What Publishers Do and Don’t Do

I had a run-in recently with someone on a writing group on Facebook. The individual was stomped by the admins of the group, but the discussion is something that sits ill with me and a subject that needs to be addressed. I may have talked about it years ago in this space, but it’s something that bears repeating.

The row was over the fact that authors must market their books, and publishers don’t market your book for you beyond a few specific avenues. This author was utterly aghast that I was saying publishers don’t do that, and got quite haughty over it, claiming to be some kind of bigwig with an agent and a traditional publisher and how dare I, a peon, question them. (Insert gagging noises here.)

Too many authors in the world fail to understand what a book publisher does and does not do for its authors, and it’s something that leads to major issues with authors and publishers, and everyone walks away frustrated from the experience and feeling as though their expectations were not met. This lack of understanding is also one of the major reasons new authors’ early books may flop, even with a publisher’s help.

To start with, to be a publisher of any repute, regardless of the model, publishers (whether traditional, hybrid, or otherwise) must have the following:

  • Acquisitions based on merit.
    This means an acquisitions editor who reads pitches, determines if something is the right fit for the company, and then decides whether or not to pick up the manuscript. Every company has slightly different criteria they look for in a book, and they’ll have differences in genre, preference, and so on. But either way, someone is actually looking at the manuscripts and deciding whether or not it’s a good fit.
  • An editorial process with at least one editor.
    The editorial process at Insomnia has several rounds of editing with a project’s lead editor. This will look at things like word choice, structure, sentence composition, removing excess words, clarifying confusing passages, fact checking as needed, punctuation, and so on. Then the book moves to a secondary editor who looks over it for any spelling/punctuation errors that may have been missed the first time. This happens again after the book has been typeset to ensure the maximum possible cleanliness of the manuscript.
  • Professional-grade typesetting.
    Whether for print or e-book, typesetting is extremely important, and doing it properly really can make or break a book. It’s a skill in and of itself, and while the skills for typsetting an ebook and typesetting a print book are quite different, either one or both are absolutely necessary. If you want to know how good their typesetting is, do a glance inside on their books listed on Amazon.
  • Good cover design.
    Sure, the old saying says not to judge a book by its cover, but a terrible cover won’t sell books. If all their book covers look like an eighth-grade Photoshop job, run the other direction. While not every company has the money for expensive cover design, any decent publisher will put out covers that at least look like they belong on a bookshelf and not at a garage sale.
  • A solid method of distribution.
    Distribution for most of us publishers means a combination of Ingram (or many other such book distributors) and Amazon. If your publisher is distributing only through Amazon’s KDP (formerly Createspace) services, that doesn’t mean they might not be a good seller, but it does show that they’re on the small side. Bookstores will not order through Amazon, so that’s something to be aware of. Ingram is one of the biggest distributers in the world, so any bookstore can order from them. While there’s no guarantee your book will end up in a brick-and-mortar store, having the option is important.
  • Provides an ISBN
    This is pretty self-explanatory. Your publisher should provide your book an ISBN (or multiple in the case of multiple versions of the book).

Now, you see this list of things publishers ought to provide if they’re to be considered legitimate, and you see what’s not on it?

Marketing.

This may come as an unpleasant surprise to folks, and for that I’m sorry, but publishers don’t typically do much in the way of marketing for authors. Those who do will do things like taking out occasional ads on Amazon or Facebook, and they’ll try and get your book into things like BookBub, which is a long shot by all accounts. This means that the marketing will fall to you, the author.

You will have to get out there (metaphorically during the pandemic, please) and sell your book. Your publisher will support this as best they can, but they cannot and will not do it for you. Even if you’re lucky enough to be picked up by an agent and a major publisher (one of the Big Five), they’re not going to do all your marketing for you. Sadly for all of us, writing books is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation. You can’t just get a book deal, publish it, and then do nothing and wait for money to roll in. Lightning may strike, and you may make sales, but I wouldn’t rely on it.

Sadly for all of us, writing books is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation.

E. Prybylski

The reasons for this are multi-fold, but it boils down to two key points: your publisher won’t want to spend the money on it (or maybe can’t) and readers don’t want to hear from publishers. While your publisher may well spring to have your book put into Ingram’s mail-out catalogue or will do some targeted Amazon marketing, this cannot replace the benefits of having the author talking about their book. Your publisher will not book blog tours for you and while they may work to help get your foot in the door at things like radio stations, the station is more likely to respond to an author rather than the publisher. No joke.

Hiring a publicist is extremely expensive, and small to mid-sized publishers cannot foot that bill. And the staff who’s on is often busy with other projects, so they cannot devote their time to marketing your book for you because they have other books to edit, design, and publish. At my company, for example, I am the head editor, typesetter, cover designer, and webmaster (insomuch as I poke at it every so often and hope I don’t break things).

Every book we produce comes through me, and once the book is out, I’m onto the next project. While I may take time to help an author with pre-release marketing and will make an effort to put them on my newly-minted podcast and let them give a lecture to my weekly writing group, I can’t do much more than that except maybe send a couple emails and do some cover mock-ups. I just don’t have the time because the next book is coming down the pipe and I have multiple clients hiring me for editing and coaching.

I’m not trying to complain to you about my workload, but you can see that I have no room to put another hat on the towering number I am already wearing. Most small publishers are in the same boat. In the bigtime (Big Five) they will assign you publicists, but that doesn’t mean you get to sit on your hands. In fact, you are expected to do most of the same things you’d be doing without a publicist. The real difference is that you will have access to expert advice, but you’re expected to run your own Facebook page, Twitter feed, and website and maintain an email list. While the publicists at a Big Five publisher may create a press kit for a new author and use their ties to get them articles in larger news outlets and maybe land them a spot on an NPR show, authors are still expected to use their own networks to market their book.

One of the unexpected surprises of being a new author is how much goes into promoting your books. I was lucky to be published by Penguin’s Putnam imprint for my debut novel, The Golden Hour. Yet even with the backing of a hefty Big Five publisher, I discovered that delivering the manuscript is just the beginning.

Todd Moss

Don’t believe me? Todd Moss, author of the Washington Post bestseller, “The Golden Hour” has a blog post on the subject (and she’s where I got the information on what the Big Five do for publicity.

In short, like any business venture you undertake, authors are expected to market it. While writing is romanticized (and rightly so), the less fun part of being a success is doing things like marketing, and learning how is very much available to us these days. While we might not all have publicists with the connections of Penguin, we can learn how to leverage what we do have and create a larger network for ourselves in order to boost sales.

While writing is romanticized (and rightly so), the less fun part of being a success is doing things like marketing.

E. Prybylski

It’s very possible to write an incredible book and not be lucky enough to have it sell if you aren’t willing to market the heck out of it and work hard to that end. As with many things in life, it’s not enough to be good at what you do–even great at what you do–you have to make sure everyone else knows you exist. After all, if they don’t know you exist or know that you’ve written a book (or books), then how can they possibly buy it?

As A Historian

This blog is mostly focused on writing. I’ve occasionally touched on other things, but this is mostly about writing. Today I don’t speak as an editor or writer; I speak as a historian and American who witnessed history being made this past week and not in a good way.

Those of you who know me outside this blog know I went to college for history. I studied mostly Rome through the Renaissance in Europe, and that is what I have my B.A. in. I use that mostly for the purposes of helping my editing clients who write about history, but this week it has given me perspective on what happened in the Capitol of the United States of America.

This blog isn’t about partisan politics, before you tense up expecting such a thing. I am not here to do anything but report the facts as faithfully as I know them based on my understanding of history, my viewing of far more hours of footage of what happened than is probably good for my mental health, and having watched the events from literal start to finish via PBS’s stream.

I tuned into PBS’s live stream with the intent of watching Congress debate the votes, as we all knew was coming. While I find watching these events extremely boring, I view them as part of my civic duty. Just as I watched the entire impeachment on C-Span. No, really. The entire thing. I was tuned into their coverage all day, and when I was unavailable to watch, I caught up later.

I give you my sources because I am hopeful you will recognize those as not partisan. At the very least, C-Span is non-partisan because it provides no analysis whatsoever and merely explains some of the definitions of terms or will explain what bill is being referenced and so on. They are exceptionally dull to watch, but they are real-time and with the lack of analysis they are free of partisan taint. Likewise, both by my own quite extensive research as well as labeling by multiple bias-detector sites, PBS Newshour is also virtually unbiased, though individual speakers sometimes show some.

My personal political leanings are irrelevant to this post, so I’m not going to discuss them, and there’s a good chance that if you attempt a guess, you will be wrong.

I was watching when this all started, and I saw and heard the riots happen in as close to real time as was possible without being physically present. During these riots, I felt the same sort of gut-dropping, heart clenching pain I felt watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, which I also witnessed in real time. It is going to be one of those events that, for the rest of my life, I will know where I was and what I was doing. Just as many others remember things like the Challenger disaster or, on a happier note, when humanity first arrived to the moon.

Those who don’t note the seriousness and gravity of what has occurred perhaps do not understand just how close we came to the brink of an actual, successful coup d’etat occuring here in the United States of America. One driven by the words of a sitting president. Keeping my personal views out of it, at the very least, I can say with certainty that the address to the rally prior to the ransacking of one of the most sacred buildings of our country by people whose intent was to murder elected officials and cease the peaceful transfer of power that is the bedrock of our country’s form of government was the spark that lit the wildfire.

Make no mistake. I heard the chants of “hang Mike Pence” and saw footage of the men with zip-cuffs. I saw the faces of the people in the Capitol. Do I believe all of them were there to perpetrate horrible acts of unspeakable violence? No, of course not. There were many people milling about certain areas who were swept up in the energy of the crowd with no true understanding of just what they were doing. Crowd psychology and mentality is a very different beast than the intentions of singular individuals. However, I do know for absolute certain that there were enough people there who were hellbent on doing whatever it took, who claimed that “this is 1776” who claimed that it was a “revolution” that I cannot pretend that the crowd wasn’t one spark away from burning the buidling down.

In fact, someone was arrested with molotov cocktails intended for exactly that purpose. Many others had weapons of various kinds including knives, firearms of various types and forms, and that one man with a spear. As well as the number of people I witnessed assaulting police officers with whatever came to hand: crutches, bottles, sticks, riot shields, the barricades themselves, and anything else they could weaponize. At least some of that crowd was out for blood.

Now, pulling back to a larger view, this kind of mentality has been present in crowds during such events for as long as history lasts. In many circumstances crowds have gone from protesting to extreme violence without much pause and if you don’t study crowd psychology, you might not know why. But for people wound up tight and armed with what they belived wholeheartedly was an attempt to steal the country from them by dictators, it was a powderkeg. The spark of which was the president’s speech. These are the unfortunate facts as I have seen them. Now, whether the president lit that powderkeg knowingly or unknowingly or maybe misunderstood the impact and power of his words could be argued. I’m not here to make such assessments.

I do think our country needs to learn a lesson from the ease with which these people breached into the Capitol, overwhelming the police despite concrete fore-knowledge of a volatile protest. We know they are very capable of enacting security measures as seen during the BLM protests, and the contrast between the degrees of security is stark. Foreign actors could easily have embedded themselves in that crowd to gain access to the Capitol and to some of the secure documents and such located within. I don’t believe any foreign adversaries are responsible for what occurred, but it is not a stretch to say that such a security breach with such ease is something we will need to prevent in the future when considering security for our country’s elected officials while they undertake such grave and important business.

I have been saying to those around me since September that I expected something like this to happen. Not because of any political persuasion but because these kinds of events have happened many times through history and always ended the same (insomuch as causing a violent culimation of events). Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the rampant and virulent spread of conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric since before the election had me saying that no matter who won this election, there was going to be violence, protests, and a very dark and difficult time for this country.

I grew up surrounded by Republicans. Both my parents and all my grandparents were steadfast Republicans to the point where my grandfather has plaques and such dedicated to his contributions to the party over the years. I’m not saying this as some kind of “ultra-liberal” extremist because I’m not one. But our country is broken. The screaming and finger-pointing that has become the common go-to behavior of people discussing politics in more recent years has given birth to extremism–as it would by nature. You put people in a pressure cooker, surround them with vitriol, and blame the “not us” for the problems of the “us” and you incite war. Which is exactly what has happened.

Humans have always been tribalistic. Going back to our earliest ancestors and, truth, even before, we are creatures of identity. Our tribe, our group (our team, our block, our city, our country, our town, our political party, our race, our gender, our. . .) is a major part of how we identify safe from not safe. Safe is us. Not safe is them. This is base human behavior and psychology. I’m not saying it’s all right by any stretch because it has also created sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and all the other awful “ism’s” we have in our world right now. Because we divide the world into “us” and “not us.” I recognize that my explanation here is simplistic, but it’s intended to be. I’m also not going to say “can’t we all just get along!” becuase there are damn well people we should not get along with and should never, ever give voice to. (The KKK, neo-nazis, and others spring to mind.) We have fought wars over some of these principles and rightfully so.

Part of the reason some of our founding fathers opposed the notion of parties was this exact us/them mentality that we have seen grow from it. People who otherwise might well agree with one another on important and, indeed, vital subjects feel the need to pick a party that best aligns with their values even if that party doesn’t really represent them well. Then, once they have selected a party, the other party becomes the dreaded Them. This inhibits our ability to work out solutions to problems as people. And the majority of the time, it is as people who see the same problems but disagree on how we get there.

The roads we have tread on have only ever lead to where we are. I have watched this happen over and over again through history–most notably in Rome. Rome crumbled under very similar pressures and very similar circumstances. They had similar income disparity between the hyper-rich and everyone else trying to survive. This happened during the French Revolution as well. The Romanov Execution, too, had similar themes and similar events. I am not advocating for a violent overthrow; I am drawing parallels through similar pressure causing huge fractures to society.

So what do we do and where do we go? As people living through this incredible and horrible time, how do we handle all of these things and move forward? Where do we turn?

My recommendations to you are as follows:

FIRST

Make sure the news sources you consume as as non-partisan as possible. For what it is worth, I have found this chart to be extremely accurate and helpful when selecting my news sources: https://www.adfontesmedia.com/ Anything at the top of the green block should be considered both reliable and trustworthy. If you have trouble reading the chart, the sources is sees as most reliable (and least partisan) are:

  • AP
  • Reuters
  • The Weather Channel
  • The Denver Post
  • NPR
  • Newsy
  • ABC
  • Houston Chronicle
  • NBC
  • USA Today
  • CBS

That said, certain segments and certain hosts may be more or less partisan even on these news sources. So approach them with some degree of caution. My method tends to be to read stories from multiple sources and look at where they cross over to find truth. I know current trend is to blame all of these news sources as “hyper-liberal” but they truly aren’t, no matter what you are being told.

SECOND

Question stories that seem extremely attractive to you. The reason I say this is that the job of (actual) fake news is to emulate the real thing and affirm bias as well as introduce dishonest things. Look at some of the propaganda from WWII for information. The way the Jews, Romani, disabled, gays, and anyone who wasn’t “German Enough” was at fault for the extreme poverty that followed World War I. This was a clear example of scapegoating which is occurring even now (making it Their fault). This mentality that if you are not “us enough” you are “them” is something to view with extreme caution because it is easy to manipulate. McCarthyism, for example, did that exactly as you would expect. Governments across the world and all throughout history have used this rhetoric to achieve their desired outcomes.

Confirmation bias is something we all must wrestle with. The more we agree with a source, the closer we must question it. That goes for everyone for everything. This kind of critical thought is wearisome and stressful and requires constant vigilance, though you eventually pick up on the cues that identify bombast from honesty.

THIRD

While I will never, ever tell you to keep people in your life who are damaging to your mental health, it is important not to create an echo chamber where all you hear and encounter are the resounding reverberations of a single, potent political ideology. I don’t mean that you need to listen to the outlandish conspiracy theoriests with the same weight you provide a trusted source, either. However, you should be open to hear what people who believe differently than you (and are willing to have honest, fair discussions about it) have to say.

Nor do you need to deal with people whose sole intent is to troll you. People who refuse to adhere to the rules of polite discourse and who engage in constant logical fallicies that damage the capability of people to have discussion shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the discussion.

Likewise, don’t get into a poo-slinging war with a stablehand. They probably have a shovel, and you won’t win by ending up covered in muck. You cannot, sadly, convince through vitriol what civil (if forceful) words will not convey. That isn’t saying we don’t all have times when we get so frustrated we say things that feel good at the time but aren’t the sorts of things we’d say at dinner with the Pope. There is also a time and a place to address something with outrage and force, but recognize that if you start a conversation that way, you likely will never get your point across in a way the other person will receive it–no matter how justified your anger is.

Identifying someone who is acting in bad faith is an important part of this process. I have friends with whom I have significant political disagreements, however I keep them in my life because I know for certain that they are not acting out of bad faith. They are honest, kind, good people at their core with whom I have disagreements. They are not the sorts of people who would have done what happened at the Capitol, for instance. I also want to be clear that political disagreements are different than if those people think as though I as a person should not exist and am not valid. When I say politics, I mean we disagree on how we are going to handle the crisis of medical care in our country, the specifics of what firearm laws should be enacted, and so on. They aren’t people who would, given the choice, see me harmed for existing. Anyone who is toxic in that manner has no place in my life and will not be tolerated, and I do not encourage you to keep such people in yours.

FOURTH

We are tired, and we are hurting, and we are frightened. However, during this period in our lives, we must also not allow our hurt, fear, and anger to destroy our nation. I’m not saying you should not protest or speak your mind. I am not saying you should just sit with your anger and pain and not exercise your rights to free speech and assembly (where applicable since we do have a raging pandemic, so use discretion). However, what happened at the United States Capitol is an example of anger, fear, and hatred overruling any sort of good judgement these people may have. There is no excuse for it, and let it be a warning to the rest of us. Giving into our emotions and venting all our fears and angers and grief in such a manner both will not accomplish its goal (congress still completed its duty in counting the electoral votes) and will not serve whatever cause we have. Speak with eloquence, power, and force. Speak as one voice. Use your megaphone. But put down your torches and nooses. Such barbaric behavior does not belong in the society we have built.

In addition to this, remember that if we are all tired, hurting, and frightened, we are all–as a world–in a more volitile and fragile place than we have been at any time in living memory for most of us. Our friends and loved ones are more vulnerable and more fragile even as they are also more angry.

One of the few pieces of wisdom I have from my father–echoed by my mother–is that anger often covers fear. Fear makes us feel helpless, exposed, and weak while anger helps us feel powerful. We are all, whether internally or externally, feeling helpless, exposed, and weak because this pandemic spares no one. From the rich and powerful to the homeless, this disease has no mercy. Much like the Masque of the Red Death, it spares none. On top of that, our country has been at the mercy of people in power whose goal has been to deepen divides and profit from the hatred. Demogogues of any flavor are often dangerous, and we have seen a notable rise in their number as they prey on the cracks in our society borne of many years of war and financial catastrophies.

FINALLY

If you can, if you have the space and energy, be kind. Whether you agree with someone or not, see pain and speak to it. Be honest, be genuine. Think before you speak.

No more powerful and poigniant example of the power of language can be shown in immediate history than the effect of the president’s speech on the crowd. His words lit the fuse of what happened at the Capitol. If you are on my blog and read it, then I presume you are a writer. This example should show all of us the power of words. We can inspire or incite. We can hold up or rebuke. Words have power. Use them with intent. Use them with discretion, and use them with love.

I know our country is seeing its darkest winter in living memory. Thousands of people are dying every day, and the divides between our nation feel like they are too deep, too jagged, and too raw to ever mend. But remember we are the country who had the Civil War and survived. Our democracy survived a civil war and was able to come back from that. Our country has seen hell and continued. We are strong, and the guardrails of our democracy do work. We have seen them in action if you have been looking for them. They function, and they protect us.

As Benjamin Franklin said just after a session of the Constitutional Convention: “A democracy, if you can keep it.”

Breathe and know this isn’t the end of everything. It may feel it, but through the hard work, dilligence, watchfulness, and continued work of every person in our nation, we can keep it.

We can keep it.

What’s Up With Me

I’m sorry I haven’t had a blog up the last couple weeks. This kind of year is rough for me physically. The weather kicks me while I’m down and causes my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome to flare up. I have also had some things happening in my personal life that needed attention. I am all right; it’s not COVID or anything like that. But I had something come up in the last week that required my complete attention, so I missed Monday’s blog, and this week I don’t have much for you.

What I can tell you is that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is know when you need to take a break. And it is okay to have a time where you aren’t as productive as other.

Thank you for sticking with me, friends. I appreciate your readership, and I hope to be back up to speed next week.

Why Writers Should Play Tabletop RPGs

Going kind of hand-in-hand with my blog about why writers should play video games, I wanted to discuss another oft-neglected avenue of value to writers. To those of you who don’t know me, I am an avid tabletop gamer. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school (2002, 3.5 Edition) and have played most of the old World of Darkness games (particularly Changeling and Orpheus). I have also dabbled in other systems such as Little Fears and Into the Odd. Right now I am running two Pathfinder campaigns and getting ready to live-stream a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game. The reason I bring all this up is to let you know the extent of my experience. I’m not claiming to be a master or anything, but I have been doing this for a long time.

There’s a good chance that a number of you will have no idea what I just said beyond me mentioning that I play Dungeons & Dragons (the ampersand is part of the brand). It’s completely okay that you don’t understand it because you won’t need to in order to follow the rest of my post. Don’t stress it. Suffice to say: I am a tabletop game nerd. And I am very proud of it.

Suffice to say: I am a tabletop game nerd. And I am very proud of it.

E. Prybylski

Now, how does this involve my writing in any way? That’s where we’re headed. To those of you who know nothing about tabletop games, let me start by explaining the most basic concept of them: you get together with friends to engage in a collaborative, largely improvisational storytelling experience. Everyone in the group but one adopts a single character they will portray through the adventure. The person not playing a single character is known by many names in the genre, but Game Master (GM), Dungon Master (DM), and Storyteller (ST) are some of the more common ones. We’ll go with GM for the rest of this post which is, for the most part, system agnostic.

The individual in the GM’s seat is in control of guiding the story. They come up with the adventures to send the players on, and they are in control of the world. It rains when they say it rains. Monsters come onto the stage when the GM calls for them. Things like that. I am, at this point, a reasonable experienced GM, and I tend to be the one running stories for my groups. We have a good time together, but it is a lot of work. Not just because I have to learn the game system and do things like make maps for combat, but because I have to, on the fly, be able to get into characters’ heads and play everyone else in the world who isn’t a player character.

This means, in order for me to be able to be good at what I do, I need to understand a few key things you’ve heard me talk about a lot on this blog: story structure, character development, and narrative. And I need to be able to adjust, modify, or delete entire segments of my plan on the fly depending on what my players do.

This means, in order for me to be able to be good at what I do, I need to understand a few key things you’ve heard me talk about a lot on this blog: story structure, character development, and narrative.

E. Prybylski

For the players’ part, they remain in-character and have to solve problems, handle fights, and face challenges in the world and come up with ways to solve or overcome obstacles. Different than writing a novel, none of the individuals in the group have complete control of the story because, as I said, it is a collaborative storytelling experience. However, as in life, they have control of their characters and themselves and need to use the resources they have available to deal with problems.

What this has to do with writing is that it’s practice. As a GM I am in charge of the entire world. I handle world building and need to come up with characters and situations that are interesting to others. And I need to know where to make them follow the plot and where to let them wander. I need to understand the structure of the adventure (which is a little different than the structure of a novel, but still similar) and create adventures within that framework.

The agility required to accomplish all of this is something that has a huge impact on my ability as a writer to think around problems in my manuscripts. It also has given me the opportunity to bounce story ideas off others in a non-threatening setting. They’ll find plot holes for me, or they’ll come up with angles on a problem I’ve never considered. While I wouldn’t advise forcing players through a one-for-one of your novel, you can test out characters and settings and such and see how people react.

While I wouldn’t advise forcing players through a one-for-one of your novel, you can test out characters and settings and such and see how people react.

E. Prybylski

In some ways, running a tabletop game is like having a test kitchen for my characters, settings, and scenarios. If I am acting as a player, I can use a character from a novel and adapt them into the setting. Then I can really get deep into their head and experience and get to know them very well. If I am acting as a GM, I can introduce people to a large number of my ideas and see how they respond. Again, running a tabletop isn’t like a movie or novel; I don’t control what my players do with my story. They might look at the glaring neon sign that says “PLOT HERE” and go in an entirely different direction. But nonetheless I get a feel for whether or not people are interested in the story I’m telling or not.

Beyond that, it gives me a chance to practice something else: pacing. If I spend too much time monologuing as the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), my players will start looking at their phones or scrolling Facebook. Or one of them might just stab them in the middle of it. On the other hand, if I don’t give them enough information or enough downtime, they’ll end up worn out. If there isn’t enough action, they might set fire to a village just for something to do (my groups probably wouldn’t; they topple monarchies when they’re bored). This develops my understanding of what beats need to happen when, and how long people really want to spend participating in various plot points before they need another thing to break it up so it doesn’t become boring.

This ability to test out my ideas and concepts has been invaluable to me over the years, and I treasure my time at my game table. Not just because gaming is also a vehicle for Mt. Dew, Cheetoes, and bad puns. But because I actually learn things about writing while doing it. Much like my previous blog defending time spent playing video games, you can learn a lot about structure by immersing yourself in tabletop gaming, and it can, in fact, be an extremely rewarding hobby for those of you who have this kind of interest.

You can also find a tabletop that will allow you to play in any setting you desire: high fantasy, low-magic settings, sci-fi, modern day, horror, comedy, surrealism. . .there are systems to handle all of that if you look. So you can find something for just about everyone. While learning a system may seem daunting at first, there are plenty of options for folks looking to get into the tabletop experience. Plus you can find many podcasts and videos online talking about how to start the hobby.

It’s also a gateway hobby to other things like terrain building and mini painting. And dice collecting. You have been warned.

Ultimately, as with many creative endeavors, it is just another method to get into the experience of creation and development. You can cut your teeth on world building in new ways, and you can explore the setting you have created with other people (your unwitting subjects) and see what works and what doesn’t in a low-impact and low-stress manner. You can also work out the kinks in your own skills as a writer while doing it.

That, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Like, a LOT.

What Is POV And Why Does It Matter

I’ve touched on the subject of POV (Point Of View) a few times in the blog here, if you check my backlog. Notably, I brougth it up in context of a discussion on head hopping a little while ago, but I realized I’ve not apparently discussed it at length, and that should change since it’s a thing I’ve noticed is a common and significant struggle for a lot of writers who are just starting out.

In school, we are taught about “person” in terms of language. I, you, he/she/them–first, second, third.

E. Prybylski.

In school, we are taught about “person” in terms of language. I, you, he/she/them–first, second, third. Right? Okay. With that refresher out of the way, let’s take a look at the way these are related to POV. The first thing is, there are (more or less) four types of POV in writing and they mostly coincide with person. You have first person POV, second person POV (used rarely and almost exclusively in chose-your-own-adventure-style stories), third person limited POV, and third person omniscient POV. The last two are the stickiest, so we’ll address them after we handle the first two.

First Person

First person is simple enough. It’s written in (as the name implies) first person. The Dresden Files books are like this. As are To Kill A Mockingbird and Moby Dick. It’s written from the deep and exclusive perspective of the POV character. Typically there is only one POV character in books like this, though there might be two. With it being first person, you aren’t using the characters’ names to differentiate between who is what and where, so it can be more confusing to have multiple POV characters. I’m not telling you you’re not allowed to do it, but definitely have caution.

Writing in first person is pretty easy. It’s all from the “I” perspective, and you don’t really run into the temptation to switch POVs because the narrative style just doesn’t have room for that.

E. Prybylski

Writing in first person is pretty easy. It’s all from the “I” perspective, and you don’t really run into the temptation to switch POVs because the narrative style just doesn’t have room for that. So, for that reason, it can be simpler than the thirds. Though it does require a deep degree of knowledge and intimacy with your character(s), so make sure you’re prepared for that when you get into it.

I like writing in first person because it gives me a deep degree of intimacy with my characters, and it lets me create that intimacy in the reader. Of course, emotional journeys and such are a big part of my writing, so getting as up-close and personal as possible with my characters lets me do that.

Second Person

Second person is, as stated above, used with rarity. Typically it is used in short literary stories, erotica, or choose-your-own-adventure style novels. I don’t advise its use in novel format because it’s also very “telling” and kind of puts the reader into the shoes of the character in a different way. It would be difficult to use effectively for a long work. I’ve never heard of it being done, anyway, and I don’t think it would be effective.

Now into the difficult ones that folks struggle with.

Third Person Limited

This POV is starting to get stickier. Third peron limited (TPL) is much like first person, except you are using different pronouns. With TPL, thoughts are typically written in italics when they’re written like dialogue. (Gee, Edwin thought, this POV stuff is complicated.) If POV is a camera through whose lens we see the world, TPL is perched on top of the POV character’s head (where first person is through their eyes exactly). With third person limited, we know ONLY what the POV character knows and nothing else. At all. Ever.

If POV is a camera through whose lens we see the world, third person limited is perched on top of the POV character’s head.

E. Prybylski.

This is the POV from which the vast majority of modern novels are written. You may have multiple POV characters (whose POV must be separated by a scene or chapter break), but you are in one character’s head at a time, and you cannot know things outside what they see, know, or experience. This means you cannot write a scene between two characters and tell the reader what they’re both thinking. That habit is called head-hopping, and I refer to it in another blog. It’s confusing for readers and likely to cause literary whiplash. While it happens in certain genres (romance most notably), it’s not a good practice to get into.

If you need to be in multiple characters’ heads at once, then that brings us to the last type of POV.

Third Person Omniscient

While it has fallen out of favor in many circles, third person omnisicent (TPO) was a very common POV some time ago (mostly Victorian and a little after). If the camera is perched on top of the POV character’s head in TPL, in TPO it is hovering above the world like watching a battle shot in Lord of the Rings. You can see the bad guys hiding in ambush around the corner if the camera pans that way. You can see all the main characters at once. You’re not really deep in any of them, but you know what they’re thinking.

This style of writing still has a place in the world, and it’s how a number of book series that are widely-beloved are written. The Lord of the Rings books were written in TPO, as was the Harry Potter series (as much as I try to avoid that as an example these days, it’s widly-known and a good example of this POV). You aren’t following any one character too closely, and the story is often about a small group whose thoughts and actions you are always aware of. Ultimately, it’s kind of about narrative distance. With the camera analogy, you’re further away in this POV than you are in TPL.

Third person omniscient tends to have more “tell” than show in some ways. I’m not saying it’s bad by any stretch, but it is different.

E. Prybylski

Now, there are a couple flavors of TPO which further confuses things. There’s the kind where you have an external narrator, as in A Series of Unfortunate Events, where the story is being told as though in an oral tradition by a person who interjects their thoughts, opinions, and views into the narrative. Then you have it where there’s just a great deal of narrative distance. Ultimately, TPO tends to have more “tell” than show in some ways. I’m not saying it’s bad by any stretch, but it is different. If you want your story to be more arm’s length to your characters then it may be a good POV for you.

Can You Mix POVs?

This is where things can get messy. The short answer is…sort of. I’ve read books where there are break-in chapters written as journal entries by the antagnist. Those entries were quite effective, and they really set those bits of the story apart from the others by doing this. However, that’s about the only way I can think that changing POVs from third to first and back would be a good idea.

The place it gets awfully difficult is between TPL and TPO. A lot of writers drift between the two at random without really settling, and that’s an issue. If you write mostly in TPL and have a chapter or scene in TPO it can work, but note the thing here: you must have some kind of break between POV characters and POV styles. Mixing them without that break is a huge no-no. It’ll give readers whiplash, and it’ll damage your narrative. If you need to have a character guess at another character’s thoughts while in TPL, you can have them observe body language or use what they know of the character. Heck, they might even be wrong.

If you need to have a character guess at another character’s thoughts while in third person limited, you can have them observe body language or use what they know of the character.

E. Prybylski

What’s The Best POV For My Book?

This isn’t a question I can answer without knowing more about your story. Short of mixing POVs badly, there’s no real right or wrong answer here (except maybe second person) for most applications. A lot of that is up to your personal taste as a writer. Some genres tend to be more one style of POV than another, but there’s no one-size-fits-all category here, so choose which one you like the best and have at it.

The key here, however, is to be consistent. Outside of changing scenes or chapters (with a break in between, to be clear) you should choose a POV and stick with it. A lot of new writers find the idea of not telling the reader what’s going on in everyone’s head at once daunting, but you don’t need to in order to tell your story. Trust me. We humans walk around all day without a psychic link telling us what everyone is thinking at all times (and thank God for that). If you want to write in TPO, that’s okay. But make sure you do it with intentionality. The narrative distance from your characters and your story will have an impact on the way the story is told. And it will change your story some.

Some genres tend to be more one style of POV than another, but there’s no one-size-fits-all category here, so choose which one you like the best and have at it.

E. Prybylski

While there’s no wrong answer in general, your story may be better served by a specific kind of POV over another. Romance, for example, is typically told in TPL or first because we want to get deep and intimate with the characters. A spy novel that is more focused on the big-picture politics might be best told in TPO (I’m thinking Fist of God-style novels). While you certainly could tell those stories in other ways and with other POVs, they will have an imact on the way these stories come out. So it’s worth really considering before you start writing.

Of course, you can always go back later and try rewriting it in another POV style if you don’t like what you wrote the first time, but you will probably figure out whether a narrative style is working for you pretty early on, so chances of you deciding to rewrite it from the ground up is relatively slim. I say relatively because I have several friends and clients who have done it because they weren’t satisfied with a project after finishing. It happens sometimes, but it’s not something you’ll deal with constantly.

Ultimately, POV is a complex choice, but it’s not usually a difficult one. Most writers know roughly what they want to write in before they start writing, and a lot of that comes on instinct. Just make sure that when you are writing in a POV you do so with intentionality and don’t just jump around POVs because you aren’t sure what to do. That’s when things get dicey. As with many things in writing, your choice of POVs is a decision. It’s not just something you do based on vague ideas on gut instinct. While you might follow your gut instinct on what POV you want to use (and I won’t tell you not to), you should study it enough that you can evaluate why you’re having that gut feeling. And it sometimes takes work. Be mindful you’re not slipping from POV to POV.

As an editor, helping writers sort out their POV is something I’ve had to do a lot of. And since it can require such high-level work (as in all-encompassing and a lot of rewrites) it behoves you to understand it and save yourself the time and cost of having a professional cull it out for you. Having someone like me fix those problems can be expensive. While I absolutely am equipped to do it, and if you want to pay me to fix it I will, it can tack on hundreds of extra dollars to a job in billable time, so learning how POV works can save you a lot of trouble.

Don’t get me wrong–if you’re still struggling to understand it and have questions and want help, let me know. That’s what I’m here for. I want to help you. I’m not going to talk down to you for not understanding it. Not at all. But learning it before you hire someone and fixing it on your own if you can is definitely going to save you money and headaches in the long run!

Also, no judgement if you’re one of my authors who’s wrestled with it. I got’chu, friend. It’s okay. We don’t wake up one day as writing experts, and it’s my job to help you as best I can. Plus, I love doing it. (And I love you. You folks are the best. <3)

In Defense of Video Games

I’ve seen this trend on social media, and in real life, with writers (particularly those who are older than their 30s) denegrating video games as a waste of time. They talk about how they pull people away from books and make it difficult for the writing industry because people just want the shiny beep boop noises.

This is untrue.

While we use different mediums to accomplish it, we have a fair amount in common with all other forms of story-based media. Whether it’s serial-style podcasts (shout-out to my friend JD at Haunted House Flippers, a ridiculous, “spooky” podcast), video games, television shows, movies, novels, short stories, or stage plays, we are all writing stories. Which means we are more or less doing the same thing in a lot of ways, despite the differences in medium.

I have been an avid gamer since I was old enough to type “LOAD” and “RUN” on our Windows 3.1 or DOS machine back in the early 1990s when I was in elementary school. My mother put me in her lap and played Monkey Island and Quest for Glory games with me as a little kid. I have been a gamer all my life, and I show no signs of stopping. I also am an avid reader and spent most of my time not playing video games with my nose buried in a book. I still balance between the two, though these days my reading is more for work than pleasure, so video games have become my downtime.

This notion that video games are somehow lesser is a rather disappointing evolution of snobby writer culture because video games provide some of the best storytelling I’ve had the opportunity to experience.

E. Prybylski

This notion that video games are somehow lesser is a rather disappointing evolution of snobby writer culture because video games provide some of the best storytelling I’ve had the opportunity to experience. This is, of course, referring to the video games that are more story-driven. I’m not going to be calling Mortal Kombat fine storytelling here. However, games like Red Dead Redemption (one and two) and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are really wonderful storytelling that have deep emotional impact and share a narrative with the player. Other games, like Ori and the Blind Forest or Subnautica are more environmental storytelling than you’d find in other games. But they still tell a story.

This isn’t to say that video games can replace books. They can’t. There’s no way they do. However, they do provide valuable, rich, and deep entertainment value on a multitude of levels depending on the kind of game you play.

It won’t surprise you to learn, then, that I tend to prefer RPGs (Role Playing Games). RPGs give you a character whose story and life and experience you delve into. The world tends to be rich, and you have many NPC (non-player characters) to interact with. To some extent, this allows you to build the narrative in your head. Who is your character? What are their motivations? Some games give you all of that information up front, while others let you choose how to play the story which determines a number of various elements of the plot.

In all reality, writers are not in competition with game developers for people’s time. As much as it might feel like it sometimes. Books fill a different role in our lives than video games do, and many of the gamers I know love reading. They read before bed (since video games are too stimulating close to sleep) or during breakfast or during their morning commute (audiobooks, anyone?) So the reality is that it’s not one or the other. They both fulfill needs for narrative and story without clashing.

In all reality, writers are not in competition with game developers for people’s time.

E. Prybylski

Video games are here to stay. They’re not going anywhere, and we may as well embrace them as valid forms of narrative because railing against them makes us luddites. That doesn’t mean you have to personally enjoy them–it’s okay not to be into every art form. Stage plays aren’t really my bag, but I respect the art.

However, with that acceptance that we aren’t going to ditch video games anytime soon, what does that mean for writers? Well, I’ll be honest. Nothing really changes unless you want to start using video games to explore narrative. That is (le gasp) something I talk to my writers about. We do, in fact, talk about the way video games use story and how we can learn from them. They often are prime examples of powerful world-building and also are a good way to learn how much a player/reader needs to know about a thing in order to enjoy it.

Let’s take a look at Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, arguably one of the top-selling and highest-performing games I have ever seen. Even if you have never played it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name. If you haven’t, it is a massive game where you can go anywhere at any time. The setting is high-magic Medieval fantasy with multiple fantasy races (some playable, some not) and an extremely rich and deep history and culture. However, all that richness isn’t something the player interacts with very much, necessarily. You don’t need to be an expert on Elder Scrolls lore to enjoy running around and slaying dragons.

This is a prime example of something many people whose settings aren’t modern Earth struggle with: how much information is enough? How much is too much? We can get into the details of that in another blog, but in the case of Skyrim, the answer is pretty simple: less can be more. The player doesn’t get told much beyond the basics of the story: civil war rages, dragons attack the land. From there, they’re turned out into the world to go deal with the problems. Much of the deeper world building is done through books you can pick up in various places. These books can offer insights into the history of various cultures or important figures. They can be treatises on which side of the civil war is “better” (spoiler alert–they both suck). Or they can be naughty fiction (there’s a whole series of sly, tongue-in-cheek stories in the game).

However, the player doesn’t get all this information dumped on them at once. The only things they’re told outright at the beginning are what they need to know to progress the story. Which is more or less how we should look at novel writing. This is just one of the many lessons we can learn from games. While, of course, writers don’t have the option of sticking books around their book with information the reader might want to know, there are ways of tucking that information into asides, other books, or even atlases as I’ve seen some authors do (though the atlas is typically something that comes out FAR after the series is a huge success).

While novels and video games have different requirements (gameplay is a huge one for video games), the storytelling aspects of them are still typically based on the three-act structure, often even employing the beat sheet! This is also just as true of indie games as it is triple A titles. Then there’s an entire genre of “Visual Novel” games which are essentially choose-your-own-adventure books with comic-like images and music.

Much like books, video games can very wildly between genres and styles, so the assumption that gamers are just in it for the bright, flashing colors is a misnomer. While the flashing lights do give us a nice hit of dopamine, for me it’s always been about the story. Whether I was playing an old Sierra game or now playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, I’m playing for the story. I might load up a Super Mario game for fun once in awhile, but generally speaking I want games that are narrative-heavy.

It may be tempting to call my gaming hobby a waste of time as a writer, but in all fairness, hobbies are meant to be things we do for fun at the outset.

E. Prybylski

It may be tempting to call my gaming hobby a waste of time as a writer, but in all fairness, hobbies are meant to be things we do for fun at the outset. Not everything we do has to be a hustle or has to be specifically geared toward writing, so anyone who shames you like that needs to come down a few pegs. My cross stitch isn’t going to get me a Hugo and Nebula award either, but I’m not giving that up. However, my gaming? I’m steeping myself in storytelling, in pacing, in dialogue that sounds more or less natural. I’m following the beats and considering the story structure. I’m exploring the world building. All of that is valuable.

The problem with gaming only shows up when it takes over and becomes unhealthy. Like any addiction or obsession, if you game too much it’ll cause problems for you, and there’s no getting around that. However, let me be specific about that: if you game too much it’ll cause problems. You’re allowed to have downtime. And whether you’re reading a book, watching a TV show, enjoying a movie, or any other number of pursuits, you’re still exploring narratives. And that exposure to different ideas nd narratives is going to impact your writing.

How To Write Good Antagonists

Piggybacking off of last week’s post, we’re going to start studying antagonists this week. I cannot count the number of times I’ve run into authors struggling with their antagonist, and so often we wind up with two-dimensional bad guys for our main characters to struggle against. The reality is that you should design your antagonists to be exactly as robust as your main characters using the principles we looked at last week: flaws, strengths, and desires. These ideas work a little differently for the antagonists than they do protagonists, however, so let’s dig into that a little and see what the differences are.

The reality is that you should design your antagonists to be exactly as robust as your main characters using the principles we looked at last week: flaws, strengths, and desires.

E. Prybylski

First off, let’s throw out there that not every antagonist needs to be evil. They aren’t all mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes. Certainly some can be, but not everyone who stands against your characters needs to be “evil.” In fact, some stories are better off without Snidely Whiplash. I write this recognizing that some stories have antagonists that aren’t even people—they may be the environment or animals or even the main character themselves. However, for the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on antagonists who possess at least humanoid traits, even if they aren’t human. I can certainly talk another week about the way you might use other forces to work against your characters, but this week I prefer to zero in.

So, if we’re treating these antagonists as full characters in their own right, start by developing them as though they were the protagonist of your book. What I mean is: shift the perspective of your story to be from their point of view. This technique will get you into their head in a new and different way and provide you avenues to both work against the main characters and provide you some insight into places where the story may fall apart.

So, if our antagonists are their own characters—with all the depth and density that implies—how do we use them to our best advantage, and how do they differ from the protagonists?

As far as antagonists go, there are a few different types of antagonist:

  • Villain
  • Hench-people
  • Sympathetic
  • Conflicting Interests
  • Nature or External

I nod to the fact that nature or other forces (a disease, a hurricane, a landslide, etc.) belong in that list, but again, we aren’t covering those today.

The Villain

The villain is a straight-up evil character. This being Emperor Palpatine or Sauron. While they should be treated with the depth of any other character, they often aren’t. Most of the time in media their actual motivations are hidden (and I’m not talking about digging deep into the lore here; I know both characters had motivations revealed in other sources). But readers might never know their motivations—a villain is typically just a person or entity (like an army or faction) who is portrayed as evil for whatever reason, and that’s just it. They usually aren’t sympathetic (more on that later), either.

This kind of antagonist is often used for epics or high fantasy (or sci-fi) settings where the villain and their actions are felt by the main characters, but they rarely come onto the scene directly. These are your evil overlord characters, typically (or the spiders in the shadows influencing leaders). They aren’t on screen often, and typically don’t show up early on in the story. In fact, by the time they step on the scene directly (if they ever do), the main characters are typically a good ways into their quest to stop them. These villains often appear to have absolutely no limits on what they will do to achieve their goals.

Characters who exemplify this are: Sauron (LotR), Palpatine (Star Wars), Firelord Ozai (AtlA), Horde Prime (She-Ra), Grigori Rasputin (Hellboy)

Henchpeople

These characters are working for someone else. They may be of varying strengths and danger, but they aren’t the mastermind of the story. They’re worth mentioning, however, since they’re definitely antagonists who will come into play. These henchpeople may be any of the other types, but their key defining feature is that they are not in charge. They are following someone else’s orders, and the fact that they are not autonomous changes how they’re viewed to some degree, but they’re still antagonists in their own right.

Generally speaking in media, these characters are not viewed as their own faction, though there can be entire books surrounding them. Depending on their role in the story, they may have more or less depth or screen time. And there’s always the chance that you set one one as the main antagonist of a book only to reveal they have a boss in the end to foreshadow further story.

Notable henchpeople include: Saruman (LotR), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Hendricks (Dresden Files), Kroenen (Hellboy), Lock, Stock, and Barrel (Nightmare Before Christmas), Soundwave (Transformers)

Sympathetic

Sympathetic antagonists are enemies like Thanos. Their motivations can be broadly understood, and they may even have a fair amount of time on screen. Think Wilson Fisk from the Netflix Daredevil series. In the first season, he’s set up to be someone who will be ruthless in pursuit of his goals, but you can get in his head. He even falls in love—and it’s real love, not feigned. You kind of want to root for him a little, and when he goes down, it hurts.

That isn’t to say these characters aren’t “bad guys.” But to quote the fantastic movie Wreck-It Ralph, “You are badguy, but does not mean you are bad guy.” These characters are typically still of seriously questionable morals, but they often aren’t the same flavor of evil as the villain character. Heck, a sympathetic antagonist might even join the main characters as a protagonist at some point in the novel. These characters usually have more depth than a “villain” whose real job is to just direct challenges toward the main characters, and they definitely spend more time front and center.

Other characters who exemplify this role are: Zuko (AtLA), Catra (She-Ra), Gentleman John Marcone (Dresden Files), Wilson Fisk (Daredevil), General Hummel (The Rock)

Conflicting Goals

These characters aren’t inherently bad in any way. In fact, they may be great people and even friendly to the protagonist. However, they are definitely getting between the protagonist and their goals. This might be a rival love interest or a character who merely has goals that clash with the main characters’. However, these characters aren’t going to fit the mustache-twirling trope either. In fact, they’re individuals the readers might well root for.

This kind of antagonist may well be someone who gets revealed to be an ally at the end, or maybe they decide to shift lanes and join the main characters’ quest in later iterations.

Examples of this kind of antagonist are: Captain Hector Barbossa (PotC), Jacob (Twilight), Amenidiel (Lucifer), Moash (Way of Kings [recommended by a friend])

Now, all of these various flavors of antagonist can be used in any book, so there’s no divvying them up amongst genres. They’re all useful and all valid. And they can all fit many types of story. And, as I said at the beginning, these characters should be as fleshed as necessary. If you’re using a villain, you may not need to tell the reader all the details, but you as the writer should know.

Another thing that will set your antagonists apart is that they should be willing to go further to succeed at their goals than the protagonists.

E. Prybylski

Another thing that will set your antagonists apart is that they should be willing to go further to succeed at their goals than the protagonists. That isn’t to say your protagonists should be wilting flowers, but to give an example of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have Tony Stark versus Thanos. They both see the end of life as they know it and want to take actions to mitigate the damage. However, Thanos is willing to take the steps beyond what Tony Stark is—which is what makes him the “bad guy.”

This willingness to go further than the protagonist is in order to get what they want (stab someone for a Klondike Bar) is one of the things that defines them. Arguably so, evil is willing to go to further extremes than good in order to ensure their victory. While good may take extraordinary steps, those decisions are often destructive for the characters (think about Aang trying to decide to kill Firelord Ozai, for example).

Even the conflicting goals antagonist should take it a step further. That step too far is the crux of the matter. Barbossa kidnapped Elizabeth Swann where the other main characters aren’t willing to engage in quite such dramatic behavior. With the possible exception of Captain Jack Sparrow, but he’s. . .his own thing entirely. Amenidiel is constantly willing to take steps Lucifer isn’t in order to accomplish his ends. He is a good guy, but he makes some questionable choices in the face of trying to do the right thing—which is what sets him apart from Lucifer in the show.

Ultimately, creating a good antagonist is about making a good character whose goals are conflicting with the main character, whether those goals are evil, good, or otherwise. They need to be complete characters, which means we are able to follow their logic, their intents, and their plans. Even if they’re ultimately overthrown in the end.

How To Write Realistic Characters

I see it all the time on Twitter or in writing groups: people struggling with two-dimensional characters with no idea how to flesh them out. Or, conversely, people try to tell the reader literally everything about the character in an attempt to make them feel three-dimensional. That’s not how you do it. Creating a realistic character doesn’t mean you need to know their blood type, childhood nicknames, and the name of every romantic partner they’ve ever had (unless it’s relevent to the story). Creating a realistic character means they have to act like a human being–which means they’ll have flaws, strengths, and desires.

Creating a realistic character means they have to act like a human being–which means they’ll have flaws, strengths, and desires.

E. Prybylski

Flaws

One thing many authors struggle with is accepting that their main character should be flawed. If the main character is perfect in every way, they will inherently come across as two-dimensional because (and let’s be frank here) everyone’s a bit of a mess. These flaws are what make characters come alive off the page. As a friend of mine commented on Facebook recently, your characters can also make stupid decisions, but they should be stupid choices based on who they are. Their fears, insecurities, things they’re ignorant of. The mistakes shouldn’t just be for plot reasons. Like Sherlock missing an important clue he should’ve seen, and the readers saw clear as day, because the story needed him to miss it with no explanation. If Sherlock missed something because he’d been hitting the opium and was high as a kite, then that makes sense. It builds toward his (very flawed) character, and while the reader might want to shake him for missing it. . .it makes sense for him.

These flaws don’t have to be crippling, but they should be more than things like minor nervous habits. Your characters might have prejudices. Or maybe they’re too proud to acknowledge that they are, in fact, not good at certain things. Or they’re too insecure to step up to certain challenges the right ways or can be goaded. These flaws can be capitalized on by enemies or by the author in order to put pressure on the character in certain ways in order to get them into the plot.

These flaws also provide the character a way to grow and develop over the course of the book and/or series. Let’s use Iron Man from the Avengers MCU movies. He starts his journey as a shallow, selfish, willfully ignorant jerk. And by Endgame, he’s become a very different character. He’s still Tony Stark and has all the panache and some of the same flaws, but he’s developed from a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” into a genius, billionaire, leader, philanthropist. He battles PTSD heavily through the series and develops into someone worthy of Pepper Potts’ affection as he grapples with the realities of war and the burden of heroism. He’s not “perfect” at the end, but you can see the ways his journeys have changed him and how he’s pushed past some of his early flaws (and developed new ones) to become an individual worthy of the title of “hero.”

These flaws also provide the character a way to grow and develop over the course of the book and/or series.

E. Prybylski

Strengths

So, we know what your character isn’t good at and what they’re afraid of. Those character flaws are key to creating someone realistic. But what about their strengths? Well, they can’t be good at everything, so these strengths should be focused around a few things. Going back to the example of Tony Stark, his strengths are largely his determination and his scientific genius. Unlike some of the other characters, he isn’t a particularly warm character, nor is he as calculating as, say, Black Widow. But he can think around corners and use his understanding of science to solve a lot of problems. Or at least try to solve them. This, of course, coupled with his hubris also causes major problems for the Avengers (Age of Ultron, anyone?), which allows those strengths to be used against the character for purposes of growth.

However, before we get into the way strengths can be used against the character, we also need to note that these strengths should be things the character uses to push the story forward and benefit them more than they do harm. If the character’s strengths are useless to the story or are not used in any way except to be punished, it’s going to make readers wonder why you bother having them at all. So you’ll want to make sure you aren’t just using them as foils for more failure.

Your character’s strengths should also make sense. Though be aware that not everything that’s real is believable, and not everything that’s believable is real. If I were writing my character in a novel, I probably wouldn’t make myself a pretty serious martial artist who has a genetic disorder that means I can dislocate a knee making the bed. No joke, it’s all true. There are a lot of folks who would read that sentence and do a double take and think that character’s totally unrealistic, but here we are. I have won awards for my historical European fencing, and taught Japanese sword arts for years. I’ve also been studying empty hand styles of martial arts on and off since I was four.

Be aware that not everything that’s real is believable, and not everything that’s believable is real.

E. Prybylski

And yes, I did dislocate my knee making the bed. I also dislocated my shoulder putting my violin in its stand. It’s a never-ending source of consternation and frustration.

These strengths–assuming they’re for a major character–should be pertinent to the plot. If your character is an expert at folding origami, but that never gets mentioned in the story or used once in any way, what’s the point? If you mention it as characterization to show aspects of the character, but it doesn’t impact the plot, that’s all right. But at least some of your character’s strengths should benefit them through the story somehow, even if it’s not in the ways readers expect.

Also, subverting expectations that the character’s strengths will always benefit them is a good thing, also. Tony Stark’s brilliance and over-reliance on technology created Ultron, and ultimately this same brilliance that allows him to see all the angles cripples him when he is trying to deal with the visions Scarlet Witch gave him because he doesn’t know how to think his way out of the problem.

Character strengths can always be turned on their head and can be used to lead characters down the wrong paths just as easily as they can guide them down the right ones. As people, we tend to rely on our strengths to navigate life, and if we encounter a situation where our strengths aren’t helpful we might well try to use them anyway and bungle it or break down because we have no idea what to do. Character strengths are absolutely not exclusively positive traits.

For example, personally, I tend to be very cerebral. I think my way through things and analyze them to death. This has not served me well during times when I instead should be allowing my feelings to come out and accepting them. I dislike leading with my emotions because they are often very messy and terribly complicated. And I don’t like messy or illogical (and feelings and logic are often on very different wavelengths). So I can identify with Tony trying to think his way out of all his problems and being led astray by over-reliance on his intelligence to solve everything when, in fact, if he led with his heart a little more he might find solutions.

It also left him quite lonely since his tendency to not think about the emotional end of things makes him quite a prickly and unlikable person. I’m lucky enough that I’m not cerebral to his extreme by any sense (nor am I some kind of super genius), but it just goes to show the downside of strengths can absolutely be something used to fuel your story.

Desires

As the brilliant Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” They might want multiple things, or maybe the thing they want is fleeting and temporary (like the glass of water). But your character should have a goal and a need. This goes for side-characters, too, and anyone on the proverbial screen long enough to get mentioned directly. These wants tie into developing a realistic character. Having desires (and those desires being logical and realistic) means the character will likely act in service to those wants.

“Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”

Kurt Vonnegut

You should also keep in your mind what your characters want at all times. This understanding of what they want and what they’re willing to do to accomplish that will provide you a great deal of fodder for understanding their mindset. If your character would stab someone for a Klondike Bar, well then you know what they’re willing to do in order to accomplish their ends. This will give you insight into not only your main character but into your antagonists, who should also be fully-fleshed characters. Even if the reader never learns about them.

A large portion of the MCU focuses around the fact that Tony Start wants to protect humanity. Desperately. Fiercely. He goes to some terrible ends to accomplish it, causing the crash and burn of the Avengers (in Civil War and Age of Ultron), but his desire, his want, is to protect people. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but what he’s willing to do to accomplish that end provides a great deal of plot fodder.

Conversely, Thanos wants to protect all life in the universe as well. While his understanding, views, and means are twisted, his ultimate want is to protect the future of life by preserving resources. And he’s willing to go further than Tony is to accomplish that. Tony and Thanos are, in a way, reflections of each other, which is one of the reasons the story is so compelling and why the two make such good foils for one another on screen.

In the end, developing a realistic character is all about understanding human nature. There are, of course, nuances to various cultures, races, times, and so on, but humans gonna human, more or less. We all have the three components of strength, weakness, and desire, and those are the quick and dirty keys to making a realistic character.

In the end, developing a realistic character is all about understanding human nature.

E. Prybylski

Does it help to have as much data about the character as possible? Yes and no. If you’re drowning in superfluous nonsense, you’re not going to be able to pull out the important parts, and all the data points in the world won’t help you if you don’t know what the character wants or is afraid of in that moment. Knowing the basis of why your character has these traits is valuable (for example, I tend to be kind of flighty and unfocused due to ADHD), but it won’t make or break a character to not have every single aspect of their life outside the story mapped out.

BY THE WAY!

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As a disabled person, myself, I believe strongly that accessibility should not cost extra, so if you would find that audio helpful to you, please contact me, and we will make arrangements.

How To Structure A Series, Part 2

In last week’s blog, we talked about how to structure a series using the Beat Sheet by using the example of the first season of Avatar: the Last Airbender (AtLA). I laid the whole season out using the Beat Sheet to demonstrate how the season followed the structure beat for beat and going through where the various episodes fit into the larger structure.

Honestly, this is one of the reasons why the series stands as one of the great examples of storytelling. Their creation of an extremely strong structure is one of the ways AtLA set itself apart from its peers and is so iconic. Yes, of course there are other ways and reasons this show is so powerful and valuable–that goes without saying–but the rock-solid structure is a cornerstone (pun intended) to that.

As I mentioned last week, looking at AtLA, each episode follows the Beat Sheet perfectly. As does each season. So there are two layers of the three-act structure already. Now, we pull back and look at the entire show as a whole. As with last week, this is going to be quite a long blog. And if you know nothing about AtLA, I suggest watching it. It’s available on Netflix right now, and you can tell yourself you’re researching writing. Or, if you don’t feel like watching three seasons of a television show, you can check out Wikipedia for a general jist. You may find some of these beats are actually the same as the Beat Sheet focused on just the first season because (surprise surprise) they can overlap like that!

I will not be laying out every detail of the plot here, so if you don’t know the show, you’ll likely struggle to have any idea what I’m talking about. I apologize for that, but you really should watch the show. It’s one of the best works of fiction I have seen/read/consumed in many years.

Opening Image: Katara and Sokka are introduced as Water Tribe (after the opening intro that gives us a status of the world and an introduction to Fire Nation aggression). [Seas 1, Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceberg]

Set Up: Katara and Sokka find Aang frozen in an iceberg and wake him up, discovering that he is the long-lost Avatar. They wrestle with this and bring him back to their village where Katara and Aang adventure onto a Fire Nation ship, alerting the Fire Nation to someone being active there and drawing the attention of Zuko, who is introduced as the villain. [Seas 1, Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceburg]

After alerting the Fire Nation to Aang’s presence, Zuko and the Fire Nation attack, causing Aang to be kicked out of the Southern Water Tribe village. Katara and Sokka join him, refusing to let him go alone. They then start the journey to the Northern Water Tribe to learn Waterbending. [Seas 1, Ep 2: The Avatar Returns] The theme of this season is more or less Aang learning about the changes in the world since he was trapped in the ice a hundred years ago. It also introduces the theme of the entire series which is Aang’s avoidance of his destiny as the Avatar and desire to just be the twelve-year-old kid he is.

Aang, on the way to the Northern Water Tribe decides to detour to visit his home in the Southern Air temple. Though he discovers it has been ravaged by war, and that his mentor, Monk Gyatso, was slain by Fire Nation forces. [Seas 1, Ep 3: The Southern Air Temple]

Theme Stated: Through a number of episodes in season one, we start to see the themes of the show unfold. First, we see the fact that Fire Nation aggression has resulted in the deaths of many people and beyond that the war has affected the whole of the world. As has the Avatar’s supposed death. Most of the first season is devoted to setting this tone and putting these themes out on the stage. It also introduces Zuko and his conflict a little bit, using Uncle Iroh as a foil to keep him at least somewhat sympathetic even as he chases the Avatar all over the world.

Catalyst: The Midpoint of season one is actually the Catalyst for the series as a whole. [Seas 1, Ep 7 & 8], with Avatar Roku revealing the existence of Sozin’s Comet giving a ticking clock (the comet, which remains in play until the end of the series) and pushing Aang to embrace his role as the Avatar and take responsibility for what has been happening in the world in his absence. Aang struggles with this, but it sits in his mind through the next beat.

Debate: Over the next few episodes, Aang wrestles with this timeline. He struggles with this all the way to the end of the first season, despite his willingness to go forward and both try and protect the Northern Water Tribe from the Fire Nation and become a master of waterbending.

Break Into Two: The break happens at the end of season one (Seas 1, Ep 19 & 20) and at the beginning of season two (Seas 2, Ep 1: The Avatar State). Aang at this point has chosen to act on what he learned from Avatar Roku about the comet and deciding the Fire Nation has to be stopped–particularly after seeing the devastation they wreak on the Northern Water tribe at the end of season one.

B Story: Guess who falls in love? We have the start of the “B Story” emerging as Aang and Katara start exploring their feelings for each other just a little (Seas 2, Ep 2: The Cave of Two Lovers). Right on cue, they blush and giggle and provide a little relief from the stressful nature of the meta plot.

Promise of the Premise: Also known as “Fun and Games,” this part of the show focuses around Aang learning more about bending, it’s where they meet Aang’s earthbending master (Toph) and get a little break from a lot of the more serious things happening. This bounces back and forth between some very serious and difficult episodes to some lighter ones, but season two, episodes three through twelve are more or less this segment of the structure.

Yes, losing Appa in “The Library” is an extremely painful moment, so not everything is happy and fun, but it’s a part of the show where the characters grow, develop, and work without being borne down upon by their enemies, and they have the freedom to grow and learn important data for future beats more or less unencumbered by their enemies. They discover the eclipse as a possible date to strike at the Fire Nation, also.

Midpoint: The midpoint of the show, where everything is both great and terrible, occurs while the main characters are in the city of Ba Sing Se. It begins with the drill arriving at the city [Seas 2, Ep 13: The Drill) and continues through the whole end of the second season. As I told you early on, the second act encompasses more than just season two (reflecting that the second act is typically about 50% of the story).

At this point in the story, everything is both great and horrible. For Zuko and Iroh, things are fantastic. Zuko and Iroh are bonding, and Zuko seems to be giving up on the chase for the Avatar and deciding he wants to be his own man. For the other protagonists, everything is awful: the Earth King doesn’t believe in the danger, and he’s being heavily manipulated by forces who are decidedly not working in his favor. And Appa is missing, which leaves a huge gap in not only the group’s tactics but their heart.

However, at the very end of season two, a pivotal moment happens where Zuko turns on Iroh and stands with Azula, and Azula strikes down Aang, leaving the world to believe the Avatar has fallen. Also, this is a cliffhanger in the show because while we know Aang is alive, he’s in a very bad way, and this moment shows the distinct end of pretty much everything the group was hoping for and working toward for a large portion of the story thus far.

Bad Guys Close In: The beginning of season three has the bad guys closing their jaws around “Team Avatar.” While they’ve collected their little group of allies, the world thinks the Avatar is dead, and Aang is trying to wrap his head around the fact that the Fire Nation is, at least right now, winning. Ba Sing Se, the last great bastion in the Earth Kingdom, has fallen. While there are some episodes and moments of breathing room through here, you can feel the jaws closing around Team Avatar as they work to prepare for the invasion plan they’re launching during the eclipse learned about at the library.

All Is Lost: This distinctly occurs in season three, episodes ten and eleven, The Day of Black Sun. They’ve prepared as best as they can through a large portion of the show starting back in episode ten of Season Two (The Library). However, the invasion doesn’t go as planned whatsoever and turns into a catastrophic failure with the Avatar losing a number of his allies all at once when he comes to realize that the Fire Nation knew about the plan all along and had lured them into a trap.

Cabbage Merchant - MY cabbages

Darkest Point: In terms of the series, this doesn’t last very long–it’s only one episode [Seas 3, Ep 12: The Western Air Temple]–but the team is defeated, Aang is back to avoiding everything and kind of trying to shirk his responsibility a little, and Zuko at that point has lost everything and everyone and coming crawling to Team Avatar to try and make up for what he’s done. This is, thus far, the most hopeless the group has ever been.

Break Into Three: This moment happens when Zuko finally joins the group, and he and Aang rekindle their hope and their firebending (which is a metaphor for a lot of things in the show and moment)[Seas 3, Ep 13, The Firebending Masters]. I could nerd out about this for a long time, but let’s just sum it up to say that Aang’s ability to study firebending and utilize it as well as Zuko’s new understanding of the source of his fire, his passion, all sort of comes together in a really beautiful way in this episode. And it launches the show squarely into act three.

In addition, there are several episodes that show various characters coming to terms with things they’ve experienced and entering into a new understanding of themselves and a new relationship with Zuko, symbolizing the beginning of the divide healing. This occurs as Sokka and Katara face their hatred for the Fire Nation manifest in Zuko through these adventures.

It’s worth mentioning that through this you also see Azula, Zuko’s sister, unraveling under the weight of being her. She thinks she has everything she’s ever worked for, but none of it brings her peace, and her mental health (and Firelord Ozai’s) deteriorates rapidly through this portion of the show as counterpoint to Zuko’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes he had collapsed into at the end of season two.

Finale: This should come as no surprise, but the finale is a four-part episode at the end of Season Three, titled Sozin’s Comet. Through these episodes, Azula and Ozai finally lose the last gasp of their sanity, the Order of the White Lotus (which has been mentioned through the show) finally shows up and reveals themselves to be allies the group had all along, Zuko is reunited with Iroh in a scene that never, ever fails to make me cry, and Aang learns what his position truly means and rectifies his pacifist nature with the fact that one way or another he must face Firelord Ozai in battle.

The penultimate showdown happens, and Aang defeats Firelord Ozai along with various other friends and allies showing up to face down the Fire Nation armies.

Final Image: Here, in contrast to the beginning where we have Aang as a child who wants nothing to do with his role, we have a fully realized Avatar. Zuko takes over the Fire Nation and ends the war, having come to understand the gravity of what his country had done wrong, and he begins to try and make amends with the rest of the world. And in stark contrast to the outset, he and Aang greet each other as dear friends, not only healing the rift between them but healing a multi-generational gap that began with Zuko’s grandfathers and their war between them.

There’s a lot of hefty symbolism here I won’t sling at you if you haven’t seen the series, but suffice to say: it’s a complete and obvious change from where the world and characters started, showing the completion of their journey.

OKAY. Time for some tea.

"Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights."
Hoo. That was a doozy.

So, as you can see through the series, the Beat Sheet (and three act structure) has three distinct layers. You have each episode, which uses the three-act structure from start to finish. Then you have each season’s metaplot, and finally you have the entire series metaplot.

Okay, so how does this relate to writing a novel? I’m not making a freaking TV show!

I’m glad you asked. In the terms of novel writing, I’d view each season as a novel, more or less, with the episodes as chapters. While your chapters do not, cannot, and should not all follow the three act structure like an a television series should (don’t try it; you’ll feel like you drank the cactus juice), if you are looking to write an entire series, you should start your series with an understanding of the metaplot superstructure.

There are times when we don’t always know if we’re writing a series (Storm Front by Jim Butcher was intended to be a stand-alone) and may not have much of a meta right at the outset, and that’s okay. But once you realize you’re working on one, you should consider how many books you want to write (roughly) and what the meta plot is going to be.

I advise using the Beat Sheet to plan it all out, myself, but I advise the Beat Sheet for everything. But you can use whatever structural methodology you ascribe to. Once you’ve got that done, you should have a rough idea of where each book falls in the metaplot and what parts of the meta should be happening in the background while the characters deal with the plot of the book.

Going back to AtLA, in season one, the primary plot of the “book” is: get to the north pole to learn waterbending! However, it also serves as the first act of the meta plot. It gets a little more complicated in Season Two because the second act of the metaplot is all of season two and a large chunk of season three!

The Perplexingly Popular Conspiracy Theory That 'Salvator Mundi' Is  Connected to #Russiagate, Explained | artnet News
Are you still with me? Because this is how I feel right now.

The primary plot of season two of AtLA is Aang trying to both learn Earthbending and figure out how to defeat the Fire Nation before the arrival of Sozin’s Comet. Secondarily, this season is also where Zuko starts to develop reservations about what he’s doing and really struggle with what his role in all of this should be. The war in him between what his uncle says and his father’s intentions for him plays out large through this part of the story, so honestly I’d almost argue that Season Two of AtLA is almost more about Zuko than everyone else. But that’s just my opinion.

On the meta, this whole seasons is only the first half of act two of the meta plot, so at the end of the season, we are at the point in the whole story of peak tension. Hence the season ending more or less on a cliffhanger. Which is about the only acceptable use of one, by the way. You should know by now how I feel about them, and if you’re new to this. . .let me sum it up:

DO NOT.

So, that said, you can see where everything falls in the course of the metaplot. If you read last week’s blog, you can also follow along and see where the first season plugs into the first act, following both its own structure and fitting into the superstructure of the meta.

I think that’s about the best explanation I can give with the best example I could come up with. I could have used Star Wars again, but this felt like it suited the question better than Star Wars. And I always do Star Wars, so this time it was on to a different world of nerdom entirely. You’re welcome.

If this doesn’t make sense to you (outside of you not having seen AtLA), PLEASE leave me comments. I want to make this as clear as possible, and with how complex the topic is, I want to ensure it’s as straightforward as I can make it.

Structure of a Series, Part 1

Since we’ve been talking about the structure of individual novels this month, and I mentioned the way act three of a book can tie into writing a series, it’s time I look at what it means to write a series and how we can use the three act structure and the Beat Sheet. In order to do this, I’m going to be drawing examples from Avatar: the Last Airbender (AtLA) because, frankly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. If you haven’t seen the series, you may still be able to follow my analysis and can use the Wikipedia summary of the events of the episodes to help you follow it.

Now, when you are writing a series, you’ll have each book’s plot and then you’ll have the overarcing plot, also called the “metaplot” as previously referenced. In series like Nancy Drew and Murder She Wrote, there isn’t a metaplot, and each book is a stand-alone tied to the others only by the occasional reference and the same main characters. I’m not writing this for that kind of book series, so if you’re not using a metaplot (and you aren’t required to), this blog isn’t for you.

Now, when you are writing a series, you’ll have each book’s plot and then you’ll have the overarcing plot, also called the “metaplot” as previously referenced.

E. Prybylski

As I said two weeks ago in my second act blog, the second act is typically half the story, which means that the third season of Avatar: the Last isn’t actually the third act of the story. In fact, act two continues well into the third season of the show, as we’ll discuss in the next segment.

Much the same as each book, you’ll have the three act structure and, personally, I use the Beat Sheet for planning out my meta plot as well because the beats work in roughly the same way, though you may have multiple books in a single beat of the story (just as you may have multiple episodes of a television show in a single beat of the metaplot). However, this is one of the reasons the trilogy format is so effective. Three acts, three books/movies/video games etc. It makes the whole thing somewhat easier in terms of structuring the meta (even if this is done unintentionally by the author) and tends to make sense to the reader.

While I acknowledge the existence of the five act structure and other act structures, I tend to default to the three act model because it’s what I know best and what I use personally. However, none of these models are “wrong” exactly. They just break down the story in different ways even if they are more or less all saying the same things.

So, on to Avatar the Last Airbender! Let’s do a “quick” zoom through the episodes that fit the beats in the story and where they are. There are twenty episodes in the first season of AtLA with some episodes covering multiple beats in the meta plot, and each episode itself more or less following the Beat Sheet. If you haven’t seen AtLA, I apologize that this may be a poor analogy for you, but it’s a series I know very well and is extremely popular. Besides, I’ve been using nothing but Star Wars and Dresden Files examples for awhile now, so it’s time to shake it up. Also, spoilers, I guess? Though the show’s been out long enough that “spoiling” it is unlikely.

Right now, I’m focusing only on the way the Beat Sheet covers all of season one. The next blog will cover how all three seasons fit into the Beat Sheet since each season has its own metaplot that ties into the overall story of Aang defeating Fire Lord Ozai. That’s right, this series has meta nested within meta, and we’re going there. It’s okay–it’s not as scary as it sounds, I promise.

Opening Image: Katara and Sokka are introduced as Water Tribe (after the opening intro that gives us a status of the world and an introduction to Fire Nation aggression). [Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceburg]

Set Up: Katara and Sokka find Aang frozen in an iceburg and wake him up, discovering that he is the long-lost Avatar. They wrestle with this and bring him back to their village where Katara and Aang adventure onto a Fire Nation ship, alerting the Fire Nation to someone being active there and drawing the attention of Zuko, who is introduced as the villain. [Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceburg]

Theme Stated: After alerting the Fire Nation to Aang’s presence, Zuko and the Fire Nation attack, causing Aang to be kicked out of the Southern Water Tribe village. Katara and Sokka join him, refusing to let him go alone. They then start the journey to the Northern Water Tribe to learn Waterbending. [Ep 2: The Avatar Returns] The theme of this season is more or less Aang learning about the changes in the world since he was trapped in the ice a hundred years ago. It also introduces the theme of the entire series which is Aang’s avoidance of his destiny as the Avatar and desire to just be the twelve-year-old kid he is.

Catalyst: Aang, on the way to the Northern Water Tribe decides to detour to visit his home in the Southern Air temple. Though he discovers it has been ravaged by war, and that his mentor, Monk Gyatso, was slain by Fire Nation forces. [Ep 3: The Southern Air Temple]

Debate: This realization causes him to start taking his role as Avatar seriously as he realizes that running from his responsibility the way he has caused a huge amount of strife in the world and, personally, for him. In this episode, we also see the introduction of Zuko’s story and what his motivations are. [Ep 3: The Southern Air Temple]

Break Into Two: Now we hit the main meat of the story as we start with the main characters spending their time on their journey learning from other people. Aang has decided he is going to be the Avatar and will not stand for further Fire Nation attacks, so begins to treat this with more seriousness. Sort of. He still acts like a child, but that’s because he is one. Aang meets the Kyoshi Warriors and basks a little in the hero’s reception he receives on Kyoshi Island. Sokka and Katara get some development through here, too. Namely Sokka discovering that “fighting like a girl” is far more badass than he’d given it credit for. [Ep 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi]

B Story: In addition, this is where we start to see Aang trying very, very hard to impress Katara. His interest in her and their relationship developing becomes a strong theme of the story, so we have the first blossoms of romantic interest appearing on screen here. [Ep 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi]

Unagi | Avatar Wiki | Fandom
Also, don’t ride the unagi. Not fun.

The Promise of the Premise: The next two episodes fall into this space. (See? More than one in a beat!) We have episode five, The King of Omashu where the team meets with Aang’s highly eccentric friend, King Bumi, who he asks to teach him Earthbending. Bumi refuses, but not before a bunch of hijinks designed to make Aang rethink what he believes and knows about the world and himself.

Then episode six, Imprisoned drives more toward the development of the kids as revolutionaries as the kids break an entire town’s worth of earthbenders out of a jail by inspiring hope in them. Interestingly, Aang only plays a secondary role in this episode, and Katara takes center stage as the inspirational character. She more or less takes this role through the series as the steady, certain leader of the group even though she isn’t the “main character” of the series. However, this strongly establishes her role in the story and in the main character pool.

Midpoint: Now, remember when I said in my blog about the second act that the midpoint is the height of tension? Here we are at it. The midpoint of this season hits with a two-part episode (which is one of the ways you can tell it’s the midpoint). During this two-parter [Ep 7, The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1) and Ep 8, Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Pt 2)] we learn more about the Avatar’s ability to commune with spirits and see him interact with the spirit of Avatar Roku who reveals to Aang that they need to go to a specific location at a specific time to get information about the overall story. In the second part of Winter Solstice, they arrive at their destination and gain the information they need, learning that the Fire Nation plans to use the power of a comet’s coming to fuel their final assault in the war they’ve been waging against the entirety of the world. This now puts the characters on a timeline they weren’t on before, and they start to feel the pressure, realizing they need Aang to master three styles of bending (which typically takes years of training) and stop the Fire Nation’s plans in a matter of a few short months. This is the peak of tension for the characters when they realize what’s at stake and how little time they have to pull off the impossible.

You also may notice that out of twenty episodes, the midpoint isn’t exactly in the middle of the story, but it’s pretty close (two episodes away). As from our talk about the second act, this is common. It doesn’t need to be bang on the center of the word count (or episode count) in this case, but it does need to be in the center of the tension.

Bad Guys Close In: Over the course of the next several episodes, the main characters start to feel the squeeze, and it takes a toll on their friendship. Infighting becomes more common until it reaches a peak in episode 11, The Great Divide. Through this, Zuko gets closer and closer, and they can feel his breath down their necks as they try to navigate their own responses to this tension with Katara stealing a waterbending scroll [Ep 9, The Water Bending Scroll], which ignites jealousy in her over Aang’s ability to learn bending at an unheard of rate (hanks to him being the Avatar, of course). Then she and Aang get taken in by a group of rebels of questionable morality which pits she and Aang against Sokka who doesn’t trust them for a minute [Ep 10, Jet].

This leaves Aang sort of in the middle without anyone, which is displayed with clarity through his experience trying to guide two warring tribes of Earth Kingdom people through a canyon where their fighting causes major problems. Aang, at this point, feels extremely alone, and this is displayed by his being separated from both groups through the whole experience and trying to manage both by being rejected by everyone. It is a reflection of his role as the Avatar and his desire for peace between Sokka and Katara who, after the events of Jet, are busy fighting each other and not the actual enemy. [Ep 11, The Great Divide]

All Is Lost: While there is a break in episode 14, the tension continues to mount through this segment of episodes. Through this part of the show, Aang wrestles with the enormity of what he has to do and is somewhat crushed by it. This kind of reaches a peak when a literal and metaphorical storm cause Aang to relive the moment when he chose to abandon being the Avatar [Ep 12, The Storm], and he has to confront the fact that his choices and abdication of responsibility contributed to everything that has happened in the world. Also, his continued conflict and desire to bridge the gap and find some way to heal the situation before taking the step of direct and open conflict is violently rebuffed despite hints of the possiblity of peace. [Ep 13: The Blue Spirit]

There’s a break in this bleak sort of outlook for an episode where Aang and the others save a village from destruction by a volcano (caused by their own unwillingness to see the signs and reliance on fortune telling), but it comes to a head shortly thereafter. [Ep 14: The Fortuneteller]

Dark Night of the Soul: There is a telling moment when the main group splits up for an episode due to Aang’s fears of abandonment overcoming good judgement, and he chooses to hide a message from Katara and Sokka’s father that he is both alive and misses them. [Ep 14: Bato of the Water Tribe]. While they don’t stay apart for more than half an episode here, this moment is very telling and is probably the bleakest point in the first season. The sense of loss is potent, and Aang struggles to face the repercussions of his actions even as they close in on the end of the time period alotted before the arrival of the comet. Also, at this point, Aang has still mastered none of the three other forms of bending he fears he will need before the comet’s arrival.

This is given a little bit of a breather when Aang begins training under a firebending master who starts him down the path, but Aang’s own impatience and fear drives him to try too much, too quickly, and he seriously injures Katara. While Katara discovers the ability to heal herself very shortly thereafter, this realization of this own distructive capacity hurts Aang to the core of his peaceful, airbender soul, and he eschews ever working with fire again. [Ep 16, The Deserter]

Aang’s negative, selfish, and angry attitude continues into the next episode where he is confronted by a group of refugees living in one of the Air Nomad temples. They have transformed it and the man in charge of this group is (even unwillingly) designing weaponry for the Fire Nation to wage war. Sokka’s ability with both tactics and inventing is unveiled here as he comes into his own in this episode and helps the leader of the group drive off the Fire Nation soldiers who have been threatening him. However, this does give them a brief taste of the way the mechanist’s inventions are being used in the form of steampunk-style air balloons that can drop payloads on targets. [Ep 17: The Northern Air Temple]

Break Into Three: The arrival of the kids at the Northern Water Tribe’s fortress heralds the closing of this season (since it completes the journey begun in episode two). Aang finally starts full instruction of waterbending under a master and fights to have Katara allowed to study as well, since the Northern Water Tribe is a distinctly patriarchal society. Something Katara chafes at since she comes from a very different background and resents not being allowed to use her waterbending for anything but support.

While this training is underway, Sokka meets Princess Yue, the ruler’s daughter, and falls hard for her though soon learns she is engaged (against her wishes) and is left with those feelings as the comet’s due date closes in.

Finale: Again indicated by a two-part episode, the finale of the season comes when the Fire Nation launches its attack on the Northern Water Tribe using the power of Sozin’s Comet. Aang and his compatriots fight back against this menace. During this conflict, it’s revealed the Uncle Iroh (admittedly my favorite character of the series), Zuko’s mentor and travel companion, is not as loyal to the Fire Nation as might be imagined by others. He, in fact, is willing to stand up against them in order to try and protect the balance of the world since unlike many of the others in the Fire Nation, he has a deep understanding of spiritual affairs and knows that the balance being destroyed by this conflict is something that cannot be restored.

Zuko fails to fight and win against Aang, despite his best efforts, and he flees in disgrace, and the Fire Nation assault on the Northern Water Tribe fails despite heavy losses on both sides.

Final Image: In contrast to the opening of Katara and Sokka being nothing more than average kids surviving in their world and Aang avoiding his responsibilities, we see Aang having faced the Fire Nation with a great deal of power and focus. He’s successfully defended an entire city and thwarted the attempt, giving hints of what kind of feats he will be capable of as a fully realized Avatar. Which is what he becomes at the end of the series. So in terms of the meta structure of the whole series, this is the end of Act One with Aang having faced the question of whether or not he’s really going to do this, and dealt with his world having been rocked to its core.

Let’s pause and chew on that for a second.

Uncle Iroh at his best.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I applaud you. This has been a haul. But this is a breakdown of a whole season and the meta of the season. Each individual episode also follows the Beat Sheet separately, and I could do this kind of analysis on every single episode of the show. The reason I did it is because this shows how each episode fits into the Beat Sheet individually. If you consider each episode to be a single book in your series, it demonstrates how you can use each story to fit into the broader structure of your metaplot while still having each book (episode) use the three act structure independently. Every episode of the show has a problem that has to be solved and deals with patterns of rising and falling action, and at the end of the episode, the world is a little different, and the characters have learned something new or grown somehow. Then each of those episodes fits into the broader scheme of the story in the manner I demonstrated above.

It also demonstrates how much of an Avatar: the Last Airbender nerd I am. So now you know that about me.

Next week we’re going to take this even further and evaluate how each season (I’m not doing this level of breakdown on the other two seasons, don’t worry) fits into the story of the entire show. Meta on meta. Plus more Avatar goodness.