Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
Story Design Redux
(Plus: What I Did Wrong)

So, as last time, here for grins and posterity is a glimpse into the complete story design for my latest, ARISEN Books Nine and Ten. (And also quite a lot about the remaining books in the series. Possible SPOILERS! Flee now!) This is also in the wonderful Scrivener, and shows the project for these two books, with composition window on the right, a notes doc in the middle, and the complete file tree on the left. Click on it for the expanded view, to actually read the document names. (Unless you're still reading the books and don't want spoilers, in which case go away five minutes ago!)

What I Did Wrong

If somehow you've made it this far, you shall be rewarded with the following confession: I'm not very happy with how either of these books turned out in the end. Why? I believe I forgot (or failed to sufficiently apply) a few very important storytelling principles, such as:

  1. Story is things happening. (Not internal reflection, not recapping of previous events, not clever dialogue.)
  2. Rule #1 is: "Push the story forward." So much of the material in these books didn't - and that's reflected in some of the (admittedly minority) critical reviews.
  3. Rule #2 is Unity of Story. Many of the events were not essential to the overall story arc.
    • Instead, they were "episodic" - as in, here's some cool/fun stuff that could happen along the way, like a TV series.
    • I badly failed to heed this principle espoused by David Mamet, who truly said, "The progress toward [solving the problem of the story] must be direct and all incidents essential either in the advancement or disruption of that progress."
  4. I was guilty of another criticism laid on by some others: outrageously bad luck, and everything going nightmarishly wrong, used as a constant crutch to manufacture excitement and drama. But nobody is that consistently unlucky. Ever. And it's lazy. (Relying on coincidence is always lazy.) Instead I need to ramp up the real forces of opposition against the protagonists (the dead, the Russians) so they have to grow to defeat them.
  5. In many cases, I used the first idea I came up with – not the best idea I could conceivably come up with.
  6. In my enthusiasm to pick up Glynn’s storylines and characters, I gave short shrift to my own – particularly Alpha, which being rather central to the story deserved more time and attention.
  7. The zombie animals. I took a real risk with that one, in order to keep things new and unexpected and to keep upping the stakes and peril. But there's a fine line between "unexpected" and "jumping the shark" (best defined as when a series strays so far from its original DNA that it loses what fans loved about it in the first place). At least a few readers clearly think I came down on the wrong side. (I can tell, because they used the phrase "jumped the shark" in their reviews. )

I could drill down more, but suffice it to say I think I have a pretty good sense of where I went wrong. (*) And I am seriously fiercely determined to fix it – to achieve redemption from these sins in Books Eleven and Twelve and the climax and conclusion of the series and overall story arc. This time, I'm not going to grind out two books at once, I'm not going to rush the story design process, and I'm going to produce at least 128k words (each) of pure story, drama, forward momentum, and character journey – as expressed in the characters' actions (emphasis on action). Finish it right. I know I can do a lot better. And I'm going to make these the best two books of the series – by far – or else die trying.

The challenge has been set.

Update: a couple of months later, these two books still have 4.8- and 4.7-out-of-5-star average reviews on Amazon – they usually start high and drop a little, as of course the die-hard fans read and review first – so, as noted, it seems I'm my own harshest critic, my standards are probably constantly rising, and most of the fans are pretty happy. But I also feel like I dodged a couple of bullets here, and have gotten to learn these lessons cheaply. Many blessings. (Thanks, fans!)

  arisen     storytelling     writing     story design  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
ARISEN : Odyssey
ARISEN : Last Stand
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 1 - The Collapse
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 2 - Tribes
Black Squadron
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 3 - Dead Men Walking
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 4 - Duty
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 5 - The Last Raid
ARISEN : Fickisms ][ – This Time, It's Personal
ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple
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