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Help! Storybuilding On Plotting and Theming [Writing Advice]

Discussion in 'Creative Discussion & Worldbuilding' started by Tempera, Dec 9, 2014.

  1. Muphrid

    Muphrid Star of the Lancer

    If I may weigh in with my two cents about grammar and style guides and stuff, I think it's usually true that the goal of the written word is to convey an idea or feeling. Style guides describe strategies for doing that effectively.

    Cutting down on unnecessary words is good because what's left should maintain better focus on what the writing was meant to convey. But what's unnecessary? That's the rub.

    Advice that seems prescriptive ("X means X; it does not mean Y") comes from the notion that bending or changing the meaning a phrase introduces ambiguity. Ambiguity can work against you. But, if your audience can separate the two meanings based on context, then there is no ambiguity. And even then, sometimes ambiguity can be a tool as well.

    The overall point in any case is to be clear. Be clear, even when you wish to make the reader feel confused or muddled.
  2. Vindictus

    Vindictus Monster in Disguise

    If you're looking for some overarching message I got from the book, all I can do is shrug and point at "Keep your language clear and concise" again. I found it's guidelines on how to do so helpful, rather than 'trite', but I suppose that's entirely subjective.

    If you're looking for me to throw out lists of ways that the book improved my writing, I can name two the top of my head:
    • I try to make a point of avoiding jargon and foreign terms, except when there is no reasonable substitute.
    • I habitually revise to be as concise as possible without losing content.
    I'm not going to write a massive screed about how the critics are all wrong and the Elements of Style is the best book ever. It's not. I simply found the tips and advice it gave useful enough to pass along the recommendation.

    If that recommendation helps one person stop salting their fanfiction with gratuitous, barely comprehensible Japanese, or from using a paragraph to do the job of a sentence, that's good enough for me.
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  3. Naron


    At home
    Alright, I finally managed to read up on this whole thread. First of all, thank you to anyone who wrote in here up to this point; I learned quite a lot from reading through the discussions and the direct advice. As much as I would love to contribute for those writers that just start out, though... unfortunately, I belong to the kind that goes into writing without much more than a few points on what will happen. It works fairly well for me, but this seems to be more of an exception to the general rule.

    Anyway, I think I can follow up on the last statement there with a question of my own; I know that gratuitious Japanese is generally no good because it is disruptive to the flow. Which can become troublesome if one is writing something based in Japan, as most fanfiction about Anime inevitably is.
    What I wonder about is when the whole thing starts to be gratuitious; are the regular honrifics people use over there already gratuitious or are they more a part of what makes the culture distinct and should be left in?

    To give a more direct example, I am currently working on a crossover that includes both native Japanese as well as... what would go for Americans, although from an alternate country that took the US' place in canon. Anyway, I decided to approach the topic as follows: whenever Japanese are talking among each other, honorifics are used. Whenever the 'Americans' speak with each other, no honorifics are used. Those of the latter group that talk to the Japanese despite the language-barrier and are not sure about the norms at least try to do it properly, although I leave honorifics out to indicate that they just forgot about it at times.
    From the back of my mind, I also remember that I left out things like the usual "Onii-sama" and instead wrote "big brother", only to have the Japanese person this was said to to comment on how the other person must respect their older brother quite a lot due to the honorific used. Is that kind of approach useful or should I find another way of portraying the situation?
    Additionally, does this example even make sense to someone who is not me?

    On an unrelated note, I am also curious what other writers think about wordcounts on their chapters. How long do you usually make them and which lengths are you comfortable writing with? In addition, which lengths do you prefer chapters of stories you read to have?
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  4. Vyslanté

    Vyslanté Putting the "late" back in "translate"

    You know, I think it's even worse for Japanese in particular – or maybe it's just me ? Like, I have no problem with a spanish/french/whatever character dropping words in is native language, but if it's Japanese, well, that annoy me way more than it should...
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  5. Scify

    Scify It always starts with a lighthouse.

    I would have to read it, but it seems like a sensible approach to the whole thing.
    I can't necessarily answer this as a writer, but as a reader... so long as the chapter breaks seem natural, I don't care much about length. I know when I was younger, I often would set myself a goal of "get to the end of the chapter before going to sleep"; as such, unusually long chapters were occasionally problematic. Generally, though, I don't think you should worry about word counts when it comes to chapter breaks.
    It's a problem for a lot of us who read fanfiction, because we too often encounter gratuitous and/or incorrect Japanese in the course of reading. I occasionally cringe when I see honorifics used in well-written published works, just as a reflex.

    On the flip side, I do occasionally encounter similarly fannish uses of other languages when reading; I know of a particular fanfic author who has taken it upon themselves to "fix" the spell names used in the Harry Potter series, as well as deciding that the wizarding world still uses the eth and thorn characters in their writing.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2017
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  6. Naron


    At home
    I know what you mean; now that you mentioned it, I come to realise that it is the same with me.
    As an example, I have recently been reading up on ES' "Overlady"; which has a few scenes with characters speaking some french or having satirically heavy accents. Quite frankly, it did not bother me at all.
    Now, if I were to think back to the last time I encountered a few terms in Japanese in a story... yeah, it was definitely more annoying than it should have been. Although that might be because I actually knew what the latter meant; which also meant that I knew how easy it would have been to just write them in regular English instead. Seeing that I can not speak even a single word in French... that might be related.

    Oh, I know that feeling as well. Although I have to admit that recent circumstances forced me to think about it; something I am currently writing on (the same thing I mentioned earlier), I decided to do a bit differently: each chapter was supposed to tell the events taking place of exactly one day.
    That went rather well for a while... but then a chapter suddenly had 10k words. Further down the road, I found them to have 20k, 25k and more... the current record is somewhere around 35k words, just because there is so much happening that has to be adressed on that day. At this point, I already decided to not put those up as one, but instead cut them into several chapters. Although I have to make sure the chapter breaks work properly.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2017
  7. Scify

    Scify It always starts with a lighthouse.

    Most likely, this is exactly what you should have done. Sometimes, there are going to be days or even months between chapters. Other times, there will be only a few minutes or even seconds between chapters, because that is a natural place for the tension to either break (something just happened, and the characters need a moment to process) or build (something is about to happen). Having each chapter cover the events of a single day is an interesting exercise, but, as you've found, it becomes a bit problematic when some days have one or two things that are relatively unimportant going on (you are doing mundane tasks around the house, and go out later to get dinner with a friend) and others have seven or eight things, or a few really important things, potentially happening all at once (there's a terrible storm, the tree in the front yard falls on the roof, and, in all the confusion, the dog runs away).

    While it's not technically about chapter breaks, there is a Writing Excuses episode that touched on this last year, as well as a few earlier ones that I haven't listened to yet.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2017
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  8. EarthScorpion

    EarthScorpion CR of the Thrown

    I used to do that. My record for a single chapter was something stupid-big, like 33k.

    Then I got better.

    I'm now pretty solidly in the camp that a chapter should be 3k-10k words - and that when it comes down to it, you should be able to ask yourself "what is the purpose of this chapter" and "what purpose does it serve in the narrative" and be able to answer it in a sentence or two. If you can't summarise a chapter fairly easily, that's a strong indication that it's bloated and too long, and needs to be cut down.

    (and as a carrot, shorter chapters mean you get more reviews)
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  9. Naron


    At home
    Well, I never planned on releasing these chapters as one anyway; it is just that things came up as I wrote, which I found should be adressed as well. With the limitation of 'one chapter = one day', I just did not start the next part in a new document to keep the events of one day together for the time being. I personally prefer having chapters of about 5k words myself, although up ot 10k still seems fine to me; those ridiculously long chapters just mean that I will break them up into several at certain points.
    Granted, I do quite a bit to fluff out (as in 'properly portray') the characters' relationships with each other, so I might need to take another look at those parts later on.
  10. EarthScorpion

    EarthScorpion CR of the Thrown

    No, that's exactly what I'm talking about here. I know exactly what it's like, but the point is there that you're going into a chapter without knowing what you want from it - and no, "what happened on this day" is not "what you want from this chapter". It's too broad.

    Chapters are narrative devices, not chronological devices. They're chunks of narrative and so their breaks should come at narrative breaks. I might be persuaded to make an exception if you're writing an original-style 24 fic (where each chapter is an hour), but even there, 24 structures itself like a drama and makes sure there's something happening every hour. Jack Baeur doesn't spend half an hour on the toilet checking his phone, even though that'd be a realistic use of time for many government employees.
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  11. Fernandel

    Fernandel Lovely Writing, Tendency to Waffle Councillor


    The trouble with people using foreign honorifics in their writing is that there is a lot of nuance conveyed through their use that we quite simply don't know about.

    Sure, it's great that people know that "sama" is meant to adress a social superior, "dono" some sort of superior in rank, and "sempai" a senior in experience.

    But even then, all of the above is probably wrong to some extent because we don't understand the cultural context to these honorifics. There's things like using different registers of diction, tone, loudness or silence, no t knowing how characters show (dis)respect through nonverbal actions (bowing, eye contact, personal space, drinking orders, paying bills, etc.) and other things like that.

    I see honorifics used all over the place and have resolved to eschew them unless I know what the fuck I'm talking about. I.e. speaking the languagr. Which is rare. So I try to limit my "seasoning" of an English text to German, French, some Spanish, and the occasional honorific. Even then, as @all fictions can attest, I fuck up all the time.

    I do, however, advise against mixing languages on general principle and sticking to translated terms for a few reasons:

    1. It disturbs the flow of English-language writing.
    2. Dialogue becomes ridiculous once you speak it aloud, which you should.
    3. A mistake becomes patently obvious as soon as a reader with knowledge points it out, making you, the author, look ridiculous.

    It's a gimmick. In the right hands, a gimmick can be frighteningly effective at getting a point to the audience across.

    In the wrong hands, it alienates the audience by snapping suspension of disbelief and/or betraying the author's ignorance.

    My recommendation to new authors is really to play it safe when they start out.
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  12. Cetashwayo

    Cetashwayo Lord of Ten Thousand Years Magistrate On Leave Commission Artist

    Across the Horizon
    Unless you are a famous 19th century Russian author. Then by all means pack your work with random breaks into French and if the audience can't read French they will be the end of your novel.
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  13. Reveen

    Reveen Dunked On

    If you're considering whether or not to use Japanese honorifics, imagine what it would be like if you read a story of any genre where all the characters call themselves G or N***a all the time and drop references to rap artists all the time, but there's otherwise zero indication that any of the characters are black or have any connection to that subculture.

    Would that be cringey and off-putting to you? Now you know what a reader who isn't really into anime feels when you use Japanese honorifics.:V
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2017
  14. Bludflag

    Bludflag shitposter extraordinaire

    As a weeb with ten years of experience, I have developed a foolproof plan of using the honorifics juuust right.

    Listen to how they talk in the anime. :V
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  15. DezoPenguin

    DezoPenguin Text Wall

    ...Or really any author from the 19th century. The idea that basically any educated English-language speaker can read Latin has made me want to hurl books across the room in frustration. At least when Agatha Christie has Hercule Poirot throw in Gratuitous French I can usually read it.

    That said:

    In general, foreign-language words should be used only when there isn't an equivalent version of the word in the language you're writing in. Translation Convention exists for a reason. But that isn't a hard-and-fast rule.

    One time when you should use a foreign-language word is when you're expressing a concept implicit in that foreign language and the context requires that you explore the subtleties. For example, a "katana" is a specific kind of "sword." Virtually all of the time, "Miyamoto drew his katana" is gratuitous and can be replaced simply and easily with "Miyamoto drew his sword" to create a more effective English-language sentence. But that can be reversed. Say, Miyamoto is carrying two swords. Maybe it matters which sword he draws. And "Miyamoto drew his long sword" is not necessarily more elegant than "Miyamoto drew his katana." The more you have to start tossing adjectives and adverbs in to replace the foreign-language word in the context of the story, then the more likely that the correct solution is to use the foreign word. And, of course, if the technical differences are significant then of course use the specific term (in the case of a bunch of sword collectors looking around at a katana, a falchion, and a khopesh, you're probably not going to want to say "Jim showed Edgar his prized sword collection, which included a sword, a sword, and a sword"...unless the point is to get across that Jim is a clueless idiot who doesn't know what his swords are, or that Edgar doesn't give a damn about swords and wishes Jim would get to the damn point instead of showing off his collection. Context.).

    Another useful reason to use foreign words is to emphasize the foreign-ness of the setting to the perspective character and/or the audience. It creates a certain context that the perspective character in not where they are comfortable, that they are off-balance in this different environment, that it is filled with strange, odd things that they don't quite understand.

    Thus, it may be useful to talk about a keiretsu instead of just calling it a "financial group" or "group of companies." Or it may not be. On the other hand, it's never useful to have someone yell "Kawaii!"...unless the characters aren't speaking Japanese and you're pointing out that the character is a serious weeb who inserts Gratuitous Japanese into their English speech patterns.

    One note: when you are using a foreign word (as opposed to a loanword of foreign origin), italicize it in the text.

    Also, the perspective expressed in this thread has pretty much been confined to the perspective of the writer. It's also significant to consider the audience. Of all the fanwork I've written, I have one series where I do include honorifics for the characters. Having asked myself the same questions asked in this thread, I ran an audience poll. The results ran roughly 80-20 in favor of honorifics. Which was a pretty clear message that, regardless of the principles expressed in the thread above (and the good reasons for being cautious), the people reading this particular series of stories wanted to see the damn honorifics. (...Since the stories in this series are all in my Top 20 for hit count, I guess you could count this as reaping the commercial benefits of selling out? :p )
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  16. Naron


    At home
    Ah, I see what you mean now.
    Sadly though, there is very little I can do about it; you see, my approach is to only set events in stone which will definitely not change. As a quick example, I have a group of scientists involved that are tasked with preparing new gear; the points this gear is ready will not be changed by any events that take place priorly, so I can safely put those in my storyboard. I know this is not recommended, but it is what I am comfortable with.

    I also understand why you call this 'too broad', although that was probably miscommunication on my side. I mostly used this design of putting the events of one day into one chapter to properly create my storyboard and get an idea of how long this story would become. It worked out rather well in the beginning, seeing that I do not just write more to fit some wordcount; if a thousand words were enough to describe the notable events that took place one day, its chapter would only be a thousand words long. 'Notable events', in this case, means that I think them important to the narrative and fitting to the themes I put in. (Granted, no chapter is 'just' a thousand words long so far, the bare minimum was around 3k.)
    Those long chapters are just points in the story where a lot of important stuff happens, think the third act in a five-act structure as you described it somewhere earlier in this thread; those points usually take up several chapters in about any story and I just failed to see the signs. At the point I reached now, things are starting to balance out in terms of length.

    As Scify mentioned before, I brought that upon myself by trying to stick with how I started despite the chapters constantly growing longer the more things started to get rolling.
    I still think I will keep each day in one document, though; that is a great help in organising the whole thing. If I want to reference something I did not write down outside of a certain day, I just need to take a look at the storyboard and skim the respective document instead of half a dozen individual chapters that take place on the same day.

    So yes, I actually could tell what I want to achieve with individual parts of all these days (which would be one regular chapter in length respectively) in a few sentences; I was just being stupid for not breaking them into several chapters to begin with.

    Or... am I still failing to understand what you try to tell me?

    I agree and I usually try to do as such; this was mostly an attempt to do something different and see how it works out. Turns out, it does not work properly and I learned two valuable lessons;
    a) do not try to force your story into a framework it might break out of (such as one chapter holds the events of one day)
    b) doing what I just described not to do works at least well to keep order in my files (I am currently writing two stories; the one I keep talking about and one other. The other one has each chapter of about 5k words of length and currently counts 67 chapters. Finding things there is far more difficult than finding them in the 20 documents this story currently fills)


    I understand what you mean; that is also my reason for only using English and German, the latter only when it makes sense in context. I would not dare the attempt of throwing French, Spanish or what-have-you into my stories because I have no idea about the language.

    With Japanese, though... that is a weird thing, really. I did not learn it and I probably have no real idea what to do with it; however, I did read up quite a bit on how the honorifics are used. Quite frankly, I think it works either way in this case, with or without using them. On the other hand...
    This is also a thing. I guess honorifics are small enough of a thing to be up to the writer in question; just like some (most?) people are using the Japanese naming conventions (last name, then first name) when writing this kind of thing.

    Aside from that, I find myself agreeing completely with DezoPenguin; this sounds like a good convention to me (although I have to admit to having broken it in the very story I am working on currently... but just a little, I swear! :V)
    Although I have to use italics already to mark words my Japanese characters do not understand when the 'Americans' are speaking English.
  17. Muphrid

    Muphrid Star of the Lancer

    One thing I want to say about honorifics and words in another language: I think the choice you have to make is whether you want the setting to feel foreign or familiar, and whether you're writing to an audience that would not see the use of another language as a barrier.

    Often times, I want the setting to feel like a distinct place, unlike the community and culture I'm exposed to every day. Using honorifics can do that. Using foreign words can do that, especially for words that do not have a simple or agreed-upon translation into the narrative's base language. For instance, discussing the differences in cultural perception of color, I could talk about the Japanese color word ao and how it doesn't map specifically to blue or green but both. Some nouns have no agreed-upon translation, either, and the only recourse is to use the word that is natively used for that object.

    But using honorifics and foreign words are both fairly far on the end of pushing that feeling of otherness. There are alternatives. Other cultures have their own concepts and interactions that can come across well enough in a different language. Being specific to Japan here, the difference in how the Japanese have email addresses attached their phones and don't "text" in the sense that Americans do--pointing that out can preserve the feeling of distinction. They borrow English words sometimes to different meanings than the originals: "ice" to refer to "ice cream," for instance. Using some of these loanwords in their borrowed sense can help give the feeling of another place, just as using a British vocabulary would be indicative of a story set in Britain compared to the United States, or even to Canada or Australia, and so on.

    And sometimes you don't want a story to feel foreign. A story might be set in Japan or China or Russia or wherever, but you might want to emphasize a more universal feel. Using honorifics of the same language as the narrative's base language could be appropriate, as those honorifics tend to be more invisible.
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  18. keios

    keios very normal

    Might I suggest that you use some novel-writing software? I'm a sucker who paid for mine (Scrivener), but I know there are open-source ones that people like too. YWriter, or... maybe one of these? Open Source Scrivener Alternatives - AlternativeTo.net
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  19. Naron


    At home
    Hm... it does sound quite promising to have such a program... but half the fun of writing a long story is having all these documents containing those precious words arrayed before me... at least I think that it is fun. Besides, I doubt that I would use many functions of this kind of software. I will keep it in mind though, should I find myself in need of help with keeping the whole thing in a useful shape. Thank you for bringing this to my attention... I never really thought there would even be such a thing.

    But so far, I have to admit, it does feel a bit satisfying to see all these completed chapters.
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  20. EarthScorpion

    EarthScorpion CR of the Thrown

    Yeah, you know why?

    The reason why is that a novel is 60k to 80k words. That's over 300k words you're trying to keep a "single novel". That's five normal books. That is the whole damn Belgariad, to give an example of one genre work.

    This is why I learned to structure and pre-plan my work. Because trust me, things are so much better when you put the time into actually structuring your work and planning it out. It massively reduces the amount of work you have to do when editing things down and cutting out things. It's likely you're going to have to cut at least half your content and rewrite extensive amounts of what remains. And even then, I can see parts where my work needed more cutting or rewriting.

    Just to give you an idea, when I tried editing down chapter 1 of Aeon Entelechy Evangelion in retrospect with what I've learned since then, in the first pass I removed 6k words of 24k. I could remove more if I put more effort into it and did the rewrites it bitterly needs (and isn't going to get).
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  21. ManusDomine

    ManusDomine Immaculate

  22. DezoPenguin

    DezoPenguin Text Wall

    Declarative statement of a cruel angel.
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  23. Naron


    At home
    Yes, I know what you mean with that. I actually thought this particular work would have... what, about 20k words instead of growing this large. What is more, I originally planned it as a more humorous ficlet instead of a serious one... guess what it became.
    For this, my mind is both a blessing and a curse; once it adjusted to the setting I am writing in, it just takes the characters and runs with them. Unless I actually railroad it in exactly the direction I initially wanted, they never want to get back on track once that has happened because they start having their own mind.

    Granted, I would probably cut out half of the first ten chapters and rework the rest a bit to fit the overall theme better if I actually went through with that... but it is just that this project is going on because the story is not finished; it just continues until a conclusion is reached. When I thought it would be over soon enough, new paths just kept cropping up and I figured that "Huh, why not."
    So I ran with it and continued... and now I am somewhere towards the end, although it will take a few more chapters to reach that. But it is there and I know how to reach it.
    Sadly, each of the five acts I decided to split this into (courtesy of the five act-structure) could be a whole story in itself. I just decided not to split them up... because it would feel weird to have them separated by more than the "Next Chapter"-button on ff.net.

    At this point, I just want to finish this story and be done with it; just like it was mentioned earlier to let go at some point.
    (Additionally, I can see "Overlady" sitting at more than 300k words as well. Although you probably have other reasons than I.)
  24. EarthScorpion

    EarthScorpion CR of the Thrown

    But structurally, Overlady is a series of novellas. Each section is around 20k-30k words and composed of 4-7 chapters, with a Heroic Interlude short story separating it. Each arc is designed to tell a smaller scale narrative within the greater arc of the story, but also provides narrative resolution of its own arc - for example, the second arc is built to leave her in the position where she has her armour and has vowed to overthrow the Regency Council in revenge for how they treated her friend. It is designed such that someone who wants to read it can read it one arc a night and get a narrative conclusion for each arc, that leads into the next one.

    Now, yes, even then its serialised nature means that there's fat which could be trimmed and I don't do it perfectly. I don't pretend the pacing is perfect. But it is progressing towards its end. I know the story it's telling, and I know where it's going and I know what the purpose of the current chapter and current arc is. This is not so-called "exporative writing" - I have a plan.
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  25. Naron


    At home
    Oh... that makes a lot of sense, actually. That decision you made when designing the story went right past me... very interesting.

    Actually, I also know where I am going with my work; it is just that the journey has become longer than I originally thought it would be.
    Aside from that however, thank you for the insight; that probably helped me quite a bit with figuring things out from this point onwards, especially in future works of mine.

    Anyway, to get back to the actual topic of this thread: out of curiousity, would there be any genre that could be a good start for a novice to write to gain some experience? Anything the writers around found more easily to do than other genres?
    (I know this is probably very subjective, but it is worth a try...)
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