Uncle Orson's Writing Class:
How One Story Can Give Birth to Another
by Orson Scott Card
Since I'm committed to writing one Ender's Game universe story for every issue
of IGMS, I have dozens of ideas floating in my head all the time. As the time
neared for me to write the story for the February issue -- and that means
December -- I had decided I would flesh out the short section of the
forthcoming book A War of Gifts that dealt with Peter Wiggin.
I was going to be teaching a full load (for me) in winter semester at Southern
Virginia, including directing a production of my script of The Taming of the
Shrew. So I had to write the story during a particularly tight window of
opportunity in order to get it done in time. The trouble was, I was still
uncertain of the Peter story. It wasn't ripe yet.
Just at that moment, for the book publication of the comics adaptation of Red
Prophet, the publisher came up with the idea of including a never-seen-anywhere short Ender's Game comic to help promote the book.
Now, nothing could have less to do with Red Prophet than an Ender story --
but I'm not stupid. If creating an Ender comic would help lead people into the
excellent adaptation of Red Prophet that the Dabel brothers (and scriptwriter
Roland Brown) had created, it was worth doing.
But there was no way the Peter story was going to work, since it would include
scenes of his vivisection of a squirrel -- not something I want to see copiously
illustrated, thanks all the same. Besides, whatever I wrote for the Dabels could
not appear in IGMS until after the comic came out.
So instead of writing the Peter story, I set to work on a completely new concept.
For this story I wanted to have Ender actually appear as a character, though I
didn't want it to be about him. I hit on the idea of working with the people who
were already on the world that Ender went to as governor near the very end of
These would be the (mostly) men of the International Fleet that had served
under Ender and his jeesh, carrying out their orders and defeating one of the
Formic fleets. So there would be mixed emotions in the colony. On the one
hand, Ender Wiggin had led them to victory. On the other hand, they had lived
on this planet for forty years, keeping themselves alive and thriving. They were
self-governing. Now they were getting a new group of colonists who would
immediately outnumber them -- and having a teenage kid foisted on them as
Who, then, was the governor of the colony that Ender would be supplanting
when he arrived? How would he feel about it?
The result was the story "Gold Bug," which I'm very proud of. The comic
version is already out, with a script by Jake Black and art by Jin Han. But it
began as a short story, which I wrote in full -- that story will soon appear in
By the time I finished "Gold Bug," I had used up my window of opportunity and
was now buried in the semester's work at SVU. I kept trying to find a way to
write the Peter story for that slot in IGMS, but finally realized that it wasn't
going to happen until I got something else out of the way.
While working on "Gold Bug," you see, I had been thinking about Ender's
voyage to his colony world. In "Gold Bug" I show people on the colony ship
doing biological work using data already developed by the colonists. So I
wondered: What is Ender doing during the voyage?
The first thing I realized was that he would be involved in a tug of war with the
adult captain of the ship. During the voyage, Ender would have no authority,
really -- the captain ran everything on his ship, though Ender, as future
governor, would be treated with respect. (In this I recalled events from Captain
Blood and the Horatio Hornblower series, as well as historical accounts of high
officials being transported on ships where the captain and the official were
competing sources of power.)
I knew I had a terrific story going about this captain, who assumed that
because Ender was a child, the captain would become the real governor of the
colony, using Ender as a puppet, and how Ender would outmaneuver him and
completely blindside him. It would involve the characters I had already come
to care about while writing "Gold Bug."
The trouble was, I didn't want the story to focus only on Ender and the captain,
or Ender's moves would be too obvious. Ender needed camouflage --
something to lull the captain to sleep. And -- once again drawing on the
tradition of literature about the era of the Napoleonic wars -- I thought of
having a mother and daughter among the ship's passengers. The mother
would be pushing the daughter on Ender as a possible love interest,
maneuvering to get her daughter married, as quickly as possible, to the
governor of the colony. In other words, I wanted to put a Jane Austen subplot
into a C.S. Forester story.
Obviously, then, these women had to be horrible, or at least the mother did.
(One thinks of the mother in Pride and Prejudice.) And so I thought of these
characters as a distraction, as comic relief.
Except that I'm not Jane Austen, much as that disappoints me from time to
time. It wasn't enough to make these women "types." I could already feel
myself wanting to turn the daughter into a real character. And so I decided to
put a toe in the water of this story by writing about the women, to begin from
their point of view.
Who would these women be? In Austen, the women are all of the upper middle
class, fully aware that without wealth, they cannot maintain their position in
society. But that kind of woman does not board a ship for the colonies! So ...
what kind of woman gives up her life and strikes out for new territory? One
who hates her present life and only sees hope for herself by breaking away and
Unless she boards the ship with the plan of snaring Ender for her daughter.
Or both. And that was what was in my mind as I wrote the following opening
for the story that I intended to be centered around Ender's rivalry with the
Dorabella Toscano never gave a thought to herself -- she was that kind of
mother. Her daughter, Alessandra, would have a life that was in every way
better than Dorabella's had been. Not for Alessandra a miserable life in an
overcrowded European city, scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of dead
greatness -- the memory of beauty instead of its actuality. As soon as the
great project of colonizing the defeated Formic planets was announced,
Dorabella recognized that she was meant to leave this miserable decaying
planet and take her beautiful daughter to a new world, where she could
amount to something.
She could feel the hand of God guiding her choices. When her application to
emigrate was approved, she delayed confirming it until the last minute. Not
that she had wavered in her determination to go, it simply didn't feel right to
thumb the forms and return them until moments before the deadline. Then
she delayed again in thumbing the options form that determined, among many
other things, whether she and Alessandra would make the two-year lightspeed
voyage in the coma of "stasis" or awake.
She could not understand why she should hesitate in making such an obvious
decision. Why should they spend two years of tedium in a starship when they
could sleep through the entire voyage and arrive strong and refreshed and
ready for their new life?
Yet, because she waited, her forty days after acceptance had not expired before
the announcement was made that the colony they had been assigned to would
be governed, upon arrival, by Andrew Wiggin.
Andrew Wiggin, twelve years old, the greatest military genius in history, victor
of the final war against the Formics. He would not return to Earth, he would
go out into space as she and Alessandra were doing, only he would be the
governor of the colony. And he was exactly the same age as Alessandra.
Now Dorabella could see that God had not wanted her to waste the opportunity
by sleeping through it. For two years, Andrew Wiggin and Alessandra Toscano
would be together on the voyage. Boredom, if nothing else, would bind them
together as companions. Alessandra was just coming into her beauty. They
would pass through the magical changes of life together, and their marriage
would be as natural a consequence as breathing. As the beloved, then the
betrothed, then the wife of this legendary young man, Alessandra would lead a
dazzling life. And not just in their small colony, for whatever the great Ender
Wiggin did would be important to the human race. Their children and their
children's children would govern worlds and leagues of worlds. Dorabella
herself, of course, would be forgotten, but she was content with that. It was
enough for her that she was providing good prospects for her daughter.
Of course, there was always the chance that they would refuse to let her and
Alessandra take any of the few places available for active passengers. Travel
time would have to be used for training, so that those who had not slept would
be ready to lead out as farmers and builders when they reached the new
planet. Dorabella had no particular skills, and Alessandra was but a child.
They would be rejected and forced to sleep, she knew that, she knew it; but
then she murmured her prayers and crossed herself, kneeling beside her little
Alessandra's bed. Not for me, O God, but for my baby, let us be awake on the
voyage so she can have her chance to fall in love with a young man with
And the reply came back: Yes. They were approved. Dorabella immediately
thumbed her acceptance of the terms -- the classes she would have to attend,
the level of achievement she would have to maintain in order to be worth the
air and water and food she would consume on the voyage. Alessandra was also
bound by her agreement. But she was not afraid to work hard -- she had
always worked hard -- and Alessandra was the same. Dorabella had taught
Alessandra how to smile and be beautiful and mysterious and alluring and
sweet-tempered and kind and generous and open-hearted even when covered
with the sweat of labor.
Dorabella also had these talents, but alas, she had been foolish, had fallen in
love with a useless man whose only virtue was a lithe handsomeness that
turned, immediately after marriage, into a pot belly and a foul temper and a
lost job and life on the dole. She had mourned him, just a little, when he tried
to make a fast left turn across the tracks in front of a streetcar -- she had not
wished him dead, especially not so gruesomely, so that he was in pieces in the
coffin. But it was just as well. A father like that would have reduced, not
enhanced, Alessandra's prospects. Better to be a half-orphan girl than the
daughter of a lout. It would give her biography a tragic air without actually
diminishing her life in any way.
I finished this in one sitting and took it downstairs and showed it to Kristine
(as I do with every scrap of fiction that I write). Kristine read it and liked it.
But I have learned to interpret the nuances of her response. Of course she
liked it. I know how to do this kind of writing and she's certainly used to
reading it. But I knew that I had not lit a fire in her with this opening,
precisely because she knew that the real story had not yet begun.
It was, in other words, a preamble. I was 838 words into the story and
absolutely nothing had happened yet. Oh, there were events, even decisions,
but I had not yet shown a scene: two or more people interacting with each
other until a climax is reached.
This is not a bad thing. It is one perfectly good way to get into a story. But the
reader has only so much patience for preambles. When the manner of writing
gives a clear message that the real story has not yet begun, then the reader
proceeds with a sense of holding everything in abeyance. Yes, OK, I'll absorb
this information, in the trust that soon the story will actually start and that
this will be important to it.
So I could certainly have gone on and put these two women on the colony ship.
The first real scene in the story would be their first meeting with Ender. It
would be a bit of deliberate misdirection, because the reader's initial
expectation would be that the story is about Ender's relationship with these
women, when in fact it would be about his relationship with the captain
(though I would bring the women's story to fruition, too).
Only ... something weird had happened. I didn't like the Dorabella of this
opening, and neither did Kristine. She was interesting, yes, but she was also
kind of an awful person. I didn't really want to spend time with her. It made
the opening rather unpleasant.
Besides, I don't actually like writing important characters who have no
redeeming qualities. I felt as if I had been unfair to Dorabella, setting her up
for a fall without giving her a chance to live and breathe. Why was she the
kind of person I was painting her to be?
So even before I went to bed that night, I knew that I was not going to use this
opening. Instead of a told story, like this one, I would open it up with a scene.
Telling vs. Showing
This is an important point to keep in mind. When writing teachers say "show,
don't tell," as if this were always good advice, they are simply showing their
ignorance. The vast majority of every story is told, not shown. That is, you
narrate it, and even if it has a strong point of view, as my Dorabella opening
has, it moves the reader through events and choices without stopping to watch
Showing -- that is, opening up into a real scene -- is an amazingly powerful
tool. Suddenly, things become real. We hear voices, we see faces, we watch
things happen (even if, with fiction, we readers provide most of the details out
of our imaginations). The narrative of that preamble did not require the reader
to picture the characters, and therefore the readers were not yet being asked to
collaborate with me in creating the story together. But the moment I start
writing a scene, I'm requiring the readers to step in and get to work as the
costumer, set-builder, and casting director for the play we're creating together.
This actually requires real effort on the part of the readers (though the readers
don't realize it), and so it also imposes an important obligation on the writer: It
has to be worth the work.
In other words, when you ask the reader to invest in a scene rather than
straight narrative, the scene must amount to something. It must reach a
satisfying climax, and something important must be decided because the scene
took place. It should feel like a crux, a pivot in the storyline. This part of the
story was written out as a full scene because it matters.
So when I began the story that now is the published version, I made the
conscious decision to begin with a crucial moment: the time when Dorabella
tells Alessandra that they are going into space.
I had already decided that these women were Italian. Now I popped into Google
Maps and found a good sized town on the heel of the boot of Italy. Without
knowing anything about the place other than general Italian geography, I
assumed various cliches about southern Italian culture. Mostly, though, I
needed to know the names and relationships of streets (my story thinking is
always, always tied to maps and floorplans). I arbitrarily decided to locate
them in what was bound to be the "old city" area not too far from the shore of
One thing giving me a lot of freedom was that Ender's Game takes place more
than a century in the future. So whatever might be true of the town of
Monopoli today will not necessarily be true of the town by the time this story
takes place. But for me, this placement of their apartment immediately gave
me the view from their window, the steepness of their street, the look of the
houses, the bleakness of the streets of Italian cities, where all gardens are
inside the house and all you see are stones and stucco and tile roofs.
I was also inside the house, where everything was Eurocheap and nothing
worked because this family was financially on its last legs. Now, given
European politics, there's no way that poverty would be allowed to be a reason
to let a family freeze in winter. But air conditioning is a luxury, and given the
costs of energy -- even in the future, I'm quite sure -- those who wasted their
government checks would not get subsidized electricity. If they didn't pay the
bill, it would get cut off.
Because it's a story of mine, very few of the visuals in my head show up in the
actual story. I don't describe their flat. Eventually you learn that it has only
one bedroom and one bathroom, and the rest of the apartment is a
combination kitchen/living room/spare bedroom/dining room. A cramped
space. But I don't have to tell you that, because it is revealed by the dialogue.
In fact, as Aaron Johnston, an early reader of the manuscript, pointed out to
me, most of the story consists entirely of dialogue. What I have written here is,
in effect, a play. And in play scripts, you don't have to specify the set or the
props except when the characters actually pick something up and use it.
(Having learned my theatre from Shakespeare, I actually put all the specific
props and set pieces into the dialogue, so I don't have to explain them
The important thing about this is not that OSC doesn't describe much in his
fiction, it's why I don't: Because the crucial thing about scenes is that they are
not really narrative. Each scene should actually function as a mini-play within
the overall structure of the narrative.
That's why pure description always feels as if it stops the story. It doesn't
really -- it's part of the narrative, the told portion of the tale. But the narrative
is merely the bridge between scenes -- between plays. Scenes in fiction are
dramatic sequences inserted into narrative threads.
So I began writing the scene, and in so doing, I did what I always do: I became
both actors, improvising dialogue with only a bare thread of story to guide me.
But first ... a crucial choice: Viewpoint.
Point of View
The Dorabella opening was absolutely from the mother's -- Dorabella's -- point
of view. This was the right choice for that narrative preamble, because
Dorabella was the one making all the choices. It was her attitudes and reasons
and motives that were important to understand. Alessandra would have been
a poor choice because she wasn't deciding anything. We could get her attitude
toward her mother's choices, of course, but we wouldn't understand the
purpose of what was going on in the story.
Now, though, with the story of these women's decision to leave Earth and go
into space occupying a far more central role in the story, Alessandra became
the more desirable character to have in the central viewpoint role. Why?
Because even though she wasn't making the choices, she was the one whose
life was being most disrupted. That is, the mother wanted to change their
lives, but Alessandra had not decided any such thing. Her life was being
changed against her will and she would naturally try to do something about it.
In the told-story version, whatever Alessandra did to resist her mother's plans
would have been irrelevant -- the story wouldn't actually begin until they met
Ender. But in the dramatic version, the story is going to be about Alessandra
becoming reconciled to the decision.
At this point I still didn't realize that this would be a self-contained story,
ending, essentially, when they leave town to head off to space. I still thought of
it as the opening to the story about Ender's voyage. So I also picked
Alessandra's point of view because in that version of the story, she would have
been the one to have a direct relationship with Ender. In other words, by
switching between her viewpoint, Ender's, and (perhaps) the ship captain's, I
would be covering all the important information. I would have all the tools to
reveal -- or conceal -- information in exactly the right order to make the story
suspenseful and yet clear.
This would be important because we would have to see what Ender was doing
but not know his plan until it unfolded at the end. So I would not be using
Ender's viewpoint during the events leading up to the climax, so I could
legitimately withhold his plans from the reader. We would be in the captain's
viewpoint for that moment. So the rough plan in my mind was to open with
Alessandra's viewpoint, move to Ender's long enough to see how he conceives
his problem, and then move to the captain's for the rest of the story, up to the
climactic confrontation. The three viewpoints would root us enough in all three
characters that in the climax, the readers would understand, without long
explanation, exactly what each of the three thought was going on, and how
they would obviously react to what actually happens.
That was the plan. But something happened. I fell in love.
Characters Writing Themselves
Almost from the moment I had Dorabella start talking in this new scene-centered opening, she was almost nothing like the cold, selfish woman of the
first opening. I didn't decide this. It just happened.
Here's where writers often get mystical and talk about characters "writing
themselves." Nonsense. I wrote every word and I wasn't hallucinating.
But I was playing. While I write the Dorabella opening, I wasn't an actor, I was
a narrator (which is really another kind of actor, but that's a different essay).
The moment I chose to begin with dialogue, I stepped into both roles and began
to play as actors do.
Which means that immediately, in both parts, I was seeking ways to draw the
audience's eye and emotion.
There are three basic ways to "win" the attention of the audience when you're
on a stage. You either get them to love you, to laugh at you, or to fear you.
(Again, there's another whole essay in this, about how this is the primary
strategy used by human beings to get along in society, except that real life has
a fourth option, to disappear, which is almost never an actor's choice.)
The original Dorabella opening made her an object of dread: The readers would
be hoping that Ender could avoid getting in her clutches. The strategy I was
using, in that narrative preamble, was fear. The worse I made Dorabella, the
more sympathy the reader would have with the as-yet-unmet Ender.
But in this story, I wanted to build sympathy with the viewpoint character,
Alessandra, so she would be the patient victim of her mother's incompetence.
Dorabella, however, instead of being built up through fear, suddenly turned
into a clown.
It wasn't my strategy as a writer. It was my strategy as an actor. Mother is
trying to sell her horrible decision -- to force her daughter to leave Earth and
go to a colony world -- by making it a game.
But in the moment I wrote it that way, I had made the decision (unwittingly) to
have this be the primary way that Dorabella relates to her daughter. To
Dorabella, all of life is a Midsummer-Night's-Dream-like comedy that she creates
to distract her daughter from what is really going on in their lives. She is
Bottom, Titania, and Puck rolled into one.
Because I'm in Alessandra's point of view, I can show how Alessandra is no
longer taken in by the show (or at least she thinks she's not). Dorabella, on the
other hand, isn't even Dorabella, she's simply "Mother." We experience her as
Alessandra does -- as a failed clown, one that wants to be funny, but is really
rather sad. Yet because Alessandra does love her mother, at first she is willing
to put up with what's going on. Only when it's clear that Mother actually
means it does she start to resist.
Thus the scene begins with a preexisting relationship: Clown and weary-but-patient audience. It almost immediately transforms into a different one:
Desperate mother (still trying to be a clown) forcing her will on an unwilling
(and uncomprehending) child.
At the end of the scene, the child has decided not to comply with her mother,
and so she has her own plan of resistance. This plan will take her into contact
with the grandmother -- the character who becomes memorable through fear.
My original structure -- the story of Ender, the women, and the ship captain --
was not working here. Once I had introduced these three characters -- the
lover, the clown, the villain -- it was inevitable that the climactic scene would
involve all three of the women -- and needed no other characters.
So it was that with the introduction of the grandmother, I finally realized I
could not move on to the starship in this story. This was the tale of three
women, and it would end when they sunder their previous relationships and
The structure for this story then became simple and obvious. Though the story
covers many weeks, and most of the time is either told or skipped, the vast
bulk of the words on the page would consist of four scenes.
1. Mother tells Alessandra that they are going to leave Earth.
2. Alessandra resists by trying to arrange to live with grandmother.
3. Now that Alessandra has met the grandmother, she finally learns what has
really been going on all her life.
4. Grandmother comes to try to force Dorabella to stay under her control and
Dorabella and Alessandra, together, stand against her.
Doesn't it look simple? But it was not my original plan. It grew out of what
became interesting and involving to me as I improvised that opening scene
between Alessandra and Mother.
As I improvised the character of Mother -- the clown, pretending she lives a fay
existence on the edges of fairyland when in fact she's living in a financial hell --
I began to wonder. What is she really doing with the money? Why does she
maintain this cheery, happy façade? The cheap thing would be to make her
crazy or, worse, "wacky," a sort of A Thousand Clowns in 23rd-century Italy.
But I despise literature that celebrates happy-go-lucky irresponsible grownups.
And yet I didn't want to make a ruin of Dorabella-the-clown -- I wanted her to
amount to something.
It wasn't till I got to Grandmother's house and heard her random, untargeted
hostility and saw all those icky tacky knickknacks and pillows and fuss that I
caught a glimmer of what was really going on. In other words, it took my
improvisation of Grandmother to enable me to understand the tragic dilemma
And yet, with each scene as it opened, I had no particular plan. I simply acted
my way through the dialogue to see who the characters were -- who I wanted
them to be.
I could not start writing this story until I had a plan. But in the process of
improvising the scenes, the story slipped away from that plan and took on a life
of its own. That's what is meant when we say that characters "write
themselves." We improvise our way into characters and relationships that we
care about more than we cared about the original plot.
I will still write that other story. Nothing in this one contradicts it. In fact,
between "Gold Bug" and "A Young Man with Prospects," I've framed that center
story of Ender's voyage quite nicely, I think, showing the world his colonists
came from and the world they're going to.
Meanwhile, though, as a storyteller I did not imprison myself in my own plans.
The Dorabella opening was the captive one -- the opening that did nothing but
serve the story I meant to write. It was the opening of this story that opened
the doors to far more possibilities and let me create a much better, richer, and
utterly different tale from anything I had planned.