Writing Advice from John Rogers

I’m a huge tabletop gamer – something I don’t think I’ve mentioned here before – and as a result I have a great time watching Wil Wheaton’s YouTube series Tabletop, on which he and several celebrity guests play tabletop games to demonstrate how they work. Last week my wife and I sat down to watch Wheaton and his guests play Fiasco, which is basically a mini-RPG in a box: players create characters for a specific setting, determine relationships and conflicts, and play through a story that ultimately ends up with most of them failing to achieve their goals. Side note: it looks like a spectacular game that any writer should play.

One of Wheaton’s guests for this episode was John Rogers, one of the creators and lead writers for the TV show Leverage. Since Fiasco is basically a story-building game, Rogers had a few things to say throughout about the writing process – including what he believes to be the “three main rules of all storytelling.” They are as follows:

  • Who wants what?
  • Why can’t they have it?
  • Why do I give a shit?

Working on my previous projects, I’ve been using a model for character development that hinges on two things: their greatest desire and their greatest fear. To be honest, I never felt 100% sold on using that. With the new novel that I started working on earlier this month, I’ve instead been asking a slightly modified version of Rogers’s three questions for each of my major characters – and already I can see the results. The beauty of those questions is that they immediately force you to think about what is motivating your characters, what conflict they’re going to encounter, and (possibly most important) why a reader is going to be engaged. And these are all things that are essential for a great novel. Even at this early stage, I feel like my characters and the plot I’m weaving together are substantially stronger than anything I’ve completed before.

I’m not saying that this method would work for everyone, but as with anything I discuss here, I suggest trying it out.


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