Writing Tools: The Idea Matrix

The Creative Process

In the beginning, stories are nothing but paper filled with ideas. Your ideas. Everything, from the characters to the story to the dramatic twist comes from your little head. You are the creative master. So why not make things a little easier for your noggin’ and add a little structure to your process.

Why a Matrix

Let’s use characters as an example for now. Anyone who had ever written something probably knows that you never ever just write a story about a boy. Your story of a boy eventually becomes:

The bullied – boy in school – who lost his mother at a younger tender age – and lives with his caring uncle  – who wishes the boy will crawl out of his shell one day  – to fulfil his fullest potential.

OR

The bullied –  boy in school – who loathes his mother for abandoning him – because his uncles hides the truth from him – thus making him think that she is the devil incarnated – which is why he cuts himself and just bit off the tip of Eric’s nose.

He doesn’t even need to be a boy, you can turn him into a girl, or a middle age accountant. The idea here is to identify the key traits of the character and put them down into a interchangeable grid format. In the above examples. the characters can easily be swapped with just a few key words. Boy – Girl, Angry – Sad, Fulfilment – Frustration.

And to do this efficiently, you need some sort of matrix. Here’s an example of a matrix that I have used to build my own characters thus far:

Simple Matrix

Looks simple doesn’t it? Yet, it still managed to serve multiple purposes:

  1. It clearly presents to you the choices to transform your character.
  2. It inspires you by allowing you to randomly mix and match.
  3. It saves you a lot of rewriting, forgetting and headaches.
  4. It acts as a database for your old characters if you ever need to reference them.

Using A simple Matrix

You can use very simple ones like the one above, which focuses purely on the characters and let your creative juices filll in the rest. Below are just some examples I just thought of literally 2 minutes ago:

E.g. The Hungry Video Game Nerd opens his fridge and grabs a coke, accidentally brushing against the head of his father. He wouldn’t let him game in peace, so he killed him.

E.g. The Jaded Pregnant Girl is sitting at the abortion clinic… again. All the waiting is making her mad, she has a hot date coming up in a few hours and just wants to get it over and done with.

Going further with the concept, you can even take a well-known, well-referenced character, change enough parts of it, and you get a new character completely unique to you and you alone!

Expanding the matrix

If you’re sort of a OCD freak like me, and would like to creative a more extensive matrix which extends the concept to plot, theme and what-nots, here’s my expanded matrix.

Big Matrix

Click for a better view

For an extended Matrix, the basic premises should be filled:

  • Who? The Main Character + optional major secondary characters or villains
  • Why? The Purpose + optional smaller conflict that leads to the big one + optional plot twists.
  •  Where? The Setting + optional smaller, more intimate start point and bigger end game
  • When? Time Frame + Optional jumping to and fros if your story calls for it.
  • How? The story of the character moving ahead + logic fail-safes + your gimmick

Of course, none of the above should be compulsory. If anything else, having a few gaps would allow you to get the creative process going. This full blown matrix should really only used for archiving purposes or just to stare at when you’re fresh out of ideas.

The combinations here are endless if you’re looking for zany wacky possibilities.

Jaded – Superhero – who attends a High School Reunion – but feels he has nothing else to live for – meets a WitchDoctor –  tell hims he can be someone else in another life – makes him goes back in time to kill his own parents – ending up in a alternate universe of his own doing – but climax and conclusion open for you to fill in. 

Will that work? I don’t know. But it is a hell of a original idea as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what counts. From a bunch of old stories I came up with something new, in two minutes by the way. And I only have eight tracks to work with now. Think of the endless possibilities when you fill this up to twenty, forty.

If you’re a burned out writer looking for inspiration, give this method a try. It helped me, I’m sure it’ll help you too. 

Writing Tools is a series I wish to expand upon in future where I talk about the various resources and processes that budding writers out there can use to better their own creations. Most of this concepts should be easily replicatable and I will present them in the form of my own exercises. If you have any ideas of your own, kindly share them as well, in your own blog or in the comments below!

Update – Practical Exercise Example 

Forgot to include a practical example. Here’s how I came up with a story combining 4-5 elements of what I’ve written before into what is more or less 1/2 the material I need for an entire story. Using a Private Eye from an un-uploaded early work regarding a Demon pet, using the old man from The Biodegradable Urn, using Butterfly Lady from the self-titled prompt, using Japanese man from The Immortal Jellyfish and basically borrowed plot lines from everywhere else. I can easily throw in Irish Manager Bob from Pixel Land as a circus ring leader, and the sugar-loving crazy demon imp from my first story (which sadly I will never upload). Maybe borrow a few spiders from Peter’s work as well.

I just picked and matched this in 10 minutes

Instant Plot

Click for a better view

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Using Dialogue More Effectively

Too much dialogueSearched for help on the internet again when I ran into trouble with my last story. I had pages and pages of nearly unbroken dialogue, which while tells the story, is kinda flat. Aside from inserting action bits in between, I was wondering how else I could make the dialogue read smoother. i.e. In more direct term, less stunted.

Important: What I want is smoother, more flowing, not more emotive or dramatic. That gets tiresome after a while. The problem with dialogue is when you try to add structure to it. He says “something” in one paragraph, she says “whatever” in the next. Then to break up the monotony and make it seem like there’s some up and downs going on, we rely on describing how she is feeling or how the words come out.

Using an extreme example I found online from TheWriterlyLife

This is bad:

“You broke my heart!” she screamed.
“It’s not my fault!” he growled.
“But you cheated on me!” she wailed.
“I’m sorry — it just happened,” he stammered.

This is better:

“You broke my heart!” she said.
“It’s not my fault!” he said.
“But you cheated on me!”
“I’m sorry — it just happened.”

And as TheWriterlylife explains:

The problem with this passage is that the tags start overshadowing the actual words being spoken. They’re completely unnecessary. They are often crutches in our writing; in reality, the words themselves should suggest the tone with which they are spoken. In fact, using “he said” and “she said” is so familiar to readers that the words blur into the background, retreating so that the main action of dialogue can come to the fore. That’s why it’s best to keep wordy dialogue tags to a minimum and just use “said” for most of your dialogue.

Often you try to describe what she is feeling. This is simply TELLING the reader instead of EXPRESSING it to him. I’m looking through some of my past writing and realised that I’m pretty guilty of it. I’ve read about it before, about how the simple “said” is actually more invisible and thus better than laughed, growled, snarled, chortled. One is a speech, one is an action, putting them side by side tends to draw the attention away from the other.

I’m going to be slightly more mindful of this moving ahead, which includes using the following in dialogue more often

  1. Better use of punctuation. Question, exclamation points and the infamous incomplete sentence like but… have to be used more correctly and to have more impact.
  2. Expressive Words Adopting the use of exclamation words or expressive words more (which I’m having some trouble with) like What the hell, damn you — Admit it, you automatically exclamation pointed the words without even thinking right?
  3. One action per dialogue Trying to let one single action at the start of a mini-conversation drive the emotion and action of 3-4 lines of to-and-fro dialogue.

One book I can recommend where this is used a lot is The Bookcase by Nelson DeMille. There’s a lot of interrogation scenes in it where it’s just 2 people going back and forth for quite a few pages. So basically, he had the same problem as me – crapload of dialogue, but he handled it like a best-selling author would and I didn’t.

Here’s a lengthy chunk from Nelson Demille’s The Book Case

“Good luck.” Every store clerk and waiter in this town wants you to know they’re really a writer, an actor, a musician, or an artist. Just in case you thought they were a clerk or a waiter. I asked Scott, “What time did you get here this morning?”

He replied, “As I told the other policeman, I got here about seven thirty.”

“Right. Why so early?”

“Early?”

“You’re scheduled for eight thirty.”

“Yeah…Mr. Parker asked me to get here early.”

“Why?”

“To stock shelves.”

“The shelves look stocked. When’s the last time you sold a book?”

“I had some paperwork to do.”

“Yeah? Okay, take me through it, Scott. You got here, opened the door—front door?”

“Yeah.” He reminded me, “It’s all in my statement.”

“Good. And what time was that?”

“I opened the door a little before seven thirty.”

“And it was locked?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you know that Mr. Parker was here?”

“No. Well, not at first. I noticed the lights were on in his office up in the loft, so I called up to him.”

“I assume he didn’t answer.”

“No…he…so I thought maybe he was in here—in the stockroom—so I came in here to get to work.”

This basically follows the principles I stated above. Doesn’t look half-bad at all without any crutched expressive words and it’s a very decent chunk. One benefit of this style is how flowing the dialogue goes. In your mind, you don’t really stop to think until the end of the conversation.

To conclude, read the article from MyWriterlyLife, read a few technically-well written books like The Book Case and just be mindful.

P.S: I’m currently reading Bag Of Bones by Stephen King as well, realised the conversation pieces are written pretty much the same way. So remember, let your words do the expressing and flush the telling expressions down the toilet.

P.S: As to what happened to my dialogue in my story as mentioned at the start of the article. After cutting out all the saids, chides, rebukes, angrily and hesitations, I think i shaved off close to 500 words without losing any intent.

Until next time…

Becoming a Storyteller: Building Initial Ideas, or, Get Thee to a Nunnery!

Excellent post on inspiration for sparking a story

ByDLFernandez

I’m one of Those people. Yep. I’m the guy that’ll open a blast email from, say, Writer’s Digest, and buy something they’re advertising–thus ensuring another blast will clutter any number of inboxes. The item in question this time is a writing book (yes, another writing book) entitled: The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates.

This book grabbed my attention for two reasons: 1.) The subtitle is “Finish your Novel in Your Spare Time”, which essentially what I have to do–you know, since I can’t quit my job; and 2.) It was on sale for $7.99.

The timing of blast email from Writer’s Digest Books was fortuitous as well, since I needed some new reading material for Spring Break. It helps that James Scott Bell, an excellent suspense writer and writing coach, recommended the book, too. Any while many books on the craft of writing can be hit or miss, I have found…

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The Cure For Writer’s Block: Writing Through The Pain

I was originally going to title this post “There’s something about Mondays.” since it has occurred to me that my most productive content-creation days have always been Mondays, but I don’t want to curse myself.

Not only am I up to 15,000 words now, or halfway through my story. I’ve written close to 3,000 words today with another 2 hours of scheduled writing time to go, I’ve also managed to rewrite my first 5,000 words 1.5 times in editing. I think a schedule where I just go about my editing when my energy is low, is really helping a lot. Not in the sense that the edits are good, but that it drives me forward to write later on. My day started horribly, and now its just going so smoothly.

Another day, another new idea that randomly comes up while writing and I’m rushing through the dialogue and action now, intending to go back and squeeze in the narrative in the places where I want it to slow down. Looking back, I think I might just let my imagination run wild beyond my 30,000 word limit now and cut out the boring bits later on – which tend to be narratives… honestly what gives, feels like I’m writing a script.

Oh well, after 3 days of burn, at least I’m back to having fun again. Hope this boom-bust in my writing doesn’t turn out to be a cyclical thing.

Also, as a side note, I guess it’s important to plan out the boring / transitioning bits of the story as well…. those are the parts I have the MOST trouble on. The rest of the story which are really the important parts, is where I have no trouble with once I get into the flow.

So cheers! Suck it Monday blues!

P.S: Game Of Thrones Season 3 is off to a very good start! Still has a meaningless nude scene, but I absolutely love how deep the scarred the Lannisters are beneath all that pomp. It’s hard to believe there can be a antagonist as well-liked as Cersei and Tyrion.

 

Prompt: Kowloon Walled City

This isn’t fiction, this is real. Like Christinia in Copenhagen, or the Favelas of Rio, there is actually a real city, up to 1994 at least, housing 33,000 (other records say 50,000 which is hard to tell since it’s mostly illegal immigrants) in an area of only 0.01 miles.

So many writers and film makers out there going for the whole science fiction urban dystopia thing, and there is one right there in one of the major urban centres of the world. It’s gone now, the people at least, but parts of it still remain as a monument to its bizarre and fabled past.

Talk about epic setting:

– Buildings are so densely packed, no light shines through for most of the city

– Residents ‘extend’ the city by building cages along the other walls, you know, so that they get sunlight and see stuff

– It exists beyond Hong Kong’s police jurisdiction, yet has its own laws stemming from the fabled Hong Kong triads.

– Most buildings require you to traverse across several other buildings to get to the ground floor or go outside.

– Electricity is smuggled in by tapping on the wider city’s network.

Kowloon Walled City

I’m getting giddy just thinking about the potential of this place. Plus enough documentation of the place remains for you to be historically accurate of just use it as a base for a wider city, though keeping it in Asia makes it more believable.

A city of the past, a glimpse of the future:

Science Fiction? A thing of the past? More like a premonition of the future. Residents of Hong Kong, driven by sky-high inflation due to its banking community, China immigrants and land scarcity, is already living in Kowloon-like conditions, or much worse.

The 67-year-old former butcher pays 1,300 Hong Kong dollars ($167) a month for one of about a dozen wire mesh cages resembling rabbit hutches crammed into a dilapidated apartment in a gritty, working-class West Kowloon neighborhood.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/hong-kong-rich-live-in-mansions-and-poor-live-in-cages-2013-2#ixzz2P6LdUco7

That article was posted just last month by the way, not in 1997 or something.

What do you think? What kind of story will fit into this setting aside from the typical thriller material. Would be possible to use this as a foreshadow of living in the distant future when the population reaches its bursting point, though that’s pretty typical as well.

I’ll go with some sort of screwed up Oliver Twist tale of a group of orphans / neglected children forming their own gang in this city and going on a reign of terror across Hong Kong, where some rich guy’s son gets kidnapped, but eventually becomes one of them and raises to the top to become the 2nd key figure in the group, then cue plot twist, bloody betrayal and the burning down of the fabric of the group as we know it. Got that 1% vs 99% vibe going for it as well.

The only problem is putting it in Hong Kong for me, it’s like an exotic location within an exotic location, so the setting isn’t perfect. But I’ll still keep this in mind for future use.

Could use some of the ‘God’s children’ material from Africa civil wars as well if you need more material, transplanting a real war in one continent into a real setting into another continent, than for the reader’s sake, just plonk the whole thing down in New York or something, usually after a nuclear holocaust or go with the whole destruction of the US economy thing.

Like this article? Check out my earlier prompts:

Binge Writing: When To Stop

Writers Block

This is a personal experience piece, not a writing guide. Just want to make the distinction clear here.

My Own Binge Writing Experience (Plus Updates)

Okay, things have been a bit weird lately. I’ll go on a writing binge on Monday and in a half-trance, cough up over 3,000 words (plus another thousand over words on other stuff), then the very next day, wake up feeling very lethargic and braindead to a very ineffective writing session. I’m just writing Mark of Child for now, which started as a rewrite of another story, though I intend to re-look Alone In The Crowd in future.

Mark of Child isn’t proving itself to be popular, but whatever, I’m enjoying myself. Up to 7,000 words now with large chunks of rewriting. I already know the major plot points, it’s the minor ones in between that I need to work out. You won’t be able to see much from what I’ve posted, but these two stories are some of my most complete start-to-end stories in that I already know what I want for both of them. If nothing else, I enjoyed myself writing them. Alone gave me a lot of trouble as I tried to play with the tenses, but it got me going and I’m getting the hang of present tense now, even preferring it. But we’ll see, I’m still learning the ropes. There’s more to the writing then I initially though.

For Mark of Child, as long as it goes swimmingly and I don’t suddenly hit a dead end, I should be good to go the distance for a mini-novella at 20,000 – 25,000 words with a hard limit of 30,000 I’ve set myself. I don’t like horror fiction that goes on forever, since well, horror plots tends to be pretty thin. Should be done in 3 weeks so please forgive me if I ignore my blog for a while. That is usually a good sign however as it means I’m doing something more productive.

Is Binge Writing Acceptable?

Then again, I ask myself if this famine or feast approach to my work is acceptable. Going back to the topic my previous article on Write Habits, I asked the question of how do most writers write. That is a question I’ve been asking myself, since lately, I’ve been questioning my own dedication to just sit down and write. For example, a very popular writing boot camp, NaNoWriMo advocates a sort of disciplined approach to getting out that first novel. 1,667 words per day for a month and you get a 50,000 word novel. That methods works for a lot of people since the time factor forces them to ‘just do it’ and realise the writer in them.

Lindaghill seems to be a prime example of someone who found her mojo after taking part in one of these boot camps and has completed the first draft of a 200,000+ epic. She has done something probably less than 0.001% of this world has done. I’ve been giving her a lot of shout outs lately since I am learning a lot from her.

But, like a round hole and a square peg, I just can’t do it. The more I try to adhere to a “write this amount of words,” “sit down from this time to this” approach, my mind just goes blank. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the process, but I seem to be someone who goes with the flow more than the method. So rather than force myself to write, I decided to stick to my approach and try to refine it.

Binge Writing Help

Turn’s out I’m not alone, and what I’m doing isn’t that wrong from a creative perspective. An article from Scriptmag that seems to understand what I am going through, and has some sound advice from seat-of-the-pants writers like me, to balance our style with the discipline of method writers. The motive of trying to achieve this balance is most aptly put by Ernest Hemingway.

“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

The article in Scriptmag actually speaks out against writers like me, but in a good way. It tries to teach us to control the force within instead of curbing it altogether. This control is to combat one of the biggest problems people like me face – We write without a plan, we write with the flow, we write to our hearts content, then suddenly brick wall. You look back and you see what you have written and how you can angle it to go forward, but no deal. Eventually you give up, move on and start the whole process over again.

Some useful tips from the article include gems like this:

2. “Leave yourself a rough edge.”

Cory Doctorow says, “When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the ‘hint.’ Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.”

Reading the article, I’ve come to several conclusions

Do not binge write to the point you are writing for the sake of writing Ideas are flowing, but haven’t had time to cook in your imagination. You’re just filling the page with empty words as you try to lead yourself somewhere, meandering through pointless dialogue. Just writing when you run out of ideas is GOOD, but not when you’ve ready gone a couple of thousand words in and refuse to stop.

Do not binge write trying to squeeze every last possible idea This is the reason why I binge write. One idea comes, leading to another, then another. OMG! I need to put all this down, then you start writing and writing until you’re drained. Turns out the next morning, you don’t know where to begin. Refer to the Ernest Hemingway quote above.

Do not binge write and expect the same results every single day This is one of the biggest killers for me. I’ve wrote 3000 words on Monday, why can’t I do it again? A good day tends to set us up for failure especially if you try to hold yourself to the lofty standard of one day. It’s better to look at the average over say a week, since binge writing takes the energy away from the very next day.

Declare yourself satisfied with your work I like this idea from the article and used it for a while. You have a goal in mind for today’s writing. You hit it, STOP! You have some other ideas in your head, make some notes, put down the key points, move on. This links to the second point about letting ideas stew for a while. You realise you end your writing on a high and eager to go the next day, instead of drained and fatigued.

To conclude, since I’ve done it again, and written another thousand word post. Let me just say find a method that works for you, learn it, explore it, question it. But more importantly enjoy it. This applies to the bigger world as well, not just writing. There is no just thing as black and white, right or wrong. Be it 250,000 essays on bondage or 20 word haikus. But not trying to learn more about your craft is a deadly sin. I will always keep questioning and learning, until the day I die.

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