Q: Why do books in a series become different as they go along?
A: Characters, stories, and stakes change. The writer grows.
Q: How do you approach the paragraph?
A: Each paragraph has a mini-arc, beginning, middle, end. Use topic sentences.
Q: When do you start thinking about a prequel?
A: When the backstory deserves it. But beginning writers should stick to in-late, out-early.
Q: How do you plot?
A: [James] Premise, brainstorming major events, major plot twists, and then I get so excited that I start writing. [Brandon] I write a little bit. Something sparks, is exciting, and I write that scene. Then I look at where do I go from this, what is a great ending, what's exciting about it, and work backwards to the start.
Q: How do you craft endings that are highly satisfying and leave the reader wanting more?
A: Answer all the questions set up in the beginning, then raise a new question. People live before and after the story -- point to that.
Q: How do you keep a really compelling and convincing villain from taking over the book?
A: Make the hero more proactive. Make sure the hero has a great scheme to achieve something awesome, so they are doing things, not just waiting to respond to the villain.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 19, it's Q&A at UVU.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And one of our favorite people joining us, everyone applaud for James Dashner, who's [garbled -- painfully experienced? Applause]
[James] Thank you, thank you. Last... Do you remember last time, I said something about my palate of hair, so we can only go uphill from there.
[Brandon] You're now a super mega best-seller and stuff, so tell us about your books or something.
[James] Well, things are going great, but... I'm the author of the Maze Runner trilogy. A prequel comes out this summer. Also, I'm doing a series with Scholastic called Infinity Ring that comes out this fall.
[Brandon] So there we are. We're just going to go straight to questions from the audience. Our first question is here. Go for it.
[Question] Okay. Mister Dashner? It might be because... I... We have an advanced reader copy of the first Maze Runner book, but the rest felt significantly different. Why is that?
[James] Interesting. That's a good question. Why do books in a series become different as they go along? Well, I think your characters grow. Your stories might get darker. The stakes might get higher and higher. Also, you grow as a writer because obviously your books are coming out and you're writing more books and you get better and better. So maybe that's why. Great question.
[Brandon] Nah, it's because he got too important and he just hired some like person in the Philippines to start churning his books out [inaudible... Laughter]
[James] I decided not to wait until I died. I have Brandon Sanderson finish all my books for me.
[Question] You give a lot of advice on the structure level story. I was just wondering how you all approach like the paragraph and the sentence level when you're writing.
[Brandon] Oh, that's an excellent question. It's not one that we've really covered. Paragraph by paragraph, how do you cover doing that right?
[Mary] Well, I always think of them... A paragraph is a discrete thought. It's a set of thoughts. So I try to make sure that there is actually a mini-arc within the paragraph. So that that thought has a beginning, middle, and an end. Then I move on to the next thought.
[Brandon] I do use topic sentences. It's what you're taught in grade school, but it works really well if you do a short sentence at the beginning that establishes what that paragraph is going to be about.
[Dan] I don't do any of that.
[Howard] If I had to write a full paragraph [inaudible... Laughter] I've done something horribly wrong. No, I'll often do... I'll do the topic sentence thing that Brandon mentioned. I need to not gesture with either... For those of you not benefiting from the video, I have both a reinforcement mike and a recording mike in my hand, and it's lacking...
[James] [garbled due to echo]
[Howard] No, it makes me look like the president. I just ignored him.
[Brandon] You mean the president of hair club for men?
[Howard] Wooh! No, the pants club for men. Okay. I will often take a topic sentence and write a full paragraph. The topic sentence is often the first thing to go when I'm editing, because the topic sentence says [unclear] this is what you're going to say, but the rest of the paragraph actually says it. I will prune and prune and prune until I have maybe one or two sentences that have all of those necessary thoughts in it. But I am extremely compressed because of the format I'm working in.
[Dan] I think I don't do nearly this much work on my paragraphs as all these guys. However, what Mary said about a paragraph being a discrete thought. That is how I try to structure them. I try to keep everything very organic. One sentence will lead directly to the next one because it's sounds like it naturally ought to come there. Then the breaks come when I know I'm talking about something else now. That's how you do it.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent.
[James] Just one thing I think about sometimes is making sure I have enough white space. Because readers get really tired when they see a bunch of words and no whitespace.
[Mary] Although that is a fashion...
[Brandon] Obviously, you don't write epic fantasy.
[Mary] I was going to say that is a fashion thing.
[James] Well, I write for younger readers.
[Question] With your [choosing?]... Coming out in an upcoming prequel, right? I'm just wondering, more in a broader sense, where does your prequel start coming into your mind as far as during this journey of writing a trilogy?
[Brandon] Okay. Good.
[James] Excellent question. The prequel is something that's been in my mind from before I even wrote the first book. Because it's the type of story that it depends a lot on secrets and curiosity and intrigue and wondering what the heck is going on. So I knew that someday when I was done with this trilogy, I'd write a prequel. Well, what's interesting is the topic of that prequel changed over the years. I always thought I would write about Thomas and when he was growing up and being a part of WICKED and what they were doing to train him for what happens in the Maze Runner and all this stuff. But after a really, really long talk with my editor, we decided that people would just think that's like a laundry list of answers, things that they've seen, that they've glimpsed throughout the series. So that actually we've jumped even farther back, and the prequel that comes out is about the sun flares, the disaster, how it affects the world, and how the virus broke out. You actually meet new characters in this book.
[Brandon] That's an interesting thing to say, because I do think as a writer, prequels are really tempting. Because if you're doing what you should, everybody's going to have a backstory, and the world's going to have a backstory, and you know it all. So you kind of got a pre-generated story right there. The reason I called them tempting is because many stories I don't think deserve a prequel. Even though you got all of that there. Some of them do. Some of them, the prequel is just kind of demanding to be written. But for a lot of them, you've kind of covered it all. Just like you said. People keep asking me about the Mistborn books. "Are you going to write this prequel about the ancient world when the Lord Rulers sent in all this stuff?" The thing is, all of that was designed to give flavor to the trilogy. So if I wrote that, it would actually be pretty boring. Because you already know it, because it was designed on purpose to fulfill these. The take away here for writers is, I do think for your books, particularly your first book, stay away from that and use the in-late, out-early advice. Try and start as close to the most exciting action is possible, and use that background as flavor. Don't focus too much on prequels, until you really have your feet underneath you.
[Howard] Yeah. I would argue that as a writer, write the trilogy, write the story that's in your head, and worry about the prequel when your editor comes to you and says, "This franchise is making us a dump truck load of money each week, but we need a new book. You ended it here. I think we need to rewind." That's a great time to think about a prequel.
[James] That has nothing to do with my prequel. [Laughter]
[Brandon] He doesn't make a dump truck worth the money. He makes four. So...
[Dan] Four dump trucks. Okay. I think it's time for a book of the week. James, in typically benevolent style, has opted to talk about someone else's book rather than his own.
[James] Everyone really, really needs to check out Everneath by Brody Ashton. It's an excellent book, and it's getting a lot of praise, and it's already selling well, even though she's a debut author. So check it out.
[Howard] Okay. Head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Kick off a 14 day free trial membership, and download a copy of Everneath by Brody Ashton.
[Brandon] All right. Next question. Thank you, sir.
[Question] All of you do really deep and wonderful stories. What I'm wondering is how each of you actually plot those different stories?
[Brandon] Okay. We could go forever on this. I think we're going to let two of us answer this. One's going to be James, because he's the guest star. Who else wants to field it?
[Mary] You should do that.
[Brandon] All right, they looked at me. James, you're up.
[James] Okay. Plotting. There's... Every single author's different. Stephen King talks a lot about how he does almost no plotting. He just sort of has a premise and then lets the characters take him wherever he goes. Then I know there are people, probably on this panel even, who write very, very long outlines and really think through it. I'm sort of in between. I do like to have an outline, and I usually spend a few days with my premise of the story that's the new thing. Go through it and try to brainstorm of some of the major events and major plot twists and that sort of thing. But usually, I get so excited to write the book, that I just finally say, "Okay. That's it. I'm going to start writing."
[Brandon] I'll share something here I've talked about on podcasts before you. Because I usually try to make it very simple for people when I explain my process. The process is a really complicated thing. Reducing it that way is actually... Sometimes does a disservice. I talk about myself being very much an outliner, and I am an outliner. But one thing I've noticed about myself recently is that I usually don't actually start my outline until I've written a little bit. I'll let something spark, and get really exciting for me, and I'll sit down and I'll do a scene. I'll write that scene, and let that kind of be like the catalyst that starts everything flowing. From there, I say, "Okay. Where am I going to go from this? What is my ending that's going to be great? How is it going to work? What's going to be tense, exciting?" I look for that excitement and conflict, that's going to be a really snappy, powerful ending. Then I work backwards to that starting point. Then I continue on. All right. Next question?
[Question] How do you craft endings that are both highly satisfying and leave the reader wanting more?
[Brandon] Okay. Highly satisfying and leave the reader wanting more? My trick is to have a really cheap epilogue that says, "Guess what, there's so much more cool stuff! I'm not going to show you right now."
[Mary] Yeah. My trick is to make sure that I have answered the questions that I set up for them at the beginning, and then to raise a new question.
[Dan] Okay. I'm going to take this back at Brandon, and say that works for books one and two and whatever, but what about the ending? What about the last book of the series?
[Brandon] I just kill everybody. [Laughter]
[Brandon] I'm joking.
[James] See, I told you he wrote the Maze Runner.
[Brandon] I'm... I've only done it once, so... Even then, I'm not very good at leaving everything alone. Because I really... I feel satisfaction in closing a lot of these questions, but leaving people alive. When I start my books, one of my main goals is to make you feel like those people have been living up until that point started. They don't just walk on, appear and become alive then. They have had lives up to that point there full of history and passion and death. I want, after the book ends, you to continue to see they are full of life, passion, and death. They're going to continue having stories. So that is why, in a non-glib way, why my epilogues tend to be things that say, "Okay. Here is where everyone is going to go from here, at kind of a starting out point." That doesn't always mean I'm planning a sequel. What that means is people live. People continue on. So that's my way of doing it.
[Howard] Yeah. Specific example from Schlock Mercenary. At the end of Force Multiplication, well, in the middle of the book Force Multiplication, about half the crew learns this martial art called parkata urbatsu, which is basically parkour for people who kill other people. Sergeant Schlock is not one of those people. Okay? He's off someplace else. At the end of that book, we have one panel where they're all receiving parkata urbatsu training and Shodan says to somebody else, "Can you please help me unteach Sergeant Schlock what we've just caught him?" We see him bouncing through the crowd, being better at it than anybody else. Well, it was a very satisfying ending to the book, because, hey, he finally got the toy that everybody else got, and people looked at that panel and said, "Oh. I want to see him use that in a fight. When's he going to use that in a fight?" He's going to use that in the next book.
[Brandon] All right. Thank you very much. We're going to do one more question. For the rest of you, you get to be in line for our next Q&A session. You get to start. Okay? We'll get to yours next. So, last question for this edition?
[Question] What do you do when you have a really compelling and convincing villain? How do you keep them from completely taking over the book?
[Brandon] Oh, good question. Who wants to field this?
[Howard] Oh, that we should all have such problems! Abilities compelling enough to take over the whole book? I love that. That means the hero needs to step it up.
[Dan] That's what I was going to say. If your villain is that good and your hero's crappy, then yeah, the villain needs to win. But if... You just need to make sure your hero's good.
[James] One cool trick is to make the villain the main character's father. [Laughter]
[Brandon] No one would buy it, James. No one would buy it. Too much coincidence.
[James] If you can have a compelling villain, you've won. You don't want your villain to be pure evil. You want the reader to have empathy for the villain and all kinds of stuff like that that I'm sure we've talked about over and over.
[Mary] But you can also... You can also go, "Hey, I like this character more than I like my main character. He's my main character."
[Brandon] What you're describing here is actually a well-known thing in fiction. One of the reasons that the villains usually take off is because the villains are proactive. The heroes tend to be reactive. Which means that the villains start some great scheme to do something awesome. That immediately makes them fascinating and interesting to the reader. The hero sits at home, when you're doing a [foreleaf?] And just waits for the villain to do something awesome and then responds. This is a great problem in fiction. So your goal then needs to be to make your hero have a great and awesome plan also, that just isn't evil. The villain's plan is interfering with that in some way. So when you set that up, your hero then becomes proactive, they're trying to do things, they're not just sitting around waiting. Make the hero more proactive and I think you'll find your problem solvable then. All right. We are out of time. James has to run to a panel. So I'm going to force him to give us a writing prompt.
[James] Okay. One day, you have a bunch of crazy people come to your house and kidnap you, and put you at a place called... It's an asylum for the criminally sane. [Laughter]
[Brandon] Okay. Nice. Man, you weren't [puzzled?] That time, weren't you? Last time I surprised you, and you [garbled] You're getting wise to our tricks. Okay. Well, thank you, James, for once again being on Writing Excuses and suffering us mocking you.
[James] Thank you.
[Brandon] You are indeed a good sport and an excellent person. So everybody order James' books. We are out of time. So, this has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] Okay. We do have 4 seconds coming, but we're going to take a 5 minute break.