Fishboning Clears Story Tangles For Me

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: “The most difficult scene you ever wrote and why.”
If I have a scene that for some reason isn’t flowing well, I remind myself that the first draft is supposed to be ugly. It’s allowed to be fragmentary and lacking details and maybe even full of X’s here and there or notes to myself like “add more here”. I just have to get words on the paper (or into the computer file) and build from there.
(Time for my standard disclaimer that there is NO one rule for how to write and everyone should write their books in whatever way works for THEM.)
I do as much as I have creativity for on the first pass and then each time I re-open the file thereafter, to keep writing the rest of the narrative rather than obsess over the one scene, I do go through the specific moment again and build upon it, refine it, in a process I think of as ‘layering’.  Each time I touch it, I end up adding words and depth and color and actions and…by the time I finish the entire book, each scene inside is finished.
DepositPhoto – A classic fishbone diagram.
The ones I do for my writing do NOT look like this.
If I’m really at a standstill, I fall back onto what I call ‘fishboning’, in honor of a very useful process improvement technique from my days at NASA/JPL.  I end up building a structure with the possibilities that flow from any decision a character could make in the scene’s situation (or that I, the omniscient author might drop upon their heads) and as I brainstorm and work through this, the path with the most possibilities or the most exciting-to-me events along the way becomes clear and off I go to write. I can’t tell you how many times this has worked infallibly for me. I use my trusty, very sharp No. 2 pencil and a pad of legal sized yellow (or lavender) paper. Something about doing this just really clears the way for my Muse or my creativity or whatever one chooses to call it, to break loose and enhance the story telling.

In actual fact, it’s a combination of true fishboning for root cause analysis and “The Five Whys” technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, where you drill down and down to what the ultimate root cause of any problem may be. The fishbone is a cause analysis tool, which a trained facilitator (which I used to be) might pull out to use when a problem solving team has hit a dead end or finds itself in a rut.

I am a NASA Lean Six Sigma Black Belt so trust me, I’ve had training in these and many more process improvement techniques. I’ve amalgamated and adapted them for this creative purpose of mine and it leads my Muse through the cluttered field to the right path for the story.
Now most of the time I just sit down and write the book, and don’t do any fishboning or anything else. The story flows, I type and it’s all good. But every once in a while, perhaps once or twice per book, I resort to pencil and pad and brainstorm.
As far as the most difficult scene to write because it affected me so much – there’s a scene in  Timtur, book 2.5 of the Badari Warriors series, where Lily the human heroine sits through the night with a dying soldier and does her best to comfort him, even forgiving him for participating in kidnapping her. (And no, this is a supporting character, not the hero.) Folks, I cried writing this scene. I’ve never had that happen to me before or since on a book I wrote.
I have a feeling the scene might be mining an experience in my own past where I sat vigil through the night by a person beloved to me who was not going to survive. (I’m not normally too self-reflective or even conscious of where and what influences my Muse is drawing upon deep inside my own memory and experiences to spin the stories I write. Sorry if it seems weird to discuss my writing process as disengaged somehow from my everyday, entirely rational ‘thinking’ mind, but when I write, I’m in the flow.)
So anyway, here’s a portion of that scene. Lily and the dying soldier are both imprisoned within an alien lab:
Hastily, Lily ran to the sink and filled a piece of lab glassware with water, before going to the table where Hilkirr was restrained.
He lay still, fangs and talons extended, all the veins in his body standing out and glowing blue as if filled with liquid phosphorescence. As she approached the table she observed his eyes were open and his breathing was labored.
“I brought you the water,” she said in a near whisper. “Can you raise your head enough to drink?”
“Teacher?” He blinked as if his vision was impaired, although even in the darkened lab he ought to be able see so much better than she could.
“Yes, it’s me.” She slipped one arm under his head and helped him get the right angle to sip at the water, although he didn’t take much. His whole body trembled.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “Stay?”
Lily shot a glance at the door, assessing the risk.
“Please?” His voice was a raw thread of its former volume. “I—I don’t want to be alone, and I can’t hear the pack in my head anymore.”
“All right.” She searched for a stool or a chair and found one shoved into a corner. She went to retrieve it then sat next to the table, wrapping both of her hands around one of his, mindful of the extended talons. “I wish I knew how to get these restraints off so you could lie more comfortably.”
“No. It’s better this way.” Hilkirr shook his head feebly.
“Might hurt you.”
“I don’t believe you would,” she said as warmly as she could. “Do you need more water? Are you cold? I could try to find a lab coat or a blanket.”
“Okay.” She sat and closed her eyes, unable to bear looking at his abused body for too long. His grotesquely expanded muscles and tendons were distressing, as were the brownish-yellow bruises spreading over his body as the experiment slowly extinguished his life. The glowing blue of his veins was fading, to be replaced by more ominous colors, a vile mix of purple and black.
Hilkirr’s clasp grew lax, and she sat up with a start, afraid he’d died, but he’d only dozed off. She went to the sink and got a wet cloth. Back in her place beside the table, she brushed his hair off his face then bathed his upper body carefully, as much as she could reach, drying him off with another, softer cloth.
With obvious effort, he turned his face toward her. “Feels good.”
“I wish I could do more.” After dropping the cloths in the refuse bin, she resumed her spot in the chair and clasped his hand again.
“I’m sorry, teacher. We shouldn’t have kidnapped you. That was wrong.”
“I forgive you,” she said and found she meant it. Hilkirr had suffered so much as a result of following Vattan into this hellish lab that
she only had pity for him.
“Swore a blood oath to my Alpha,” he said. “Had to obey.”
“I understand.” Lily wasn’t sure she truly did but pack meant everything to the Badari, and blood was the magic used to seal all their most important bonds and agreements.
“Wish Aydarr had been my Alpha. The valley was so beautiful.” Now his voice was wistful, and Lily had to blink back tears.
“I’m glad you got to live there in freedom for at least a little while.” Sorrow in her heart like a stone, she patted his hand and wished she could do more.
“Do you think the goddess will forgive me? Can she forgive me?” His whisper was intense.
Lily bit her lip, throat tight with repressed sorrow, pondering how best to answer the question. What would Timtur say to comfort a dying comrade at a time like this? Words came to mind. “I don’t know much about your goddess. But I know you call her your Great Mother, and I know a mother loves all her children equally and forgives them. So, you hang onto that thought.”
“You should be a mother,” Hilkirr said a minute or two later, surprising her. “The cubs all love you, did you know that? The boys think the Great Mother sent you to them.”
“Maybe someday I’ll have a baby,” she said, thinking of Timtur and what a child born of the two of them might be like. Motherhood was a dream far removed from her current situation and she pushed the happy subject to the back of her mind with regret.  Her muscles were complaining at the awkward position so she shifted a bit and stretched, while hanging onto Hilkirr’s hand. “Do you need more water? Are you in pain?”
“Can’t see anything. Can’t feel anything.” His hand twitched. “Other than your fingers. Warm. Nice. Would you sing? Like you do for the cubs after classes, if they’ve been really good?”
Happy to have something she could do to comfort him, she said, “Of course.”


There’s more to the scene in the novel but I think this gives the flavor…


This article was originally posted on SFF Seven

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