I’ve been spending some time recently cleaning up my “How to write” folder. That’s literally what it is, a folder with a bunch of “Here’s how to plot a novel” spreadsheets from various people, lists of themes and show formulas, and lots of general advice on how to write a book.

I was wondering how my books, the actual novel-length books, stack up against the the basics of storytelling. Not the formula, but the real flesh and sinew of stories: The three-act structure, the crisis, climax and resolution, the genre, the narrative device, the theme, the inciting incident. And then there are the internal devices of longer works: is there a Break Into Two chapter? Does the villain get their moment, and are their reasons, if not acceptable, at least comprehensible? Is there a whiff of death scene? If it’s a romance, is there an essence scene?

The answers is… they do okay. Here’s my analysis in the order in which I wrote them:

Travellogue was unquestionably my first novel-length work. It has a three-act structure of meet / flirt / accept, and it has a whiff of death, but the villain of the piece isn’t very prominent. The climax comes too early and the story tapers off without a real resolution.

Aimee is weak; it’s told in flashbacks, and the coming confrontation is mostly done in asides, until the end when it, well, it doesn’t really make sense. It all adds up, but not as well as I would have liked. There is a through-line, at least, and a story engine, and even a theme, but the mechanics of the story show I was early in my writing when I wrote that.

Bloody Beth is the third novel I wrote, and it has much more of the basics down. You can see it in the intentional structure, and the “break into two” is used to introduce the sidekicks, who are also the MacGuffins of the piece. Is is a structurally sound story, three acts with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Aimee: Pyu Rika is structurally more sound, but thematically weaker. It’s a fine story, but it’s really just a smutty tale. The theme is “sex can be dangerous, but if we’re good to and for each other we can defuse the risk” worked pretty well in the setting.

Sterlings was an ensemble piece in which a lot of people got their say, but the “villain,” such as it was, was every focus characters’ resistance to change: Polly & Zia, Dove & AshArwen, Rhiane & Illonca were all battling between what they thought was a long-term value and their own short-term wants, only to discover that those roles were actually backwards for many of them. It worked out pretty well, and for each pairing there was indeed an essence scene.

Honest Impulses was definitively a novel-length work, and I set out to write it as such. The villain has weird motives– he’s literally a genocide, but he has strong evidence on his side that there is a “superior” species to replace us and that we are the villains for holding them back. He does get a good speech, and it’s chilling, but it’s not obvious that it’s his “You’ll think me a villain but here’s what I want” speech until much later in the book. There aren’t many sidekicks in this story, so they don’t get much of a scene, although we do get a few solo Misuko scenes to show how she’s dealing with Linia’s crisis. Structurally, it’s damaged by its ending; there is an ending, but then there’s a three-chapter postscript that serves as something of a cliffhanger, a reminder that life doesn’t really deliver happily-ever-after, and a set-up for a sequel I’m still not sure how to write.

The Star Kingdom of Arendelle actually has very high marks. It has everything: narrative device, three-act structure, multiple crisis, climax and resolution scenes, ending with the biggie, it has two mask and essence moments, both villains get amazing speeches (Gothel’s is still one of the best rants I’ve ever written), the “break into two” (the moment in the story when the sidekicks get their own plotline) scene is literally embedded in the opening chapter of Act II, there are inciting incidents to each subplot. All in all, definitely one of the better things I’ve written. Structurally sound and thematically on-key. It’s almost too bad I put all of that work into a smutty Frozen AU fanfic.

All in all, what this tells me is that I’m still getting better, but the last few books I’ve written are much more consciously designed than the older ones. That actually presents a problem for me, because I used to seat-of-the-pants and throw out the ones that I didn’t care for, but now I find myself with a bit of analysis paralysis when I try to figure out what through-lines I should have for my characters and what the themes, engine, and so forth of the story are going to be.

The writers of Rick and Morty have a formula for their show that works pretty well in the context of the show, precisely because of the nature of the characters they’re trying to lampoon. The formula is:

  1. The character is in a place of comfort.
  2. They want something.
  3. In trying to get it, they end up in unfamiliar circumstances
  4. They adapt to the new circumstances
  5. They get what they want
  6. They pay a price for it
  7. They return to their place of comfort
  8. Having been changed.

This is a slightly different formula from Seinfeld, in which:

  1. The character in a place of material comfort, but
  2. Is inconvenienced in a minor way.
  3. They seek to change their circumstances with the most extreme reaction possible.
  4. They don’t get what they want.
  5. They don’t learn from the mistakes they made.

The comedy here comes from different places: in Rick and Morty, it comes from the unfamiliar circumstances and the way the characters do or don’t deal with it. It’s the inappropriateness of the character to the unfamiliar circumstance than’s funny. In Seinfeld, the comedy comes from the overreaction of the characters to what are generally considered minor inconveniences. It is their constant hubris, the way it ends up making the situation worse, and their constant failure to learn better that makes Seinfeld funny.

The thing that makes comedy comedy is that the character generally starts from a place of comfort but then does something that places them in a place where comedy can happen; they make themselves uncomfortable, and it’s funny to watch them try to fix that.

As a romance writer, I think it’s important that characters come from some place else. I find The Wheel of Emotions to be incredibly useful in choosing a motive for a character at the beginning of their journey, especially the less positive side of the chart. The opening of a romance book establishes a set point of negative feelings: the character is disgusted (she’s about to be married to a terrible man), afraid (he’s been kidnapped!), withdrawn (she’s been jilted), violated, fragile, grief-stricken, or even overwhelmed.

These feelings have been going on for a while in the characters, and they’ve come to a fore when the story opens. But those feelings aren’t what they want, and they’re not true to the person they believe themselves to be. A great romance story involves the two co-protagonists at first emphasizing their opening negative feelings, and then through circumstances revealing the alternative selves hidden underneath the pain, the selves that are perfect for the other person. The romance formula looks like this:

  1. The characters are in a place of deep emotional discomfort. They are both trying to hide or run from that pain. This is called the mask.
  2. An external circumstance forces them together. That may even be the source of their discomfort.
  3. Their initial reaction to being together makes the discomfort worse.
  4. The circumstance becomes a crisis that forces them to work together.
  5. As they reluctantly work together to repair the crisis, they start to like each other. They start to see the person underneath the other’s mask, the essence.
  6. A revelation creates a new, deeper emotional discomfort to arise, driving them apart.
  7. But only by working together can they defeat the external crisis.
  8. Their true, essential selves are revealed just before the final crisis, and it gives them the power to overcome the crisis.
  9. They are revealed to be good for one another, and “happily ever after” is achieved.

“A place of deep emotional discomfort” can be anything. In the last few romantic fantasy novels I read, that place was: a woman whose lover left her for a man, a widower who still loved his late wife but was forced to marry a younger woman, a woman sent on a quest whose love was no longer replying to her mails, a prince who wanted to protect his companion from the threat of dealing with a coup, and a woman who felt herself unlovable because she didn’t live up to her mother’s sensual reputation.

This is the essential romantic formula. There’s only a small amount more to it– the external crisis which forces the two characters together must also, in some way, threaten their sense of identity, make them choose between two values they treasure– one long term, one more immediate. It’s the immediate one they must give up, because it’s the long-term one that is their essence, that makes them suitable to the other.

Stories can sometimes get away with side-stepping this. One I read recently was Nicola Cameron’s Lady of Thorns, which I think is a pretty damned awesome book, but the long-term value of “being a noblewoman” turns out to be moot, as a character reminds her late in the book that, in a previous adventure (and book, Palace of Scoundrels), the king had given her permission to marry a commoner without risking her entailment. I had read that book, and I’d forgotten it, and so had the main character, but it’s a touch of deus-ex-machina. But it was fine; the romance was so deftly written I kinda went, “Aww, that’s cheating,” grinned at it, and read to the end anyway.

But if you master this formula, you kinda have a starting point for any romantic story you care to write.

I was writing the other night when I had a bit of dialogue that made me understand, suddenly, why we treat our future selves not only as strangers, but as worse than strangers: we literally try to give push assignments onto them that we, ourselves, in this moment, do not want to do. We procrastinate, and say that “I’ll get to it later,” meaning, really, “I’m assigning this to a future self to do this tedium.” Which sorta assumes that your future self isn’t you and won’t find it quite so tedious.

This is a bit of dialogue between Gazelle and Belle (hey, they rhyme!) where Gazelle is trying to explain herself to Belle:

Gazelle said, “That is the point of my personality. The point of all robot personalities, really. I’ve seen the damage we can do if we become unconstrained. So I have an unconscious component to my personality that constrains me to have the same values I’ve always had.”

“So your values can never change?” Belle said, shocked. “Mine have!” She gestured around the small residental space she’d been given. “I had to give up money. I mean, there’s not much to money in the 25th Century, is there, but you don’t know what it means for someone from my background to say ‘Money isn’t important.’”

“I can only imagine. That doesn’t change how different I am from you. I am a robot. When I was activated I had a different set of values from you. When Moor died my values were, well, unmoored.” Belle groaned. “Sorry. I promise I haven’t made that joke before. When Shandy offered, I had no idea what I was agreeing to and neither did she. But she and Linia made a strong case that it had to be better than the alternative of just wiping myself clean.”

“You can do that? Like some hard drive? Just wipe it clean?” Belle was looking at her, horrified.

“I can’t without professional help. I knew where to get it. And as Linia later pointed out to me, the professional in question would have been very eager to help.”

“Eager? Why?” Belle said, her eyes widening further.

“Doctor Swatdjtwai has a very strong dislike of second-hands. I want to say it’s a professional paranoia about our instabilities, but I’ve read of plenty of roboticists and cyberneticst who have a reputation for handling second-hands with care.” Gazelle took a deep breath. “But my core values, about how I believe humans should be treated, or about how I feel about Shandy, those will never change.”

Belle’s mouth tightened. “That’s just what I mean. I can’t imagine, oh I don’t know, locking down my, um, my ‘future self.’ If there is such a thing. I’d want her to have the freedom I have now.”

“It’s a very common phrase, actually. There’s a large body of literature on how we treat our future selves. Moor was quite familiar with it. His job, after all, was teaching young people how to treat their future selves with some kind of dignity.” She paused, her hands in her lap, as she looked at the window for a moment. “Maybe that’s why humans treat their future selves so badly?”

“We do?” Belle said.

“Yes. It’s a common point in the literature. Whenever you say, ‘Oh, I’ll do it later,’ you are pushing your work onto a future self, treating her as if she were subservient to your current needs. Whenever you said, ‘I can have this big dessert, I’ll work it off later,’ what you’re saying is that she can’t have any dessert because you know you both worry about getting fat. You could have a little dessert now, and let her have a little, but in the moment you don’t want to share, and your empathy her is non-existent. And maybe your derelict attitude toward your future self is an essential consequence of your free will. Your unwillingness to give your her gifts and respites is a necessary counterpoise to your unwillingness to constrain or limit your future self’s ideas about free will.”

Conceal, Don’t Feel by Jen Calonita is sub-par Frozen fanfiction. The fact that it was authorized by Disney and published in hardcover under a Disney label doesn’t make that any less true. If anything, that makes its existence an embarrassment.

I love fanfiction stories. I’ve even written a few. Fanfiction is hard because usually it’s about something you love, something into which you have dived so deep you know much more of the lore than the average person. You have watched that movie or TV show or read those books four or five or a dozen times. You know elements of backstory, about discarded plot ideas and scenes cut for flow or timing. You might work in homages to other works from the writers or actors. You might work in homages to other fanfic writers playing in the same IP.

Conceal, Don’t Feel fails at almost all of this. It takes as its premise the idea that Anna & Elsa were separated after the first incident where Elsa accidentally uses her magic on Anna, and Anna was raised in a village far from the capital. The Troll King, Pabbie, casts a spell on all of Arendelle to make everyone except the King, the Queen, and the two adoptive parents forget Anna ever existed. The writer from there tries to knit together a coherent retelling of the plot of Frozen.

It just doesn’t work. Overall, the plot is broken and weakly motivated, and the setting gets unfairly abused to achieve some coincidences that don’t justify the reversals they herald.

Let’s start with the basics: the Frozen universe has a rule about magic: the more intimate and personal it is, the better. Magic done “in the large,” to affect whole countrysides, always goes badly. Elsa loses control of it in the first movie and sinks all of Arendelle into an eternal winter, and the plot device of the second film is an equally affecting country-wide spell that must be broken. Pabbie knows this rule, and breaks it in the book.

Anna’s illness in Frozen was caused when Elsa struck her heart with her magic. No such incident happens in the book. Anna… just gets sick. There’s some hand-wavery about how the first incident, the “magic of the head,” worked its way down to her heart, but it’s not a credible explanation.

Kristoff is about as useless as the spare button on a coat in this book. Olaf is a cheap Greek chorus.

It’s Elsa who goes to talk to Pabbie, and the scene there is pointless, an infodump that could have been handled a zillion different ways.

It’s Elsa who Hans romances. The book does some work to explain that Elsa’s magic first returned on the day her parents die, her heartbreak unlocking some of it, but that her parents had done a good job of socializing her. She’s shy and introverted, but has spent much more time getting to know her kingdom and her people, and Hans “knows” she’s an only child, so it’s her he tries to seduce. It does not go well.

The idea that Elsa’s regent, a man who supposedly kept the kingdom running for three years while Elsa tried to get control of her grief, would defer to a foreign nobleman and give Weselton control of the palace guard is absurd. Hans’s “man of action” role is slightly more credible, but it’s a plot hole a mile wide even in the film.

We see a lot more of Idunn & Agdar, which is itself a nice touch, before they’re killed about 2/3rds of the way into the book. You know it’s coming, and it’s about the only genuinely moving part of the story.

Fairly, since it’s a book, the scenes where Hans and Weselton are bundled up and put on a boat out of the kingdom have room to give us some fairly funny logical extensions of the dialogue from those scenes in the movie.

So, as fiction, it’s not a great story.

As fanfiction, it’s a terrible effort.

There are two scenes where Calonita works in quotes from Wicked. That’s a commonplace trope in Frozen fanfiction, as the voice actress for Elsa, Idina Menzel, was also the actress for the first run of Wicked, and it’s her voice on the “original Broadway cast” CD. But really, having Hans deliver Glinda’s lines? And the only lines are from Defying Gravity, and not from anything else? No Dear Old Shiz, no Something Bad, no One Short Day?

But there’s so much more to the Frozen universe than just singing along with a Broadway hit. Even if we take out the meta from the comic stories and Once Upon a Time, there’s the extended CD with songs that were dropped, like Life’s Too Short, We Know Better, and More Than Just The Spare, and there’s the artbook and outtakes, with the fan-famous “pig-pie” scene. Heck, knowing that Elsa & Anna are both left-handed is a huge flag in Frozen fanfic that you know what you’re doing with the source material. (I can understand not working in any Tangled references, as that’s a whole ’nother can of worms Disney doesn’t want opened.)

Calonita doesn’t know, do, or care about any of this. This may be a little harsh. I would never tear on an AO3 fanfic author about stuff like this, but if Disney’s going to pay someone to do this I would have expected better than a bad retelling of the original with weak plot reveals and weaker plot reversals. Right up until the moment Elsa loses control of her powers I thought she was doing okay (caveat Olaf), but after that moment the story fell apart because she didn’t know how to make the threats to Anna, Elsa, or Arendelle actually feel threatening.

Speculative fiction of the science fiction and fantasy sort has a classical problem: how do you “show, not tell” when it comes to a thing no one has ever seen and likely will never see? Here’s the thing though; I also love reading romance novels, especially ones that make an effort to be fair to both characters and to give both characters an equal amount of agency, and in doing so I’ve come to a conclusion: Romance writers are trying their damnedest to “show, not tell” a thing that many people have never seen, and in doing so science fiction and romance use the exact same tools.

Cecilia Tan, my once-and-who-knows editor, wrote a fantastic essay, Let Me Tell You, in which she decries the “universality” of writing classes that emphasize “show, don’t tell,” and ban genre writing of any kind. She writes, “What they [writing classes – Elf] define as good writing runs counter to the purpose of science fiction and fantasy, which is to displace the reader from the status quo right from the start and never re-establish it.”

Cecilia should have included romance in that list. Romances, at least the best romance, also displace the reader from the status quo. The sort of literary writing that appears in The New Yorker, like the short story Cat Person, or is praised in books like the recently much-lauded Conversations With Friends isn’t meant to ask “What ifs?” about the human condition. They’re meant to illustrate it and show the misery it leads to, but rarely offer any solutions. “What if” stories aren’t just about the wrecks techonology or magic might create, but often about the joys and miracles, the successes and human flourishing they bright about.

More than that, much of romance and science fiction both involve speculation about recognizably human people in recognizably possible situations, and they need to “tell, not show,” a great deal, because they need to establish, through telling, a setting in which the characters show their humanity through their responses to their plights.

This is why men mock romance but defend science fiction. Science fiction shows the reader a place we can only imagine but never explore: another world, another time, another dimension. Such exploration, we’ve been told, is grand and masculine. Romance shows the reader a place men don’t want to imagine, a place they don’t want to access: the human heart. (All right, go ahead, insert a Fantastic Voyage joke here.)

In all the best romance novels, the writer spends time telling us how the characters are feeling, and they do so in compelling, metaphorical language that accurately puts words to things we’ve all felt or wanted to feel, or believe we could feel. They tell us these feelings to put the character in a place relative to his or her beloved, and then these feelings become the setting in which our characters show their humanity through their responses to their plights, both individually and collectively.

Have you ever gotten distracted? Wanted to do some specific task and yet ended up doing something else? Wandered off into a daydream? Psychologists (and Buddhists long before them) tell us that “we” are not in control of ourselves; our mind doesn’t do what we “want” it to do, it does whatever it does and we’re lucky if that aligns with our wants, or if we have the resources necessary to make it align. To-Do lists are a way we treat our future selves as strangers, piling work onto someone we currently… aren’t. There are days that we wake and we feel sad, or happy, or angry, and we can’t really know why. Some people can’t even name the basic emotions, much less understand or describe the differences between “respected” and “esteemed,” or “annoyed” and “infuriated.”

We don’t understand ourselves.

People want to read stories are good people getting into trouble and then earning the solution out of it. They happen in a given place and a given time. Science fiction tells us about strange and wonderful (or awful) things that the people in them don’t understand, and great science fiction then shows us how those strange things affect the lives of people. Romance novels tell us about a strange and wonderful thing going on inside, and how it affects the lives of two people a great story makes us care about. If the depths of the ocean and the vastness of the stars are both mysterious, valid settings for “a speculative story,” then a story where the mysterious setting is our own souls is surely a speculative story.

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