Writing Craft

Brandon Sanderson Lecture Notes: Plot

I’ve been watching Brandon Sanderson’s 2016 BYU lectures on writing fantasy & sci-fi, and since each video is an hour long, I figured I’d take notes for future reference and post them here in case someone finds them useful. These notes are for the third video “Brandon Sanderson – 318R – #3 (The Illusionist).” This lecture is mainly about plotting.

Table of Contents

An overview of the lecture’s contents. See the sections below for details.

  1. Superman vs. Scrooge
    • Summary: You need to decide if you want your protagonist to have a character arc or not.
  2. Plot as Illusion
    • Summary: You have two main jobs when plotting. (1) To provide a sense of progress and (2) to make and fulfill promises.
  3. The 3 Acts
    • Summary: A common plot structure you can use. Act 1 = setup, Act 2 = confrontation, Act 3 = resolution.
  4. The Hero’s Journey
    • Summary: A circular plot structure you can use, based on myths.
  5. Useful Methods for Pantsers
    • Summary: As you write, think of try-fail cycles and yes but... and no and… (setbacks).
  6. Brandon’s Method
    • Summary: He thinks about what promises he wants to make and makes a bullet list on how he can fulfill those promises.

Superman vs. Scrooge

You need to decide whether your character will have motion or not–-whether or not they’ll change. Superman has no arc; he never changes emotionally. All he’s done by the end of the story is accomplished something (save the world, for the most part). Scrooge has an arc so he changes emotionally. It’s best to have both: a character who accomplishes a lot while also changing a lot emotionally in the process.

Plot as Illusion

Writers are like stage magicians. Their job is to direct your attention elsewhere while they’re doing something behind your back (misdirection). You want to set up your story so that the reader enjoys and anticipates your story while not quite knowing what you’re going to do.

Brandon references “The Strange Attractor,” an essay by screenwriter Terry Rossio. The essay says that every story combines something familiar with something strange. This is what readers what–to be awed by something they’ve never read about before, while also having a sense of security because the book shares elements with other books they’ve read. Different genres blend the strange and familiar in different ways and in different amounts. You’ll have to decide how you’ll blend them.

The 2 jobs of a writer as an illusionist:

  • Your job is to hide your foreshadowing but also to give a Sense of Progress, which is the sense that things are happening and the plot is moving forward. This is the most important part of plotting. It’s an illusion because you have absolute control over time: you can make one second last a thousand pages, or 10 years last 1 sentence. You could make the ending take longer to get to, or you could make it take a short time.
    • But you want the story to be interesting, which equals progress, and so you want your Sense of Progress to reflect this.
  • The second important thing about plotting is promises: make them early on and fulfill them later in a satisfying way. But be aware of the promises you make in the beginning because if you upend that later on, the reader may feel dissatisfied since they may feel like they’re suddenly reading a different book.
    • This is the purpose prologues serve. They give you a glimpse of the world and the conflict and then the first chapter cuts to something else that may not seem related. But the prologue promises that eventually you’ll see what the prologue showed you, later on in the book.
    • Promises influence reader expectations. The first third of your book is especially important for this because the reader will expect that the world details you mention, the characters you introduce, and the plot points that happen in that part will be important, relevant and have consequences later on.

 

Now Brandon will discuss some different approaches to plotting and plot structures.

The 3 Acts

Generally most Western films and books follow the 3 Act format.

  • Introduction/Setup: Establish characters, setting, tone.
    • Transition: character is forced to make a decision and enter a plot from which they can never return and life will never be the same after this point. By this point, you have to establish what they problem is that the character is trying to solve and know what the story is about.
  • Confrontation: Things get worse, stuff goes wrong (more wrong than Act 1). You could also divide this into 3 parts: Failure 1, Failure 2, Failure 3.
    • Transition: low point after things have gotten worse and worse. After this, the characters must do something that works, so they formulate a plan.
  • Resolution: Satisfying conclusion where you make good on your promises put forth in Act 1 and the 1st transition. The protagonist doesn’t have to succeed; you just have to fulfill your promises.

For trilogies, this could be applied too: Book 1 is the introduction, Book 2 is the confrontation, Book 3 is the resolution. The middle is the biggest part. The beginning is the second biggest. The end is the smallest.

The Hero’s Journey

From Joseph Campbell’s monomyth presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The monomyth is a circle.

Apotheosis: becoming like the gods, having a moment of peace where the character understands their place. They have this sort of transcendent moment where they finally realize what was wrong with them and change (they become godlike, in that they become capable of enacting change).

Useful Methods for Pantsers

Try-Fail Cycles: You occasionally have setbacks as the story progresses.

Yes but, No and: When you have a goal & conflict, ask, “does the protagonist succeed?” If the answer is yes, then add a but. If the answer if no, add an and. It’s useful because it provides cause and effect. Work character motivation into what’s happening so the events don’t seem random and keep causality in mind.

Brandon’s Method

He doesn’t think in Acts or any of the above methods. He instead thinks in terms of promises and looks for a sense of progress. Readers get excited by seeing these little bits of progression. He tries to identify different kinds of promises and subplots.

For Mistborn, the promises/plot threads he wanted to have happen were:

  • Romance: female lead & male lead fall in love
  • Overthrow the empire
  • Vin (female lead) learns magic
  • Kill the lord ruler: how do you kill the lord ruler? (a mystery)
  • Vin learns to trust: She can’t have a romance if she doesn’t learn to trust

Then he creates a bullet list under each promise to see what would have to happen to fulfill it. It’s like asking himself (for each of the above bullets, respectively):

  • What could happen that would lead to the female and male lead falling in love?
    • Partial answer: First Vin needs to learn to trust (leading to another promise/thread)
  • How could they overthrow the empire? What steps might they take?
  • How could Vin learn magic?
  • How could they kill the lord ruler?
  • How does Vin learn to trust?

And as he does this, he starts to identify new plot threads (e.g. For the romance, he needs to have Vin learn to trust). He might have 10 or 12 of these threads. Then he builds the book by combining bullet points from different threads (e.g. A scene where Vin & male lead are at the ball [the romance thread] where he shows Vin learning to trust & battling her internal demons). So this is how he nests certain plots and subplots.

To do these well, you need to make sure there’s conflict, red herrings, that the clues are adding up, and that your bullet points match the type of plot you’re doing. For instance, for a mystery, your bullet points are clues. For relationships, your bullet points are the two characters interacting. For a travelogue, your points are places on the map. So you try to match these moments, building up to something cool that matches the tone of the plot you’re doing.

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Writing Craft Writing Exercises

Outlining a Trilogy Using Harmon’s Circles

I like to call this method, “Circles All the Way Down.” Basically, I use Harmon’s circle to come up with the general plot for the trilogy, then I create similar circles for each book using that first circle (you can also comfortably do this for a 4 book series; anything more won’t divide as neatly, but it’s possible). You can also do this purely as a plotting exercise, as I’ll for this post in the “Example” sections below.

To do this method, you’ll first need to be familiar with Dan Harmon’s story quadrants & story circle (the first two posts in this series). But here’s my quick version of the circle as an image:

TRILOGY –> BOOKS (–> ACTS? (–> SCENES?!))

These are the steps to outline a trilogy using Harmon’s circles:

  1. Come up with quadrants: (1st) top & bottom halves are familiar world/unfamiliar world, (2nd) left & right halves are virtue/fault, (3rd) combine the 1st & 2nd to get the quadrants.
  2. Come up with the 8 points on the outside of the circle, using the quadrants as a guide. Now you have a circle for the overall plot of the trilogy.
  3. Go deeper. Create a circle for each of the 3 books using steps 1-2 and the trilogy circle as a guide. Quadrant 1 = Book 1. Quadrants 2-3 = Book 2. Quadrant 4 = Book 3. (Or, if you want to do 4 books, 1 quadrant = 1 book.) You can stop here if you want.
  4. Go deeper. For each of the 3 books, make separate circles for Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 and Act 4. (Or, if you prefer a 3 Act system, Quadrant 1 = Act 1. Quadrants 2-3 = Act 2. Quadrant 4 = Act 3.) You can stop here if you want.
  5. Go deeper. For each Act, decide on the scenes you will have and create separate circles for each scene. You should probably stop here.

As you can see, you can get pretty deep with this, having a circle lead to more and more circles. Personally, I would only do the first 3 steps, then, rather than creating more circles, I would flesh out those 3 Book circles by adding a subplot to each (although I do also like making a circle for my subplot) and by using something similar to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat system for coming up with the actual scenes.

Also, if you’re only writing a book and not a trilogy, this works for that too. Steps 1 and 2 would be creating a circle for the overall plot of the book, instead of the trilogy. Then skip step 3 and do steps 4-5 for that one book if you want to go that deep with the circles.

I like this method because it helps me come up with a character arc (internal journey) and a plot (external journey) pretty easily. Also, I tend to only know where I want to start and end, so it helps me come up with the middle too.

EXAMPLE PART 1: Trilogy Circle

And now, for the rest of this post I’ll walk you through how I’d create a trilogy from scratch using the method above. I’ll start with this small idea I came up with a couple days ago: “Two addicts try to quit their addiction to the same thing by holding each other accountable. Oh, and by destroying the crime ring that enables their addiction.”

This story takes place in my world, Selcouth, and so the thing they’ll be addicted to is sanguinarium extract, which is basically a medicine in small, infrequent doses and an addictive poison in large, frequent doses. Sanguinarium extract is frequently just called “sanguie.”

The point of this exercise is mainly coming up with plot, so I won’t concern myself with characters or setting too much (although by the end, I’ll get a sense of the protagonist, since it charts their internal journey). All I’ll do is choose names for the two addicts, so I can refer to them easily, from this random Roman town name generator:

  • Raphae & Cyrene (R & C for short).
  • I’ll make R the main protagonist so the circles will be primarily from her POV.

Also, I’m already seeing that I could make 2 different circles for this: 1 for R & C trying to quit (their relationship with each other) and 1 for them trying to destroy the crime ring, but I’ll sort of combine the two into one circle.

Step 1: The Quadrants. Usually I come up with the familiar/unfamiliar world first, but in this case the virtue/fault was easier and obvious. Fault = addicted, virtue = not addicted. The familiar/unfamiliar world can be tricky because you have to like the idea of the protag starting AND ending in the familiar world you choose. I decided to go with familiar = together, unfamiliar = alone. From this, I already have a basic structure for the trilogy:

  • In Book 1, R & C will be addicted to sanguie while being together. This book is the introduction/setup.
    • At the end of this book or the beginning of the next one, something will drive them apart.
  • In Book 2, R & C will be addicted while being alone/separated for the 1st half. For the 2nd half they will still be separated but now they’re not addicted (or, at least they’re making very good progress on the addiction).
    • At the end of this book or the beginning of the next one, something will drive them back together.
  • In Book 3, R & C will be reunited, now both free of their addictions. And now, because they’re free, they’ll be capable of defeating the crime ring (the climax of the trilogy).

Step 2: The Circle. Now I’ll come up with the 8 points on the outside. The quadrants + the purpose of each of the 8 points usually gives me enough inspiration to fill out the circle pretty easily. I think about it like a writing or brainstorming prompt by asking myself questions like–let’s say I’m trying to fill out the point (4) SEARCH, which is in quadrant 2–“How can the protag adapt to this new, unfamiliar world of being alone while being addicted? How can she search for her (2) NEED and what will lead her to (5) FIND it at the end of this quadrant?”

  • (1) YOU & (2) NEED are already described in the original idea. YOU = the 2 addicts, NEED = overcome their addiction & destroy the crime ring.
  • (3) GO is also pretty obvious from making the quadrants since we’ve already defined the unfamiliar world. What I just need to figure out is what form “alone” will take. I’m thinking R will decide to destroy the crime ring from the inside and so she has to become a criminal, which will separate her from C in a way. So to be more specific, the unfamiliar world is also “being a criminal” for R.
  • (4) SEARCH: R needs to get the group to trust her so she does whatever they ask. She wants to get higher up in the group to get close to the leader. Plus, now she has unrestricted access to the drug oh no… She slips up. C is angry but also feels out of the loop because R hasn’t been talking to her as much since she’s busy trying to assimilate into the crime group.
  • (5) FIND: R is trusted by the group and meets the leader! After seeing C so angry with her for slipping up, she manages to resist taking more of the drug. The leader is also impressed with her efforts, since most of his cronies are addicts & not trying to do anything about it (the leader is not addicted of course).
  • (6) TAKE: The leader offers to make her his 2nd in command but he needs her to do something. You see, there’s this person called C who’s trying to take the ring down… yeah you have to get rid of her. (Perhaps after feeling left out, C decided to investigate on her own and got captured or at least outted.)
  • (7) RETURN: R refuses to get rid of C (but she doesn’t tell the leader this, instead she agrees). She sneaks away to C and they decide they’re going to have to do something about this group fast. Also for the first time, R actually feels clearheaded–her mind is on something other than sanguie for once. Now, all she’s focused on is protecting C.
  • (8) CHANGE: The two work together to somehow take down the group. The climax is always the hardest point for me to come up with specifics for, so I’ll just leave it at that.

So here’s the completed circle (coming up with the quadrants and the 8 points took about 30 minutes; I also decided to title the story “The Quitters”):

EXAMPLE PART 2: Book 1 Circle

Step 3: Circles for Each Book. I will start with Book 1, which is the first quadrant of the Trilogy Circle. So this book encompasses the quadrant (1) Addicted Together, and the points (1) YOU and (2) NEED. Also, at the end of the book, (3) GO will either be included or hinted at

According to the Trilogy Circle, in Book 1, R & C will be addicted together and they’ll decide to try to beat their addiction. Later, I’ll have them decide to destroy the crime ring, probably at point (5) FIND, since that point is all about finding what they were looking for but there’s more to it than they thought. Usually at this point (also known as the midpoint), the protagonist uncovers new information about the unfamiliar world that hardens their resolve, so they move from reactive to active. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the quadrants.

Step 3.1: Book 1 Quadrants. Since they’ll still be addicted throughout this book and most of the next one, the familiar/unfamiliar world could have something to do with that. So I chose familiar = drugs, unfamiliar = no drugs. The virtue/fault was harder for me. I decided to make Raphae a loner at the start, who then befriends Cyrene throughout the book so the fault = no friends, virtue = a friend. So now I have the basic structure of Book 1:

  • In Act 1, R has no friends and she’s super addicted to sanguie. Some sort of external impetus (the inciting incident) makes her need to get over this addiction. A counselor tells her quitting is easier with a buddy and introduces her to Cyrene, who also needs to quit.
  • In Act 2, R stops taking sanguie but still has no friends. She’s not alone now because she has met Cyrene but the two aren’t friends yet. In fact, they don’t really get along. But then they bond over how hard it is to quit and realize they’ll have a better chance of succeeding if they get rid of the source of the drugs–the crime ring.
  • In Act 3, the two become friends and they still aren’t taking sanguie. They somehow try to stop the crime ring but just end up with drugs.
  • In Act 4, the two are friends but they go back to taking sanguie. After their slip up, they resolve to take the crime ring down. R figures doing it from the inside will be their best bet.

Step 3.2: Book 1 Circle. For the sake of space, I’ll only show the image of the completed circle. I followed the same process for the Trilogy Circle to make this one. Plus, I already described most of the points in the bullet points above.

What I noticed after I made these circles is that what I ended up doing was transposing some of the points from the Trilogy Circle to the Book 1 Circle and filling in the missing points:

  • Trilogy Circle’s (1) YOU, was similar to Book 1 Circle’s (1) YOU.
  • Trilogy Circle’s (2) NEED became Book 1 Circle’s (5) FIND.
  • Trilogy Circle’s (3) GO became Book 1 Circle’s (8) CHANGE. Not entirely–it’s just hinted at, and will actually come to fruition in Act 1 of Book 2–in Book 2 Circle’s (1) YOU.

This actually makes a lot of sense if you think about the points as taking place at specific percentages of your trilogy/book. Each quadrant represents another 25%, so:

  • (1) YOU is at 0% of the trilogy, which is the beginning of the Trilogy and Book 1.
  • (3) GO is at 25% of the trilogy, which is the end of Book 1/beginning of Book 2 (100% of Book 1).
  • (5) FIND is at 50% of the trilogy, which is also the middle of Book 2 (50% of Book 2).
  • (7) RETURN is at 75% of the trilogy, which is the end of Book 2/beginning of Book 3 (100% of Book 2).

Since (2) NEED is in the middle of (1) YOU and (3) GO for the Trilogy Circle, it would make sense that the Trilogy’s (2) NEED would be at 50% of Book 1, which is (5) FIND. Here’s what this would look like on the circle for all the books:

I removed the trilogy quadrants to make it easier to see. In addition, each book has its own quadrants. Each Act is also a Quadrant. So Act 1 of Book 1 is equivalent to Quadrant 1 of Book 1, “Faulty Familiar World,” which is also in Quadrant 1 of the Trilogy, “Faulty Familiar World,” and so on.

And On and On…

So after making the Book 1 Circle, I would just continue doing this for Books 2 and 3, but since this post is getting pretty long, I’ll stop here. The trickiest part is coming up with the right quadrants because you need them to accurately represent both the external and internal journey you want to have in your story. After that, I find everything else slides into place.

Making these circles was a fun exercise for me and helped further my understanding of the story quadrants and circle, so if you still aren’t quite sure how they work, I recommend trying to make them yourself.

My goodness, I feel like I’m writing a dissertation on Harmon’s circle & quadrants–sorry. I’m just so fascinated by this plot structure because it’s really helped me for my own stories.

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Writing Craft

Brandon Sanderson Lecture Notes: Characters

I’ve been watching Brandon Sanderson’s 2016 BYU lectures on writing fantasy & sci-fi, and since each video is an hour long, I figured I’d take notes for future reference and post them here in case someone finds them useful. These notes are for the second video “Brandon Sanderson – 318R – #2 (Cook vs. Chef).” I didn’t make any notes for the first video because I largely knew all that stuff already (it was just a course overview) but you’re welcome to watch it here.

Table of Contents

This is an overview of the contents of the lecture. See the section titles below for details.

  1. Cook vs. Chef
    • Summary: As a writer, you want to be a chef instead of a cook. A chef comes up with something new; a cook follows recipes.
  2. 4 Circles & a Box
    • Summary: A story can be thought of as 4 circles, which are plot, setting, character and conflict (which ties those 3 together), and a box around those circles, which is the prose.
  3. Sliders
    • Summary: Characters can be thought of as points on sliders, such as competency, likeabilty, and proactivity. Protagonists tend to be somewhat high on these scales.
  4. Dosier Method
    • Summary: To develop your characters, you can come up with a dosier, which is a list of questions that you ask yourself about every character you’re going to write.
  5. Mismatching Archetypes & Roles
    • Summary: When you have a character that fits a certain archetype, give them a role in the story that they aren’t suited for to add conflict and interest (basically, this is avoiding stereotypes and cliches).

Cook vs. Chef

What’s the difference? The chef comes up with something new; the cook follows recipes. When it comes to writing tools, like the Hero’s Journey and everything discussed in these lectures, you want to be a chef. The chef uses what they need and makes interesting combinations from the tools. They examine each tool and question why the tool is useful so that these insights can be applied and adapted for their stories.

The cook simply includes everything that’s in a checklist or formula. The chef may follow a formula, but when they do, it’s because it suits their story–not because they think they have to. The chef is always asking why: why does this tool work, why is the tool compelling, how can I apply it to my story and why would I do so?

4 Circles & a Box

The parts of a story can be thought of as 4 circles and a box. The 4 circles are plot, setting, character, and conflict, which ties those 3 things together. Surrounding those circles is a box, which is the window through which the story is told–the prose. Conflict ties together plot, setting and character because, for example, the character can be at odds with the setting, the plot can be at odds with the setting, etc. Today’s lecture is about characters.

Sliders

A character can be thought of as on various spectrums. One such spectrum is the Everyman to the Superman. The reader sympathizes with and relates to the Everyman and can place themselves in their shoes. Examples are Watson from Sherlock and Samwise from Lord of the Rings.

The Superman is hypercompetent and seems not quite human. They are harder to sympathize with so when the writer creates a superman protagonist, they often include an Everyman companion, for balance. Examples are Sherlock and Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.

Most stories are about the Everyman becoming the Superman. “Superman” does not necessarily mean that they have superpowers–only that they are very competent in a something or even life in general.

The Superman is the person we want to be like. The Everyman is the person we see ourselves as. If a character seems too much like a Superman at the beginning, pushing them more toward the Everyman by giving them flaws and an interesting (perhaps tragic) backstory can make them more sympathetic.

 

The Everyman-Superman spectrum is the system Brandon Sanderson used to use. But now he thinks of characters more as a set of sliding scales. He uses three scales–competency, likeability and proactivity–but you can use whichever scales you like. Each character is at a certain point on this scale. Different combinations will create different kinds of characters.

These are the major forces that make characters interesting, and are most commonly found in protagonists:

  • HIGH COMPETENCY: They are capable at something, even if it’s only one, non-plot-relevant skill.
  • HIGH LIKEABILITY: They are a good person. They have friends. Other characters like them. When other characters like them, it’s a signal that the reader should like them too, but don’t overdo this. You don’t want them to be the perfect popular person.
  • HIGH PROACTIVITY: The do stuff and take action. Readers like characters who move the story along and hate those who refuse to let the story progress, especially because as the author, we can make this happen.

You can mix these scales to make different kinds of interesting characters: High competency, low likeability, high proactivity usually equals villains. This can lead to the villain problem, which is when the villain is the main source of story progress and so the readers don’t like the protagonist as much, since they aren’t doing anything. Example: in the Avengers, Loki has ambitions and does stuff but Thor doesn’t want to do anything, which leads to the a lot of the audience liking Loki more.

How to Deal with Protagonists with Low Proactivity:

  • Making protagonists proactive when they aren’t the main driving force of the story is difficult, especially at the beginning. Ways to get past that is to make the character have small dreams that they work toward and give the indication that the character isn’t satisfied with their current life.
  • If they can’t be proactive, you want them to at least be competent in at least one thing, to balance it out. What stories often do is show a character that’s competent in a specific area and force them to learn new things or apply their competency to a different world. An example is Legally Blonde.

Competency Has 2 Scales:

  • How good they are at navigating the world in general–-their competency as it pertains to the main story.
  • The one thing they’re good at, even if it doesn’t pertain to the main story. Every character should be good at at least one thing.

Likeability:

  • A character that has an antagonist makes them more likeable because we like people who struggle. In addition, having handicaps and flaws make characters likeable.
  • A handicap cannot be changed but they must overcome it, and it’s often not the character’s doing (it’s a constraint they didn’t cause but they must deal with). A flaw is something that they must change about themselves and is often the character’s doing.
    • A handicap could be physical but also could be something like having a family. Harry Potter’s family is awful. It’s not his fault but he must deal with it.
    • A flaw could be arrogance, shyness, etc. 

Dosier Method

Another method people like when creating characters is the dosier method: you develop a list of questions that you ask yourself about every character you’re going to write. You’re looking for questions that provoke a deep understanding of the character. This varies for each writer so no one set of questions is right. Basically, it’s a character sheet.

You can write a monologue from the character’s POV that answers some of these questions. You can think of the character right before the story starts and ask what they want and why they’re going along with the story (goal and motivation) to get you started.

Mismatching Archetypes & Roles

When creating characters, ask yourself one simple question: why doesn’t the character fit the role that they’re been put in, in the story?

When you have a character that fits a certain archetype, give them a role in the story that they aren’t suited for. This adds natural conflict and interest. Basically, you are mismatching archetypes and story roles. Interesting characters are often the fish out of water type. You can go deeper and mismatch all sorts of things to break away from stereotypes and cliches. Examples:

Archetype Story Role Unusual Profession Deep Dark Secret
Wise mentor Antagonist Mortician Afraid of dead people
Funny sidekick Muscle Sells pineapples Did steroids
Loyal best friend Chosen one Lawyer Not a real lawyer

You can combine these: Wise mentor quietly poisons the chosen one. And the loyal best friend who you thought was just along for the ride has to pick it up and become the new chosen one even though they don’t suit the role at all.

You can create backstory: The funny sidekick was tired of people messing with them so they did steroids in high school and started solving their problems with violence. Now that character has an interesting backstory and this secret is something that can (and probably will) be exposed and bite them in the butt later.

The key thing you’re looking for is conflict, which should influence all your choices when creating characters. Think to yourself & figure out the following:

  • This is the role I want the character to be in but this is why they don’t fit it.
  • This is who the character would be if the story never happened (their comfort zone) but this is what they want.
  • This is what they’re good at.
  • This is what they’re bad at.

Then start asking yourself:

  • What is the conflict? What goes wrong in their life?
  • Why can’t they have what they want?
  • What about them do they need to change (their flaw)? How will they overcome their flaw?

After you figure all that out, you will have a solid character.

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Writing Craft

Dan Harmon’s 8-Point Story Circle

Previously, in my post on Dan Harmon’s story quadrants, I discussed his 8-point circle in passing. Well, for the sake of completion, I’ll discuss his 8 points today in more detail. Harmon discusses these points himself here.

Basically, the 8 points make a kind of story structure, which Harmon believes can be found in every story. His structure is inspired by the Hero’s Journey, which comes from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (discussed in Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey).

Recap of the Quadrants

But before I get into the 8 points, a refresher on the quadrants:

  • The quadrants inform your character’s internal and external journey in the story, so they inform what events will happen in the 8 points.
  • In the circle, there are two halves, top & bottom and left & right.
    • Top & bottom are the Familiar and Unfamiliar Worlds, respectively (external journey)
    • Left & right are the Virtue and Fault, respectively (internal journey)
  • Combined, your character’s journey goes like this:
    • Top right quadrant: Faulty Familiar World
    • Bottom right quadrant: Faulty Unfamiliar World
    • Bottom left quadrant: Virtuous Unfamiliar World
    • Top left quadrant: Virtuous Familiar World

And here’s an image demonstrating these quadrants plus the 8 points:

Overview & Disclaimer

So now, I’ll break down what each point means, approximately when they should happen, mirroring, and also some equivalents that writers may be more familiar with, namely Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book Save the Cat, which is a structure I also use (but I modified it somewhat to my liking).

A note about timing: I’ll be giving some estimations for when these points typically happen, but of course they aren’t set in stone. Adapt the structure to your story; don’t adapt your story to the structure. The quadrants and circle are meant to serve as some guidance for if you’re stuck on your manuscript or you feel like something is missing or you just want a bare bones skeleton to keep in mind while planning your story.

I will be using the first book of Harry Potter as an example, because it’s pretty well-known (these examples will be in gray boxes). Also, because the quadrants are important too, here’s what I think they are for this book (although, I’m not quite sure about them):

  • Familiar World: muggle world/non-magical world
  • Unfamiliar World: Hogwarts/magical world
  • Fault: ignorance
  • Virtue: knowledge
  • Journey: ignorant in muggle world -> ignorant at Hogwarts -> knowledgeable at Hogwarts -> knowledgeable in muggle world.

(1) YOU: “Before” Snapshot

IN A NUTSHELL: A character is in a zone of comfort.

This is the beginning of the story (not including the prologue, which often cuts ahead or shows a glimpse of the unfamiliar world). At this point, the protagonist and many of the major characters are introduced. We see the protagonist in their ordinary and familiar world. This is their comfort zone. Even if it’s not a fantastic world, at least it’s familiar and they know how to navigate it. This gives the reader a baseline, something to compare to when the protagonist later enters the unfamiliar world.

Blake Synder calls this the Opening Image, but in his book, he describes it as a “before” snapshot (the “after” snapshot would be at the end of the story, when we see how much the protagonist has changed). I feel like “Before” Snapshot encapsulates the idea of this point better than Opening Image, so I use that terminology instead.

EXAMPLE: In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling started off by showing Harry Potter living in the muggle world with his aunt and uncle. If she started with the scene where Hagrid tells Harry he's a wizard or even later when he's at Hogwarts, the story wouldn't have been as effective because the readers wouldn't have anything to compare this new, magical world to, and readers might not have felt as excited if they hadn't seen Harry's drab and awful life before Hogwarts.

A NOTE ABOUT CHAPTER 1: Although it's called Ch. 1, its function is a lot more like a prologue, meaning that it gives us a hint of the magic and story to come. Sci fi & fantasy authors often include this kind of opening scene before showing the protagonist's familiar world, as if to say, "Just hold on, the magic/dragon/cyborg/etc is coming soon." (In Ch. 1, Dumbledore talks to McGonagall about Voldemort killing Harry's parents and Hagrid leaves Harry on the Dursley's doorstep.)

(2) NEED: Inciting Incident

IN A NUTSHELL: But the character wants something.

Despite the protagonist being in a zone of comfort, they’re not happy. They want something, but they’re unlikely to actually go after it until, usually, some sort of external event prompts them to. This is also known as the Call to Adventure, the Catalyst, or the Inciting Incident. It’s a life-changing event that breaks the protagonist out of their routine, and causes their life to go in a different, unplanned direction.

Sometimes, the protagonist refuses this call at first, or has an internal debate about it. They might meet a mentor who prompts them to accept the call. Basically, if this incident never happened, the rest of the story would never happen, and the protagonist would have continued life in their familiar world.

The Inciting Incident tends to happen at about 10% of the book.

EXAMPLE: We see that Harry is not happy all throughout his introduction, so this point kind of blends with (1) YOU. Then, Hagrid comes and tells him he's a wizard, which is the Inciting Incident. If this never happened, Harry would have grown up as a muggle with the Dursleys, probably.

(3) GO: Door to the New World

IN A NUTSHELL: The character enters an unfamiliar situation.

At about 25% of the book, the protagonist finally enters the unfamiliar world. This is what your story is actually about. As in, if you pitched your story to someone, you’d probably tell them about this part. Dan Harmon says, “What’s your story about? If it’s about a woman running from a killer cyborg, then up until now, she has not been running from a killer cyborg. Now she’s gonna start.”

This whole quadrant (the Faulty Unfamiliar World) is about what Blake Synder calls the promise of the premise (Fun & Games), and the point (3) GO is the entrance into that promise–when the promise starts being fulfilled. The promise of the premise is basically what Harmon said: it’s what your story is about.

EXAMPLE: This is when Harry goes shopping for magic supplies for school, and later, when he actually gets on the train and goes to Hogwarts. The premise for Harry Potter is that he's a wizard--it's what the story is about--so at this point we see the beginning of magic and wizardry. Also, remember what I said about prologues showing us a hint of the unfamiliar world? Well, it's all to tide the reader over until this moment.

(4) SEARCH: Exploring the New World

IN A NUTSHELL: The character adapts to the new situation.

From about 25-50% of the book, the protagonist explores the unfamiliar world. This point more so encapsulates the whole quadrant instead of one specific scene, like the other points. As I said in (3) GO, this whole quadrant (the Faulty Unfamiliar World) is about what Blake Synder calls the promise of the premise (Fun & Games), which is basically what your story is about.

And he calls this Fun & Games because these scenes tend to be the lighter ones with lower stakes, mainly dedicated to the protagonist trying to understand and adapt to this new world. Because of this, these scenes also tend not to be directly related to the main conflict. It might instead center around, or at least introduce, a subplot. The character also meets some new characters that epitomize this new world, meaning that they are at home in this world and it’s their familiar world. They could be friends, allies, enemies, mentors, etc.

Dan Harmon prefers to call this part the Road of Trials, which is from Joseph Campbell. This label describes darker fiction, like the Hunger Games, better than Snyder’s Fun & Games label, but they both have a similar idea: the character starts adapting to the unfamiliar world. Internally, the character starts to realize they have to shed their baggage from their familiar world because there’s no place in this new world for all that old junk. The whole purpose of this quadrant is for its Road of Trials to prepare the protagonist to Meet the Goddess in the next point (5) FIND.

EXAMPLE: This is when Harry gets sorted into Hogwarts, goes to his classes, hangs out with Ron & Hermione, butts heads with Malfoy and Snape, etc. Starting from when he's on the train to Hogwarts, which is a part of (3) GO, he meets a lot of new characters, many who are very familiar with this magical world, like Ron and all his professors.

(5) FIND: Some Insight into the New World

IN A NUTSHELL: The character finds what they wanted (but it may not be what they expected).

At about 50% of the book, the protagonist finds what they wanted, which was put forth in (2) NEED. Yay? Perhaps not. Often there’s more to it than they expected–something darker, something not quite right. Discovering this leads them to start taking action, instead of mostly reacting to what was thrown at them, as in the 1st half of the book.

This moment is also known as the Midpoint. Harmon uses Meeting with the Goddess, which is Campbell’s terminology. This could be a good or bad moment, often both. Sometimes this moment is an actual meeting with a powerful, mysterious female figure.

It’s a special, vulnerable moment where the character has a major revelation about this new world and about themselves (and their flaws). Like (3) GO, it’s a door, a point of no return. The character has to make an important choice here–the choice to move on, to change, to take action.

Because the character has to choose to keep going, it can be tempting to stay here and forget about the new revelations. Similar to the Inciting Incident in (2) NEED, the protagonist may debate continuing the adventure for a moment, but eventually they have to go, otherwise the story would stop here. The main difference between (2) NEED and this point (5) FIND is that this choice must be voluntary. In (2) NEED, often the protagonist is a little forced into going on the adventure by some sort of mentor, external event, etc. That shouldn’t be the case here.

EXAMPLE: This is probably when Harry first sees the three-headed dog guarding the trapdoor in the forbidden 3rd floor corridor when sneaking back to his room after Malfoy challenged him to a duel but never showed up. Well, when I opened the book to the halfway point, this scene was there :) but it makes sense too.

The three-headed dog starts a mystery: why is that dog there and what is it guarding? When Harry sees the dog, he could have chosen to forget about it and let it slide. But instead, it piques his curiosity. He can't just continue his life as if nothing happened now that he has this new insight into this unfamiliar, magical world.

(6) TAKE: The Darkest Moment

IN A NUTSHELL: The character pays the price for finding and taking what they wanted.

This whole quadrant (50-75% of the book), the Virtuous Unfamiliar World, is another Road of Trials. The difference is that this Road of Trials prepares the protagonist for the climax–the final confrontation–whereas the Road of Trials in the previous quadrant, the Faulty Unfamiliar World, prepared the protagonist to Meet the Goddess in (5) FIND.

At about 62% of the book, the protagonist has their lowest moment–the dark moment, also called the dark night of the soul. Why? Because they found what they wanted, and took it. Basically what this means is that, at (5) FIND, they gained some new insight into the unfamiliar world and themselves, causing them to take action. These actions have consequences, which happen in (6) TAKE.

Snyder calls this Break into Act 3. Harmon calls this Meet Your Maker because, often, the protagonist meets (perhaps even face to face) the one who created them, who shaped them, who made them what they are. And this meeting is not usually a great moment. Death, figurative and/or literal, happens here. The protagonist loses something that was important to them. They must overcome this loss and find renewed courage to keep going and defeat the antagonist. The thing that makes this loss hit hard is the fact that it’s usually a result of their own failed plans and actions.

Overcoming this loss is what leads to apotheosis, which means becoming a god. Harmon says,

When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.

Depending on the scope of your story, a “living God” might be a guy that can finish changing a tire in the rain. Or, in the case of Die Hard, it might be a guy that can appear on the roof, dispatch terrorists with ease and herd 50 hostages to safety while dodging gunfire from an FBI helicopter.

EXAMPLE: This is when Harry goes into the enchanted forest and is attacked by Voldemort who was drinking that unicorn's blood. The unicorn is the literal death, and you could say the figurative death is Harry's ignorance. Now he knows about Voldemort, the man who made Harry who he is: Voldemort is the one killed Harry's parents, causing him to grow up with the Dursleys, and the one who gave him that scar and his destiny to be Voldemort's downfall. In Harry's case, becoming a "living god" means becoming someone who can take down Voldemort.

(7) RETURN: Back to the Familiar World

IN A NUTSHELL: The character returns to their familiar world.

At around 75% of the book, the protagonist returns to their familiar world in some way. It could be that they literally travel back to a place there were at in the beginning, or it could just be mentally, where they return to an adapted version of their old worldview and values. After all they’ve been through, they can’t view things completely the same as they did at the start, but it could be that something that was important to them at the beginning gains renewed importance.

In Harmon’s TV episodes, this usually means that the protagonists just return to how things were before. For example, in Rick & Morty, the status quo is Rick and Morty at home, not being on any sort of adventure, so that’s their familiar world. Then they go on some sort of adventure and return home. In Community, the status quo is the study group and the relationships they have with each other. No matter what happens during the episode, they usually go back to being in the study group with similar sorts of relationships at the end.

Pretty much anything that’s episodic (self-contained little stories that don’t really affect the next bits of story) does that too. They just return to the status quo in each episode. The downside to this is that, even though we see the character change a little, that change doesn’t tend to carry over into the next episode so it can actually feel like there’s no character growth.

So in many books, movies, and shows that do feature character growth or any kind of change at the end that carries over to the other books/movies/whatever, I find that this moment is more so about stability and clarity than actually returning to how things were before. The protagonist could finally feel like, after fumbling about in the unfamiliar world, they understand what this world is about, and it’s become familiar to them. This familiarity, coupled with their newfound virtue (whatever that may be), is what enables them to see what they have to do to defeat the antagonist. So the protagonist makes a final plan and prepares for the final confrontation.

Basically I think of this as the “I know what I must do now” moment, an aha! moment, if you will.

EXAMPLE: This is when Harry, Ron and Hermione go to the forbidden 3rd floor corridor, get past the guard dog and all that jazz. So while Harry doesn't yet return to what I said his familiar world is (the muggle world), here he gains a sense of stability and clarity: he has to get the stone before Voldemort.

(8) CHANGE: Master of Both Worlds

IN A NUTSHELL: The character is now capable of change.

At some point during the third quadrant, Virtuous Familiar World, the climax occurs. This is the final battle and confrontation, where the protagonist defeats the antagonist (or sometimes not). It could be a half-win, where they managed to save someone or escape but the antagonist also escaped.

Harmon calls the protagonist at this point a Master of Both Worlds because, after going through all that stuff, not only have they changed, they are now capable of causing change–they are godlike. Harmon says,

They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.

One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his shit together.

That is a great segue to mirroring, the next topic.

EXAMPLE: This is when Harry looks in the Mirror of Erised and sees the sorcerer's stone in his pocket (and it's actually there). He defeats Quirrell/Voldemort (but this is more so a half-win, since Voldemort isn't completely defeated yet). And in the aftermath, he attends the end-of-year banquet and returns home to the Dursleys. So at this point Harry does return to what I said his familiar world is (the muggle world), but it happens at the end.

Mirroring

Mirroring is one of the things I like the most about this structure. It means that all the points directly across from each other on the circle are related to each other in some way. So, when planning your story, if you have some points down, but no ideas for the others, try looking at the point across from it for inspiration. Before I get into how Harmon says the points mirror each other, here’s that circle again, so you can see which points are across from which more easily:

(1) YOU and (5) FIND

These points mirror each other because they are both like a sort of mother: a comfortable place where you may want to stay forever, but at some point you have to leave the nest. Harmon says that (1) YOU is like being in the arms of a dysfunctional mother because the protagonist’s starting place is so full of flaws and unhappiness. But it’s comfortable there. The protagonist would stay there if it weren’t for the Inciting Incident that happens in (2) NEED.

At (5) FIND, the protagonist enters the arms of a new mother. She is the gatekeeper of the Virtuous Unfamiliar World. She tests those seeking entry by showing them a bit of the world beyond the gate. Those who are too weak stay here with her forever, safe in her arms. Those who are strong break free from her grasp, into the Virtuous Unfamiliar World.

(1) and (5) are both passive, vulnerable moments. So if you have trouble with these points, for (1), think about what your protagonist’s comfort zone is, where they would be fine with staying forever, until the Inciting Incident happens later. For (5), think about what could scare them from going further into the Unfamiliar World, what new knowledge they gain that makes them reconsider moving forward. This is what the gatekeeper mother would show them.

(2) NEED and (6) TAKE

These points are both active moments. Harmon says that if (1)/(5) are like the mother, then (2)/(6) are like the father. (2) NEED is the Call to Adventure–the Inciting Incident–which prompts the protagonist to leave their dysfunctional mother shown in (1) YOU. The NEED just tends to be whatever the protagonist’s goal is at the start.

(6) TAKE is where the protagonist confronts their limitations and mortality to become godlike, capable of enacting change. This is the result of leaving the gatekeeper mother at (5) FIND. This is what she was trying to keep the protagonist safe from.

TAKE is basically showing the darkest side of their NEED, so if you have trouble coming up with this dark moment, think about what awful thing could be tied to the NEED. For example, if Harry Potter’s NEED was to be something more–someone special who doesn’t just suffer at the hands of the Dursley’s–what’s the dark side of that? Voldemort. The magic that empowers him and the scar that makes him special are intertwined with Voldemort.

(3) GO and (7) RETURN

These points involve crossing thresholds. (3) GO is going from the protagonist’s ordinary world to a new one (order to chaos) and (7) is going from the new world back to the ordinary one (chaos to order). So if you have trouble with these points, try rethinking your quadrants, or think about what’s comfortable to your protagonist (this will be their Familiar World) and what’s uncomfortable to them (this will be their Unfamiliar World). For (7) RETURN, you at least want them to experience some sense of stability and clarity, even if they don’t actually return to the familiar world.

(4) SEARCH and (8) CHANGE

I touched on this one in the quote from Harmon above, where he said, “One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior [at (8) CHANGE] is because of what happened down below [at (4) SEARCH].”

So, something that happened in (4) SEARCH often helps the protagonist to defeat the antagonist (8) CHANGE. It could be an object someone gave them in (4), or a new character they met in (4) who swoops in unexpectedly to help, or some advice they got in (4), etc. The point is that the reason why they have become capable of change is because of all the stuff they went through earlier.

Someone/thing helping unexpectedly would be considered Deus Ex Machina (god from the machine, a common trope in Greek & Roman plays where a god comes out of nowhere and saves the day) if you didn’t introduce that character, object, etc before the climax. So if you know what you want your climax to be, and you have certain people or things that will help the protagonist, you must introduce them earlier and (4) SEARCH is a good place to do that.

Conversely, if you know what you want to happen in (4) SEARCH, but don’t know what your climax will be, think about all the people and objects you introduced and brainstorm how they could help the protagonist later on with their unique skills, mindset, characteristics, etc.

Also, you’ll want to introduce your antagonist in some capacity early on too, even if it’s just a hint. Imagine how weird it would be if Harry had never seen or met Professor Quirrell until the scene where they’re in the forbidden corridor trying to get the sorcerer’s stone. Pretty weird and confusing, right? J.K. Rowling also took care to introduce Voldemort early on in chapter 1 (which I consider similar to a prologue), so even though Harry doesn’t find out about him until much later, at least the readers already knew.

And that’s it! 🙂

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Writing Craft

Dan Harmon’s Story Quadrants

It’s a couple days into February now, which is my first drafting month, after a month of planning in January. So far, I’ve been on track so that’s nice! Anyway, since I just spent a month steeped in planning, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about story structure. I always enjoy learning new methods. So when I recently came across Dan Harmon’s story structure, I soaked up all the information I could on it.

Dan Harmon is a TV writer. His story structure is a circle with 8 points, based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Today, I won’t be discussing these 8 points in detail, because you can easily find information about that in these articles that he wrote (there are 6 total but the 4th is the most in depth). What really fascinated me was his story quadrants, which wasn’t discussed as much in those series of articles but instead on his Tumblr here and here.

So today I’ll be giving my own take on the quadrants, which is what I gleaned from the Tumblr posts. If you want to know what exactly Harmon says about the quadrants, refer to the two Tumblr posts I linked to above.

What Are Harmon’s Quadrants?

Dan Harmon’s story quadrants is a method of helping you flesh out your story idea and characters. Since I use a 4 Act system, it also directly corresponds to 1 Act each. The 4 quadrants set the tone of each Act. In addition, the quadrants lead to natural character development.

The quadrants are based on two halves of a circle: top & bottom and left & right.

The top & bottom represent the character’s external journey (the events one would typically describe as plot). The top is the familiar world (order), which is what’s normal for the character. The bottom is the unfamiliar world (chaos), which is the opposite of or vastly different from the familiar world. The top & bottom are conscious. The character is cognizant of what their ordinary world was like and how different the new world is. They must make a conscious effort to adapt and navigate this new world.

The right & left represent the internal journey/character arc. The left is the character’s need: the trait or shift in mindset they need in order to succeed (”virtue,” one could say). The right is the internal flaw or misbelief preventing the character from succeeding and defeating the antagonist. The character must overcome this flaw and replace it with the virtue. The right & left are unconscious. It’s the internal conflict they have but aren’t really aware of. Despite it being unconscious, it colors their worldview and so it influences all their actions and behaviors.

So separately, the halves look like this (for the internal journey, the character starts at the right, Fault, and ends at the left, Virtue):

The halves of the circle

The Familiar World is basically Order, but it’s easier for me to wrap my brain around the former by thinking “what is normal and familiar to my character?” Once you figure that out, think of the opposite or just something that’s very different to get the Unfamiliar World. Also Virtue doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive trait.

Then you combine the 2 halves to get the 4 quadrants (the quadrants are read clockwise, starting from the top right; I numbered them to make this easier to see):

The 4 quadrants

How the Quadrants Correspond to the Acts

The reason these quadrants help tell a story is because, by going through each combination of these 4 things, the protagonist can realize that the 4th combination (Virtuous Familiar World) is what they need to overcome their problems and the antagonist. And by the time they get to this point, there has been visible character development, so you can easily plan the internal journey at the same time as the external journey. The circle is satisfying because they return to their familiar world but changed internally for the better.

Each quadrant sums up the theme, tone and events of the corresponding Act, in terms of the character’s external and internal journey. At this point we can marry Harmon’s quadrants with his story circle. Briefly, his story circle is (you can read this article for more detail about these points):

  1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
  2. Need (but they want something)
  3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
  4. Search (adapt to it)
  5. Find (find what they wanted)
  6. Take (pay its price)
  7. Return (and go back to where they started)
  8. Change (now capable of change)

So now I will give an overview of how the quadrants inform each Act, thereby providing a sort of story structure.

Quadrant 1 = Act 1

In this Act, Harmon’s “(1) You & (2) Need” take place. So we see the protagonist in their ordinary world but they want something, showing that this world (and the character) is faulty. Therefore, it’s the Faulty Familiar World. An external event incites them to go after what they want (the Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure). They may debate about this and refuse the call at first, but eventually they decide to go on the adventure (albeit, perhaps forcefully).

Quadrant 2 = Act 2

In this Act, Harmon’s “(3) Go & (4) Search” take place. So the protagonist leaves on the adventure, entering the new, unfamiliar world. They explore this world, reacting to what it throws at them (”the Road of Trials”). By doing so, they adapt to the world but they are still holding onto their flaw (they haven’t changed and they don’t yet recognize the flaw that’s been holding them back). Therefore, it’s the Faulty Unfamiliar World.

Quadrant 3 = Act 3

In this Act, Harmon’s “(5) Find & (6) Take” take place. After the Road of Trials, the protagonist finally finds what they were looking for in Act 1, but it’s likely not exactly what they were hoping for, or it just leads to more unanswered questions. In a vulnerable, “Meeting with the Goddess” or “Midpoint,” moment, they learn something new about this world—that there’s a bigger problem than they initially thought. They resolve to solve this problem, shifting from only reacting to now acting. But this bigger problem comes with bigger complications as the antagonist attacks harder, leading to a “Dark Moment” where the protagonist pays the price for getting involved. It’s their lowest moment. This moment makes them finally recognize there may be something holding them back so they start shedding their flaw, making this the Virtuous Unfamiliar World.

Quadrant 4 = Act 4

In this Act, Harmon’s “(7) Return & (8) Change” take place. After this low moment, the protagonist renews their courage. They find the final piece of the puzzle—the key to defeating the antagonist, which usually involves overcoming their flaw. Now the protagonist returns to their familiar world but with a new mindset and capable of causing change (they have become godlike in that regard). They attack and likely defeat the antagonist, fully overcoming their flaw to do so. Therefore, it’s the Virtuous Familiar World.

Example: The Lion King

I didn’t think of this example myself, but I found someone mention it on Reddit and it seemed right. Nodice182 (the person who commented on the original post) said the top & bottom halves for Simba are Bravery and Fear and the left & right halves are Responsibility and Irresponsibility.

An example of the story quadrants using the Lion King

So in this example, Simba’s Familiar World is Bravery but his flaw is that he is Irresponsible. When his father dies, he’s plunged into the Unfamiliar World of Fear. But the Unfamiliar World teaches him how to be Responsible. Once he learns this, he can return to his Familiar World of Bravery, defeat the antagonist, and be king. You could also say his Familiar World is the Kingdom and his Unfamiliar World is the Oasis where he grows up after his dad dies.

Creating a Story with the Quadrants & Circle

Reverse engineering already existing stories into the quadrants is a useful exercise, but I really saw the power of this technique once I tried creating a story from scratch according to Dan Harmon’s guide: first think of the top and bottom halves (Familiar World & Unfamiliar World) and then the left and right halves (Virtue & Fault) until you find something you like.

So I decided to have my protagonist be some sort of monster (let’s just say it’s a guy). His Familiar World is Monsters and his Unfamiliar World is Humans. When thinking of the Virtue and Fault, I liked Acceptance and Non-Acceptance.

An example of creating a story via the quadrants

These dichotomies helped me come up with the basics of the setting and plot.

  • Setting: this is a world where humans know of monsters but dislike them, so monsters typically live separately from humans.
  • Plot: the protagonist is a monster who hates being a monster (doesn’t accept himself) and wants to live among humans as a human, which he’ll try (disguised as a human) but by the end he’ll accept himself as a monster.

Then I came up with the 8 points on the circle using the quadrants as a guide. I managed to think of these points pretty easily and quickly, which is why I think this tool will be helpful for future stories.

An example of coming up with the story circle points via the quadrants

  1. YOU: a monster.
  2. NEED: He wants to be human so he gets a magical disguise (to appear human).
  3. GO: He leaves his monster town and goes to a nearby human one.
  4. SEARCH: He gets a job in this town, but his coworkers treat him badly because he’s “the new guy.”
  5. FIND: He meets a coworker who’s nice to him.
  6. TAKE: The coworker helps him make friends with the others, but then somehow it’s revealed that he’s a monster, so he’s ostracized and loses his job & apartment.
  7. RETURN: He goes back to his monster town because he lost everything but also because this caused his to realize being human was no better than being a monster.
  8. CHANGE: Just as he’s finally accepted himself for you he is, the coworker from before finds him to say they don’t care that he’s a monster, further confirming to the protagonist that it’s okay to be a monster.

It’s a classic “love yourself” tale :). The interesting thing about this process is that it got the gears in my head turning. This could be the main plot of a romance, yes, but it could also be the romantic/platonic subplot of a larger plot. For example, maybe his hatred of himself was largely unconscious and he actually moved to the human town for some other purpose, like he could be an assassin and maybe he was even hired to kill the coworker who was nice to him…

If I decided the “love yourself” thing were the subplot, I would go through the process again for the main plot. For the assassin example, the Familiar World could be Assassin and the Unfamiliar World could be Office Worker (his job when disguised as a human). The Virtue could be Kindness and the Fault could be Cold-heartedness. So the quadrants would be:

  1. Cold-hearted Assassin
  2. Cold-hearted Office Worker
  3. Kind Office Worker
  4. Kind Assassin

This is an interesting dynamic, especially at the end. If you pair it with his subplot, in the 4th quadrant he becomes a “Kind Assassin Accepted as a Monster.” In this case, he is literally and figuratively a monster: a biological monster and a “monster” because he kills people for a living. Adding the assassin aspect also raises the question: why would someone want to kill the kind coworker? Perhaps the coworker is a figurative monster too and will have their own character arc that I could create with the quadrants.

Anyway, I won’t do the story circle or any more quadrants for this but I can already think of a lot of possibilities. And now that I think about it, this story could definitely take place in my world Selcouth. Maybe some day I’ll write it haha.

So in conclusion, I think the quadrants and story circle provide a nice foundation on which you can build the rest of your story. The foundation provides both an external and internal journey for the protagonist, so all you have to do from there is flesh out the nitty gritty details: characters, setting, the actual scenes, etc.

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Productivity Updates

2018 Goals (& the Value of Knowing Thyself)

2018 is my I will get serious about my writing year. For previous years, my goal was the awfully unspecific “write” goal, which of course led to almost no writing. I’ve finally realized that I’m just the kind of person who needs structure and specifics and spreadsheets and schedules to get anything done. So I decided on some goals that get more specific depending on the scope.

  • For the whole year: write the first drafts of 4 novels (i.e. 3 months per novel) & edit 1 of those.
  • For each quarter: 1 month of planning, 2 months of first drafting.
  • For each planning month: phase outline (my planning method of choice).
  • For the drafting months: total # of phases divided by total number of days = # of phases per day.

I chose these goals because they will be challenging to me–seeing that I’ve never even completed a novel before, only novellas and short stories–while at the same time being somewhat relaxed. This pace requires no more than 2 hours of work a day, and on most days, I only work for half an hour.

I know I’m capable of doing more, but the more things I tell myself I have to do, the less I want to do anything. So the pace above is basically my bare minimum–I can do more but not less. Plus, although I graduated from college in December and now have tons of free time, I’ll be starting my teaching job in March, so I want to make sure I can keep up a similar pace while working full-time.

Novel #1: Marked by the Gods

For January, I’m working on the phase outline since I’m in the planning month of Novel #1. My daily goal is to write out 12 phases (which is 1.2 scenes), which I’ve managed to do everyday so far 🙂 And yeah I know 1.2 is a weird number, but January has a weird number of days in it…

Novel #1, which spans from January to March, is called Marked by the Gods, which I was actually working on in November 2017. It’s also the novel that spawned Selcouth 2.0. In November, I had planned about 50% of it and first drafted about 20% of it. I stopped because I hit a roadblock in my planning and couldn’t come up with any more scenes.

I didn’t know what to do, so during that break, I started compiling the Selcouth wiki, focused on world-building, and did Memory of a Crime on this blog. Over the past 7 days, I’ve gone back to planning Marked and I’m glad I took that break. I was easily able to come up with the rest of the scenes I needed because the world-building helped me find aspects of the setting that could challenge or aid my protagonist and affect the novel. As long as I keep at this pace, I’ll be on track to work on the first draft in February.

Novels #2-3 will probably be the next books in the series because I’m aiming for Marked to be a trilogy. So Novel #4 is the only one I’m unsure of, but that’s not until October to December, so I have a while to figure it out.

Here’s “the Value of Knowing Thyself” Part

Throughout 2017, I was experimenting with various productivity advice and writing techniques. I didn’t get a lot done (well, minus graduating from college I guess) but I learned a lot about myself, namely the thing I said about needing structure.

Whenever I had a structured schedule, like planning to do certain things at certain times, I got the most stuff done. And whenever I first drafted from a phase outline–the most detailed outline I’ve heard of so far–I wrote the quickest and with the least suffering (first drafting is usually the most painful part of writing for me).

I’ve also learned that I can’t plan and first draft at the same time. Because a phase outline is so detailed (it ends up being the length of a novelette), it requires focused attention. This is why I’ve split each quarter into planning and first drafting months. And lastly, taking breaks is helpful. That’s another reason why I opted for a more relaxed pace–so I can afford to take breaks and play around with ideas without getting anxious about being behind on my writing.

But I guess there’s a limit to this “know thyself” stuff because I still can’t get myself to exercise (my only other New Year’s resolution). My goal is 5 days a week for just 30 minutes but I’ve only done it once for the 1st week of January… If that were a grade, I’d have gotten 20% which is an F haha (but at least I got 96%, an A, on my writing but if you average the two, I’d still be failing at 58%, unless they are weighted differently… I digress).

Here’s to hoping week 2 will have better results in the exercise department and the similar results in the writing department.

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Solo RPGs Tales of Selcouth

Memory of a Crime: Chapter 8

“Memory of a Crime” continues! This is an actual play of a solo RPG using FU Solo. Check out the tag Memory of a Crime for previous chapters and the introduction post. Character sheets and summaries of previous chapters can be found on my wiki.

This chapter is a rough draft–instead of the narrative version I usually do–because I just want to finish this so I can move onto a new project in the new year. On the plus side, you get to see how I actually play: I write a summary of what happens in between double brackets [[like this]], separated by game mechanics in gray boxes, and write it out narratively when I finish the whole scene (the narrative part is usually what takes forever). I also include some dialogue if it comes to me, but usually I don’t bother with quotation marks.

After this text, all text in the gray boxes will contain game mechanics and meta game comments and things (from me, the player’s perspective). RPGen refers to the results from this random phrase generator (set to ADJ+N, both at Very Common). Normal text will be the play by play of the scenes (from Sarang, the player character’s perspective, in 3rd person present tense).

Scene #9: “If You Tell the Truth, You Don’t Have to Remember Anything.” – Mark Twain

SCENE SETUP: The hearing. A few people besides Sarang are sitting in the stands.
Altered Scene? Rolled a 5 = No. RPGen for setting inspo: "considerable column." Interpretation: The courtroom has Greek-style columns.

[[Sitting in the gallery, Sarang waits for the hearing to start. She observes her brother–who she hasn’t seen since yesterday–sitting alone in the gallery too, in the first bench. She observes the two large columns flanking the door to the judge’s chambers and the gallery, and a chair set up next to the judge’s bench. The judges enter from the chambers. Brief description on Annosiris. Cuzu sits in the judge’s bench and Annosiris sits in a chair next to it. Cuzu tells Jihoon to approach the bench. Jihoon gets up. He glances at the gallery as he passes.]]

ORACLE: Is Jihoon glad to see Sarang? Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 3 = No. (Perhaps because he's pretty sure he'll get convicted, which he doesn't want her to see.)

[[When he spots Sarang, she gives him a supportive smile but he frowns in response. He stands in front of the judge. Cuzu nods at his arrival and asks him how he pleas. Jihoon hesitates for a moment.]]

ORACLE: Does Jihoon plea innocent? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 3 & 4. Best is 4 = Yes.

[[Jihoon clears his throat and pleas innocent. Annosiris clenches her jaw. Cuzu nods, “Very well. State your case.” Both Cuzu and Annosiris’ eyes change to indicate they are using magic. Jihoon says that he was not home when his mother was killed. Annosiris interrupts Cuzu to ask for his evidence.]]

ORACLE: Does Jihoon have evidence? Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 1 = No and... Interpretation: He has none and he's lying--he was home.

[[Jihoon looks down and says nothing. Cuzu glances at Sarang and says to Jihoon, “I can’t help you if you lie. So you were home during the incident.” Jihoon says yes quietly. Sarang didn’t know he was home. Her father was the one who discovered the body when he returned home and Jihoon wasn’t there. Cuzu asks, “And what did you do when your mother was killed?”]]

ORACLE: Did Jihoon even know she was killed? Probability: Unlikely. Rolled 2d6(-): 3 & 1. Worst is 1 = No and... Interpretation: He didn't hear anything and left to hang out with Rico.

[[Jihoon says he didn’t even know–there was no sound. He left to hang out with Rico without saying anything to his mom–he doesn’t usually tell her when he’s leaving. Cuzu nods, but Annosiris interjects, “He is lying.” Cuzu says he’s pretty sure he’s telling the truth and Annosiris says his magic isn’t as strong as hers.]]

ORACLE: Does Cuzu argue further? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 1 & 2. Best is 2 = Yes but... Interpretation: He doesn't argue directly.

[[Cuzu turns to Jihoon and says, “Well then can we hear from your friend Rico?”

ORACLE: Did Rico attend the hearing? Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 5 = No but... Interpretation: Rico isn't here but he says that Sarang can corroborate.

[[Jihoon says Rico isn’t here but Sarang can corroborate his story. Cuzu tells her to step forward. Sarang didn’t expect that but steps forward. Cuzu asks her for her testimony and she says she has nothing to add but knows someone who does. Cuzu tells her to bring this person forth. Annosiris looks at her with skepticism. Sarang prays to Rorokana, telling him know is the time to come.]]

ORACLE: Does Rorokana come? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 6 & 3. Best is 6 = Yes and... Interpretation: He appears and says the truth.

[[Rorokana appears next to Sarang. The spectators gasp and the Cuzu’s eyes open wide. Sarang says that Lord Rorokana knows the exact cause of her mother’s death and is willing to testify. She glances at Jihoon. He’s looking at her shocked but hopeful. Rorokana says it’s true and that he knows for sure that Jihoon is not the murderer.]]

ACTION: Does this intimidate Annosiris? Rolled 3d6(-): 3, 1, 6. Worst is 1 = No and...
[Modifiers: Rorokana is the god of cause & effect (+), Annosiris wants to get away with the crime (-), Annosiris knows her divine magic doesn't work on him (-).]

[[Annosiris stands and says his testimony is invalid because they can’t discern if he’s telling the truth since divine magic doesn’t work on gods. Rorokana says, “You think I would come here to lie?” Annosiris gets defensive, saying she doesn’t know what your motive is but it could be bad. Rorokana isn’t fazed and says she thinks so because she’s the murderer.]]

ORACLE: Does Annosiris have a bad reaction? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 4 & 1. Best is 4 = Yes.
How does she react? RPGen: "stock saint." Interpretation: she pretends to be innocent.

[[Annosiris says he’s lying and she’s innocent. Rorokana says, but you don’t know if i’m telling the truth or lying so how can you claim that. Cuzu says that it doesn’t matter because they can gauge the truth from Sarang so he asks her. She corroborates Rorokana’s testimony. Cuzu says she’s telling the truth.]]

ORACLE: Does Annosiris give up? Probability: Unlikely. Rolled 2d6(-): 5 & 2. Worst is 5 = No but... Interpretation: She persists but Cuzu asks her to testify.

[[Annosiris denies everything. Cuzu says that this new development means Annosiris has to formally testify now. Annosiris is shocked but says Cuzu can’t oversee the case alone. Cuzu says that she can’t be involved due to her potential bias and to please testify.]]

ORACLE: Does Annosiris testify? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 4 & 2. Best is 4 = Yes.

[[She gets up and stands in front of Cuzu to testify (she is no longer using divine magic, so her eyes return to normal). She states her case but Cuzu says she is lying. She tries to defend herself but it’s all lies, which he detects. He decides that she is guilty and Jihoon innocent. Her punishment is the standard: to have all her memories removed related to the incident (which is quite a lot since she’s known Sarang’s mom for 10 years).]]

Scene #10: Even If You Forget, I Never Will.

SCENE SETUP: Annosiris' correction.
Altered Scene? Rolled a 2 = No.

[[A couple hours later, in the jail part of the Main Temple. They are in a room similar to that where executions take place: a chair where the criminal sits and a witness room separated by a glass window. Sarang, Jihoon, Kavi and Rina are in the witness room (Rorokana left after the trial). Annosiris is tied to the chair in the other part and a senior corrections officer stands next to her.]]

ORACLE: Does Annosiris say any last words? Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 6 = Yes and... Interpretation: She never stops claiming her innocence.

[[Annosiris vehemently continues to say she’s innocent and shouts at the corrections officer. This upsets Sarang. The corrections officer replaces Annosiris’ memories via Sumin’s divine magic (they remove the old memories and replace them with harmless ones to fill the gaps. Annosiris goes silent.]]

ORACLE: How is Annosiris now? RPGen: "becoming nobody." Interpretation: She has lost her sense of self and is practically a different person.

[[The corrections officer asks Annosiris basic questions to verify that the process went alright, which it did (not going to roll for it because the corrections officer is highly skilled). The corrections officer unties her and lets her leave. Everyone leaves the witness room. Sarang goes to the priests’ shrine and prays to Sumin & Rorokana. She can’t help but feel like she is the one being punished instead of Annosiris. After all, Annosiris will have the pleasure of being free from her guilt & crime, while Sarang will remember everything exactly as it happened.]]

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Solo RPGs Tales of Selcouth

Memory of a Crime: Chapter 7

“Memory of a Crime” continues! This is an actual play of a solo RPG using FU Solo. Check out the tag Memory of a Crime for previous chapters and the introduction post. Character sheets and summaries of previous chapters can be found on my wiki.

After this text, all text in the gray boxes will contain game mechanics and meta game comments and things (from me, the player’s perspective). RPGen refers to the results from this random phrase generator (set to ADJ+N, both at Very Common). Normal text will be the play by play of the scenes (from Sarang, the player character’s perspective, in 3rd person present tense).

Scene #8: No One Knows You Like You Know Yourself

SCENE SETUP: Sarang goes to Kavi to ask him if he can help her change the judge.
Altered Scene? Rolled a 5 = No.

Kavi’s office is a little cleaner now than it was yesterday, but there are still books scattered everywhere. She tells him about her deal with Lord Rorokana and that the apprentice judge Cuzu is willing to replace the judge.

“The only problem now is getting approval for the change,” Sarang says. “I was hoping you could help me with that, Priest Kavi.”

He strokes his chin thoughtfully.

ORACLE: Will he help her? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 6 & 6. Best is 6 = Yes and...
How? RPGen: "patient public." Interpretation: He knows a priest who isn't in on the scheme.

“It won’t be easy but it’s worth an effort, even if we just get the hearing postponed,” he says. “Do you know Priest Rina? She was a friend of your mother’s.”

Sarang shakes her head. “Since my mother and I were in such different circles, I never really knew which priests she was close to.”

“Well, of all the politicians on the Counsel, she seems the least likely to betray your mother. If she becomes aware of the situation, I’m sure she would want to help.”

“But should we tell her everything–the whole truth?” Sarang asks. “The fewer people that know, the better. I don’t want the judge to know what we’re planning too soon.”

ORACLE: Does Kavi think they should tell Rina the truth? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 2 & 1. Best is 2 = Yes but... Interpretation: They shouldn't tell her the whole truth.

Kavi nods. “That’s true. It would be dangerous to reveal everything, but simply telling her that you want to change the judge because it would be a good learning opportunity for the apprentice isn’t a good enough reason. Not to mention, it’s suspicious, since you hardly know him.”

“So how much should I tell her?”

“It’s important that she knows the judge is the true culprit. It’s a logical and convincing reason for changing the judge. She doesn’t need to know anything apart from that. I wouldn’t tell her about Lord Rorokana, for example.”

“Alright,” Sarang says. “But what if she can’t see me? She might be too busy.”

“She usually spends her early mornings in Jungwon, as a part of her worship to Lord Sumin. I see her there quite often around this time, so it’s worth checking there first.”

“Will you be accompanying me?”

“No, I’m afraid not. I don’t want to draw anymore attention to myself.”

“But I hardly know her. She might be more convinced if priest of higher status told her.”

ACTION: Does Sarang persuade Kavi? Rolled 2d6(+): 4 & 4. Best is 4 = Yes.
[Modifiers: Sarang is socially awkward (-), Kavi doesn't want to draw attention to himself (-), Kavi is already heavily involved (+) = -1, so 2d6(-).]

He sighs. “Oh, alright. You make a good point. Let’s leave quickly.”

***

Around this time, the garden is always full of people. Many like to come here before going to work.

“There she is.” Priest Kavi points to a woman around Sarang’s mother’s age, sitting on the far side of the rooftop. There are a couple people around her.

The two head over to her.

“Excuse me, Priest Rina? May we have a word with you?” Priest Kavi says.

She looks up, surprised. “Ah, yes.” She looks at the people around her. “If you don’t mind.”

They shake their heads understandably and leave. Sarang and Priest Kavi sit down.

“Thank you for seeing us,” Sarang says.

Priest Rina waves dismissively. “It’s no problem. What would you like to discuss?”

“It concerns the case–the murder case,” Priest Kavi says. He points to Sarang. “This is Priest Yuna’s daughter and she’s concerned with the state of the case.”

Priest Rina’s eyes open wide. “Ah, Sarang?”

Sarang nods with a small smile.

“I’m sorry we never got to meet before this,” Priest Rina says. “Is this about your brother?”

“Yes,” Sarang says. “I’m sure he’s not the murderer, but the judge is biased and will convict him no matter what.”

“I doubt she’s biased, Sarang. She will give your brother a fair trail.”

“She’s biased,” Kavi says, “because she’s the murderer.”

ORACLE: Does Rina know the judge well? Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 4 = Yes.

Priest Rina shakes her head. “No. I can’t imagine Annosiris would do such a thing. I’ve known her for at least ten years.”

“My Lord has shown me the truth, Priest Rina,” Priest Kavi says.

She shakes her head again, more vigorously. “You must be mistaken.”

“Are you doubting my Lord?” Priest Kavi asks.

“No. No, of course not.” Priest Rina sighs. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“And my brother killing my mom does?” Sarang says.

She looks at Sarang with pity. “No. I was hoping they would find him innocent during the trial.”

“Well the judge will never allow that. She can easily get away with it by convicting him instead,” Sarang says.

“We have to confront her,” Priest Rina says.

“No,” Priest Kavi interjects. “We shouldn’t give her time to adjust her plans.”

“What we need to do is change the judge,” Sarang says. “Can you help us?”

ORACLE: Will Rina help them? Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 6 = Yes and... Interpretation: She'll help them and she won't tell Annosiris.

Priest Rina sighs. “I can try. But who will be the new judge?”

“I spoke to the apprentice judge and he says he is willing,” Sarang says.

“The apprentice?” Priest Rina says. “I doubt the rest of the Counsel will agree to let someone so inexperienced take on such an important case.”

“Tell them as much as you need to,” Priest Kavi says.

Priest Rina stands up. “Alright, I’ll handle it. I’ll let you know the results via the web, Sarang.”

Sarang nods and Priest Rina leaves to call an emergency meeting for the Counsel.

***

ORACLE: Do the majority of the counsel vote in favor of changing the judge? Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 2 = Yes but... Interpretation: They agree to let the apprentice oversee the hearing but Annosiris must sit in and provide guidance.

An hour later, Sarang is sitting in her office filling out paperwork. In the chaos yesterday, she neglected to do any of it, so she’s trying to catch up now before the hearing.

She feels a tingle in her head. Priest Rina is trying to communicate with her. She accepts the message. It says, “The Counsel has agreed to let the apprentice oversee the hearing, on the condition that Annosiris sits in and provides guidance. Despite her bias, the Counsel does not want the apprentice to do it alone.”

Sarang isn’t entirely pleased with this outcome, but it’s still a step in the right direction. It’s nearing 2 o’clock now–the time of the hearing.

She goes to her windowsill and places a fresh candle on it. She prays to Lord Rorokana, informing him of the new development. She hopes he will come to the hearing. She heads to the courtroom.

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Solo RPGs Tales of Selcouth

Memory of a Crime: Chapter 6

“Memory of a Crime” continues! This is an actual play of a solo RPG. Check out the tag Memory of a Crime for previous chapters and the introduction post. Character sheets and summaries of previous chapters can be found on my wiki.

So I’ve barely played with WINGS Solo but after using it for a bit, it isn’t quite what I’m looking for in a system so I’ll be testing yet another system, Freeform Universal, which I adapted into FU Solo (I changed the descriptors to suit Selcouth). The problem though is that I decided to make the switch partway through writing this post. I made a note in a gray box where that happens.

After this text, all text in the gray boxes will contain game mechanics and meta game comments and things (from me, the player’s perspective). RPGen refers to the results from this random phrase generator (set to ADJ+N, both at Very Common). Normal text will be the play by play of the scenes (from Sarang, the player character’s perspective, in 3rd person present tense).

Scene #7: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

SCENE SETUP: The next morning, Sarang goes to the private shrine for priests in the Main Temple to perform her morning rite to Sumin and now Rorokana.
Altered Scene? Rolled a 4 = No. RPGen for setting inspo: "smooth text." Text is carved into the stone walls, surrounding the statue of Sumin.
Q&A: Who does she speak to about changing the judge? RPGen: "pleased young." Interpretation: She speaks to the apprentice judge.

Coming to the priests’ shrine in the Main Temple before 6 AM is the only way to have it completely to oneself. Sarang stands before the candles encircling the statue of Lord Sumin. Unlike the one in the rooftop garden, Her face is completely covered by a large tome that She holds in front of Her. The stone walls have a subtle texture that one would think is the natural texture of the stone. But in fact, the smoothest stone was used. The texture comes from tiny text etched into each wall, from floor to ceiling.

Sarang goes through the motions, performing the morning rite to her Lord. It’s silent, though, without her mother beside Sarang, chanting under her breath. The rite takes longer than it should because she has trouble concentrating. It’s nearing 6 AM. She’s doesn’t want to perform the rite for Lord Rorokana around anyone else, but she already hears footsteps approaching behind her.

She takes out another candle–a fresh one that has never been burned–and a box of matches. Quickly, she prays to Lord Rorokana like Inla taught her and lights the candle. Just as she’s shaking the match to extinguish it, someone kneels beside her.

“I didn’t know anyone came here before 6,” the priest says.

Sarang pockets the burnt match but leaves the matchbox for others to use. The match from yesterday is still in that pocket of her coat. “I like to start my day early.” She looks at the priest.

Q&A: Are they male? Probability: 50/50. Rolled a 4 = Yes.

His dark skin reveals that he most likely comes from Yulamka, the city-state in the Ishkara Desert patroned by Lord Yulam, the god of truth and lies. His curly hair is neatly braided back in two–a style worn by the priests in Yulamka. Sarang remembers reading about their use of different hairstyles to indicate status and class. In Heesu, there is no such thing. Although Sarang always wears her hair in a chin-length bob with straight bangs covering her eyebrows, she can’t imagine wearing a hairstyle dictated by the city-state.

Despite conforming to his home city-state’s hair customs, he wears the simple priest’s garb of Heesu: a button down, slim slacks and a cape-style peacoat–all of the same pale gray color that only priests can wear. She doesn’t recall seeing him around before, but that could be because of his vocation. If he truly is from Yulamka as she suspects, then he must be a judge. She grips the burnt match in her pocket tighter.

He holds out a hand. “I’m Cuzu. Cuzu Tapmasir.”

“Ah.” She shakes his hand. He has a firm but gentle grip. “Sarang Yang.”

His eyes open wide. “The case.”

She looks away, toward the candle she just lit for Lord Rorokana. “You know of it?”

“Yes, Priest Sarang. My mentor is overseeing it.”

“Your mentor? You are an apprentice?”

“Indeed.”

That makes sense. He looks young, like a recent graduate. He must have passed the annual priest’s examination on the first try, like she had. Sarang read once that the average priest passes on the third try. But if he passed it easily, why would he choose to serve here, instead of in his home city-state?

“Will you be attending the hearing?” she asks.

“Yes, of course. May I?” He points to the box of matches.

She nods and he takes it. He lights one of the candles at the statue’s feet and prays with eyes closed. Her feet itch to leave now, to avoid further social interaction, but she can’t let this opportunity pass. She bows her head and pretends to pray. He might be her only way to find out how to change the judge. Although, there is also a chance that he is conspiring with his mentor.

His prayer is taking longer than she expected. She doesn’t know what the daily rite is in Yulamka but now she is curious. It would be nice to learn something new, as she promised her Lord just moments ago, so early in the day. She looks back at the entrance, hoping no one else will come.

Q&A: Does anyone come? Probability: 50/50. Rolled a 1 & 4 = No.

She lights another candle while she waits for him to finish praying. So she doesn’t waste it, she dedicates the effect to Lord Rorokana. She feels a warmth in her fingertips as she extinguishes the match.

Q&A: Is he done praying? Probability: 50/50. Rolled a 6 & 6 = Yes and...

He looks at her as she pockets the match. “Are we supposed to keep the matches? I always throw them away.”

“No. It’s just… something I like to do. By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that your prayer is quite long.”

“Ah yes. The 10 Truths can take a while.”

“And that is?”

“To tell my Lord 10 truthful things. Well, some people promise to tell 10 truths throughout the day, but I can never remember how many truths I’ve told so it’s easier for me tell them all at once.”

This reminds her of his divine magic. “Can you tell if I’m telling the truth or not?” she asks.

He nods. “Yes, but it’s not like it’s turned on all the time. I’d have to use my Lord’s divine energy to do so.”

Despite the chance that he could be on conspiring with the judge, it’s worth the risk to tell him everything. Sarang just hopes he’s truly committed to justice, unlike his mentor.

NOTE: At this point, I switched the system to FU Solo lol sorry.
ORACLE: Does anyone come? Probability: Likely. Rolled 2d6(+): 5 & 6. Best is 6 = Yes and...

Laughter and footsteps sound behind them. Sarang looks back. Four priests are just entering the shrine.

Before they get closer, she asks Cuzu, “Do you have a moment? Can we speak elsewhere in private?”

He pulls back his sleeve, revealing a watch. “I’m afraid I have to go to work soon. Can it wait until after?”

“No, it concerns the hearing this afternoon. Please, I need your help,” Sarang says.

ACTION: Does Sarang convince Cuzu? Rolled 2d6(+): 1 & 3. Best is 3 = No.
[Modifiers: Cuzu's friendly nature (+), Sarang is his superior (+), Sarang is socially awkward (-) = +1d6, so 2d6(+).]

“I’m sorry. That’s the reason I have to go. I must prepare for the case. And I’m not supposed to tell anyone the details. I hope you can understand. I would never ask you to tell me the memories of the criminals you correct.” He stands up. “Please excuse me.” He starts to leave.

Sarang follows. She can’t pass up this opportunity. He may have to go now, but she can at least talk to him on the way to his office.

As they exit the shrine, she says to him quietly, “Everything I’m about to tell you is the truth, and if you don’t believe me, you can verify with your Lord’s magic.”

He looks at her, unsure. He holds a pendant around his neck but Sarang doesn’t see the change in his eyes that indicates he’s accessing divine energy.

“The truth is,” she says. “My brother didn’t do it. It was the judge–your mentor.”

“What?”

He waits for some priests to pass and then pulls her aside into an empty room where counselors meet with the public to give them advice. All it has is two chairs and a small statue of Lord Sumin on the windowsill.

“Say that again.” He grips his pendant tighter and his eyes mirror Lord Yulam’s: each iris of his eyes are replaced by a slowly turning spiral galaxy.

Good, Sarang thinks. I was worried he wouldn’t verify. “My brother didn’t kill my mom. It was your mentor.”

His original dark brown irises reappear. “No… It can’t be…”

ORACLE: He knows she's telling the truth because of his magic, so the real question is "Does he have a good reaction (is he on her side)?" Probability: 50/50. Rolled 1d6: 6 = Yes and... Interpretation: Learning this makes him want to help her.

“Please,” Sarang says. “If I don’t do anything, the judge will find my brother guilty and get away with it. I need your help.”

“I can’t believe she would do that but… you’re obviously telling the truth. I just–” He rubs his hands over his face. “How am I supposed to help?”

“So you’ll help me?”

“If I can. I just don’t see what I can possibly do.”

“All we need to do is change the judge. How about you? Can you do it?”

“I-I’m not qualified yet. I’m just an apprentice.”

“Every apprentice has to get practice in the field. I did so a couple times before I finished mine.”

“But this is such an important case. I doubt our superiors will allow it.”

“I’ll appeal to them. But for now, prepare for the case as you normally would and don’t tell your mentor anything, okay?”

He nods and the two part ways.

 

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Solo RPGs Tales of Selcouth

Memory of a Crime: Chapter 5

“Memory of a Crime” continues! This is an actual play of a solo RPG. Check out the tag Memory of a Crime for previous chapters and the introduction post.

I’ve changed the system again :). Now I’ll be using WINGS (the “Wherever Imagined” Narrative Game System), which is a free rules-lite system. The character sheets don’t change much–just toss the skills and attributes and replace with “details.” And since WINGS uses d6 instead of dF like Fudge, I’ll be switching the solo engine back to d6 too. I’ve compiled the new system I’m using in the pdf WINGS Solo and Sarang’s new character info + a rough sketch I drew of her can be found here.

After this text, all text in the gray boxes will contain game mechanics and meta game comments and things (from me, the player’s perspective). RPGen refers to the results from this random phrase generator (set to ADJ+N, both at Very Common). Normal text will be the play by play of the scenes (from Sarang, the player character’s perspective, in 3rd person present tense).

Scene #6: A Face to Remember

SCENE SETUP: The day is almost over. Sarang is at home now.
Altered Scene? Rolled a 3 = No. RPGen for setting inspiration: "professional spread." Interpretation: Her house is tidy and full of only work-related things, no hobby/leisure.
Q&A: Is her father home? Rolled a 1 & 3 = No. Is he in the city-state? Rolled a 2 & 4 = No.

At home, Sarang ends the call with her father, who’s in the Ishkara desert purchasing goods to sell. She was so busy today that she forgot to call him to tell him about Jihoon. Truthfully, she prolonged it for so long because she knew he’d come back early for the trial, but she didn’t want to cut his business short.

Sitting at the vanity table, she brushes her hair, preparing for bed. Their house feels so large and empty now. She isn’t used to being in here alone. Just yesterday her brother slept in the room across from hers. Today, he sleeps in a cell. She puts the brush away and stands, heading to her bed.

Q&A: Does Rorokana appear to her? Probability: Unlikely. Rolled a 5 & 6 = Yes and...
Why does he come? RPGen: "concerned deal." Interpretation: He agrees to testify on one condition.
What's the condition? RPGen: "simultaneous bracket." Interpretation: That she worships him along with Sumin.

She stops short, startled by a man sitting on her bed. She backs away.

He stands up and puts a hand out. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

As he steps forward, Sarang sees his eyes. His irises are flickering flames instead of a standard color, and he lacks pupils. Sarang has only seen such eyes on high priests, but of course, those are just mirrors of their true owners: the gods. Looking at him now, he is familiar. She’s surprised by how closely he resembles his statues. It makes her wonder if Lord Sumin really does look like the statue Sarang has of her on her bedside table.

She kneels and bows her head. “Lord Rorokana, it’s an honor.”

“No need for that. Stand up,” He says.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Well you’re the one who called me, no?”

“Yes–but… I wasn’t expecting… Honestly I didn’t think you would hear me.”

He sits on the bed. Sarang doesn’t like looking down on Him, so she sits by her vanity table.

“It’s true,” He says, “that I hear thousands of prayers everyday. But it has been quite a long time — more than a century perhaps? — since someone foreign to my city-state has spoken to me. You’re a priest of Sumin, aren’t you?”

He looks her straight in the eyes. His flames sway slowly, like there’s a gentle breeze blowing wherever that distant fire is burning, if it really exists. She avoids His gaze, looking instead at the few spots of freckles on His nose.

“Yes, our Lord,” she replies.

“Has she refused to help you?”

“No. I… didn’t ask Her.”

“And why is that?”

“I revere my Lord Sumin’s knowledge but that isn’t what I need. I already have knowledge.”

“Then what is it you need?”

“Surely you already know everything. You’re attuned to cause and effect.”

He tilts His head to the side a little. “Yes, I know.”

“Then why are you asking?”

“Just because I know why you want my help doesn’t mean I know what you want me to do. I have predicted a thousand possibilities, but why don’t you do me a favor and narrow them down, hmm?”

She swallows hard. She can’t tell if He’s offended or annoyed but she doesn’t want to make whatever He’s feeling worse. “I’m sorry,” she says shakily. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Even though you took the time out of your busy schedule to see me, I’m acting so–”

“Relax. We gods have a lot more time on our hands than you think. It’s not as though we make a habit of personally answering every wish and prayer.” He chuckles. “So, what kind of aid are you seeking?”

She sits up straight. “A testimony. For my brother’s innocence.”

He is silent for a while, as he just looks at her. Finally, he says, “No, I can’t do that. According to my predictions, it will not go well.”

“Please, Lord Rorokana, I can think of no other option. Besides, there are probably many possible outcomes. Some of those have to be good.”

CHECK: For persuading him to testify. Assigned a +0 modifier. Rolled a 1 & 2 (3) = Failure.

“Few of them are. It’s not worth the risk,” He says.

“Why not?”

He sighs. “There is one main problem. Regardless of who testifies–god or not–ultimately, the decision is up to the judge.”

“So he could… choose not to believe You?”

“Of course. In fact, that’s how he would react in 98% of the possibilities. And as a priest of Yulam, he’s more trustworthy than I am.”

“But he would be lying if he convicts my brother!”

“But gods can lie too. In 64% of the possibilities, he will claim that I am lying, and since he has no way of knowing for sure, he will discount my testimony.”

She slumps forward. “If there’s nothing You can do, why did You come?”

“I was curious what you would propose. Besides, I never said there’s nothing I can do. There are still possibilities, but testifying under these conditions is not one of them.”

“Then how can You help me?”

Q&A: How can he help? RPGen: "warning reporting." Interpretation: Warn a higher up, try to get another judge?

“If you get another judge to oversee the case, then I can testify,” he says.

“The hearing is tomorrow afternoon. I don’t think that’s enough time.”

He stands up. “Then you’ll have to wake up early, won’t you?”

“I already wake up early to…”

He raises one eyebrow. “To worship Sumin?”

She nods once. She didn’t say it because it felt disrespectful to Him somehow.

“Why don’t you include me then? Until your brother is free.”

“You want me to worship You?”

“Traveling between here and the divine plane expends a lot of energy you know. I don’t have so many followers that I can afford to go from here and there everyday.”

“Then why don’t you stay on this plane until the hearing? I’ll see if I can find another judge.”

He steps forward. “So you won’t worship me?”

“I will, out of gratitude. But if it requires too much energy, then you should just stay since the hearing is tomorrow.”

CHECK: For persuading him to stay. Assigned a +1 modifier. Rolled a 4 & 1 +1 (6) = Failure.

“I would not be comfortable here. This plane is not meant for gods. Pray to me if you get another judge, and I will return.”

“Yes, my Lord.” She covers her mouth quickly. She hadn’t meant to call him that. Only priests of that god are allowed to address them using “my.” Everyone else should use “our.”

He smiles and disappears.

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