[GUEST POST] Darryl Knickrehm on How to Make an Entire Series From a Simple Writing Exercise


A filmmaker now exploring novel-writing and illustration, Darryl Knickrehm has 8 short films under his belt. In 2013, in addition to co-founding Waylines Magazine, Darryl was a finalist in The Illustrators of the Future. Twice. This year he is releasing the dystopian series, The Citizens of Oblivion. The first book, In Dreams, came out in January, with the next installment, Sympathy for the Devil, came out March 3. For more information on other projects, check out dariru.com, his blog, or on twitter as @DarrylKnickrehm.

The Story Behind The Citizens of Oblivion
(or, How To Make an Entire Series from a Simple Writing Exercise)

by Darryl Knickrehm

Just where do stories come from? Do they dwell on some ethereal plane, floating through the flotsam until someone taps the midi-chlorian barrier and a fully formed epic is let loose? Maybe for some. For most of us, however, the answer is a little more down to earth. Sometimes we pull from personal experiences. Sometimes we’re inspired by real world events. But a lot of the time, stories are developed. Through plotting. Through planning. And sometimes through little writing exercises. And if you’re lucky, like me, those little writing exercises might turn into an epic odyssey, one that leads to epiphany upon epiphany and an entire six-book series.

1. Find the Initial Concept

Possibly the most difficult part of a story is finding the initial concept. Sometimes other stories are a great place for inspiration. Sometimes an event that happened to you is a perfect starting point. For my series, The Citizens of Oblivion, I started on a completely different book.

After living in Japan for over a decade, writing/directing eight short films, producing a film festival, learning what it is like to be the outsider, and making friends with people from around the globe, I had a tale brewing within me. An epic of epic epicness. A tale that traversed a multicultural arcological city, and a journey through all of its spanning levels where the protagonist learned more about himself and the secrets of the world he lived in. A type of odyssey. Imagine Dante’s Inferno built by machines. Think Homer’s Odyssey with robots. A bit ambitious, eh?

But just where does anyone start with something of the scale of this Epically Epic Epic (we’ll just call it EEE from here on)? I find it’s good to start with some exercise.

2. Develop your characters

A key thing I learned in film school, and from Screenwriting 101 in particular, was: in order to make a story interesting, you need interesting characters. Unfortunately, when you start a story, things are about as flat and boring as they could possibly be (you are working with a piece of paper after all).

I was stumped with that very obstacle with EEE. While I plotted out my grand epic, characters naturally came out of the plot, but ones that didn’t have dimension, personality, or feel like anything more than templates plugged in to push along the plot (that was exactly what they were, after all).

I’ve learned over the years, however, that it’s OK if your stars start off as one-sided caricatures. They were just born. It takes time and development to make a character multidimensional, just like people in real life. And as I learned through my film experience, from actors in particular, the best way to do that is to get to know that character.

Some of the best actors really get into their characters. They write up histories, they search for the single event in that character’s life that makes them the way they are, they do all sorts of work that will never be known, but will definitely be seen on screen if they’ve done it right. I’ve found that writing a character is the same.

So that’s what I did. I made back stories to the characters involved. I searched for what would lead characters to create the situations that happen in EEE. Like what would lead a businessman to commit genocide, or what could make a robot so delusional to believe he was human. When I was done digging into each of their pasts, I realized something that made me stop EEE all together: the stories of these characters were possibly more interesting than EEE itself!

3. Tell the character’s stories

If you’ve done all your homework right, your characters will start telling their stories. Because what happened in their past will affect the way they react in the future. Sometimes, that past will even become part of the drama itself.

The point where I realized this was the point at which I stopped writing EEE and started writing The Citizens of Oblivion. I let the characters tell the story. From their point of view, I let them tell the key moments that made them who they were. And after two years of writing and re-writing, planning and structuring, I ended up with… a bunch of crap. Disconnected, esoteric, devoid-of-plot garbage! It was nine separate stories after all.

It was clear that something was missing. That something was: plot. Something that could answer what readers would definitely ask. Things like: Why am I being told these stories? What is the point of it all? Because no matter how many great characters there are in a story, no matter how epic it is, there needs to be a single thread that focuses the overall tale.

It was at this point that I began to feel that I had somehow gone astray on my epic journey. I had set out to tell one cool story, but somehow ended up telling nine unrelated ones. Somehow, things had become a great big mess.

Then it hit me. All of these people were linked. They were all part of the back story of EEE. In fact, they were the back story to EEE. Then whammo, I had an even larger epiphany.

4. Find the heart of the ‘secret’ character

In sci-fi, there is a secret character that most people don’t even think of as one — the world. It has its own personality. It has its own unique characteristics. It has its own internal problems. Heck, the reason it is the way it is now is because of the way it was in the past. Every part of it is just like a character!

In fact, a science fiction world could be developed in the very same way as a character. Just like a character, it is made multidimensional through its history. And that history is created by the events caused by the people living in it. For me, those people were the ones I had already told the story of. And with that realization, I had the answer to my dilemma.

The world was the single linking factor to all my stories. It was why these people were the way they were. Its history was the link between them all!

Finally, I knew what I had to do! I just needed to create the world’s back story and then the characters would naturally be linked together through its history, its plot, its story. Easy! Right?

5. Write, re-write, and re-write some more

Nothing in writing is ever easy. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is hard. It just takes time. Just like it took all this time for me to realize these things about character building. Fortunately, all that realizing, all that exercising was finished. It was finally time for the real storytelling to begin.

By this point, you’ve got everything you need — your characters, your world, your basic story. You know them all backwards and forwards, just like an actor knows everything about his/her own character. Now it’s time for the real performance. Now it’s time to write.

And that’s what I did on my journey with The Citizens of Oblivion. For two additional years. After a lot of re-writing, and a lot of re-structuring, I developed the thread that tied everything together — these people caused the event that concludes The Citizens of Oblivion and begins EEE: the Easter Square Rebellion, the downfall of this colossal city.

After a few more revisions, I had made it. The journey of writing The Citizens of Oblivion was over. It was a journey I never intended to set out on, but one I’m glad I took.

Hopefully, at the end of your journey, you’ll have your own realizations. Hopefully, you’ll have your own epic story of your story. As for the tale of The Citizens of Oblivion, the journey is not yet over. This first book in the series, In Dreams, came out on Jan 19, with the second, Sympathy for the Devil, set for March 3. Each book will come out every few months after. And while The Citizens of Oblivion is being released, I will finally get back to EEE. If no more 6-book-series-making distractions surface, the first draft will be ready by the time The Citizens of Oblivion is completely out there.

As for you, it’s time to do some writing. It’s time for you to make your own epic. After all, it only takes a little exercise.