The Skill Tree of Fiction Writing

Everybody writes differently, and that’s so important to know when getting into it.

There is the pantser/planster/planner distinction, which is a great tool … even though it can be exhausting when people try to make the argument that one is “always better.” (They’re wrong.)

I personally had a more powerful awakening when I learned about the distinction between an over-writer and an underwriter. How often had I spoken to readers who under-wrote, who couldn’t understand my plight as an over-writer, and visa versa?

Why do these distinctions matter?

The Writing Skill Plateau

If you’ve ever read anything about the Dunning-Kruger effect, you’re probably very familiar with this chart:

Intermediate writers often suffer from rather poor confidence.

If you’ve spent any time writing your books, if you’ve ever done a #nanowrimo event, if you’ve ever trunked a novel, if you’ve ever shared your writing publicly, chances are you are far less confident than the person who is sharing their absolutely BRILLIANT short story about a sexy ghost murderer who’s dark and broody. Also there are zombies.

An entire industry has built up around capturing the not-really-novice-anymore writers and making them feel temporarily better about themselves: courses, contests, books like Save the Cat, The Emotional Thesaurus, and Romancing the Beat. They’re … fine. I’ve read most of them and bought the fancy copy of A Hero With a Thousand Faces too.

But I have a horrible secret for you: They might not work. In fact, they probably won’t, if by “work,” you think “feel better about your writing.” There’s no use getting out of this one, Mr. Frodo. You’re going to have to keep trekking Mount Doom, keep crawling up the dreaded bell curve.

What courses, workshops and books CAN do is help you learn a lot of new things about your craft. What they CAN do is help you talk to other writers who are also at the middle of that confidence dip. What they CAN do is help you try new things when you’re inevitably stuck.

There’s no shortcuts. Try new things a lot. Write a lot.

The truth is that, as writers, we rarely get to sit down with 1. pros, 2. editors, 3. agents or 4. masters. So chances are you’re an intermediate writer who’s talking to another intermediate writer.

But the problem with intermediate writers teaching each other is that we’re all in VERY different places with our skills. That’s why writers like to fixate on planner/pantser or over-/under-writers; we’re all trying to help each other out but struggling to teach each other because we’re all in different places.

This is a problem. It’s the sweetest problem in the world – the fact that we want to help each other but struggle to – but it’s a problem nonetheless.

I felt like throwing my hat in the ring to help out other intermediate writers, because I think this framework can help people communicate and learn.

Who am I? Nobody. But I’ve read/watched/listened to the fiction-writing tips of many people. And I am also a nerd. Skill tree time.

Writing as a Skill Tree

Rather than thinking of distinctions between writers, which can create some weird infighting at times, I’ve decided to conceptualize writing as a set of five core skills.

It comes from the world of video games. The idea is that you have a set of skills you choose, and that those skills are slowly leveled up.

This is an example of a skill tree from World of Warcraft. Yes, I am a nerd, okay?! *pushes glasses up nose*

The idea is that you only get a limited number of skill points, and you have to choose which skills you’re going to focus on, slowly leveling up.

Example for those who are not nerds: I am a witch. (Yes, I know this is not a DnD class, shush.) I have skills in Potions, Cackling, and Spells. I start with two points each. Every day I work on my nefarious witchy ways, I earn a point. But what if I put all of my points in cackling? I’ll have 10 points in cackling and only 3 in potions! Snape will be so mad!

Those at an intermediate level not only may be using a different style or trying to solve a different problem than you, they also may have leveled up their skill tree differently. What if they’re far better at writing sentences than you are, but they’re struggling to write a full scene? What if their chapters are baller but their book somehow sucks? What if they’re brilliant at dialogue and have a lot to teach you about it, but they can’t seem to pull off an ordinary paragraph without passive verbs?

The Skill Tree for Fiction Writing

DescriptionWrite full, complete sentences that communicate effectively and convey style.Bunch together sentences into complete themes that don’t lose the reader.Satisfyingly convey a story in miniature, in which an event takes place (usually involving characters taking an action or in dialogue).Bunch together scenes with the effective use of transitions and slowly increasing pace/suspense.Complete longform fiction with satisfying payoff and fully finished character arcs.
Medium(s) to try outPoetry
One-sentence stories
Twitter fiction
Academic writing/essays
100-word fiction
Short stories
Flash fiction
Short fiction
Comics/Short graphic novels
Visual novels/interactive fiction
Writing ExercisesPrompt: Write one sentence 20+ different ways.
Prompt: Try magnet poetry!
Prompt: Write the LONGEST grammatically-correct sentence you can.
Prompt: Tell a full story in one sentence.
Prompt: Go to the library, pick up a book at random, scan a paragraph, and mark when your attention wandered.
Prompt: Write a one-page memo or article for a fictional authority, like the president.
Prompt: Write down strangers’ conversations (caveat: never publish it and don’t be a creep).
Prompt: Make your characters argue about a tissue box.
Prompt: Get a character from A to B, but throw 2 obstacles at them within 5 pages.
Prompt: Write for r/writingprompts!
Prompt: Read the chapter endings and chapter beginning of your favorite book. Why did you keep flipping pages?
Prompt: Write from a different character’s point of view than you had expected to use in your story and experience the story from their perspective.
Prompt: Create an outline for your favorite movie.
Prompt: Try writing the ending of your novel first.
Prompt: Record when you gave up on a book and why. Are you doing the same things?
ResourcesBuilding Great Sentences: Explore the Writing CraftGrammar Girl #639

On Writing: Dialogue Basics! by Hello Future Me

Robinette Kowal’s MICE Quotient

The Art of the Short Story
How to Structure a Chapter by Reedsy

Plot – Promises, Progress, and Payoff
Save the Cat

The Story Circle

Snowflake Method

These are what I consider to be the five core skills:

  1. Sentence building – Communicate your thought.
  2. Paragraph building – Bucket your thoughts to convey a small argument or theme.
  3. Scene creation – Tell a story in which an event happens.
  4. Chapter organization – Smoothly transition between scenes to create pacing/plot.
  5. Novel writing – Finish your story with emotional closure.

All 5 of these writing skills should, in theory, contain core story elements: a beginning, middle, and end.

Now, Steph, you might say, can’t I level up all of my skills at once when I write a novel? Well, yes. Maybe. But rarely does one have the Jack-of-all-trades skill, and usually you may be stronger in one of these areas rather than the others even after writing three or four novels. Many pro writers will tell you to just write the full novel. But some pro writers even advise against that.

I would argue that when you’re stuck, consider dumping some points into a skill that you haven’t focused on as much. Spend some time with my prompts or the resources I included.

Tips and Caveats

  • This system recommends that you write in other mediums. If you’re good at them, great! If you’re not, you’re leveling up a skill that is in your blind spot! Now, some experts suggest that you stick to one medium only. It realistically depends on how much time you have to spend honing your craft. While you should definitely spend the most “points” in your chosen genre/medium, I think widening your skills will help in the long run. That’s my philosophy, though: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
  • You should actively seek resources for the skills that have fewer “experience points.” Maybe learning grammar will help you. Maybe watching movies and writing down dialogue will help you. With every skill, there are experts to rely on and skills to hone.
  • You can create your own skill tree. I highly encourage your write your own skill tree. Go nuts! The concept is ripe for the picking. (Get it? Tree joke? I’ll see myself out.) There’s many directions to go with a skill-tree concept. You can create your own rubric, including imagery, voice, pacing, etc.
  • Buff in all five categories? That’s great. There’s still more to work on. For example, this system ignores genre-specific skills like worldbuilding for the fantasy writer, suspense for the mystery writer, joke-writing for comedy writers, or scene directions for the screenwriter. There’s plenty to learn and this is by-no-means extensive.
  • Read YOUR genre/medium. There’s no shortcut to the saying “read a lot, write a lot.” If you don’t read in your genre, you’re going to struggle no matter what.
  • This system is not going to make you more confident. It will just make you better. Remember that bell curve? It’s not going to pull you out. But being frank and honest about your skills will, in the long run, likely help you.

This is simply my version of what a skill tree for fiction writers would look like. I hope other writers have fun with this and find it helpful!

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