The Winding Road of Story Development

I reached a major milestone on Vaetra Unleashed this week: I surpassed 50,000 words on the first draft. I’m still less than half done (about 40%), but I’m on a writing roll and the story is developing nicely.

The 50,000 word point is important to me because I’ve laid the groundwork for everything that will happen in the rest of the story. Which isn’t to say that everything has gone according to plan!

No story plan survives first contact with the characters

That’s a paraphrase of the old saying, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy,” which is attributed to a Prussian general. My story plans have a similar problem; my plan for a scene doesn’t always match what happens when I sit down to write that scene. I think this may be because I only define what will happen, not how it will happen. As soon as I introduce character interactions, their personalities direct the flow of conversation and that can influence future interactions.

Some writers talk about their characters “taking over” the story and doing things they didn’t anticipate. That’s not exactly how I see it happening for me. My characters behave according to the profiles I’ve created for them. While I’m writing dialog, the characters do seem to speak for themselves, but they almost always speak “in character,” and by the end, they’ve at least gotten me closer to my intentions for that scene. (Sometimes, I discover that I’ve actually written a scene before the one I intended because more setup was needed. More on that later.)

The path from where you are to where you want to be is never a straight line

That’s a paraphrase of a concept I learned from a communication coach named Dick Haab. He showed us a chart with a “you are here” dot and a “your goal” dot. The line between the two points was a zigzag, not a straight line. I try to remember that chart whenever I’m frustrated by delays or obstacles while trying to get something done. Nowhere has that lesson been more valuable than in my writing.

I always create a story plan before I start writing because I need to know what I’m going to write. Not every writer does that; some can just sit down and start typing. I also create character profiles so I have a firm idea of how a character will behave when I put him or her into a scene. Part of the reason I do all this planning is because a story can go in an infinite number of directions, and I don’t want to struggle with all the possibilities while I’m in “creative mode.” It would just slow me down. That said, I don’t plan everything down to the individual scene level. I choose the major story milestones, but I don’t try to anticipate all the zigs and zags that will happen between them.

Put yourself in a flexible frame

That’s a close paraphrase from the movie Joe Versus the Volcano. (Thank you, Mr. Waturi.) The idea of a flexible frame is kind of silly because a frame is, by definition, limiting. However, I can relate to the concept of a framework that allows room for flexibility. The flexibility happens within the frame.

Even though I have a story plan and I keep a spreadsheet with all my written scenes and a few planned scenes, I’m always ready to add something new to the story or skip something that would no longer work. The story definitely evolves as I write it, even if the major “beats” stay the same.

Unexpected Gems

This post was inspired by something that happened to me earlier this week. I sat down to write a scene where the Archives Council calls Jaylan and Lissy to Council Hall. But I never quite got there. What ended up happening is that I wrote a precursor “mini-scene” that was a lot of fun to create.

One of my goals for the scene was to show that Jaylan has been practicing with a quarterstaff and is getting pretty good with it. You’ll have to wait to read the story to know why that was one of my goals. In any case, I started the scene in the weapons practice room with Jaylan sparring against Talon.

Now, who would come to retrieve Jaylan? It needed to be someone sent by the Council. They wouldn’t interrupt a session and send one of the councilors off to retrieve someone. They’d have a lackey for that job. How about a page? Perhaps a young aspiring sorcerer or guardsman. I decided that the page would be a somewhat tense, thirteen-year-old girl, and that she would have Lissy already in tow.

Here’s what happened when I put these four characters together…

Excerpt from Vaetra Unleashed

Keep in mind this is first draft material. It has at least four more revisions to go through before it is final. Please forgive any “roughness.”

Talon came in low and fast in a maneuver designed to knock my staff upward and drive home a blow to my chest. After sparring with him for months, I could recognize most his moves the moment he started them.

I angled the staff to deflect his attack to the side, but he altered his approach as he came forward to strike under my guard at my leg. I reacted without thinking. I used the end of the staff to catch his sword and sweep it upward, adding a twist at the end. His sword clattered to the floor, and he shook his hand where the tip of my staff had stung it.

“Nice move!” he said with a grin, leaning over to pick up his sword.

I stood back and rested the tip of the staff on the practice room floor.

“Thanks. I thought you had me there, but then that disarming move you taught me last week came from nowhere.”

“That’s good. That means you’ve internalized it. You seem to have a knack for the quarterstaff. I think you might be better with it than I am at this point.”

I snorted. “Well, that’s one thing, anyway. I guess you can’t be the master at every weapon.”

He laughed and shook his sword at me. “Hey, don’t get too full of yourself. I’m not done with you yet.”

I rolled my eyes and stretched the soreness out of my left arm. “No reason to worry there. Every session with you is a lesson in humility.”

“And don’t you forget it,” he said with a wink.

Talon went to the weapons rack and hung up the practice sword. “Let’s take this outside. I want to show you some vaulting tricks, but we need more room.”

Before I could reply, the practice room door opened and a girl in her early teens tentatively stepped into the room. She was dressed in a short, dark blue tunic trimmed with council maroon. Her brimless cap did a poor job of containing a riot of brown curls. The tunic and cap identified her as a council page.

Lissy followed the page into the room and met my eyes, dashing my brief hope that the message was for Talon.

“I’m looking for Jaylan Forester,” the page said in a high, piping voice.

“That’s him over there,” I said, pointing the staff at Talon.

The page faced Talon and reached up to push her cap more firmly onto her head before delivering her message. Lissy tapped on her shoulder right as the girl opened her mouth to speak.

“Don’t listen to him. He’s just messing with you. That’s Jaylan with the staff.”

Blushing, the page gave Lissy a shy smile of thanks before sending a decidedly less friendly glare my way. The disarming smile and shallow bow I gave her in return did not appear to redeem me. She turned my way and spoke with a haughty tone that did a good job of expressing her displeasure.

“Jaylan Forester, the Council requires your presence. Please come with Sorceress Aragon and me immediately.”

I sighed and tossed the staff to Talon, who caught it deftly. “Have fun,” he quipped.

The page preceded us out of the room. As I came alongside Lissy, she punched me in the arm. “And try not to be a nuisance,” she said in a loud whisper. The page looked over her shoulder at me and put her nose in the air to show her agreement.

I leaned forward as we walked and said, “Sorry,” to the young lady’s stiff back. She ignored me. When I glanced at Lissy, her stern face had slipped and the corner of her mouth tilted in a smile that disappeared as soon as she saw I was looking at her.

I hope you enjoyed the excerpt. I’ll try to give you more of Vaetra Unleashed if I can do it without spoilers.


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