Breakdown: Wreck-It Ralph


Huge ones for Wreck-It Ralph, and some smaller ones for Tangled, Bolt, Toy Story, Up, and Brave.

You’ve been warned…


This is were we left off last time…

Stories are often about choices. In order to make these choices more visible, symbols are often created for the ideas that a protagonist is choosing between. In Wreck-It Ralph, we have the Hero Medal and (what I’ll call) the Vanillope Medal.

The Hero Medal symbolizes respect and validation. It functions differently for Vanillope (as a coin that lets her buy a car); symbolically, however, it works the same way, since the car is her way to get validated. We could argue that the car turns out to mean more than that, but her initial urge for the medal is the same as Ralph’s.

The Vanillope Medal symbolizes friendship and compassion. When Ralph smashes Vanillope’s car, he’s wearing the Vanillope Medal, but in the scene immediately after, he’s wearing the Hero Medal. He then, in rejection of his ambition, hurls the Hero Medal away, which reveals the truth about Vanillope. In other words, the medals show us where Ralph is positioned in his arc, and then the story rewards him for giving up on validation.

Ultimately the day must be saved by using the “correct” symbol. Before punching through the Mentos roof, Ralph clutches the green heart of the Vanillope Medal in his fist.

Symbols are often consulted in place of “mentor characters” to re-affirm a decision, or to push a protagonist in the story’s required direction. The most elegant symbol in Pixar’s canon is the name ANDY written on Woody’s boot. It’s a reminder of his character’s spine “do what’s right for my child”.

The depiction of choices in Up is equally strong: when Carl has to choose between saving his house for Ellie or saving Kevin for Russell; and then the reversal when he sits in his house, between Ellie’s book and Russel’s sash of badges.

First he chooses the “wrong” thing, and then he chooses “correctly”. His choices move us from Act 2 into Act 3.

The same as Ralph’s.


The characters in Wreck-It Ralph are not simplexified in the way I discussed last post. Sure, Ralph is big and Felix is small. We could discuss Vanillope’s glitch. But the most apparent connection to make with the four leads is to their voice actors.

They’re less cartoony than Pixar’s usual work, and make more use of the actor’s known facial expressions and mannerisms. For me, the gee-shucks optimism of Jack McBrayer works the best, especially the scenes with him in jail.

I don’t have a complaint about this. I like all the actors, and I think they helped make the film more human. My problem with the characters is the characterization of the women, which is a problem I have with almost everything from Hollywood.

Why would I have a problem with Vanillope and Calhoun? Vanillope is adorable and determined. She has agency over her own plotline. Calhoun is a tough woman, showing that men aren’t the only ones capable of blasting aliens.

True, sure, but Calhoun’s main plotline is that she’s traumatized over her husband’s death. (The depiction of which I do find very funny.) She’s broken in a way that requires a new man to “fix” her. And she’s never really showing us that women are tough, she’s showing us that Calhoun is an exception, which is why we get comedy from her performance. Get it? It’s funny that a woman could be this tough. And she still wants a guy, just like every woman, right?

I’d like Vanillope if she wasn’t cute and she didn’t turn into a princess at the end.

I am so hard to please. What do I want? If I don’t want female characters who are perfect or broken or squeamish or tough, what do I want?

I want them to be real. I don’t want the problems they have to be quirks that make them cute. I want them to be allowed to have problems that are NOT attractive.

Like who?

Top: Merida from Brave. Middle: Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away. Bottom: Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

How about female animated characters who aren’t the leads?

Top: Tigress from Kung-fu Panda. Middle: Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures. Bottom: Dory from Finding Nemo.

Tigress is actually a surprisingly good character, but I’m scared they’ll mess it up and have her marrying Po before the end of Kung-Fu Panda 3. These females have strengths, but also flaws. They have individual goals, hopes, and beliefs that do not involve romance. 

Like real people.

Sorry, what? Wreck-It Ralph? Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about. 

The Villains

Wreck-It Ralph makes use of what I refer to as “villain swallowing”. Early in the plot, there are multiple villains, so it feels like danger presses in on all sides. Later, to have a more focused climax, one villain swallows the others, becoming supreme.

In Tangled‘s Act 2, we’re running from Rapunzel’s mom, Flynn’s thief buddies, and Max the horse. By Act 3, it’s resolved to just Mother Gothel, as she’s knocked out the thieves, and the horse has joined the heroes.

Wreck-It Ralph takes villain swallowing more literally.

These guys…

become this…

They seriously just fuse together.

The result is an insane, endlessly evil, soul-sucking, generic super-villain. It’s barely a person at this point. Completely unsympathetic.

I find it interesting that Pixar’s list of things to avoid when making Toy Story stated that they didn’t want a villain. I’d love to hear John Lasseter discuss how he feels about using villains now.

Also, I’m curious how he would define “a villain”.

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that he never wrote a story with a villain in it, and that it was because of something he learned in college after the war. Personally, I would classify Dwayne Hoover, Paul Lazzaro, and the Handicapper General as villains. That’s me.

The fact that they’re round characters with human motivations doesn’t change my mind. I think that just means they’re good villains.

If we only consider characters villains after they become unredeemable then I think villains become a less interesting idea. I think almost all of Pixar’s movies have villains, although in some cases (Toy Story 2, Up, Brave) they aren’t revealed until Act 3.

Some of those might have been better without the villain fight in Act 3, but it’s hard to say. Mark Andrews has said that Mar’du was a late addition to Brave, because the third act wasn’t working.

I don’t know. Monsters University is probably their movie that gets closest to not having a villain, and its third act is amazing. Bolt did pretty well without one too.

I don’t like generic super-villains and that’s what Mar’du is. That’s what King Candy becomes. In comparison, when we see Ralph identify himself as a “bad guy” in the beginning, it seems even more obvious that he’s not.

However, we probably didn’t need this contrast for a satisfying end. Characters should be challenged by their opposites, and Ralph’s opposite isn’t generic evil. It was Felix.

Final Thoughts

In talking about Wreck-It Ralph, I’ve wandered quite a bit. There’s almost as much discussion of other movies as the one under close examination.

As I’ve said, my brain likes categories and connections. This is kind of the way I think. Next time I do a close look I might jump around again, or I might tighten my lens and get into smaller details.

For next week though…

On September 6th, we’ll continue our look at villains with a countdown of five great villains from the most popular children’s series of all time: Harry Potter.


Learning from Pixar: Simplexity

Simplexity: Something that when glanced appears simple, but when examined reveals great detail, richness, and flexibility.

I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s a good definition. I’ll start with considering how this applies to characters, then continue into how it can influence plot/structure.

(Relevant part begins at 2:35.)

Pete Docter (the co-writer/director of Monsters Inc. and Up) talks about how the characters’ shapes are tied to their personalities. He doesn’t say which came first, but we can assume that the personalities came before the shapes. Every aspect of character design then supports character.

The early designs for Sulley (from Monsters Inc) included tentacles, but they worried that audiences would lose focus on his facial expressions.

Clicking the Sulleys will take you to a video chat on the making of Monsters Inc.

The final image of Sulley is simpler. Sulley is a warm and loveable monster–he should have purple spots and a wide grin. It is more iconic, an easier model to slip into the story with. Which is part of the heart simplexity: multiple things are happening at once, but you don’t notice because they fit together so well. Everything is logically tied together, so that you can’t tell where it started.

Another example: 

EVE is sleek, elegant, and futuristic while WALL-E is boxy, awkward, and rustic. Don’t just notice the shapes, also notice the contrast. Whether conscious or only visceral, the difference between these characters has an effect on us. It identifies each character more cleanly by showing us an opposite. It also creates opportunities for dynamic interactions.

Simplexity doesn’t just work in animation. Short stories, novels, and picture books can also be tight, layered, and highly-visual, springing from a single concept. My guess is that it goes in a different direction though. When this goes well, it’s impossible to guess the origin, but here’s my gut…

Animators at Pixar start with an idea for a story, determine what their main characters’ personalities should be like, then create models, then create interactions.

Other writers might find inspiration in an image (often from dreams), and then ask themselves questions about “who these people are” and “what they want”. By doing this they develop a rounded character, and then discover events in the character’s life.

I’ve heard more than a few gardener/discovery writers who write fantastical stories describe their process in that way. When I write short stories for adults, I do something similar.

Aimee Bender‘s short story “The Healer” starts like this: “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice. Everyone else’s hands were normal.” Everything in that story flows logically, according to what a girl with a fire hand and a girl with an ice hand might be like. It’s achingly brilliant.

What would a child be like if he grew up in a graveyard? From this concept springs Bod and The Graveyard Book.

Okay. So that’s a bit on character. How might we simplexify plot?

(Minor spoilers for The Paperbag Princess and Howl’s Moving Castle ahead.)

Last year, the twenty-two “story basics” from Emma Coats (a former storyboard artist at Pixar) was reblogged a million times. For good reason. I could write a blog about almost every tip, but today I’ll focus on #4.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This list comes from Brian Macdonald’s Invisible Ink, which opens with a third-page blurb from Andrew Stanton (cowriter/director Finding Nemo and WALL-E). Macdonald admits he didn’t create the steps himself; he learned them from an improv troupe. He’s not sure where they actually originated, but he’s responsible for most of their popularity.

To see a workshop of the Invisible Ink steps in action, led by a Pixar storyboard artist, watch the video below.

I’ve read a lot of books on story structure. Almost all provide their own list of steps. (Which will be worth another post to compare.) The steps in Invisible Ink are the simplest I’ve come across.

There are two things worth noticing.

First, the middle steps (Act 2?) are not “and then”; they are “because of that”. In 6 Days to Air, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss a similar trick for compressing stories. They change ands in their story progression into buts and therefores.

Example Therefore: Often we want a character to go somewhere, and the reason is that the next important thing in the plot happens at Location X. It isn’t really enough that a character has a burning desire to go to Location X. Something should have happened during Plot Event D that sends the character to Location X.  Ji-min gave her sister the last bowl of cereal; therefore, she goes to the store.

Example But: Similarly, a story might have an event that happens at the midpoint. Could be a math test. And the math test totally shakes up the plot. This is easier to accept than a sudden Christmas gift. If an event has to come into the story sidewise, then it should be an obstacle to the characters’ goals. Hamid needs to play in the big football game, but he can’t because he failed a calculus test.

Building stories around consequences makes plots fluid. It can be very difficult to find the right connections. When the rationale is found though, it makes every part of your story necessary and intertwined.

Simpler, but richer.

The second thing about Rule #4 that’s worth mentioning is that Coats omitted the final step: “And ever since then, ___”. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the equivalent of “Return With the Elixir”.

The idea is that it’s not enough for the hero to get what they want or to save themselves. Wisdom and happiness have to be shared to have value. (Although The Paperbag Princess would disagree.)

The audience at least have to see that something has changed, so that we know there was a purpose for the story. This could be as simple as a moon becoming full…

Where the Wild Things Are

or a character’s hair staying grey…

Howl’s Moving Castle

These are simple changes that carry meaning. Symbols of the journey. Using symbols is another great way to simplexify plot, but that will be examined next week.

After Disney bought Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter became the chief creative officer of both. His influence is evident in Disney’s computer animated films since then: Bolt, Tangled, and Wreck-It Ralph. Next Friday, we’ll take a closer look at one of them in my first detailed breakdown.

Five Great Story Concepts

Writers often say ideas don’t matter, that it’s all about the execution.

It’s true, a good idea written badly is not a fun read. It’s also true that a good writer can make the most ordinary stories beautiful and intriguing. Ideas aren’t as important as execution, but ideas still matter.

The thing about good ideas is that one isn’t enough. Books that deliver on good concepts do more than just perform the idea–they follow those ideas to their ends, dragging you farther and further than you could have dreamed on your own. To a lived-in world, with specific struggles and discoveries.

5. Watership Down by Richard Adams

A harrowing cross of fantasy and realism, Watership Down puts the reader in the mind of a rabbit. I don’t mean an anthropomorphic rabbit who wears a t-shirt and watches football. These rabbits are rabbits.

They’re also brave, clairvoyant warriors.

It would be easy to write this novel tongue-in-cheek, but instead we get vivid, gripping sincerity. Adams details the texture of grasses and the patterns of flowers. He creates words like “hrair” (which means a thousand, or actually anything higher than four, since that’s as high as rabbits can count) and “elil” (who are enemies that prey on rabbits). It’s not long into the novel before you start to feel twitchy, like a prey animal yourself, bouncing through the milkwort and fallen beech leaves.

4. Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston

Zorgamazoo is written entirely in rhyming anapestic tetrametre. The same rhythm as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. I’m sure that you’re already either thrilled or repulsed, but I’ll continue.

Katrina Katrell is a clever, observant girl (common traits) who is so observant that she notices the usually hidden creatures in our world (a neat twist). This leads to her guardian deciding that she needs a lobotomy (amazing twist). The adventure gets pretty crazy and exciting. This isn’t just a novel that rhymes. It’s a novel that uses rhyme to enhance the telling.

To build on the action, the words even change font and size.

It’s hard to do this justice until you see it on the page and read it out loud. Here’s a clip from the audio book.

3. Nate the Great Series: written by Marjorie W. Sharmat, illustrated by Marc Simont

With the first book in 1972, Nate the Great wasn’t the first detective for kids, but I think he’s the epitome of the genre. It’s the perfect fit for an early reader series. The short, snappy sentences help the tone and humour. Episodic adventures without violence let the series go on and on.

Furthermore, Nate the Great has attitude. He has rivals. He doesn’t want to take the case. He has a dog named Sludge. And in the necessary detective scene when he lays out all the clues–he eats a pile of pancakes.

2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

People made a big deal about how The Graveyard Book was riffing on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book–which it absolutely is–but I feel like they ignored how awesome the concept actually was: a living boy is raised by ghosts.

It’s not just a good concept because it’s spooky. It’s a good concept because it inherently brings up interesting themes. Parenthood. Identity. Mortality. Loneliness. Regret.

And Gaiman takes them far. The Jungle Book is done with Mowgli after a couple chapters, and then we get seals, a mongoose, and an elephant trainer. We get to see Bod at different stages in his life, dealing with a wider array of problems. We also get more personal relationships, as other characters age too.

1. The Magic School Bus Series: written by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degan

The original Magic School Bus Series is only ten books long, but that bus has a story engine that has churned out six other book series and a beloved television show.

The field trip is a natural way to explore science and connect to kids’ real lives. It creates a lot of possibilities. The iconic school bus’s transformations are adorable. We get to feel like a kid in the class. The final page that explains where, when, and why the story bent reality is a beautiful wrap-up.

And while it’s not exactly a part of the book, let’s not forget that killer theme song…

More Great Story Ideas: Go Away Unicorn, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Flat Stanley, Uglies, The Keeper of the Isis Light, The Giver, Tuck Everlasting, The Hunger Games, Silverwing, Captain Underpants, Ella Enchanted, Bunnicula, The Hunchback Assignments, etc…

My next post will consider Pixar, and the studio’s ability to deliver great concepts and stories using an idea they call “simplexity”.


Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 2

In part one I considered the difference between writers who proceed by outline and by discovery. In part two, we’ll look at imagined audiences: a classroom of kids, and the author’s younger self.

A lot of children’s writers have worked as teachers. It makes sense that people who like kids and care about kids would want to work with kids. It also makes sense that a person who has experience focusing a classroom would be able to know what they want. Whenever Rick Riordan questions whether to cut a boring part, he imagines that squirming kid at the back of the room, and there’s no question. (Relevant 0:15-0:30.)

Robert Munsch takes this a step further. When on book tours, he often stayed with families and ended up using those children in his stories. His first picture books were written orally, telling them to daycare kids. He revised based on reactions, and included visceral sound effects in his work. (This brings up the performative nature of picture books, which I’ll do another post about later.)

On his website, you can hear him read them all. Highly recommended. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any videos of full readings. Here’s a snippet from the Toronto Star.)

This undeniably works. It also seems to refute the common advice to write your stories for one particular person, because you’ll fail if you try to please everyone.

Other children’s writers do aim for smaller crowds. Often, family. After Kenneth Oppel starts drafting, he reads his novels to his kids and (like Munsch) revises based on their reactions.

But not everyone who writes for children feels the need to run their ideas past kids. Last year at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Shane Peacock, the author of The Boy Sherlock Holmes Series, was quite adamant that he did not care what anyone else thought he should write. He will write what he thinks is interesting. And as he read a dark, description heavy passage on the discovery of an eyeball in a cobblestone alley–everyone in the theatre was riveted.

Let’s go a further, because perhaps while Peacock wouldn’t ask for advice, he might still imagine a kid audience he’s trying to please. You can’t get clearer than Maurice Sendak’s denials that he doesn’t consciously write for children (1:15-1:50).

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book. I don’t know how to write a children’s book. How do you write about that? How do you set out to write a children’s book? It’s a lie.”

Or how about this Sendak quote from the Believer?

“I never started out as a children’s book artist. What is a children’s-book artist? A moron! Some ugly fat pip-squick of a person who can’t be bothered to grow up. That’s the way we’re treated in the adult world of publishing. […] I’m an illustrator. I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie-book person. It sounds like I’m complaining, but it has no effect on me. I have a good life.”

Then there’s Katherine Paterson, who replied when asked if it got harder to write for kids after her own children had left the house, “I never wrote for them. I always write for the child in me, and she is still in there.”

Peacock, Sendak, and Paterson seem to be driven by more personal inclinations than Riordan, Munsch or Oppel. What’s the result?

It might correspond with another shift. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Ursula Nordstrom at Harper’s edited and published what she called “good books for bad children.” She is often referred to as the most important editor of children’s books for the last century. The list of writers she worked with is staggering: E. B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Syd Hoff, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstien, etc.

A lot of books from my childhood that weren’t directly associated with Nordstrom still seem to fit her “good books for bad children” motto. Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) is a perfect example, as are Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (1990) and Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me (1993).

And then a boy with a lightning-shaped scar appeared.

People are still figuring out what the blockbuster success of Harry Potter means. Books are getting longer (extreme example: Tuck Everlasting = 28,000 words & The Amulet of Samarkand = 122,000), but is that it?

I see a change happening across the board in children’s literature–from picture books to YA–so maybe I shouldn’t just pin it on Harry Potter. The change I see is that the material is moving further and further into empowering kids by giving them ownership of their materials.

Picture books have less words than they used to. It’s now rare to see books with a paragraph on one side, and a picture on the other. The books are getting more immersive, with fewer words, allowing the kids to get deeper into the books themselves without the need of an adult bridge.

A spread from “Blueberries for Sal”, published in 1949.

Jillian Jiggs, 1985…

yo yes

and “Yo! Yes?” from 1994.

In middle-grade novels, I see the same trend towards ownership. Whereas the narrators of Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh often reference the fact that they’re telling you a story, most narrators today are invisible. So we don’t end up with an adult-writer telling a story about a kid-character to the kid-reader. The kid-reader just directly watches the kid-character.

I feel like the existence and surge of YA fits my theory as well. Many adults are still telling teens that they should be skipping to adult books. A lot of teens are choosing books where they feel represented instead.

I should note that I’m talking about trends, not laws. Green Eggs and Ham debuted in 1960, deliberately using only 50 simple words. Lemony Snicket is one of the cattiest, most intrusive narrators I’ve ever met. However, I think the trend is real.

An implication of this move towards children’s ownership of their books isn’t just format (narration) and subject matter (ex. Captain Underpants). I think it favours writers who write for throngs of kids, rather than the tortured artist’s inner child.

That’s a good thing, right?

Depends. What is art for?

According to David Foster Wallace, art should “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” Which is often what good books for bad kids did. I remember reading some of those books in elementary school. They challenged me to become more empathic.

I still regularly here children’s writers talk about writing for their inner children, and I think I count myself as one of them. I often feel like I’m trying to write books that I wish I had read when I was younger. To push, nurture, and entertain young-Bill.

Like gardening and architecture, the categories I’m talking about here are not mutually exclusive. In A Sense of Wonder, Paterson talks about children who connect and respond strongly to her characters. And there are several moments in Riordan’s books that could inspire reflection.

I’ve been working with young people since 2004. I have lots of practice at making kids laugh and keeping their attention. After I type out a draft, I visualize it through their eyes. And if I feel like a paragraph is boring, or irrelevant, it’s going to be crossed out.

Because at the end of the day, kids’ books are for kids.

My next post will be the first entry in my “Five Great Things” category. First up, great children’s book concepts!

Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 1

image from flickr user Sarah (Rosenau) Korf

In a conversation with the Sydney Morning Herald, George R. R. Martin describes two kinds of writers:

“I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.

That being said, I do know where I’m going. I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that’s not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.”

My brain likes logic. It likes categories and lists. Until I got to calculus, I was actually better at math and physics than language arts. My current writing ability is highly influenced by knowledge of grammar. Therefore, outlines and architecture.

To be honest, I think most of my favourite writers are gardeners though. Not all, but most, especially in fiction for adults. Neil Gaiman compares writing to driving on a foggy road where he can’t see very far ahead. George Saunders says it’s useless to think about writing when he’s not actually sitting with his work, because everything is determined by what the words on the page are, what they imply and require.

I often say my favourite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. Although he talks about outlines in the introduction/first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5, his architecture doesn’t sound very solid.

“… I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the vertical lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.”

That sounds beautiful, but not very solid…

As such, it was a great relief when I heard Kenneth Oppel talk at the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable last year. His presentation showed the process he uses to write a novel. After spending time in a “dream phase”, imagining the world and drawing diagrams, the second step he takes is to create a beat sheet of every single thing that will happen in the novel.

Oppel’s diagram of the ship from Airborn

After that, I started to see evidence of architecture more often. Screenwriting requires heavy outlines because the process is so long, and there are so many people involved. Chris Sanders talks about the importance of getting the structure for How to Train Your Dragon right on the first try, because they wouldn’t have time or money to fix it later.

At the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Arthur Slade talked about how important his planning phase was. Then I came across/remembered a few outlines I’d seen online. And from authors I really liked.

This is one of Scott Westerfeld’s meta-documents for Behemoth, called a “Pace Chart”. He has other documents that show the timeline for his events, so he can figure out whether it’s Wednesday or Saturday. The red/blue pins indicate POV characters. Notice the importance that Westerfeld places on building tension before the action sequence. (The program he’s using is Scrivener.)

This is J. K. Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix. The only part I can read are the months along the left side. Personally, I love the smudges. It’s a great visualization of how many different plots she’s kicking along at once. I’ve spent the most time studying the Philosopher’s Stone, and the rhythm of set-ups is relentless.

Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22. Another grid chart, like Rowling. Maybe I should try this format.

Brandon Sanderson identifies strengths and weaknesses to each approach. He says gardening leads to realistic characters and smaller more interesting details. I think it also works better for yearning and motivation. Architects are better at plotting–ensuring that you have a dark moment at the end of Act 2, a few big action scenes, and a show-stopper at the climax. If the pages fly by and you’re impressed by the ending, there’s likely been a plan.

When you start to think this way, you can get a feel for how a book was probably written. I don’t have evidence, but I would bet that the Hunger Games and the Grapes of Wrath were both heavily planned. The plots are evenly divided into thirds, and the finales are airtight. The push and pull of emotions, shooting from positive to negative, also points at an outlined plot. Furthermore, Collins has a background in television.

If something is madcap inventive in a certain way, like Half World by Hiromi Goto or the The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, I suspect gardening. I also see it in introspective characters, or when conventional plot pacing stretches to fit the character’s needs (we can’t have that moment yet, she’s not ready for it!) as in Plain Kate by Erin Bow or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

I expected Susin Nielsen to be an architect, based on her experience with TV, but when I heard her describe her process, it sounded more like Martin’s. She said she knew things that were going to happen, but she mostly followed her characters. Which shows. They are highly relatable, and we get to know them instead of speeding off to the next plot point. When her climaxes do come, they’re compressed and intense.

As Martin said, the binary is an oversimplification. In reality, all writers do a bit of both: gardening and architecture. The desire to even divide this way feels like a product of my logic-brain getting loose. If I didn’t actually see patterns I’d stop thinking this way though. For me, it’s a helpful framework. Even if only to know there’s more than one way to write a novel, and that my way is valid.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss another fundamental division I see among people who write for children. There’s a hint in the title of this post. 😉