Latest Entries »

A Mess of Small Goals

2014-(white)TheHandandtheTempestTitle&Progress2

Man did April blow up in my face.

If you follow this blog, you’ll know I had an incredibly clean, specific plan for April. A plan that started with a content edit of War of Exiles, the book I’ve been working on since 2005 through various phases of my writing career. A plan that was so clean and so simple that I should never, ever have expected it to go smoothly.

Because, hey, we’re writers, right? Writing comes first… until work and life come first. Without getting into it, I had a family crisis that thankfully resolved itself, but before I knew that, I was preparing to move and resigning myself to fail at paying my mother’s debts like I promised I would a year ago. No big. No problem. Just an epic personal failure and a disruption of my life plans.

Of course, the crisis being a dud was nice, but the effect is, I’m starting the content edit for War of Exiles way later than intended.

The odd thing about it is how incredibly guilty I feel. I’ve already opened up a lot more than I usually do with my posts, so I’ll keep leveling with you here; I feel like a lazy scumbag because I haven’t started the edit yet… despite having perfectly good reasons. The reasons being the crisis, the fallout (compiling and sending a bunch of story files from my ancient iMac to myself because that’s Writer Priorities right there), the second fallout (trying to catch up on work hours I missed because of the first fallout) and maybe a matinee of The Winter Soldier somewhere in there (shut up—it was essential).

The thing is though, those were perfectly legitimate reasons… to not write. So why am I beating myself up about it? As my friend and fellow writer, Justine Manzano, put it in an email, “I love how you say you weren’t diligent enough because you were working.”

And why is that, when I clearly see how unrealistic that guilt is, my reaction is still a distracted grunt and, “Damnest thing… You write today, btw?”

I really don’t have an answer for this one; this is absolutely not one of my workshoppy, peer-counsel posts.

All I can say is, I’m… actually glad that I reacted to that guilt… with pressure.

Is that horrible? I have no idea. But regardless, I’m making absolutely no effort to change that writing pressure reflex, even though it sucks. Because, to put it into the most mature terms I can think of, every writer… wants to be that Lvl. 99 Master of the Iron Quill. I used to be completely incapable of writing anything if there was any noise in the room… until I forced myself to work through the cars blasting music outside and the party going on upstairs. That’s Lvl. 5 nonsense of course, but the point is, if I ever trip, I should hit the floor with red correction pencil and the final page of a manuscript in hand.

And, as obviously unrealistic as that is, it’s always better to strive for that than shrugging and thinking, “Meh. I’ll get to it next week,” isn’t it? Or do I have this all wrong? This is the profession where you compound super unhealthy mannerisms like staying inside and shunning the real world with totally unrealistic personal standards, isn’t it? Phew. Thought I was in the wrong place for a minute.

At any rate though, through a mess of small goals, I’m finally ready to start the content edit of War of Exiles (the Project Progress Bar at the top right of the page has already been changed—that’s commitment).

To summarize, I finished March with a solid short story outline for The Hand and the Tempest with lots of extra plot details and a much looser novella outline I’m planning to expand on after the content edit of War of Exiles is done. Of course, I have to own up and say that March wasn’t as productive as I was hoping and, as it always goes with writing, I wasn’t able to finish a large project in the tiny, unrealistic window I gave myself. But I promise to continue striving for “Still not good enough.” : )

~~~

I will be busy with the novel, but I’ll keep taking time out for posts (and I promise I’ll get back to the usual, workshop content in the weeks to come). Although not necessarily in this order, another Games for Writers is coming up along with a post about compiling old notes (because, seriously, all of us with the notebooks and the sticky notes everywhere, amirite?). There may even be a third issue of Red Comics, that web comic I put together whenever I seriously, seriously want to procrastinate.

So maybe pass by again or subscribe. But no matter what you do, thanks for reading!

Disclaimer: I thought I’d take a new turn with this post. I’ve put out a handful of Games for Writers articles before in which I talk about specific games that promote good writing in large or small ways. However, I’ve never written any warnings to budding fantasy writers about the (many) bad influences gaming can have on their writing. Thus, here we are, with the first of my Tips for Games for Writers. Enjoy!

So, in this month between finishing War of Exiles and starting its content edit, I’ve pretty heavily picked up my gaming again. Not because I need to play video games, but because, in the comfortable glow of only having an outline for a different story to casually chip away at, why not?

As if I need to have goals now, however, I’m not playing anything new; I’ve instead gone back to super old games I never got 100% in (at least until Titanfall hits the 360). Examples of how I’ve been wasting my time: Fallout 3, Beyond Good & Evil, Half-Life 2. Essentially, I’m trying desperately to complete some of my favorites before this generation officially ends for me in September with Destiny.

But anyway, my current gaming goals aren’t the article here. The article—and my particular need to write it—came while playing Fallout 3. I was on an alien space ship, my character, Norman Osborn, discovering that he’d been made into a cyborg by his alien captors (I seriously just took the Cyborg perk [unnecessary roleplay FTW]), was raging, hurling Plasma Grenades everywhere. It was a good time.

Until I reached the higher level aliens. They clearly had shielding that made them stronger, and although it didn’t feel like it made perfect sense, they were so much more powerful than their unshielded buddies that they cut right into my grenade-hurling good times. Fun turned into plugging what felt like way, way too many shots into the same, stringy alien with my extremely powerful Firelance until it finally died.

Which absolutely made me reflect on countless other such moments—particularly in Bethesda games, but really present in any RPG; you encounter a level 20 enemy while you’re level 1 and, OMFG, you’d better run because that enemy, no matter how disarmingly huggable, is just not going down.

And this, of course, reminded me of when I started writing and how the phenomenon of the high level puppy dog not even feeling my rocket launcher shots—what I now present here as The CR Trap—impacted my work for the worse.

First, What’s “CR”?

If you’re unaware, “CR” stands for “Challenge Rating”; it’s a term I picked up from D&D and it’s the result of an equation that dictates how strong a monster is in relation to all of the players’ characters (a CR 5 is a well matched challenge for a team of four level 5 characters). To put it simply, they’re the decided strength of a monster or character, assigned to supplement a gaming experience.

And often found in every other kind of storied media. Movies? Comics? Books? They all have Challenge Ratings, intentionally or not.

Now, What’s the CR Trap?

It immediately sounds like I’m saying Challenge Ratings are bad; they’re not. They are, however, a gaming tool that doesn’t apply well to writing when they’re misused. When used well, Challenge Ratings are fantastic tools for making more enjoyable experiences (comics are notorious for having Challenge Ratings that dictate how much a normal human can withstand for the sake of being more enjoyable to readers [the Punisher and Batman are two great examples of characters who can take an unrealistic amount of punishment and still come out fine because the audience wants them to (and before you start raging, I’m sorry, but Batman would’ve died the very first time Solomon Grundy punched him 30 feet to smack into a wall JLU style; not being abrasive here—just realistic)]).

However, Challenge Ratings can very, very easily become a personal meta that feels unrealistic to everyone else and that cheapens your writing. To clarify here, establishing clear rules for your characters (they’re all vampires or some other race that has what I think of as “the durability suite” of super powers [moderate super strength, speed, agility and endurance]) isn’t what I mean. What I mean is (perhaps unwittingly) setting rules beyond that to further ensure the safety of your characters. What I mean is you’ve grown up with video games for so long that your human characters can illogically take more than a single gunshot wound and still be fine; against all reason, they can get shot eight times and still scurry behind a waste-high wall and meta-heal enough to rush on to some final objective before ultimately surviving. That is the CR Trap in its most basic and universal form.

However, it absolutely goes deeper than that and gets complex enough that I probably shouldn’t be presenting it here without way more explanation of its different facets, but whatever. Let’s have a good time instead!

The RPG-Forged CR Trap and Me

If you’re anything like me, you’re a fantasy writer who grew up on RPG’s. Even if they didn’t heavily influence your writing in any way, it’s a safe bet that you still carry accidental hints of your writing lineage in your work. Maybe your characters are more stylized. Maybe they have more elaborate weapons or you naturally gravitate to more action-oriented plots.

Or maybe… you’ve actually written the scene where the protagonist faces off against a giant monster and, against all logic, the protagonist comes out unscathed… and defeats the monster by hitting it only once. This is the CR Trap I grew up with, forged on the RPG’s inability to realistically portray violence.

And maybe you’re thinking, “What? Seriously? There’s tons of violence in the RPG’s I play.” Not debatable. However, think about a turn-based RPG like Bravely Default. Your characters have their turns—they run up, execute their attacks and then fall back. The enemy they hit reels for a moment, and then falls very cleanly back into the same stance they had before. It’s a small moment and the tiniest lack of realism, easy to keep out of your work.

Until you see it hundreds… of thousands of times without realizing it. It may sound silly, but consider that possibly, without realizing it was happening, you were trained by your turn-based RPG to see that moment—the waiting enemy, the perfect sword strike, the reel and recovery—as a reasonable approximation of a battle with a vicious monster. And, of course, you know that’s not how the fight would actually go, but it is, perhaps, the very first thing you think of when you try to picture said battle.

And now imagine that that single moment… is actually part of a suite of misconceptions video games have ingrained in you.

  • Like the misconception—provided by a truly awesome and high quality game like Skyrim, for example—that attacking a monster might not illicit any physical reaction whatsoever (because Stunning is tied to Critical Hits and certain moves to make it a gameplay feature).
  • Or the idea that an enemy would pose and act for visual flare, never attacking in a way that sacrificed aesthetics for brutal, logical efficiency.
  • Or the subliminal idea that when battles start, all environmental elements are stripped away and replaced with a large, flat expanse as to not impede the action.

I could go on until I round back to the concept of a Level 1 Barbarian fleeing from a Level 99 Tribble, but if you love video games as much as I do, you’ll know all of these incongruities yourself. Because you always have.

The CR Trap’s Effect on Your Fantasy Writing

I’ll be completely honest with you—I did not catch myself falling into the trap until I finished the first draft of War of Exiles. No lie, rereading the Prologue, in which my protagonist has an encounter with a monster (geez, I even used “encounter”), was actually what sparked the need to rewrite the entire book. It was a horrible, horrible mess of a fight because I basically wrote a turn-based RPG encounter. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but… I’ll strike off a list for you.

  • The monster, though harmed, did not suffer any serious damage or react to said damage with anything more than a roar and reel before recovering all of its mobility and faculties. Essentially, it was only pretend harmed.
  • The monster, though intelligent, had a collection of visually impressive but extremely useless attacks and abilities that it used slowly and illogically (classically ensnaring my protagonist and slowly pulling him towards itself… instead of immediately running up and killing him while he was helpless on the ground).
  • The battle started in the center of town, perfectly and unrealistically large for a small town and absolutely devoid of any obstructions aside from one decorative fountain that was effectively cut out the moment the fight started.

The only thing I didn’t do was have Lethe and the monster stand facing each other, weapons ready, posed and breathing as action bars filled up.

It’s odd to remember how much I relished writing the original scene too; it wasn’t just that I thought it was passable—I thought it was cool and exciting.

And that’s what the CR Trap does; it ironically lowers the Challenge Rating of your fight scenes by scripting you with the familiar; you feel right at home and comfortable and successful as your character cuts a giant spider’s leg but doesn’t really cut it because reasons. The spider jumps back and strikes again even though it’s gigantic and this is happening in what was just described as a castle courtyard crowded with statues, the spider missing every now-ignored statue because reasons. When the spider strikes  again, it grazes or, despite what should probably be unreal agility, totally misses. Because reasons. Long-ingrained, comfortable reasons.

Getting Out of the Trap

If you feel like you’ve written these kinds of scenes and want to change them, it’s a not at all simple process of going back and thinking very clearly about what’s really happening in your fight scenes. In particular, think about whatever monster or threat your characters are facing and consider something that’s absolutely foreign to video game fodder—what this monster’s individual motivation is. Try to plot how it would advance and how it would attack and stay true to that even if you still come out with a simple “It wants to kill my protagonist,” and especially if you find a complicated, scene-ruining answer like, “This creature would absolutely run away or try to run away if confronted.”

Also, and probably even more essential for combat scenes, don’t simplify your arenas, whether that means not always putting fights in conveniently cleared out “boss rooms,” or not forgetting the table in the center of the room.

But, if there’s one thing I’d suggest above all of this, it’s to put your characters in reasonable, honest danger. If you want your character to fight a giant spider, alone, admit that there’s a fantastic chance that spider (or a reasonably scaled threat for those protagonists who can easily kill a giant spider) will absolutely, ruthlessly, and efficiently kill your protagonist. At the very least, admit and embrace the idea that your characters can face insurmountable dangers in your story, even if thise dangers are never on-screen; that your protagonist isn’t the untouchable badass you usually follow to the end of a video game. To put it simply, write legitimate, suspenseful danger.

And, hey, while you’re at it, also make sure that no other gaming contrivances are plaguing your work (i.e. no fall damage or extremely convenient, nonsensical inventory systems [in particular, none of last gen’s ridiculously standard, “He slipped the weapon onto his back.”]).

Balancing the Trap

It is incredibly comfortable to just stick with the CR Trap and, for the sake of being cool and more appropriate for more audiences, many, many people do stick to it by small degrees; professionally produced stories absolutely follow the mold for the sake of not challenging audiences, who usually don’t really want to be challenged by their favorite characters dying unceremoniously. And that absolutely makes sense.

But in the case of fantasy, even if the average reader doesn’t want a play-by-play on what parts of a monster are sheared off during a fight (and I think the general audience probably doesn’t), any Fantasy-loving adult would be far, far more engrossed with a realistic, high-stakes battle (or chase or hunt). And none of them really want to read the fantasy novel where characters are never actually in danger or where the environment is oddly cleared for every encounter. There’s obviously a balance here and, like all elements of writing, the Challenge Rating meta you set in your work is up to you. But that’s just it—always be mindful of what you’re doing and make it an intentional choice for your story whether or not characters can takes thousands of pounds of knuckled force to the face and still get up.

~~~

 This wound up being… so much more involved and complicated of a post than I expected. But, if you enjoyed, I’d love a Comment, Like, and/or Subscription. Regardless, thanks for reading!

2013-(white)WarofExilesUpdateC

Not to be a downer, but at the time of this posting, I still don’t feel it.

It’s been a week now. A week since I finished my rewrite of my first novel. And somehow, I still don’t really feel it. There were moments when I almost did–moments when I wrote to a friend about finishing the book and perked up, excited at the thought of moving on to the sequel and other, shorter projects. But every time, the near rush always cut short with a monotone, “Nope. That didn’t do it either–still not excited.”

I don’t want this to sound super dramatic; I’m not numb or in shock. I’m just… unfazed. It’s disappointing, really, because the first time I finished this book, I was out of my mind with joy; I’d finished a book and, oh man, I still had to edit it, but, oh geez–oh man–it was done!

This time, I typed the last sentence. Stared at it. Smirked… And then immediately admitted that I hated the last sentence. I changed it quickly to something I really liked and backed up the finished first (technically sixth) draft. And then I just sat at my computer for a while, aware that now, not only could I do something else with my day… but I had to do something else–even though, this time, I knew the story wasn’t actually done–because it was the next step in my writing plan. In the slow, determinedly celebratory and lazy way of humans, I wound up convincing myself to do all of the things I usually do when I achieve a solid milestone–I played some video games without caring about how much time I wasted that day (ultimately a few hours that felt like far, far too long without the banter of a friend over Xbox Live). I also had a decent lunch. I may have actually bought myself a cookie.

The thing is… I’m much, much different from the 20-something year old who blissfully typed, “The End,” and spent a month celebrating afterward (a month of down time that turned into months of carelessness). Past-Louis thought he was almost done–that the Content Edit and Line Edit would be easy. That he’d finished something great.

Present-Louis, however, has already moved on to another story because he kind of had to. Because Present-Louis knows now that it’s time for the Big Push. The Long Halloween. The Whatever You Want to Call It. This is the year where I keep going and move on to another story with my insane, custom-made, self-taught, monster outlines and try to refine them while learning more about writing; about establishing a flow of projects and trying out my approach for Growing Outlines.

Essentially, now is the time when I actually level up as a writer, again. And it’s terrifying! Maybe because I’ve already finished this same book once without knowing it was terrible.  Or maybe it’s because I have almost no outside opinions on my extremely personal techniques–no other writer to look in and say, “Do you really need to list the clothing your characters are wearing?” or “You should make an extra part in your outlines for [this]. [This] is super important and you’re missing it.”

Or maybe it’s because of that moment in front of my computer, staring at the monitor–at that last line–and realizing that I was nothing without the ability to tell stories. I’ve moved on to a new outline of a standalone idea, deeply revised from the super vague, over-excited concept I had in high school (forged from listening to the heartsick intro music from Chrono Cross), and I’m clinging to that outline for dear life. Because I’m not the kind of writer who can take breaks anymore. I’m the kind of writer that’s too far gone, who’s only real fear is the imagined point when I have no more stories to tell.

Well, that and the impending rejection letters. You hear that, slight inkling of victory? Reality’s a-comin’ for ye!

To put all drama and preemptive bitterness aside though, I am… content. Yes, everything is a challenge right now. But, for writers, toiling away, constructing worlds that may never, ever reach readers, everything is a challenge. I’m glad to have found new ones, but they’re still challenges and they’re still daunting.

Regardless, and because I want even this post to be somewhat constructive, the attack plan is as follows:

  1. Spend March away from War of Exiles before beginning my Content Edit. In that time, I’ll take the month to work on a sparse Chapter Outline for the new story I mentioned, The Hand and the Tempest (expect to see it temporarily replace War of Exiles in my Project Progress bar at the top of the page [although its bar will be stranger, as the goal is to progressively build on the outline until it goes from 'Short Story' to 'Novella' to (maybe) 'Full Length, Stand-Alone Novel'--this being the purpose of my "Growing Outline")]).
  2. When April hits, all outlining for The Hand and the Tempest stops as I return to WoE for the Content Edit and, after using The Hand and the Tempest for practice, begin writing a Chapter Outline for War of Masks, the sequel to War of Exiles.
  3. From there, it’s moving on to a Line Edit for WoE while Chapter Outlining the third book in the series (currently unnamed).
  4. After that, when my submission packet is finished, I’ll review the outline for The Hand and the Tempest, and write it as I submit WoE.
  5. And after that, it’s off to work on an outline for another standalone story–I have another in mind.
  6. And all while, I’ll be staring at the intimidating mountain of information that is my actual, main series–my magnum opus that terrifies me as much as it excites me.

This, it turns out, is what being a devoted, aspiring novelist is like; poor and terrified. Unrealistically devoted and absolutely proud of it (if you’re here with me on this obnoxiously lonely, writers’ path, hi there. Let’s revel in our wildly unstable, conflicting emotions together).

To put it simply, being an aspiring author means that you’re very comfortably insane.

So, within the first month, 2014 has already been way, waaay better than previous years. I’ve heard from a lot of awesome people I haven’t heard from in a long time, have hung out with a few of them and even joined a writing group—something I just did not have the balls to do even last year.

The writing group, of course, is the event that I want to focus on here though. Particularly a revelation I took from it. Or, rather, took from reading the samples the group provided.

Disclaimer: If you’re in said writing group, don’t worry. I absolutely will not divulge anything about your stories in this article or even talk about those stories (aside from saying I liked them a lot).

Yeah, so I liked all of the stories from the writing group a lot. There were only two, but whatever—I liked what I read and that was great. Although, of course, a part of me relented. Was that great? Was I just being a pushover because I was excited to be part of a writing group?

It took a few seconds of soul searching, but the answer was a clear no—I wasn’t just being a push over. It’s that, somewhere along the past year or two, I picked up a new rating system for reading other people’s work, and that system’s based on my more practical views of my work.

This new system is incredibly simple, but I thought that as I’ve talked about how horrible some writers can be as readers, I might offer it as a helpful guideline for how to begin to rate other people’s work or how to rate your own. These 3 degrees are rough and honest, but also durable and practical. I won’t pretend that thinking of your own writing in these three phases will make you a master writer.

But if these 3 Working Writer’s Degrees of Story Completion don’t make sense to you, you may not be humble enough in your craft.

Degree 0 – Unsalvageable

Degree 1 – Salvageable

Degree 2 – Ready

Probably doesn’t sound like much, but let me explain one by one.

Unsalvageable

A story that overall just doesn’t work. Whether it’s the plot, the characters, dialogue, or the absence of other, unifying elements like Theme, the story is just not cohesive. It would take so much work to overhaul the story that the author would be better off salvaging its working elements for another project.

So, the first level is the most brutal and it’s the one that most notoriously bad writers-as-readers resort to immediately. I’m not sure why that is, but most hardcore writers, or writers who consider themselves hardcore, will absolutely tear someone else’s writing apart. Maybe it’s because we’re primarily asked to look for flaws when we’re asked to read a piece or maybe it’s because a handful of truly bad stories have spoiled us, but at some point, many writers just turn to the Dark Side.  They start immediately and mercilessly picking each other’s work apart for every single flaw—even if those “flaws” are actually just stylistic differences.

But let’s be honest here. There really are just some stories that are not salvageable. I’ve definitely written some Unsalvageable ones and I’ve definitely read some. That means this first Level, 0, is unfortunately essential. I still believe that all stories can work in some way, but the brutal reality is that sometimes a story would only work in another time, in another place, or under the pen of a different author.

Salvageable

A story that, despite flaws, works. It has a clear intent and the author reaches that intent, eliciting an emotional response from you. Although it will take work to polish the story enough that it’s presentable, that work is worth it as the end product will have legitimate publishing potential.

Here, the ability to draw a response from the reader is key. Did it make you laugh? Did it intrigue you? I’ve definitely been guilty of throwing in the towel on a read very quickly only to get to the end and realize I was the reason the story wasn’t good up until then; I was criticizing everything, missing a good set up for an emotional ending that had meaning.

Of course, not all Salvageable stories have to have the surprise emotional ending; all they have to have is a solid composition or the perfect pair of characters in a setting that works. Perhaps an intriguing element that makes you keep reading. The beauty of “Salvageable” is that it’s purposefully open-ended—the point is, the story is worth it for whatever reason but still needs a case-specific amount of work.

Of course, for readers, Salvageable should also mean, “Good despite my expectations and personal preferences.” If you can’t read the short about warrior orcs and rate it fairly because you hate warrior orcs, the problem with the story is not that it’s about warrior orcs.

Ready

A story that, whether comfortably or anxiously, is deemed good enough to put out. This is variable and based on the writer, who may decide to / be able to deem their work ready with ease or may have to put a hard stop to their constant, last minute changes.

The goal here was, once again, to be universal. In the weird grey area that is all of reality, some writers finish a single draft at their typewriters, jump up, clap their hands clean and shine out a cheerful, “Ready!” while other writers go through draft after draft before shrugging out a high pitched, “I… guess??” Either way though, it’s important for all of us to remember that our drafts are always a Salvageable work in progress until we reach that shining moment. And even when we decide our work is Ready, we’re going to send it off to an agent or an editor who’s going to edit it again; even when we’ve finished our best work and we’re content, it isn’t finished. I don’t want to make this sound incredibly daunting; I just think it’s always better for writes to be humble and questioning of their work.

Although maybe this one is me projecting way too hard (I’m technically on draft 6 of a project I started years ago [with the full intent to learn from this experience and never, ever repeat it]), but hey, “Ready” still does it more accurately than “Finished” in my mind.

~~~

Speaking of finished, that’ll about do it for me. I hope this was helpful or at least enjoyable. I appreciate likes, comments and subscriptions if you’re feeling generous. Either way, thanks for reading!

LS-G4W-WalkingDead

Wow. I haven’t written one of these in a while. But as Season Two of The Walking Dead releases tomorrow and as I hit more scenes in my Outline that need to be completely overhauled, I felt now was a perfect time to get back to my Games for Writers series.

Why The Walking Dead?

I have a tendency to buy critically acclaimed titles and just leave them alone for years (I’m still sitting on Fez). In most cases it’s because I know something intense and high quality is waiting and I want to be sure I’m ready for it. That was especially true with Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. I was told the ending was heartbreaking and I generally prefer to control my intake of “heartbreaking.” So I put it off until this Halloween, at which point I discovered that oh man, seriously, I underestimated just how hard I would be hit by the story—particularly the last few hours.

However, this article isn’t about the conclusion. While the drama of No Time Left, Season One’s final chapter, was really, really potent, there’s something a bit more practical and universal that makes this game worth a play for any writer. Not the concept of making people bawl their eyes out, but the concept of Choice when it comes to your characters and your writing. Yes, if there’s one thing I think writers should play The Walking Dead to experience, it’s the constant, inescapable presence of Choice.

You and 45% of players gave her the gun

For writers, Choice is a very serious, very high stakes, and very constant factor in the story-telling process. The writer experiences it themselves the moment they take up their pen, because even that moment—before any words have even been set on paper—is steeped in choices: “Where do I start?” “Who’s in this scene?” “Where do I want this to go?” “What are these characters going to do?” I believe all writers know this, and I believe that even if a writer played this game simply to experience the way it trains you to make important choices, they will have gotten their money’s worth.

Clementine will remember you said that.

LS-Dubious-tineKnowsHowever, Choice goes deeper than just what the writer wants. At the very least, in the best stories, choices are also constantly and logically made by characters. I think we’ve experienced a handful of games that pervert the concept; while I love it, games like Skyrim present you with a mostly blank slate to mold into whatever character you like, and in my experience, most people turn that canvas into a confused, meta-self portrait with no real in-game motivations. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who choose to roleplay their characters, but I’m also sure most people just did a 100% play through where their incredibly judgmental, culturally traditional, Storm Cloaks-aligned Nord just said, “Fuck it. Yeah, I’ll be a vampire. : D Cause, vampire powers!”

The Walking Dead, however, makes choice something that characters do. You can absolutely play it the way you want and make your own Lee with his own consequences, but the consequences are what make the experience, and those consequences are largely out of your hands because, most of the time, they’re based on the actions of NPC’s. More than any other game I’ve played, The Walking Dead makes you believe and relate to the characters around you, even if you play a completely meta Lee. It does a frighteningly good job of making you understand why and how Lilly is crazy, for example, or most often and most clearly, what Clementine thinks of you based on what you say, do and tell her. To tie it in more tightly here, it shows you exactly how your decisions—your choices—affect others and lead them to choices of their own. In short, it gives you characters that feel frighteningly real and whose ability to think for themselves is absolutely a lesson any writer would benefit from experiencing. I don’t think every story can foster a host of character decisions, but The Walking Dead stands as a compelling example of how characters should act—alive. Self-centered. Real.

All of the Decisions Ever

However, there’s another meta take on all of this. I mentioned earlier that I was reaching more parts of my Outline that needed to change in my first draft. The thing is, that statement implies that I found mistakes and inaccuracies that needed fixing. In some cases, yes. But in most cases, I realized a fact that The Walking Dead makes incredibly obvious:

There are almost infinite ways that scenes can work—almost infinite ways events can unfold in a story—based on the desires, beliefs and decisions of its characters.

There’s an inherent pressure in writers to find the “right” scene. We reach for vaguely defined, optimal approaches—infinitely perfect moments—for each scene that we believe will make them perfect. In a lot of cases, this ideal scene is the beginning of our story and many of us wait for that lightning to strike until we sadly forget the expected shape of it and move on to something else. The thing is, there is no ideal—no brilliant first sentence that will shake everyone who reads it. That isn’t how writing works; no one falls in love with a novel because of its first sentence. People memorize the first lines of classics and brandish them on occasion, but the merits of classics are not in the sentences they begin with. They’re in the characters they begin with.

And that is why I changed some scenes back to the way they were; when I chose to add or subtract moments in an attempt to find that ideal, I ignored what characters had done before as illogical. But then, during the actual rewrite, as I started to listen to my character’s decisions, I found that a lot of those ideal changes I made didn’t make sense; in the final version of my book, scenes either regressed to mirrors of older scenes with drastically different, more character-relevant tones, or I changed them a third time, based on how my characters felt and what other decisions they’d made.

The lesson for me, and the one The Walking Dead makes clearly, is that the choices all of your characters make are as important as the choices you make as a writer. And those two things are not always the same and can’t always be the same; at the risk of sounding completely crazy, your characters can and will disagree with you and you have to let them. Even if it means you’re undoing your own work or sitting at your computer for hours trying to figure out—“Wait… so, if he does that here… that means… … <sigh>.” Put simply, if you don’t consider what your characters actually want to do or say—what they actually think and feel—in favor of putting them where you want them and speaking your words through them, you need to play The Walking Dead if only to be humbled. If only to realize that your character’s decisions can and should come first.

thegang

~~~

Well, that got intense. As always, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this latest in my Games for Writers series, there are three others here (although, friendly warning, they’re all over three years old and may contain a lot of snappy jokes [that I’m… willing myself… to not edit out for the sake of honesty and integrity]):

Games for Writers: Silent Hill 2

Games for Writers: Metroid Prime

Games for Writers: Metal Gear Solid 3 – Snake Eater

All Likes, Comments, and Subscribes are appreciated as well, but regardless of those, I hope you have an awesome holiday!

First, apologies for taking so long to get another post out; things are a bit rough at the moment and the article I finished last week and was intending to post just wasn’t up to snuff (and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with a post that didn’t offer readers anything). I was going to settle for more generic life update this week, but this idea came first, so let’s get to it instead.

So, The Day of the Doctor happened. And I absolutely missed it; I enjoy Doctor Who a bunch, but I haven’t watched in a long time. I’ll be completely honest about my bias: the 10th was my Doctor, and before you say anything, yes, I have watched a bunch of Matt Smith and I like him, but he’s not David Tennant. Bias aside, I think I actually fell behind because of some of the story elements of Smith’s run.

I won’t get into them because that would be a whole other article, but I will say that one of those elements that nagged me… led to this article, my 3 Great Fiction Sins. What are they? The elements that I believe any fiction writing can easily fall victim to. There are, of course, way more than these three, but I feel that these are the three I’ve seen prevail in professionally produced works of fiction (so more obvious things like creating plot elements that don’t make sense didn’t make it onto this list). These prevailing sins are, however, still extremely obvious and jarring… and sometimes incredibly awkward… So let’s jump right in!

1) Clear and Obnoxious Character Bias

This is not the worst of these sins (worst for last, baby), but it is absolutely the most common. As writers and creators (or finders—whatever) of characters, you’re bound to like some of your characters more than others. The plot may result in some characters being stronger and (very naturally) more awesome than others—perhaps more cunning than others. One character may be particularly funny and, if that’s the kind of character we like, we’ll be drawn to them immediately, wanting to put them at the front of every scene and have them present for every situation. And, for the most part, that’s fine.

What isn’t fine, however, is stopping the flow of a story to include a completely unnecessary scene that is completely focused on:

Omfg Isn’t he/she it BADASS!?

If, say, the main characters are trying to achieve something in a limited amount of time, but, unrealistically, everything stops so that we can watch, say, a cyber ninja (the first archetype that came to mind—honestly not drawing comparisons here) cut through a full brigade of soldiers… it’s almost like the writer has slapped the book out of our hand / TV to the floor / controller into the garbage only to jump in front of us, hands held forward, eyes manic as they say, “Okay… PICTURE THIS…” For me, these moments are always that degree of awkwardly invasive—particularly because the intent is always (pretty honestly) to fap over a single character.

Which, of course, cheapens everything else about a story; suddenly, the characters are actors again, the scenes are a plot. To put it simply, your adventure stops being an adventure and turns into a piece of writing a writer wrote. Maybe this is just how I think as a writer, but chances are, scenes like this will still annoy anyone if they very naturally don’t like the writer’s favorite character as much as that writer does; if the audience doesn’t really care about the cyber ninja, they’re immediately going to roll their eyes when he jumps out with his sword in his mouth and starts chopping up dudes effortlessly… without arms (I seriously just remembered that part of Metal Gear Solid 4, so hey, I guess I was drawing comparisons—subliminally. Somebody writing this article suuure hated that scene).

Most times, a writer can handle this kind of character well, showing them off in ways that are natural and—most importantly—non-invasive.

Every other time, though… Well, let’s just say that if there’s any chance you’ve done this, seriously reconsider slapping your audience right out of the moment to hold a loose leaf sketch of the one character in front of them. “He can grab his sword… with his foot clamp!”

2) The Tea Party

For me, this second sin is really bringing it back.

I did not make this one up—a friend back in high school brought this to my attention when we were talking about Xenogears (aaand I just dated myself). Very likely, we were playing it together and got to a scene where a town was burning down during an attack from a mech (if I remember correctly). The main characters were in the process of escaping… when one of them stopped in the center of the town to talk about things I can’t remember—I’ll be honest. The thing was, it didn’t matter what they were talking about while the town burned around them and people ran, screaming, children and possessions theoretically clutched to their chests.

No, what mattered was that they were talking.

And talking.

And fucking talking.

At the time, I was too naïve about writing to realize something was wrong, but my friend said something along the lines of, “I hate these fucking tea parties.”

When I asked what she meant, she explained: tea parties were incredibly suspenseful moments in which characters who are actively running from a very real danger suddenly stop and kick up a conversation, against all logic. Depending on the eminent danger, tea parties can either be as short as a single line or as inordinately long as the full 3 minute long conversation I witnessed in Xenogears (as I remember it anyway). However, no matter the length, characters always stop running / escaping for the duration of the tea party, brazenly defying all common sense.

I immediately took her explanation to heart. And ever since, it has destroyed a surprising amount of reading, watching and playing experiences immediately for me.

In the case of a fantasy read, this sin was at its most annoying when the main characters were in a house that was actively being crushed by giants. An escape vehicle of some kind (I forgot—read this ages ago) arrived a distance from the house and the characters decided to run for it. Most of them ran.

Two immediately stopped running so that one of them could shout about how excited he was to be escaping—particularly to their next destination.

There’s absolutely a chance that I’m being too critical on this one—the intent was to be cute and funny; the excited character was a zany old man if I remember correctly and the character with him was trying to get him out of the house.

But at that point, the giants had already pummeled the house for so long that there was no sense of danger; and perhaps that’s the best definition of a Tea Party: a moment in which all sense of danger is defeated by a clear contrivance of the writer. The player stopped caring about the town burning down around them because none of the other characters seemed to. And the reader just rolled their eyes at the author’s attempt at a laugh because the house—very clearly now—was never going to actually collapse under the tree-hammering the giants were giving it.

3) Incredibly Awkward and Creepily Open Displays of Sexual Fantasies

Best for last, baby.

I watch South Park, so I’ve seen the recent jabs at George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones focusing so much on sex. Before I go on, I haven’t watched the Game of Thrones show because I didn’t like it for reasons I also won’t get into here (my favorite character is completely different—for starters) but one of my big problems with it was the sudden persistence of sex and sexuality in the show. In the books, sex happened when it felt like it should’ve; in exactly the same way that characters used the bathroom on occasion and it wasn’t glossed over, Martin also didn’t gloss over occasional sex because it’s a thing humans do, like urinating. I have heard that he has a lot to do with the show, so I throw my hands up with all of this and say, ‘I dunno—whatever.’

But what I absolutely know is that Martin never wrote 100+ pages of Jon Snow being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo.

Yes, I read that book. And yes, it was an Epic Fantasy novel; not (openly) a hybrid of Fantasy and Erotica. Should it be deemed Erotica? No idea. But 100+ pages of anyone being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo, is a very clear, very awkward, and very open display of sexual fantasy being mass produced and sold to the public.

And it just skeeves me out.

Nothing is wrong with a sex scene. Although I wouldn’t write one, nothing is even wrong with a detailed sex scene.

But something is extremely wrong with dragging out sexual scenes for inordinately long. And yes, any sexual scenes, not just scenes that are fetishistic.

I don’t want to go on because I’m sure I’d just repeat myself, each time getting more and more insulting, but I’ll end on the most tactful comparison I can think of:

Focusing on a character’s sexual adventures in a story that’s going to be mass produced for the general public in a genre that’s not known for sexual exploits is like introducing yourself to someone, shaking their hand with a smile, and then leaning in and whispering, “I like anal.”

Everyone’s reaction: “… : ( I need an adult.”

~~~

Well, I know it’s short and not especially helpful, but I hope you enjoyed. As always, thanks for the read and from this weird void where I never get around to thematically celebrating holidays, I hope yours are awesome. Happy that day you celebrate!

Man, did this one take longer than it was supposed to. What you’ve found is the final part of a look at my Fantasy Story Stats. Because, after four solid weeks of looking at each in-depth, I think a serious refocus on how these should be used is in order. And the best way to do that? Just use them on different properties and see what we learn.

Now, all of these stories are my favorites, first of all; seriously, I love each of the following properties. That said, I’m going to try and be really honest about them—because if you’re not honest with them, these stats do nothing. Sound interesting? I hope so; I’m pretty intrigued to see how this goes.

Disclaimer: Of course, as always, I have to remind you that I’m not an authority on any of the stories I’m about to discuss; these Stats are not a way of dissecting them and I’m sure that when I reread any of these stories, I’ll find reason to contest what I’m about to put down. However, I can confidently say that I am someone who’s been trying to complete a story of his own for years and, that said, someone who found looking at stories through the lens of these Stats helpful for my own compositions. As I’ve said before, these Stats are just tools and using them is more of an experiment and an opportunity for creative reflection than anything else.  

Let’s do it!

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire)

By George R. R. Martin

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Family

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot

Tone: Heavy/Semi-Realistic

Spirit: Low

Novelty: Medium

Concept: Medium-High

The striking thing about A Game of Thrones was how realistic it was for the genre. Oddly enough, this is absolutely in spite of the very first scene literally involving evil snow zombies. How does that even work? Because everything that comes after the White Walkers is absolutely realistic and heavy in Tone. Incest? Little kids getting paralyzed? A “dwarf” who isn’t at all the fantasy standard dwarf? All of these things (High Concept, Low Spirit elements for the genre) counteract the first scene, even undermining strong hints at dormant magic as omens or strange coincidences.

But oddly… even though the Tone undermines all of those fantasy elements… it also serves those same elements. Where other authors use incredibly unique world concepts, races, creatures, and monsters to draw readers, Martin’s work features humans almost exclusively. Humans with extremely Earth-centric towns, weapons, equipment and cultures. Humans who consider slightly large (based on the show) wolves as horrible beasts, and where genre-typical dragons and honestly super-familiar undead warriors stand as the most outlandish monsters you can find. But, really, these elements are served by the Tone. Having everything be so normal and real makes the White Walkers terrifying. It makes slightly bigger wolves really awesome. It makes a sword forged of slightly darker metal that always holds its edge the most incredible weapon ever (in direct contrast to extremely flashy lightsabers, for example). It makes you afraid of magic and uncertain what will happen when someone pisses off a witch. Overall, it is an absolutely masterful control of the reader’s experience and I bow before it.

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle)

By Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Stories, Myth, and Their Influence on Reality

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot, 2.5-Location

Tone: Medium/Semi

Spirit: Medium

Novelty: Medium-High

Concept: High

Here, I feel the Focus is especially interesting; there’s no question that The Name of the Wind is a story driven by its characters (the story is, literally, being provided by our protagonist after another character persuades him to tell it). Beyond that, however, I feel it’s arguable whether Plot or Location is the more interesting drive for readers. I can’t see how that could be an insult, but I’ll immediately specify that I found the story’s locations that intriguing; for me, part of the joy of reading was getting back to the Eolain and seeing what would happen there. Or getting to Elodin’s or Kilvin’s next class. One of my favorite moments in the story was when Kvothe explored the Underthing with Auri, and, in retrospect, I divide the story into four parts without trying: Kvothe with his family and traveling in their caravan, Kvothe in Tarbean, Kvothe at the University, and Kvothe outside of the University with Denna (all of these obviously focusing on locations).

Also, as always, I could go on about how High Concept this story is—the fact that it’s being related by the protagonist after he’s gone into hiding; the incredibly believable treatment of magic in the frame of the story; the specific allure of Naming; the countless, personal events that drive the plot and mirror our own lives. I would go on, but if you’ve read The Name of the Wind, you already know all of this and I have to immediately stop this from turning into a review.

Another note: Despite what I’ve said before (told you this would happen), I do think the Novelty of The Name of the Wind would be Medium-High; there’s just a lot more than simply “orphan boy goes to magic school,” a vague overview that absolutely undermines my love for the book.

Mistborn (The Mistborn Trilogy)

By Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Rebellion Against Oppression on Personal and Social Levels; Faith, both Personal and Religious

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character

Tone: Light-Medium/Fantastic

Spirit: Medium-High

Novelty: High

Concept: Medium-High

Despite being set in a world where an evil god rules over a land constantly marred by black ashfalls, Mistborn winds up being Light-Medium in Tone and Medium-High in Spirit. How? Also, perhaps, what?

Well, the simple answer is Theme, Tone and Spirit.

The story carries a heavy Tone of Rebellion that’s supported by its characters—friends who have very jovial interactions with each other (in direct contrast to the gloom outside). The oppressive world is also undermined by the powers of the mistborn, who consider the mists (which come out at night—the most mythically dangerous time of day, as the story establishes early on) home. Vin in particular feels “free” in the mists (which is obviously relevant to the Theme). Finally, add to that the actual power that a mistborn can freely use out in the mists and how exciting those powers are for the characters and readers, and it’s actually easy to forget about the gloomy setting. On the contrary, as mistborn are generally only mistborn when they’re out in the night in secret, Pushing off of coins, the story actually becomes more exciting when it would otherwise be at its gloomiest. There’s seriously no end to how amazing I think this massive, thematic Soothing and Rioting is.

And now, for the sake of acknowledging differences in the same writer’s projects…

Warbreaker

By Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Choice

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character

Tone: Light/Fantastic

Spirit: Medium

Novelty: High

Concept: High

In contrast, Warbreaker does not have to fight to maintain light Tone; the magic system of the novel, Breath, is based on color, resulting in a fictional society that employs color vibrantly (an obvious difference from the blacked out landscape of Mistborn).

More important here, however, is Spirit, which, in my Stats, is Medium (possibly weird at first glance). However, Warbreaker actively challenges your concepts of right and wrong, evil and good (something that the Mistborn series doesn’t start doing until the second and third books). Without spoiling anything, the Theme (as I see it) of choice creates a grey area that the novel settles into—not all villains are completely evil and not all people are completely good. As is the case between Siri and her sister, people can absolutely be different and make different choices or act in different ways, but that does not mean either way is inherently wrong or right. The world is too complicated for that because it’s a place where people can choose and those choices are really all that matters. All of this, along with a magic system that’s slightly more out-of-the-ordinary than mistborn powers (the overall effects of which are more familiar [as Jedi powers or superpowers] than the ability to breathe life into inanimate objects and have them do your bidding) means that there are more challenging elements in Warbreaker. It is, on the whole, a less comforting and familiar read than Mistborn despite the lighter Tone and premise.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: YA (?)

Theme: Responsibility

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character, 3-Location

Tone: Light /Fantastic

Spirit: Medium-High

Novelty: Low-Medium

Concept: Medium-High

If you have not seen Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, not the movie) then all I’ll say is that you should absolutely give it a chance because it’s legitimately amazing. On the list of kids’ shows that are not just for kids, Avatar is easily among the best.

But before I continuing gushing about how great it is, what’s interesting about its Stats? For me, the Focus; this is a case where almost all three elements of Focus are equally balanced in a story. You read to find out what happens next in the Plot (as with any syndicated show), but every episode also has pertinent character  growth, supported by the ever present questions of what Aang will find in whatever drastically changed place from his past the group stops in. And there, of course, is also Location coming into play as the third Focus, although the world itself with the dynamic of the Four Nations, their cultures and the myth of the world of Avatar is enough of a Location draw on its own. Generally, however, each season takes place in another of the Four Nations, making Location that much more important.

Of course, the balance of Spirit is also interesting. Avatar is another case where the audience is presented with grey areas that challenge what they expect from character archetypes. This is an extremely important part of the show from the beginning. Bending is also unique enough of an approach to elemental magic that it feels silly to call it magic. Counteracting all of that, however, is the playfulness of the show; despite the setting, characters speak in what I consider Standard American, a term that extends to include extremely Earth-general mannerisms (people don’t fist bump or do peace signs, but they might bow or shake hands, never using any unfamiliar, Avatar-esque hand gestures or sayings [outside of ones that are meant to be funny because they’re so awkward and non Earth-Standard]). Avatar also creates and revisits its best jokes. And, finally (really), the premise is very nearly the old standard of “boy has great, exclusive power that he must use to defeat evil.” All of this creates an extremely comfortable atmosphere that balances the more challenging elements of the story extremely well (and hopefully proves that, used right, a degree of familiarity in a story can do incredible things).

Okay. Going to stop now. However, for the sake of looking at the difference in sequels (and the reason why I brought up a show from crazy long ago)…

The Legend of Korra

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: YA

Theme: Sibling Rivalry

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot

Tone: Medium/Fantastic

Spirit: Low-Medium

Novelty: Medium-High

Concept: High

In contrast, The Legend of Korra has a much lower Spirit; it’s far more challenging to its audience. Even though it’s a direct sequel to The Last Airbender, it’s a much different show with a much more unique premise, a more complicated plot, and a far deeper look at the grey areas already mentioned here. On The Legend of Korra, people are often not who they seem and characters’ actions are often more personal and individual than they are cohesive and single-minded; on The Last Airbender, everyone was ultimately trying to help Aang defeat the Fire Nation, but in The Legend of Korra, everyone’s doing what comes naturally to them. Even characters who were set on helping the protagonists in the first season have now very naturally fallen back into roles that hinder the progress of our protagonists (Beifong being a great example). On top of that, the world from Airbender has evolved, becoming something much more unique. Even in the case of the protagonist, Korra is a very strong female lead who is actually vulnerable and human (directly challenging stereotypes of the flat, over-compensating super-badass female lead, or the comic-typical super-feminist). She’s so progressive that her sexual orientation and hairstyle choices are not the focus of any parts of the show—at all; in fact, her love life even takes a serious backseat to other issues that matter way, way more (like stopping wars).

The only balance is the way Korra is absolutely a legacy story; many subtle references are made to moments from Avatar. The story also actively uses the mythose of Avatar’s world as plot elements in Korra. Overall, these elements make the experience more comforting (and again demonstrate how well the High Spirit of a story can supplement a more challenging, Low Spirit sequel).

~~~

Well, I think that about wraps it up for my Fantasy Story Stats. Thank you, as always, for reading, and if you gained anything from these stats, please subscribe, drop a comment, give me a like, or do all of those things—I’d appreciate it.

Disclaimer: If you’ve been following these posts from the start, then you’ll need a quick clarification; I’ve been figuring these Stats out every week as I’ve written these posts and, as a result, I absolutely wound up changing the name (only) of one of this week’s stats. It went from “Originality” to “Novelty,” a really small change that I immediately felt was so important and essential that here we are.
If you haven’t been following this whole time, then no, nothing’s changed; I perfectly one-shotted all of this—you kidding?

Well, here we are—the last(ish) Week of my Fantasy Story Stats. Our final two stats are Novelty and Concept which are both totally focused on the originality of your work. If you combine them with the idea of last week’s Spirit as a rating of playfulness via predictability, that’s three facets of originality in my Stats… Maybe I’m obsessed?

Anyway, let’s get to it.

Novelty: The Overall Originality of Your Premise

You’re in a book store and you pick up a mass market to read the back cover copy. It goes something like, “As darkness rises in the land, one boy will find that only he can wield the mystical power that can save the world.” By my standard, that book would have Low Novelty. As per my points about Spirit last week, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Because Novelty is a vague overview of your story. Its rating comes from taking a distant look at what you’re writing and summarizing it honestly for the purpose of understanding how someone else might see it and what they might assume about it.

Although, as with most of my Stats, this doesn’t say anything definitive about what you’re writing. This could hint that your story isn’t original and that people might not like it for that reason. However, at the same time, by my definition, The Name of the Wind would actually be Medium Novelty. Before I go on, I love The Name of the Wind and think it’s amazing—I don’t want to even vaguely suggest that I don’t love that book, its sequel, or that I don’t respect the hell out of Patrick Rothfuss, because I absolutely do—but if you step back and take a long look at it, “orphaned young boy goes to wizarding school” would be part of The Name of the Winds’ premise. Again, I absolutely love that book, but I have to use it here as a fantastic example of how Novelty is not an all inclusive definition; the Novelty of your piece doesn’t make or break it. As with all of my Stats, it’s just a facet of your work for you to consider, for better or worse—not to be defeated by.

Particularly because Novelty is directly balanced by Concept.

Concept: The Originality of the Elements Within Your Story

Immediately going back to The Name of the Wind, it’s safe to say that if you’re a fan, you were probably outraged. You were probably like, “That’s not all the book is about! It’s absolutely and incredibly original!” and you’re completely right, because there are tons of unique elements in that book. From characters to moments, concepts to scenes, The Name of the Wind is incredibly fresh. In particular (to me), Sympathy is handled in a very original way, making it so believable that I almost wanted to try it myself.

And that originality—of smaller, more personal, and nearly infinite facets of a story (from its tone to the noise a particular fantasy creature makes) is its Concept. Concept can be as concrete as a strange hairdo on one of your characters (instead of Middle Earth-centric long) or as vague as the way a particular element (region, force, what have you) makes the characters (and you) feel. It can be a fresh approach to magic that either makes it feel incredibly real (like Sympathy) or allows characters to achieve extremely awesome and cinematic feats of combat (like Allomancy) instead of only allowing for the blatant use of Magic Missile and Flaming Hands. To force myself to stop ranting, Concept can present in any facet of a story. It is, among my Stats, the purest representation of a story’s originality and, in my experience, the one that stands out most to readers. Concept is more personal and inclusive however, as generally, only those who have read your work will see the majority of your original concepts (this being the major difference between Concept and Novelty [which casual onlookers will see]).

There’s not much more that I can say about Concept outside of the fact that despite there being many, many small, personal ways for a story to be truly original and High Concept, it’s still easier for a story to be wildly unoriginal. I usually put a short, concluding disclaimer on all of my stats, and I suppose that for Concept, it’s this: of all of these Stats, take Concept most seriously. If it’s important to be honest about any of these Stats, it’s Concept. It is the best marker for how derivative your story is, because just as there are innumerable ways for your story to be High Concept, there’s exactly the same amount of ways for a story to go wrong and be Low Concept. Because every good, original choice can instead be an absolutely obvious, horribly derivative choice. For example, your protagonist can have a sword that does something an audience hasn’t seen before or it can glow when certain creatures are near—or it can eat souls (you get it). Your protagonist can wake up from the nightmare they always have and, say, write it down in a journal that’s filled with the same recounting of the same nightmare or they could jump awake and hold a knife to the neck of the person who innocently tried to wake them. The point is, these decisions are always decisions and, in my mind, they—and your Concept rating—should be taken very seriously.

~~~

Well, that concludes our look at all of my Fantasy Story Stats. Despite the original schedule of four weeks, I’ll do a conclusion next week listing my Stats for different, popular series. But for now, if you’ve missed any of my previous weeks, here are links to Week 0, Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3.

And, finally, here are the complete Stats for my novel:

2013-WarofExilesStats

Welcome to Week 3 of my Fantasy Story Stats. This is another exciting Week as it’s another where I get to go on about one of my own Stats. And really, it’s the statiest of the Stats so far—Spirit. Spirit, which was actually the first of them and the reason these posts exist at all.

But anyway, enough pre-rant. Let’s get to it.

First…

Tone: The Overall Mood of your Work

As per usual with my posts, let’s start off with something familiar that you really don’t need to hear much about—Tone. The weird thing about Tone is that I’ve always heard people mention it, but… always just mention in; I’ve been taught about characterization and narration, plot and settings, but never tone. It was always just the word—Tone.

In part, it’s because it’s obvious. Question: what’s the tone of a story? Answer: it’s the tone of a story. Light, heavy, dark, gritty, tone is obvious within the first few pages of a book and the first few moments of a movie. The very first exchange between Waymar Royce and Gared of the Night’s Watch makes it clear that George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is going to be serious; Will’s observations of Waymar’s armor make it clear that it’s going to be a realistic approach to a genre that often celebrates impractical armor and weapons. To polarize a bit, the intro to Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings boldly embraces the fantastic, establishing a much lighter, less realistic Tone. Each story defines their Tone early on and carries it for the whole book, assigning it an emotional weight that’s consistent throughout the entire story.

And, right there, that’s how I classify Tone: the consistent, emotional weight of a story (from Light to Heavy [but with an added, second classification of Fantastic to Realistic that usually coincides directly with Light to Heavy]). Light would be anything emotionally simple or literally light-hearted; something like a fun superhero comic, a more jovial or cool horror movie like The Cabin in the Woods, or a Terry Pratchett Discworld fantasy novel. On the other end of the spectrum, Heavy would be Watchmen, The Walking Dead, or Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

I believe the added classification of Fantastic to Realistic explains itself, but to quickly provide examples, a Light/Fantastic story would be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, a Medium/Semi story would be Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and a Heavy/Realistic story would be Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (by fantasy standards… at the beginning, anyway).

Finally, because I feel I have to say it, consistency is an incredibly important part of my definition for Tone. Because I’ve seen a story drastically shift from Medium to super, crazy Light in Tone and it was incredibly jarring. And I don’t usually do this, but (with a quick disclaimer that Stephen King is an established and skilled writer and I totally respect him) I will say that it was the Dreamcatcher movie. If you want a fantastic example of what not to do to your tone, you should watch Dreamcatcher. I don’t want to explain how, but it goes from emotional and personal to “Really!?” in the span of seconds.

Spirit: The Completely Subtle or Absolutely Obvious Playfulness of Your Work

Spirit is my concept and the fast way of describing it is to admit that I thought of it as “Camp” for a while. I felt I needed to change the name because camp has a pretty intensely bad connotation, but the idea persists; Spirit is the degree to which the author engages the reader. And that makes it sound incredibly unwieldy and obvious, doesn’t it? But no—it absolutely isn’t; Spirit can be subtle and silent or it can be ham-fisted and campy.

But to clarify, Spirit is a classification of playfulness. A story with High Spirit actively engages its readers through its elements, its dialogue, and its events.

A fantasy story with High Spirit Elements will feature a Millenial Fair where a kid gets special powers that only he/she can use to banish whatever evil is approaching from the north. In other words, there are elements that the reader knows and can trust that lead to moments a reader expects and welcomes subliminally. An old wizard/mentor will show up to guide the hero into the wild and teach him/ her about their powers, the hero will meet a special someone along the way, etc. And all of this is extremely comfortable for the reader because it’s so familiar.

A story with High Spirit Dialogue would be something written by Joss Whedon; obviously not exclusively, but if you’re a big fan of the Marvel Universe of movies, almost every other line of dialogue on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far has been a reference to previous movies or characters, often with those characters having no knowledge of those characters or their dialogue (“With great power comes a ton of weird crap,” spoken by Skye in the first episode is a fantastic example). This approach is inclusive—you’re in on the joke and you like it (or hate if you want to be like that). In other cases, the dialogue might simply be familiar with fantasy characters using one-liners or variants on Earth-Modern or Fantasy-fandom centric insults (“By Grog’s hairy balls!” or something like that, for example). At its most basic and simple, the ferocious dragon you expect only to breathe fire might instead turn out to be a female dragon who starts talking about how lonely she is, playing with the reader’s expectations and likely getting a laugh from them.

A story with High Spirit Events will follow a comforting plot structure. To put it simply, all sports underdog stories are High Spirit; you go in absolutely knowing that the Mighty Ducks (or whoever) are going to win. More relevantly, you always know that the young hero or heroine with the super rare and exclusive magical powers is absolutely going to kill that evil from the north in the end.

In contrast, stories with Low Spirit aren’t comforting. That’s the difference I want to make here; High Spirit isn’t “campy.” A story with High Spirit is not a bad thing, which I’ve tried to reflect in the examples I provided above. High Spirit stories are friendly. And engaging. And comforting. You enjoy them and they’re an easy choice when you don’t want to experience a completely unpredictable and often Heavy story.

Not to say that Low Spirit is bad either. By my definition, Jonathan Stranger & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark would be Low Spirit. So would Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard, and I enjoyed both of those books. They just had very non-standard, unpredictable elements and plots that were more challenging than comforting. The very fiber of those examples was doing something completely different to great effect.

~~~

That said, I don’t think I can keep going here without running into next week’s stats, Novelty and Concept. If this is your first time reading and you’ve enjoyed, I’d appreciate a Like, Comment, or a Subscription. If you haven’t checked out my other Stats, you can find an introduction here, Week 1 here, and Week 2 here.

And, as always, here’s where I stand on my list of Stats:

War of Exiles

Genre… Fantasy

Subgenre… Dark Fantasy

Theme… Living with loss.

Focus… 1-Character, 2-Plot, 3-Setting

Tone… Medium/Semi

Spirit… Medium

Apologies for getting this one out so late; crazy week. Crazy enough that I’m writing this in a laundromat. Seriously. There’s a Marc Anthony video playing on the big TV they have here… Let’s do this!

So, I’m excited about this week. This is the first time where a stat that I made up actually gets a mention—Focus. So let’s not waste any time. First..

Theme: It’s the Uniting Concept of Your Story

I feel I don’t need to spend too much time on Theme because I’m sure you already know at least 10 of its 30 million definitions.

But Theme is the uniting idea behind what you’re writing. It can be direct and it can be abstract, but it acts as a foundation for what you’re writing. It can be the moral of your story, but it can also be vaguer than that. It can be something as simple as “Doubles,” or something as complex as “Who we are as opposed to who we want to be.”

The thing about your Theme is that it should permeate every aspect of your story. It doesn’t have to, but a good writer reflects their theme in their descriptions and their dialogue. It’s mirrored in the plot and the characters, making a singular, united experience. For a theme like “Doubles,” characters should be mirrors of each other. Descriptions should be used at least twice, or perhaps certain settings should be visited at least twice with a large time gap in between (or something). So, really, of all the Stats, Theme is probably most important because it’s a foundation for your story.

And as a foundation, Theme should be your first step towards perfectly composing all of the elements of your story and a focal point for all of your Stats (particularly because it should come naturally early on in the story-building process [somewhere between making up characters and starting your plot]). Is your Tone too light for your story? Are you unsure it has enough Spirit? Does your Focus make sense for your story? Well, how do all of those elements work with your Theme?

Anyway, enough of that. On to Focus.

Focus: It’s the Story Facet You Unintentionally Focus On

Wish me luck—they put on kids shows now and I can barely do this with Mickey Mouse soft-shouting about Mouseketools.

So, Focus (ha—ironic) is the part of your story for which you take preference. This doesn’t mean a story only focuses on one facet (because no stories do that), but the one facet will naturally be more important and garner more attention from the writer. It’s not something that they realize and not necessarily something that needs to change; ultimately, I’m not even sure that a writer can change what they generally Focus on, but hey, why not try?

So, what are these facets of Focus?

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Plot

I’m sure there could be more, but seriously, Mouseketools, so let’s just focus on these three.

A Character-Driven story relies very heavily on its characters. A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantastic example of a character-driven story; there are a ton of characters and we’re expertly made to care about (even/especially the villains). The major incentive for reading the series is seeing what happens to the characters. Seriously, the chapter titles are the names of characters.

A Setting-Driven story focuses heavily on the area where the story takes place that place. In most cases, the setting is ultimately the most important element and winds up being a character itself, engaging the reader by making them wonder what they’ll see next. Alice in Wonderland is a fantastic example of a Setting-Driven story. For something a little more contemporary, any of the Silent Hill games or movies are Setting-Driven.

A Plot-Driven story is something more along the lines of a thriller. The Focus isn’t on what the characters will do next or what they’ll see next, but instead what will happen to them next. These are essentially Character-Driven stories where the characters don’t have control over what happens to them (for the most part) and don’t decide what they’re doing. Generally, horror stories are Plot-Driven; you watch a horror movie waiting to see how the next person dies (or, in simpler terms, how the next plot event happens).

Now, again, all of these distinctions are not exclusive; characters will always influence your stories, just as setting and plot will. However, the prominence of these elements in your writing is important to your stories and your style as a writer, and being aware of them is another solid step towards looking clearly at any piece you’re putting together and considering its composition honestly.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll add here that when I list a story’s stats, I list Focus on a ranking system (literally as “1-,2-,3-” to denote an order of Focus [which feels more accurate]).

~~~

Thanks for reading, and again, here’s where I stand on my list of Stats:

War of Exiles

Genre… Fantasy

Subgenre… Dark Fantasy

Theme… Living with loss.

Focus… 1-Character, 2-Plot, 3-Setting

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.