Writing a Monster into Existence


[Editor’s Note]

The QE household has prepared itself for the onslaught of sugar-craving children.  I figured today (Halloween) would be a great day to repost an older blog about monsters to free me up for pumpkin carving and other fun things.  Since writing this post, I purchased Cryptozoology A to Z, by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark (thanks to a suggestion offered by Dillon, over at From Rad to Dad). It’s a very organized glimpse into the monsters of all shapes and sizes.

While I love reading most genres, few things give me more pleasure than reading about monsters chowing down on unfortunate locals.  It can be zombies, aliens, rodents of unusual size,  or anything else you can think of.  I enjoy it even more when the writer creates a new beast for me to add to my bestiary archives.

I‘m currently working with a couple writers who both have monsters in their books.  The human chomping freaks are terrifying and enjoyable to learn about.  One issue we have been sorting out together is how they can describe the monsters clearly.

This lack of description becomes a larger issue when you have spawned a new breed of monster.  When you say dragon, I know what you are talking about.  At the very least, I have an idea of what you are talking about.  But if you go springing an ancient force hell bent on sucking out my eyes and using my spine as a fiddle bow, then I need to some details.

writing monsters.jpgI recently snagged Philip Athans’ book, Writing Monsters, to help me find some creative solutions to provide.  By recently, I mean it came in the mail yesterday.  I sat down to read with a highlighter in hand and a notepad ready to jot down ideas.  My plan was to pull all the pertinent information from the book and compile a list the writers could use to beef up their monster description.  I hit page eight, and bang, there was a goldmine.

Athan had created a template called, “The Monster Creation Form.”  I’m not going to reproduce that simple, but genius, form here.  I think that level of borrowing would border on copyright infringement.  It did get me thinking about a similar form I used to play with a lot – a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) character sheet.  I’ve done a blog post on character sheets before, which has examples.  You can check that out here.  If your monster is quasi-human, you might be able to use one of the templates I provided there.

monster manual.jpgI also ordered the D&D Monster Manual (the version I linked).  I could remember a younger version of me flipping through one of these and marveling at both the written descriptions, variety, and artwork.  I figured the older version of me could use another point of reference.

After the euphoria of my Amazon impulse buy wore off, I began searching for D&D type templates to build monsters.  After some internet scouring I ended up right back here on WordPress.  I found a blogger, OldDungeonMaster, who has a literary ton of great D&D related materials.  One such item was a monster sheet for a Cranium Rat.  You can look at the image below.  I also linked this image to his/her page so you check out the rest their content (for you aspiring D&D players and Dungeon Masters).

cranium_ratI combined some elements from the monster sheet above, and some elements from Writing Monsters, and created my own Bestiary of Destiny.  You can use this template to sketch out your monster and assign elements.  While I’m no artist, I sometimes find even a crude drawing helps me better understand how something looks.  It helps pull the description out of the creative whirlpool in my head and give it shape.

Bestiary of Destiny

If you click the image it will send you to my Flickr page where I uploaded this image in higher resolution.  Print it in landscape and have some fun.  As with anything I create for the blog, it’s free to share and use for whatever nefarious purpose you have in mind.


Many times when I talk to writers about description, they know all the answers.  I’ll say something like, “It was great when Zolgorg the Mighty ate that guy.  What does Zolgorg look like when he eats someone?  Does he tear them in two and go into a blood frenzy, or does he carefully quarter them?”  Usually the writer will launch into a five minute description-fest explaining the ordeal in fine detail.

griffin.jpgWhen they wrote the scene, the information was clear in their head, it just didn’t make it onto the page.  In my own writing, having visual references (like character sheets and templates) reminds me to include those descriptions.  I make sure to stick the papers up on the wall in front of me, or somewhere I can see them.  This way when the time comes for juicy description, a glance at those papers zeroes me in on important descriptive elements.

If you are having issues being consistent with description, or generating a clear picture of what your monster should look like, I encourage you to try this tool.  Worst case scenario is you have a crudely drawn picture, but a clearer mental one.


Oftheunicorn.jpgThat’s it for today.  I hope you found some useful tools to create your own monsters here.  I’m sure as I continue reading through Writing Monsters some more nuggets of information will accumulate.  You can look forward to some posts about flesh chewing chinchillas and what not.

Do any of you have effective ways to create new and terrifying monsters?  Or know of good books on crafting monsters?  If you are willing to share I would love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Show vs. Tell & Intensity Scales

tumblweed.jpgHey there you literary lead slingers!  I’ve seen more posts on showing versus telling on WordPress than there are tumbleweeds blowing across the dusty plains.  That’s a good thing!  I was going to list a bunch of references (as usual), but I found an exceptional WordPress heroine who has already done that!

I encourage you to swing over to The Sentranced Writer and check out this post.  Allison (whose first name I’m using like we are best friends even though I just found her blog 10 minutes ago), took the time to compile ten brilliant resources for understanding showing versus telling.  Awesome sauce!

I also wanted to offer my two cents on the concept and provide an interesting tool I’ve found regarding show versus tell (after all, I have to at least write SOMETHING for it to be a daily blog post).

Before I wrote this post I snagged some of my books to refresh the concept.  Nearly every book I own on the craft of writing has a chapter dedicated to this idea.  That tells us something about the importance of it right there.

Before we dive into the topic, check out the video below from one of my favorite movies, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly circa 1966.  Seriously, if there is one soundtrack noise I’ve repeated more than any other in my life, it’s the one from this movie.

No Video.jpgIf I wasn’t so terrified of copyright infringement, I would have placed the fifty-five second clip here.  It includes the “bad” guy’s monologue and Tuco’s classic retort…

“When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk,” said Tuco.  *Corey makes whistling noise*

Tuco is teaching us a valuable storytelling lesson and also about showing versus telling.  Now that you have observed this clip with your eyeballs (assuming you watched the video), let’s consider something.  What would be the best way to share the scene you just saw?

You could say, “Show someone the video clip.” I would agree with you.  For most of us, sight is our primary sense.  This movie clip shows us a scene because we are literally looking right at it with our peepers.  We are experiencing it as the characters experience it.  This is showing.

Now if you watched this scene and walked into a different room of your house and tried to explain what you saw, you are telling.  You would likely say stuff like, “Imagine you are in an old western town.  There is a guy walking into an old saloon and he doesn’t have a right arm…,” and on you would go.  You are attempting to tell the story from an outside perspective.

show versus tell.jpgWhen using the power of literary telepathy on your readers, you need to decide whether you want them to experience the scene as your characters do (show them), or if you want to pull back and explain the scene to them (tell them).  It’s important to realize both of these are essential tools and both of them have a place.

Most sources will jump up and down and blather, “Showing is the bee’s knees!”  I agree with this sentiment.  It is indeed the bee’s knees.  However, if all you do is “show” in your novel.  It will be hundreds of thousands of words long.  Compare the length of the following:

Telling:  “The morning alarm began droning.  Corey’s hand exploded from under the blankets and destroyed the threat with a quick thud.”

Showing:  “His ears throbbed at the sudden explosion of noise.  It sounded like the Imperial March from Star Wars.  It was the Imperial March.  Morning had come and brought cell phone alarms with it.  The blankets cradled his body and the pillow had wrapped itself around his neck massaging him.  The soft warmth of the bed begged him not to leave.  But the Imperial March continued, only louder.  The sharp coolness of the air assaulted his bare arm as it left the relative safety of the…”  And on and on we go.  If every single character action and interaction is revealed in this showing manner, you’re going to have one gargantuan book.

Here’s one solution I’ve found to help you navigate whether to show or tell from scene to scene.  I pulled this specific idea from Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, but I’ve seen similar descriptions in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Stein on Writing.   Bell offered a chart similar to the one below; mine is prettier.

Show vs. Tell Scale.jpg

While I don’t prescribe to a one-size-fits-all style of shaping scenes, this is useful idea to play with.  If the scene is just starting and there is little intensity, it would fall into the “telling” area.  Just go ahead and summarize it with a visceral line or two and get the scene moving.  As the scene progresses and gains in intensity you should start moving towards “showing.”  This reserves those longer bits of exposition for parts and pieces the reader will likely care about most (more intense action involving characters).

Of course now we fall into the, “QE how do I successfully rate intensity from 0-10?” problem area.  I’m not sure.  I thought about that when I was reading it in the different books.  The answer is probably different for each author.  We each likely have our own intensity scale we would apply.

Like I said, this may not be useful to everyone.  As with most tools I acquire and share, I encourage you to use them or shelf them for later (just don’t throw them away).

communicationThat’s it for today!  I know some of my readers also blog about writing.  If you wrote a post on showing versus telling feel free to drop it in the comment box for others to navigate to.  I’ll even make a reference section at the end of my article for people to stumble onto your work.  Sharing is caring!

[Contribution Update]

Thomas Weaver, over at North of Andover, wrote a solid post covering this topic.  As always, his posts are highly entertaining and packed with great information.  I highly recommend giving it a read.  Click here and be teleported!

[End of Update]

question-markAs always, I’m curious about your own processes.  How do you decide when to show and tell?  Is it completely organic (it just kind of happens)?  Or do you have a methodology you apply?  What do you think of a scaling system like I recreated from Bell’s book?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Template for Tracking Character Arcs

I had a couple emails from folks regarding how I track character arcs.  Specifically about the extra notes I take chapter to chapter to track changes in character.  I’ve talked about character arcs in the past here (use in self-editing) and here (what they are).  I do have a standard template I work from and attach to chapters as I roll through.

Below is the one I mocked up a while ago.  I just recently converted it to Flickr so you can click on the image below and print it out if you need it.  It’s been formatted to fit a standard piece of printer paper (landscape) so you should have no trouble printing.

It’s pretty self explanatory as you look at it, so I won’t go into any great detail about how to use it.  If you do have questions about it, don’t be afraid to leave a comment. I’m pretty good at getting back to people.  I destroy trees at an alarming rate so I just print them off as I need them.  This template would cover six chapters.

Character Arc Tracking Sheet.jpg

Give the image a click and get teleported via interweb majesty to my Flickr page.  You can print a higher-resolution version there.  Created by me, and as always, free to use and share.


Today is a mercifully short post, but provides you a handy tool.  If you can get your beta readers to use something like this – you win the prize.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Build & Control Characters: Dungeon Style

Critical HitA few weeks ago I shared a post about how I sometimes (when bored or low on inspiration/creativity) use dice to create chaos for my characters.  Letting the roll of of the die determine how effective a character is at coping with a situation.  If you missed that day – it’s here.  Today I wanted to talk about how I use character sheets to keep track of characters, build them, manage what they are carrying/wearing, and also how I sometimes use dice to build minions.

This method hearkens back to my nerd roots, and nights spent playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) down in the basement with my best buddies.  If you have no concept of what D&D is, give episode one of Stranger Things a try on Netflix (if you haven’t watched this series, you can thank me later).

First, I thought I would show you an example of what a character sheets looks like.  You can simply use a search engine and type, “Dungeons and Dragons Character Sheet,” to find endless variations.  Or, if you are already keen to the concept, make you own.

character sheet.jpg

Now you have a rough concept of what character sheets look like (if you had no idea what I was rambling on about before).  Like I mentioned earlier, these are just two variations – there are hundreds of them online you can print out.  Now let’s tackle some uses of them.

arrows.jpgManage Inventory.  Depending on the setting of your book, gear (the things your character carries) might really matter.  In the novel I am finishing up now, Wastelander, gear is limited.  People have to scavenge and build the things they need.  One of my Alpha Readers is quick to point out things like, “Dude, are you sure Jim has arrows left?” or, “Why didn’t they use [insert item]?”.

These are important continuity issues that must be addressed.  When I get into a writing rhythm, I don’t like to scroll back pages to try to recount how many of an item is left.  I just take a guess and move forward and tell myself I’ll fix it in rewrites. Using a character sheet can help you keep track of those items and speed you right along.

character template.jpgWhat the heck does you character look like?  I’m not a big fan of blasting out two or three paragraphs describing characters as they show up in the book, but that doesn’t mean I don’t slowly reveal how the character looks.  I like to sprinkle description in dialogue and narrative to slowly build the character over time.

A character sheet is an easy way to record what your character is wearing and some of their physical traits.  If you are an artist (lucky) you can sketch them out.  By having this quick reference handy while you write you can sprinkle in character description along with dialogue and narrative as beats (i.e. “My hand shot up to the black leather stitching of my eye patch.  It was still there.”).

It also lets you keep track of the condition of what they are wearing.  This is another continuity issue you can run into.  Alpha Reader: “Bro, he fell down a cliff last chapter.  Shouldn’t his clothes/gear be messed up now?” Yes Alpha Reader, they should be.

strength.pngQuick reference for character statistics.  While you may have a cement foundation built for how your main character looks and acts, some of those supporting characters may not be as fully developed.  Character sheets can allow you to record character statistics (i.e. Strength, Charisma, Intelligence, Dexterity, Constitution).

Maybe you are building a supporting character and aren’t sure what they should look like just yet?  Grab some die, give them roll, and start assigning values.  What makes D&D fun is the characters are built around luck.  When you first generate a character in D&D you had to roll die/dice to determine those statistics, as you play through the game you are now saddled with those traits.

diceGenerate Characters.  Maybe you need to make some minions.  Here’s an easy way to do it.

Let’s say you are using two six-sided dice.  The worst number you could roll would be a 2 and the best would be 12.  So if you are determining Strength (can they punch through walls and carry cars), Constitution (do they stay healthy or does a paper cut cause massive infection), Dexterity (how nimble are they), Charisma (can they talk their way out of situations), and Intelligence (master tactician) – you have five statistics to work with.

Roll five times and record the numbers.  Then assign those totals to the character however you want.  Now you are saddled with a character that is competent at some things, and terrible at others.

Use sheet to record character arc.  I recently wrote a post on character arcs here.  If you are using character sheets to keep track of your characters you can also record important things that happen to them as you write.

Character Arc TrackerAt the close of a chapter I like to scribble down things like, “Drake realizes so-and-so is betraying him.”  Doing this gives you a quick reference to look at as you write.  You can, at a glance, recall important things that have already happened to a character.  This should help you navigate them through the story in a more believable manner.

That’s it for character sheets.  For me, I like physical things like character sheets.  References and tangible items help me sink into the world I am creating.  Often times, having a quick reference to guide me, helps me move my characters in a believable manner.  It is also nice when you are managing a host of characters.  It can get tough to keep track of everything when we fall into our worlds, tools like this can act like a compass.

Do you use character sheets?  Do you have some other method of keeping track of your wandering character?  I’d love to hear about it.  I’m always looking to improve my craft.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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