Showing posts with label #writing tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #writing tips. Show all posts

Friday, May 22

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). 

Tuesday, December 10

How To Create Distinct Characters: An Exercise

Have you ever had trouble telling two characters apart? Either in your own work or others? I know I have, which is why I was thrilled to find this exercise: Guest Author Bryan Cohen: 60 Seconds of Hell: An Improv Character Exercise Adapted for Writers.

How to improvise your way into creating distinct character voices

This writing exercise started off as an acting drill, a brutal one guaranteed to turn your brain into mush in 30 seconds flat!

Why put yourself through this creative torture?

Because, just as this helps actors portray distinct characters on the stage, so it will make it easier for you to craft unique, fresh, lively, characters upon the page.

Here's the improv version:

"The coach of the improv team would hold a stopwatch and send one of the performers to the stage. The performer takes a one-word suggestion and starts a scene as a certain character. After 10 seconds, the coach says, "Switch!" and the performer must start a new scene as a completely different character. The goal is to create six distinct characters that speak different, move differently and are only connected by the fact that it's the same improviser performing all the roles.

"Most of the time, a performer will have no problem with the first two or three characters. By the third or fourth character, there will be a pause or a similar character to the first couple will rear his or her head. While the first few characters are triumphant, the last couple are often a stumble. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

5 Ways To Make A Character's Voice Distinct

1. Pace

Is your character's speech hummingbird fast, sloth slow, or somewhere in-between?

2. Dialect

Does this character use standard English? Are they educated? Where were they educated? Do they have an English accent? Cockney? Or perhaps their accent is American? Where are they from? Boston? Does this character use contractions?

3. Movement

Does your character move quickly? Are her movements jerky? Sudden? 

Often a person's movements are indicative of what he or she wants. For example, if your character is a femme fatale she'll move one way, if she's a single mother of five young children just home from her second minimum wage job, she'll move in quite another. Or think of the cautious, stealthy, precise, movements of a burglar.

4. Emotion

Is your character happy? Sad? Worried? Angry? Scared? Despairing? Think of how to communicate each of these emotions through dialogue (remember: show don't tell.)

Here is a list of emotions.

5. Pitch

Everyone's vocal range is different.

In her article, "The Human Voice--Pitch," Tonya Reiman writes that:

"Everyone has a distinct voice, different from all others; almost like a fingerprint, one's voice is unique and can act as an identifier. The human voice is composed of a multitude of different components, making each voice different; namely, pitch, tone, and rate."

Recall the character of Moaning Myrtle, played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Shirley Henderson's voice is distinctive and was a significant part of what made Myrtle unforgettable.

60 Seconds of Hell: The Writing Exercise

What you'll need:

- A piece of paper (or electronic file) divided into six sections.

- A timer set to mark six increments of ten seconds each. If you don't have such a timer, a friend with a stop watch would come in handy!

I did this exercise without the aid of a timekeeping friend by using a stopwatch app on my iPad and then hitting the 'lap' button every ten seconds. It was awkward but doable. That said, if anyone out there knows of a timer/counter/doodad that can be set to emit a beep every X seconds, please let me know! :-)

What you'll do:

Write a dialogue for six characters, switching to a new character every ten seconds.

Your goal is to make each character distinct by making each character's voice distinct. Remember, this is dialogue only.

Bryan Cohen encourages writers to experiment with this exercise. Try varying the amount of time or characters. Stipulate that one of your characters has to use a British accent. Be creative!

Cohen writes:

"Don't worry, this exercise is meant to make your brain feel like jelly. With enough practice, it should help you to differentiate your characters to keep them from sounding alike. By going through six characters at a time, you may also find a new person you want to spend time with in your next story. So try going to hell and back. You might return with a lot more than you bargained for. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

An excellent exercise! Good writing.

Article links:
- The Human Voice - Pitch, by Tonya Reiman

Photo credit: "Los Habaneros #10" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution.

Monday, May 20

Tips For Building An Interesting World

Tips For Building An Interesting World

Today I'm world building.

And, no, I'm not talking about my on-again, off-again, obsession with Minecraft.

Sometimes a world reveals itself in a rush of inspiration and all I have to do is write it down.

Other times, like today, I'll grab onto a great character who seems to come ready-made, reminding me of Stephen King's writers-as-anthropologists analogy, where all we're really doing is uncovering stories, not creating them. If that's the case, many of my villains, my "big bads," (also see the discussion of the Big Bad trope over at come from the ground fully-formed. All I have to do is brush off a bit of dirt, perhaps reattach an arm here, smooth down a bump or two there, and the character is complete; though of course riddled with flaws and strong, counter-productive, desires.

I've been doing some research for the hero of my story, trying to make him as vivid, as memorable--and, frankly, as likable--as my villain. (When one writes one learns about oneself, so I wonder what that says about me! Wait, don't answer that. ;)

In any case, today Janice Hardy published a wonderful article on world building that is (as always) oh-so-very helpful to writers in the trenches. Her advice helps if you're just starting the world-building process or if you're pulling your hair out because something isn't working with the world you've created/discovered.

Janice Hardy's Tips For Building An Interesting World

1. Color. Use it.

Janice writes: "[I]n my current WIP, color denotes status and is used as an identifier."

Interesting! That book is going on my To Be Read list. Janice writes that, in general, color can ...

Color can have a practical, aesthetic, or spiritual reason. Just like purple was used for royalty due to the rarity of the dye, another color might be scarce in your world and have particular uses and meanings behind those uses.
I admit, what color means isn't something I thought about when building the world of my WIP, but it's a great idea.


Are certain colors rare, perhaps only available to the very rich and powerful? If so, you have a great way to show a character's wealth or status.


Are certain colors forbidden?  Are they considered taboo or perhaps they are sacred to one or more gods?

2. What materials do your societies use?

Janice writes:
Different colored stones occur in different regions, or wood from the trees, or even metals mined from the ground. Coastal dwellers might use mud bricks but those who live in heavy forest areas build with wood. A desert culture probably isn't building with wood and stone, and anyone who does is likely to be wealthy or powerful enough to import them in. What materials the population has on hand goes a long way to how they create their cities and the things in those cities.

  • What building materials are nearby?
  • What's imported? Exported?
  • What are common household items made from?
  • What are luxury items made from?
  • What are considered luxury items?
Janice also talks about how to use a societies views on art, as well as their decorations, to help build a world and make it interesting. I encourage you to read her entire article: World Building Tips Learned at the Louvre.

Do you have any tips/tricks for how to flesh out a world and make it interesting? If so, please share!

Other articles you might like:

- The Key To Being A Productive Writer: Prioritize
- Indie Writers Can Now Get Their Books Into Bookstores
- What Do Aaron Sorkin, Stealing, And Advice About Writing Have In Common?

Photo credit: "time flies" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, April 30

25 Tips For Writing Great Sex Scenes

25 Tips For Writing Great Sex Scenes

Folks, this is the best post on writing sex scenes I've ever read: 25 Humpalicious Steps for Writing Your First Sex Scene, By Delilah S. Dawson (Author Of Wicked As She Wants).

As you might imagine from the title--"Humpalicious" was a dead give away--this post comes from the incomparable blog of Chuck Wendig.

Here are my favorite bits of advice:

4. Write the scene in one sitting

Just as with sex, it doesn't improve if you stop in the middle to go grocery shopping.

5. Don't self-edit

Don't re-read what you've written, don't look back. Delilah writes:
Do not look back while you’re writing it or think about how wretched it [the scene] is. Of course it’s wretched. It’s the literary equivalent of virgin sex.

6. Keep the same point of view

[W]riting sex is far more fluid ... if you limit yourself to one character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Not only does this help the reader keep track of pronouns and hands, but can you imagine having sex if you had to hear every single thought the other person was having?

7. Read how other writers have written sex scenes

Yesterday I wrote about how to improve one's prose. That exercise would work here. Find a book that contains sexy scenes you think are well done. Pick one of them and copy it out--or at least two pages of it. Then, try to write a few paragraphs in the same voice, using the same setting.

Do this with, say, three of the scenes and then move on to another book.

Conveniently, most romance novels have (at least) three sex scenes. Delilah writes:
Most romance novels have a kissing or make-out scene that surprises both characters early on; one very detailed “first sex” scene somewhere between halfway and three-quarters of the way through; and then at least one other, “Oh, okay, we’re good at this; let’s hump HARDER scene” closer to the end. Your mileage/sexytimes meter may vary. But keep writing until it’s done.
Identify the book's three core 'sexy scenes', write each of them out, then try and match the author's voice.

14. Have a sequel after the sex scene

Jim Butcher has written an excellent post on sequels. Sex scenes are action scenes, so they need to be followed by a sequel. Delilah writes:
Your story needs a lull, an afterglow, a reaction to the sex just as honest as people have in real life. It doesn’t have to be all cupcakes and rainbows—maybe he storms off, maybe she runs for the shower, maybe they tell Muppet jokes while he offers her a Clorox wipe. But what happens immediately following the sex can be just as important as the sex. It may seem like a small thing, but falling asleep in a lover’s arms (or not) for the first time can be a big deal. Especially if he’s the kind of guy who has a hook for a hand.

15. Sex complicates relationships

After sex, the characters will glance away, avoid eye contact, doubt themselves, doubt each other, maybe rethink their involvement. Chances are, one of them feels more secure than the other. At the very least, even if they’re both happy, something in your story must push them apart, or they would just spend three months in bed, humping like rabbits.

19. Get the details right

"Have a clear idea what the characters are wearing before they start to get undressed" and then remove it in a sexy fashion.

So, um, NOT like real life.

21. Make the sex count

Delilah writes:
[Your sex scene] should move the story forward and somehow affect the characters emotionally. Maybe the hero learns to open up, maybe the heroine decides she wants to be more aggressive in her real life, maybe they’re just having what they think is a last fling before a giant orc battle. But it has to mean something, or else it’s just porn.

22. Get a second opinion

You need this. It's next to impossible to be objective about your own work and when it comes to writing good sex its doubly important--triply important--to get objective feedback you can trust. Did they think the scene was sexy?

23. Let it go.

This is true for any story, after you've done your best, after you've edited, given it to beta-readers--whatever your process is--let it go.

Dean Wesley Smith has written a lot about this, especially lately. Do the work send it out, let it go, and turn to the next project.

#  #  #

By the way, at first I was convinced that Chuck Wendig and Delilah Dawson were one and the same person because their writing styles are similar but then I looked at Delilah's site, did a Google search (or two), and came across this picture of Chuck sitting beside Delilah. Here's the post: a kick in the inspiration bone: Crossroads Writers Conference.

Chuck Wendig & Delilah S. Dawson
Click to enlarge

Other articles you might like:

- 4 Ways To Get An Audience To Love Your Story
- How To Create A Press Kit
- Book Design: What NOT To Do

Photo link: "Dancing With The Storms" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, April 16

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction, Part 2 of 2

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction, Part 2 of 2

Yesterday I started writing about Janice Hardy's excellent article, "What Downtown Abby Can Teach us About Tension," and her absurdly useful dissection of that shows structure.

Today I'll pick up where I left off yesterday (How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction, Part 1 of 2) and take a look at the structure of the third and fourth episode.

Episode Three: Subplots

So far the storyline has concentrated on the main plot or arc. Call this the A plot or story. In the third episode we start focusing on the subplots.

You can have as many subplots as you like, but you'll probably have at least two in a book-length story, or an extended serial. I'll call these the B and C plots.


Janice Hardy reminds us that every character is going to be in conflict, in some way, with every other character. Even her allies! That is, the characters' goals will be exclusive, in some way, of every other character's goal: if one character gets what he/she wants then the other characters won't be able to.


Each character--not just the main ones--wants something desperately, and has both strengths and weaknesses, quirks and contradictions, motivations and plans for action.


Something is not only going to oppose each character's plans for action, but also oppose their will to act.

I made up a long example to illustrate what I mean here, but, briefly, if John's plan is to kill Mark then two kinds of things are going to oppose his plan: internal drives and external obstacles.

For instance, one thing that is preventing John from walking over and burying a mallet in Mark's head is that he'd go to jail (external obstacle). Of course, if John is very careful he might not get caught, but there's always a chance. After all, no one thinks they're going to get caught.

Another thing that is preventing John from killing Mark is the inner certainty that it would be wrong and John wants to be a good person--or, failing that, at least not a very bad one (internal drive).

The purpose and utility of subplots

In terms of the overall story these subplots add to the building tension. At every moment something is on the verge of going horribly wrong.

Subplots inject variety and keep the main plot from going stale by creating other goals, other problems, other solutions, for the A plot to pick up on.

Episode Four: The Unexpected and Out-Of-Control

Just as your characters are settling down into a routine--the first episode introduced the Central Problem, the second episode intensified the problem, the third episode explored the B and C stories, the subplots, and deepened our understanding of the Central Problem--now it's time to throw something new and unexpected, something different and out of control, into the mix.

This new element will change things on a fundamental level. Just as we feel we have a good handle on the Central Problem, the Core Conflict, something happens to shake up the playing field. I think this works best when the change is something your characters couldn't possibly see coming.

Perhaps this change involves a much bigger threat of a different kind.

Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to change direction? 

Janice writes:
Plots in the Abbey had played themselves out as far as they could, and forcing the issues would start feeling contrived. Add a war that changes everything, and sudden the petty problems become less vital, and the important problems become more so.

When should we throw something big at our characters and change the nature of the Central Conflict?

Janice writes:
Sometimes things going wrong for the protagonist every single time starts to feel forced. You'd have to make your protagonist act like a total idiot for them to make a mistake or cause a problem. There's nothing you can do to make things worse or muck up the works, but you still need things to go wrong. An outside event could be the right answer to that.

Even on a smaller level, things can happen in the world or character's life that are outside their control and have serious effects. It doesn't have to be WWI-level drama to make it work. Something a character couldn't possibly see coming works just as well.

Tips (based on Janice Hardy's analysis of Downtown Abby)

- Have the subplots connect back to the Core Conflict

For example, have the main character need something from a secondary character, something that will create a problem for that secondary character since it opposes one or more of her goals.

Also, we could do this the other way. What a secondary character needs from a main character could conflict with the main character's goal.

- The unexpected is interesting

Mistakes are unexpected. After all, who is going to intentionally interpret something incorrectly or purposely employ defective judgement? (And, no, examples of your ex's behavior don't count! ;)

Janice writes that mistakes and creative complications keep things unpredictable and reminds us that this is something we can take advantage of when we're escalating the stakes.

- Just plain mean

Try having a couple of secondary characters who are selfish and mean-spirited. A couple of people who "don't care who they hurt to get what they want."

Janice Hardy reminds us: People often don't want to do what's best for others, they want to do what's best for themselves.

- "Don't have things happen without it mattering to someone."

Excellent advice! Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy) also writes a column called Real Life Diagnostics where she pinpoints the problems in user submitted manuscripts. Great reading and valuable advice.


I think it's worth noting that what I've presented here is just one way of structuring a serial and I offer it only as a potential starting point, perhaps like a grain of sand provides the starting point for a pearl.

For instance Chris Fox, in his fabulously popular series Star Sailor, starts with a smaller Central Conflict and keeps building on that same conflict, making it bigger and escalating the stakes, until the end.

... or at least that's what I gleaned from his helpful, yet brief, comment on my Google+ feed! (Sorry, Chris, if I mangled it. :-)

Chris Fox's stories are well worth checking out, as is his YouTube channel which is populated with short, original, marvelously creative, videos analysing various aspects of writing and the writing life. Here's an example:

Question: Have you ever written a serial? What structure did your stories have?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction
- Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories
- How To Get Honest Book Reviews

Photo credit: "Misty winter adfternoon" by Bert Kaufmann under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.