Writing models - any darn use whatsoever?

Spurred by Lord Lightning’s epic template posting, I thought it might be an idea to talk about writing models. And besides, there’s a draft I should be doing so naturally I’m finding other things to do.

I’m a screenwriter and I’m kinda sorta familiar with all the usual theories - Field’s three acts, McKee’s ‘negation of the negation’ (wtf?), Hero’s Journey.

But none of them helps much in the actual writing. They can help if I’m stuck, in a random ‘let’s try chucking this different wrench at the problem’ kind of way, but I dip back and forth between the big idea, events, character, style… everything… far too much for the top-down programming / project management approaches.

I got tutored by a (very) old hand last year, whose opening gambit was ‘I don’t do theory’. And he didn’t. He just kept asking me why my characters were doing things, and my rambling replies eventually got me to some interesting stuff.

One last point, nicked from some blog. The writer said these questions were his main tools in figuring out a story. I like’em.

  1. What’s the next thing this character would realistically do?
  2. What’s the most interesting thing this character could do?
  3. Where do I want the story to go next?
  4. Where do I want the story to end up eventually?
  5. Does this scene stand up on its own merit, or is it just setting stuff up for later?
  6. What are the later repercussions of this scene? How could I maximize them?

That said, I’ve found eight sequences quite useful.

Simple as they sound, these are the basic problem solving questions one should ask when dealing with characters. Otherwise they fool around, out out focus. It’s true that the author is not the master of his/her characters, but on the contrary, their slave.

I’ll keep these questions in mind in my next writing sessions. Thanks.

The most useful advice I got when starting out was to ask the question, ‘What does the reader want to know next?’ This fits in nicely with my own strategy, which is to write a first draft then delete all the boring bits. Too often we spend pages telling the reader things we think he should know (how to catalogue a book according to AACR2, in my case – don’t think of asking) without putting ourselves in his shoes and asking that simple question.


I can’t comment on these particular models, as I haven’t studied them, but in my view they are meant as guidelines for us writers to use, build upon, or dismiss all together. What matters is that you get from a to z and learn how to navigate the seas of change each metaphorical letter brings. Models certainly help there.

I’m for instance trained in models of economics. Even though I thought they were 98% useless at the time I learned them, I can now look at how businesses act and understand it without thinking too much… and adapt my own actions accordingly.

The same should be applicable to models in literature, but there is a learning curve before they start making any practical sense.

accentedeuropean, Hi!

Spinningdoc remarked:

I posted several templates and left them up for a couple of days. The key template was a Master Fiction Template. I use a 24" monitor so they may not have suited all monitors. That’s why they came down.

On the matter of templates and models, I am reminded of having found a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle at my grandparent’s house. The pieces were all jumbled together in a small tin bucket. I tried for ages to put that puzzle together. Then after about a month my grandfather asked me why I was still struggling with it.

I told him I knew all the pieces were there. I had counted each one, but I just couldn’t figure out how they went together. He then produced the box top from a cupboard in his workshop.

I learned a fantastic lesson for life and writing. It was my job to make sure I had the box top before I started out on a big project, such as writing a film script. If you work in a group or collaboratively with another writer, you have to work from the same box top.

So, when Keith put Scrivener out to writers, I had a ‘box top’ experience. Here, finally, was a full on writing application of the very highest calibre, on a Mac, that allowed you to conjure a box top for each and every project. Was I impressed? Yep.

So the idea behind the template posting of a Master Fiction template was to collect together all of my own box tops, gleaned from years of writing, and put them into a single fiction writers template - or box top.

If you missed out then perhaps someone who did manage to download it could make arrangements to send you a copy via email.

With respect, I have a different take on models. I don’t like them because they destroy the possibility of creating something fresh and original. I know they are useful but don’t agree they are essential. Artists of great merit don’t copy formulae; they break the rules and move our ideas of form and language forward. Some may call this an elitist view, but don’t mistake it for conservative–that’s the realm of pop art, just creating what sells. You can put together a puzzle without a box top. Find all the sky pieces, then the grass pieces, etc. But even better, go outdoors and draw your own pictures of the world.

Sells, you say? For money?

Lord Lightning, hi back!

I understood that spinningdoc was spurred by your template and I had already downloaded it thanks! My comment was more on the general use of models, which I understood as being the sub-context of the OP’s post.

I somewhat agree with howarth’s view as well, though I won’t go so far to say that models are entirely useless. There’s no point to re-invent the wheel… unless of course your road is a rocky one :wink:

To break the rules, you first have to know what they are. That’s where models come in.

Plenty of great work has been done within extremely stringent models, too. Consider Shakespeare’s sonnets and Bach’s fugues, not to mention non-Western forms like haiku.

Art doesn’t come from tools. It comes from knowing which tool suits which purpose best.


I think howarth raises an interesting perspective on writing. Do you see yourself as an artist or is your writing an income producing career? Your stance would make a difference. Most artists pay their dues learning the box tops of their art. I just keep thinking of the stringent rules for film scripts - down to the font choice and point size. Even the indentations are down to millimetre accuracy.

howarth says:

I’ve heard this argument before, but have never seen a reasoned defence of it. These tools are just hammers and nails. You use them with enormous flexibility. Can you see J.K. Rowling using twenty chapters when 36 will do. I guess you design and build the house. The hammer is just something in your tool belt for donging in nails. The hammer has nothing at all to do with the design or build of he house.

My point. Horses for courses. If a box-top helps use it. If intravenous caffeine helps, use it. My aspiration was to make my own tools available to fellow Scriveners. These tools have served me well for years. Most Scriveners seem able to discern the use of such tools. Just a tool - not a product.

In the end though I am intrigued by the art of writing - I just don’t see much of it on commercial bookshop shelves. Most agents, publishers and film producers know a marketable writing product when they see it. I am just not sure how marketable (and I mean mainstream markets) ‘artistic’ writing is. Convince me of the marketability of such work and I too will give free reign to my artistic impulses. But, how will I know it is any good?


Well, that’s the burden of the screenwriter. The script is the start of a sometimes multi-million dollar enterprise. That’s why they’re so picky. Without the benefit of centuries of audience response, the producers must find any way they can to filter/guarantee they’re dealing with a winnah.

Whether the accuracy down to the thousandths of an inch indent is an appropriate guide to success is open to debate.

In anything so infinitely malleable yet dependent on underlying structure as a story I imagine that tools are useful provided the tool doesn’t overwhelm the telling.


Well, just like any media-industry, literature is a dual industry. There are writers who want to create and publishers who want to sell. The latter is just as much based on models and formulaes, if not more, as the first. For publishers, the safest bet is to look at what worked in the past. No artistic freedom since Shakespeare?.. ok, let’s keep it that way. For every book that gets published, there will be 100s that don’t.

But there will also be niche-publishers that want this kind of content because they have the audience for it. And the internet leaves a lot of room for self-marketing, though as soon as you get into that territory, the level of artistry often gets flushed down the toilet.

Of course this all depends on how art is defined which is one big rat-hole. Safer to dig up those models :slight_smile:

Structures do not stifle creativity. If the structure is the story, then yes it will be formulaic and unoriginal, but that isn’t a problem with the structure. The structure is there to provide a scaffold, or a skeleton, to support and give shape to the creativity you put into your work.

The Hero’s Journey, or the 37 basic plots, or the three act structure, or any number of others all provide a scaffold, not a paint-by-numbers plan.

Hey Janra, wise words and I like your site a lot.

Yes janra, I second that - a terrific writing site. I really like where you are coming from. A really positive attitude comes through.

Thank you both :slight_smile: