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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Monday 14 March 2016

Story Constellation Theory: Epic Plotting

Hello hello!

I have a very special treat for you all, and a return to form. That's right; I'm talking about writing again!

Last night, I was talking with a close friend about his epic dark fantasy series. He was having trouble pinning down plot points, and so was I. It wasn't an unfamiliar problem--how do you narrow down all those people and events to just one storyline? It seemed impossible, and I realised slowly that--it actually was impossible.

I had an idea for epic-scale fantasy novels with many characters, to make them easier to write. I realised that the problem is because authors are thinking two-dimensionally, trying to pin a big, epic story down to this:

Source. Look at that thing! Everything after the climax is a mysterious disaster. 

Plot mountain sucks

Epic stories are often hard to follow--no matter what genre they're in--because a lot is happening. Most of those books kinda fall apart because of too many plot threads and really badly balanced tension and characters enough to populate a small town. Fantasy, sci fi, even historical fiction. War and Peace is like that. Gabaldon's stories are a mess, structurally.

I know why. The problem is that with an epic-length story, the plot mountain falls apart. What works fine for a smaller novel does NOT work for the large scale. There are too many elements, too many people, to glue down to just one plot mountain shape.

Authors are thinking two-dimensionally when they need to think three-dimensionally.

Source. Look at all the stars!

Galaxies do not suck

So, think about a galaxy. Big, sparkly, lots of stars. The way we organize that in our heads is to focus on the bright stars and make a constellation around them. Then we figure out the other largish stars in the constellation/formation, and then find the other stellar bodies. Often, said constellations overlap, too. So for a story that is epic in scale, that's basically a galaxy or at least a spiral arm.

So take your bright stars--those are the main characters; not one, but many. Say, five or six at least, or three or four. You get it. If you focus on the character links between those stars, you can map a three-dimensional constellation into 2-D. Then, for those characters--if one focuses on the secondary characters, more constellations appear. Around those characters, other "stellar bodies", tertiary and quaternary characters, also appear. If you look for where those tertiary and quaternary characters actively eclipse the primary and secondary characters, you can figure out which ones to write about, and when. That way authors don't end up describing every goddamn servant in the castle, even the one who empties the slops, unless they're relevant to the relationships.

MS Paint is awesome, okay? Shut up. 

Relationships first. Events are side-effects of relationships.

Figuring out how characters connect to each other IS the plot. Slowly adding those secondary and tertiary characters ALSO helps the problem of focusing too much on the main characters, so that the author and reader get bored of them. It also makes the effects of the conflict more personal and far less abstract. In a war or in any epic conflict--the plotty stuff people struggle with is a l l b u l l s h i t. Wars are made of people. Nations are a fiction. Authors lose track of the fact that stories are made of PEOPLE, because they keep trying to follow the plot mountain and escalate the tension the way they would with a normal book. But the plot mountain isn't sustainable over a long series. Story constellation theory is, because it relies on links between characters, and provides clear points for bringing in side characters--whenever they're involved in the main plot.

The other advantage is that it de-centralizes the idea of a "main plot", something that falls apart in most epic-length series. With several constellations to work from at the same time, authors can relax and space out their pacing, because readers will care about more than just the "main" storyline.

What constitutes a relationship? 

Well, basically anything that constitutes a normal relationship, of course! Friendships, coworkers, romance, antagonism, casual acquaintance; any of those can be represented by one of those lines. A duchess (secondary character) might have three personal servants (tertiary characters), one of whom is sleeping with the cook (secondary character) that is the princess (primary character)'s best friend. The princess might be affianced to a princess from another kingdom (secondary character) even though she is secretly in love with the slightly older Swordmistress (primary character), who is secretly arranging a rebellion to overthrow the princess's corrupt father, the King (secondary character with a lot of intersections, including both secondary and tertiary characters). There may also be quaternary characters, people who walk on or sell someone a purse, etc. They only need to be mentioned as character relationships require them. 

By moving a novel's structure away from events, and onto characters, it's so much simpler to write out. Outlines focus on the sequence of events in the context of the relationship, not just the chronological way things happen. Considering that authors often have to move around the chronology of scenes to make more sense, relating them to character's emotions rather than arbitrary occurrences like a war makes MUCH more sense. Besides--the war might not happen if a different relationship prevents it. And as stated, a war is something that happens between people; it is basically an abstract thing.

Focusing on relationships also helps authors keep themselves from getting too married to plot points, and from losing the small details in pursuit of the big events. If you write about the experiences of a farmer (secondary character) who wants to take care of his family (tertiary or quaternary characters), and therefore enlists as a soldier, then about his slow trek back home and the innkeeper (secondary or tertiary) he falls in love with while recuperating, that gives a reader an idea of the scope of events better than "and then a big fight happened" ever could. Describing the way his relationship with his best friend (tertiary) changes, the way he no longer visits a shopkeeper (tertiary or quaternary character) every Saturday for his paper, also add more realism. 

It is characters we remember, and we shape events around them in our minds. Isn't it time that epic fantasy and other genres caught up with the human mind and soul? We are social animals, and stories are the byproducts of our countless moments of love and hate. This model, the story constellation theory, accounts for that as no other can.

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Thursday 3 March 2016


Maybe it's okay to be
twenty-six going on fifteen once in a while
in Walmart I heard "Call Your Girlfriend" and remembered
a girl who loved calculus and physics and cold crisp clean lines and ideas

I remembered my trembling voice on the phone as I read poetry to
the guy at the Wordfest office and he said
--in surprise--
"that's not bad!"

I remembered the shot of white hot electric energy and the
tickle of sexuality I did not yet understand when
Shane Koyczan read about how to love a woman
and by love I mean fuck with every atom of sincerity in one's being

I remembered the embarassment of being a teenage goth
in front of Margaret Atwood and that
damning sigh of bored frustration after I admitted that I wrote
as she signed "Oryx and Crake" for me

I remembered snow outside my private school's math class
and writing a love poem to my
English-Indian tutor who had
beautiful deep brown eyes and a slightly broken nose and a limp
and a smile that made my young heart quicken
like a startled deer

I remember hiding in the library,
eating chocolate chip cookies and drinking milk and reading books
they were the most reliable friends

And then--I was so very glad that
I am no longer fifteen.

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!