I’ve decided to publicly outline the plot of my story far in advance, because I enjoy trying to explain/excuse my creative process. I’m not worried about spoilers; in fact, I’ll tell you how my story ends in this commentary, right now. I think a story should be enjoyable even if you know how it ends. Call it a challenge.
If you scour writing-advice websites, you’ll find the snowflake method of crafting a novel. The idea is you start small—with a one-sentence description—and snowball your way up to a paragraph, a page, ten pages, and eventually a whole novel. (The description in the link has some extra steps, like making character charts, but personally I feel like that’s a bit extraneous. But I’m not the published author, so what do I know?)
I added a step: I wrote the entire book ahead of time. My first draft—my “exploratory” draft—is 206 pages of double-spaced playfulness titled The Minotaur. I knew I wanted a story about a minotaur who’s great at board-games, and I wrote it without much planning. Narrative conflicts arose because conflicts are neat to write; characters had arcs because I winged ’em. My goal was to have fun. If you can have fun writing a first draft, I’d wager you can fix it up into a final draft which is fun to read.
Now, to follow the snowflake method, I’ve taken the best aspects of those 206 pages and made a several-sentence description:
War is impossible because impartial clockwork gnomes would summon demons to destroy the aggressor. Only a war-like board-game is allowed, for which civilizations of fantasy races take census of their populations to use as game-pieces.
Aria Twine used to be humanity’s champion at this war-game until her own game-piece was killed, so she’s no longer allowed to play. Aria took to raising dangerous beasts for humanity to register as game-pieces.
When she meets a minotaur with a talent for the game, she jumps on the opportunity to regain political relevance. She makes Homer, the minotaur, prove himself in a tournament against war-game champions from among humans, elves, and even monsters from the wild wastes and seas, before he’s able to combat the dwarfs who plan to claim the war-ending demons as their own and conquer the world by force. The dwarfs have a war-game-playing machine made of gnome-brains; Homer will defeat it with his flexibility.
Next, I wrote a quick description of each character’s desires and arcs.
Aria Twine desires the political power she wielded in her youth. To achieve this she’ll drive Homer the minotaur to the breaking point, using him as she would a pawn in a board-game. Eventually she’ll realize this isn’t the right way to lead, and thereafter become a worthy queen of humanity.
Homer the minotaur desires a place to belong. He initially follows Aria’s demand to become a champion war-gamer because it’s all he knows of the surface-world outside his labyrinth. He’ll even try to propose to her in marriage. He’ll eventually learn to fight for himself and for the sake of other fantasy creatures to whom he relates. His increasing understanding of the surface will be reflected in his increasing vocabulary.
The dwarfs want to conquer the world. By the end, the reader will learn that gnomes and dwarfs used to be the same underground-dwelling race before the demons split them apart. Dwarfs believe this robbed them of the right to world supremacy.
The gnomes claim to have no desires or emotions, which is why only they can control the demons. Nevertheless, they detest dwarfs. They hide it well.
Elves are like bees: their queen’s goal is to protect the forests from the dwarfs, and she mind-controls all her subjects with pheromones. There’s a class of drones, “shorties,” who only follow orders, and a taller class of “high-elves” who follow orders but secretly relish the chance to leave the forests and escape their queen’s mind-control. We’ll mostly see one particular high-elf, the one who killed Aria’s game-piece, as she learns to respect Homer as a person.
Sea-Creatures are a varied collection of different watery races who are largely mysterious to surface-dwellers. They frequently take unconventional, roundabout routes to accomplish goals landlubbers can’t even comprehend. They’re incredibly rich because they have access to all material wealth in the ocean. From their diversity, Homer will realize humans should accept him instead of treating him like a pawn.
The wild wastes are home to mostly-uncivilized fantasy monsters. A small cadre of these creatures will demand to compete in the tournament so they can prove themselves politically relevant. They’re terrible at war-games, but that’s beside the point. Homer will eventually consider himself aligned with these creatures, even if he fights under humanity’s banner.
Humanity is ruled by Queen Anthrapas, who’s old and near death. Anthrapas needs an heir, and knows Aria is suitable, but must teach her how to treat her subjects as people instead of pawns before she considers her worthy. We won’t meet many other humans, but they’ll mostly serve as antagonists for Homer and Aria.
For each chapter I’ve written something like this quick set of notes for the first chapter:
Aria vs the Elf:
Introduce Aria by having her reprimand her adolescent dragon, Scales. Scales the ice dragon shows how stressed animals warp their surroundings into their own habitat, presenting the work’s central theme about how we shape our world and, in turn, the world shapes us.
Introduce a gnome and remember gnomes have numbers for names. Show how brass cards represent a person or monster for use in the war-game by having Aria present her brass to the gnome. Remember the gnomes are rocky, machine-like, and mostly emotionless. Also have Aria see the giant ax embedded in the earth in the distance; the conversation with the gnome should tell the reader about the Demon War a thousand years ago and explain why war is now board-games. The gnome should foreshadow the evil dwarfs.
Aria should find the minotaur being assaulted by the elf who killed her game-piece. Aria will challenge her for the minotaur, and the game they play should teach the reader how the game works and how gnomes referee.
I hope you notice my emphasis on teaching. Mystery is a powerful tool, but more important, I think, is to let readers know how the world works. The first chapter of a book is like a video-game’s tutorial which teaches its player how the game is played. If I pull this off right, reading the first chapter will feel fun and new and interesting, and the reader will hardly realize it’s just the tutorial for the rest of the story.
See you next week! If you’ve enjoyed my commentary or you just want to know how Homer the minotaur becomes a war-game champ, consider following my blog. You’ll get an email whenever I make a post!