For Readers & Writers
from Susan Dennard
M&D Issue #142

August 9th, 2019

What's in this heart-to-heart?

Recent Goings On:

Alas, my last IVF cycle was not a success. I was pretty devastated for a bit, but then—as life would have it—my precious puppy, Princess Leia, fell deathly ill. It was so sudden, and so bad.

It’s still bad, actually, but she’s hanging on. Like her namesake, she’s a fighter.

The thing about having her so sick has been that I haven’t had any time for myself. Between all the driving and waiting in vet’s offices and surveilling her constantly for any signs of deterioration, there’s been no time for me to mourn my own personal loss of another embryo.

Which...hasn't necessarily been a bad thing. The thing about IVF and fertility is that you blame yourself and your body for every tragic failure, but I haven't had time after this round to turn my rage and hate inward.

Now I just need my Leia to pull through. Then life can go back to "normal."

What I'm Playing:

(I cannot recommend this game enough. Holy whoa. As I elaborate below, it has totally blown me away.)
What I'm Reading:

(I haven't done much reading lately, so...still on the same book. At least it's a great one!)

For the DenNerds:


Witchlands Box Set + New Looks!

As I shared on Instagram and last week, WE HAVE EXCITING NEWS, DenNerds!

On October 8th, a hardcover box set for the Witchlands will be hitting stores. And this ain't your average box set, gang.

Because readers (and myself!) loved the Bloodwitch cover so much, Tor decided to hire the same designer, Cliff Nielsen, to refresh the first two books in the series.

As you can see below, the general style for the covers hasn’t changed, so don’t worry about consistency. Instead, get EXCITED ABOUT HOW GREAT THESE LOOK.

What do you think??
In addition to the new covers in the box set, there will be a full-color poster of a new map (illustrated and hand-drawn by Jessica Khoury). It’s so beautiful, y’all. 😭 The covers, the map...I can’t wait to see it all IRL on shelves in October.

Be sure to preorder!!

And international readers, you can get the box set + poster too, via Book Depository!

(P.S. Stay tuned for events this fall to launch the box set!)

For the Daydreamers:

Earned Story Payoffs

Y’all know I game a lot. Video games, tabletop adventures, interactive fiction, gamified apps...Whatever it is, if there’s a reward system involved, I’m there.

What appeals to me (and so many others) when it comes to gaming is the sense that you’ve earned something. It is satisfying to beat a boss that would have slaughtered you when you first started the game.

Some games will guide you through level by level, providing you with boss’s well-matched to whatever stats or skill you’ve recently boosted or item you’ve recently acquired (e.g. original Zelda games).

Other games require pure skill from a game-playing angle—like, the more you play, the better you get at navigating levels or beating bosses (e.g. Super Mario Bros or MarioKart).

Some games feature puzzle-solving, leaving the strategy entirely up to you. The Dishonored franchise, for example, has hundreds of ways you can proceed through each mission. Or tactics games like Fire Emblem are dictated by how YOU want to arrange your various troops across a battlefield.

And in some games, the sky is the limit. Like DnD, you and your fellow party members are only limited by the Dungeom Master’s imagination and random rolling of the dice.

Then in gamified apps, like Habitica, knocking things off your to-do list allows you to level up and take on harder and harder bosses.

In all of these scenarios, the payoff is what makes the situation fun. It is SATISFYING to tackle something difficult and then win.

Fiction should feel the same.

But how do we do that? How do we apply that same sense of rewards earned to a book?

Well, based on my obsessive gaming with research into Fire Emblems: Three Houses (which has taken the gaming world and my own life by storm), there are two key elements that provide a satisfying conclusion:

  1. Gradual leveling up of skills.
  2. Character stakes and motivation.
Before I continue, I want to add the disclaimer that mileage may vary. What you consider “earned,” I might consider "to easy." And vice versa.

No matter what, though, I’m sure we’ve all seen that movie or read that book where the payoff did NOT feel earned. Maybe the character suddenly developed a random power in the final showdown with the Big Bad. 

Or maybe a tornado thunders through out of nowhere and kills the Big Bad so the main character doesn’t have to. (We call this deus ex machina, or divine intervention. Big no-no.)

Or perhaps another character suddenly arrives JUST in the nick of time and saves the hero.

None of those are satisfying solutions for a reader/viewer/gamer.

However, it’s up to YOU to decide exactly what the "earned enough" bar looks like, and the best way to do that is to analyze the stories that didn’t work for you.
Leveling Up

The most obvious thing that we need to consider when crafting an “earned story payoff” is the appropriate leveling up of characters.

I’ve done an entire newsletter on this subject, so I won’t dig in too deeply here. But the general gist is that there should be a natural progression in the main character’s acquisition of skills.

When the story starts, the main character (MC) cannot X.

X might be an actual physical skill—e.g. in Karate Kid. Daniel can’t defend himself when the movie begins. Through gradual training, he learns to defend himself and ultimately beat the bully.

X might be an emotional “skill.” The hero can’t commit to relationships when the movie opens (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days), but by the end, he’s evolved enough as a person to commit to Kate Hudson's character.

X might be a destination à la The Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo must get to Mount Doom so he can dump the evil ring inside...and that journey to get there is filled with emotional and physical trials.

No matter what X is, though, it’s something the main character cannot do or attain when the story begins. Then, only through gradual, challenging growth can the MC achieve their goal.

So THEN, when the final moment arrives, there's a real sense of satisfaction watching the main character triumph. You were with them for the entire journey; you saw the sweat and pain and loss that was needed to get here.
What makes Fire Emblem: Three Houses worth studying is that they take the idea of leveling up...

And basically level it up. (haha)

Rather than have a single, main character gradually increase in skill, every single character does.

Okay, okay—what's new about that, Sooz? Most RPGs have party stats.

The difference in Three Houses is that you are A PART OF the sweat and agony that goes into leveling up each character.

So not only are you boosting your own main character as the game proceeds, but you’re also training 7-20 students at a military academy. Then you take your students on various missions and watch as all the love and care you put into their educations pays off.

It's so simple, but it's so brilliant. Every time Caspar or Dimitri or Annette takes down a bad guy in a single blow or dodges the incoming attack, I GET REALLY EXCITED, OKAY?
So the lesson we learn from Three Houses is: Don't only focus on your MC's leveling up. Level up your secondary characters too.

What skills must the other characters learn? What journey must they take to help the MC achieve their aim (and to achieve their own personal aims as well)?

Even better, how can your MC contribute to that growth? Are they a hinderance or a help?

I'm not saying the MC must literally train the supporting cast, but if the MC is there for the journey (in a good or conflicting way), the reader will become that much more invested in the entire crew.
Stakes and Motivation

On one of my panels at GenCon last week, the focus was meant to be on worldbuilding...BUT, we the panelists kept circling back to character.

Why? Because ultimately, that's all that matters. You can have a crappy plot or illogical world, but if people love the characters, they won't care. They'll keep reading/watching as long as the content keeps coming.

I mean, just look at TV shows that have run long past their expiration date. What has kept them on air is the fact that people don't want to let go of the characters. (*coughcoughSupernaturalcoughcouch*)

It's your job as the writer to make us care about the characters enough to keep coming back for more.

And how do you do that? You make us care about exactly what's at stake if the MC and crew don't achieve their goal.

And to make us care about the stakes, you have to show them to us. Show us what the characters will lose. Show us WHY they are even in this fight at all.
In Three Houses, you not only train your students between battles, but you actually get to know them.

You learn about their secret hopes, their painful backstories, and what they have to lose if the world goes to war.

It's brilliantly done. I know Raphael's sister depends on him for money and food; I know Ingrid's family is relying on her to bring back their fortune; I know Dorothea only seems like a flirt because the reality of ending up on the streets feels all too imminent. 

That's some pretty weighty stuff, no?

It's also a lot to lose if the MC and students don't achieve their ultimate goal.

I don't want Raphael's sister to be at risk. I don't want Dorothea to end up on the streets. So now I'm invested in each of their motivations and stakes.
Now remember: Goals don't have to be life or death!

Romantic goals, for example, are rarely life or death, yet we care deeply about seeing the couple get together. Why? Because they risk losing happiness and love if they don't level up and get together. That alone is a high enough loss for us to feel invested.

And when we are invested in the stakes and motivation, the payoff at the end feels THAT MUCH MORE SATISFYING.

I cannot repeat this enough, and it's something that's all too easily overlooked.
If I do not care why a character is in this fight or trying to save their marriage or searching for the stolen money, then I am not going to care when they finally triumph.
I often see writers slap on Tragic Backstory™ to a character and expect me to care. Like, Oh they had a hard childhood! That'll make 'em easy to connect with!

But alas, that won't cut it.

You must show me the present, and the present is all about current motivation and stakes.

Although those motivation and stakes might have grown out of the tragic backstory, I need to see them in action now.
And of course, just as you did with leveling up, apply this principal to your entire cast!!

Everyone has a family, a life, a world that lives and breathes around them. So where does each secondary character fit into that world? What do they stand to lose and why are they in this fight?

The more you can flesh this out, the more readers will care about every single character in your story...And the more invested they'll be overall.
So to recap: if you want to leave your readers with a satisfying conclusion—a story payoff that feels fully earned—then you have to make us care about the character.

And you make us care by fully developing a character's motivation and what's at stake in the present day.

But not just for the MC! You must focus on secondary characters as well.

The other key way to make a conclusion feel satisfying is to make sure you stick to gradual leveling up. No deus ex machina, thanks. Show every single character growing and adapting (and failing too!) in pursuit of the story's main goal.

Now off I go to sit in the vet's waiting room again and play some Three Houses while I wait. 😉

Upcoming Events:


Grand Rapids Comic Con
Nov. 8-10, 2019
Grand Rapids, MI
Full schedule to come!
Thank you for reading! I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

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Copyright © 2019
Susan Dennard
All rights reserved.

110 West 40th St.
Suite 2201
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I'm a misfit, a daydreamer,
a fangirl, an animal-lover,
a feminist killjoy,
and a gluten-free
cookie-eater. 🐙
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