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Jim Butcher – On Writing

I recently attended Space City Con. I enjoy SciFi/Fantasy cons for the costumes and characters as well as the ability to meet some of my favorite celebrities and writers. At this year’s Space City Con, Jim Butcher ran a pair of writing classes. What follows here is a summary of my notes.

Language

Words are a messy interface to communicate thoughts and ideas. They work as plumbing to get concepts from one person to the other. Stories were the first virtual reality. Jim’s advice is to use small words. Don’t try to write literature. Write stories people want to read. Most powerful words or short: love, faith, truth. Stick to those. Jim claims to have started unskillfully and improved his writing over time. I found this heartening. In my family, proper grammar and spelling were considered uppity and my grandmother actually apologized for me to her neighbors for my speech. “You’ll have to excuse Keith. He don’t talk like the rest of us.”

Storytelling

Story craft is the art of manipulating people’s emotions. The deeper the emotion, the more powerful the story. If you disagree, think of the movies you’ve enjoyed or the books you’ve loved. If you’re honest, you’ll realize the stories that affected you most were the ones you enjoyed the most. Learn how to manipulate your reader’s emotions. Find movies that make you laugh and those that make you cry. Figure out why and use those strategies in your story. Your characters exist to be abused and denied until the climax of the story. Do not go easy on them. Their conflict is what drives the story forward. The best stories make you laugh, cry, hate the villain, and root for the hero. Begin the story at the primary character’s first meaningful action that starts the plot or a change event. As an example, the first Dresden Files book starts with Harry getting a call from Murphy and deciding to take the case. Adventures work much the same way. Start the adventures where the status quo is upset and the characters decided/need to do something. Most writing follows the pattern of stimulus-response. Jim uses the words Scene-Sequel. A Scene is where conflict happens. A Sequel is the response to the Scene. A story is a series of Scene-Sequels until the climax of the story occurs. 90% of your story drives toward the last 10%. His advice is to learn these rules so you’ll know how to break them later.

Story Questions

The basic format of a Story Question takes the form of:

When (something that happens that changes the status quo), (your protagonist) sets out to (accomplish goal). But, will he succeed when (antagonist) gets in his way.

Everything about your story drives to answer this question. Story questions form the basis of book proposal to publishers and agents and are the beginning of descriptions and cover copy.  These questions have any number of uses but they primarily keep your plot on track.

Scenes

Scenes follow a sub-pattern of stimulus-response: action-response. Scene is where the action happens, where the conflict occurs, and where the consequences begin. Before you start a Scene, know the following information:

  1. Point of View (PoV) – You tell the scene from the point of view of the person with the most to lose; the person with the gun pointed at them.
  2. Character’s Goal – What is the goal of the PoV character? The default goal is to survive the next 30 seconds uninjured. The audience needs to know the goal. The goal is active, immediate, and important.
  3. Conflict – What is in the way of the character’s goal? Keep in mind – “This time it’s personal.” The antagonist is the conflicting force as much as possible. What’s more, the antagonist is invested. Thinks of the conflict between Bugs and Daffy. Daffy desires victory over Bugs more than anything.
  4. Setback – There are four ways to end a scene. The question is: will the protagonist succeed?
    1. Yes – BORING!
    2. Yes/But – the character succeeds but there are consequences.
    3. No – The character fails and must get a new goal. No is great for showing determination but often leads to hard plot stops.
    4. No and Furthermore – Not only does the character not succeed but there are new plot complications that arise as the result of the failure. Save this for critical points in the story.

 

Sequels

Sequels come after Scenes. They show the character’s reaction in the following order.

  1. Emotion – “Oh my God I’ve been in a car crash!”. Emotion is what you feel first after a traumatic event.
  2. Reason
    1. Logic – “Am I bleeding?” Logic is where the character activates his/her brain to evaluate the immediate situation.
    2. Review – “Am I late?” A review of the things that got them to the point of the trauma and the immediate effect of it.
    3. Anticipation – “What’s going to happen next? Will the car explode?” Anticipation is the character trying to figure out what might happen next.
  3. Choice – What the character decides to do after the event.

The above leads to a new goal and next scene.

Scene/Sequel Series

Different novel genres stress different areas of Scenes and Sequels.

  • Action novels stay inside Scenes more than Sequels.
  • Romances stress the emotion inside Sequels.
  • Mystery/Crime novels dwell more in the Logic and Review Sections
  • Horror stories tend towards greater emphasis on Anticipation.

Good examples of Scene/Sequel include the Star Wars IV-VI and the Fugitive with Harrison Ford.  Both those movies progress from Scene to Sequel. The characters have some form of conflict then deal with the results.

Chapter Endings

Your chapter ends at the point that will make your beta readers scream. Leave a chapter at a pain point or hanging moment. Generally this means you’re ending a chapter on a Scene then picking up the next chapter with a Sequel however, Emotion is also a good place to end a chapter at the beginning of the Sequel. The other reason to end a chapter is so you can go to bed.

A Note on Villains

Your antagonist gets more Yeses than Nos in Scenes. To make a great villain, have them think they are the hero of the story. One of my favorite quotes from Deep Space 9 is from Quark – “One thing to know about nefarious characters: they don’t see themselves as nefarious.” Another example is Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker believed he was bringing order to the galaxy.  If you’re good, you’ll find ways to torture your villain and hero at the same time. Get your reader emotionally invested one way or the other.

A Note on Heroes

No one likes a hero that wallows in self-pity for an extended period. Anything that puts pressure on your protagonist is good.

Red Herrings

These are what you thought you were going to do before you wrote the rest of the book.

Variety in a Series

For each new book in a series vary the villain and place.

Dialog

Dialog is an important part in best sellers. People are, by nature, voyeur. They want to listen in on conversations. When possible, structure dialog as stimulus-response and keep the sentences to five words or less. Ignore grammar because people don’t use proper grammar when speaking.

What Keeps Him Writing

“I don’t have a muse. I have a mortgage.”

Character Descriptions

Use three words to describe your major characters. By way of example – short, cute, blonde describes Murphy in the Dresden Files. When he starts describing a character that way the reader knows it’s Murphy. The same sort of tagging works for rooms or areas that are commonly visited. Do this for every major character.

Breaking into the Industry

Getting a break is about being stubborn enough to keep your butt in the chair and write. Always write. Read successful authors, preferable best sellers, to figure out what they did right.

Word Choice

Use small words. Don’t try to write literature. Write stories people want to read. Most powerful words or short: love, faith, truth. Stick to those.

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There are 6 Comments to "Jim Butcher – On Writing"

  • Jason Shayer says:

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Pepper D says:

    This is the difference between those who “want to be writers” and those who “write for a living” … “I don’t have a muse. I have a mortgage.”

    I say this because I’ve found that making a living writing includes writing anything that you get paid for – well, with your own moral restrictions applied. The point is that I’ve written magazine articles about the advances in hair restoration methods and white papers focused on Advances in Risk Management Assessment for CEOs. I had no particular interest in either except for the pay offered. I’ve written ad copy for body building and press releases for events in Australia. These are not the subjects or topics that I prefer to write about – I love writing fiction.

    But, I get paid – and quite well – for writing the other things and there are side benefits that I discovered unexpectedly. For one – I learn about things in great detail that I would never have even investigated before. For another, I learned to manage my time so much better than I would have without learning to produce material on deadline. Finally, the greatest advantage I gained was the experience of presenting complicated thoughts efficiently and still make it interesting to read.

    What I bring to all the assignments is an ability to tell a story that makes people want to find out more, or learn something new, about the client’s product or interest.

    I’d love to have a muse but I’d rather have a pay check.

  • […] wrote a previous article about Jim Butcher’s advice on writing. I attempted to carry out those methods in my latest story, ‘The Edge of […]

  • Zisi says:

    Great post. Jim Butcher offers terrific advice. I’m using your notes to help revise my latest story (I use Scrivener too).

     

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