Screenwriting Chat: Tracy Hickman

A Conversation with Novelist Tracy Hickman

Topic: Tracy Hickman talks about his career, how he uses Dramatica Pro to write his novels and how to create epic, multi-novel stories.

Jason M. Eng: Welcome to tonight's chat with Tracy Hickman. We will be starting in just a moment. Tonight's topic is Tracy's Career and using Dramatica Pro. You may submit your questions to the moderator at any time and we will try to get as many questions to our guest as we can. Tracy is on his way and will be here in just a moment…We have a new addition to the chat! Say hello to Tracy Hickman:

Tracy Hickman: At last!

Jason M. Eng: And so here is Tracy. Thanks for coming tonight Tracy.

Tracy Hickman: Glad to be here. Sorry about the trouble getting on. My regular system is behind a firewall and the software didn't care for that.

Jason M. Eng: No problem. We've got a packed house so let's get started.

Tracy Hickman: Glad to! Where would you like to begin?

Jason M. Eng: Why don't you start by telling us a little about how you got started writing. You were a game developer for TSR right?

Tracy Hickman: I actually determined to write my first novel when I was in the sixth grade. I decided you just had to write a few pages every day and after a LOT of would have a novel! You can actually read the entire novel (all one and a half pages of it) on my website. I had my first writer's block in sixth grade as well. I was sure I would never be a writer after that. Years went by, however, and I became a game designer for TSR in 1982. It was there that I first started learning the CRAFT of writing. It was technical writing, to be sure, but the basics had to come first. I had proposed a game series which I entitled 'Dragonlance' to the company. It was supposed to also have 'add on' products. One of them we proposed was an actual novel of the story. It had never been done before ... a novel from a game. I was the project lead designer (since I came up with the original idea). Margaret Weis was the editor assigned to the book. The company had two criteria for selecting an author for the books:

1. They had to have name recognition in the marketplace , and…

2. They had to work cheap.

Needless to say that was a long search. Somone was eventually signed for the first Dragonlance books. But their first chapters were ...just not right ... just didn't have the vision…a vision that by that point was shared by Margaret and myself. So, on one weekend, we wrote the prologue and first five chapters of what would eventually be the first Dragonlance novel. When the senior editor reviewed it on Monday, the original author was let go and Margaret and I embarked on a writing career.

Jason M. Eng: Of course a lot of people tonight have questions about "Dragonlance." Let's go to the audience now...

Nathan G.: How has the co-authoring process of the Dragonlance series with Margaret Weis worked logistically? Who takes responsibility for what aspects?

Tracy Hickman: Margaret does the nouns ... I do the adjectives ... :-) Actually, it has changed from time to time over the years, but the way it works best is for me to create the story, situations and backgrounds. That is my strong suit in the partnership. She usually does the primary writing in our joint works. I take her first draft, rework it, and then she goes over it all again so that the text has a single and consistent voice to it.

John Johnson: Do you believe the current popularity of the LORD OF THE RINGS film could lead to increased readership in the fantasy genre?

Tracy Hickman: Absolutely ... the film industry is such a powerful force in popular culture. I have just reworked my own screenplay in anticipation of renewed interest! I think we will see a great resurgence in fantasy both in film and in novels. Harry Potter for that matter, has laid the groundwork for an entire new generation of fantasy readers.

Nathan G.: Did you use Dramatica throughout the Dragonlance writing series? If not, at what point did you start?

Tracy Hickman: I honestly wish I DID have Dramatica in the early years! It would have saved us a great deal of trial and a whole lot more error. I began using Dramatica a few years ago. Our current Dragonlance: War of Souls has gone through the Dramatica Mill. To a lesser extent, although more importantly, so did elements of Sovereign Stone. In fact, Dramatica helped me identify and solve several problems in Sovereign Stone's first book. My wife and I just signed a three book series with Time-Warner. The outline for that series was built and structured with the help of Dramatica on many levels.

Geoff E.: How has Dramatica enhanced your writing?

Tracy Hickman: Dramatica has brought deeper structure to my writing. It takes my talent (such as it is) and helps me identify weak areas in my story. It also helps me build far more intricate and detailed characters than I have in the past. It identifies character relationships for me and their interactions. It also shows me where my story is structurally flawed. It is a great tool, a great addition to my toolbox. It slices... it dices ... it makes julienne fries ... (I know I sound like a commercial...) However, I can honestly say that it is an essential tool for my work these days. I only wish I had its strengths and understanding of story at my disposal earlier in my career.

ArijJan: Would you mind describing that process? Of identifying and solving problems?

Tracy Hickman: For me the story centers around the characters and their viewpoints. This is, of course, essential in novel writing because we experience the story through the character eyes. Screenplays are also built (for me) from the characters up but we do not see the thoughts of the characters in films, at least not the same way we do in novels. Films SHOW reactions. Novels TELL the thoughts that motivate the reaction. Very different. However, it still all starts with the character for me. This is one way in which the Dramatica program helps me a great deal. The program is non-linear in its process. You CAN go down through the step-by-step definition of the story (and I eventually DO go through that process) but I usually prefer to get a handle on my characters first. So I usually dive right in on the character definitions, their quantification in Dramatica terms, and their relationships both to each other and the story as I initially perceive it. Using the character system in this way is actually rather liberating for me. I find it something of a voyage of discovery. I almost always come out the other end with far more interesting characters than I went in with. Then I usually go down through a first level sequence of structure now that I have the characters better in mind. That's the broad strokes anyway.

Eryn Huntington: How many of your characters do you know in detail before beginning your story?

Tracy Hickman: I like to have a strong handle on the primary eight before I begin. I very much like the Dramatica theory of story so I am always looking for those eight archetypes. Or, at least, variations of those archetypes. Incidentally, these archetypes, in my experience are represented in different levels of the story. The novels my wife and I are working on, for example, take place in a world setting which is also structured in Dramatica terms. I know that may sound crazy, but it makes for a great setting! So I start with the basic eight archetypes and then begin swapping characteristics for interesting effect.

John Johnson: Do you believe that a fantasy novel set in an African setting could ever appeal to readers who have been weaned on Middle-Earth, Pern, and Hed?

Tracy Hickman: I would hope so but I think to be successful it would need to be very well structured and researched. By research, I mean not just the African setting but its culture and its history. I don't think it would work as well simply by transplanting Europeans into Africa for example. This is a mistake I think too many writers make. That's how you get Tarzan. What I would like to see is a fantasy that is truly African down to its soul. I think that would be fascinating. And successful, too. On a side note, we in fantasy writing often make our worlds too small. Orson Scott Card once noted that most fantasy novel maps look like a rendering of 'My Summer Vacation.' The 'epic scope' of the action appears to take place within an area of about ten square miles. Our new series recognizes that and with, I hope, great effect.

Nathan G.: Would you be able to pick out the 8 main Dramatica Archetypes in the Dragonlance Series? Or not, since the original characters were formed long before you had Dramatica at your disposal?

Tracy Hickman: The interesting thing about Dramatica Theory is that it reflects our own 'hard wiring.' The Grand Argument Story does not exist only in the program or in the theory reflects and endeavors to quantify a reality of how we think as humans. So interestingly, yes, I think I could quantify the Dragonlance characters in Dramatica terms.

  • Sturm is the protagonist.
  • Kitiara is the contagonist
  • Goldmoon, interestingly, represents a sidekick (faith)
  • Fizban is, of course, a dreadfully inept Guardian.
  • Flint is a clear skeptic.
  • Raistlin also occasionally represents skeptic.
  • Caramon is emotion.
  • Laurana also represents emotion.
  • Tanis often tries to represent reason. But later on in the story, Tanis becomes a protagonist most interesting of all, AFTER the party splits up in book II.

The point here is that the first book had TOO MANY characters with many of them stepping over each other in the story. We did not know it at the time, but in splitting the groups up, we solved this problem that would have been so evident in Dramatica.

Eryn Huntington: How much of the plot comes to you while you're dreaming up the "primary eight"?

Tracy Hickman: Actually, I usually have the basic ideas for the story, world and characters before I fire Dramatica up. I like to keep them in a 'clay like' state up to that point, moldable and forgiving. It is important to remember that Dramatica does not write the story. It will not tell you what to write…that I bring with me before I start the structure analysis. So I already have an idea of where I want to go. Dramatica just helps me find the best way to get there.

Nathan G.: Very interesting how you have really broken the preconceived mindsets about good & evil in the Dragonlance series - have redefined them, blurred the distinctions, really highlighted the balance, the two sides of the coin. Makes all of the characters more interesting, more depth.

Tracy Hickman: Thank you ... it has been a great exploration both of the setting and of our world as well.

ArijJan: Would you mind elaborating about the structure of the Dramatica structure of the world setting?

Tracy Hickman: Absolutely. Since the Dramatica structure represents a complete argument, with each of the characters taking on different aspects of that argument, it seemed to me that in the story I wanted to tell, different groups (races) may emphasis these same qualities. So in structuring the cultures of this setting, I broke down the primary races along Dramatica character lines. In a way, the different races then represent different argument aspects of the world itself. Like my characters, however, I transposed some of the characteristics for effect. Thus I have one race of 'passionate realists' who are really interesting to me. Another opposing race might be best described as 'situational opportunists'. For one group, truth is a paramount passion, for the other, truth is whatever works best for conquest. I am very excited to begin this series because both the world and its characters are structured.

Eryn Huntington: What about the more "plot" oriented Dram elements. Do you use the Signposts and Journeys to plot your scenes?

Tracy Hickman: I do use these as well, although my study of those elements has not been as complete as the character elements. Dram requires, as you know, a certain amount of concept study and application work. The plot elements I have less of a handle on than the character elements, but yes I do use them. I'm just not certain at this point that I am using them for their best effect! I am waiting right now, however, for the galleys on my Starcraft novel. That book (the last I penned) used the Signposts and Journeys structure right down to the outline of the book and the chapter structure. It was a wonderful journey and turned into a really fascinating book for me to write.

Steve R: What was it you were looking to address in your writing that spurred you to initially use Dramatica?

Tracy Hickman: I actually came across Dramatica by accident. I saw an ad in one of the trade magazines. Now, I am always on the look out for a new idea. I often base magic systems on things like quantum theory so I have to keep my eyes open. I was intrigued by the ad and visited the site. After downloading the free trial software (not unlike taking a puppy home to see if you like it, by the way) I very quickly understood what the program and theory was about. I ordered it three days later ... it took that long for me to bring it up with my wife. :-)

John Johnson: How would you respond to an author (Harlan Ellison comes to mind) who might suggest that the use of writing software like Dramatica taints a process that should flow purely from the writer's imagination?

Tracy Hickman: I think the world of Harlan Ellison ... now, having said that... Many writers on the summit of success would like to perpetuate the 'guru' state of true writers. That there is something pure and elusive about the muse. I would suggest, instead, that you read Stephen King's 'On Writing' for a more accurate concept. Writing DOES require a muse ... you DO have to have talent to be a writer. I prefer craftsmen to artists, generally speaking. A craftsman does create beautiful things but he does so on deadline. Dramatica is a tool, perhaps even a power tool. I have many tools in my craftsman's kit. Dramatica is an important one but one of many. I don't know how others feel about it but Dramatica inspires my muse without replacing it. It helps my process, it doesn't replace it. Some people, however, may have trouble with power tools. I've seen expert carpenters do amazing things with a rotary saw in hand. I've seen novices who would let the saw drive them more than they drive the saw. You can imagine the difference in result! No, for me Dramatica does not 'infect the process' ... I drive dram ... it does not drive me. :-)

Jason M. Eng: You write novels, design games, you've been making the transition to screenplays , even do your own web site. And you are married with four (if I remember correctly) children. Having recently married myself, how do you balance family and career to be successful in both?

Tracy Hickman: I put God and family first. Then my career. I believe in telling a good story. But I always try to keep my eye on the 'real' things of life before fantasy.

Jason M. Eng: Well, it's about time we wrapped up. But since the question has been submitted a number of times tonight, I'll ask what folks have been asking for some time: is there a "Dragonlance" movie on the way?

Tracy Hickman: I cannot comment on that right now. I have heard rumors of late that are encouraging. I certainly hope so and I hope they will listen to my pitch for a screenplay!

Jason M. Eng: I certainly hope that comes to pass! I'd like to thank Tracy for stopping by and all of our audience members for joining us.

Tracy Hickman: It was my pleasure ... I hope we'll do this again soon.