Jim Butcher on Writing
During the first few years of writing, I searched the internet for anything useful that could help me on my journey to becoming an author. Jim Butcher is one of my favorite authors and I am a big fan of The Dresden Files. I wanted to post notes I had taken from online lectures and online posts created by Jim Butcher himself. Hopefully this will be helpful for other writers and I take no credit for any of the content. The following are the notes I used to help me write better stories. The advice within helped me when I was writing Child of Fire and is perhaps the only reason I was able to finish that book. I hope these notes help you like they helped me.
Writing compelling action: Jim Butcher Essay link
What is writing?
Is an artificial means for getting thoughts and images which reside in YOUR brain to the guy holding your book in the most effective and accurate fashion possible, so that the reader will successfully translate your thoughts into HIS brain.
What is Story?
A story is a narrative description of a character struggling to attain an important goal. In general, the protagonist is opposed by another character. (Protagonist V Antagonist)
The protagonist sets out to achieve his goal and faces problems and opposition to his intentions along the way. His risk of loss increases as the narrative proceeds and casts elements of doubt over whether or not the protagonist will attain his goal. Then, in a final confrontation of some sort, the protagonist either succeeds or fails, based upon his own choices and actions.
- It means having a plan: knowing where you want it to go, and why.
- I mean understanding something about how human psychology ticks, and using this to your advantage.
- It means that every piece of the story has a definite purpose and that it furthers your story in the most engaging way possible.
- Simply put, story craft is nothing more and nothing less than manipulating the emotions of your reader.
People buy books wanting to be entertained. You WANT the author to manipulate you.
REMEMBER: Conflict, Logical Response, Point of View
Conflict: it’s not the best way, its the only way!
This is an absolute core truth to telling a story and is as important to your writing as the laws of physics are to the real universe. Stories are about conflict. STORIES ARE ABOUT CONFLICT!
Conflict should exist in one form or another in every scene. ALL of your characters need a goal. You’ve got to have someone who’s trying to ruin your character’s day by one means or another. The best way to create them is to give your characters goals and strong motivations to pursue them.
Careful observance of Logical Response: one of the major writing goals is to make it come alive in your reader’s minds. You have to create clear mental pictures of characters, objects, and places.
The best way to keep the flow going is to understand logical-response, or what could be called “stimulus-response transactions.” This breaks down into something simple:
- Something happens to your character (Stimulus)
- Your character reacts to it (Response)
- Your character takes an action (Stimulus)
- Something happens (Response)
Example: His fist lashed out at me [stimulus]. My jaw exploded in a flash of pain [response-stimulus], and it drove me to the ground [response]. Stimulus comes first, and for every stimulus, you have one response.
A clunky sentence can act as a speed bump and bring your reader out of their story-space and irritate them. As a beginning writer — observe stimulus-response transactions religiously.
Strong, entertaining, believable characters are what make or break a story. The reader is going to experience the story world through the thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and actions of your viewpoint character or characters. This is why it is so important to use the best characters.
How to decide which viewpoint (1st or 3rd)
First-person strengths: The immediate immersion into story space through the most personally identifiable language. The language is subversive and is possibly better suited to creating that kind of story-space than any other viewpoint. Bickham called first-person viewpoint “perfect viewpoint” for that exact reason. It’s also the easiest viewpoint to learn to write because check it out–it’s how we experience life.
First-person Weaknesses: Major problems lie in the difficulties in creating story structure. Since you are locked into one viewpoint, your story has to happen around your viewpoint character all the time. You can’t show the reader anything that the viewpoint character doesn’t see, and that can become an annoying obstacle, particularly when various characters with conflicting goals are all pursuing them at once.
It takes planning and creativity to get around the limitations of first-person viewpoint, but it has the side effect of forcing you to make your character extremely proactive and nosy, poking into everyone’s business–which is probably why the mystery genre is best known for first-person viewpoint stories.
Third Person Strengths: This is the complement to the first person in terms of strengths and weaknesses. A third-person viewpoint allows you to introduce more than one POV character, which frees up a whole universe of new options to you as a writer. Since you can hop around to whatever characters you [please, you can play all kinds of wonderful head games with the reader which results in the reader knowing things that the characters don’t–that’s when you get people screaming at the book.
Third Person Weakness: Because you have so many more options with the third person, you have at least as many more ways you can screw things up. Most problematic in third-person viewpoints are problems with displaying enough emotional depth in characters, and the risk that the larger cast of characters will grow increasingly more difficult for the reader to keep track of.
Pick what kind of viewpoint you want to use on the kind of story you want to tell and on your own personal gifts and preferences.
Viewpoints belong to the characters who are the most deeply, emotionally involved in whatever is at stake in the scene. Just pick the person who has the most to lose.
Fundamentals: Story Skeletons
Writing a structurally sound story is simple.
But it isn’t easy.
What an experienced novelist can handle vs that of a newbie novelist, is going to be different.
The story skeleton (also called a story question) is a description of the main plot of the book, broken down into its simplest elements. It’s two sentences long. Neither sentence is particularly long. Your plot needs to fit into that framework, or it’s going to be too complicated for the average newbie to write to handle well.
Example: *WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*?
Jim’s example from the Dresden Files: When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a warden of the white council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago police department?
This is the fundamental description of the core conflict in your tale and stories are all about conflict.
Always write a story as lean as you possibly can (and still be happy with it). Every scene and every sequel should be planned to move your story forward and you should have the purpose of the scene in mind as you write it. You want to write your story like a racehorse, not an elephant. It’s so much easier to flesh out a story that’s too lean than it is to trim down a story that’s too bulky.
Regarding subplots: most newbie writers can handle a couple of them, with enough planning you can handle more. But the main plot is the skeleton that everything else builds upon. Before you get rolling on your next novel, make yourself a little form and fill it out.
When? (What happens or what situation changed the status quo for your character and gives them a goal?)
(Your protagonist) sets out to accomplish (goal). But will he succeed when (Antagonist) gets in his way and tries to stop him?
Example: When Frodo discovers that his inherited ring is the one ring of power he sets out to destroy the ring. But will he succeed when the ringwraiths, golem, millions of orcs, and everyone else gets in his way to stop him? Climax or ending is the answer: Yes Frodo succeeds.
Everything you do must drive to answer this question!
But will he succeed when….
gets in his way and tries to stop him? ….Yes?…No?…Maybe?
You can’t have conflict without people. Whatever beings are running around your story, they will have a bunch of conflicting desires. These are your characters.
FIRST AND FOREMENTS, fiction writers, YOUR CHARACTERS MUST BE INTERESTING
Which leads us to the next logical question: what is (or makes) an interesting character?
- Exotic position
It can be almost any kind of exaggerated feature, be it physical, mental or emotional. Every character in popular fiction is an exaggerated figure of one kind or another.
The purpose of exaggeration include:
First: it’s inherently interesting.
Second: it’s a device to create an acute mental awareness of your character for the reader.
Exaggeration helps with creating a character in their head that is a clear image of who that person is.
Locating your character in an unusual location or situation is another way to help create immediate interest. Whether it is a social, geographic, intellectual or moral position, choosing something unusual enough to be memorable and interesting will provide you with a significant advantage in grabbing reader interest.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you’ll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but the strongest one is: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION
A solid characteristic entry action consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is. Make the introduction count, you can’t afford to screw up.
V-factor is the most important element in creating interesting characters. The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn’t behave in a consistent and believable manner. When you are writing characters, it is critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.
The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s 1 Emotions, 2 Reactions, and 3 Decisions when something happens in your story. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believable, appropriate course of action in response.
TAG’s are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you’re putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you’ll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character.
TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit.
If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading, makes them cry, cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.
STORY – SEQUEL: how scenes move from one to the next.
Scenes are important, it’s where all the plot happens in your book. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal he is engaged in a scene. The structure is simple. Your POV character sets out in pursuit of a SPECIFIC GOAL. Someone else actively, knowingly tried to stop him. There is a CONFLICT. The reader is left to wonder whether or not the POV character will succeed (which can be thought of as the SCENE QUESTION). The result of the conflict is *always* a SETBACK of one kind or another (also thought of as the SCENE ANSWER)– at least until you get to the end of the book.
Broken down into format:
- Viewpoint: Who has the most to lose, who is feeling the emotion
- Goal: Something they need to accomplish, the reason they need to accomplish it. (can be as simple as survive)
- Conflict: A specific someone who is getting in your way. Make it personal to the character. This should be your antagonist most of the time.
- Setback: Will he succeed? Yes (boring do not do.) yes, but…(good) No. No, but…(the best. Adds depth and gets your character into worse and worse trouble. Do as often as you can.)
That’s all there is to writing a really good scene. But books aren’t all scenes. Characters have to stop to bind up their diseased wounds, be diagnosed with mad wolverine syndrome, to worry about their impending doom, and steal kisses from heroines. This is a sequel.
This addresses how you get the reader to give a flying fuck about your book. To do this, you’ve got to win them over to your character’s point of view. This is where the “emotional connection” is established.
This is another one of those simple, difficult things.
Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:
- Allow the character to react emotionally to a scene’s outcome.
- Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.
- They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.
- They allow a character to make a choice, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.
Do you see how neat that is? Do you see how simple that works out?
- Sequel–Dam it! Think about it! That’s so crazy it just might work! New goal!
- Next Scene!
- Repeat until the end of the book.
First, write the EMOTION, then LOGIC and REASON, then REVIEW of the situation, then ANTICIPATION of what is to come in the future, and then CHOICE of what comes next.
GOAL – CONFLICT – OUTCOME = then = EMOTION – LOGIC – REVIEW – ANTICIPATION – CHOICE that leads to NEXT GOAL.
At the conclusion of a scene, your character had something go out of their control because you didn’t answer yes to your scene question because you are a smart writer. You can abbreviate or skip several steps, but you CAN’T CHANGE THE ORDER!
EMOTION, REASON, ANTICIPATION, CHOICE
The sequel is where you can put a spin on almost any story to make it more suited to a given genre.
Romance is Very heavy on Emotion and only slightly less on Anticipation. Mystery and SF lean very heavily on the Reason portion of the sequel. Action novels go light on everything but Choice and give just enough sequel to get you through to the next scene. Horror loves to linger on Anticipation.
So if you are writing a romance, you’ll want to place extra emphasis on your character’s emotional reaction and on his Anticipation of what could come next. Mystery writers had better be able to produce clear lines of logic in the Reasoning portion of their character’s reaction. If you need the reader to be cozy with a character, put extra emphasis on that character’s sequels. If it isn’t necessary for another character, go light on the sequels, or skip them entirely.
Sequel-to-Scene ratio is the single largest factor for controlling the pace. Sequels have an unanimous tendency to slow the pace of your story, while scenes have the opposite effect. If you’ve ever read a book and felt like it blurred by too fast and never seemed to touch on anything long enough, go back and look at it. You WILL find that the book’s scenes took up a great deal more space than its sequels. If you’ve read a book that you thought was too slow, too cerebral, or that wandered back and forth while droning on and on, go back and look at it. You WILL find that sequels took up a hell of a lot more page space than scenes.
It’s a balancing act, and how you stack up a scene-sequel is going to depend on several factors, including your genre and your audience. Romance is really nothing BUT sequels with occasional scenes to make them stick together. Action books, those emotional passages, don’t worry about those emotional passages. You’ll want to spend more time and effort on scenes and make sure that the sequels don’t start to outweigh them.
A more cerebral and mature audience has a higher desire/tolerance for sequels than young adults. The older audience might well be more interested in the thought and emotion behind the plot while a younger audience might want to get to the point.
Sequels are where you apply the color to your story. When done right the reader knows exactly what is going through your character’s head and why.
THE GREAT SWAMPY MIDDLE
The middle of the book is HARD because the middle gives you the most flexibility in terms of telling your story. Beginnings and ends share similar demands, craft-wise, but the MIDDLE is where your personal style has room to play. There are millions of different things you can do and most of them are probably the wrong things to do. That’s why it’s like a swamp. There are apparent paths all around you, but sometimes the ground that looks solid actually sucks you under.
The middle of the book is DANGEROUS.
When you get to this point things can go wrong in the story and you aren’t sure where things narratively went wrong. Here are tips and tricks to beat the great swamp with the GSM.
Knowing you want to get to the other side of the swamp is a good plan but it lacks clarity, specificity, definition.
#1 tool: THE BIG MIDDLE
Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be the dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from this event should be what boots the book down the home stretch to reach the climax. Make sure that everything you are doing is helping build-up to the Bid Middle.
One way to beat the GSM is by creating a little storyline of its own and plopping it down smack in the middle. Normally it’s intertwined with the main story in some fashion, but the focus of the characters shifts onto a new track, one that is wholly contained in the middle. It is a smaller story that interfaces with the overall story well enough to expose cool character stuff that is relevant to the main plot.
A watered-down version of the mini-arc. This new subplot is something that suddenly develops and has to be dealt with, without actually becoming a big overwhelming part of the story on its own. These new subplot begins and ends in the middle and generally introduces you to some cool characters or threats native to that subplot.
A new character trumps out onto the stage in a more flamboyant or memorable fashion than most supporting characters would do. They aren’t on stage for long, but they serve an important role in forwarding the story, and they entertain the hell out of the audience while they do it.
The best way to slay the monster that is the GSM is to keep wiring. The ultimate way to get out is to keep plowing ahead and sooner or later, you’re bound to pop out the other side or stumble onto a discernible path. This is perhaps the ultimate way. It isn’t the fast way, it isn’t the smart way, but by god if you sit down and grit your teeth, if you write write write, onward onward onward, you’re bound to get out eventually. You’ll do ten times the work and probably need to cut and slash your story with a shale flenser before you move on to the next draft, but it will get you unstuck and out, sooner or later.
The Great Swampy Middle doesn’t love you. It wants you to never write a book, ever. It wants you to give up and go home.
A story climax is, in structure terms, the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier. There, see how tidy that is? Simple, not easy, but simple.
Example: When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?
And the story Climax: Yep!
See, anyone could have written the Lord of the Rings.
It’s not that easy, but it is simple to write a good story climax when you bear in mind that ultimately, the story climax is, on its most basic level, the answer to a question. IT IS THEREFORE IMPORTANT THAT BEFORE YOU BEGIN WRITING THAT YOU KNOW THE ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION!
Why is the climax important? Catharsis. Catharsis is some sort of toxin which humanity has never been able to remove from paperback book ink. But seriously, if you have got your reader invested in the stories OUTCOME, they want to see what happens. This is what keeps them up all night to get to the end.
You’ve made a promise by getting your reader so bound up in a story and you’ve got to DELIVER on it. If not, the reader is going to freaking hate you for doing that to them. Catharsis is the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer’s skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room.
EVERYTHING YOU DID IN YOUR BOOK LEADS UP TO THIS. Deliver on the climax or die as a working writer.
How do you build a climax? The same way you do everything else. You start at its beginning. A climax officially begins where the Great Swampy Middle ends. To use an overly-simple metaphor, the beginning of your story dumps the dominoes of your story out of your box onto the table, the great swampy middle sets all the dominoes up into a neat pattern, and the climax knocks them down.
This is the most fun for the writer as well as the reader.
The most dramatic point is the actual confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, where they are directly contending with one another, and where both of them know that the story question is about to be answered. For that confrontation, there are several structural components that you can use to organize it that will be really helpful, much like the components used in a sequel.
- DARK MOMENT
- DRAMATIC REVERSAL
At the end of the day, your protagonist stands alone. That’s why that character is the protagonist. Sure there can be other people around, but the one who really COUNTS is your protagonist. The more alone he is, the higher the tension levels are going to be, and the more satisfying the climax is going to be for the reader.
Your lone protagonist, determined to follow things through to the end, confronts the antagonist.
The confrontation does not go well. The odds are stacked against your protagonist, or the situation swings out of his control, or they just plain get outclassed. Everything looks like it is in genuine jeopardy or going to hell. It looks certain that the answer to the story question is going to be that the reader is NOT going to like.
It always comes back to choice. The climax of the story is the acid test, the crucible, where the rubber meets the road and where the shit hits the fan. Your protagonist has to choose whether or not to stay true to his purpose or to let himself be swayed by fear, by temptation, by weariness, or by anything else. In that dark moment, he has to make the call that ultimately reveals who your protagonist really is, deep down. And the choice has GOT to be a BAD one. If it’s an easy choice, there isn’t any drama to it–no tension, no release for the reader
The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist’s character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an unexpected way, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice. This works for both tragic and happy endings.
Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, etc. or demonstrate with the conclusion of the story some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.
Final advice on resolutions
Keep it short. Once you’ve gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don’t draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You’ve already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, you heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours.
Then you get to type the most satisfying words in any book you’ll ever write: