Showing posts with label the craft of writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the craft of writing. Show all posts

Sunday, April 12

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

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!

Tuesday, April 7

Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess

Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess

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

Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess


The job, the function, of the Road of Trials (Part 4) is to prepare the protagonist for his—or her—meeting with the Goddess. Though, she may not be quite what you thought you she was. 

At the midpoint our hero is, metaphorically, in the depths of their psyche, in the dark, deep, depths of the unconscious so things are about to get wacky.  Harmon writes, “Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability. If you're writing a plot-twisty thriller, twist here and twist hard.” (Story Structure 104)

Revelation


As we’ve seen, the cave of the goddess is a strange, weird place where anything can happen. At this point the character, the protagonist, is blessed (or cursed) with a major revelation, an epiphany. As a result they have a deeper understanding of life the world and everything, including what they’ve been doing wrong.

The Role of Choice


It’s important the hero makes a choice, so it’s important there are choices to make. For instance, Does the protagonist save her ally’s life even though it could cost them the object they were seeking? Does the protagonist do the selfless thing even though doing so would almost surely cause the quest to fail? Does the protagonist admit to herself that she’s in love even though that admission could cost her everything she holds dear? And so on.

Whatever the choice is, it’s important the protagonist has time for reflection. This is a big choice and an important plot point. Even though it’s tempting to move on, give this moment the page space it deserves.

The Goddess


Exactly what do we mean by “The Goddess”? Dan Harmon writes:

“[...] the goddess doesn't have to be a femme fatale or an angelic damsel. In an all-male or all-female play that takes place around a poker table, the "goddess" could be a character's confession that they lost their job. The goddess can be a gesture, an idea, a gun, a diamond, a destination, or just a moment's freedom from that monster that won't stop chasing you.” (Story Structure 104)

The Role of The Goddess


Although The Goddess doesn’t mean only one thing, meeting with her (whatever form she takes in the story) is dangerous and guaranteed to transform the protagonist, changing how they think about themselves and the world around them. 

Sometimes this midpoint change benefits a character and makes it easier for them to achieve their goal, sometimes it devastates them, warping them forever (e.g., The Craft).

In any case, this is a moment of inner and outer transformation, for either good or ill. Dan Harmon writes:

“In Die Hard, John McClane, having run over broken glass, is sitting in a bathroom, soaking his bloody feet in the sink. It is at this moment that he finally realizes the true extent of his love for his wife, and what he's been doing wrong in their marriage. He (1) has been too stubborn (2). He uses his walkie talkie, acquired in step (4), to give a message to his wife through his benevolent, happily married, gun-shy counterpart: ‘She's heard me say 'I love you' a thousand times...but she's never heard me say I'm sorry.’”

There’s two things here. First, the action, the pursuit (Part 4), then a pause for reflection, a pause in which the protagonist has a profound revelation, an epiphany, one that changes their understand of both themselves and the world.

At The Midpoint The Hero Switches From Passive To Active


At the Midpoint the hero switches from (mostly) passive to (mostly) active. Also, notice the mirroring going on here. Dan Harmon notes that the protagonist goes from the mama’s boy of Part 1 to a lady’s man (Part 5). He writes:

“You might have noticed that, just as (3), the crossing of the threshold, is the opposite of (7) the return, (5), the meeting with the goddess, is the opposite of (1), the protagonist's zone of comfort. Think of (1) as being the arms of mother, however dysfunctional she might be. (5) is a new form of mother, an unconscious version, and there is often a temptation to stay right here. Like at that elf guy's house in Lord of the Rings.” (Story Structure 104)

Definable Moment


Harmon advises us to mark this transition with a definable moment. He writes:

“If this is a story of a poor little girl (1) who dreamt of being rich (2) and got adopted by a millionaire (3), having become accustomed to her new lifestyle, (4), she might now be something of a fancy pants (5). Show it with a definable moment. This might be a good point for her to drive by the orphanage in her limousine.” (Story Structure 104)

That’s it for today! Next time we’ll continue the ascent back to the Ordinary World by looking at Part 6: Taking what one has found and paying the price.

Sunday, April 5

Part 4: SEARCH and ADAPT to the Special World

Part 4: SEARCH and ADAPT to the Special World

This article is the fifth in a series about Dan Harmon’s take on the structure of stories. If you’d like to read the earlier articles I’ve indexed them at the bottom of: Dan Harmon On Story Structure.) 

Today let’s look at ...

4. SEARCH: The Road of Trials


In Part 3 the protagonist crossed the threshold and descended from the Ordinary World—from the known, the comfortable—into the Special World of the Adventure. Now she must adapt to a land that is alien, strange, and frightening.

As Harmon points out, different writers have different names for this phase. Christopher Vogler calls it “Friends, Enemies and Allies,” producers call it, “The Training Phase.” Joseph Campbell called it, “The Road of Trials.” The point is that, “our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

The Protagonist Gives Up Something: No Pain, No Gain.


The protagonist must jettison excess baggage. After all, to gain something one must first give up something. If one’s life is cluttered with trifles we’ve held onto for maudlin sentimental reasons we must clean house to make room for something new. 

The protagonist must lose something, must divest themselves of something, before they can find what they’re searching for. This stripping of the cared for, of the familiar, will cause pain but will be transformative. But, then, pain and transformation are two sides of the same coin. Harmon writes:

“In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell actually evokes the image of a digestive tract, breaking the hero down, divesting him of neuroses, stripping him of fear and desire. There's no room for bullshit in the unconscious basement. Asthma inhalers, eyeglasses, credit cards, fratty boyfriends, promotions, toupees and cell phones can't save you here. [...]

“In Romancing the Stone, Michael Douglas cuts the heels off of Kathleen Turner's expensive shoes with a machete. Then he throws her suitcase off a cliff. If she's going to continue to survive in this jungle, she literally needs to drop her excess baggage and lose the fancy pants.” (Story Structure 104)

Identify What Things (Ideas, etc.) Hold The Protagonist Back


Why do we need to shed this excess? Harmon writes:

“We are headed for the deepest level of the unconscious mind, and we cannot reach it encumbered by all that crap we used to think was important.” (Story Structure 104)

While it’s fine to have a pair of expensive designer shoes—especially if you happen to be at an event where everyone else is wearing expensive designer shoes—the protagonist needs to shed anything unnecessary, she has to get rid of the trappings of the Ordinary World, they have no place here. In fact, if she refuses to give them up she will fail to find what she has been searching for.

Fun And Games: Fish Out Of Water


As Blake Snyder reminds us in “Save The Cat!,” this is also a time for Fun and Games. This is where the hero explores the Special World and blunders about like a toddler, figuring out how things work, learning the ropes. As he does, he will make new friends as well as an enemy or two. 

For example, in Star Wars IV, Luke Skywalker visited the Mos Eisley Cantina with Obi-Wan Kenobi. That was a strange new world indeed! 

The friends and allies the protagonist makes in the Special World are invaluable, for they not only help him acclimatize to the strange new world, but to excel in it.

Mirroring



I’ll talk more about this later, though if you’d like to skip ahead, read Dan Harmon’s article, “Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details.” 

When we look at Part 6 we’ll see that it’s another road of trials, one that mirrors Part 4, only this time rather than descending to meet the goddess, the protagonist ascends on her return to the Ordinary World. Rather than being passive, rather than stripping away the excess, now our transformed protagonist is on the upward journey ready, ready to return to the ordinary world with what the goddess gave them.

That's it! Hope you had a wonderful week.

Thursday, April 2

Part 3: GO - The Protagonist Enters An Unfamiliar Situation

Part 3: GO - The Protagonist Enters An Unfamiliar Situation

Today, I continue discussing Dan Harmon’s take on story structure. In the first post in this series (see: Dan Harmon On Story Structure) I gave an overview and went into the origin of Harmon’s system. Head over there if you have questions, or you’re wondering why this looks a bit like Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

3. Crossing The Threshold, Entering the strange, new, world of the adventure.


Here the protagonist takes a journey, a dangerous crossing, into the unknown.

Dan Harmon writes:

“What's your story about? If it's about a woman running from a killer cyborg, then up until now, she has not been running from a killer cyborg. Now she's finna start. If your story is about an infatuation, this might be the point where our male hero first lays eyes on the object of his desire. [...] If it's a coming of age story, this could be a first kiss or the discovery of an armpit hair. If it's a slasher film, this is the first kill, or the discovery of a corpse.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

Harmon gives us what I think is a wonderful writing tool. He asks:

If you were going to make a movie poster for your story, what would it be? “What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love?” (Story Structure 104)

If you were reading a Werewolf story, chances are this (the 25% point) is where you’d discover Werewolves DO exist. Why? Because you’ve entered the strange and occasionally bizarre Special World of the Adventure. Here the rules are different and the protagonist is a fish out of water.

The Special World of the Adventure


In terms of Harmon’s/Vogler’s/Campbell’s system, The Special World is the lower, shaded, portion of the circle. (The Ordinary World is the unshaded upper half.)


Harmon writes: “Neo wakes up in a vat of goo in a world ruled by machines. His ordinary world desire to be a hacker, to fight the system, is going to be put to the test.” (Story Structure 104)

Contrast


The exact nature of the Special World will depend on the kind of story you’re telling, but there should be as stark a contrast as possible between the Ordinary World and the Special World. 

Think of the movie, The Matrix. It’s hard to get more stark than the difference, the contrast, between the Ordinary World of our experience and the Special World of humans in caves vats being used to power the machines.

Choice


The protagonist must choose to enter the Special World. Even if there’s coercion involved (as in the movie Collateral), the protagonist must make the decision to go forward. Christopher Vogler writes:

“Crossing the First Threshold is an act of the will in which the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure.”

Threshold Guardians


The tale of a hero setting out on a dangerous journey to acquire something of both personal and public value can be interesting. The tale of a hero setting out on an easy journey is boring. The protagonist must face obstacles that test her, that put her through the fire. This is one of the functions of a Threshold Guardian.

According to Vogler any Threshold Guardian worth her salt will be able to inspire doubt and fear, will be able to cause the hero to question whether they’re the person for this particular job.

This has been a brief overview where I’ve chatted about the highlights of what Dan Harmon calls Part 3. I’ve written more about this stage of the story here: A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two.

That’s it! Next time we’ll look at the protagonist’s descent into chaos.

Tuesday, March 31

The Dark Art of Blogging

The Dark Art of Blogging

Yesterday a friend told me he needs to stop blogging. It was a shock, but I think it’s the right decision for him, and I strongly suspect he’ll be back one day in the not-too-distant future.

It made me remember a time when, years ago, I needed to walk away from blogging. I was the primary caregiver for my parents. They needed help in their last years and I was glad to give it. 

During the worst patch, I stopped blogging for a few months. I had to. And, looking back, I’m glad I did. It was too much. In the odd half hour I could snatch for myself I needed to let my mind grope toward a static whiteness. At least, that’s what it felt like. Overload. I started hearing Scotty, “She cannae take any more of this, Captain! She’s gonna blow!”

Anyway.

Although I stopped blogging, I never stopped writing. Even if it was just scrawling down fragments of a story on the outside of torn envelopes. 

It’s almost ironic that when one needs the most time to meditate, to be still and feel and struggle to make sense of the apparently senseless, that one actually has less time.

And, of course, I came back! I have my friends to thank for that. When it was all over, they kindly, gently, encouraged me to resume blogging. And when I did I realized how much it meant to me, how much I’d missed it. 

So, looking back, I’m convinced that taking time away was the right decision. I think that if I had driven myself to keep blogging I may have ended up resenting my blog and, as a result, stopped for good. 

How I Blog, My Process


For a while now I’ve meant to write a post about what I somewhat jokingly call my process. But, over the years, I have developed a certain system, a certain rhythm. I strongly suspect this is going to be different for everyone, but, for what it’s worth, here’s what I do:

Step 1: A Handwritten Zero Draft


The overwhelming majority of my blog posts begin life as a handwritten draft scrawled in my writing journal. This is a rough, rough, draft, more like a zero draft than a first draft. 

Often, when I pen the first draft I’m not sure what the blog post will be about, I’m groping about for an idea. As I sit and write a theme usually emerges. 

Everyone’s different, but for myself it’s important I handwrite this first draft. If I try and type it I often end up staring at a blank screen thinking about all the things I need to do that day. I’m not sure why this is, but often a theme won’t emerge. Here’s where the “dark art” of blogging comes in!

Step 2: Transcribe The Zero Draft


I’ve experimented with voice recognition programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking but find I spend just as much time training it as I do using it to write! 

I do sometimes use the voice recognition capabilities of my Mac, the program that comes with the operating system. Although it’s not as accurate as Dragon, I find it much more convenient since its only one keyboard shortcut away.

As I type in my first draft I reorder or delete paragraphs, fill in an idea or two, and so on. By the time the post has been transferred from my writing journal to my computer, I usually have a theme.

Step 3: Read The Post Through And Tweak It


The next step is to read my post through from beginning to end. It now begins to take on it’s final form. If I still don’t know what the post is about, I lay it aside and come back the next day.

Step 4: Polishing


Then comes polishing, and inserting whatever links are needed. (In previous drafts I simply put “[link]” in the text to indicate I’ll need to hunt up a URL.) When that’s all done ...

Step 5: Editing


I then ask my computer to read the post back to me. Often hearing my post will suggest editing changes. I try and eliminate rambling sentences that go on and on, with no period in sight, sentences where the point I was trying to make gets lost in the words used to make it; sentences like this one.

This is also where the lions share of actual editing takes place. Sometimes I’ll add another step and paste the whole thing from Scrivener to Word. Even though I love Scrivener, I like to use Word to expose my many grievous sins against the English language.

Step 6: Publish


And that’s it! Or, almost it. I still need to paste my post into the editor over at Blogger, fill in the metadata, find a public domain or Creative Commons picture, alter the picture to include the title of the post, save the image as a .jpg file, and upload it. Then, finally, it’s time to press that big, beautiful, orange “Publish” button.

And ... that’s it!

Or not. After the post is published I share the link with my social networks. For me, that’s Google+ and Twitter.

All in all it takes a few hours of work. But it’s worth it because the writing, the process, has become a living thing, like the beat of some wild subterranean drum. It’s something I love to do, something I must do. And, fate willing, I’ll be able to do it for a good long time.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. For my next post I’ll return to my series about Dan Harmon’s take on the structure of stories.

Saturday, March 28

Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something

Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something

Dan Harmon On Story Structure


In Part 1 (YOU) everything was hunky-dory. Even if things weren’t perfect, the protagonist was comfortable. Then something happens to the protagonist’s Ordinary World and knocks it off-kilter. 

Now the protagonist is uncomfortable; now they have a NEED. Harmon writes:

“If this is a story about a war between Earth and Mars, this is a good time to show those Martian ships heading toward our peaceful planet. On the other hand, if this is a romantic comedy, maybe our heroine is at dinner, on a bad blind date.” (Story Structure 104)

“This is where a character might wonder out loud, or with facial expressions, why he can’t be cooler, or richer, or faster, or a better lover. This wish will be granted in ways that character couldn’t have expected.” (Story Structure 104)

Call To Adventure


This is where the protagonist receives the Call to Adventure. The Call can be about something internal (“I wish I was the life of the party”) or external (“I want to rescue the Ark” or “I want to discover the true nature of reality”).

Harmon writes:

“[...] a more literal, exterior “Call to Adventure” could come in, at the hands of a mysterious messenger, explaining to a dry cleaner that he has been drafted by the CIA.”

Often action movies have an external call to adventure. In the movie, The Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist, Cage, discovers that the upcoming battle is a trap. If it occurs the aliens (Mimics) will win a resounding victory and the human resistance will be crushed. Cage’s need is to stop the battle from happening.

Refusal of the Call


The protagonist often Refuses The Call. Just because his life is complicated, this doesn’t mean he wants to participate in a high stakes adventure. His world may have problems, but at least they’re familiar problems. The devil you know.

The Refusal of the Call is something the audience understands. Why? Because, as Dan Harmon says, it’s all a part of the pattern, of playing out the rhythm. “We’re all scared of change.”

That’s it! I’ll be back with Part 3 (GO) next week.

Thursday, March 26

Part 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To

Step 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To

Dan Harmon On Story Structure


Yesterday I introduced the bare bones of Dan Harmon’s story model:

When YOU have a NEED you GO somewhere, SEARCH for it, FIND it, TAKE it, then RETURN and things CHANGE. 

Yes, I wrote about this yesterday, but thought it would be helpful to reproduce the structural overview again and in more detail. All this is basically verbatim from Dan Harmon’s article, Story Structure 103.

1. A character in a zone of comfort (YOU)
2. The character WANTS/NEEDS something.
3. The character GOes to, enters, an unfamiliar situation.
4. While SEARCHing for what they want, the character adapts to the new situation.
5. The character FINDs (at least a part of) what they were searching for, what they wanted/needed.
6. The character TAKEs it and pays the price.
7. The character takes their prize and RETURNs to the Ordinary World, to the place they began their journey.
8. The character, who is himself changed, can now CHANGE the Ordinary World.

Why Story Structure Is Important


Dan Harmon believes that “a story has to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story.” He believes that “our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play that rhythm, it resonates.” (Story Structure 102)

Cyclic patterns such as death swallowing life and life emerging, Phoenix-like, out of death. Patterns such as the contents of consciousness falling away, sinking into unconsciousness, then emerging, transformed. Patterns such as order crumbling into chaos and chaos receding, yielding, to order. The one feeds the other, depends on the other.  

Dan Harmon writes:

“Whereas the health of an individual depends on the ego’s regular descent and return from the unconscious, a society’s longevity depends on actual people journeying into the unknown and returning with ideas.

“In their most dramatic, revolutionary form, these people are called heroes, but every day, society is replenished by millions of people diving into darkness and emerging with something new (or forgotten): scientists, painters, teachers, dancers, actors, priests, athletes, architects and most importantly, me, Dan Harmon.” (Story Structure 102)

Story Resonance


“Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat—whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke—it will resonate. It will send your audience's ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they're going to say ‘yum.’” (Story Structure 102)

Sorry for all the quotations, but I wanted to establish WHY story structure is important. I’ve read other people on this issue, but have found Dan Harmon’s explanation the most persuasive. 

Now let’s examine the structure itself.

1. YOU - Establish A Protagonist - Pity


A writer needs to give their audience a place to land. Dan Harmon writes:

“[...] if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” (Story Structure 104)

Agreed. Stephen King is brilliant at this. If you doubt me, read the first few paragraphs of “The Shining.” The real question is, how is it accomplished?

For the big and little screens it seems relatively easy: show them a character. Dan Harmon writes:

“You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice.” (Story Structure 104)

But what about writers? Is it as simple as writing, “So there was this guy, see, and ...”? 

Yes and no. Harmon writes that an audience will relate to a character that evokes pity. He writes:

“Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain as you use to identify with them.” (Story Structure 104)

I’ll be honest, that took me off-guard. I was ready for Harmon to say something about the character’s goal being just, or them being skilled at something. But pity ... I wasn’t expecting that.

 Though, thinking about “Community” and movies like “Die Hard” or even “The Princess Bride,” it fits. Just about every character I’ve strongly identified with has a flaw, often a deep one. But I hadn’t thought of the flaw in those terms, as connecting the character to the audience by invoking pity. Brilliant!

Creating A Character Your Audience Can Relate To: Have Them Do What The Audience Would


Here’s Dan Harmon’s advice: Have your protagonist always do what the audience would do. He writes:

“The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do. He can be an assassin, he can be a raccoon, he can be a parasite living in the raccoon's liver, but have him do what the audience might do if they were in the same situation. In Die Hard, we fade in on John McClane, a passenger on an airplane who doesn't like to fly.” (Story Structure 104)

Caution: Switch Perspectives As Little As Possible


But there is a limit. Harmon warns:

“Like anything adhesive, our sense of identity weakens a little every time it’s switched or tested. The longer it’s been stuck on someone the more jarring it’s going to be to yank it away and stick it on someone else.” (Story Structure 104)

Introduce the protagonist early and make them the focus of the story.

That’s it! My next post will be about the second part of Dan Harmon’s story structure, the character’s NEED. See you then and good writing!

Original Photo: Curious Raccoon

Wednesday, March 25

Dan Harmon On Story Structure

Dan Harmon On Story Structure

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to Dan Harmon’s series of articles on story structure. I had no idea Harmon was passionate about story structure, though I should have guessed. 

In this article I barely brush the surface of what Harmon has to say, so I will be returning to this material in future articles. Or at least that’s the plan (knock on wood).

Here are the links to DH’s articles:


Dan Harmon’s Story Model


Dan Harmon’s story model, his story structure, really isn’t his. He tells us this up front. He got it from Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. He got it from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. He got it from Syd Field’s book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook.

And those are useful books. I know, I’ve read them. Yes, okay, I read Joseph Campbell’s book a couple of decades ago and there was some head-scratching involved, but still. I say this because even though I’ve probably read most of the books on writing DH has, his way of looking at story structure is unique. Reading his articles gave me a new perspective on story, and that’s exciting! 

Dan Harmon’s talk of rhythms, of drawing one’s audiences’ attention to certain patterns, gave me an ‘Ah ha!’ moment, a realization about something that had puzzled me: How to think of the gap between the Midpoint and the All Hope Is Lost beat. For some reason, that particular stretch of story, bridging it, was a bit of a desert trek for me. 

I’ll talk more about that when we get there. For now, let’s take a barest of bones look at Dan Harmon’s story model:

When YOU have a NEED you GO somewhere SEARCH for it, FIND it, TAKE it, then RETURN and things CHANGE. 

Or, even more simply, “YOU NEED to GO SEARCH, FIND, TAKE and RETURN with CHANGE.” (SS 103)

Too condensed? Here it is stretched out over the eight stages:

1. When YOU
2. have a NEED,
3. you GO somewhere,
4. SEARCH for it,
5. FIND it,
6. TAKE it,
7. then RETURN
8. and CHANGE things.


The Barest of Bones


It’s going to sound odd, but I suggest you read Dan Harmon’s last article (SS 106) first since it gives a nice, if dense, summary of his system. It’s a kind of whirlwind tour of his 8 steps. Do it now. Here’s the link: Story Structure 106: Five Minute Pilots.

Back? Good!

What I want to do today is, rather than apply this structure to a 5 minute video (as Harmon does), apply it to a 4,000 word short story. 

Ready? Let’s go! (Keep in mind that this is the condensed version)

1. Ordinary World


Here is where you establish both the protagonist (YOU) and the protagonist’s NEED. 

The protagonist is comfortable in the Ordinary World, or at least he thinks he is. But, nevertheless, he wants/needs/desires something. Next, begin to change his circumstances and unleash the Call to Adventure.

2. Enter The Special World of the Adventure


Because of his need, the protagonist enters (GO) a new, unfamiliar, situation. While SEARCHING for what he wants, he adapts to this new situation.

The character FINDs what they were searching for.

3. Paying The Price


The character claims their prize (TAKE) and pays a price. Their mission accomplished, the protagonist begins the long trek back home (RETURN). 

The Big Bad rallies his strength and chases after the protagonist. When the two meet we have the final confrontation that decides whether the protagonist will return to his community with whatever he has taken. (Note: this doesn’t have to be an object.)

4. The Return


Show how the protagonist’s circumstances have CHANGEd as a result of their adventure. This is where the stakes get cashed out and we see how the journey, the adventure, has changed not only the life of the protagonist but the lives of everyone around him.

That’s the barest of bones. When I pick this subject up again, I’ll begin at the beginning and take an in-depth look at the first link in the chain: 1. YOU.

By the way, DH stresses that not every single stage must be explicitly present in every story. Sometimes (often) a story will condense one or more of the stages due to time or space constraints. After all, if we couldn’t do this then I’m not sure if we’d have many truly “short” stories anymore. Having said that, the order of the stages is important.

The Fractal Nature of Story Structure


I’d like to mention something I’ve been thinking a great deal about recently, the fractal nature of story structure. That is, each part of a story can mirror the structure of the entire story.

To put it another way, just as DH’s eight stages describe an entire story they can also describe a chapter or a scene or a paragraph. For example, here’s Dan Harmon’s story about "the guy whose soda turned out to contain poison”:

“(2.1) The guy [you]
(2.2) Makes a stink face [need]
(2.3) Starts inspecting the soda can [go]
(2.4) Runs finger over ingredients [search]
(2.5) Finds "poison" in ingredients [find]
(2.6) Chokes [take]
(2.7) Falls down [return]
(2.8) Dead [change]” (SS 106)

That’s it for today. Have a terrific rest of the week. If the mood strikes, try using Dan Harmon’s story structure to write a Dabble.

The articles in this series:

- Dan Harmon on Story Structure
- Part 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To
- Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something
- Part 3: Go - The Protagonist Enters An Unfamiliar Situation
- Part 4: SEARCH and ADAPT to the Special World
- Part 5: FIND - Meeting With The Goddess
- Part 6: TAKE - Take The Prize And Pay The Price
- Part 7: RETURN - Bringing The Prize Home
- Part 8 of 8: CHANGE The World

Sunday, March 22

Rewriting Is The Essence Of Good Writing


We’ve all heard the sayings:

“Rewriting is the essence of writing,” William Zinsser 
“The best writing is rewriting,” E.B. White
“All writing is rewriting,” John Green

I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that rewriting is the essence of good writing. I also believe rewriting is a skill that, like any skill, takes time and much practice to acquire.

But I know some folks won’t agree with me, so let’s look at a few of their arguments.

Rewriting Can Strip A Story Of Soul


This can happen. Beginning writers do have the tendency to edit the soul out of their stories. I know I did.

When I first began writing, rewriting was NOT my friend. I recently dug some of my earliest stories out from the shoeboxes I’ve lovingly interred them in. I write in drafts, always have, saving versions 1 to ... well, to however high it goes. 

For my oldest stories, my beginner stories, the first draft, perhaps even the second draft, had a sort of quirky personality. A mood was communicated. Yes, the story itself needed a lot of work, but there was something there, a spark. Then I read the versions of the story that followed and saw that spark dim and finally die.

So, yes. I agree. Rewriting doesn’t necessarily make something better, sometimes it just spoils it.

How can we prevent this? I believe that this is where the craft, the techne, of writing comes in. Part of the reason writers must write regularly is so we can practice rewriting. It’s also helpful to get feedback from folks who know how to spot where we’ve gone off the rails. This is especially important in the beginning. After a while we get a feel for it; this is often called developing our distinctive voice.

So, yes, writing can strip a story of its soul, but that just means we need to write a lot and read a lot and solicit feedback from people whose opinion we respect, because that’s how one gets better. 

Rewriting Takes Time


That’s true. Rewriting does take time. A LOT of time. Time that could be spent doing other things.

And it’s true that if one wants to make a living at writing one must produce work on a schedule. If one must put out, say, a 60,000 (or greater) word book every three months then the amount of time one has for rewriting is curtailed. 

Some folks have a knack for writing strong prose and a gripping story in a staggeringly brief amount of time. It’s a skill, and my guess is they were pretty good storytellers to begin with.

In any case, yes rewriting takes time and how fast one can put a book out can determine (at least if one isn’t a New York Times Best Seller) whether one can make a living at this.

But, as I said above, learning to rewrite both well and quickly is a skill, and to hone a skill takes practice. Sometimes a LOT of practice. If you’re not there yet, don’t give up. In this case, slow and steady does win the race.

Only New Words Count


I used to believe this.

For a time I was convinced that if one wasn’t writing new words that one wasn’t writing. Rewriting and editing didn’t count. (Which isn’t to say that one doesn’t need to edit one’s work. One does.)

Harlan Ellison is famous for sitting in a bookstore and, with a crowd looking on, writing a short story in a matter of hours. (See, “Dreams With Sharp Teeth”)

Jack Kerouac wrote “On The Road” in three short weeks, a book called one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Here’s a sample:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)” 

Beautiful! Some folks mock writers who can write a story in one draft by calling them typists rather than writers, but I say, “Type away!”

Lester Dent, perhaps the most famous of the pulpateers, at times wrote over 200,000 words a month and made a nice living even during the depression era. He never rewrote and editing was left to the publisher. I’ve read some of his stories, for first drafts they are amazing.

But being able to produce publishable prose on a first draft is rare and I think that, sometimes, even in those cases, taking a second pass at the material would have only improved it. (But some books, books like “On The Road,” are perfect as they are. It would be a crime to change them.)

I also think that certain stories, perhaps even certain statements, are best made from the heart in one great orgasmic rush. To rewrite them wouldn’t improve them. 

So, to sum up, these days I do wholeheartedly, believe that for the overwhelming majority of writers, both professional and amateur, rewriting is indeed the essence of good writing.

That’s it! See you next week.

Thursday, March 19

Blog Topics For When You’re Stuck

Blog Topics For When You’re Stuck

Sometimes we get stock for topics. To be fair, it’s not that we can’t think of anything to write about, it’s that we can’t think of anything interesting or exciting to write about. Often this just means we’re having a blah kind of day. When that happens to me I find that lists are my friend.

1. Best Of 


I love reading these posts, especially if they’re titled: The 10 Best Free Apps I’ve Used This Year. 

Best apps, best blogs, best books, best writers, best vacation spots (for writing research and inspiration, not to mention a bit of R&R), best writing programs, best classes, and so on.

2. From The Heart


I believe the key to great writing is being able to evoke emotion in one’s readers. We’ve all had setbacks and—the overwhelming majority of time—after we get knocked down we get back up again. We cope.

One thing we can be sure of is that our readers, being human, have had setbacks, have suffered loss. This is likely why most of us love reading about others triumphing over adversity. If you have a personal tale of loss, followed by struggle and victory (or even partial victory), that might be something you would want to share.

3. Practical Advice


Who have you learnt from? Who do you follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and so on. Are their tutorials you’ve benefited from?

I love Scrivener but it took me a long while to feel comfortable with it. One tutorial that helped enormously was Garrett Robinson’s series of articles, How To Format A Perfect Novel. I also liked Joel Friedlander’s article, How to Publish Your eBook from Word to Kindle in under Ten Minutes

(BTW, if you’re thinking of getting Scrivener but aren’t sure if it’s for you, they offer a free trial for 30 days.)

4. Links


I love it when writers share links to interesting articles. So, in that spirit, let me share a links to a couple of posts I found useful when researching this article:

32 of the Most-Popular Blog-Post Ideas, over at The Blog Stylist

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Owl Family Cute Clipart

Wednesday, February 25

10 Favorite Writing Blogs


I’m fortunate. I’m amazed whenever I compare the sheer amount of excellent writing advice available today—for free!—to what was available when I was a kid. Which, really, was nothing.

Even in school, though we were encouraged to read and to write, no mention was made of character arcs or pacing, about how to build suspense or craft well rounded characters.

(Saying this, I feel a bit like the old codgers of my day who went on and on about having to hike 10 miles through the snow—uphill—both ways.)

These days we have a wealth of wonderful blogs on the topic of writing, blogs that regularly cover the bones of how to write suspenseful—which is to say, dramatic—prose. And, by taking a look at the material from a different vantage point each time, it is never boring.

I haven’t shared links to my favorite blogs in a while so I want to remedy that today. I’ve looked through my Twitter feed and written down a few names. Let me stress, though, that the names I share below barely scratch the surface of the number of blogs I read regularly. I’m sure if I had a complete list in front of me I’d be sharing dozens of names!

In any case, here they are in no particular order:

My Favorite Writing Blogs


That’s it! Good reading and writing, see you Friday. :-)

Monday, February 23

4 Ways To Create And Nurture The Habit of Writing

4 Ways To Create And Nurture The Habit of Writing



Creating and maintaining a writing habit is, like writing itself, simple but far from easy. I know. There are habits I would love to have but don’t. In part, this is because there are only so many hours in the day and, in part, because certain habits seemed as though they’d be more rewarding than they turned out to be.

These ruminations have been brought on by an article I read over at BrainPickings.org: Mary Oliver on How Habit Gives Shape to Our Inner Lives

The Value of Habit


This essay got me thinking, reflecting, ruminating, about my blog and about what has allowed me, despite my natural inclination to disorder, to blog more-or-less regularly over the past few years.

If I hadn’t formed the habit of blogging, this blog would not exist. And that would be a shame, because my blog has turned out to be one of the most personally significant undertakings of my life. Not—alas!—in terms of money made, but certainly in terms of the folks I’ve met. 

Creating A Habit


After the first year or so of daily blogging, it began to feel odd, even uncomfortable, if I didn’t blog. It felt as though a part of me had gone missing. I felt almost compelled to sit down and write. And so it was that my blog made the act of writing an important part of my everyday life.

Thanks to you, my readers, giving me feedback—or just stopping by to say “Hi!”—I’ve had (and hopefully will continue to have) the wonderful experience of reaching through the page to connect with others through my words. I’ve been able to share my thoughts, my musings, my hopes and fears, my triumphs and deep losses, with a community.

And all this thanks to something that can seem to some relatively trifling: a blog. Well, a blog and the habit it helped to form. 

The habit of blogging is really the habit of putting my butt in my office chair in the mornings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and keeping it there until an idea finds me.

Of course, as you may be all too aware, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I cast about for something to write, something that grabs me, excites me, but nothing comes. Still, those days, I stick at it and, eventually, words find their reluctant way onto paper and an essay of sorts will take shape. The important thing, though, is that my butt goes in the chair and stays there until either, hours later, I’m convinced it’s a lost cause OR something happens. And, thankfully, it usually does. (Knock on wood.)

What gets me into trouble, what can always completely derail me, are two things: a big, massive, gargantuan idea, one much too involved and complex for one blog post and, second, tinkering with my writing analysis program (but that’s an entirely different post!).

In any case, for what they are worth, here are my tips for the creation and nurturing of a habit.

1. Take it seriously


I have the unfortunate tendency to think of some of my goals as unimportant in the grand scheme of things and so let other concerns crowd them out. When it comes to my blog, folks have actually said to me, “You shouldn’t prioritize it. After all, it’s only a blog.” I think there is something of a prejudice against blogging. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps because one doesn’t make money from it? Hopefully not, because that’s also true of many of the most satisfying things in life. In any case, I digress.

Whatever it is you are trying to make a habit of, it can be tempting—especially when time is short and other concerns are pressing—to minimize the importance of the thing, the activity, you are attempting to make habitual. Resist this! How? Through resisting the desire, the urge, to procrastinate. Again, how? Through recognizing that this urge, this desire, has been spawned by fear. (Or so I would argue.)

2. Fear is the enemy


To paraphrase Frank Herbert: Fear is the habit killer. 

Forming a new habit represents change and change can be scary. Whenever something new is created, something old must die. One minute spent writing is one minute away from your children, your spouse. It is time away from exercising, from watching movies and chatting with friends.

Fear of the future, fear of being laughed at, fear of pouring your heart into something and being rejected. These are all reasons to procrastinate, to let your new habit die on the vine. 

3. Do it for yourself


Create the habit because it will nourish you, because you will get something personal out of it. (Really, I think this is the secret to accomplishing anything.)

That may sound odd so let me use my blog as an example of what I mean. Yes, I think it is a good idea for writers to have a blog. For starters, I believe that regular blogging helps to build that mysterious thing called “a platform” (and, actually, that’s why I began blogging). But at some point every single one of those external reasons will be stripped away. At least, that happened to me. Those were tough times and I would have stopped blogging if the act itself didn’t fulfill something deep within myself.

4. Find, or create, a support group


It’s a rare thing, but if you find a support group—that is, a group of people who will encourage you to write no matter what—then treat them like the treasures they are. 

And, here, I’m not suggesting that if someone says to you: I’m going to quit my job and write full time because I know I can produce a New York Times Bestseller within the year,” that you should paste on a smile and say, “You go girl!”  

There is one very simple rule I follow when giving writers feedback: Writing is better than not writing. No matter a writer’s level of skill, there is only one way to get better: keep reading and keep writing. Ultimately, a good support group will encourage its members to do just this. 

So write! And if you’re not writing, read! Form those productive habits and, above all, never, ever, give up.

See you on Wednesday. :-)

Photo credit: This is a collage I adjusted and assembled with the aid of Photoshop.

Saturday, February 21

Writing And Gaming: Tabletop RPGs, Character Creation And Conflict




I’ve already written about how many of my favorite authors are avid gamers. (BTW, Chuck Wendig—a long time gamer as well as a game designer—has written a fabulous article about gaming and its relation to storytelling: Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games.)

Recently, I’ve started gaming over at Storium.com and my interest in RPGs has come back with a vengeance. And not just because, as Chuck Wendig and many others have said, it can help exercise one’s storytelling faculty. As it turns out, gaming is fun. (grin)

Gaming Systems


In the past, whenever I thought of tabletop gaming I thought of Dungeons & Dragons. It hadn’t occurred to me there might be other gaming systems, systems which were significantly different from each other in important respects. I won’t enumerate the various systems here—a Google search will give you that—but I’d like to talk about one of them, RuneQuest.

RuneQuest


“In Britain in the 1980s RuneQuest was recognized by the gaming world as one of the ‘Big Three’ games with the largest market share, the others being Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller.” (RuneQuest, Wikipedia)

RuneQuest was published by Chaosium in 1978 (love that name, ‘Chaosium’). The reason I’m writing about RuneQuest is that, of the very few systems I’ve researched lately, it seems one of the most conducive to storytelling—or, really, group storytelling. For instance:

“In many ways, the [RuneQuest] system was developed as a response to more scalar systems, such as Dungeons & Dragons' level-based system. Through the removal of leveling, and the adherence to skill improvement, RuneQuest avoided many of the perceived flaws of such systems.” (RuneQuest, Wikipedia)

Pendragon


As I read about RuneQuest I stumbled across a reference to King Arthur Pendragon. This game is set in King Arthur’s England and has been described as a game with “a moral point of view” because of its use of virtues and vices in character creation. Also, it seems to succeed in closely wedding the game system with the game world. One of my goals as a writer is to ‘hook’ my characters and their actions into the setting, the environment. To make the environment both real and vital to the story.

In fact, Pendragon reminded me of a system for characterization I struggled to put together not too long ago. In any case, I thought it was interesting enough from both a gaming and storytelling perspective to share with you.

Character Creation in Pendragon


In Pendragon, personality traits are handled a bit differently than in other systems.

Personality Traits


Personality traits come in virtue-vice pairs:

1. Chaste / Lustful, 
2. Energetic / Lazy, 
3. Forgiving / Vengeful, 
4. Generous / Selfish, 
5. Honest / Deceitful, 
6. Just / Arbitrary, 
7. Merciful / Cruel, 
8. Modest / Proud, 
9. Pious / Worldly, 
10. Prudent / Reckless, 
11. Temperate / Indulgent, 
12. Trusting / Suspicious, and 
13. Valorous / Cowardly

The opposing values of each trait must sum to 20. So, for instance, if one has 17 points in “chaste” one will have 3 points in “lustful.” (While one can have a trait that is split 20/0—or, conceivably 0/20 although no gamer is likely to choose that since it means constant and certain failure—I take it this is discouraged by some game mechanic not mentioned in the article.)

Let’s say you want to jump a chasm and your Energetic / Lazy score is 11/9. If you rolled 1-11 on a 20 sided dice (d20) you would succeed in reaching the other side. If you rolled 12 to 20, though, laziness would win out, you’d miss your target and fall. 

What I love about this system is that it balances positive attributes with their opposing, negative, traits. If I were tinkering with it I think I would require symmetrical virtues and vices. For instance, if one pair was 17/3 another pair would have to be 3/17—though this might work out better for story purposes than for gaming ones!

I’m not sure if others have this problem, but I have the regrettable tendency to want my characters to be wonderful people who live pleasant, happy, lives. But that’s boring! This system helps remind me that (generally speaking) every plus comes with a minus.

Analysis


What immediately struck me about Pendragon was that the conflict in the story was being generated from the very essence of the characters. Contrast this with my experience with Dungeons and Dragons which was, essentially, that some sort of external obstacle blocks your progress and you must remove it, or get around it. Whether this occurs depends primarily on physical attributes such as how strong, or quick or or charming or intelligent, and so on, your character is.

In Pendragon, though, the conflict seems to be generated internally from a clash of virtues and what are called passions (loyalty, love, hate, hospitality and honor). Here’s an example adapted from the wiki:

Imagine your character has a high hospitality score. One of your character’s enemies, an insufferable snob, comes to your home and requests shelter. You would love to refuse him. You know he wishes you ill and, besides, he’s unpleasant to have around. The guy is an expert at one thing and one thing only: getting everyone within ear shot to hate him with a burning passion—which is probably one reason why he had to ask your character for shelter, no one else will have him!

You have a choice: turn the enemy away and incur a penalty for acting contrary to your character’s passion or do the hospitable thing and invite the man in even though you know he will take advantage of your generosity.

I believe the essence of conflict is two characters passionately trying to fulfill competing goals. That’s why I am so excited about Pendragon. There, since game conflicts spring from the core natures of the characters themselves, conflict is woven into the very warp and weft of the game.

Conclusion


If you’re interested in tabletop gaming take a look at RuneQuest. I suspect that certain systems—while one is not better than another—may be more conducive to generating the kind of conflict that makes a wonderful, suspenseful, character driven story.

Also, the Call of Cthulhu (CoC), first published by Chaosium in 1981, a game which uses the basic role-playing system first seen in RuneQuest, seems to have broad and energetic support from many gamers. Which I can understand. I mean, a merging of  occult and Holmesian style mysteries, what’s not to love?

That’s it for now! Thanks for reading. Good gaming. 

Links


Wednesday, February 18

Talking About Detective Fiction

Talking About Detective Fiction



Have you ever read P.D. James’ insightful and beautifully written book, “Talking About Detective Fiction”? In it she gives an impassioned defense of mystery as an art form as well as a fascinating history of how the genre came to be. In what follows I focus on what makes murder mysteries unique.

The Essential Ingredients of A Murder Mystery


P.D. James writes:

"Although the detective story at its highest can also operate on the dangerous edge of things, it is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organised structure and recognised conventions. What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness."

So there we have it:

a. A central mysterious crime.

b. A closed circle of suspects, often in an isolated, rural, community.

c. Each suspect should have a motive for committing the crime, the means to have done the dastardly deed as well as the opportunity to have done so.

d. A detective “who comes in like an avenging deity” to solve the mystery when the police are baffled.

e. A solution, one which the reader should be able to arrive at themselves from the clues left by the writer (clues inserted with “deceptive cunning but essential fairness”).

f. A respectable and prosperous setting.

g. James holds that the detective story proper is fundamentally "concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder."

As James notes, this definition of a murder mystery came to us from those stories written in the inter-war years (roughly, 1919 to 1939), that period of time known as the Golden Age of Murder Mysteries.

Still, James feels that certain core elements of a murder mystery will be present in any murder mystery story. Namely, (a) and (e) above.

The Role of the Police


Generally speaking, while murder mysteries may portray police officers as “ineffective, plodding, slow-witted and ill-educated” they are never corrupt. James writes that:

“Detective fiction is in the tradition of the English novel, which sees crime, violence and social chaos as an aberration, virtue and good order as the norm for which all reasonable people strive, and which confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe. And in doing this it provides not only the satisfaction of all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we are both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors. Whether we should expect this detachment from vicarious responsibility is, of course, another question and one which bears on the difference between the books of the years between the wars and the detective novels of today.”

The History of Murder Mysteries


I confess I didn’t know very much about the fascinating history of the murder mystery genre before I read “Talking About Detective Fiction.” James takes the reader on a journey from Edgar Allen Poe and his detective, C. Auguste Dupin (1840s), through Wilkie Collins' “The Woman in White” (1860) and “The Moonstone” (1868). That’s just the beginning, of course, she ruminates about the changes brought to the world by the end of the Second World War, the differences between American and English murder mysteries, and much more. James makes the history fascinating and I would highly recommend the slim volume for this section alone.

What I’ve discussed here barely touches the surface of the wealth of material in P.D. James’ extraordinary book. I highly recommend it to any and all readers—and writers—of detective fiction.

Well, that’s it for today. Thanks for reading and good writing!

Photo credit: Halloween.