Six impossible things

The Big Three

Years ago, when I was an unpublished wannabe, I was at a local SF convention trying to learn the True Secret of Writing from the professional writers in attendance. One of them (I think it may have been Gordy Dickson) threw out a piece of advice that has stood me in good stead for all the years and books since.

The advice was this: There are three main things that any scene in a book or short story can do. 1) It can advance the plot. 2) It can explain the background or backstory. 3) It can deepen the characterization. If a scene does none of these things, it isn’t actually a scene and doesn’t belong in the book (or perhaps doesn’t belong in this book). If it does only one of these things, the writer can probably improve it by figuring out how it can do another as well (that is, if the scene only deepens the characterization, figuring out how it can also add backstory or advance the plot will likely make it a better scene). If the scene does two of the three things, then it is a good solid scene — still susceptible to improvement, but a keeper nonetheless. And a scene that does all three things is the gold at the end of the rainbow.

It’s not hard to see why. What is a story? It’s something happening (plot) to one or more people (characters) somewhere/somewhen (background/setting/backstory).

Plot, characters, and background are the Big Three when it comes to writing. Different kinds of writing tilt in different directions — adventure fiction is usually heavy on plot and maybe background/setting, but often light on characterization; genre Romance novels usually put characterization first, with plot and background trailing along behind – but characters, background, and plot are nearly always there in some form, because they are the basic building blocks of stories.

There are other things that are important to stories, ranging from fairly central things like structure and theme, to techniques like transitions and narrative summary and viewpoint, down to microwriting considerations like how you do speech tags. But at bottom, stories are about people, who are a product of their experiences and environment, facing challenges or new experiences and dealing with them. Characters, background/setting, plot.

  1. Thank you! (I think I’ll be using this today.)

  2. Excellent point! I’m adding this to my list of questions to ask myself when I’m outlining and editing (when I’m doing the first draft I try not to control myself too much). 😉

  3. I found that if I simply say ‘characterisation’ i keep uncovering layers of the onion. I need character _development_ – something new. And I need to give the reader the chance to discover it and to come to the conclusion themselves, so I’m looking for actions that show what the character is like rather than telling the reader.

    But yes, the question has been one of the most valuable pieces of writing advice I’ve received.

    • Alex – I find it particularly useful during revision, too, especially if I have a scene that doesn’t seem to be quite there. I can check for which of the Big Three Things is missing and see if I can add it, which always seems to improve the scene (which is, of course, the whole point).

      Green_knight – That’s why the advice isn’t “plot, characterization, background/setting”; it’s “advance the plot, deepen the characterization, explore/expand the background/setting.” 🙂 I think the assumption is that for most of the scenes in a story, the writer already has some plot, characterization, etc. in play, and the point is to move it toward the next level with every scene (or at least, with as many scenes as possible).

  4. Hello Ms. Wrede, I’ve been wondering if you were continuing writing on a project I read about years ago, probably around 2004, on a website about you and Caroline Stevermer – a triptych about a world of shapeshifters. The news was around March of 2000, so it’s rather old, but it sounded like a very wonderful project, and I’d love to have any news about that. I hope to get my hands on your new book soon, and I also hope you have a wonderful day! Take care!

    • Sarah – I do still have those books in my to-do queue, but I don’t know when I’ll get back to them. They are kind of an odd project – not exactly YA, but not exactly adult, either – and I’m not sure what we’d end up doing with them.

      Green_knight – I suppose it depends on whether one is used to thinking of characters/people as static, or as changing over time in general (inside or outside the story). Also on what one notices when one is reading a story – sometimes, character change is subtle, and if it’s not the sort of thing one is sensitive to as a reader, it can be easy to miss.

  5. I always read ‘deepen’ as ‘uncover more.’ It took me a while to work out that the character needs to *change* in response to the plot/the world he encounters. Maybe that’s just me.

  6. I’m very glad to hear that, and I am SO glad you put your website up. For a very long time I was convinced you had stopped writing professionally, or had decided not to write anymore at all, even though I remember reading about a piece you had done about worldbuilding a long time ago.

    Even as an adult reader, I still love to read good, well written young adult novels.

    Take care!

    • Sarah – I’ve been writing pretty steadily all along, but my books keep being published in different genres. Which means they end up in different sections of the bookstore. The Lyra books were all published as genre SF/F, so they were in the adult science fiction section; the Enchanted Forest Chronicles usually end up in the YA section; the Star Wars books end up in the special Star Wars section; the Kate and Cecy books are under “Teen” reading instead of YA, and so on.

      Mary – There are a ton of “name your baby” books and web sites that are good sources for names; there are also a bunch of programs that will generate random names with whatever kind of “feel” you want (science fiction, fantasy, D&D, whatever). But really, it sounds as if you’re having trouble partly because you are spending most of your story-development time on relatively inessential parts of character (i.e., what people are called and what they look like). This leaves out 2/3 of the “big three” – no time on plot or backstory/setting – and also leaves you not actually knowing what your character is like. Most of the time, I find that it is much more important to know things like: does this character wake up grumpy or is he/she a morning person? Do they like to read? Are they on bad terms with their family (or with one or two specific members of their family)? What is their favorite food? Do they have a temper? Are they impulsive?

      Those kinds of things are usually what affects how a character acts…and most stories are not about what people look like, they’re about what people do. (What they look like is still important, especially if you are a very visual writer.)

  7. My trouble is I spend too much time just over character looks until I’ve got that part half-planned out. But names are my worst. I could spend an hour and a half trying to find a name that is *just* right. Any animal or fantastical creature’s name doesn’t take much time, but human names seem impossible. Then if I ever manage to get that out,I don’t know what to do with the story.

  8. Mary, I can’t help wondering if you’d ever consider trying to write the story *before* you name the characters. If naming your characters takes so much out of you that it kills the story dead, it might be worth attempting. I write stories with characters who have yet to be named all the time, although I’ve had other writers tell me that such a thing is abso-freaking-lutely impossible.

    The other thing I’d like to ask, is if your characters have any goals or ambitions? If not… why don’t they? If they do, then it seems to me the obvious thing to do with them, is to start putting some barriers in the way of them accomplishing those goals, and see what they do about it.

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