For Readers & Writers
from Susan Dennard
M&D Issue #144

October 4, 2019

What's in this heart-to-heart?

Recent Goings On:

I've got a ton happening this month and next. Lots of travel for events, doctors visits for IVF, my brother is getting married, and OH YEAH. I’m drafting book 4 in the Witchlands because I really need to get that finished.

(I'm not stressed about that book, hehehehe, no, hehehehe, of course not. 😓)

I've been a lot quieter online lately already, and the trend will likely continue as I immerse myself deeper and deeper into Deadline Mode. Thanks for understanding!

What I'm Playing:

What I'm Reading:

For the DenNerds:


The Luminaries hits Month 4 + Box Set Release!


The box set hits stores on Tuesday! I got my first copies last week, and honestly: it's so beautiful. Even more beautiful than I'd expected. 😭

The new covers are STUNNING up close, and the quality of the box itself is fantastic. Thank you so much for making this, Tor Teen!! I am so grateful.

And of course, we can't forget the amazing map inside!! Jessica Khoury's illustrations are truly incredible, and the flip side of the poster is....Well, you'll have to see!

Also, I'll be doing events all month to promote the release, so check below if you want to meet me!

And don't forget you can always order SIGNED COPIES of any of my books (including the box set) from Schuler Books. Just specify at checkout that you want the books personalized and to whom.
Moving on to The Luminaries! We hit month 4 yesterday (gasp!) in this Sooz Your Own Twitter-venture.

I truly cannot believe the LumiNerds are still going strong and that Winnie is still alive. (Okay, okay, I have been giving optional hints lately to help save the Hive Mind from death.) But I'm glad we're all still having so much fun.

Since so many people have asked about when the Real Book will be published (because The Luminaries is based on a world and story I tried to sell in 2013), I've built a form to gather email addresses.

I will ONLY email you when I have an announcement about The Luminaries publication -- such as when it's being published, by whom, where to preorder, etc. I will not use your email for anything else!

So, if you'd like to sign up to get Luminaries updates, then head here!

For the Daydreamers:

Inevitability, or Finding the Right Story

I did a Twitch stream a few weeks ago in which I discussed this very topic. So if you'd prefer to listen to me chat about it while playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, then head here.

But if you're like me and a visual/tactile learner, read on!

If you've followed me for a while (this newsletter has been going for 5.5 years and my blog for 10!), then you've heard me refer to the Right Story often.

I will throw out scene after scene in pursuit of that Right Story. I will spend weeks brainstorming in search of it. I'll stop all drafting if I feel even the slightest sense that I'm abandoning it.

In the past, I've always talked about it in vague terms. “I can just feel it’s not right.” The reason for my lack of specificity is, quite honestly, because it's hard concept to actually define. I am a writer who relies heavily on her instincts. I really CAN just feel when the story isn't working as well as it could be.

But instincts come from somewhere. We don't leave the womb knowing how to cross a street without getting hit by a car, and we don't leave the womb knowing how to assemble a story. My instincts came from somewhere, and so -- in the spirit of finally teaching YOU all those same instincts -- I've figured out the core components that define the Right Story.

Now, note: this is what I personally define as the Right Story. It's what my instincts say work. Your Right Story might look totally different.

But hopefully, these 5 components will give you a good jumping off point to start honing your own instincts and discovering your own Right Story.

And it all begins with a single word: Inevitability.

One of the most important components in game design is making sure w player knows what they need to do next. Thiw doesn't mean they know how to do it (like, if it's a puzzle that needs solving), but they do know that they have to solve the puzzle. Or they know they have get to place X on the map or arrange those falling shapes into rows or shoot as many zombies before the time runs out.

Designers have all sorts of cool tools to make sure players know where to go and what to do -- brighter lighting on a door, directions from NPCs, a blinking cursor on a map.

When a game LACKS clear direction is when it falls apart. A perfect example? Dragon Age: Inquisition's Hinterlands. I -- like so many players -- assumed I had to clear the Hinterlands before I could progress to the next area. It's a MASSIVE map, so I -- like so many players -- spent hours upon hours trying to cover every inch...and then running into stuff that I definitely could not fight yet.

Which is why I -- like SO many players -- got burned out and  DNFed the game. (I know! I who loves that game so much actually DNFed it the first time I played! And I didn't pick it up again until a whole year later!)

What was lacking the Hinterlands and in the game overall was a clear path forward. Where was I supposed to go next? Which quests were the most important? What is the inevitable next step?

The same applies to stories. There should be a sense of inevitability when reading (and when drafting). We should feel that this was where we were headed all along -- that this was the only way the story could go.

This does not mean the story is predictable! I repeat: this doesn't mean the story is predictable.

Was the twist in the Sixth Sense predictable? Not for 99% of viewers, but once you reached the end and saw it...whoa. It was inevitable. The clues were there, and that was the only way the story could have unfolded.

Inevitability is satisfying. We love it as gamers, we love it as readers. And for me, the Right Story leads to inevitability. All the pieces are where they should be, and the story shoots forth in the only way it possibly can.
The 5 Components of the Right Story

1. Everything makes sense.

Yes, I know that must be extremely obvious, but as all you writers out there know, writing a stories is hard. Keeping track of all those moving parts is HARD. And the more complicated the story? The more characters and threads and arcs? Well, the harder and harder it gets to keep track of everything and maintain story logic.

So yeah, the Right Story must meet this seemingly basic (yet extremely difficult) requirement: it all makes sense and nothing is forgotten.

This is also means that all the pieces of the story are given equal weight too. No, I don’t mean that all pieces are given equal story time or focus. What I mean by "weight" is that I never cheat on world or plot or character just to serve the other.

For example: forcing a character to make a decision that's totally out of character just so they can jump off that cliff into a helicopter...No. I won't do that, no matter how much I want the helicopter.

Now, again, this might sound extremely obvious, but how many times have we seen a TV show conveniently "forget" some worldbuilding rule the plot can move forward? (I'm looking at you The Walking Dead.)

Or how often do characters behave out of character for the sake of the plot? (Again, looking at you The Walking Dead.)

While some people will put up with this a few times, we all have a limit at which it gets annoying. I bailed on TWD after season 4. I was able to look past all the holes for a while...until I just couldn't anymore.

With books, because we consume them at a slower, more thoughtful pace, I'd argue that average tolerance is even lower. So make sure you're being true to what you promised the reader, and make sure all the puzzle pieces you've introduced are being used and properly weighted.

2. The main character has a clear Desperate Desire.

This might be the most important part (aside from the logic of #1). It is definitely the most important part for ME when it comes to drafting -- and 9 times out of 10, when I'm stuck at the very beginning of a first draft, it's because my Desperate Desire isn't desperate enough.

I've discussed this concept before, but the basic idea is that your character has to want something SO BADLY that they will do anything to get it -- including commit immoral or extremely reckless actions.

Look at Luke in the Empire Strikes Back. His desperate desire is to get revenge against and stop Darth Vader, so even though he should stay with Yoda and keep training...As soon as he has the chance to face Darth, he bails on his Jedi training to do so.

His clarity of focus drives the story forward. It also feels inevitable because we know how badly Luke wants this, so when his choice connects to that desire, we believe it and even expect it.

3. The Emotional Dominoes are clear.

This is another concept I've discussed at length before, and it focuses on the emotional beats of each scene (read more about beats here).

If you imagine the emotions of a scene as dominoes, then each scene must logically connect to what came before and what comes next.

Example: I was recently rewatching the Battlestar Galactica reboot (so. good.) and in one of the episodes, Lee Adama is sent on a high stakes mission with some Viper pilots. He manages to save the day, but a few of the pilots die. When he returns to Galactica, though, there's a HUGE CELEBRATION going on! And he immediately joins in, laughing and drinking champagne.

This felt totally off to me. Your pilots just died, dude! Sure, their deaths saved a lot of lives, but shouldn't there be some mourning? Some sobriety and reflection, especially from Lee?

The emotional dominoes just didn't fall as they should have, and it was glaring to me.

Now, as with #1, we will all have different tolerances. I'm very sensitive to emotional dominoes that don't align; I realize other readers/viewers will not be. But I'm of the belief that -- just as with #1 -- it's better to cover all the bases. Make all the emotions work (and all the story components too), and never weaken them for the sake of some other element in the story.

4. I'm hitting my Magical Cookies.

Are you longtime readers sick of hearing about Magical Cookies yet? 😉 For the full low down, head here, but the gist of Magical Cookies is that you have certain elements or scenes of a story that excite you. These are the parts that made you want to work on this story — they’re the cookies you can’t wait to get to.

They’re also my answer to the question, “How do you write the boring parts?”

I get asked often by aspiring authors, and my reply is, “You don’t. You only write your magical cookies.” Because here’s the truth: if you’re not excited about a scene, then it shouldn’t be written. There needs to be something that you love, otherwise cut it or insert something you love.

“But I need to get from Point A to Point B, otherwise I can’t get to Point C!” you argue. “It’s boring, but it has to happen.”

Um, does it, though? Like, doesn’t it really? I bet, if you brainstormed long enough, you could find a new way to tell that story that lets you eliminate Point B entirely.

An example: I remember spending an eternity right before I wrote the climax of A Darkness Strange & Lovely. What I knew I needed to do just did not feel like the Right Story. It didn’t excite me.

Now, from a story logic point of view (#1), I needed to get Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters to leave a fancy party and enter the catacombs with all of their equipment. That meant the would have to leave this grand ball to return to their lab...and then head from there into the public Catacombs entrance...

Well, those steps were slowing momentum down severely.

I remember spending an eternity right before the climax of A Darkness Strange & Lovely. I needed to get Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters to leave a fancy party and enter the catacombs with all of their equipment. But having them leave this grand ball to return to their lab...and then head into the public Catacombs entrance...

Well, those steps were slowing momentum down severely. Plus, as mentioned in #4, I didn't want to write it!! I wanted to go from Point A to Point D, and I needed to find a magical cookie way to do so.

So, after much, MUCH brainstorming and research, I decided to move the party to the Palais Garnier, where underground tunnels were the inspiration behind the Phantom of the Opera. Then, I introduced a "ghost" that lures Eleanor away from the party and into those tunnels.

And I made the tunnels connect to the catacombs. The Spirit-Hunters, racing to find Eleanor who has gone missing, already have some equipment with them, and BAM!

Instead of leaving the ball and adding in 2 story steps before everyone can reach the Catacombs, I had them go straight from party to Catacombs.On top of that, my emotional dominoes (#3) were all wrong. Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters were on bad terms. I needed them to suddenly just BE FRIENDS AGAIN in the space of, like, a single scene. 

So, after much, MUCH brainstorming and false starts and howling at the moon, I finally found a solution: If I moved the fancy party to the Palais Garnier, where there’s a legend of underground tunnels and an underground lake, then I could pretend those tunnels connected directly to the Catacombs.

Then, for the emotions, I introduced a "ghost" that lures Eleanor away from the party and into the lake. She almost drowns, and the Spirit-Hunters have to save her. Nothing helps you get over a fight like near death

So now, instead of leaving the ball and adding in 2 story steps (or more for the emotions!) before everyone can reach the Catacombs and enter the climax, I was able to make it all happen immediately.

No Point B. No loss of momentum. And magical cookies all the way.

5. Each scene kills multiple story “birds.”

The final way I know if a story is Right or not has to do with how many “birds” I can kill with a single scene. In other words, every scene should do as many things as possible: build character, expanding the world, propel the plot, foreshadowing, etc.

Much like #4, the more you can do with a scene, the less likely you are to have “boring parts.”

And no matter what, I believe that a scene should always, ALWAYS move a plot forward. A scene that only builds character and reveals backstory is — by my personal taste — unnecessary. But again, that’s ME. I don't like meandering books. I don't like scenes that are filled with no forward progression. I think there should be some development in the plot, no matter how small, in every single scene.

You’re welcome to disagree, but since that is what I like, then it’s critical I have that for the Right Story. If I’m not killing a lot “birds,” then I know it ain’t the Right Story.

I also think every paragraph and sentence should do as much as possible too. That's not to say you must always favor efficiency over pretty prose, but it is possible to keep scenes and sentences tight while using lovely language and rhythm. (For more on tightening your prose, head here.)

I will spend days and days and DAYS trying to find a way to squeeze everything into a single scene. I think of it as a big puzzle, and there IS a solution...I just have to look for it. See my example above from ADS&L. I do that more often than I don’t. And while it might seem like a lot of work to you, to me that’s what matters most in the creative process.
So there you have it. Those are the 5 components that make the Right Story for me. Those are what lead to inevitability in the story, and what I hope leave readers satisfied.

I also want to add that finding the Right Story is more important to me than anything — to the eternal frustration of my editor and publisher, I’m sure. But my book will be on shelves forever with my name on it. If it isn’t Right, why am I even putting it out there?  Plus, if I’m writing a series, then not having the Right Story is only setting me up for disaster later on.

It’s okay if you’re someone for whom this just doesn’t matter, though. We’re all in this biz for different reasons.

It’s also okay if you don’t struggle to find the Right Story! It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. If you always seem to know what to write — if it always feels Right — then gosh, I envy you! And enjoy that process, friend. You’re lucky and rare. 

And now, speaking of the Right Story, it’s time for me to dive back in to the next Witchlands book. It took me long time, but I did find the Right Story eventually. And as always seems to be the case with this series, in all its intricate complexities and moving parts, the Right Story wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Yet it still fits with all the logic and set up of previous books — because of course it does! That’s requirement #1! 😉

You tell me: what does YOUR Right Story look like?

Upcoming Events:


Mysterious Galaxy
with Charlotte Nicole Davis
October 9, 7PM
San Diego, CA

Grand Rapids Comic Con
Full schedule to come!
November 8-11
Grand Rapids, MI
Book Bar
with Charlotte Nicole Davis, Cora Carmack, & Lauren Shippen
October 11, 5PM
Denver, CO

Read Up Festival
Full schedule to come!
October 19
Greenville, SC

Have a wonderful weekend, my friends! And a lovely fall (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere).


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Copyright © 2019
Susan Dennard
All rights reserved.

110 West 40th St.
Suite 2201
New York, NY 10018

I'm a misfit, a daydreamer,
a fangirl, an animal-lover,
a feminist killjoy,
and a gluten-free
cookie-eater. 🐙
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