2 writing methods you must try

I just put both of these methods to the test when trying to make progress with a chapter that was only halfway written and they worked so well, I must share.

I learned of both of them from a series of YouTube videos by Brandon Sanderson.
If you don’t know who he is, I’ll just say that he’s published 25+ novels, some as long as 400,000 words each. This guy, seriously.

The full playlist:

But this is the video that goes over the two methods in more detail by guest lecturer Mary Robinette Kowal:

I’ve become a fan of her now, btw. She put so much wisdom into that short lesson. It’s crazy.

It’s also funny that out of all of Brandon’s videos, my favorite is the one he’s not in. :sweat_smile: I joke but I like his videos. I intend to go through the full playlist. He’s actually a good professor.

Here’s a quick summary.

Nesting MICE elements.

MICE elements are:

  1. Milieau (environment, setting, atmosphere)
  2. Inquiry (question, mystery)
  3. Character (their internal problems, goals)
  4. Event (external problems, catastrophes)

Each full story, each chapter, each scene and even beats within the scene will have at least one of those elements in it. Something begins and ends.

But the important part is that whatever of those elements you open, you must close it, and per Mary Robinette’s advice, you should close them in the reverse order that you opened them.

This blew my mind. It’s such a simple advice but it put a completely different perspective on everything I’ve ever written. I think sometimes we might instinctually do this but sometimes a chapter doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel complete, AND WHAT IF THIS IS THE REASON?


EXAMPLE TIME

In the case of my chapter, I was a bit stuck, not as in stuck-stuck, more like uninspired-stuck. So I put the nesting idea to the test.

I’ve recognized that I have a mix of Inquiries and Character elements, plus one short milieau change.
I listened back to the chapter and started writing down a list of all threads I had started within the 1600 words I’ve already written.
Then I worked back closing the threads in the same order (based on what I knew would happen and what logically made sense). And OMG. I have a full outline of how to finish this chapter.

Minor spoilers. Oh, well.

  1. Ruby wants to convince Seri that they should leave together. (I)
  2. To do so, he has to prove that he’s an asset and they’re a good team together. (C)
  3. To do so, he wants to do his part and help out with chores: namely laundry. (I or C?)
  4. To finish laundry, he wants to make magitech work. (I)
  5. To make magitech work, he has to fix the generator. (I)
  6. To fix the generator, he has to figure out where the magic comes from. (I)

/6. Seri shows him where the magic comes from (this also includes a setting change (M) - they leave and then return).
/5. They fix the generator.
/4. They do laundry.
/3. He’s proven that he can help Seri out.
/2. But when he tries to convince Seri that they’re a good team, Seri tells him of another obstacle Ruby hadn’t thought of before - an external force with a lot more emotional power over Seri.
/1. Ruby fails at convincing him.

Mind blown. This is how this chapter will make sense and will close all the threads.

But wait, there’s more.

After writing all this down, I realized that I’ve accidentally also put into use another of Mary Robinette’s lessons: Yes, but…


Yes, but… method

This is the method you use to keep your story moving and progressing so that you don’t write yourself into a boring corner. And it’s also a method you use to finish a story.

  1. You create a big problem for the character.

  2. What’s the most intelligent and reasonable solution to the problem?
    Have the character do that.

  3. Does it work?

  • Yes, but… something else goes wrong.
    or
  • No, and… you escalate the problem to a bigger problem.
  1. Continue the story in this way. A string of trial and error loops.
  2. To end the story, you should ask/answer in this way:
    Does the final attempt work?
  • Yes, and… another question is also answered.
    or
  • No, but… something else went right.

Going back to my example, in the middle of a book, you want to have a lot of Yes, buts and No, ands. And in the case of my chapter, I end on one of those: No, and.

NO, Ruby wasn’t able to convince Seri to leave even though he solved Seri’s generator problem (fixing the problem is a Yes, but scenario, btw), AND now he’s learned that the task of convincing him is going to be even harder than he thought because of external forces he’s unlikely to beat.

And this perfectly follows the advice of what a chapter in the middle of a book is supposed to look like. I want the reader to keep reading, curious if Ruby will be able to convince him later on and how. If he had succeeded on the first try here, there would be no anticipation, you’d expect the story to end soon since everything is going right.


So if you’re ever stuck on anything, I recommend you try one (or both) of those methods. Don’t let your character win too quickly, and nest all elements of things that are happening within each other.

I don’t know how realistic it is to expect them all to open and close in the same order. When I try to look at my global story with all major MICE elements I’ve got going (=all subplots), I think some will close early and not in perfect order (all the squishy middle stuff) but the outermost elements of how the story starts and how it will end fit very nicely into the nesting design.

And based on the above scene, I can see that there is definitely great value to nesting when writing/editing chapters.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever tried nesting or Yes, but method?
I dare you to try it right now on what you’re in the middle of.

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Also wanted to add that I’ve put Mary Robinette’s formula for calculating length to the test.

Ls=((C+L) *750)*M/1.5
In English: Add the number of main characters (C) and the number of locations (L). Multiply that sum by 750. Then multiply that number by the number of MICE elements the story incorporates and divide by 1.5.

I’d combine the MICE elements into these (edited):

  1. Will Ruby convince Seri to leave? (I)
  2. Ruby wants to prove his worth. (C)
  3. The ending of a plot started earlier - How will Seri fix the generator? (I)

So 3 MICE elements. 1 main character within this chapter. 2 locations.

Put through her formula, the story length comes out to 4,500 words.

I’ll work on finishing up this chapter and will report back with how long it ends up being. I’m really curious because my chapters lately are shorter than that. On the other hand, this is a pretty important/cool chapter so maybe. Plus, it’s possible that I’m erroneously combining too many I elements that maybe should be separated.
Plus, Seri has a stake in this chapter as well - a story thread that has started much earlier and gets closed here (the generator). I’m not sure how that affects the formula since I’m achieving two closures with one and I’m not counting him as one of the characters (since it’s not in his pov here, he’s reaction to the fixed generator is handled in the next chapter).
If we counted Seri as the second character, it comes up to 6000 words.
We’ll see.

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It’s a very rigid way of doing it all, but it DOES keep you from most plot holes.

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Is it rigid though?

It’s only going to be as rigid as you let it. All advice exists as tools to use as you please. They’re not laws. No one will grade you on this test.

I wouldn’t do this too early in the process, for example. I would let the story unfold first and let this be a guide to not forget things when wrapping things up.
Or, maybe even better, write the story and use this as a guide when editing.
Or, use this as a crutch if I’m ever stuck.

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90% pantser, too rigid. Lol

It’s the chapter by chapter thing, as everything has encouraged short chapters online. (Not like I was writing short before these past 2 years.) Having that many points to a chapter that is short is getting closer to minutiae.

But then, when I run with short chapters, I just make sure there is 1 point going towards the overall goal, so it could be interspersed to 10 chapters, not really that big a deal.

And while the reverse order is good if it requires reverse order to undo the story, not everything has to be that linear, but something like that takes really knowing the situation you’re writing. For example: knowing why something is happening so you can find a tailored fix for that why is usually the last end of a chain of direction that you’d fulfill first, but in reality, there’s plenty of times where you accidentally stumble across a solution you don’t understand before the why is explained. So, if I was into writing this and was comfortable with it, I’d be looking at ways to break it without ruining the purpose of using this method.

But then, that is me.

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I don’t disagree.

It’s worth mentioning that Brandon introduced the Yes, but method as a great method for discovery writers (pantsers). Just saying…

But as to the nesting thing, I don’t think one should strive for :sparkles: perfect :sparkles: nesting. I don’t think long-form stories flow that way anyway. A chapter or a scene might, but full stories are more complicated than that.

Having said that, I was really curious to see how my story stacks up as a nested story and decided to do it in a spreadsheet with color to help visualize it (I think it’s easier to view the story as a whole this way than as code, plus I look at code all day long).
It divides pretty nicely into 4 even though I didn’t plan this story into a 3 or 4 acts (I’m using an approach of sequencing to plan this baby). But if I had to, I’d put the quarter dividers around where particular MICE threads start/end as illustrated (this isn’t by wordcount, just by the order of introduction of MICE elements).

(I changed font to white because this thing is riddled with spoilers - a bit too many for this exercise)

This is actually pretty good nesting. One issue I see immediately (which I was aware of before) is the pink one - that’s the love story. It takes a while for the story to make it clear that there’s a love element to it and I know that this fails as far as hooking the reader from page one (if the reader is looking for a love story from page one). I haven’t figured out yet how to hint at it in the beginning. Really, the love story can’t start until after the dark blue which is when the two characters meet. Dark blue happens in chapter 3 so it’s not like it’s very far in or anything.

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I do find it funny that I’m “that’s too much”, and it’s designed for people like me. Hella stubborn, that.

But hell, any method to get unstuck. I’ve got some old dead stuff that needs a jumpstart if I ever get there.

Take a trick? Way back in the first chapter, some random distraction that reminds them of their deceased grandma, like a dyed red feather. Have it pop up in a place where it would be natural to integrate it in. Could be running into someone who they are close to. “Man, marge, I dreamed about my Gran’s old read boa. It was shedding feathers and I couldn’t get them all picked up.”

To mask how blatant something like that would be for it to just be the guy, you add a red feather to any new scene, but make sure the one where the ML is introduced, the feather lands on him.

But it doesn’t have to be a feather or grandma: you don’t want to heavily edit if you have an element that is in the book already.

Since I pants, I have something like that which weaves through a lot of stories, where it’s a small thing that becomes much bigger, later. Hand obsession shows up in different ways. A pregnant Nevada “European Stock” girl has a pregnancy craving of Shrimp&Grits and has no idea why she’s craving a Cajun dish until she as a mental breakthrough and finds out it’s freshwater shrimp and polenta from a repressed childhood memory. Don’t plan this stuff just grab at images and snowball them.

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Anything that reminds him of anything is out the window since the whole point of the first chapter is that he’s got an amnesia.

But thanks for trying.

Hopefully, I’ll figure it out later.

:rofl: I just thought of one thing and it’s a bit ridiculous, too ridiculous to actually use it. In the first chapter he’s walking around confused and he finds a pet rat. What if the rat wasn’t alone? :rofl:

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Just looking at the formula makes it a bit scary for me. I don’t really want to count characters and locations… I like my outlines, but I don’t think I can go further than that.

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The formula is tricky because I’m not sure what to count, what not to count. Do subplots have as much weight as the main plots? How much granulated do we go with the subplots? Which ones are too minor to count?

I bet it works for her a lot more consistent in short stories (that she’s introduced as being an expert at).

As to the actual calculation, I put it in my spreadsheet so it does the math for me.

Using the MICE elements I identified in the image above, I get this.

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As a plotter / planster, I think this feels like too much work for drafting, but I think I will look into this when I’m stuck - this does happen quite often while I’m in the middle of my story, so that should help.
I think this could also be pretty useful to step back and look at the big picture before editing to help guide me.

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I don’t have much of
a problem with it.

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That does make it harder. It could still be done, but not the easiest route. It’s now up to whatever first thing the Amnesiac notices and can remember from waking up that stuck with them. Like their first soda on their lunch tray or first solid food, just happen to be eating or drinking that thing for several firsts that come along afterwards.

But it is far harder to pull off than something automatically being personal to them because of history.

But the rat thing? That could work in a whimsical manner. Or strange.

Like, what if the rat hat an engagement ring tied around it’s tail by debris and that finally falls off in front this guy?

“The world is telling me to get married…or I am married?”

“Nah, dude, life isn’t like that. Go turn that thing over to the Lost&Found.”

Thinks about being lost and found: “…I have never felt more connected to an object before.”

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Aww. That’s become such a cute moment. :laughing:

The rat scene is already kinda cute since the rat’s open cage is described in detail, it’s a luxurious rat condo.
Ooooh, what if the rat was hording shiny things like a ring?
Hmmm. Not sure if it would make sense in that house since the owner is a lifelong bachelor. So maybe something else, like a heart cookie? Aww. Now it’s even cuter.

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I’m chuckling over here because if even fellow plotters think ^this^ is too much, when in my eyes, this is the simplest method I’ve come across, what would they say about my entire process?

I seem to have a knack for finding methods that don’t click with anyone else I speak to.

Come on, Wackys. Really? No one from my tribe here?

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If you can use it, take it. It’s cute, but I don’t think I’ll remember it by the time I have an amnesia-romance arc. You’re just giving a lost mind something to hold onto that makes them take notice of the later story arc: or at least the audience, if your main is slow to come to the conclusion that “this person is important”, at the least.

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Unrequited love, something they buried long ago and they don’t know the rat has it?

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I would use it if I was at a loss, no qualms. But as you can see, 1-trick/1-step GETMEOUTTAHERE! is already my method. I like some Derp in my Kiss method.

Part of that is that if I don’t keep it simple when I already “tend towards complex writing”, I run a higher risk of “Losing myself” in the madness.

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I could preach benefits of planning all day long but in the end, you gotta do whatever works for you. If it does then feel free to ignore all advice. Who knows, maybe you have your own method already, even if you haven’t given it a name.

The more I use these methods, the less I have to use them because they become second nature. So in the end, it can give off the effect that I’m morphing into a pantser, when I’m not.

For example, in Story Grid methodology there’s this concept called the Five commandments. And it’s that every story unit (which are: the full story, every subplot, every act, every sequence within the act, every chapter, every scene, every beat) will have these five elements:
Inciting incident.
Turning point.
Crisis.
Climax.
Resolution.

When I was first trying out this method, I tried to break things up according to the definitions. It was a lengthy process and there’s a learning curve to it.
Now it’s second nature. All my story units abide by the five commandments without me having to consciously design them so. I only reach for this method when I’m ready to take a step back and check if everything is working.

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It’s that first hurdle. Everything can become “muscle memory”, and it should.

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