Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Slow Going

I have been working on this blog a while and while I enjoy writing it, and some have found it useful, its a fair amount of effort several times a week.  The response has been very minor, and as a result I've come to the conclusion that my time is better spent on other projects.
I'll still post here once in a while as things come up and I think of something I want to promote or call attention to, but for now Inscribed is going on hiatus.  For the 2 guys that actually care - assuming there's even that many - I apologize, but I have Chronic Fatigue and every bit of energy I have, I must budget carefully.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Big Fight Scene, pt 3 - Details

Some genres rely more on combat than others, such as fantasy or frontier historical work ('westerns').  It is unusual to read anything set in these sort of stories without at least one fight.  And I have often read of authors setting to write such a book worried about their fight scenes.

In a way modern cinema has done a bit of a disservice to the fight scene.  They've become so spectacular, ornate, and skilled that it is difficult to envision something that will capture a modern reader's imagination.  Take a look at this montage of fights someone put together:

And that's only sword fights.  Thrilling stuff, eh?  But so thrilling that writing a fight scene in a book can seem impossible, how can you match that?  Well you can, but you have to shift your thinking a bit.  And a good way to do that is to avoid certain mistakes.

Watch it again, but this time watch the swords and how they are used.  Don't just enjoy the dazzle and spectacle.  Silence the music if you have to, and you can even use the options to slow the speed down.  Now think about what you see.

How many times does the opponent stall or set up a block while the attacker does some fancy move such as a spin or using a border shift to move the sword from one hand to another?  How many times does each character do some flourish or maneuver that serves no tactical purpose whatsoever except to look good?

Now, there's nothing wrong with looking good, but when you're fighting for your life, looking good comes so far down the list its not even worth mentioning.  In fact, "looking good while you fight" is the sort of thing a bad guy who knows he's going to slaughter his opponent and is simply toying with them is interested in - a worthy thought for your fight scene (watch the swordfight at the end of Rob Roy for an example of this; Tim Roth's evil character immensely outclasses Rob Roy with the blade).

However, the things that movie fight choreographers do often have nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with being impressive on camera.  SCA members will attest to this: its tiring to fight with a sword, and even adrenaline will only take you so far.  Doing extra fancy stuff just tires you out more.  Unless it serves a direct purpose (such as a feint or surprise) its a waste of energy and time.  While you're spinning your sword and turning around, your opponent is going to be, well, killing you.

This applies in all sorts of combat.  Martial arts, guns, what have you.  The more you learn about combat, the more you learn of what does and doesn't work.  Its the same as any other endeavor, except with combat, you have the added spice of being harmed and possibly dying.

When your life is on the line, rules and style tend to go out the window.  Its an old hidden secret of martial arts that almost no fight involves people standing up and hitting each other except ones with lots of rules in competitions.  If you want to see what a real weaponless fight looks more like (assuming you've never seen one) don't watch a Kung Fu movie or a boxing match.  Watch Mixed Martial Arts bouts. 

Almost every single fight ends up with the two on the floor wrestling.  There's a sort of style to it, but most of those neat spins and kicks and stuff are at the beginning and unless the fight ends abruptly, its to the mat wrestling.  And there's good reason for that: you can't get that boot to the head in if someone has pulled you to the floor and is strangling you.

Of course, a very simplistic or stylish story might require both fighters on their feet, using some agreed upon gentleman's rules of fighting, and not end up wrestling in the dust.  That's perfectly acceptable; in fact it might be preferable for the setting or characters involved.  Its just something to consider when you write your fight scenes.

Which brings up another point.  Unless two fighters are very evenly matched and careful (or totally incompetent), most fights are over with very quickly.  There's a reason gunfights in westerns have a lot of establishing shots, closeups of eyes and sweat and a hand over the butt of the gun.  Once the action starts, its over almost before you can actually see it happen.  The really, really fast gunfighters were impossible to watch.  Check out this video:

The quality is low but you get the idea.  That last shot of two balloons gives a feel for how quickly a gunfight can be over with.

But, according to every expert, combat vet, and martial artist I know of or read, unless its a competition with lots of rules and padding, almost all fights are over with very quickly.  Sword, light saber, axe, laser pistol fists, what have you the results are very similar.  The better or luckier combatant gets a good solid hit in, and its over.  Now, that doesn't mean in your books it needs to be that way, but unless you're deliberately writing a very stylized, cinematic battle scene you might want to consider making at least a few of the less significant fights these sort of fast, overpowering kind.

Now look at that video again: how often does the attacker swing at the opponent's weapon instead of their opponent?  This is a standard in movie fighting, for a couple of reasons.  First, they don't want actors swinging a weapon at another actor.  Second, it looks impressive, like the fight involves lots of parrying and blocking.  Third, it prolongs the battle so that its not over with by a feint and a quick attack.

But in real life, unless you're trying to disarm or using a feint to draw the opponent's attack and open them up for your thrust, you aim for the person, not their weapon when you attack.  The point is to hurt them, not their sword.  Not only is this sort of the point of fighting to begin with, but its damaging to your weapon to keep bashing it against something hard like another sword.

And with any other weapon, its no different.  The big change with a gun is that, unless you are spectacularly excellent and used to combat, you gotta aim for the biggest target.  Cop after soldier after expert say the same thing: shoot center mass.  Don't try to wing them, don't shoot the gun out of their hand, aim for the torso.

Just give up, bad guys.
I know its cinematic and exciting to have Johnny Sixgun blast away with his revolver and disarm the dastardly foe.  In some books or settings that's okay, but if you're trying to write something remotely realistic, that's extremely hard to do and a really bad idea.  The problem is that its a small target that moves around a lot and if you miss, they're going to shoot you back.  And they probably won't be trying to do some trick shot, either.

And while I've never been in a gunfight, every single reliable piece of information and anecdote available says that your adrenaline is so high you're jittery to begin with and you'll not likely aim well even if you're a crack shot at the range or in all those video games.  Some are; its not impossible to be that good, but someone who is, is a freak of nature.

It hurts to be hurt.  I know that sounds obvious, but it really does hurt to be cut, or shot, or clubbed.  Most of us have had some of these happen in our lives, and we know.  But for some reason when it comes to combat, we tend to forget it or push that aside.  If you get stabbed, it hurts a lot.  If someone hits your hand with a mace, it hurts, a lot.

Now it is true that in combat you can ignore a lot of this temporarily out of shock and adrenaline.  From most accounts being shot by a bullet feels more like a punch and the real pain starts later, but you can only take that so far.

Most fights end because the person who gets hit gives up because it hurts so bad.  Think about the last time you slammed your finger in the door or stubbed a toe.  Just how much fighting were you up to when that happened?  Chances are you dropped what you were holding.  And that was just a fraction of what its like to take a real hit.

Now, in fiction we have to give some way for literary license, and you can't have your hero drop the first time he gets poked, crying like a little girl.  At least, not unless you're writing comedy or making some point about anti heroes and so on.  So your hero can be experienced enough with pain, so focused they ignore it momentarily, or so well armored it doesn't hurt as much as it might.

But to utterly ignore the pain of combat, how tired you get, and the aftereffects is to dehumanize your characters and make them seem detatched, cartoonish, and unreal.  If that's what your story calls for, then good, but if you want a believable and human hero, he's got to notice those wounds.

Something that doesn't come up very often in gunfights in books or in film is how very loud they are.  Ear splittingly loud.  Painfully so.  The first thing you hear after a gun goes off is your ears going EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!  That's why people wear earplugs and earmuffs, because they are very, very loud.

Now, many times I've seen people in movies or read them in books having a casual conversation during a gunfight:
"Hey Bob, who was that lady I saw you with last night?"  (bam bam bam) 
"That was no lady, that was your wife!"  (bam bam bam)
...and so on.
Again, if your book is about humor or poking fun at this sort of thing, go ahead, but in a real gunfight nobody is having a conversation.  Not only can you not hear well enough, you have more important things on your mind, like "I hope I don't get shot and die."

Even a swordfight is pretty loud, and can be heard quite a ways off.  The clash of steel is not a quiet thing.  People being stabbed don't keep it to themselves very often.  In other words, combat is loud.  An ambush can be quiet, but someone fighting back makes a lot of noise.

Something a recent study of combat showed is that people engaging in a fight get tunnel vision.  Here's a sample:

The focus you get into in threatening situations can help you by blocking out distractions and allowing keener attention to important details.  But it can mean you don't notice something dangerous, as shown above.  This means that our hero might get himself into trouble because of this focus.  So your hero trains himself to watch everything and be aware all the time, you say?

Well, there's a problem with that approach too.  Even a very well-trained observer can only keep up wide attention on everything for so long.  Its exhausting and becomes overwhelming.  You can test this out by yourself.  Next time you go out for a walk or a drive, pretend you're in a combat zone and worried about snipers, mines, IEDs, hostile drivers trying to force you off the road, and look for details around you to remember all of them.

You know, watch windows for a gun barrel, check the rooftops, look at the trash on the road, the faces of drivers to read their attitude, the people between parked cars, down alleyways, in doorways, in shop windows.  Look for license numbers, the clothing on people, their hair color, distinguishing features.  Is that piece of cardboard hiding a mine?  Is that bicyclist holding a gun?  Is that window open on the third floor?  And across the street from it, what's that on the rooftop?

 See how many blocks you can get before you give up because its just too much.  This is why squads work together on this on patrol, so no one of them has to look at everything.  And even they train in noticing things out of the ordinary or unusual that stand out and signal danger.  This is why so many writers use the "sixth sense" bit where the hero senses something is wrong but can't say why.  Years of experience, they say.  

But relying on that reduces you to a paranoid wreck because years of experience teach you that everything can be bad.  Every alley can hide an ambush, every window a sniper, every bush a mine.  Eventually that sixth sense warns you that the little girl on the bicycle is holding a grenade in her lap and that balloon she let go and is crying about is a signal to the strike team around the corner.

You can read the full FBI report on violent encounters and how cops get shot in pdf form online for more hard details.  Especially useful is the chapter on perceptions in stress and how witnesses get things so wrong when something happens.

All this can be helpful for writing a memorable, effective combat scene because it helps get into the mind of a warrior - something almost none of us are.  Instead of using this information as specific examples of behavior or warnings, they can be used to help shape a mindset and a personality that someone who fights for a living must develop and thus be reflected in their character in a story.

Well this has gotten long enough, and I've got more stuff to write about, specifically for guns and armor, but for now its something to consider.

You don't need to strive for perfect technical accuracy in every book; sometimes its great to be vague and silly, sometimes the story is about the people and combat is minimal in its description.  That's perfectly fine for the right kind of tale.

If you're writing a story about Fluffy Cottontail and his valiant Mice Warriors for kids, they don't need to know how heavy a broadsword is or how much it hurts to be hit by a mace.  But knowing the details and information of combat can all help develop personality, character, and worldview of your protagonist.

Knowing details like these can help get into the mind of your character and affect how they act, what they say, and why they do what they do when the time comes.  And someone steeped in combat will behave differently because of what they know and have been through even when they aren't fighting.

And all that can add up to a better story with better characterization.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Preaching Instead of Writing

Sit back as I fumigate my
wisdom upon you!
I'm sure you've read at least one book in the past where the writer clearly had some message, moral, political statement, or religious idea that they were promoting.  One which overwhelmed the story and became the point of the book, their pet idea that was too strongly, too stridently, or too often repeated and pushed until it no longer truly was a story being told, but a tract disguised as fiction.

When I start to read such a book I become annoyed with it and want to stop.  If its a message I disagree with, it just makes me angry and want to stop reading.  If its a message I agree with, it makes me bored and want to stop reading.  Neither one is particularly good for the book or its author.

This is partly why I don't want to be a "Christian writer" even though I am a writer, and I'm Christian.  Too often these books end up being little more than an evangelical tract, a message in story form.  The best I hope to offer is a good book, well written, and it will inevitably end up being influenced by my Christianity, but not as a main, central theme.

As Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM fame) told a screenwriter “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  These days it might be phrased "if you want to send a message, text it."  There is a temptation for some, perhaps many, to use their writing to make a statement, and that is something that has to be fought with both arms and both legs to push it away.

The truth is, we all have something to say, and further that our ideas, worldviews, passions, and interests will influence and be expressed in our writing to one degree or another.  And of course there's nothing wrong with being thought provoking or presenting ideas in fiction.  What some consider preachy others might think of as simply interesting; some consider the Narnia books to be repulsively Christian while others simply find it a wonderful read.

But clearly some get carried away.  I recall a discussion on this topic where one writer proudly announced that their urban fantasy had elementals rising up to punish mankind for global warming.  I haven't read the book but with that little blurb I can imagine the pedantry and heavy handed writing that was involved.

It need not be, of course.  High Noon was allegedly written as a complaint against McCarthyism and the Hollywood "blacklist" but was so well done and subtle that its virtually invisible unless you've been told ahead of time (and still isn't real clear even then).  The original The Day The Earth Stood Still was a cold war and nuclear weapons warning, but was so well handled and interesting that you didn't mind watching.  The remake was about global warming again, but was much less effective.

The trick is that if you have some statement to make, make it as gently, subtly, and entertainingly as possible.  What you want is more Dr Strangelove and less JFK; a book or screenplay that reaches people but is primarily about telling the story rather than one that hammers people over the head with a thin veneer of story to disguise it.

Charles Dickens excelled at this kind of writing.  For example, the message of tempering your business ambition with humanity and love for your neighbor in A Christmas Carol is clear and unmistakable, but told with such skill, drama, and excitement that it is almost universally beloved as a classic.

Dickens succeeded because while he had a strong message, he didn't pontificate, he wove the message into the story, making it an integral part of the tale that had an inevitable, proper, and reasonable conclusion.  The ghosts didn't lecture Ebenezer Scrooge, they showed him parts of his life and asked questions, questions which Scrooge had reasonable but wrong answers to.  In the end, the weight of the truth bore down Scrooge and he was a changed man.

Had each ghost given a 3-chapter Ayn Rand speech on ethics and behavior, then the book would have been miserable to read and failed in its goals entirely.  There are tricks you can use to weave a message into a book, but you're usually better off avoiding trying to write a message book at all, until you get a good handle on writing to begin with.

Even if you are a great writer, usually you're better avoiding a message for several reasons.  First, its difficult to avoid sounding preachy - some even find A Christmas Carol too pedantic.  Second, you're likely to annoy and push away a notable percentage of possible readers by having a message in your book.  Third, if you are intending to write message, its easy to lose track of writing a story; writing a great story should be your first and even second priority when writing.  And finally, a book with a message is like the man who marries the spirit of the age: in a few years it might become old and dated.

A hot topic!  ...In 1975
That book on global cooling you wrote in the 70s was hot then but now it seems bizarre... until the general message shifts again, I suppose.  Writing about political corruption or greed or oppression is pretty much universal, but writing about how horribly the Patriot Act creates tyranny by the federal government is too specific, and these days feels very dated and specific. So your book has a better than even chance of feeling old and left behind if its too dated and targeted in its message.

If you do write a book with a message, better that the message develops on its own through the process of trying to write a story rather than starting out with one to begin with.  For example, the message of my upcoming book Life Unworthy, to the extent there is one, is the nature of evil and where it comes from in us all.  I didn't set out to write this, the concept developed about halfway through the book as it was a theme that kept coming up as I struggled with how the Nazis could have shown up and become so prominent in Germany.

Writing a good story well told with compelling characters and narrative is your goal.  If, through that, you develop a theme or message that is told in the process, well that's fine.  That way the story of the book you are writing is an organic natural part of the tale being told.

If you do start with a message, make sure you tell it by telling your story rather than by telling your reader.  Instead of insisting that big government is corrosive to freedom or that big corporations are evil soul destroying monsters, show it through the way the story develops.  Don't have someone stand up and "testify" before congress or have an extended argument.  Demonstrate the point you are making through the actions of the characters and the inevitable consequences.

If you can't do this, then maybe you should try writing something else.  Or maybe your message is just wrong, that's always a possibility, isn't it?  More than one writer has set out to prove one thing and through their investigation and research has realized another.

In any case, your best story you can tell isn't the one that convinces everyone you're right, but that demonstrates you're a good storyteller.  What they learn from it or take away from it will be heavily influenced far more by the latter than the former.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Big Fight Scene, pt 2 - Stylin'

Wait, there's four of them...
So you want to write a combat scene in your book?  Good for you, violence is as much a part of life as relationships, politics, romance, sex, and anxiety.  Its not necessary to have violence in a book, but there's good reason to include it in many stories.

But what sort of combat do you want?  Will it be stylish and fancy, will it be cinematic and exciting, will it be swashbuckling and wild, with people swinging from chandeliers?  Or will it be gritty and cold and realistic, filled with technical details, sweat, and fear?

The truth is, most of what you see in TV and movies isn't terribly plausible or realistic combat.  Fight choreographers are trying to give a visually exciting and unique scene, not a plausible or realistic one.  That's why people can get punched across a room, crash into a pile of twisted steel, then jump up and fight some more.  Its why the hero can be punched in the face 18 times and not suffer brain damage, let alone any trauma other than a bit of blood.

In writing a story, you have a different set of concerns than a visual medium.  Instead of needing to capture the eye, you must capture the imagination.  But as the previous installment of this series noted, you have to serve the story in either medium.  The point of a combat scene is to tell the story no matter what other concerns you might have.

Here are a few styles and approaches to combat (which can also be applied to other interactions such as arguments, politics, and so on).

If you're writing a children's book, then chances are you don't have to make it extra gritty or even detailed.  Bob the mouse beats Grifter the Rat on the head with a ball point pen and runs away.  All that is needed is a basic, simple description of physical events.  You don't even need to explain consequences to violence such as blood or pain.  At most, a comical knot rises on someone's head or they are knocked out painlessly for a while.

The advantage of this style is that you don't need to know anything about combat in any form you are writing.  How many bullets does that pistol have?  Who cares?  How heavy is that broadsword?  Doesn't matter!  The combat in such a style is not about the actual fighting but what it achieves.  If Tom his Jerry on the head with a frying pan, it isn't about the beating, but the laughs.  If your wizard casts Allazakam on an opponent in a duel, nobody needs to know how it works or what happens, the other wizard is Zakammed and he loses.

This can be easier to write, but it has significant challenges.  For one thing if you don't match this simple abstracted tone with the rest of the book its going to seem jarring and childish.  For another, it can be very unfulfilling to fans of swordplay, six gun duels in the dust, or starship battles.

Roger can escape any time...
In this style you're less interested in what is going on with the battle than how it strikes the reader.  No matter what is going on in the page, the point is to amuse and delight your readers, so the actual action serves this purpose. 

This means the actual outcome of the battle is largely irrelevant, as long as it gets a laugh and moves the story to its conclusion.  If Rick Roarden, intrepid private dick has the magazine fall out of his gun just as he's trying to shoot the tires out of his opponent's car, then it doesn't matter if the bad guy gets away, as long as its funny.

The biggest drawback to this kind of writing is that being funny is very, very hard to do.  A lot of humor's impact comes from surprising readers, which is not an easy task, particularly with people who have been reading a lot through their lives.  It has the same advantages and drawbacks as abstract and simple combat writing as well.

I've been to Omaha and it was nothing like this
This sort of writing is as realistic and dark as the writer is able to manage.  Every punch breaks bones and tears flesh.  The blood sprays, the broken teeth are spit out, the pain is described in detail.  In this kind of writing, there's no flesh wound that the hero shrugs off, because the flesh wound is incredibly painful and debilitating.  When someone is shot in the head, they don't die neatly and suddenly, but blood spouts from the wound and they lie a moment confused, uttering disturbing phrases like seeking their mother, and perish fouling their shorts.

The smells, sights, and sounds of combat are emphasized in this form, to make it as clear and specific as possible.  Gritty combat writing is meant to put the reader into the scene to the point it makes them queasy and uncomfortable.  In the first scene of Saving Private Ryan, it was said to be so realistic that it was causing flashbacks in WW2 vets and forcing them out of the theater because it was too much.  I don't know if that's just publicity or real, but that's the kind of goal this form of combat writing is after, because it serves the point of making combat something genuine and immediate.

The advantage of this style is that it pulls readers into a terrible situation with a significant level of drama and is quite memorable.  If done well, it gets the nod of approval from those who have experienced violence themselves.  However it is very hard to get all the details right even if you've personally been in these kind of situations.  And the visceral details can be very disturbing and even cause people to stop reading your book if you go further than they are comfortable with.  And there's always the danger that you'll get so fixated on the grit of combat it will be the focus rather than the story - or that it will be out of style and flow with the rest of the narrative.

In this kind of combat writing, the author is considering greater issues and meaning than simply the blow by blow account of activity in combat.  Why the musketeer thrusts with his rapier matters more than how, and what the consequences of that grenade thrown into the bunker are is more significant than the radius of the blast.  For this sort of combat, the writer is not particularly interested in the fighting but in what it represents, what it means, and what it says about the characters and perhaps ourselves.

The advantage of this kind of battle scene is that it greatly advances character development and the story, if done right.  It forces readers to consider more than excitement and events and pushes them deeper into the meaning and truth of what is happening.  Making people question and examine themselves and what they believe - and why - is a good thing.

However, it is difficult to do well, because it is very easy to be bogged down in self pity, dull treatises on philosophy and the human condition, or to start preaching at the reader.  Instead of using the moment to touch on thoughts about human spirit, meaning, and truth, you can end up simply lecturing or focusing too much on thoughts and emotions which slows the pacing and can make it dull.

Some combat scenes are told as an extended metaphor, where the events and people stand for something other than themselves.  The machine gunner stands for the slave owner, the knight holding the bridge is a metaphor for the need to fight against sin in our souls, and so on.  Sometimes this is used as analogy, where the entire affair stands for something else: the fight between the two gunmen is really about life its self, and the struggle to survive; the samurai fighting in a burning village are really about modern culture's fascination with gadgets (somehow?) and so on.

An advantage of this is that the combat doesn't really take center stage at all, it can be very stylized or simplistic, because the point is not about the fighting at all.  Each action described is not about the combat, it is about furthering the metaphor.  And writing this way can powerfully advance a theme that might otherwise be difficult to explain or put into words.

That said, it is extremely hard to pull this off properly and subtly while making the point clear enough.  Written clumsily this can either be too obscure to make a point, or too blatant and on the nose to be effective.  Yes, we get it.  The guy with the hammer is the oppressor beating on the minority other.  The vast smog elemental is climate change demolishing the planet.  But I can't work out what on earth that starship using a radiation weapon to mutate the asteroid represents.  And there's always the danger that needing to conform to a metaphor or analogy can make your combat seem stilted, forced, or irrational.

The average pistol of a hero in a Western
In this form of combat writing, the focus is on the details and devices.  Instead of a gunfight, it is a duel between experts in two specific styles of fighting using a matched set of Y-47 Canis Ordnance Laser Pistols with the Plexsteel grip and extended power pak.  The training and methods of combat matter more than why the people are fighting or even who they are.  How they move, what technique they are executing, and what sort of weapons and armor they wear are the focus.

This sort of writing can be very exciting to adherents to a martial art or fans of a genre.  Getting the details of that gunfighter's filed off front sight or the samurai's Hanzo katana just right can be fun to experts and hobbyists.  For the historian, having the correct breastplate on a Napoleonic Cuirassier is pleasing to read.  And it also can help inform and teach people about different aspects of historical events.  If you get the Macuahuitl correct in a story about Aztecs, then your readers learn something about Aztec war and equipment.

The major drawback is that you really need to know what you're talking about down to the last bootstrap or fans will savage you.  Sit with some WW2 historians during a war movie and you'll learn a lot about what was done wrong.  For instance, even in the Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach scene, they got some stuff wrong: the captain showing his rank insignia on his helmet and uniform, for instance.  German soldiers targeted officers, they'd cover that stuff up with mud or something else.  And the focus on details can lose the rest of the story, burying it in specifics and information rather than telling the tale.

If you're like me, you probably have written scenes using several of these approaches at once, blending them together.  Ultimately, the combat you write, just as every other part of the book, has to serve the story by developing characters, advancing the plot, describing the setting, and telling the tale.

And that also means how you write combat should be how you write the rest of the book.  If you are writing a wild fun sort of implausible story, then implausible fun combat should be part of it.  If you want to write a dark, moody book, then a suddenly comedic combat scene would probably be jarring and out of place - unless it serves to be twisted and disturbing by contrast.

In the end, what you write in your combat scenes should flow well and be a natural part of the rest of your story, and indeed should come from the rest of your story as naturally as the dialog, romance, descriptions, or any other part.

Next time, I'll look at things to avoid, and ways it can go wrong.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Big Fight Scene, pt 1 - Why Fight?

Remember to swab before loading
For many stories, fight scenes are some of the most exciting parts for many readers.  Even a romance can have a swashbuckling sword duel, or a spy novel a tense martial arts fight.  The sea novels of Patrick O'Brian are amazing character studies containing exquisite plotting and historical narrative, but when the cannons roar, its even more engaging.

But when it comes to actually writing a combat scene, it can be intimidating for many writers.  Few of us have ever been in actual combat of any real kind.  Some of us have never fought in our lives.  And none of us have been in a real armored medieval swordfight or blaster battle in a starship.  To one degree or another almost everyone is guessing and inventing when it comes to fighting.

For those who have been in combat, sometimes it isn't any better.  Real combat is not like in the movies, it is over very quickly and its hard to see or know what is going on.  Like old Bruce Lee movies, the action is so close and frenetic you can't really tell what is happening.  So your experiences will carry a weight of familiarity and detail that others cannot know, but it might still be a bit unclear how to put them on paper.

First, though its important to consider what your fight scene is trying to accomplish.  Why do you even have a fight scene in your story?  Is it there simply because you feel compelled to by the genre, is it there because you think the narrative needs jazzing up?  Do you have a fight scene just to deal with a conflict in a violent way?

What I'm trying to say is that your combat should fit and flow with the story the same way as every other aspect.  It shouldn't be shoehorned in just to fit some checklist of required elements for a genre or because someone on twitter insisted.  Combat, like romance, is optional if useful.  Whether you include a fight in your book or not is up to the story and your capacity of a writer.  If you can pull it off well and it fits the tale being told, then there ought to be combat.  If not, then there ought not be.

The truth is, like all elements of writing fiction, combat is there to serve the story, it is in your book not as a way to make things exciting, but to move the plot along, develop the characters, and tell the story.  Combat is just another method of telling your tale, not a means in and of its self.

As a writer you shouldn't treat the fight scene as a separate, distinct part of your book.  It should be just as much a part of the story as the description of the scenery or the background of your protagonist.  

This is a bad place for walkies
One way to do so is to have the fight serve another end.  Instead of being a fight to have a fight, make the fight a way of developing a character, resolving a conflict, creating a conflict, revealing things about a character, or several - even all - of the above.

The fight should do more than be a physical conflict, it can tell a little tale by its self.  It has been said by many that you learn more about someone in a fight or when challenged than you can any other way: how they respond to difficulty, how they treat their opponent, and so on.  Use that to your advantage as a writer.  Perhaps that quiet, tight-lipped character reveals things through their actions that they never would by speaking.  Their honor and dignity, their bloodlust, their fury, their cold blooded, reptilian skill, all of it can tell readers something about that character.

And what is going on other than the fight is a useful tool as well.  How do the others nearby, watching the combat, react?  What is going on in the rest of the world as this fight happens?  Is it in a meadow, do the birds flee in terror, do the trees move in the wind?  Is it getting late and casting shadows over the scene?  What's going on?  By answering these kind of questions you can not only give the world greater depth, but place the fight into your world rather than having it play out separately.

What goes through your character's head means a lot as well.  This can be a very useful tool, if it fits your narrative.  Your character might look like the steely-eyed fearless hero, but what does he feel inside, not showing?  How does hurting another human being make them feel?  How does taking lives affect them?

And why are they fighting, that will be played out in their minds as well.  The desperation, hope, misery, sadness, regret, fury, and other feelings can be shown in expression, thought, and action.  By doing this, you are moving your story along instead of pausing to get a fight into the book at regular intervals.

You can even reveal things about your world and the setting in combat.  In a historical book, the style and technique of combat can be identified and its history hinted at or touched on briefly:
Cardnet parried with his maine-gauche, confident in his Florentine training.  It had taken him years in the Venice school to master his technique and the fear rising in Don Cabrizi's expression was welcome confirmation of that skill.  The rapier and off hand style had its detractors but Cardnet felt sure this fight was his.
It had been hard work lugging the Canis Ordnance B-52 Blaster Cannon up that hill but when the Ravenous Bug Bladder Beast of Trall charged, Sergeant Bricktop was glad he had the old "blockbuster" at hand.
For centuries, the Dwarves had been known for their skill in forging throughout the nine realms.  And Fjolnir felt the song of triumph rising in him as he swung his njarn-steel axe into the neck of his trollish foe.  They would sing his praises in Valhalla this day.
Shan-Xiu felt the calm spread through his being as he focused his chi.  His breathing was even and controlled, just as Master Wu had taught him.  It was as if a thousand years of the T'ian Xe school teaching was passing through his soul as he readied himself for his opponent.
Every girl loves a guy with a big gun
Nobody wants to read a long treatise on swordfighting or a technical readout of a particular weapon in the middle of a combat scene, but a few lines can give glimpses and drop bits of information for the reader to pick up on about the world.  Where did that weapon come from?  Who taught this man?  Where had he last faced such a foe?  Little details of this sort can be used for more than just a fight.

In short, your combat scene isn't just a combat scene, its a part of a larger whole, and it should be used to serve and develop that whole.  Make sure your fight scene is serving your story, and you can write it with that in mind more than technical perfection or experienced skill.

Because even if you know nothing about fighting with Transducian Vibro-Staves, you know about your characters, your setting, and you can write about their feelings and what is going on around them.  If you can't focus on brilliant action, focus on wonderful storytelling and characterization. And ideally, do both.

Next time I look at combat, it will be about the style of writing combat and how you can approach it as an author.  For now, keep on writing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Worldbuilding 101

No, no, not sexy muskeeers, magical ones!
Sooner or later, every fantasy author gets around to building their setting.  Even a fantasy set in modern day (urban fantasy) requires some design of how the magic works, what people know about it, where various forces are and what they consist of etc.  

You might be writing a fantasy set in Musketeers-era France but if there's magic, then who knows it, are there monsters, and where do they lurk, and how does it all fit together?  Does Cardinal Richelieu know about wizards and are they a target of the inquisition, or protected because they work for King Louis?

Building this world can be quite a daunting challenge.  After all, a world is a very big place, and populating an entire planet, building its nations, peoples, cultures, geography, history, economies, oceans, animals, plants, diseases, languages and so much more is more than any one person has time or ability to successfully complete.  Even J.R.R. Tolkiens massive work on Middle Earth only covered a small part of the planet, with most of it only lightly touched on.

Sometimes, writers can be caught up in worldbuilding to the exclusion of actually writing.  Unable to get past creating the setting, they get little actual story down on paper because there's always something else to come up with, some other map to create, and so on.

The best way to approach this, I believe, is to start very small and be willing to let things go.  Here's what I mean.

Don't start with a map of the world, then start filling in the blanks.  Start very small.  One farm, one fishing hole, one canyon, one meadow.  Start in an area you can imagine standing in and looking around.  Imagine what is there and spread out slowly and reasonably from that place.

For example, start at the fishing hole.  A pond, fed by a stream, beneath a waterfall.  People come there to catch fish.  A simple little spot, right?  But you can gain so much from just a little location.  What kind of fish?  How big is the stream?  How tall is the waterfall?  Who comes to fish there, and how many?  What kind of plants are nearby?  What is the climate of this fishing hole, is it arctic, jungle, temperate? Is it in the mountains, the plains, close to the ocean, deep in land?

Swimming disturbs the fish, you rascals!
Just answering a handful of these questions brings even more to mind.  Let us propose that this fishing hole is in a lightly wooded prairie sort of area, one of those areas where a line of trees and plants grows along the stream but the rest is grassy and lightly hilly plains.  The stream isn't likely to have a very high waterfall, but the fish can be abundant.  Sometimes those creeks in the plains can be quite deep, with the sides digging under the edges, so that the banks overhang the water.

The fish in this stream are good eating, so the locals come here to catch a meal.  What if they have some other property?  Lets say their liver oil is very useful medicine, and used to treat local illnesses.  Lets further say that the area because of its water, food, and medicine is contested, because it is an abundant source of all three useful commodities.

So who is competing for all of this?  Local human settlements?  Other creatures such as orcs and goblins?  Does anyone gather the oil in bottles to sell?  Maybe there's a larger settlement down the road from this area, a market to sell the oil in.  How do people get to this settlement, is there a road?  How safe is the road?  How often do they go?  Maybe they can only make it a few times a year; harvest time, when the grasses are cut for hay, grain, and even firewood?

What about those plains filled with waves of amber grain, what kind of grasses?  Can you eat their seeds, or the leaves?  How big do they grow?  What eats the grass, what kind of creatures live there?  Maybe some of the grass grows very tall and has very thick stems, suitable for firewood.  Maybe gigantic creatures eat the grasses, and must be warded off somehow (bright colors?  Lights?  Sound?).  Perhaps instead its swarms of smaller creatures that must simply be endured, like locust.

What are the homes built from?  If those huge stalks can be used for fuel, they can be used for building as well.  Thatching can come from the huge leaves of these mega grasses.  Homes built out of grass entirely could be imagined from this setting.  Do these plants have sap?  That would work to glue things together, or nearby tar from the ground?  Do the huge grasses have huge seeds?  Imagine eating a single grain of mega-wheat for breakfast, boiled and seasoned with some crumbled up dried tiny fish for their salt.

Is the weather hot or harsh?  Perhaps its cold?  The temperature and climate plays a major part.  I imagine this setting as being like the Great Plains in America: hot in summer, cold in winter, with dry winds.  

That means needing to put in a lot of wood for fuel in the winter, digging a root cellar to store food in, and planting these giant grains to block the prevailing winds (and worst effects of blizzards) around property.  Replacing the grass thatching every year or even season might be necessary.

Now, look at all that's developed just from a few questions about a single area?  As we spread out from that humble setting more is added.  Where does that road go, and how far away is the market?  How many other settlements are nearby, and how do they survive?  Are they all based on the grass and fish market, or are there other commodities?

If animals live in this area other than fish, then pelts, meat, and even other exotic things might be available for sale and survival.  Maybe the local gazelle has tendons that make incredible bowstrings.  Perhaps the antlers of that bison creature can be ground up for alchemists, or their hooves for glue.  The birds here might be prodigous, living in the huge grass stalks.  Their feathers could be useful - fletching, down for pillows and mattresses, or decoration, and so on.

So Sioux me, its not original
The Great Plains brings to mind nomadic hunting tribes, for me at least.  Maybe some race of creatures, perhaps elves?  live in this area, and resent the humans.  Tensions could be high, even warfare.  What are these elves like?  Where do they live and what is their culture?  One guesses magic with elves, but it must not be very sophisticated or powerful or the humans would have no chance.

So low, maybe even shamanic or minor elemental magic?  And the elves, they probably live in temporary or portable homes if they are nomadic.  So they sew the leaves of these huge grasses together as tents and fold them up for carry.  Do they ride any animals, or use them as beasts of burden to carry loads?  Maybe they hunt those antlered bison things for food and furs for sleeping and robes against the cold of winter.

How many of these elves are they and how much of a threat?  Can they be reasoned with, are they simply angry at what the humans have done unjustly or is it more complicated?  Perhaps some tribes or groups are less hostile, and others more so.

What are the humans doing here?  Why have they settled in this area now?  How sophisticated are they and what is their civilization like away from the frontier?  Do they have mail, government, armies, literature, music, fashions that trickle through to the frontier?

In answering these questions, don't feel like you have to have it all.  The only answers you need are the ones sufficient to your story.  The sophistication and civilization of the lands far away only matter insofar as they impact characters and the tale being told.  Maybe Darles Chickens has written a new story that is finally reaching the frontier in old magazines brought down the wagon trail.  

You don't need to know his whole catalog of stories, or even anything else about literature, just that one story.  The fashions the ladies follow or long after are irrelevant except in passing mention or how one lady particularly stands out because of her modern, city looks.

Like I noted in my post on maps, don't feel like you have to fill out every nook and cranny.  If there are blank spots and grayish areas in your world, good.  Not only does that give you room to expand or change things, it makes your world seem more plausible.  Without using the internet now, can you answer these questions about our world?
  • What is the capitol of Mongolia?
  • Where might you find Lake Titicaca?
  • What nation exports the most sesame seeds?
  • How many people live in Romania?
We have tremendous amounts of information and learning about our world, take classes on geography, are inundated with news and data.  But there are large sections of the planet which are unknown or only vaguely known to us.  Even the most rabid expert on the world doesn't know even a large minority of all there is to know.

You don't need to work out your entire world.  You only need to work up as much as serves your story.  It doesn't hurt to know more, but therein lies a trap: getting too caught up in building your world to actually get anything else done.  Let it lie until you need more, because you'll find a little secret in the process.

That secret is that as you write and add details, descriptions, and events to your story, you add to your world.  I have a fantasy setting that I've used for adventures since the late 1980s and every time I write a book set in that world, I add more to the setting, details that never come up in a game because they are either irrelevant to the game or peripheral, such as the difference between slang in Koreii and Morien, or what the primary architecture of Dornica consists of.

As you write your book, you'll be expanding on your world in the process, but it will be less a process of dry creation and more in the setting of the narrative.  So instead of sitting and imagining what the coins look like, you begin to see them through the eyes of your characters.  And through that storytelling, you can make a more organic world.

An organic world is one which naturally and reasonably fits together, not the creation of elements attached to each other like different colored Lego, but smoothly transitioning like colors in a watercolor painting.  The pieces and elements of your world flow one to another as if they occurred for real and build a coherent whole.

By starting small you can create that organic world, because each part fits the other as a necessary and reasonable consequence of the former.  The house made of giant grass stalks came from imagining the plains and the animals there, which came from that little fishing hole.

So build your world smoothly, organically, and incompletely, by starting small and radiating out like ripples from one of those fish hitting a fly in the center of the fishing hole.  Your readers will enjoy it and you won't feel so overwhelmed.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Overwhelming Technique

In the last decade or so, the availability of word processors, the ease of research on the internet, and self publication convened into a sort of ideal setting for authors to reach out to the world in a way never before possible.  As a result, now everyone is writing a book - or, at least, nearly everyone.

To take advantage of this trend, businesses and schools have begun to cater to the independent writer, with classes, programs, websites, tips, advice, books, and so on helping people understand how to be a better author.  A lot of this is good, and certainly no author should ignore good advice and sound learning.  Even the finest writers alive are always learning and honing their craft.

Some of these efforts are less valuable than others, and ultimately, it can become a bit overwhelming to the would-be author who tries to learn to be best at their art.  With all the seminars, blogs, websites, videos, #writetips on twitter, facebook sites, local college classes, books, and so on, there's really too much for any one person to realistically take advantage of or learn from.

And if you do take advantage of as much as you can take in, you can learn a lot, but there can be a problem as well.

For example, there's this theory that was first popularized by a man named Joseph Campbell in 1949.  In the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell proposed that there really is only one heroic story: the Monomyth.  

Campbell proposed that this is how all religious stories work as well.  This Monomyth story takes many forms, but essentially all follows the same basic arc as depicted in this graphic.
Now, its obvious from reading this that its not really all that common a story, and in fact it doesn't really describe all religions either, but it is an interesting tool for an epic tale of a hero's growth and difficulties.  And in fact it does describe many old tales such as the Knights of King Arthur's Court.

These kind of tools - and they are legion - are useful for writers, but they can begin to bog one down.  What with the "rules of writing" and "tips for successful editing" and websites that break down your book and tell you what you're overusing, and so on, it can easily overwhelm an author.

If you find yourself fretting over your book's word count, or whether it has the proper 3-part story arc, or if you've skillfully executed the Monomyth, or if it has passed the "Bechdel Test," etc, etc, then you're losing your way as a writer.  These hints and tips are to help shape your creative ability, not replace it.

These days its too easy to be focused on the technique and tools of writing and lose track of the art.  Classes on creative writing can actually be a hindrance to good writing by piling so many devices and techniques on the back of an author they can't spread their literary wings and be free.  Its true that every starting author needs training wheels and maybe some fences around to channel their gift.  But they aren't meant to stay there, and they aren't meant to overpower you.

Officer Bob loved this corner, he could hit his ticket quota in an hour
The "rules" are there to help avoid common mistakes, not compel your style.  And its too easy these days for writers to become overwhelmed with all of this and lose their way.  So many times I've read of writers worried about their word count, or how long a chapter is, or whether they've built a strong enough female character.  Blog post after blog post on Inscribed has been about these topics because they keep coming up.  I feel bad for these people who are laboring under such a burden.

Writing fiction is first and foremost an art.  It is to be creative and free flowing.  Yes, you have to learn to do it properly, and to do that, you need to learn the rules.  Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, proper writing and so on all help you do this.  But these rules are not to produce a perfect novel.  No amount of technique or device, no 3 part Monomyth following the pattern exactly enough will produce quality.  That takes talent and skill.

The rules and fences of writing are there to produce work that communicates your ideas and story properly.  If we had no rules of spelling, then no one could read anyone else's work.  If we had no rules of grammar, then the book would be scrambled and nearly incomprehensible even to the author.  These rules are about reaching your reader effectively.  You have to write what you know because if you write about things you're ignorant of - things that others are familiar with - you'll come across as, well, ignorant and laughable.  But that doesn't mean you can't invent or be creative with new things.

But when it comes to storytelling, that's creative and artistic.  You can use those classes and technique to learn your craft to the point of being able to tell a solid tale, but that's as far as they should take you.  Sooner or later you have to climb out of that nest and test your wings.

I don't mean you should go all E.E. Cummings and blow off punctuation and capitalization in some infantile gesture of rebellion or faux freedom.  I mean you should set yourself free from the structures and ordered methods of writing you are taught.  Use them as a reminder in the back of your mind, learn them to the point it becomes instinctive, then forget about them.

Writers such as Patrick O'Brian ripped the usual rules of sentence structure and description to pieces.  Elmore Leonard rewrote the rules on dialog, leaving out words where people didn't use them.  His narration is brilliant, if a bit odd to read at first, because it reads the way most people talk.

These authors learned the rules first, but when they had them down, they went their own way, expertly, with genius and a gift that leaves readers breathless.  Learn, then set yourself free.  Not too free - they still wrote in a manner they could be understood - but free.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Crafting Magic

OK give me a minute, and I'll tell you if you are a toad.
Recently I wrote about how fantasy has to have magic in order to be justly and properly defined as fantasy.  But that magic can take a lot of forms; it doesn't have to be wizards casting spells, it can be magic in the nature of the world; Xanth has magic in the form of individual talents each person has and the environment for example.

However, most fantasy settings will have magic in the form of spells and spell-casters; wizards, witches, and sorcerers.  And to write about this, these days its all about the system.  With book series such as the Dresden Files and books by Patrick Rothfuss, the magic system was so fascinating and central that fantasy authors and readers have begun to strongly identify with the system as a critical part of having magic at all.

A magic system is how and why magic works; what it can and cannot do, what its limitations are and how the magic is used.  For example, in Dresden's world you have to store up power and can channel it either in explosive sudden effects or with time and equipment more powerful, subtle effects.  In the Harry Potter books magic requires (unless the plot demands otherwise) a wand, and cannot create objects.

This systemization of magic has become the standard for fantasy writing, and in some ways it is quite interesting.  The system its self can become a sort of character for the story, creating complications and challenges the mage has to overcome.

And for the author, remembering how everything works and keeping it under control is a very valuable tool.  If your mage cannot do something one book then can later, readers are going to notice and complain.  As Brandon Sanderson wrote famously, its the limitations and what magic cannot do that makes it most interesting and useful for an author.

However, there's a problem with this trend that writers should keep in mind.  There is a temptation to turn magic system building (like world building) into a fixation, where this ends up being the primary focus and interest for the writer rather than storytelling, characterization, plotting, description, and character development.  Ultimately, fantasy writing is just writing, and it should be the story that matters most, not your perfect system.

Overthinking your system is a serious temptation, as you work out how exactly every minute aspect of magic works and why, what can and cannot be done, and how, and every possible permutation of that system.  In fact, I've seen burgeoning new writers trying to write a story starting with the magic system.  "I have this cool magic system, I want to write a book about it!"  Well nobody wants to read a textbook about a fictitious magical system.  They want to read a story.

With this simple test we can show how far Lucas has jumped the shark!
Another concern is that people tend to think almost scientifically about magic, breaking everything down into physics and scientific terms and categories.  This energy can only produce this much force, and the chemistry of this can only produce that effect, and so on.  Instead of being magic, it ends up a science fiction story with guys in robes.  Remember when in The Phantom Menace Qui Jon whips out the blood testing kit and starts going on about Midichlorians?  The whole audience groaned and said "what the ($@)*???" in the theater when I was watching.

Lucas took something mystical and fascinating and tried to reduce it to science, almost an infection.  Now instead of it being magical and spiritual, the force was some scientific process and the wonder was lost.  If you do that with your magic, the same thing will happen with readers.  Now it doesn't feel magical any longer.

There's a real tendency of modern westerners to define all of reality in terms of science, and that doesn't mix well with fantasy because by definition fantasy transcends science.  That's why Arthur C Clarke famously said that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic.  Not because they are equivalent like Thor quips in the film, but because at a certain point, technology becomes inscrutable and incomprehensible, it stops being something you can explain and understand, and becomes mystical and unknowable.

Clark's point wasn't that magic is simply advanced tech, but that tech eventually seems magical because it is so amazing and advanced beyond our comprehension.  And if you lose that and magic becomes so systematized and scientific and measurable, you lose that sense of wonder and amazement.  It stops being magical.

Magic should, ultimately, be mysterious.  Even its greatest practitioners shouldn't be totally sure and confident in how it works.  Magic should at some point just be too magical to know, too mystical to pin down.  At some point you as the designer should either say "it just does" or make sure the characters and readers are unclear on it, not out of confusion but out of a sense of wonder and mysticism.

The thing is, you'll never know enough details to have it all perfectly defined and wrapped up.  Whatever you come up with may be comprehensive enough, but until hundreds of people over scores of years have tinkered with it, tried to break it, and kept pushing the limits, you will not even have half of it understood.  So stop trying to get it exactly perfect anyway.

The best thing a writer can do with a magic system is, unless the story or characters immediately call for it, to keep it in the background.  It should be demonstrated through activity, but not explained or called out.  Nobody really wants to read the perfect magic system as explained by Joe the Sorcerer.  They enjoy seeing it played out through the story.

So go ahead and work on that ultimate magic system, just don't obsess over it, keep it magical, and remember that your book is about a story, not a system.

Friday, October 10, 2014

What Is Fantasy?

Later, the winged tiger got hungry
One of the best things about authors is that they are a creative lot, coming up with fascinating things and ways to twist the familiar and known into a unique, clever story.  This creativity drives the fiction process, because even books set in or written around real events require creative thought to flesh out the events and characters beyond what is known historically.

This creativity means that people will come up with all manner of variants, twists, and changes in basic concepts, which is a good thing.  From its earliest roots in legends of gods and fairy tales to the writings of men like Dunsany and Tolkien, fantasy writing followed a pretty standard set of ideas.  You had lands of legend with heroes and fantastic creatures.  Magic was a part of the equation, whether the power of the squabbling gods or wizards.  

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien created the first true fantasy stories out of myths and fairy tales, establishing standards in races and concepts that have endured ever since.

As time went on, fantasy expanded.  Michael Moorcock created brand new worlds and concepts, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Lieber, Robert Howard, and others shaped the idea of fantasy into a version called Swords and Sorcery.  Urban Fantasy, Science Fantasy (such as Star Wars), and other sorts began to develop.  Books began to be labeled as some sub-category of fantasy for having the slightest trimmings of the fantastic.  Is Interview with the Vampire fantasy?  A Song of Fire And IceTwilight?

And eventually the definition of fantasy kept being stretched and redefined and re-imagined until its lost almost all meaning as a category.  So what does fantasy even mean?  How is fantasy to be defined at all, after all these changes?  Or is there even a category of fantasy any more?

For me, fantasy has to be more than simply a setting with fantastic elements.  Peter Pan and Fern Gully are fantastical in setting, but are they fantasy?  The Dragonriders of Pern series has plenty of Dragons and medieval-feeling culture, but is it fantasy?  Certainly these works have fantastic things in them but fantasy has to be more than oddity and creativity.

Fantasy has to have magic in it.  That's the basic definition to me.  If there's no magic, then its just an interesting, possibly space opera or fairy tale setting.  But no magic, no fantasy. This magic doesn't have to take the form of wizards flinging lightning bolts, it can be more subtle, however.  It comes down to how things are explained and why they work.

The Dragonriders of Pern books are science fiction, even if its in the fantasy section of your bookstore or library.  The dragons are genetically engineered animals that were given their abilities by science.  Their abilities, their origin, and even their purpose is all science fiction.  The fact that they look like and are called dragons doesn't make them fantasy because there's nothing magical about these creatures.

But if these dragons were mystical creatures that flew and breathed fire naturally, were their own creatures instead of genetically manipulated lizards, and used magic to jump between locations, that would make it fantasy.

Because its the unknown, the magical, and the mystical that makes things fantasy.  If you explain everything through scientific terms and careful analysis, it stops being magical, and hence stops being fantasy.

Fantasy books don't have to have monsters - in fact, in my second fantasy novel, the monsters are all human.  But the magic has to be there.  There's no need for elves, heroic knights, forests and castles (although they all help).  But if you leave off the magic, its no longer fantasy and its just an alternate world history, such as most of the Game of Thrones storyline.

Your interpetation may vary, but for me: no magic, no fantasy.  And if you expand the definition so broadly that includes anything, fantasy means nothing.  Without that minimum, baseline, there's no real category at all of fantasy.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Putting Character In Your Dialog

"Real life is sometimes boring, often inconclusive, and boy does the dialog need work"
-Sarah Rees Brennan

Captain Editor got on everyone's nerves
Its more often these days that I get a look at people's writing, hoping for critique.  I try to be as kind and gentle, as supportive and positive as I can, even if the offering isn't great; we all had to start somewhere and who knows what that writer will develop into with time and study?

Something that comes up fairly often in these sections is a weakness in dialog.  Its not that they do a poor job writing the lines of dialog or that its boring to read.  Often the content is interesting enough, often funny, and sometimes witty.  The problem is that it lacks character.

Not characters, obviously there are characters discussing things in the dialog, but character.  The dialog comes across less dynamically than it could because everyone sounds like the same person, probably the author.  Some very successful writers do this; Robert  Parker for example had a template of dialog he wrote, and only about 4 different types of characters: the wise guy who jokes, the impatient authority, the snooty rich person, and the sad client.  

And there was Susan, the wise psychologist who analyzed everything every other chapter but wasn't so much a character as a sort of computer to spit out psychological profiles and a voice to say the stuff about himself that Spenser wouldn't.  I don't like the character of Susan.  Just had to get that off my chest.

The names and descriptions in Parker's books would change, the content of the (brilliantly written, often hilarious) dialog would change, but the voices wouldn't.

Other writers such as Joss Whedon, for all his talent and fun, can get into this rut with every single character offering the same sarcastic quips, interchangably.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, you could often randomly scramble the character names in the script and nobody would notice.  

Now, you notice that these are very successful writers, so if you have enough talent and creativity, you can get away with it, but imagine how much better it would be (and is, in Whedon's later work, such as Avengers) if the characters were more distinct in their dialog?

And if you can give your characters more distinct, unique voices then your dialog will soar even higher, too.  For example, consider this portion of dialog:

"Its been two weeks, Bob," said Allaine
"I know, and I promise the money will be there," Bob said.
"You promised me last week, where's the money?"
"I will get you the money, you know I will."
"I don't know you will."
"One more week, that is all I need!"
"This is difficult for me, I have obligations as well."
"Yes, I understand, just please be patient, I promise."

OK now, look that over: by the fourth or fifth line, who is saying what?  You can kind of tell from the context but for the most part, they sound like one guy talking to himself.  There's no distinctiveness, no character to the dialog.

The problem here is that even if each character has been meticulously detailed in background, personality, description, and behavior, they talk like everyone else.  Its a tough skill to learn, but its a critical one.  No matter how unique your three armed Venusian Plant-Man Bounty Hunter is, if he sounds like every other Jobu in the story, the dialog falls flat.

One way to help jazz up the dialog for a character, to make it more distinct, is to imagine how they talk in your head.  Give them a sort of patter, an accent, or a slang style that you've run into before.  Crafting their dialog around patterns and voices you've heard before can help.

Use more adverbs, I dare you!
You need to be careful not to be too much a copyist, or people will say 'that's just Yoda in an orc suit!' But it is very useful to listen to TV, movies, and plays; to read plays, good books, scripts, and other sources of good dialog.  They don't necessarily have to have an accent, you don't need to mimic Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction or James T Kirk to create a character's voice.  But you can learn from it.

The more exposure you have to the way people talk and study that, the better your dialog gets.  Listen to voices around you in the store, in the mall, at work, at the bus stop, wherever you happen to be.  What?  We're authors, we're poor!  As you travel, everywhere you go, listen to patterns of speech.  Don't listen so much to the content, don't eavesdrop because their conversation is none of your business.  Just listen to the cadence, the rhythm of their speech.  Catch fun and colorful phrases or ways of wording things, so you can remember and use them later.  If someone uses a terrific simile, remember it and use it again later.  That boy is sharp as a bowl of gummy worms... gotta write that down.

Armed with this, you can give your dialog more life, and make it more fun to read.  And further, you give it the advantage of making each character distinctive enough to tell them apart without dialog tags (he said, she said...).  So here's a try with the same conversation above, given some character:

"I've waited a fortnight, Bob," said Allaine
"Aw, lay off, I'll get it to you next week," Bob said.
"Why, this is familiar to me, a song you sang to me just seven days ago.  And yet here we are, and the money you owe is not on the table.  How disappointing."
"You know I'm good for it, lay off I said."
"I must demure, you do not seem 'good for it' at all.  The money.  Now."
"I got a big score comin' in, just one more week, I'll have it!"
"You understand, if you delay, then I must delay in paying my superiors.  They are even more impatient than I.  this puts me into an uncomfortable position, and you do not wish me to share my discomfort."
"Yeah yeah I got it.  Gimme just a week and I'll have the dough."

Now, while this is a bit stereotypical (the entire exchange is, on purpose - the voices are very distinct and opposite for effect), I hope you can see how giving each character a distinct voice makes the dialog suddenly come alive in a way it did not before.  Bob and Allaine are clearly different people, with a different way of speaking.  You can get a sense of who they are simply through their words and what they choose to say, how they say it.

And you see how without any dialog tags, you can tell who is who very quickly and easily, because of the differences in their wording.

Using this sort of tool can transform your dialog into something fresh and interesting, and even more it is a simple device to build your characters.  Reading what they say and how gives insight into their background, their personality, their education, even their social class.  That makes your characters grow and become more definite in the mind of your reader, and easier to identify later.

As I said, this isn't easy to do, and might require extensive note-taking, character definition and even a sheet explaining each character, but over time it becomes easier and more natural, so much so that when the character shows up again, you can comfortably slip into their clothes and out comes their sort of speaking.

And as a result, your book becomes livelier, more interesting, and the reader is pulled more fully and easily into your story. Its worth the extra effort!