Key points: watch for decision points, turning points. Build your themes. Use something three times before it becomes pivotal. A low point may signal the transition from Act II to Act III. Also incapacitation of the mentor. Be careful of resolving conflicts too easily or quickly, give them depth and time to be interesting. Be wary of inactive, uninvolved characters -- make them active, get them personally involved.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 16, Continuing with Mary's Outline.
[Howard] Maybe more than 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Maybe... Probably more than 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Sorry about being in a hurry.
[Brandon] I guess you guys... We're not that... You're not in that much of a hurry today. But... What... We're going to dig right into this and just keep going. I think we... You're going to start with nine and ten?
[Mary] Yes. [Chapter 9] As they approach the palace, the demon's minions fly out to meet them. Pa-chieh can't hold off so many. Wu Kong can't help, because of the children on his staff. The demonettes strike hard. Both children fall and the Monkey King shouts for Pa-chieh and just barely catches Marie. They tumble through the trees. Wu Kong twists to have Marie land on top of him but is knocked out.
[Chapter 10] Kennedy fell the other way and the demon catches him. Meigao is on the demon's back. The demon takes them to the palace to the Bone Demon. The Bone Demon gets the scroll of his parents and the baby. They meet the Princess.
[Brandon] Okay. Just some reminders here. All right? Pa-chieh is the pigheaded person.
[Brandon] Wu Kong is the Monkey King. Our two children, I should have said this before, but are Marie and Kennedy. And Meigao is a cat.
[Howard] Meigao is a cat.
[Brandon] These children have entered a mystical world through a portal in an elevator. They are trying to get home. They are fighting against the Bone Demon.
[Howard] But before they can get home, they need to contend with the Bone Demon, right?
[Brandon] All right. So. Right here we have some action. This is fun action. What red flags are we seeing in this outline right here?
[Dan] Well, first of all, it's nice that the kids get separated here. I like that. I also like the fact that this is the moment at which the children's inaction has caused problems. We talked about a lot last week, about how the children weren't really doing anything, they weren't really contributing to the plot. This is the chapter where their lack of contribution hurts. I think actually we might want to have this come a little earlier depending on how long the book is.
[Brandon] Yeah. I'm still worried about how inactive the characters are, but this could be a moment of decision. This could be the moment that takes us from the end of Act II to Act III.
[Howard] At the risk of diverging wildly from whatever Mary had intended for this story, the story could be a tale in which the children learn that in spite of what they've been told about keep out of your parents' affairs, stop trying to help with this, stop trying to do that, in spite of that... You really should take action for yourself. This could be that sort of a turning point, where their inaction... Which is a conscious sort of inaction in the themed thing that I'm describing... Their inaction leads to another decision point. Like "You know what? This business of letting the grown-ups do everything? This is just dumb. We can help and we can..." Now I'm not saying that's the way to go. I'm just saying that what you've described in that scene... That could function as a turning point, if this was the theme of the story.
[Dan] Well, that... This is a good turning point for a lot of different themes. The way this book started, it was kind of kids in a new place and getting accustomed to strangeness. Going into a magical world is a wonderful way to get accustomed to strangeness. The kind of proactive behavior that they could learn from this would then help them in the real world.
[Brandon] Right. I mean, if you were going to thematically tie that in, you start your first scene with them getting fed Chinese food, having come in from America, and saying, "We hate this. We want our hamburgers. We don't want to try this foreign culture food." And things like that. That might...
[Dan] We don't want to make...
[Brandon] Be too heavy-handed, but it's middle grade. It might actually not be too heavy-handed at that point. That's the sort of thematic thing we're looking for, character personality for the children. We talked a lot about last week the children don't seem to have character arcs that match the voyage of discovery they're going on.
[Dan] Well, I just want to go back to, I do suspect that we might want this point of decision to be earlier. If this is the end of Act II, beginning of Act III, then it might be a little late...
[Brandon] Let's talk about... Oh.
[Dan] I like to have... I was just going to say, very quickly, I like to have the movement from inaction... From reaction to action come at about halfway through. But that's just me.
[Howard] The thing Brandon just said, about I don't want to eat this Chinese food? Two or three times in the book, you had them eating things or not eating things. The meal, or, oh no, the food is poisoned has been significant. If there is food in chapter 1 that they don't want to eat because it's Chinese food, you can weave that right into the rest of the story.
[Mary] There is actually a pizza in the first scene that they're delighted at because their dad has brought it home as a special treat.
[Brandon] Well, that's cool. One thing I want to talk about here though also is why this feels like a movement from Act II to Act III to me. Because Mary doesn't... You weren't thinking three acts with this. Looking at it, Act II to Act III, there are many things that can signal it, but one of the main ones is that you are at a low point. Things have just gone horrible. We seem like we're getting there. We're going on our quest, things get tough, things get tough... Oh, no, we just got completely blown out. One of us has been kidnapped, the Monkey King's unconscious. This could be our low point. The transition to Act III is "Now we're going to suck it up, pull it together, and we're going to win this thing." That's why it feels like the end of Act II.
[Brandon] All right. Let's do the next... The next four are pretty short. Why don't you just start into those?
[Mary] Okay. Chapter 11. Marie gets a forest spirit to help with Wu Kong. Introspective time with Marie.
Now that's actually all the outline says. I'm just going to cheat here and say that what she's getting the forest spirit to help with is that Wu Kong's staff, which weighs a 1000 pounds, is on him and she can't get it off. The forest spirit is a talking rock, and a matchmaker, and one of my favorite characters that I've ever written.
Chapter 2... Excuse me, chapter 12. This is from Kennedy's POV. He meets the Princess. Meigao enters. The Princess discovers answers to why Kennedy has some power over the demon.
Chapter 13. Marie exchanges her name for Wu Kong's healing. She and Wu Kong make their way through the forest to the mountain.
Chapter 14. They make plans to send Meigao. Sorry...
[Brandon] We're back to Kennedy.
[Mary] Kennedy... This is back to Kennedy. Kennedy and the Princess make plans to send Meigao to tell Wu Kong where they are. Meigao climbs out the window. The demon comes and takes Kennedy away. Mention something that cues them that he has a sense of where his bones are. Kennedy tries to make a break for it.
[Brandon] So what we are seeing here is our main characters becoming much more active. I actually think this could be played right as Act III is where the kids start becoming active if you play your story correctly. The middle sequence then is very full of wonder and full of darkness, and the Monkey King kind of saving them and encouraging them to do things. It could work.
[Dan] Well, I specifically like how the Monkey King is trapped, and one of the kids has to help him. The roles have been reversed, the mentor is incapacitated, and they are forced to stand on their own feet now. Which is...
[Brandon] Yeah, both of them.
[Howard] The incapacitation of the mentor is another Act III cue if you're doing Hero's Journey.
[Brandon] Yup. So this is... These are the best scenes I think I've seen in this outline right now. Act III really seems to be coming together. I do kind of wonder, things like... And maybe these'll be explained... But I'm hoping that her exchanging her name is going to come back as some sort of cost, and some things like this. But we'll wait to see.
[Dan] The other thing I want to mention here is that if this is Act III, this is a lot of stuff and a lot of new stuff for a very long Act III, and I'm a little worried about that.
[Brandon] That is true. But if you're going to have an inactive Act II, you can end-load Act III, and I think we're okay. Because these all, remember, listeners, these are all really arbitrary distinctions that help you decide how to build your story. They are not rigid frameworks that we have to use. They are guidelines to help you view how to use story. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a really long Act III, if you're... You've had your Act II be what we've talked about. Let's go on and do a couple more before we do our book of the week. Let's do two more.
[Mary] Chapter 15. Meigao finds the girl and Wu Kong... And from this point forward, I never use Marie's name which...
[Howard] So it's not that she told the forest spirit her name, it's that...
[Mary] She gave it up.
[Howard] She is now nameless.
[Mary] Yes. She is nameless. No one can remember what her name was.
[Howard] They can't hang a new name on her.
[Mary] She has no name. She is the girl.
[Brandon] That's very nice.
[Mary] Or sometimes big sister. But that's about it. Meigao finds the girl and Wu Kong. Tells them that Kennedy has been captured. She leads them to the palace. Murong and Pa-chieh are waiting for them. Happy reunion. Murong has jumped from the demon... From a demon to a tree. Pa-chieh plucked him from a tree top. They use the scroll and see the demon talking to minions.
Chapter 16. The group is running for the palace. They find Kennedy. He says that he's escaped and offers to lead them to Al Ming.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead and do one more.
[Mary] Chapter 17. They arrive at Al Ming's room and are reunited. Al Ming tells them the demon can tell where they are because of the bones. Wu Kong starts to destroy them but it causes Kennedy horrible pain. Wu Kong recriminates himself for not being able to protect them. Kennedy points out that their continued absence is likely to cause an international incident and suggests that Al Ming take them home while Wu Kong and Pa-chieh battle the demon. Wu Kong agrees reluctantly, feeling awful that he has been unable to protect them.
[Brandon] Okay. Actually, let's do one more because it's a nice stopping point.
[Mary] Chapter 18. Al Ming uses the sandalwood fan to return them to their home. I did actually establish that earlier. Their parents are frantic with worry. They threaten to ground them for life. Al Ming tells them much of the truth. The kids are sent to their room. Night falls.
[Brandon] Okay. So, what are we feeling about this climax?
[Dan] How much is left? How many chapters?
[Brandon] You would be able to look at the book and find out that there are three more chapters left with some significant pages to them.
[Dan] Okay. Now, see, if this were my outline, this is the big catastrophe that would cue a third act for me.
[Howard] That's true.
[Dan] This is the point where I would think the chips are down and we're in serious trouble.
[Howard] Yeah. What we were calling a third act cue was really more of the Act II pinch. So...
[Dan] But that's kind of arbitrary, like we said. That's not necessarily helping us craft this thing.
[Brandon] Very arbitrary. But... No, these are the beats of the story. All right. So what else are we seeing about this?
[Howard] I like that the... It feels to me, the reader, like having the kids at home now is catastrophic because Marie went home without her name. I don't know if that's come up yet.
[Brandon] And they left the Monkey King to fight without them.
[Howard] Yeah. They've left the Monkey King to fight without them. They've abandoned the course that they set out for.
[Brandon] We did have a moment of decision, where they're like, "No, we need to go do this." Now, they've been persuaded to not do it.
[Dan] It really, really feels like a defeat.
[Brandon] It does. Even though it's a victory. And as the lights go out, it's also very symbolic of... We're grounded. The lights fade.
[Dan] The other thing I'm suddenly very curious about is do her parents know who she is? Are her parents still worried about her? If no one can remember her because she's lost her name...
[Howard] No, no, they can remember her.
[Mary] They just can't remember her name.
[Dan] Okay. So people do remember her, but just not her name. Does that affect her parents as well?
[Brandon] These are the sorts of...
[Dan] Okay. That's awesome.
[Mary] This is really hard to write.
[Brandon] My feel, as I'm reading through this as a reader, and this may be a good feel that you want... My feel is... Wow... Overcoming the problems has been really simple through a lot of this. Now that might be appropriate for the book, but I feel conflicts are introduced and resolved, snap, snap, snap, which is a little bit of a red flag for me. It would depend on how they're executed.
[Dan] That hasn't been worrying me thus far.
[Howard] Yeah. Not in an outline.
[Dan] Because of the tone of this. One thing that does bother me is the one ongoing we-can't-solve-this dilemma that we do have is "should we go home, should we stay, our parents are worried about us." What happened here is the international incident thing. Which felt to me not only like a new conflict, but like a very adult conflict.
[Brandon] Oh, that's a very good point, Dan.
[Dan] I... That seemed very concerning in a middle grade, that the thing that pulls them away from the adventure is boring old responsibility.
[Mary] Aha. That's actually okay, as you will see in a moment.
[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my personal favorite authors. He is fantastic. This book was nominated for the World Fantasy Award this year. It is appropriate here because it is Chinese-based. It's not actually sat in China. He usually sets his books in fantasy versions of Earth cultures.
[Howard] Secondary world fantasy with Earth cultural influence in the design.
[Brandon] Yup. It's beautiful, it's poetic in a way that few people in fantasy can write, it's also very engaging with great characters. Can't recommend it enough.
[Howard] Head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can kick off a free 14 day trial membership, download a copy of Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay.
[Brandon] All right. Let's then go into the last three chapters all at once as we go into our real climax.
[Mary] All right. Chapter 19. Wu Kong and Pa-chieh burst into the demon's inner sanctum and find Kennedy. They look in the scroll and see the demon in the apartment. I should explain that the scroll, and I set this up earlier, shows someone's true nature, so...
[Brandon] So, you've very well established the demon imitates people. So that's a great little twist.
[Mary] So. Chapter 20. They fly to the apartment. Battle there. It's not in the outline, but Marie actually figures out that it's not her brother moments before they arrive. The demon escapes with the Princess and the baby in tow. The Princess, thinking quickly, tosses a thread or watersleeve to Wu Kong. Using the thread, they are able to fly after them and track the demon to their lair. Or Kennedy uses tea leaves to figure out where they've gone. I think I actually did the tea leaves.
Chapter 21. The Bone Demon keeps the bronze pot which he needs to put the baby in, in order to have immortal life...
[Howard] Is this the baby sister?
[Mary] This is the baby sister. This is the giant overarching plot thing that I... Is completely not in the outline at all.
[Dan] That is completely absent from the outline. Okay. But I assume we'd get a lot of that in the chapters with Kennedy and the demon guy?
[Howard] But you've got a monkey and you've got a demon putting a baby in a pot? I'm in.
[Mary] All right then. So the Bone Demon...
[Dan] Tastes like a baby!
[Mary] Keeps the bronze pot on a high shelf in his lair. During the battle, the Monkey King and the Bone Demon are fighting to a draw. The Bone Demon knocks the Monkey King's staff out of his hands. Kennedy tosses it back to Wu Kong, but it hits the Bone Demon. He flies into separate pieces, but immediately reassembles. Wu Kong flips over to stand in front of Kennedy, and asks him to hold the back of the staff, but to stay behind Wu Kong. Wu Kong hits the Bone Demon again, but since they are in the Bone Demon's lair, the seat of his power, the same thing happens. He disassembles and reassembles. Again, Monkey King deals a mighty blow, so that the Bone Demon's head lands at Marie's feet. She picks it up, and the rest of his body reassembles without the head. The headless body starts toward her and she shoots it like a basketball, which I established that she plays, and scores. When the head lands in the pot, the rest of the Bone Demon's body collapses into pieces.
[Mary] Do you want the rest?
[Brandon] Yes, let's do the last.
[Mary] Chapter 22. They make a quick stop to regain Marie's name. They return home. Funny scene trying to explain everything. Pa-chieh is introduced to pizza. Happily ever after.
[Brandon] Okay. All right, guys. So let's talk about this.
[Dan] I am super glad that the pig guy got to eat a pizza.
[Brandon] That's been a really nice running theme, so... That actually is good.
[Dan] Okay. Thuh...
[Brandon] Okay. I've got one. I've got one.
[Dan] The... The... The staff! We had a whole subplot where the staff was too heavy to lift, and now Kennedy's throwing it across the room? Is there an explanation that I missed?
[Mary] He does not actually toss it back. I used the word tossed. He kicks it back.
[Dan] It weighs a 1000 pounds!
[Mary] It weighs a 1000 pounds. The explanation, which is buried and not in the outline, is that Kennedy is turning into a demon, because of...
[Dan] Oh! Okay. That's awesome. I'll accept that.
[Mary] So there is a ticking clock as well, which is totally not in the outline.
[Brandon] Okay. One big thing that I would suggest to you is that I feel like the Princess and Al Ming need to be combined as a character.
[Mary] Oh, interesting. Wait. The Princess and Al Ming are the same character.
[Brandon] Because we have... Oh, really?
[Mary] Well done.
[Dan] Ha ha! Brandon, you're brilliant. That was an excellent... I didn't get that either, actually.
[Brandon] I guess...
[Howard] I got it.
[Brandon] Oh, did you?
[Dan] Howard thinks he's so smart.
[Howard] Well, no. She said, "Al Ming" and I thought, "Who's Al Ming? Oh, that must be the Princess. Oh, yup, that's the Princess. Yeah."
[Dan] Okay. That's cool.
[Brandon] All right. Well, there you go.
[Dan] Another red flag that popped up to me... One of our very favorite conflicts was she doesn't have a name. Then I think the outline said quick stop off to get her name again. Which felt really easy.
[Mary] Yeah. The quick stop is...
[Brandon] Let's not explain. You can say I think I explain that. You can say that. But really, we're just raising red flags here. Don't take these as challenges. A lot of the lines in here become really [garbled] but that is a red flag to us.
[Howard] My concern with it in the outline is that if it's big enough to be interesting, it's too far after that fight. It might be too much before the end of the book.
[Brandon] Well, unless there's something in the fight that establishes how she can get it back.
[Brandon] She goes and trades the Bone Demon's head for her name. Something like that could be very appropriate. I'm liking this ending. I think the beginning of the book really was where the outline and problems. The ending really seems to come together to me. The things like the basketball will really depend on how it's portrayed in the novel up to this point. I'm not sure I like basketball unless it's used repeatedly. The idea for you listeners is this whole concept of use something three times before it becomes important at a pivotal moment in the plot. She using her basketball... Or liking basketball needs to be a repeated theme of who she is. If you're going to build that as she is the athletic one, then that also needs to be part of who she is all the way along, so when this moment comes, she is able to actually do something awesome.
[Dan] Yeah. She comes home from school in her basketball uniform, and it is an ongoing thing.
[Brandon] Now, I don't understand why she... So she shoots, she scores, is it going into the bronze pot?
[Brandon] Which then kills him? Okay. So, yeah, that could work really well.
[Howard] So the baby's already out of the pot?
[Mary] He has not put the baby into the pot yet. Sorry.
[Howard] Oh. Disappointment.
[Brandon] I'm not 100% sure what I think of the baby. One of my worries getting here is, now that this is all coming out, is that there might actually be too much going on in this book. Because of how strange the culture is. How many... It's strange to us, it's not... Mixed with the mythological elements, mixed with all of these wacky characters, mixed with the whimsical sense we go here and we discover something new, we go here, we discover something new, with the kind of MacGuffin of both get to the Princess and get the baby and... All of these things. I wonder if it's not focused enough.
[Dan] Well, let's add on top of that, this is something I'm conflicted over, this is a horrific book when you really look at what's going on. They're collecting body parts...
[Brandon] I think that's fine.
[Dan] Oh, it's wonderful. It's really cool. But it's just one more thing that just... On and on, every chapter. They break this guy into a 100 pieces three times in this book.
[Brandon] That's true.
[Dan] Their baby sister's getting kidnapped. A boy is kidnapped and replaced by a demon. Then is turning into a demon. There's all this stuff that is very cool.
[Brandon] Yeah, the boy turning into a demon is yet another thing that may be too much.
[Dan] But very... Psychologically very steep. I'm just pointing that out.
[Howard] A thought. I hate to replace the baby with something else. But if the demon's plot involves collecting something personal from Marie, from the real world, and collecting Marie's name... But the demon's...
[Brandon] Well, what if she... No, no no no. I think getting the name... Getting something from each of these kids, he's getting the kids' soul somehow, which is turning them into a demon, and he's got her name. He tricked her into giving up her name. He's going to use those to get immortality. It becomes more personal to them and it allows your kind of overlapping conflict of we turn him human again, she gets her name back, overlapping with all of this.
[Dan] The other problem with the baby, I think, is why the baby and why this baby.
[Mary] Yeah. That's...
[Dan] If there is an explanation for that, then it makes these kids... Is it purely coincidence that the sister's... The brother and sister of the one baby that will make him immortal happened to end up in the magic land?
[Dan] Or did the Demon King trick them into coming into the magic land so that he could do this to them? Or is it he needs to collect one thing each from three siblings, and here's three siblings?
[Mary] Do you want the answer?
[Dan] I'd love an answer.
[Mary] So the answer is the baby was born on a propitious day, propitious hour, the right baby. The cats were charged to bring the baby back, and got up there, and were like, "We can't do this. We don't have opposable thumbs."
[Dan] So the cats are evil?
[Brandon] The cats thought that the Bone Demon was their master.
[Mary] Yes. The cats thought that the Bone Demon was their master. So the cats bring the kids back, thinking that their master, who they think is a good person, can just explain to them what they need, and that they can go back and get the baby.
[Howard] And the kids can go get the baby. Yeah.
[Dan] I understand. Okay. That actually makes the baby thing work a lot better for me. Honestly.
[Brandon] I'm still not sold on the baby, personally.
[Dan] Because... Especially if that conversation happens right at the beginning.
[Mary] Yeah. The conflict I have with the kids is that it's a brand-new baby, and they feel like not only are we in a brand-new place, but we're being completely neglected for the baby.
[Brandon] This is... That does make it work much better though. It is basically the plot of Labyrinth which is a classical plot of this style. So you're sharing a lot of things with Labyrinth. Not too much. But that is...
[Dan] Not enough that I'd worry.
[Brandon] Well. The sister who's jealous of the baby. It is basically the plot of...
[Mary] A lot of different things.
[Brandon] The first Terry Pratchett YA book, also. But... Hey, that means it's a good one, right? I do think we've gone way long on this. Mary, thank you. Oh, did you have something, Howard?
[Brandon] Thank you for offering yourself up for the chopping block. I actually really want to see you do this book. You are going to post the first chapter?
[Mary] That's right. I'm going to post the outline so you guys can follow along, which we probably should have said up front. [Laughter] Whoops. And I'm also going to post... I'm going to go ahead and post the first three chapters for them.
[Brandon] Okay. Howard? Writing prompt?
[Howard] Since it's likely that I'm not going to get exactly what I want from Mary, give us a monkey, a bronze pot, a baby, and pizza in completely different situations than what we've just heard.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses.