👋 Like this post? Sign up to my TinyLetter for more writing advice and personal updates.
I’ve never liked the Hero’s Journey, but until recently, I always felt like I was alone in that opinion.
Mythcreants writer Chris Winkle sums it up nicely when he says, “Three acts don’t add up to a plot.” I ran into this problem with my second novel, where I tried to rigorously follow a three-act structure, beat by beat, and pair my story elements to the Hero’s Journey. I had the Call to Adventure and the Mentor. I had the Road Back. So why didn’t I have a good novel?
Well, the Hero’s Journey (or whatever other story structure you want to follow) is sort of like a blueprint for constructing a standard model house. You can use it and put all the pieces together in a way that looks more or less house-shaped. But that doesn’t mean you know how to build a house, let alone how to build a good house.
If story were as simple as a plug-and-play equation, authors wouldn’t need to spend years of their lives improving their craft and studying description, character, conflict, and so forth. We could invent a story calculator where you input variables and whirr, whirr, whirr, out comes a literary masterpiece.
But in case you haven’t seen some of these algorithmic story generators, they’re not meaningful. They’re more a series of random, disconnected events. And that does not a story make.
The question, “What do you need to write a good story?” is a lot different from, “What’s the structure of a good story?”. The first question is a lot more complex and nuanced. The second can be broken down into parts, none of which need to be numbered and cookie-cuttered into 15 beats, but rather explained in terms of essential story elements.
Instead of thinking about mentors or resurrections, think about:
what the problem (conflict) is
why your character cares about solving it (motivation and goal)
what will happen if they don’t (personal and external stakes)
how you can make it continuously hard for them to solve it (more conflict)
Remember high school English? It had one thing right: rising action and climax and denouement. It starts with a conflict, then things get harder (complications), and then they resolve.
👋 Like this post? Sign up to my TinyLetter for an honest look at a writer’s creative life, with weekly inspiration and advice from the trenches.
Jessica Townsend, author of the Nevermoor fantasy series, once said that building a fully realized world is a product of treating “things that are overblown and ridiculous” as “everyday things.” What defines a world like Narnia is as much about the food and where the characters sleep as it is the White Witch.
But you can’t info-dump everything, so which aspects of your world do you call attention to, and when do you glaze over details? How much time do you need to spend world-building even before you start writing Chapter One? Here are three guiding questions to help you find the right balance for your story.
#1: What type of story are you writing?
Genre can determine how much time you need to spend on world-building — and whether a few selective details or more complex descriptions better serve your story.
For example, if you’re writing an epic high fantasy for adults, you’re going to need to touch on many different facets of your world as your characters visit diverse locations and navigate society’s rules, as well as any magic. You’ll need to invent a lot more energy than you would than if you’re writing fabulism (a real world story with fantasy elements), where you can rely more on the familiar and expectations that readers already have about how the world works.
Blogger/author Janice Hardy says you should “describe what will be assumed incorrectly,” as well as “what’s unique to the world or situation.” This is scene-level advice that applies to broader world-building. The more different your world is from our own, the more you need to draw the readers’ attention to those details, because otherwise they’ll fill in the blanks you leave with their own reference knowledge.
But you could world-build forever and only put in 10% of it (the iceberg model), so how do you decide what’s relevant to share? That’s when character and conflict come in.
#2: How does your character fit into the world?
When you write scenes, you’ll want to avoid info-dumping and instead weave in details that are relevant to your character. A good way to do this is to filter everything through your protagonist’s point-of-view. What would their eyes glaze over, and what would they notice and why?
This is a good rule of thumb for taking your iceberg amount of world-building and finding the right percentage to surface in your story, because you should only be mentioning what’s relevant and important. Your protagonist is a good filter because their occupation or hobbies, status in society, and feelings and opinions (what motivates them; what they love and hate) will guide what to focus the narrative lens on when revealing details about your world, and how deeply.
You definitely want to paint in what’s going on around them, but here’s the difference: If a protagonist has visited a market countless times, describe the hustle and bustle in passing, for as long as their eyes would pass over them. If a protagonist is seeing something for the first time, think of how real-life tourists soak in every detail and idle a lot longer. You only need what the scene calls for.
#3: What’s the goal and conflict?
What your protagonist care about is one measure of determining what world-building to do and share. But you also need to consider their goal (focus) and the conflict.
Let’s continue with the market example. If your protagonist’s goal is to find an assassin lurking in the market, they’re going to pay closer attention to everything happening around them, and they’re going to be on the lookout for suspicious people and activity. They may be scrutinizing the actions of others and questioning what’s normal. Because of this, you’ll want to understand the inner workings of the market, because you’re going to need to describe it down to exact details. At this point, the market is less background noise and more the focus of the story.
This can apply to scene-level or story-level goals and conflicts. For example, say there’s a whole league as assassins in your story, and there’s a political conspiracy to kill the king. As the author, you should probably know the intricacies of the court and league more than the market when it comes to the broader scope of your story, because you probably plan on staging more scenes in the castle or assassins’ den than you do the market.
The TL;DR (too long didn’t read) is this: Your story’s characters (especially the protagonist) and conflicts are like a magnifying glass revealing what you should focus the bulk of your world-building energy on. There’s no need to spend hours inventing an agricultural system for your novel if your characters aren’t going to spend any time near a farm or the people who work there. You might need a few details to sprinkle here and there if they’re passing through, but only as much as their attention warrants.
Write what you need for the story you’re telling; forgo the rest.
The number one thing that stops me from writing my novels isn’t a lack of time, opportunity, or ideas. It’s how I feel while I’m writing.
The act of writing hurts.
It goes a little like this. I sit down and spend at least 20 minutes getting into a good headspace. And once I get going, it’s not necessarily any easier. The whole process, from beginning to end, is painful. It’s basically “this sucks this is bad and dull and uninspiring” on loop.
And knowing it’s like this almost every time is depressing because I start to question my life choices. Why couldn’t I have picked a nice, happy hobby, like knitting?
There’s only one way I know to deal with this feeling. Not even to make it go away — just to get around it.
Yeah, yeah. Easier said than done, I know. (Trust me, I know.) Because it’s a bit like a catch-22. You have to write often to stop the feeling from being so intense, but the feeling is so intense that it stops you from writing often.
In that way it’s a little like exercising. It’s terrible until you like it (or so I’ve heard). But exercising isn’t a perfect metaphor because it’s not so much that I like it or that it gets any easier. It’s more like meditation. It’s uncomfortable and hard — consistently, no matter how much I do it — until that moment when it’s not.
It happens when I’m maybe an hour in, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But when it does, I call it falling into the “writing zone” because that’s about the time when my husband is asking if I’m ever rejoining the rest of humanity because three hours have flown by. I get up from my laptop all groggy and wondering where I am.
As a writer, I can only live for these moments. But it’s like getting in a car and every time having to drive with a blindfold on. You’re horrified and you want to get out because this is a bad idea, but then you can feel you’re on the highway, and you’ve forgotten anything is wrong because you’re one with your car or something. (No, I have not done this. Do not do this.)
If writing is meditation, it’s a struggle of trying to make it from one word, one sentence, one paragraph to the next while machete-hacking through a jungle of my own terrible thoughts. It’s a fight. It’s relentless. And then all of a sudden, I’m in the groove. I’m too deep and too focused to care or even notice I’m in the jungle anymore — I’m just there, slinging the words, too busy to complain about how hot it is or how hungry I am.
This is probably too many metaphors, but you get the idea.
Writing is hard. It’s hard. I don’t know that it’ll ever not be hard. And yeah, most of the time that makes me want to crawl under the blankets and never emerge.
But then I achieve that small moment — and it’s the tiniest indication that everything will be okay. That maybe I can do this after all.
After a two-month break, I’m ready to revise my latest manuscript — roll up my sleeves, uproot those big-picture problems with world-building and character and … ooh look, that’s a good place for a comma!
Turning off my grammar brain is hard for me. So hard that, when I took a developmental editing in fiction course earlier this year, the teacher schooled me on my first assignment. I was thinking too much like a copy editor. (Full disclaimer: I am one.)
I was seeing the trees, not the forest. As novelists, we gotta see the whole forest, because when you’re trying to take that first draft and hammer it into shape, all the pretty words and emphatically placed commas don’t mean a damn thing.
So I printed out my latest MS with the intent of reading through it with fresh eyes. I wanted to react like a first-time reader would. That way, I could focus on the story, rather than all my insecurities as the author.
And hey, it’s actually working. I can’t completely forget that I’m the author, so I’m jotting down little ideas and insights for how I can make the story stronger, given I know how it plays out. (Which is actually GOOD in developmental editing. You want to be familiar with the story in its entirety before you go making suggestions for how to fix it, so typically you do a clean read-through first, then only start marking up the MS on your second pass.) But I also have emotional distance now, so it feels more like I’m reading someone else’s manuscript, which lets me be more honest and free-thinking in my criticism, as opposed to crippled by doubt and pressure and self-loathing at being The World’s Worst Writer Ever.
So it’s awesome. Except for one thing. My MS is a middle grade, and I’ve noticed a lot of what I’m affectionally calling OPWs, or “Old People Words” — basically words or phrases that an adult like me would use, that might turn off kids and diminish the book’s voice.
Which is great, only now I can’t stop flagging them, or circling other words and marking them as “vague” or “awkward” — or striking out crutch words or whole sentences. Once I get going, I literally cannot stop myself. Full grammar beast mode activates, and I lose the forest for the trees.
This is bad. There’s no sense in caring about issues on the sentence level when it could all change depending on what needs fixed big-picture. Those words I’m nitpicking now? They could all get cut in the next draft anyway. There’s plenty of time to catch them later, when I’ve moved on to more surface-level changes.
So, memo to self — and let this be a helpful reminder. Don’t worry about perfect. Perfect is a trap. If you’re like me, that might take a lot of willpower, but first things first: get the story right. The characters, plot, conflicts, motivations, world-building, etc. See the forest first, in its entirety. Stand on a hill or something and get a good view. Make sure it’s a solid forest in every sense — that all the animals and plants and insects are doing what they’re supposed to. Then worry about pulling the weeds.