May 2024

How Shaun of the Dead, Ted Lasso and Cabin Pressure use callbacks and repetition to create gags, move the plot forward and develop characters.

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve written about the insights I’ve gleaned from Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, so this week I’m taking on his rather rambling chapter on Narrative Structure which, ironically, shows very little actual narrative structure. Despite its messiness, Johnstone makes a couple of useful points, the first of which is about the importance of structure.

Johnstone suggests that one should ignore content, ie the minutiae of plot, and focus on structure instead. Story is not, he says, just a series of events, but events that are connected in a meaningful and satisfying way — in order for there to be a story, there has to be “some sort of pattern [that] has been completed”.

That leads us on to his second useful point, which is that in order to progress forwards we sometimes have to look backwards.

The improvisor has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. […] They admire the improviser’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.

In comedy, you have the callback, a joke that refers back to one told earlier in the show or series. In drama, you have foreshadowing and Chekhov’s Gun, where later events refer back to earlier set-ups.

If a plot is a series of connected events that mean something, then that meaning is created, at least in part, by referring back to earlier events, dialogue or environmental cues, such as props seen in the background. Improv, in particular, sings when the improvisor calls back to an earlier line or set-up, whether their own or someone else’s. Those moments, as Johnstone identified, often get the biggest laughs because they reveal a deeper structure to the scene, one that the improvisor has created on the fly by remembering and reincorporating something said or done earlier.

Johnstone suggests that an improvisor should (his emphasis) “look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards. You look for things you’ve shelved, and then reinclude them.”

The same is true for writers.

I think this reincorporation can be most clearly seen in TV. A few examples I’ve been looking at recently are Shaun of the DeadTed Lasso and Cabin Pressure.

Shaun of the Dead

The reincorporation of Shaun’s walk to the corner shop isn’t just funny, it adds character, context and drives the plot forwards.

Shaun of the Dead is extremely well known for its use of repetition and callbacks to create not just comedy but also pathos. Whether it’s “You’ve got red on you”, “Leave him alone”, or the visual callbacks such as Shaun’s walk to the shop before/after the zombie apocalypse (above), Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright use repetition to first set up a gag, then develop character and empathy, and finally pay off with humour and/or pathos.

One of the most effective running jokes is “He’s not my dad”. Shaun first says this on page 18 to Noel, his cocky young colleague who’s asking why Shaun’s allowed to take personal calls and he isn’t. It’s a throwaway line that would go completely unnoticed if it weren’t repeated later.

On page 60, when Shaun says it childishly to his mum, Barbara, as he and Ed try to persuade them to flee to safety despite Philip, his stepdad, having been bitten, it’s a simple repetition gag.

By page 72, when Shaun reflexively says it to Ed in the car as they escape, it says something about Shaun’s character. He’s so invested in Philip not being his father that he can’t understand either who Philip is as a person or the true nature of their relationship.

But on its final outing, on page 76, after Philip has fully transformed into a zombie, it’s full of emotion and pathos. It’s only now, having lost him, that Shaun realises that Philip has done his best to be a good father.

It’s also still really funny, not just because of the repetition but because this time it has a double meaning:

ED nods to the slavering PHILIP. BARBARA looks on in shock.

Shaun, we can’t just leave your Dad.

He’s not my Dad!

Oh Shaun-

SHAUN grabs a shaken BARBARA by the shoulders. BEHIND we see ZOMBIE PHILIP lunging forward into the front seat.

He’s not Mum. He was but he’s not anymore-

I’m sure if we just-

That’s not even your husband. I know it looks like him but believe me, there is nothing of the man you loved in that car now. Nothing.

BEHIND we see ZOMBIE PHILIP reach forward and SWITCH THE HARD HOUSE OFF. He sits back and looks almost peaceful.

This video from Daniel Pressey summarises a lot of these examples:

Ted Lasso

The Ted Lasso pilot, with only 31 minutes to play with, has to fire off its jokes way faster and so has less room for long-period callbacks, but writers Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence still manage to get one big callback in.

The set-up is on page 9 of the script:

We’ll now be dimming the cabin…

As she continues on, Beard grabs his blanket.

Better get some sleep. The jet-lag will kill us.

Yeah, yeh, yeh.

Then, shortly afterwards, we get what appears to be the pay-off, a false pay-off if you like, but it’s deliberately obscured by another joke:

Ted and Beard walk with their luggage toward a bunch of drivers holding signs. Ted looks a little worse for wear.

You didn’t sleep at all?

Not a wink. No, my brain  just kept cookin’. First I was thinkin’ about not sleepin’, then I was thinkin’ about thinkin’ about not sleepin’. Next thing I know they’re handin’ out warm chocolate chip cookies and the plane’s landing.

I didn’t get a chocolate chip cookie. You eat mine?

That’s not part of the story.

But in the very final scene of the episode, we get the callback and the true payoff.

Ted, finally in bed, pulls up the covers and turns off a bedside lamp. It’s COMPLETELY BLACK.

Shoot. Now I can’t sleep.

It doesn’t seem like much of a joke written down like this, but it really is a lovely piece of writing. After all Ted’s been through in the episode he really should be knackered, and we get this line not just as a gag, but as a way to encourage us to empathise. We all know what it’s like to be tired but unable to switch off, so in this joke, we get a laugh, some character work, and a bit of empathy. It’s masterful.

Cabin Pressure

The pilot of John Finnemore’s seminal radio comedy Cabin Pressure, similarly short, manages to give us not just a great callback joke, it makes the reinclusion core to the episode’s plot and gives us some great insights into character at the same time.

Martin, the plane’s captain, is overbearing, under-qualified and clings to his own self-importance as a way to try to make up for his acute awareness of his own considerable failings. Douglas, his second in command, is better qualified to be captain but his self-serving laissez-faire attitude to almost everything makes him unsuitable for the position. We see all of this in the short argument about whether to divert the aircraft to Bristol:

Of course, Martin, if you say we divert, then divert we shall.

Thank you.

Unless of course we were to smell smoke in the flight deck.


I’m just saying, if by any remote chance, we smelt smoke in the flight deck, we would of course be duty-bound to land at the nearest available airfield with immediate priority. In this case, by a happy coincidence, Fitton.

Yes, maybe. But I don’t smell smoke in the flight deck.

Sound effect: Lighting a match.

How about now?

What are you suggesting, Douglas?

We tell the Tower we smell smoke which we do. We get to land straight away. They check the aircraft. Don’t find anything. One of the life’s little mysteries, but jolly good boys for taking no chances. Everybody is happy, and there’s jam for tea.

Right. That’s, you know, that’s really clever.

No! I’m sorry, but absolutely not.

But in very final scene (again), after we’ve learnt that there’s a cat in the unheated hold that may very well die from exposure if something isn’t done, the callback no only serves a comic purpose, it’s (again), a key plot point. Furthermore, it recapitulates Martin and Douglas’s character types and relationship whilst giving us the chance to look at them from a totally different angle — Douglas’s willingness to bend the rules turns out to be what saves Martin’s arse.

All right, fine. Fine! All right. It’s only a job. There’ll be other jobs.
(flips on the intercom)
France control, this is Golf-Tango-India. Request immediate diversion to nearest airfield.

Roger, Golf-Tango-India. Do you have an emergency?

Well, uh.
We’ve got…

One moment, please, Tower.

What is it, Douglas?

(lights a match)
I do believe I can smell smoke in the flight deck. Can you smell smoke in the flight deck, Captain?

Yes… Yes, I can, Douglas. Could you request an immediate diversion, please?

Certainly, Sir.

In all three cases, though more frequently in Shaun of the Dead, core parts of the narrative are created by looking back to past events, dialogue and plot points and then reincorporating them. They aren’t just a way to set up a great gag, they also provide us with a deeper insight into the characters (especially Shaun and Ted) and can form the very core of the main plot (Cabin Pressure).

So the next time you’re feeling stuck about where to take your story, look backwards. Look at the set-ups that you’ve already created and ask yourself what you can call back to. What characters have you introduced and then forgotten which you can now reactivate? How can you take a concept from the beginning and reintroduce it later on? Is there dialogue or action you can repeat in a way that’s funny or creates pathos?

Getting stuck may not mean that you need a new idea. Perhaps, instead, you need to recycle an old one; you need to find the pattern and complete it.

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Plus audiobook news, Colleen Hoover’s writer’s block, SFF book length advice, and the state of British TV.

Hi there,

I’ve got a veritable smorgasbord of links for you today, so I’m breaking away from my usual newsletter format and where I’ve got a lot of related links I’m grouping them by theme, otherwise this would be a very, very long newsletter!

Also, happy Three-Quarters-Of-A-Century Newsletter to me! Yes, this is my 75th Word Count newsletter, which also coincides with the arrival of my 300th subscriber! Thank you to all of you for being a part of my newsletter journey, and even bigger thanks to those of you who are supporting my writing with a paid subscription. I am incredibly grateful!

Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist announced

The shortlist for the 38th Arthur C Clarke Award, which celebrates the best of science fiction, was announced last week. The short list is:

Lots of good reading there!

Interview with Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman in The British Library © RLF

Neil Gaiman was interviewed by the Royal Literary Fund. Interviews with Neil are always good value, but I particularly liked this bit:

What was the proudest moment of your writing career?

The proudest moment of my writing career would be my first Hugo Award. I got it for American Gods. I was one hundred per cent certain that I wouldn’t get it -there were lots of amazing books on that shortlist. So I’m sitting there happily in the audience, not having written a speech, not even a list of thank yous, because I knew I wasn’t going to win. And then they called my name. I went up on the stage and I remember standing in front of an audience and saying, “F*** I’ve got a Hugo!”

Canongate first UK publisher to become a B Corp

B Corp certification is awarded to “companies able to demonstrate that they have a positive social and environmental impact on the world”, and British publisher Canongate has now won its B Corp status, the first UK publisher to do so. Caroline Gorham, production and systems director, said:

“Becoming a B Corp feels like a public commitment: we want to ensure our impact on our colleagues, authors, suppliers, booksellers, readers and the world at large is a positive one.”

I’d love to think that this could be the beginning of a trend, but I find myself doubtful given the poverty wages/advances most major publishers pay.

What I’m watching: The Fall Guy

If you haven’t yet gotten to the cinema to see The Fall Guy or, as we say in the UK, The Autumn Guy, hie thee to a picture house right now. I don’t often feel moved to review TV or movies, but The Fall Guy is fabulous. It’s that perfect blend of action and romcom that reminds me of Romancing The Stone. It never takes itself too seriously, yet someone somewhere (literally everyone involved) took the making of it very seriously indeed.

I love a film that takes us behind the scenes, and The Fall Guy does just that, showing us how stunts are done by a dedicated and large crew of experts who makes sure that the stunt men and women don’t hurt themselves too much. Though, as Ryan Gosling’s Colt Seavers says, it all hurts. But Gosling and Emily Blunt’s comic timing is perfect, their chemistry sizzles, and the whole thing is just perfection. You don’t need to have ever seen, or even heard of, the original TV series to enjoy this, so go see it on the big screen if you can.

And yes, I’m going to keep making that ‘autumn guy’ joke until someone laughs.

Audiobooks: The good, the bad, and the bad is also the ugly

The Guardian reports that in the UK, audiobooks are  are booming, with downloads  up 17 per cent since last year and revenue up 24 per cent to £206 million over the same period. Audiobook revenue has also doubled over the last five years, which is fabulous for authors and publishers.

But despite increases in the value of several publishing market segments, and overall growth for the industry, “major publishers have said that they are struggling with rising costs” and that there will be cuts, so the good news is tempered a little.

The Guardian also takes a look at “dramatised audiobooks” which feature dozens of, even over 150, different actors and narrators. I can’t see this become a major trend, simply because of cost. Only the most popular titles are ever going to get this treatment, so I don’t think that it asks quite the “existential question” that The Guardian claims in its headline.

Variety report that Spotify are being sued in the US over the bundling of audiobooks into its Premium Individual, Duo and Family subscription streaming plans, which will results “result in an underpayment of royalties”. Spotify recently increased its subscription prices, but Billboard calculated that because of bundling:

songwriters and publishers will earn an estimated $150 million less in U.S. mechanical royalties from premium, duo and family plans for the first 12 months that this is in effect, compared to what they would have earned if these three subscriptions were never bundled.

Ugly, indeed.

Colleen Hoover struck by writer’s block

Smash hit author Colleen Hoover hasn’t written anything for 18 months, and doesn’t know if she’ll write again. In this interview, she says that she has become a lot more famous than she ever wanted to be, and that has attracted a lot of cruelty from her detractors. That, and the pressure of needing to live up to now high expectations, seems to have damaged her confidence and she finds herself unable to develop anything beyond the idea stage.

Last week I took a look at the four types of writer’s block and a dozen potential solutions. To me, it seems like the cause of Hoover’s writer’s block is motivational: She’s suffering from a very understandable fear of criticism, performance anxiety, and lack of enjoyment. I hope she can find her way out of what sounds like a rather unpleasant place to be.

How long should an SFF book be?

This set of posts from editor Jonathan Oliver on Bluesky (sadly, not formatted as a thread) explores not just how long a science fiction or fantasy novel should be, but also the pressures within the industry that are cutting page lengths.

Honestly, shorter often is better, because it forces you to make the hard choices and only keep the stuff that really, really works.

So, I have seen various comments on what length a work of SFF ‘should’ be, and as a professional editor I wanted to add my 10p’s worth. Firstly, I very rarely see novels over 150K that don’t need trimming down a touch. That’s not to say there aren’t great epic works out there…1/

Secondly, the current economy of print, paper costs, and shipping means that physical novels published in the mainstream are trending shorter. Couple that with that the fact that the latest trending genre (romantasy) tends to go for shorter novels (70-90K). 2/

Of course, with self-publishing, you can publish at whatever length you like. But, if you’re intending to produce physical copies via POD you still have to consider the longer the work, the more it’s going to cost to print, especially at that scale. 3/

On an artistic basis, a novel should be whatever length it should be. But, the longer epic works I see generally need squeezing to refine the narrative, and SFF audiences (especially with the rise of self-pub) tend to go for shorter works in series, rather than huge fat pbks by newer authors. 4/?

I love an epic when it’s done well, but they’re really really hard to do well. I’ve had one client over the past three years who has managed to nail it. But he’s struggling to get his book out into the mainstream because publishers are less likely to take a risk on a big work by an unknown 5/

So, in conclusion – stories should be whatever shape they need to be. But, in the reality of SFF publishing (taking into account boring real world economic factors and international situations’ effect on shipping) bigger books are on the wane, and slimmer, punchier titles or on the rise. 6ish?/

The rot at the centre of British TV runs deep

There’s no good news coming out of the TV industry at the moment, which is a bit miserable for anyone hoping to break into it. Channel 4 reveals that less than 10 per cent of “film and TV workers are from working class backgrounds, the lowest in a decade. And most of them are based in London.”

The Guardian talks about the misogyny that women in TV and film face. There’s way too much from this article that’s quotable, but I’ll stick to just this one:

The number of women in senior roles fell 5% between 2019 and 2022. One in three directors are women, yet they get only a quarter of director credits. Contributions from female writers fell from 43% to 32% between 2016 and 2022. Behind these figures, women are less likely to be employed on peak-time shows, which are generally more prestigious and have larger audiences, than men.

Oh, and this one:

“There’s tremendous cultural impetus,” Aust adds, “to get women to behave like men and not present any kind of disruption – don’t have a baby, don’t have IVF, don’t go through menopause, don’t have periods.” Reynolds knows an experienced documentary-maker who hides the existence of her son for fearing of losing work. Eikhof interviewed one woman who, when suffering from morning sickness on set, hid airline sick bags in her handbag so she could vomit discreetly.

Philip Ralph spoke to the Royal Television Society about how difficult it is for early career writers to get their foot in the industry’s door.

“What’s happening now is an existential-level crisis for the industry. Like what happened to the miners in the 1980s.” This is writer Phil Ralph (Doctors, Einstein and the Bomb), following the decision to axe BBC One’s daytime mainstay Doctors. […]

With its mix of long-running storylines and stories-of-the-day, Doctors was developed to train early-career writers. They would then move on to bigger series, some eventually creating their own shows.

I’ve deliberately put this section at the end, because dear lord it’s depressing reading. This thread by Kelly, a director on Twitter, pretty much sums up how hard it is for people who aren’t in London and aren’t connected to the right people to make any headway at all.

I do worry that we are gutting the future of the creative industries, which together contributed “£126bn in gross value added to the economy and employed 2.4 million people in 2022”, because industry leaders and politicians are all so bloody short-sighted. Yes, of course it’s cheaper to axe long-running training ground TV shows and replace them with ineffective and selective competitions, but in 10 years time, who’s going to be writing your hits?

We have already reached the point at which only people who don’t need the money can really afford to work in the creative industries, and it’s only going to get worse from here on in and idiots and AI decimate the jobs market.

Obligatory cat picture

To cheer you up after all that, here is Sir Izacat Mewton and Professor Grabbity Tinycat helping me to iron way back in 2013.

That’s it for this week… or is it? I actually have a bunch more links that I didn’t include because frankly this newsletter’s long enough as it is. If you’re on Substack Notes or if you follow me on Bluesky, I’ll be sharing them there.

All the best,



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What does science have to tell us about writer’s block?

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Plus Fieldwork progress, character creation, and a sleepy Copurrnicus.

Hi there,

It was a long weekend here in the UK, which was much needed. It’s been really drab and rainy for a long time, and so dismal I’ve even had my SAD lamp on to lift the mood a bit. In May. I’m hoping that the sunnier forecast for the next week is correct.

Last week I also discovered a lot of Substack posts stuck in my Gmail spam folder. So if you’re reading this on the web or in the app and your settings are such that you should be getting the emails as well, please take a look and see whether you’re actually receiving them. If they are stuck in spam, please mark them as Not Spam, to increase the chances you’ll both see them in future and Gmail stops marking them as spam for other people. Thank you!!

Suw’s news: Fieldwork progress

A hawfinch, a bird I’d never heard of before last week.

I’m now in Week 4 of Dave Cohen’s Build A Script sitcom course and I’m having the time of my life. I always knew that having a program to follow would help me make progress on my script in a timely fashion, but I didn’t realise that it would be this much fun.

It’s also been a fabulous way to bring my non-writing collaborators into the process. We’ve had some great conversations about the various ecological research projects that the characters could be working on, unsexy research areas, and ridiculous moth names. Dingy skipper, anyone?

I had a delightful moment when I realised that one character could be working on hawfinch conservation, largely because I learnt about them whilst practicing my Welsh watching Trefi Gwyllt Iolo (Iolo’s Wild Towns, expires 29 June) on S4C. There are only about 500-1,000 breeding pairs in the UK, but lots of them have decided that one garden in North Wales is the best place to be. Smart birds. I’d love to spend my time hanging about in a garden in North Wales.

If you want more of a Fieldwork update, plus a review of Joel Morris’s new book about comedy, Be Funny Or Die, take a look at the latest Fieldwork post.

Grist: Creating characters with personality

The last Grist video call was about how to construct characters with real personalities using frameworks such as the The Big Five personality traits. Because only a couple of people came, I decided to turn the conversation into a post for my premium subscribers.

I did send the preview post to everyone, but I never quite know if that’s what you want. If you’re a free subscriber, is it annoying to get previews for a paywalled post? Or do you like knowing when premium posts go out and what they are about, even if you can’t read them?

Please let me know via this poll so that I can get the balance right!

2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist announced

The 2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist “features six brilliant, thought-provoking and spellbinding novels that between them capture an enormous breadth of the human experience”. The shortlisted books, in alphabetical order by author surname, is:

What should you ask your newsletter readers in a survey?

If you’re writing your own newsletter, then Dan Oshinsky’s advice for what to ask in a reader survey might well come in handy. Oshinsky was Director of Newsletters at The New Yorker, and now runs a newsletter consultancy, Inbox Collective, so knows what he’s talking about. He suggests that a reader survey should always start with three types of question:

  • Something numeric
  • Something about the value of your newsletter
  • Something open-ended

And then goes on to suggest other key questions you could ask in your next (or first!) reader survey. It’s great advice and well worth a look.

Do people buy books, or is claiming they don’t just clickbait?

Last month, self-published author Elle Griffin, published a post with the provocative headline No one buys books in which she suggested, based on documentation and transcripts from the 2022 Penguin vs DOJ case, that traditional publishing is unfairly weighted in favour of big authors and celebrities, and that most books “make no money at all and typically sell less than 1,000 copies”.

Her conclusions were that a lot of books don’t make money, publishers get most of their income from the backlist, “A ‘Netflix of Books’ would put publishing houses out of business”, and that publishing is essentially dead. The future features, according to Griffin, self-publishing and Substack replacing traditional publishers.

With 620 comments and 373 shares at the time of writing, she’s clearly hit a nerve. And she is right on some things — celebrity and major authors do earn the most, backlists are important, Amazon is a big threat to the industry.

But, as with many things, it’s all just a bit more complicated than that. The headline, in particular, is disingenuous nonsense. People do buy books. Lots of books, as Brooke Warner pointed out, in the USA “book publishing is a $30 billion-dollar industry that published over 3.5 million titles last year”.

Warner also adds some missed context:

The reason that 2022 trial focused so much on high-level “unicorn” authors getting $250K+ advances, which are qualified as the Big Five’s “anticipated bestsellers,” was because it was an antitrust case, meaning the DOJ was trying to prove that authors would suffer (ie, lose income) if Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster were to merge.


When a publisher pays a million dollars for a book, it’s not typically for North American rights. They anticipate earning money on foreign rights and other subsidiary rights. Publishers make money all sorts of ways, and the profits work to pay off the author advances and earn publishers money. We’re talking about things like book-to-film rights; audiobook rights; translation rights; merchandising. Book publishing is lucrative beyond its most famous product: the book.

I recommend Warner’s post if you want a different viewpoint from someone who understands both the traditional and independent arms of the industry. Other relevant posts include:

And, for a giggle:

Remember, in publishing as everything else, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and Griffin does not actually have the receipts.

Obligatory cat picture

Copurrnicus, curled up on the sofa and sound asleep.

That’s it for this newsletter! See you in a fortnight!

All the best,


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Resisting the lure of research

by Suw on May 1, 2024

And learning how to transition from research to pre-writing to writing.

Yesterday, I published an update on my new sitcom, Fieldwork, where I compared the writing process for my unnamed and now trunked pandemic disaster novel (which I’ll just call Pandemic for now) and the process I’m going through with Fieldwork. Both stories are based on real science, but for Pandemic I just didn’t know how to stop doing the reading and start doing the writing so I got stuck doing research for far longer than I should have. As I said in that post:

I spent two years reading everything I could about the Spanish Flu, bird flu, vaccine development and manufacturing, PPE and all that. And I was just coming up to the finishing line when Covid hit, making pretty much everything I’d written obsolete. Had I started writing in 2015 instead, and researched what I needed as I went a long, I’d have likely finished it long before the pandemic made it impossible to publish.

My problem back then was that disaster lit was a new genre for me, and I was unsure whether it was really ‘for me’. It was easier to keep researching than to start the challenging task of writing and finding out the hard way whether I was any good at that kind of fiction. Worse, at that point I didn’t have a framework for doing ‘pre-writing’ — the world building, plot and character development work that needs to be in place before you start actually writing.

What’s interesting looking back is that I didn’t know I was blocked when I was blocked. I just thought I was being thorough and learning everything I could in order to give me good, solid foundations. But I didn’t use most of that research. Nothing about the use of eggs during vaccine manufacturing or the predicted shortage of eggs during mass vaccine production made it into the novel because my timeline didn’t include vaccine development. None of the reading I did on zoonosis, bird flu in poorly managed commercial flocks in China, the 2005 H5N1 outbreak at China’s Lake Qinghai, or how flu mutates was worth the paper it was printed out on when it came to writing.

They only reason that my extensive reading around the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak was useful was that I discovered that my husband’s grandfather, James Kirkpatrick, had been a driver for the doctors at Camp Grant when the Spanish Flu arrived. The outbreak was so bad that the camp commander, Colonel Charles Hagadorn, shot himself. That gave us some insight into what James must have been through, but it was of no use for the novel.

All that work felt essential at the time, but it was just me putting off the act of starting to write. In large part, that was because I didn’t have any sort of pre-writing framework. I was seeking an inspirational jumping-off point that would push me straight into the beginning of my first draft but, not finding it, I just carried on reading.

Fieldwork has been very different. The research window was limited to four months and I transitioned fairly seamlessly, if you ignore the break to do Ada Lovelace Day, into pre-writing. Soon, I’ll start properly writing. It will be about a year from starting work to handing in a draft, the fastest I’ve done anything, except a novella.

I have now developed a practical, useful framework for these three phases of writing:

Stage 1: Research

Not every book needs research, but if you are writing something that’s based on reality then you probably do need to do a bit of reading. Crime writers need to understand forensics, for example, and historical fiction writers need to know about their chosen period. But before you start, determine the minimum viable amount of research required before you can start pre-writing. Then halve it.

With Pandemic, my research period was long and open-ended. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I kept going in the hope that I’d recognise the important information when I saw it. I did not. Instead, all that reading just piled up and up and up, clogging my brain with useless cruft.

With Fieldwork, I knew that I was looking for just two things: Funny anecdotes about fieldwork fails, and two or three research projects to give to my characters. I’d initially hoped to do a couple of dozen interviews, but in the end I did ten and that was plenty.

So plan your research before you start and put a hard deadline on it. You really don’t need to know everything up front and if you need to fill in the holes during pre-writing or writing, you can do that.

Stage 2: Pre-writing

Pre-writing is all that thinking you do before you start writing your story: World building, character development, relationship explorations, plotting, test dialogue, etc.

Some writers like to skip all this stuff and dive in at the deep end, but I think even the most avid of pantsters could benefit from a bit of pre-writing, which absolutely does not have to include outlining. And hardcore planners could probably do well to add more variety to their pre-writing in order to keep it fresh and interesting.

Your pre-writing should draw from your research (otherwise, why did you do it?) and prepare you for writing. For me, the key parts of pre-writing are:

  • Character development: Who are these people? What kind of personalities do they have? How do they react in different situations?
  • Relationship development: How do these characters respond to one another? Do they like each other? Hate each other? How do they react to each other when they are put under stress? How might their relationship change over the course of the story?
  • Context: Where do these people find themselves, geographically speaking, when the story starts? Where are they when it ends? What is their situation, and how does it affect them? How does it change?
  • Test dialogue: How do these people speak? How do they talk to one another when they first meet? How do they sound different on the page when they are speaking?
  • World building: What are the rules of the world? Does it have different physics? Magic? Social rules? Legal rules? Plants, animals, ecosystems? Do not get sucked into this bit just because it’s fun. Keep it to the barest of minimums.
  • Plotting: Just the major plot points in the right order. Not too detailed because that way madness lies.  And boredom.

Everyone’s pre-writing needs are different and, as with research, you don’t want to overdo it. You need to get to a point where you feel that writing is possible, but not wait so long that you lose enthusiasm or allow starting writing to feel intimidating.

Stage 3: Writing

There have been more pixels spilt on the art of writing than I care to imagine and I have nothing new to say about it. You’ve all got the books.

But writing isn’t just writing. There will be times when you have to hop back and do a bit of research. Remember those holes I said you could fill? You’ll get to a point where you need a bit of info, and I recommend Cory Doctorow’s tactic of putting ‘TK’ where that bit of info should go and carrying on writing. You then have a research session later where look up all those facts and fill in those gaps, having preserved your earlier writing momentum.

(I actually use TKTK, which doesn’t naturally occur in the English language, because TK does exist in a few words like catkin and wicketkeeper.)

Equally, you might have to go back and do a bit more pre-writing. I’ll be doing this with Tag when I pick that back up, because I didn’t do it properly first time round and I have realised that some of my characterisation is a bit muddy. I’ll also do it with Pandemic if I ever go back to that, because I didn’t do any pre-writing for that novel at all, I just leapt straight into the writing and it shows.


So much of writing is actually figuring out what works for you. If ever there was a mantra for writing advice, it’s “Take what you need and leave the rest”. So if any of the above helps, let me know. And if you have any additional advice for other readers, please leave a comment.

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