.e. In the game of chess, a rule like “don’t lose your queen” is a great rule to have. However, there are times when losing the queen is the best, or even a brilliant thing to do. That doesn’t mean that the rule is useless. 

    If you’ve read a fantastic story where the author didn’t follow one or more these rules, that’s great! Try to figure out what the author used instead to accomplish the same goals. THAT will make you a better writer.

  4. Also, thanks for the link to the suggestions, Cory! Some of them are just in time to help me with some novel rewrite problems I’m having :D

  5. Huh! I guess I must know more than I think about writing and plotting – a friend of mine was pondering a story, and the questions I asked him were pretty much explicitly designed to lead him to #1. And #3 and #4 are rules of thumb I’ve been explicitly using in writing my web comic. (Though I get to bend them a little due to it being a multiple-reality story; I get to have lines of thought like “okay I need to name and design Rita2’s dancer friend… oh wait that first doodle looks vaguely like Carol1, who doesn’t have a presence in this reality yet, yeah, I think having her be Carol2 would resonate nicely.”)

    And yeah, you CAN tell good stories that ignore all of these rules. Like all rules for art, they’re not so much things to always obey as they’re signposts, warning you that if you don’t do this you’re making things harder for yourself as a creator. It is perfectly fine to tell a sprawling story full of far too many characters that only appear once, never manage to really affect external events, and never have anything neat happening to them. But do you really WANT to be writing that?

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