Key points: Worldbuilding, but also characters and conflicts. Change and conflict go together. Empathy for a character comes from something bad that you understand and want to see alleviated. Who will the readers want to root for?
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses season four, episode 24, random storytelling with James and Julie. Dan, tagline us.
[Dan] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry and...
[James] I forgot.
[James] And we're not that smart.
[Dan] We just proved our tagline.
[Brandon] We have returning one of our favorite people ever, James Dashner. Say hi, James.
[James] Hi, James. Ha ha ha.
[Brandon] And we also have Julie Wright. Julie, have you ever been on our podcast before?
[Julie] No, I haven't.
[Brandon] Well, welcome to our podcast.
[Julie] Thank you. I'm very happy to be here.
[Brandon] So in like just a few seconds, tell us about what your books are. James?
[James] I have written The Maze Runner which is a trilogy in a series called the 13th Reality.
[Julie] I write young adult, mostly contemporary, but I have some fantasy and science fiction as well.
[Brandon] OK. Excellent. Do you have a title they can go find?
[Julie] My Not-So Fairy-Tale Life.
[Brandon] OK. Excellent. Once again, we thank Dungeon Crawlers Radio for doing our technical stuff, because Dan and I are stupid.
[James] Yes, they are.
[Brandon] all right. We're going to do a weird broadcast this time. We had a wonderful reaction last time we did something like this, where we turned weird news stories into actual stories. This time I have had the audience throw a bunch of random concepts at us. I'm going to take three or four of them and throw them at the other guys and see if they can turn it into a story. Now I'm going to put two requirements on you. Number one, we're going to try and keep these from being silly. That's going to be difficulty number one because...
[James] You just blew my mind.
[Julie] I don't know if I can do this anymore.
[Brandon] You can be funny, but let's stay away from being just completely ridiculous and silly. We're going to try and treat this like a real story. Number two. Start digging for character. All right? The last time we did this, someone actually sent us an e-mail and said I loved that. But I would like to see you take the next step and let's see you start building characters into it. So take the concepts, start talking about a story, but then I will ask you what types of characters you would set in that story and what their conflict would be. All right?
[Brandon] So let's just see. We're going to go ahead and take several of your favorites. We're going to do an accountant for a church mixed with contact lenses that make your vision go more poorly when you put them on mixed with brain implants.
[James] Oh, wow.
[Brandon] All right. An accountant for a church, contact lenses that decrease your vision, and brain implants. What kind of story can you make from that? Dan! You're first because...
[Dan] OK. All right then.
[James] Are we building the same story or...
[Brandon] You can do whatever you want. You can add on to his, you can come up with your own. What would you do?
[Dan] You can tag onto mine, you can do whatever. OK. I'm going to start. This is a religion that is based around brain implants, cybernetic implants where the more you have, the more righteous you are. That actually increases your spirituality by having... by replacing your brain with electronics. So there's an accountant who works for this firm and who is working on their books but someone, because of another conspiracy that they're trying to attack this church, they replace his good contacts with bad contacts in order to produce more clerical errors.
[Dan] Clerical being a pun in this case.
[James] And nothing is more frightening than clerical errors. OK. I think there's this guy who is really weird as a child. He's very reclusive, and he just... all he can do is play with numbers. He loves numbers. It starts to become a religion to him.
[Julie] That is weird.
[James] Every year he gets a little stranger and a little weirder. He doesn't shower, he doesn't brush his teeth, he becomes this disgusting little kid. He's kind of creepy. Numbers have become a religion to him. So when he gets older... he's also a super genius... he figures out a very simple way to implant a device into someone's brain. Where if he can just touch them, this little nano thing will enter their skin and go into their brain, and make them worship numbers like he does...
[Brandon] OK. So is this an antihero? Is this the antagonist? Who is this person and what is their conflict?
[James] I think this guy actually is the villain.
[Brandon] OK, he's the villain.
[James] He thinks he's doing good because he thinks that numbers rule the universe. That everything... that emotions and everything in the world can be brought back to numbers and be figured out. So he's trying to save the world, when in reality he's brainwashing people.
[Dan] So how did the contact lenses fit into this?
[James] Oh, I forgot about those stupid contacts... he has really bad vision, and...uh...
[Brandon] See, that's just cheap. You're just throwing it in now.
[James] Know, the contacts come around in book 2.
[Brandon] OK. Julie? What have you got for us?
[Julie] I'm going to go off of Dan's. We've got this fabulous accountants working for the church, and he's got a lot of righteousness, that's why he's able to work for the church. So he has lots of implants... his brain is just almost bulging. Kind of this horrible disfigured sort of head... with all these implants. He's just very excited about it. But because of this horrible conspiracy, and he's making all of these errors, they... to punish him, the church has now started removing his implants. He needs to solve the conspiracy in order to maintain his level of righteousness.
[Brandon] OK. So it's like Flowers for Algernon, except weird.
[Julie] Except psychotic. Yes, exactly.
[Dan] So... now... one other direction that we could take this is if brain implants are there to increase your sensory perception, then it might increase it to the point where you have to wear contact lenses that ruin your vision, because your vision is too good, your eyes are too sensitive.
[Julie] It becomes sensory overload at that point.
[James] It's like the monks in the Middle Ages whipping themselves and beating themselves...
[Brandon] Right. Oh, beware the contact lenses to make... that makes... that would work pretty well.
[Dan] They'd have other little things for like to... hearing aids that actually reduce your hearing so that you're not deafened by every little sound.
[Brandon] Or to make you seem less holy... it's a way of being humble. It's the... all right. So who is this person? Again, dig deeper. His conflict is that someone swapped his contact... no, has given him contact lenses that make him... no, wait. What's his conflict?
[Dan] What is this guy's conflict?
[Brandon] Yeah, what's his conflict?
[Julie] You had it before you messed it up.
[Brandon] You messed up the conflict.
[Dan] Yeah, I know. I totally messed it up by adding this other thing.
[Brandon] Who is this person?
[Dan] This guy is... he is very very humble, and that's why he wears these kind of modern techno hair shirts that he puts into his eyes and ears and nose and stuff to reduce his sensory perception. He... so he's very humble and... James, what happens next?
[James] Well, since I think my story's better, I'm going to go with that one. I was imagining in my story a main character who he's actually quite the opposite of this mad numbers priest. He has a very unnatural fear of numbers as he grows up... numbers terrify him. He has some bad experiences in school because they use numbers a lot. You start to build empathy for him. That's kind of how we build his character a little bit, that not only does he have this fear of things, but he's also outcast because of this fear. What could be worse to this kid then this religion taking over the world through numbers?
[Brandon] So they're in the same story, now? No?
[James] I can't remember.
[Dan] He's telling his own story. He [garbled]
[James] No, that was my own story. And I still haven't brought in contacts because we're still not in book 2, yet.
[Brandon] OK. Let's do another one. Let's see. A hell for English majors mixed with a key that can lock any door -- can't open any door, but can lock any door. Give me a story based on those two concepts.
[Julie] I think the accounting thing was hell for English majors, wasn't it? Weren't we just there?
[Brandon] So, Julie, are you going?
[Julie] Oh, no. I don't want to go first. Let's give that back to Dan. Hi, Dan, take it away.
[Dan] Oh my word. OK... the... what are there, nine circles of Hell? Seven circles of hell?
[Brandon] You can make up any mythology you want.
[Dan] There's actually 17 circles of hell because we hadn't discovered some of the others because at the time that Dante's Inferno was written, we didn't really have English majors yet. So we've discovered that there is a hell for English majors, there is a circle of hell for people that drive ice cream trucks, several other hails that are kind of the more... the people that say they're going to come repair your air conditioner between two and five and then they actually don't come at all... they have their own circle of hell. They use this special key keep these people in, because the borders between the circles of hell are more fluid than we think they are, and so the devil has a key that he uses to lock them in. And then that key gets stolen because one of the minor imps wants to lock somebody else somewhere else, so now all of a sudden these doors are unlockable. They're open.
[Brandon] The English majors are running rampant through hell?
[Dan] The English majors are running rampant through the telephone repair man hell. Hell in general is just so confused that when new people die, there is no room for them, and they stay on earth.
[James] I'd like to complain that his story is too silly.
[Brandon] The complaint has been noted. It will go on his permanent record.
[James] I'm imagining that hell is this huge mansion that... I know there's a story about this, I just can't remember what it is... it just goes forever, room after room, hallway after hallway, door after door. This mansion goes on forever and ever. These poor English majors all find themselves having been sent to hell because they have read books about this sort of thing a lot. And they wear contacts too.
[Julie] This is book 2.
[James] But anyway, the fascinating thing about hell is that the demons who are chasing you... the only reason they can chase you is because they can go through door after door after door. Even though you're running forever, they can keep chasing you. So their goal is to find this magic key that can lock any door to keep the demons out.
[Brandon] OK. Julie, you got anything for us?
[Julie] I'm sorry, James, it's nothing personal...
[James] You're going with Dan again?
[Julie] I'm going with Dan because his is a lot more fun. I mean, ice cream trucks. That's funny. I'm going to go with that. So I'm thinking actually of the other hell, where you have got the children who go to candy stores. This is candy store hell. They're stuck with English majors. So you have a lot of children who are eating extra candy, and a lot of English people who are smart and they're all interacting together. They're living in their own hell. So the key is necessary in order to get rid of the children who are demon spawn. Yes, I own a candy store.
[Dan] So there's a circle of hell that's full of fat, greedy children and really pretentious college graduates?
[Dan] That's my hell.
[Brandon] I really... I actually really like this concept. I'm going to take it and not go as silly. I'm going to spin off of Dan's and just say what if a bunch of English majors decided to stage a revolution of hell. The doors... the key that locks the doors has been lost. All the different people can get into each other's different Hells. Who are these people, these English majors, these literary types who try to stage a revolution and try to take over? What are they going to do? That's the story that [garbled]
[Dan] See, and it could work, because English majors, having read Dante's Inferno, they know how each circle works and therefore they know how to get around it.
[Brandon] Right. You could take it... heist A Team'ish because they know all of these... they've read it way too many times.
[Julie] and they've read also the books on revolution as well, so they've got all these revolutions, they've got lots of back story that they can... information that they can go off of.
[James] It would be fun also if they kept referring to famous works of literature as how they figured out what to do at certain points.
[Julie] That would actually be a lot of fun.
[James] Kind of like you do with your little references in Alcatraz.
[Julie] Which is also fun.
[Brandon] The thing about this... and again, this is a podcast for writers, and the reason I do these ones like this where we brainstorm is I kind of want to try and show the process of writers and what we're looking for. This one turned out really well because number one Dan made us laugh, and it's OK to make us laugh. When I said not silly, I didn't want it to be ridiculous. You can have comedic elements and still tell a serious story. What I like here is we've got conflict. We've talked about conflict. You would think that hell innately has conflict. But it doesn't, at least in storytelling terms. If there is no change, there's not as much conflict. People being in hell is not a story. People escaping from the hell they're supposed to be in, and getting into other people's Hells... there's a story there because there's going to be friction. There's going to be conflict between characters and archetypes and different things like this. Then on top of that, you need to lay a goal -- what do they want? Obviously, to get out of hell, but what is that? If you lay the idea of a revolution or if you lay the idea of... maybe it's from the demons' viewpoint, they want to find this key because everybody's getting mixed up into everyone else's and they've got all these English majors driving them crazy. "Oh, you're not supposed to be doing that because in this literature it says..." something like that could work. The thing we haven't done this one is a character. Who is our character? Who is this story about?
[James] Maybe someone who was sent there accidentally?
[Brandon] OK. Sent accidentally to hell. Maybe... yah, OK. There's a whole story there. Heaven got full and they started sending people to hell by accident.
[James] I mean, you can imagine... what makes a character immediately accessible and makes you feel empathy for them is when something bad has happened to them that you either feel sorry for them or you can understand where you feel bad about and want to see it reversed and things made right. Then, depending on how they treat that conflict or situation, either with humor or with sadness or with whatever makes them who they are makes you fall in love with that character.
[Brandon] All right. Let's pause and do our advertisement for the week. Book of the week. Julie, will you tell us about the book that you were... we were talking about?
[Julie] it's written by Carrie Ryan. It's called Forest of Hands and Teeth. It is a brilliant book. I strongly suggest everybody read it, because it's about the zombie apocalypse. What's more cool than that? I was actually halfway through the book when I realized it was in fact about zombies. I didn't realize it because it was so beautifully written and it's just so well done. So yes, go to your... audible...
[Julie] There you go. What he said. Go there and get this book immediately because you will love it. I promise.
[James] Useless trivia. It's the same publisher and editor as my books.
[Brandon] Really? Wow. That's pretty cool.
[Brandon] All right. Let's do one more of these. With an eye towards helping new authors see the process, I'm going to throw... let's see what we got here. Something really good. Janitors are trying to take over the world and they are going to be stopped by a superhero with no arms, and it can't be silly.
[Dan] Oh... man. I actually, in a role-playing game that I played once, I had a janitor whose superpower was that he could take his arms off and throw them at people and they would explode. He was, of course, called the handyman. [Laughter]
[Brandon] Oh, boy.
[James] Well, you know that brooms have to be important in this story, because they don't have arms.
[Julie] Mops as well, and a big old mop bucket.
[James] Brooms and mops.
[Brandon] OK. Yeah
[Julie] I think that our main character is sympathetic just because you have a janitor who... how often do we notice the janitors in our lives? I think they have a reason to want to take over the world. It's time for them to stand up and be counted... be noticed.
[Dan] OK. So if I'm developing this as a story, the first thing I'm going to look at is who would be a sympathetic character? Would it be one of these janitors...
[Dan] Or would it be someone working against them? Who is the audience going to root for the most?
[Julie] Well, if they're trying to take over the world...
[Brandon] They could be doing it for good reasons.
[Dan] They might have a good reason for it.
[James] It's a very dirty world and they want to clean it up.
[Dan] We're going to clean up this town. There's too many puns to use in this idea. So it actually... that makes me think that we might want to start with a janitor who is part of this conspiracy... and I'm honestly not certain how to make janitors taking a world not inherently ridiculous... but let's start with someone who is behind it and supports this plan. Actually, you know, we can do this, because that's essentially what Fight Club was, was all the blue-collar dudes rising up against a world that didn't appreciate them. So we can have an idea similar to that, and have this janitor be our main character who is behind this, he supports it, he thinks it's good, he thinks that they can run a better world. Then halfway through he starts to realize that no, it's a bad idea. He doesn't want to do this. And so...
[Brandon] And the hero has no arms?
[James] I think the superhero... the reason he has no arms and the reason he's so powerful is because... you think about what we use our hands for... he can do all that with his mind. He can pick up things, move things, throw things, squeeze things, type things...
[Julie] Clean things.
[James] And he can do it 1000 times better. So he's actually way more powerful than anyone who has arms.
[Brandon] OK. So we have got Professor X. versus Brad Pitt.
[Dan] And see, I would want to flip them halfway. Because that seems interesting to me. Is to start with a superhero as powerful as James is describing him, and then let that power go to his head. The janitors have destabilized our world enough destabilized our world enough, through whatever they're blowing up centers of trade or whatever and this guy has to take over. Once he's in a position of that power, he turns out to be kind of a fascist. So the janitors then have to take over the world again to get it back from this superhero who saved it and return it to its original state.
[Brandon] OK. Well, excellent. We are out of time. I would like to thank our guest stars. Thank you very much.
[James] You're welcome.
[Julie] Any time.
[Brandon] This is been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.