4 Things I Learned From “The 89th Key”

outlineI feel that “The 89th Key” was a good learning experience for me. I’ve organized some of  my thoughts about what I learned.

The Outline

I have used outlines for most of my stories and all of my movie scripts. With “The 89th Key” I put more effort into the outline. I think I put as much effort into it as I did into the first draft and the rewrite.

This extra effort paid off for me. It made the first draft go much smoother. I feel that it is at the outline stage that the hard work of writing happens. One way to look at it is that the outline is the real first draft of the story, and the first draft is a rewrite.

If you can work out the structure and action at the outline stage, then you can focus on the actual wording when you come to write the story. Many of the problems I ran into were because I hadn’t done enough work on the outline.

I want to work on how I create an outline. I have in the past developed a grid in a Excel spreadsheet to help me develop my outline. With “The 89th Key” what I wrote was more like a treatment or short story version of the tale.

Character Definition

One thing that helped me a lot was that the characters in Doc Savage are well defined. They are not necessarily complicated characters, or even very realistic. But, they have distinctive characters and I found it easy to imagine how they would behave in different situations.

This definition of character made it much easier to write the story. At times the characters seemed to come to life and all I had to do was type out what they did.

I realize that most of the characters I create are not as well defined. I can feel it when I have to force generic characters to do something. There are exceptions; the characters in “The Barrier” are all quite distinct.

I want to develop a check list of the types of things I need to define for each character. In the past I’ve focussed on general descriptions and didn’t go into depth. What I think may be a better approach is to consider how they would behave in different situations. For example, if some one attacked them, would they fight back, surrender, run away or try to reason with them.

Relationships between Characters

This is something I’ve never given much thought to. A good example in the Doc Savage books is the relationship between Monk and Ham. Their rivalry is a bit cartoonish, but it adds something to the stories.

When I develop characters I need to consider how they relate to one another. Do they like each other? Do they trust each other? Do they hang out together after work? What do they talk about when they aren’t talking about work? What do they have in common?

These relationships can add colour to a story, but can also help drive the story forward.

Like with the characters themselves, I want to come up with a check list of the types of relationships that characters can have. As I develop each character I can work how they relate to the others.

Number of Characters

The Doc Savage books have six on-going characters. Seven if you include Doc’s cousin Pat. There is usually one main bad guy with a bunch of nameless subordinate bad guys. In contrast I usually have just the hero and his sidekick, plus an equal number of bad guys. “The Barrier” was an exception to this.

What I noticed was that when I had more good guys to work with, it was easier to come up with things to happen in the story. On the other hand, I found it hard to give some characters anything to do.

I think that while you can have too few characters, you can also have too many. What the best number of characters is, I am not really sure. If I planned to do a series of stories, I would want to have a few extra around that could play a bigger role in later stories. For a stand alone story, they would just be in the way.


I’m sure that there is more for me to learn, but I really feel that this little project has been one of my more fruitful projects.

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