Friday, May 22, 2015

Video Games & Storytelling

Video Games & Storytelling

After The Accident I needed to get my mind off my (extremely minor) physical maladies so I re-subscribed to World of Warcraft (WoW) after an absence of about a year and a half.

BIG mistake. Games can be addictive.

Like stories.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading a suspenseful book I honestly can’t put it down. Yes, it’s a figure of speech in that no one has a cocked gun to my temple saying, “Read if you know what’s good for you. Read.” I keep saying to myself, “Just one more page” or “I’ll just finish this chapter.”

Uh huh. I read till the story is complete and fall asleep as the sun peeks over the horizon.

Games—certain games—are every bit as compelling as a suspenseful tale. Baldur’s Gate repeatedly kept me up way past anything resembling a normal bedtime and, lately, World of Warcraft has done the same.

But this isn’t a post about gaming addiction. No. It’s a post about how certain games—the games that have the ability to captivate me—have a similar structure to certain kinds of stories. And thus, perhaps, their appeal.

Gaming Structure vs Story Structure


Just as in a story we have the Initial Problem, in a video game (or video game segment) we have the Initial Plight. 

The Initial Plight


A stranger (and future hero) wanders into an isolated farming community that has a problem. 

This problem could be anything from cattle rustling to zombies, but lets say that the town is overrun with gigantic ladybugs. They’ve eaten all the farmers crops and now brazenly wander the aisles of the supermarket.

The Mayor fears that after finishing off all the Pringles (you can’t eat just one) that the gargantuan ladybugs will begin chowing down on the townspeople. The town expects him to fix things, and if he doesn’t he’s never going to be reelected—the town will be gone!

The Story Goal


The Mayor gives the stranger some weapons, asks him to please take care of things, and the hero walks into the supermarket to kick some Coccinellidae butt.

I’ve found that the first few quests of a game are pretty easy. This is similar to a story. In the beginning, despite what the hero might think, things are not so bad for him or her. They have it relatively easy—at least, compared to what’s in store for them! 

This is where we set up the world—in a game we’re also letting the user get familiar with how to move around in it. In both a story and a game the hero wanders around doing minor tasks, making both friends and enemies.

This is the beginning, the ‘getting to know the world’ phase. Pretty soon, though, we come across ...

The Real Problem


Our hero rids the supermarket of ladybugs but the next day they’re back. And now it’s not just ladybugs, now worms the size of a Buick wiggle down the street pursued by and a chicken so big it could feed a family for a year.

The mayor calls the hero over. “This is no good!” the mayor says, gesticulating wildly. “We keep killing the monsters but they just come back! We need to get to the bottom of things, see what’s causing this. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you’!”

At this point the hero will talk to various townspeople, gather clues, be ambushed a couple of times, get into innumerable fights, until he/she  develops ...

The Plan


The hero decides they know what’s going on and devise a plan to end things. Often, the plan goes horribly wrong. The reasons for this vary. It could be that someone the hero trusts has sold her out. It could be just that she guessed wrong. Whatever it is, the hero is led into one last, final, battle with the odds stacked against her.

In a game this is going to be the toughest fight, one that a gamer (at least, if they’re me!) will have to re-load and take several runs at. (In an online game like WoW this would mean failing the quest, abandoning it and picking it up again from the quest-giver.) 

For instance, lets say that our hero discovers that the real danger to the ladybug infested town is Division X, a super secret branch of the government whose mission is to develop a cure for a particularly insidious disease. As a result, though, Dr. Iam Squicky stumbles onto the secret of everlasting life.

Unfortunately, there were a few accidents at the lab. The lab’s containment was breeched and, somehow, a unsuccessful batch of the formula had been released into the towns water supply. The ladybugs (worms, etc) were the first effected because of their size. Eventually, unless something is done, the same thing will happen to the human population!

When the hero informs the mayor of the fate that awaits every eligible voter in the town the small man nearly has a meltdown. “You have to do something!” he yells. “Name your price. Whatever it takes.” And then the hero goes off and handles things, defeating the Big Bad. At the end, the townspeople apologize for initially misjudging the hero and decide the town needs a new mayor. The End.

Of course that’s oversimplified. Normally the hero would have at least two allies, one of whom would be a bit shady. And there would be at least one enemy other than the Big Bad. And all these secondary characters would have their own, overlapping, story arcs.

So ...

- Initial problem.
- Initial problem is solved. 
- Hero rewarded.
- Deeper problem revealed, hero asked to help out again. Perhaps the hero needs persuasion this time.
- Hero investigates, talks to people, makes friends and enemies.
- Hero takes an initial run at the problem but only makes things worse.
- Dark night  of the soul. The townspeople blame him for their troubles, etc.
- Hero solves the problem, figures things out. He knows how to set things right, he just needs a couple of gadgets/spells/etc. 
- Final fight/showdown.
- Aftermath/cashing out the stakes.

Or something like that. :-)

If you’re a gamer and would like to share your impressions of your favorite game, what made it addictive for you, please do!

Till next time, happy writing (and gaming). 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Killing Your Darlings

Killing Your Darlings

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings. — Stephen King, On Writing

Let’s talk about murder: killing your darlings.

I’m editing my WIP. The first draft is written—it feels as though I’ve scrawled it in blood—and now I've started on the first, painful, edit.

 What do you think I’ve found right smack dab at the beginning of the second chapter? Yep, a darling.

Darlings are pieces of prose you’re inordinately fond of. Often, you think they constitute your best writing.  (And perhaps they do.) You just love them. But there’s a problem: they don’t further the story. To keep them you’d have to bend the story out of shape. (Or, as I like to think of it, “pretzelize it.”)

And that’s bad. That’s when I’ve got to go sharpen my knives.

To work me up to the task of cutting out this particular bit of prose, I went back to my writing bible. I think all writers have a writing bible. It’s not an actual bible of course, but it is a book that has helped me more than I could ever adequately express, it is a book that makes me glad I was (insane) lucky enough to want to be a writer.

I’m talking about Stephen King’s, “On Writing.” The book changed my life. Reading it, I felt as though some kindly master of the craft had taken time out of his day to sit down with me and pass along a few tips.

The Criterion


King believes that a writer “should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your story.” 

That’s the criterion: Does it work? That is, does the story or technique please “at least some of the readers some of the time.”

King writes: 

“If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right.”

As is so often the case, it is good advice that is agonizing to apply. 

I guess I better trudge along now and do what needs to be done. Now, where did I put that scalpel ...

Happy writing!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Getting Back Into The Groove

Hi folks! It’s been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. Turns out that I’m having a bit of trouble getting back into the old groove. 

Tomorrow I want to chat about killing your darlings, because I’ve been having trouble doing just that. 


Till then, good writing! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Bicycle, A Recycling Bin And A Tree: Oh my!

Just a quick note: Yesterday I was involved in a MINOR accident involving a bicycle, a recycling bin and an amazingly sturdy tree. I picked myself up and walked away. No broken bones, nothing sprained, no property damage to speak of; in fact, the only injury was to a tooth. 

* Sigh *

I’ll omit the gory details, but I spent yesterday afternoon getting emergency dental surgery. Thanks to modern pharmacology I am in no pain but the mental fog is ... well, the phrase “could cut it with a knife” comes to mind.


SO. I’m going to take it easy for the next few days, but I’ll be back on Monday or Tuesday of next week. Till then, good writing! 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Using Text-To-Voice Apps For Editing


I’ve been using a text-to-voice app for a few months now. When I load the dishwasher, dust, fold laundry, all the pesky little tasks of everyday life, tasks one can’t do while reading a story, I can now do while listening to one. It’s marvelous!

Lately, though, I’ve started to use a text-to-voice app for editing my first drafts and it has made me orders of magnitude more efficient. Why? Because I have a problem: I find it impossible to read my manuscript without diving in and changing it before I finish a complete read-through.

If you’re anything like me, that’s a mistake of mammoth proportions. 

I give myself (at least) a few months between completing a first draft and picking it up again for editing. That means—and this is the point of letting so much time pass—that I no longer hold the story in my head. Now I get to come back and, as much as possible, see it through the eyes of a stranger.

But it’s crucial for me to read the entire manuscript through before I begin making changes. Because, that’s right, chances are I’ve forgotten what exactly a particular scene is leading up to and if I cut it then I might very well just have to put it back in down the line. Which means I’ve wasted time and made the entire, painful, experience of editing that much more tedious.

The thing I love most about text-to-voice apps are that they let me listen to my story (I catch all manner of ticks and typos that way) and, at the same time, prevent me from changing the file. Because I can’t! The program I use doesn’t have that capability. Yes, I can take notes and highlight to my heart’s content, but I can’t edit the words.

That has been invaluable to me.

I thought I would mention my discovery here in case anyone else out there is like me and could benefit from 1) having their story read back to them while 2) being unable to change it.

Which is not to say that I don’t take copious pen and paper notes. I do! And that’s okay. After I finish listening to my first draft I’ll go through all my notes and type up the suggestions for changes I’m going to keep. 

And then the whole painful, wonderful, process of editing begins. But that’s a whole other post (I’ve written about editing here and here).

The Apps I Use


I’m sure there are many excellent text-to-voice programs out there. Here are a few I’ve used.

NaturalReader


I used to use NaturalReader, and would recommend it. But I needed an app that read ePub files and, the last time I checked, NaturalReader didn’t. 

VoiceOver (Mac Only)


Have you ever heard a computer generated voice breathe? If not, give Alex a listen. It makes him seem much more real, more human-like. Also, depending where a sentence is in a paragraph, Alex will read it differently. Very cool. You can give him a listen here. I use VoiceOver every day and love it. 

Voice Dream Reader


This is the app I use most often. A while ago the company came out with Voice Dream Writer, but I haven’t tried it yet, though it looks as though it could come in handy.

Well, that’s it! If you have a text-to-voice program or app you’d like to recommend, please leave a comment!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Uncanny In Fiction


The uncanny “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror ...” 
—Sigmund Freud

Have you ever had the feeling, upon waking, that your dream had followed you? Perhaps you woke, but a small panicked voice deep within you screamed you hadn’t, that it was still a dream, that ‘they’ were still out there, still coming to get you. That deep confused uneasiness, that sense of unreality, is one of the aspects of the uncanny; a feeling, a presentiment, that straddles the line between reality and unreality. [1]

In what follows I want to examine the various aspects of the uncanny as well as how the feeling might be elicited in readers.

The Uncanny: A Definition


Our word, “uncanny” comes from the German word, “unheimlich,” which means, more or less, “the opposite of what is familiar.” Or, rather, “a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar that is experienced as being peculiar.” (The Uncanny, Wikipedia)

I prefer Sigmund Freud’s definition. In “The Uncanny” he wrote, “[...] the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” [2] To put it another way, it is the familiar which is, for whatever reason, kept out of sight. Hidden.

The Circumstances Of The Uncanny


Freud asks: Why is the uncanny frightening? Is it because it is the opposite of what is known and familiar? He didn’t think so and pointed out that just because something is new or unfamiliar does not automatically mean it is frightening. Something in addition to this is at play.

The Uncanny And The Familiar


The uncanny depends upon something, in Freud’s words, “strangely familiar,” something “which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.”

The Familiar Evil


Another way of looking at the uncanny, another aspect of the feeling, is of something that ought to have remained hidden and secret but has, for whatever reason, become visible.

In this sense, the uncanny is the familiar evil. Freud writes: “on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.” It is that which “ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” [1]

Tsvetan Todorov: The Circumstances of the Uncanny


Todorov writes,

“The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations....” [3]

Let’s go through these conditions.

1. “the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described.”

So ...

- The story world needs to be immersive.

- The story and story world must allow for two separate and opposite explanations, explanations which are equally plausible.

2. “this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character.”

- The story needs to be told from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. This would seem to indicate either a close third person or first person point of view.

- The viewpoint character must not know whether what they experience is a dream or reality, whether they are mad or sane. In general, they must not know whether their experiences have a natural, or supernatural, explanation.

3. “the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations....”

- I’m not one hundred percent sure what Todorov means here, but I think this is another reference to the fact that the reader must be led to suspend disbelief. The story itself must have a sense of reality, of consistency. It must have its own logic, even though that logic might be extremely strange and twisted.

When I read (3) I was reminded of the third movie in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, “In the Mouth of Madness.” In this movie, an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, humans are driven insane when they either finish reading a book called, you guessed it, “In the Mouth of Madness” or watch the movie of the same name. The idea is to convince the audience that by watching the movie or reading the book that they, too, will go insane. Through the use of a twisted kind of self-reference, the story reaches out to the reader and attempts to draw him or her into the horrific dreamworld of the story.

This isn’t a new idea, Robert W. Chambers employed it when he wrote, “The King in Yellow,” first published in 1895 (it can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg here). This book is a collection of short stories, many of which include mention of a book called “The King in Yellow.” Reading this book (the book within the book) was guaranteed to drive a person mad. Of course, the implication—the way the story reached out beyond itself and involved the reader—is that the reader, due to her having read the volume, will be condemned to madness just as the characters were.

Really, this is an amazing and special kind of story—one which warns the reader not to finish the story! 

Examples Of The Uncanny


Alive?


Doubt about whether a certain animate being is truly alive. (see: Uncanny Valley) Also, doubt about whether a certain inanimate being is truly not living.

Examples: Wax work figures, automatons, puppets, clowns.

The following passage has been often quoted in the literature. Freud writes:

“Jentsch says: ‘In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton; and to do it in such a way that his attention is not directly focused upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be urged to go into the matter and clear it up immediately, since that, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing. [...]’”

Is this a dream? 


Doubt about whether one is dreaming or perhaps delirious, even insane, a doubt often brought on by a recurrence of “the same situations, things and events.”

Freud wrote:

“That factor which consists in a recurrence of the same situations, things and events, will perhaps not appeal to everyone as a source of uncanny feeling. From what I have observed, this phenomenon does undoubtedly [...] awaken an uncanny feeling, which recalls that sense of helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams. Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself  back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.” [2]

The double


Freud wrote:

“These themes are all concerned with the idea of a “double” in every shape and degree, with persons, therefore, who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike; Hoffmann accentuates this relation by transferring mental processes from the one person to the other—what we should call telepathy—so that the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other, identifies himself with another person, so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own—in other words, by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of similar situations, a same face, or character-trait, or twist of fortune, or a same crime, or even a same name recurring throughout several consecutive generations.” [2]

When I read this I thought of the book, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. Also the movie Pi, or The Number 23. 

Other instances of ‘the double’ are reflections in mirrors, shadows, guardian spirits and, arguably, the belief in the soul. [2]

That is a rather broad list, but it makes sense to me. Think of the many stories about staring into a mirror and repeating a name three times to summon an entity or of the myth that mirrors can be used as gateways. For example, Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”). 

Notes:


3. Tsvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975), via web page: The Uncanny and the Fantastic.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

I’ve been reading and writing Gothic stories all my life, though I didn’t always know that’s what they were.

As a girl I tore through Mary Stewart’s Gothic Romances and most recently I’ve been ensnared by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s marvelous Pendergast series, an example of Southern Gothic.

I’m not going to lie, Gothic fiction is a big topic and perhaps I should start off with definitions and talk about how Gothic fiction differs from other sorts of fiction, and so on, but I’m not going to. Today I’m just going to dip my toe in the water and discuss what I think is an important and fruitful distinction in ANY kind of literature: terror vs horror.

Terror vs Horror: The Anticipated vs The Actual


In what follows I’m drawing from material I found on the university of Virginia’s servers. It came up in a Google search on “psychological overlay.” Here’s the link: Individual and Social Psychologies of the Gothic: Introduction.

Although terror and horror might appear superficially similar (terror is extreme fear and horror is defined as “an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust”) one could argue—as Ann Radcliffe did in an 1826 essay—that ...

“[...] terror is characterized by ‘obscurity’ or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, ‘nearly annihilates’ the reader's responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.” [1]

One gets the feeling Radcliffe would NOT have appreciated the 2004 movie Saw.

Echoing Radcliffe, Devendra Varma characterized the difference between “terror and horror as the difference between ‘awful apprehension and sickening realization,’ [...]”. Of terror she writes: “Sounds unexplained, sights indistinctly caught, dim shadows endowed with motion by the flicker of the firelight or the shimmer of the moonbeam invoke superstitious fear.” [2]

Horror, on the other hand, depends upon seeing the physical objects our fertile imaginations cast in a thousand shades of darkness. As Radcliffe put it, "the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the Sun can show." [3]

Summing up, Devendra P. Varma writes: 

“The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse. [...] Terror thus creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitious shudder at the other world. Horror resorts to a cruder presentation of the macabre: by an exact portrayal of the physically horrible and revolting, against a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair. Horror appeals to sheer dread and repulsion, by brooding upon the gloomy and the sinister, and lacerates the nerves by establishing actual cutaneous contact with the supernatural...” [2]

Another Perspective: Physical Ambiguity vs Moral And Psychological Ambiguity


While I’m personally convinced by the arguments put forward by Radcliffe and her modern ally, Varma, there is another way of looking at the distinction between the terrifying and the horrible. 

Robert Hume begins his critique by pointing out that Radcliffe’s technique, how she generates terror, is by using “dramatic suspension.” Which is another way of saying that Radcliffe “raises vague but unsettling possibilities and leaves them dangling for hundreds of pages.” (Where have I heard that technique used before? Lee Child.) Hume remarks that “Mrs. Radcliffe's easy manipulation of drawn-out suspense holds the reader's attention through long books with slight plots.” [4]

But, Hume says, terror isn’t the only game in town. Other writers hold the readers attention just as well and without aid of either suspense or dread, instead “they attack him frontally with events that shock or disturb him.” [4]

Rather than enumerating a labyrinth of possibilities that never materialize “they heap a succession of horrors upon the reader.” These sort of books gain much of their effect “from murder, torture, and rape.” [4]

Hume sums up his position: 

“The difference from terror-Gothic is considerable; Mrs. Radcliffe merely threatens these things, and Walpole uses violent death only at the beginning and end of his book. The reader is prepared for neither of these deaths, which serve only to catch the attention and to produce a climax, respectively.”

“[...] with the villain-heroes of horror-Gothic we enter the realm of the morally ambiguous. Ambrosio, Victor Frankenstein, and Melmoth are men of extraordinary capacity whom circumstance turns increasingly to evil purposes. They are not merely monsters [...]”

“To put the change from terror-Gothic to horror-Gothic in its simplest terms, the suspense of external circumstance is de- emphasized in favor of increasing psychological concern with moral ambiguity. The horror-Gothic writers [...] wrote for a reader who could say with Goethe that he had never heard of a crime which he could not imagine himself committing. The terror novel prepared the way for a fiction which though more overtly horrible is at the same time more serious and more profound.” [4]

The Appeal of Moral Ambiguity


Think of “The Silence of the Lambs,” either the book or the movie. That story was one in which the protagonist’s mentor, Hannibal Lecter (aka Hannibal the Cannibal) was a brutal serial killer. And, strangely, he was kinda, sorta, a good guy. Why? Because he helped stop another serial killer, Buffalo Bill, and because Hannibal only killed jerks. Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, killed without regard to the intrinsic characteristics of the victim; what they were like as people. Buffalo Bill’s victims were simply a means to an end. He was only interested in their exterior, their skin. 

For myself, one of the fascinating things about the universe Thomas Harris created was that he not only crafted a complex character like Hannibal Lecter but that he made me genuinely care about him, even root for him.

To Sum Up


Although a particular story could eschew horror and rely only upon suspense in order to create narrative drive, or vice versa, they (of course) work best together. That said, I thought it was interesting and possibly instructive to try an conceptually tease the two apart so as to meditate upon what is unique to each as well as how such feelings might be generated in readers.

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Sketch by Edward Gorey.

Notes:


(All references are from “Terror and Horror.”)
1. Ann Radcliffe, "On the Supernatural in Poetry," The New Monthly Magazine (1826): 145-52.
2. Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966).
3. Ann Radcliffe, “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”
4. Robert Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA 84 (1969): pp. 282-290.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Part 8 of 8: CHANGE The World


This is the last post in my Dan Harmon series. To read the series from the beginning head on over to the first post: Dan Harmon on Story Structure. I’ve placed an index at the bottom of the page.

Onward! Our protagonist is almost the master of two worlds. They have conquered the Special World of the Adventure and now they must complete the circle and bring that knowledge, that expertise (the prize) back to their community in the Ordinary World. 

Part 8 - Master of Both Worlds


Dan Harmon writes: “the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they're able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

The Climactic Showdown


This is what the story has been building up to, the confrontation, the showdown, between the protagonist and antagonist. What occurs here will determine whether the protagonist achieves his goal or fails miserably. Dan Harmon writes:

“In an action film, you're guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession.”

Christopher Vogler echoes this when he writes that, “the showdown is a distinct dramatic form with its own rules and conventions. (The Writer’s Journey)” Vogler goes on to enumerate some of these for a Western, but more general guidelines are given by Jim Butcher in his excellent article, Climaxes

Jim Butcher on Climaxes


When I sketched the outline for this post I didn’t intend to talk about Jim Butcher’s take on the structure of story climaxes—I was just going to include a link to his article—but it’s too good NOT to discuss.

JB writes that the climax has much the same structure as a sequel: Isolation, Confrontation, Dark Moment, Choice, Dramatic Reversal and, of course, Resolution. The climax begins just as the Great Swampy Middle Ends. I’m not going to explain these terms, if they aren’t familiar, head on over to Jim Butcher’s Livejournal account. I’ve gone into this in great and gory detail here: Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax.

Mirroring: Completion


When the protagonist comes back to the ordinary world they often find their way back to the same bit of terra firma where the protagonist stood as he or she experienced a significant story transition—like, say, a cataclysmic setback. 

Mirroring can also be done with the use of sayings, some sort of tag line—or even a repeated behavior. Whatever is used, a familiar location or a character tag, now’s the time to put a twist on it. Now it has come to mean something else, something more.

Christopher Vogler writes:

“The most popular story design seems to be the circular or closed form, in which the narrative returns to its starting point. In this structure you might bring the hero literally full circle back to the location or world where she started. Perhaps the Return is circular in a visual or metaphoric way, with a replay of an initial image, or the repetition of a line of dialogue or situation from Act One. This is one way of tying up loose ends and making a story feel complete. The image or phrases may have acquired a new meaning now that the hero has completed the journey. The original statement of the theme may be re-evaluated at the Return. Many musical compositions return to an initial theme to rephrase it at the ending.” (The Writer’s Journey)

As Dan Harmon points out, “John McClane, who at step (1) was afraid of flying, now [in Part 7] wraps a fire hose around his waist and leaps off an exploding building, then shoots a giant window so he can kick through it with his bloody feet. / Strangely enough, he will soon [Part 8] find himself back in the same room where the Christmas party was being held.”

And so we’re brought full circle.

The Prize


Have you noticed that, often, the protagonist will receive something in Part 4—this could be an actual physical object or even just a realization, perhaps a profound one, about life and their place in it—and it is this very thing which will enable the protagonist to succeed in the final confrontation? Dan Harmon writes:

“One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his shit together. Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It's hack, but it's hack because it's worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn't seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love. It's all the same. [...] Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4)” (Story Structure 104)

And that’s it! I’ll close by mirroring something I said at the beginning of this series. If your story works, leave it alone! But if you feel there’s something the matter with it but you can’t figure out what, then it might be an idea to examine your story in the context of the hero’s journey. Bottom line: The hero’s journey is a tool. You can use it or not, but it’s a good thing to have in your toolbox. Just in case. 

Talk to you again next week, good writing!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Part 7: RETURN - Bringing The Prize Home


Today I continue my series on Dan Harmon’s Story Structure. The first article in the series is here. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Dan Harmon’s article, Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details.

7. RETURN - Bringing It Home


To review: Our protagonist (YOU) had a NEED that drove (GO) her into the Special World of the Adventure. While adapting to the strangeness of the Special World she SEARCHed for what would fill her need. When she found it (FIND), she TOOK it and RETURNED to the Ordinary World where she can now, transformed as she is, CHANGE the world.

Today we will be looking at the protagonist’s journey, or flight, from the Special World of the Adventure back into the Ordinary World.

The Flight From The Special World


Dan Harmon writes:

“For some characters, this [the journey back] is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out—what Campbell calls "Rescue from Without." In an anecdote about having to change a flat tire in the rain, this could be the character getting back into his car.

“For others, not so easy, which is why Campbell also talks about ‘The Magic Flight.’”

It doesn’t have to take up a lot of space on the page, it doesn’t have to be death-defying (though it could be!), but at some point around 75% of the way through a story the protagonist begins her return to the community, the world, they left behind in Part 3.

The Pursuit


But, as we’ve seen before, nothing comes without a price. The protagonist had to give up something, strip herself of the inessentials, before the meeting with the goddess in Part 5. Further, the knowledge acquired in Part 5 necessitated, in Part 6, that the last of the scales fall from the protagonist’s eyes and she endure the pain and ecstasy of seeing the story world for what it was. Or, to change metaphors, it necessitated reading within the world the deep truth of the story. But this was the last straw, the last little bit of pain/change needed to complete the protagonist’s transformation.

It comes, then, as no surprise that the protagonist’s exit from the Special World likely won’t be easy. Dan Harmon writes:

“The denizens of the deep can't have people sauntering out of the basement any more than the people upstairs wanted you going down there in the first place. The natives of the conscious and unconscious worlds justify their actions however they want, but in the grand scheme, their goal is to keep the two worlds separate, which includes keeping people from seeing one and living to tell about it.” (Story Structure 104)

As such, this part of a story is generally active. By this time many protagonists have become comfortable in the Special World so it will take an active push from something in the underworld to get the protagonist to leave. Christopher Vogler writes:

“This is a time when the story’s energy, which my have ebbed a little in the quiet moments of Seizing the Sword [TAKE], is now revved up again. If we look at the Hero’s Journey as a circle with the beginning at the top, we are still down in the basement and it will take some push to get us back up into the light.” (The Writer’s Journey)

For example, Dan Harmon writes that ...

“This is a great place for a car chase. Or, in a love story, having realized what's important, the hero bursts out of his apartment onto the sidewalk. His lover's airplane leaves for Antartica in TEN MINUTES! John McClane, who at step (1) was afraid of flying, now wraps a fire hose around his waist and leaps off an exploding building, then shoots a giant window so he can kick through it with his bloody feet.”

Mirroring


One of the things I like most about Dan Harmon’s treatment of story structure are the all too infrequent asides he makes about mirroring, about the way one part of the story mirrors or builds upon another. 

In Part 1 storytellers introduce something the protagonist is frightened of, something that is a definite weakness. For instance, in Edge of Tomorrow (spoiler alert) the protagonist, Cage, is a coward. He would do anything, absolutely anything, rather than fight. So, of course, he spends the entire movie fighting! Around the midpoint he becomes a seasoned fighter. But he has a special gift, a special ability, that gives him an edge. Acquiring that special ability marks his entry into the Special World of the Adventure and losing it marks his exit. 

Not every protagonist has as clear cut a flaw as Cage, a flaw that drives forward the action of the story. Indiana Jones, for instance, has flaws aplenty but they don’t drive the story forward, at least, not in the same fashion. Of course, as Dan Harmon mentions, it doesn’t have to be quite that clear cut. In Die Hard we learn early on that John MacClane is afraid of flying and then, in the RETURN portion of the movie, he overcomes that fear—or at least learns to master it—with dramatic effect.

That’s it! That’s it for today and it’s almost it for the series. Next time I’ll discuss the last step in the protagonist’s heroic transformation. Tell then, good reading and writing.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Classic Design vs Minimal Design: Part 2 of 2

Classic Design vs Minimal Design: Part 2 of 2

This article continues yesterday’s post on Deborah Chester’s notions of classic design. All quotations, below, are from her article Fighting for Story.

Have A Proper Protagonist


Protagonists should be heroic, strong and admirable. They should be depicted in such a way that readers will like them. Further ...

Make The Protagonist Active


Chester writes that the protagonist should initiate confrontations “in order to accomplish a specific objective.” Further, each confrontation should cause a chain reaction. It should set other events in motion, events that “lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.”

Key point: There is a human being causing these difficulties for the protagonist. A good old-fashioned hand wringing, mustache twirling, villain. (Okay, not so much hand wringing or mustache twirling, but you get the idea.)

Have A Proper Villain


Deborah Chester admonishes us to make our good guys good and our bad guys bloodcurdlingly evil—or at least devious, ruthless and driven. They should be depicted in such a way that readers will not like them. She writes:

“It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.”

And, when it’s put like that, I can understand the disinclination to do so. If one measures other people against one’s own code of ethics and then judges them if they don’t measure up ... well, that’s caused quite a lot of nastiness in the world.

In real life folks have a variety of tastes and predilections. In my book, that’s just fine. 

But as DC mentions:

“Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.”

I agree. That goes to the heart of the perception of villainy, of evil: choosing what is expedient over what is right. 

In the end I think it depends on the kind of villain you want to create. As Jim Butcher and Donald Maass have said, most antagonists, even villains, see themselves as the good guy. They believe themselves to be the hero of their own story. 

Perhaps perspective is the key. Readers see the story world through the eyes of the viewpoint character. In a single viewpoint novel this is (naturally) going to be the protagonist. As long as the protagonist has reason to view the antagonist as someone who is more concerned with expediency than with what is right, readers are going to see the antagonist as a proper villain.

Linear Plotting And Viewpoints


No flashbacks. Deborah Chester writes:

“Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.”

When there are no flashbacks the order of events is crystal clear and confusion is minimized.

One viewpoint. Classically designed stories tend to have one viewpoint character rather than several. (For example, all the books in The Dresden Files.) Deborah Chester writes:

“It [webbed plotting] involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.”

I agree. Which, of course, isn’t to say that multiple viewpoint stories aren’t engaging—just look at the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s books. But, of course, Mr. Martin is a skilled writer. What he has pulled off is epic. I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that a single viewpoint novel is much easier to write. So, all things being equal, if you’re setting out to write your first or second book, go easy on yourself (and your beta readers!) and stick to one viewpoint character.

How To Create A Suspenseful Scene


Deborah Chester mentions two things that help keep a scene on track and suspenseful:

1. Every scene should focus on a clear character goal.

2. Every scene should end in a setback for the central character.

Further ...

Character Creation: Be Bold. Be Vivid. 


Exaggeration is your friend. Each character should have one, or a few, qualities which define them (see: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy). Deborah Chester advises us to “Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger.” Make your protagonist—make all your characters—vivid. She writes:

“When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.”

Mr. Monk wasn’t just quirky, he was downright strange. People are afraid of a lot of things, but he was afraid of pretty much everything. Including milk!

Harry Dresden isn’t just a wizard—which is pretty darn cool as it is—he’s the first and only wizard to announce himself as such and make himself available for hire. 

Scenes: Maximize Conflict


One of the best ways to create suspense is to create conflict. Chester writes:

“Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.”

Also ...

“[...] scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.”

Beware Ending A Story On A Cliffhanger


Deborah Chester writes that the danger of ending a story on a cliffhanger “is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how [...] readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.”

You might be thinking: But that’s not how it is in real life! To that DC says:

“Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.”

As Stephen King has said, fiction is the truth inside the lie.

That’s it! Next time I’ll continue my series on Dan Harmon’s unique take on story structure. Till then, good reading and writing.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Classic Design vs Minimal Design

Classic Design vs Minimal Design

I know I said this blog post would either be about Part 7 of my series on Dan Harmon’s unique take on the structure of stories or I would delve into the beautiful dark heart of the gothic genre.

I’m going to do neither, because I came across a wonderfully informative post about story structure written by Deborah Chester. You can read it on her blog, Chronicles of the Scribe. It’s called Fighting for Story.

By the way, if you don’t know who Deborah Chester is, in addition to having written over 35 science fiction and fantasy books she holds the John Crain Presidential Professorship at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, she was Jim Butcher’s writing teacher back in the day and he dedicated his first book, Storm Front, to her. 

Classic Design


Unless otherwise indicated, everything I talk about, below, has been drawn from DC’s post, “Fighting For Story.” I urge you to head over to her blog and read it for yourself. It’s stuffed to bursting with insights on how to write suspenseful prose. 

Before we get going I want to talk a bit about what DC calls classic design. She writes:

“It [classic design] follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.”

Also, in a classically designed story, there is an inciting incident that is the “catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action.” Further, at the end of the story, the “climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.”

Classic vs Minimal Design


Chester’s object in writing “Fighting for Story” is to compare and contrast classic design with what she calls minimal design. She writes that “Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.”

I’m acquainted with stories that use minimal design and—I won’t lie—I loved many of them! To each their own.

From what I can tell, the stories that DC refers to as minimally designed also (more or less) follow Joseph Campbell’s story structure. In what follows I’ll use American Beauty and Pulp Fiction as examples of minimally designed stories. One of the differences between these stories and, say, The Matrix (a classically designed story if there ever was one), is that the stakes seem to be handled a bit differently. 

From the first scene of American Beauty we know Lester Burnham is going to die, we just don’t know who will kill him or how the deed is done. Or, really, why anyone could possibly be passionate enough about Lester Burnham to kill him. Aside from those not insubstantial questions, a large part of the appeal of American Beauty is voyeuristic (or so I would argue). We hover about the family unseen. Fascinated, we watch them implode.

A Longish Aside


In American Beauty no one person is a Big Bad, if anything fits that description it is the inevitability of endings and failure and death. It is the constant awareness of our own inevitable mortality. Wonderful movie. It’s one of my top 10 favorites. Pulp fiction as well. It’s a brilliant story that made me laugh and gasp in surprise and, yes, cry. And all the while being ever so slightly ironic. (Or maybe not ever so slightly.)

Pulp Fiction and American Beauty are two very different movies but, from what I can gather from “Fighting for Story,” both would be examples of minimal design. My own take is this: If that’s the sort of story that lives inside you—go for it! Write it.

Alan Ball wrote and produced American Beauty and then went on to create and write the hit HBO series Six Feet Under. Quentin Tarantino hasn’t had a bad career either. ;)

Now, I’m not saying that if anyone employs minimal design in their stories then stardom (as much as stardom is possible for writers!) is guaranteed. Quite the opposite. I believe that it is much more difficult to write a compelling story if one employs a minimal design. Ultimately, I don’t believe one kind of story is superior to the other. We as people—as readers and writers—need both. I read and enjoy both, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for a good classically designed story, a story such as Deborah Chester and Jim Butcher (and many, many others) write.

Sorry for the long aside, but I wanted to make it clear that I don’t think minimal design is in any way bad. Jim Butcher has had a few things to say about the difference between classically and minimally designed stories—even though he never, to my knowledge, used those exact terms. And, as usual, he puts it far better than I could. Although in this quotation JB’s focus is narrower than DC’s, I believe the general point comes through. Jim Butcher writes:

“Sticking with the purely craft-oriented standpoint, we'll start with a basic question: what makes a good character?

“FIRST AND FOREMOST, FICTION WRITERS, YOUR CHARACTERS MUST BE INTERESTING.

“I mean, come on. Who is going to want to read about boring people? I can do that in the newspaper, or in any history class. Increasingly, as our society moves into the MTV-Information-broadband-instant-gratification age, reader tolerance for the dull and the plain is going to go down.

“Bottom line: without interesting characters, your book is already dead. You can write something that flies in the face of this if you like, and people the story town of Plainsville with John Smiths, and who knows, maybe you'll create an immortal piece of literary art. But for poor slobs like me whose sons are suddenly wearing larger shoes than them, and who are looking with mild panic at the costs of a college degree, there are a couple of basic principles to think about which could really help you in all kinds of ways.” (Characters)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s see how we can employ Classic Design in our stories.

Ack! I’m at a thousand words. Well, I’ll leave the rest of this post till tomorrow. On Monday I’ll write about Deborah Chester’s tips on how to craft a compelling story your readers won’t be able to put down. Till then, have a great day, and good writing.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Part 6: TAKE - Take The Prize And Pay The Price

Part 6: TAKE - Take The Prize And Pay The Price

This article continues my series on Dan Harmon’s story model. Here’s a link to the first article: Dan Harmon On Story Structure.

6. TAKE - The Pearl And The Price


Part 6 is about consequences. The protagonist has just passed the midpoint of our tale, she has sloughed off most of whatever was holding her back and met with the Goddess. Now she must return to the Ordinary World.

But a price must be paid for this understanding. After all, the protagonist has taken something. She has found her own personal pearl of great price. A sacrifice is required.

I want to concentrate on two things in what follows. First, the second Call to Adventure and, second, the price the protagonist must pay.

The Second Call To Adventure


No, there isn’t really a second Call to Adventure. This is more like an echo of the first Call. Referencing the movie “Real Genius” Dan Harmon writes:

“In Real Genius (I'm really drawing on the classics, now), the dorky kid (1) is recruited for a special college program that's working on a powerful laser (2). He becomes the roommate of a wayward genius whose major is how-to-parrrrrtay (3). Party man teaches Dork how to relax while Dork teaches party man how to focus (4) and as a result, they are able to perfect their laser (5) and get their prestigious accolades. But now a second, more honest call to adventure from an uber-nerd who lives in the steam tunnels: What is that laser for? Why did they have to build it to certain specifications? What did that creepy, popcorn-hating professor have in mind? Sure, they could stay here in this pizza parlor, nursing at the tit of their own prosperity. But then again, they didn't get this far by being irresponsible. It's time to start heading back up to the real world and making things right, Genius style.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

At the midpoint (or shortly afterward) the hero discovers either that there was a dimension, an aspect, of the first Call to Adventure that she didn’t fully appreciate or she figures out she’s been snookered. Often this shift in perception is brought about by her deeper understanding of the Special World of the Adventure, an understanding given to her by the Goddess (“the Goddess” being shorthand for whatever it was that evoked this epiphany).

For example, in “Die Hard” ...

“Having made his peace (5) regarding his marriage, John McClane now wonders why Hans Gruber, head terrorist, was so desperate for those detonators. He goes back to the roof and discovers that the entire upper portion of the skyscraper is wired to blow. With this realization comes the consequence (6): The giant blonde terrorist - the ED-209 to McClaine's Robocop- descends on him and the two will now battle to the death.” (Story Structure 104)

So the order is: 

(Part 5) Midpoint (Meeting with the Goddess)

--> leads to -->

(Part 5) A different way of seeing both oneself and the world

--> leads to -->

(Part 6) The protagonist making the discovery that there’s something wrong, or missing, from his view of the world/reality.

If the story isn’t a tragedy, then there’s often what I’ll call a saving grace. Something happens, the protagonist figures something out, just in time to avert complete disaster.

In Edge of Tomorrow (spoiler alert), Cage discovers that there’s something wrong with reality as he understood it: the Omega can feed him false visions. As a result, rather than battling with the Omega, he walks into an ambush. The saving grace is that he realizes what the mimics are after in time to avert total disaster.

In Die Hard, John McClane discovers that the kidnappers aren’t kidnappers or terrorists, they’re thieves. The saving grace: McClane realizes the significance of the detonators in time to thwart their plans.

The Pearl and the Price 


There are repercussions to meeting with the Goddess and in Part 6 the protagonist must pay up.

I’ve said, above, that in Part 6 the protagonist has the realization there’s something wrong, or missing, from her view of the world and therefore from her plans. Something fundamental was missing from her understanding of the mess she’s in and, as a result of her meeting with the Goddess, now she knows what it is.

This realization is both a boon and a bane. Without realizing the true depths of the problem one has, one can’t hope to solve it, but ... well, when one sees the true extent of the hole one is in that’s painful. Inevitable but painful.

In any case, there is always a price to be paid for this increased understanding of the true nature of one’s (story) reality. In Cage’s case as soon as he realized the Omega wasn’t where he ‘knew’ she would be, he realized the visions had to have been false. He’d been led into a trap. The price: He had one plan and that had gone to hell. He was back at square one. The pearl: He finally knew what he was up against.

All Hope Is Lost: The First Beat


As we’ve seen, in Part 6 the protagonist reaps the consequences of the understanding he gained in Part 5. This leads to the protagonist paying a great price which is manifested as her suffering a fundamental setback. 

In my opinion, this setback is often the first try-fail in the final All Hope Is Lost try-fail cycle. Dan Harmon doesn’t put it quite this way, though he does write that ...

“[...] in a good action movie, this is where our guy simply gets his ass kicked. Robocop, armed with Clarence Boddiker's confession (5), marches into the office of Dick Jones, CEO of the company that built him. He tries to arrest the man that owns him, only to discover that he can't. It's against his programming. Loveable, human Alex Murphy (2) might have been able to pull this off, but bullet-proof, factory-made Robocop can't. [...] Between his purely mechanical brother, ED-209, and his purely human brothers, the misinformed police, being sicked on him, Robocop barely makes it out of the father's castle in one piece.” (Story Structure 104)

Also ...

“In a love story, this is the part where they break up. Now comes the stubble and the dirty dishes and the closed shades. The deep, deep, suicidal depression. The boring relationship with the supposedly better partner. And finally, the realization that nothing was ever more important than him or her.” (Story Structure 104)

Where This Leads


The short answer: Deification. Becoming a living god, at least figuratively. Dan Harmon writes:

“When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it's more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.” (Story Structure 104)

I think that process doesn’t truly come to fruition until Part 8: CHANGE and our protagonist wallops the Big Bad into the next Millennium, but here we see our protagonist begin to emerge from the ashes.

Yes, she’s going to suffer setbacks between now and the final showdown, but the process of transformation has already begun.

That’s it for today! Next time I’ll either look at Part 7: RETURN or I’ll talk about the gothic genre. Till then, good writing!