S01E01: Can Authors Trace?

Hello, and welcome to Episode 1 of The Writer’s Everything. Today we’re going to be discussing what I like to call “Tracing For Authors”. But first, let’s go over the writing term of the week.

Character Arc

A character arc is, basically, the transformation of a character over the course of the story. Character arcs make characters interesting and dynamic. If you don’t have any character arcs, your stories will feel like they lack depth and meaning.

Not every character, however, needs a character arc. Some characters may not appear enough to even experience change. Other characters, such as Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have what is known as flat character arcs. Instead of changing themselves, these characters enact change on the world around them.

If your character does, in fact, change over the course of the story, however, there are two types of developments they could experience. They could have a positive character arc, where they improve over the course of the story, or they could have a negative character arc, where the events of the story cause the character to be a worse person than they were at the beginning.

An example of a positive character arc would be Sam Worthington’s character in Avatar, who is positively altered by his time on Pandora. An example of a negative character arc would be Sam Worthington’s character in the Netflix film Fractured, who finds himself worse-off by the end than he was at the beginning.

So, how do you use Character Arcs? Let me know on Twitter @QJ_author.

Tracing For Authors

Ok. Now, as authors, most of us have one goal in mind: Write a book, get famous, sell the rights to Hollywood, and live off the royalties for the rest of our lives.

Ok, so, most of us are also aware that having that type of success story is about as likely as getting struck by lightning. But the principle remains: We want our writing to make money. If your goal is to become an author with published books, you’re not going to want to spend time on writing something that doesn’t at least have the potential to be sold.

That being said, I think there’s another type of writing that we really ought to consider experimenting with on our path to becoming published authors. The writing I’m talking about is that of writing as an exercise. Rather than having the goal of selling your work, you would simply have the goal of enhancing your skills.

This is where the term “Tracing For Authors” comes in. Now, is there any precedent for this idea? Well, let’s think about other forms of art.

How do you learn to draw? You copy the works of others, maybe even using tracing paper until you know every detail of their technique. How do you learn to play an instrument? You recreate the works of others, playing their pieces over and over, note by note, until you’ve learned both how to play your instrument and what the key features of a musical work are. How do you learn to be an actor? You recreate famous scenes from movies or well-known pieces of literature, such as, for example, Shakespeare’s plays, with the goal of learning different craft techniques from each one.

So let’s bring this back to writing. Is there a way that we can “trace” the work of other writers?

Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that copying someone else’s work word for word without attribution is called plagiarism and is, obviously, illegal.

Plagiarism, however, requires you to attempt to publish this writing and pass it off as your own. In other words, if you copy the work of another author for your own edification, in your own notebook or note-taking app, or whatever you use, simply with the goal of trying to learn how they craft dialogue or describe a room or the appearance of a character or their emotional state, then you’re not engaging in plagiarism. In small doses, this could really be beneficial for your writing.

There are, however, other ways to trace the work of others in a more broad sense, in ways that do not involve word for word replication. So for this podcast, I’m going to be looking at three different aspects of storytelling that you can trace from other authors, to learn from and to apply in your own writing. First, I’ll talk about characters and settings; second, tone and concepts; and third, plot and story beats.

Characters and Settings

The first aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their characters and settings. Now, some authors are gifted with the ability to craft huge and intricate worlds with interesting and well-defined characters. And some authors aren’t.

If you fall into the latter category, then working within the sandboxes of other authors, with their well thought out and developed characters and settings, can help you to understand what your own characters and settings need to carry your story on to its conclusion.

Now, the interesting thing about this writing is that you can, in fact, publish the resulting work online. Of course, you have to make it available for free, but thousands of individuals do that every day. This sort of writing is called “fan-fiction”, and it has a huge following online. Posting your own fan fiction on websites such as Wattpad can give you the opportunity to have your writing read and assessed by those who know exactly what makes a great story, and who can tell you what you’ve done well and what you could stand to improve on.

Tones and Concepts

The second aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their tones and concepts. Think about some of your favorite stories, in print, film, or television. Do you like James Bond? Why not try writing about the international adventures of a super spy? Do you like Star Wars? Then try writing about a “chosen one” with magical powers, or, on the other hand, a space-western with some shady characters.

This is one of the greatest methods of tracing, because it provides you with a work that is all your own. There’s no copyright on the concept of spies, nor is there copyright on the idea of magical powers or space cowboys. As long as you’re creating something from a unique perspective, with unique characters, you can do whatever you’d like with the end result.

Plots and Story Beats

The third aspect of writing you can trace from other authors are their plots and their story beats. This can be incredibly helpful if you’re unable to develop plots of your own, or even if you just write yourself into a corner and don’t know what should happen next. Of course, your first thought might be that this is absolutely unforgivable. But it could surprise you to learn how often writers copy the plots of other stories.

Think about the story of an orphaned young man living with his aunt, uncle, or both, who discovers he has an amazing ability and needs to save the world from a dark lord. Several stories fit that plot, including Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and Eragon. Remove the dark lord aspect and you can even increase your scope to characters such as Spider-Man.

It’s hard to say how much is too much when it comes to tracing the plots of other stories. No one accuses Harry Potter of being a rip-off of Star Wars, in spite of their similarities. On the other hand, many people feel that Eragon contains blatant plagiarism from both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

What about story beats? Maybe you’re writing a police procedural. You more than likely don’t have first-hand experience as an investigator. However, you no doubt have read or watched a piece of media that contained police investigations. From that media, you can at least have the basic concept of what is involved and what obstacles may arise.

Is writing as an exercise a waste? Not necessarily. Every single one of us starts as an amateur. And every single one of us is going to need to write for quite a while before our work is worthy of being sold. The question is, will you use that opportunity to learn valuable lessons in your methodology as a writer, or will you not?

And, of course, there’s always the possibility that you can alter your traced work in such a way that you can publish it as your own. Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of its merits as a novel, famously originated as a Twilight fan fiction. Amazon’s series The Boys shamelessly recreates the concept of the Justice League, including such characters as Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and more, all from a unique “What if…?” perspective.

So get tracing, get writing, and be sure to give me an update on your progress on Twitter @QJ_author.

Character Development Question

Ok. So now it’s time for this week’s character development question, which is:

What is your character’s name?

Choosing a name is an essential step in the development of your character. A good name can come to embody everything your character is and represents. You can’t hear the names Indiana Jones, James Bond, or Darth Vader without immediately picturing the characters, their attributes, and what they stand for.

Sometimes choosing a name can be arbitrary. In Avatar, there’s no indication that the name Jake Sully has any profound significance. Sometimes the name itself has significance. In The Hunger Games, Peeta’s name, as well as that of his country Panem, were chosen because of their connections to the themes of food and bread.

Sometimes a character’s name is representative of his nationality or the time period he lives in. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Schmidt’s name is indicative of the fact that he is a German scientist. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf’s name is a reminder of the fantasy setting he lives in.

Sometimes a character’s name is chosen specifically because of his attributes. In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz have names directly related to the types of action figures they are. In Legends of Tomorrow, Rip Hunter’s name is a very tongue-in-cheek reference to his multi- dimensional profession as a hunter of rips in the space-time continuum.

Writing Prompt of the Week

And finally, we’re going to have our writing prompt of the week. This week’s prompt is to write about a computer technician in a fantasy world. Now this can be with or without magical viruses. Let your imagination go wild!

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of The Writer’s Everything podcast. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, you can find it at TheWritersEverything.org/transcripts. If you’d like to listen to future episodes, be sure to subscribe on whatever platform you’re currently listening on, and be sure to give it a rating while you’re at it to let me know what you think of the podcast. The Writer’s Everything is also available as a free downloadable magazine. If you’d like to read it, simply go to TheWritersEverything.org/magazine, and download the issue of your choice. If you’d like access to exclusive bonus content, such as my list and review of the top Character Name Generators on the web, you can go to TheWritersEverything.org/newsletter. If you’d like to support the podcast, you can do so at Patreon.com/QJMartin. For your convenience, all the referenced links will also be in the show notes.

Listen to more of Season 1 of tWE.


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3 thoughts on “S01E01: Can Authors Trace?”

  1. Hi there.
    Been listening to your podcast and was wondering if you have any examples of author tracing that you could guide me too?
    Many thanks


    1. Hello! I’m glad you reached out to me on this topic. I literally *just* listened to a podcast a couple weeks ago that has some fantastic practical suggestions for how to do this. The show is called “Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach”. Here are the links to episodes 106 and especially 107. I hope they help! If you have any other questions, just let me know! Thanks so much for listening to the show!




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