Favorite Book as a Guide
By Lazette Gifford
We often hear that we should write
what we love. This workshop is going to take that advice one step farther:
write what you love to read, and use what you love to read as a guide to
Find one of your favorite books.
For this first time I suggest you use a relatively small book. Make certain
it is one you love and perhaps one you have read often enough to know the
basics of the story.
Step 1: Find the Storyline
First write only two or three lines
to describe the most important aspects of what happened in each chapter.
There are rules, however. Avoid names, place names, gender (neutral
'he'/'him'/'his' is best in this case, as long as you can think in terms of
neutrality), and any other obvious tags that link characters or places to
the book. All you want to do is write down a general description of what
If the book has multiple POV
characters, focus on the main character and list only the steps that
particular character takes. Ignore subplots.
Here are the steps for the book that
I chose. As you write out the descriptions don't be afraid to twist or
stretch the meanings of some of the symbols and items.
1. Injured, escaped foreign
prisoner begs help from MC. MC must decide between turning escaped stranger
over to a common enemy with whom MC has a tenuous peace or chance getting
the stranger away.
2. MC, still hiding stranger,
tries to gather information about what is going on without admitting to any
involvement. Learns that enemy suspects involvement anyway.
3. MC leaves area with escaped
prisoner but is afraid they may have drawn attention. Knows they are
followed, but learns that one follower may be an unexpected ally. Tries to
learn more about why enemy wants this person, but lacks cooperation.
4. Tries to get more information
from prisoner but finds mistrust instead.
Sets up trick to make enemy
think prisoner has been abandoned, and uses time to try to get closer to
home and help.
6. Tries to outrun enemy.
Prisoner more cooperative, explains that he has information enemy wants, but
he will not give it.
7. Takes refuge in another
place, but people there know that they are bringing trouble with them.
Present stranger as comrade, not up for trade and outside of the area where
he could be claimed by others. Has trouble with own people over taking this
8. Is confronted by people from
home who believe MC is traitor and bringing unnecessary trouble on them all,
but are not strong enough to take stranger from MC and turn him over to
9. Makes preparations for last
part of journey home. Hears that they may find trouble ahead. Unexpected
ally arranges to go rest of journey with MC
10. Finally reaches home only to
find that the enemy has gotten there ahead of them, but is still calm. Own
people less than happy about choices MC has made, but forced by
circumstances to stand by those decisions.
11. Summoned to council to
explain actions; realizes that some of own people are in league with the
Leaves in a hurry, heading
for own powerbase and only people he can trust without doubt, though he
knows they are under siege from own people and enemy. With prisoner's help,
13. Learn that it was really just
a diversion to get MC and prisoner away from more important battle. Return
and, with unexpected ally, turn tide of battle at council.
Is at council to settle last
debts of honor, bring charges against enemy, and see escaped prisoner
treated properly and sent back to his own people.
Now that you have written out the
steps, it's time to see what you can do to adapt this to a different story.
The changes you decide to make in the basics will, in turn, change the
Step 2: Note the Characters
Now write out very basic information
about the characters who are central to the story. In this case, the
MC (Main Character): Someone of at
least middling importance back home, but with limited resources away from
Escaped Prisoner: Someone
unexpected and with knowledge which can provide something of value to
whomever gets it from him.
Enemy: Someone already in an uneasy
truce with MC, who is trying to gain power to use against MC and to hide
actions that others would find troubling.
Step 3: Choose a Genre
Using this basic outline, I could
write just about any genre of book. Fantasy, SF or Adventure/Thriller would
likely be the best. The gender of the characters is entirely open, as is
the point of view.
If I were going to write a fantasy
novel based on this outline, the opening might be something like this:
"Sir?" a voice said at the door,
barely loud enough to wake him -- at least, if he had actually been asleep.
Sisanan of Toris sat up from the
lumpy mattress and batted at the questioning hand of his companion for the
night. She started to protest, but a lift of his hand silenced her. This
was no dockside whore, though not one of the high court night birds either.
Nonetheless, she knew, when nobility signaled for quiet, to be so without
"Sir?" the voice said again. He
knew it this time.
"What do you want, Zie?" he said,
annoyed at the untimely interruption. His servants too often took advantage
of his good humor. He wouldn't be surprised to learn one had gotten drunk
and arrested by the guard --
"Sir, a Farinin ship just made port,
against the tide and under magic," Zie said softly. "I ran to the dock to
be certain -- it's seen battle, sir, and barely made it this far."
Farinin running for the Salisa
docks? Farinin battle out there -- Gods -- Sisanan lost all interest in
anything but finding out what the hell had sent a ship of the mighty Farinin
skulking into dock in the dead of night.
He started to get up, looked at the
startled girl, and offered her a court-practiced smile -- nice enough, but
with no real meaning. "Stay here. Stay warm. Have the wine there and eat
what you like. I should not be gone long."
"Yes, sir," she said in a small
He had already grabbed his leggings
and hastily pulled them on before digging the fine silken breeches out of
the mass of bed clothing. Not something he would like to go scurrying
around the docks in, but he didn't have time to search the trunks for
something more suitable.
Sisanan pulled them on and quickly
tied off the breeches as he crossed the room. He grabbed his shirt from the
chair and threw back the bolt on the door, pulling it open.
Zie stepped inside with a quick bow
to Sisanan and a nod to the girl, who, in a brazen show of false modesty,
squeaked and drew the blankets up around her to the chin, so that all they
could see was a patch of thin face, and gray eyes looking out from beneath
"You're sure that it's Farinin and
that it's seen battle?" Sisanan asked, pulling the shirt on and tangling it
in his own hair.
"Yes, sir, on both accounts," Zie
said, and extricated the strands from the lacy collar.
Sisanin nodded. Zie wouldn't be
mistaken -- Zie, who had served on the Toris fleet until the Farinin sank
most of it in an ambush of the Del Karis peninsula.
But the Farinin were their allies
now, right? Both sides had signed the damned treaty, and so long as the
Farinin held to their side of it, the newly rebuilt Toris Fleet would sail
clear of Farinin waters. There would be no trouble.
But Sisanin didn't trust the
Farinin. No one really did, and there had been looks of mistrust and anger
even before the ink on the treaty dried or the seals were set.
"I want to see," Sisanin said.
Zie nodded. "Kelkir is standing
down by the kitchen door, making sure the way stays clear. We'll take dark
cloaks. The streets are mostly empty -- it's nearly dawn. But the
Castillian will have word of the arrival by now. We want to get in and out
before any of the local troops arrive."
Sisanin nodded, pulled on his boots
and let Zie kneel down and lace them up -- far faster than leaning over and
trying to do it himself.
(We can imagine from here that they
get to the dock and find the Farinin searching for someone who obviously
jumped ship. Sisanin ends stumbling upon the mistreated prisoner, and
decides that he would rather not do any favors for the Farinin. Perhaps he
had been their prisoner once as well, during the war.)
Rather than go on with this one,
let's look at other possibilities. Could you make this something other than
sf or fantasy based? Certainly. How about some sort of contemporary
Fetid air tasting of rotting
vegetation and stale water, suddenly filled with a swarm of insects that
looked like a veil between him and the view of the San Carlos River.
Something had set the birds in motion, and David Gray grabbed his
binoculars, his eyes narrowed as we watched.
Cocooned in his one-man tent, tepid
water and limp crackers as his only food for the rest of the day -- not what
Gray had imagined when the Agency recruited him for undercover work. He had
trouble even calling up a little thrill knowing that the Costa Rican
government wouldn't appreciate knowing he hid here, watching the river for
There. It looked as though some
Nicaraguan insurgents had slipped over the border and were taking the river
to sail down into Costa Rica, looking for trouble. Unfortunately, David
Gray would not give it to them. After all, his own position here, hiding in
the brush by the river, wasn't exactly legal either. Observation. Notes.
Those notes did eventually go on to others who might find them handy, but it
would not be the villages along this river, who doubtless would have trouble
before the night was out.
The Costa Ricans would have to take
care of their own. He just counted the small row boats, listened for
anything he could hear and jot down, and prepared to hike along the edge of
the river and maybe spot where they made camp before he went back and
reported to his own Captain. Routine.
Only this time the Nicaraguans had a
prisoner in one of their little boats -- a young man, tied, blindfolded and
gagged. After four months of this damned stupid assignment, David Gray
finally saw something out of the ordinary -- and he didn't like the change
much at all.
(From here the story would be that
he and the prisoner fall in together, escape to some place where they could
reach the Costa Rican government and the American embassy, which would find
this unwelcome since David Gray is obviously working as a spy of some sort
within the country.)
Or maybe you could make this into a
historical romance. It would be possible to make either the main character
or the prisoner a woman -- perhaps a slave -- and to set the story in a time
frame anywhere from Sumeria to the American Civil War.
Each story would take different
directions, and there is no doubt each writer would start to vary from the
original plot line before too long as his own imagination took hold of the
basic ideas. However, having worked out the simple plot steps from the
original novel, the writer would now have some idea of pacing and
Step 4: Choose the Lead
Until now we've been following the
outline as far as who is the MC and who are the secondary characters.
However, there is no reason why the escaped prisoner (or slave, or abused
child, or other escapee) can't be the main POV character.
You might choose someone outside the
'outline' to tell the tale. In that early fantasy adaptation, there is no
reason why Zie couldn't tell the tale. Or you could use multiple POVs, of
Who tells the story also directs the
outline. If Sisanan is not the POV character, than the direction of the
story is going to be away from meetings of nobility. The shift in POV will
shift what the reader is shown as normal. In the fantasy story, if we
viewed Zie, we might start with him rushing up the stairs, cursing the young
lord he serves for having taken another whore to bed. Zie would be wet and
sweating, and cursing the Farinin and Sisanan -- and knowing they have to
get back to Loris now, because anything that sent a Farinin ship to port
with that much damage would be a problem. In this case, the story might not
be about getting Sisanan out of bed and down to the dock to see, but just
getting him moving so that they can leave town with the tide -- or out the
gate, rather than by ship.
A first person story in the POV of
any of these characters will be entirely different as well.
Step 5: Other Changes
What if the goal were not to rescue
a person, but to steal information and get it back to 'the Council'? This
takes out one of the major players in the story, but most of the rest could
still fall into the same basic patterns.
What if the prisoner were someone
truly evil, and with powers of his own, and the trick was to not let him
fall back into the hands of the enemy, but not kill him either, because that
would have some sort of fallout as well.
is the game you want to play now. Each 'what if?' question that you choose
will take you a little farther away from the original plot. You do not want
to write the novel you read, you want to write your own -- but you can learn
from the work of the writer who entertained you. Besides the plot, you
might sit back and make a study of character presentation, or worldbuilding
techniques or even how the author wrote fight scenes.
And then go write your own novel.