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Streamlining My Story By Controlling Character Knowledge

If you’ve been following my blog for some time now, no doubt you’ve come across one of my many Writing Woes posts. Most of the time, these posts deal with my angst about having to refactor my story, because as I write the outlines for the drafts, or the drafts themselves, I keep finding that my story is too complex. When I say complexity, I don’t necessarily mean the substance or message of the story, or even the style and vocabulary I use. Instead, what I mean is the layers and elements interwoven in the story.

It’s not easy to remove an element or a thread from a story, especially if, like me, you love big, epic things and you tend to plan or outline before writing. Removing an element could unravel other foundational threads, and then you find yourself with all kinds of plot holes that cannot be plugged no matter how much you try. After finishing another streamlining last night after weeks of reviewing my story again, I realized that I’ve been using the same revamping technique to tame the wild mess I’ve planned:

When I want to discard a thread from my story, I make the outcome of that thread already well-known to the characters.

See, the threads in my story add some layer of mystery that the protagonists have to grapple with. It’s another stumbling block that stops them from reaching their goals, but once that thread is resolved, the characters would have gained something. At least, if the thread is at all useful, that’s what is supposed to happen. Of course, you could have a thread that doesn’t really add any value to your characters’ arc, but if that’s the case, then there should be no trouble removing it at all. (Or even having it there in the first place.)

I’ll give an example from my story. I suppose it’s a bit of a spoiler, but well… not really anymore. In one of my more recent refactoring, I axed a character named Xiehun who was supposed to be investigating the death of his father. Now, he was relevant to one of the protagonists, Anina, because the person who betrayed his father also betrayed her. And that’s important because once Anina finds out who betrayed her, then the investigation would be resolved.

Anyway, since there’s already so many things going on in my story, I didn’t have time to elaborate on the investigation of his father’s death. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even have much time to allot to Xiehun at all, except for moments in the story where he reminds everyone about the mystery of his father’s death. Which… is not a compelling use of character, to be honest. So I needed to remove him.

But then that leaves the mystery of Anina’s betrayal dangling. So when I removed Xiehun, I removed the mystery of his father’s death too. Instead of murder, I made it an accident, and I made it common knowledge in the story. And thus, I’ve disentangled Anina and Xiehun’s threads.

I find that when something becomes common knowledge among the characters, then you save the time you would spend writing how they acquire this knowledge. I used this tactic many times. When everyone was trying to figure out how to neutralize a really dangerous magical McGuffin, it added another layer to the story. But when I made that solution well-known (or at least known to 1 character), the only thing I have to worry about is how to get the characters to that point. When some mysterious thing that happened in the past came cropping up, it blindsided the characters. The characters would have to deal with processing this, so I have to write them connecting the dots. But if it’s already in their repertoire of knowledge, their reaction would be completely different, perhaps tamer and better prepared to confront the situation.

In hindsight, I think the reverse was how I ended up with such a convoluted story in the first place. I wanted a lot of plot twists and big surprises, so I made my characters really clueless. Everything was stacked up against them; every time they turned a corner, there’s something waiting to surprise them. So I suppose if you want to make your story more complex and layered, just make your characters not know about a particular thing.

I don’t know if this is something most writers already know. I definitely didn’t until I started doing so many refactors and streamlining sessions, and I realized I was performing the same technique to slim my story down. So there you go. Did you already know about this? What other things do you do when your try to simplify your story?

February 2018 Art

In my last update about my Schoolism subscription, I mentioned that I switched momentarily from the Pictorial Composition course to take a lighting course. I’ve been watching Sam Nielson’s Fundamentals of Lighting, because I think I lack even the most basic grasp of light and colour. That said, I still proceeded with the 2nd assignment for Pictorial Composition, just so I don’t lag too much behind. Here’s some of my compositions:Read More »

February 2018 Books

Unfortunately I am lagging behind my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal. I’ve been on a bit of a slump lately. I got hit by The Queen’s  Thief feels again, which means that nothing I read seems to be interesting enough to pull me out of it. I sit on my hour-long train ride, looking out of the window, entertaining angsty scenes about Attolia. So uhm, yeah. I haven’t been very productive at all in terms of my reading.
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The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

This has been on my TBR list for years! But it’s only recently that my library got an electronic copy. So I was really excited to read it.

It was quite good. I really loved how Caribbean myths came alive in this story. I know next to nothing about Caribbean culture, so I’m always excited to learn something new about other cultures, especially through fantasy books. Also, this is #OwnVoices, which makes it better! The plot was very fast-moving. I remember thinking “Whoa, I must be nearing the end of the book now,” only to find out I was only 40% of the way through. It is packed! That said, I do wish that the plot could have slowed down sometimes so the story could explore more of the inner world of the characters and show a bit of introspection. Corinne was great, but I would have loved to hear more of what went on in her head, because the writing style was like “this happened, then that happened.”

Currently reading…

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Yes, I’m still slogging my way through this ginormous book. I really like Kaladin, but he’s the only one I like. Every time I get to Gavilar’s thread, I just don’t feel like reading much. So every other chapter, I find that I put down the book for long stretches, because I just don’t care enough about anyone other than Kaladin.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

I’m no stranger to Stroud’s books, and I liked some of his older stuff. I wasn’t aware he had a new series out until I saw some fanarts for it on Tumblr. Naturally, my interest was piqued. I’m really liking how this is going so far. Lucy is a great narrator, and I’m really liking her friendship with Lockwood.

Balancing Impatience With Procrastination

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update about my original work, so this post will have some of that as well as some musing about a behaviour I’ve noticed myself exhibiting for a while now (which, as you can tell by the title, has something to do with time management.)

Story

But first up, what have I been up to? I swear, I’ve actually been hard at work. In the middle of January, I decided to use the last half of the month to try and finish off the second draft of my original story. I managed to get through a week or so of something like a self-imposed NaNoWriMo, writing 1,667 words each day. I got to a certain point, where I just thought: “Man, if I keep going with the way I planned this story, I’m going to end up with something really messy. Still.” I say “still,” because if you’ve been following my blog you know that I’ve done nothing in the past year but revise outlines and drafts to pluck out elements and streamline my story. The last time I wrote about my original project, I talked about eliminating one of the main characters and his arc entirely. And as I tried to move forward with that in mind, I still found myself stumbling over multiple other elements.Read More »

January 2018 Books

One of my resolutions this year is to finish all the books I’ve already bought before buying new ones. I might allow myself to borrow a book from the library if I really can’t help it, but I’ll try my best to get through the ones I own and haven’t read yet.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I am becoming a pretty solid fan of Frances Hardinge. The very first book I read from her, Fly By Night, failed to make a strong impression, but the next book I read, The Lost Conspiracy moved me to tears. I had a rocky start with A Face like Glass, but by the end, I know that I would read almost every single book Hardinge writes thereafter. When I picked up The Lie Tree, I was wondering if it would be hard to get into it like A Face like Glass, but not at all! From the beginning, we are given a premise so compelling for the main character that I was motivated to keep turning the page. This is one of those books I read well into the night because I couldn’t put it down. Good thing I was on vacation at the time!

What I love about Hardinge’s books is that they tackle really complicated subjects without being verbose about it. She also writes loneliness and ostracization really well. Sometimes when a protagonist is dealing with all kinds of crap, which they do very often, it can come off as a “woe is me” kind of situation. With Hardinge’s books, I’ve never felt that.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Peter Wimsey mysteries is one of those highly-recommended books over at Sounis, so I bought the entire collection as a bundle. The first book is Whose Body? I have to say, I’m not jumping up and down about it. I thought the mystery was well constructed, but it was difficult to get into Sayers’ writing. Most of the plot was advanced through dialogue. Everyone was just talking all the time in big chunky paragraphs. I’m not saying it’s terrible — just that I’m not used to it. There also wasn’t much characterization until near the end when we witness Peter’s trauma from the war. I’ll still read the other books in the series, simply because I already have them at hand.

Currently Reading…

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

This is one of those books I’ve owned for a long time and have not yet read. I bought it in Dec 2013, so I’ve had this book for 4 years now. I tried to read it twice before but have never gone very far. I really admire a lot of Sanderson’s works, but for some reason, it was difficult for me to get into this one. I think there was just so many characters, so many different things happening in such wide far-flung locations, that it was difficult for me to care about any of them. So I’m slowly making my way through the book again and hopefully this time I’ll be able to finish it. To balance it (because it’s a huge book), I’m reading some other smaller books along with it. In January, I read this alongside Whose Body?

Now that I’m on my third re-read, I find that I’m much more invested in the characters than the first two times I started it. I think that’s a good sign. I’m currently around 25% through the book.

What “Realistic” Means in Fantasy

I have written a lot on this blog about how I would like to see realistic elements in fantasy, particularly when it comes to politics. Inevitably, I receive comments indicating that readers are upset that I apparently don’t understand that fantasy is, well, fantasy. But I have never criticized fantasy for containing dragons or ogres […]

via Wanting Realism in Fantasy — Pages Unbound | Book Reviews & Discussions


This is something I’ve always wanted to write about as well. There’s a certain level of logic that even books of the fantasy genre must uphold in order to be immersive.

Being a Better Writer: The Meandering Story

A great piece on identifying and fixing meandering plots… which is what I think my story is doing right now.

Unusual Things

Today we’re tackling a topic directly. Head on. We’ll be discussing a problem I often see throughout literature, especially work from new writers or in the area of fanfiction (and both are probably bolstered by the fact that most television deliberately commits this act in order to pad out run-time).

Today, I want to talk about the meandering story: What it is, and how we can fix it. Because not only is it a problem that I see many young writers having a problem with, it’s also one that many of them don’t seem to know how to escape. The story meanders, and it wanders, and the writer, even if they see the hole they’re writing themselves into, doesn’t know how to get out of it. More often than not, it turns into a sort of “sand trap” for them, like a golfer, in which they swing and they…

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Writing Woes: More Axing

tumblr_opv9n93dxm1w0ecego2_540I wrote before about cleaning up the tangled mess of my first draft by axing characters from the story. I just finished the 2nd scene-by-scene outline of my 2nd draft and I realize that I *still* have a ton of characters, and for a first novel, it’s probably not a good idea for me to write all their stories at once.

In that previous post, I decided to remove the thread about the couple of cursed warriors. But for some reason, between outlines, they came back, and somehow their story seems better welded to the overarching plot. And because I already have their character arcs figured out, I don’t have any qualms about writing them at all. I’m actually excited to write about them.

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2017 Art Review + Schoolism Gesture Drawing

2017 Summary of Art

In the beginning of last year, one of my new year’s resolution was to make at least one coloured art piece a month. Well, that totally didn’t happen. At first it was just because I didn’t have time, but as the year progressed it was because of an increasing dissatisfaction with my artwork. Even at the sketching stage, I felt increasingly frustrated with my art that I just didn’t bother to colour them in.

In November, I participated in NaNoWriMo so I didn’t have time for art at all. And in December, I finally decided to take some online art lessons to improve. I chose schoolism.com because after shopping around for online courses, this was the only one I found that is a good match for the skill level I’m currently at and want to get to, without passing my budget. I opted for the 1-year subscription instead of the critiqued classes, so I can go at my own pace.

Throughout December, I worked my way through the gesture drawing course taught by Alex Woo. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. I think the best part about the structure of the course is that you can see the critiques for the students who took the critique sessions, so you get to see how other people are doing and have a better idea of how to improve your own skills.

Here are a few samples of my work from the course. Mind you, these are not polished up. The course is typically 7-week long and I breezed through it in December (often forgoing that cafe drawings) for personal reasons. If I had taken the critique sessions, I would definitely polish my drafts up a bit more. So if you think, “Oh these are not that good,” definitely attribute it to my rush and not to the quality of the course. There are student submissions that were awesome. As a matter of fact, I was really surprised to see some amazing works that seemed to be getting only 3-stars from the instructor, so based on that, I’m pretty sure these drafts would be like 1 to 2 stars only.

Lecture 1: Line of Action

The line of action is about distilling a pose into a single line to capture the main idea or the main movement of the body. This sample is probably not gonna make much sense without the actual poses as reference, heh.

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Lecture 2: Shape

Like the line of action, shape tries to distill a pose into a single entity that captures its main feeling. It’s great for composition because you know what space your figure is taking up.

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Lecture 3: Silhouette

This is probably one of the most important things I learned in the course. Silhouette is about capturing the action of your figure even without details. In good gesture drawing, the action of your figure must still be recognizable even if the figure is completely blacked out. I think one of the problems I had before was that a lot of the poses I put my characters in had terrible silhouettes. I had a lot of fun doing the exercise for this lecture.

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Lecture 4: Space

I didn’t do the homework for this lecture, because I was so excited about the upcoming lectures. I know, I’m terrible. But this lecture is about establishing a sense of 3-dimensionality in your figure. So things like… putting your figure’s feet in different altitudes.

Lecture 5: Exaggeration

This was one of my favourite lectures. I probably failed it but it was so informative. Exaggeration is about taking the idea of a pose and exaggerating the figure so that the idea becomes more pronounced. In order for us to do this, we had to assign a story to the poses so that we know how to exaggerate it. Some of these worked out better than others. I wonder if we were supposed to really stick to the 2-minute time frame. I spent about 5 to 10 minutes on the better ones here, but even they don’t look as good as the ones that the other students handed in.

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Lecture 6: Extrapolation

Extrapolation is about using the main idea of the model’s pose and applying it to another thing, like an animal. For this lecture we were asked to study the anatomy of an animal and to do all the exercises using this animal. To my everlasting regret, I chose the Philippine tarsier, because it’s an animal that appears in my story and I thought, might as well have a bit of practice. But this ended up being such a poor choice. The tarsier is curled up in itself most of the time; it can’t really stretch its arms, and it rarely stretches its legs (only to jump). So I had a LOT of difficulty applying the stretched out poses. I tried to have the head and eyes capture the main idea, but there’s only so much variability I can do. Either that or I’m just not terribly creative.

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Lecture 7: Story

Story is about using a pose in a larger context of a story. For this lecture we were assigned to come up with a story using a series of poses. In the sketch below, you’ll see the poses in the upper left corner. I ended up modifying most of them to fit my story.

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And that’s it! What a ride! I learned so much from this course, and even if I rushed it, I will certainly keep the lessons in mind and apply them to my upcoming artwork.