Thursday, June 26, 2014


We better get overtime on this project
Some would-be authors excel at building worlds, with Tolkien-esque depth and detail; from the socks the characters wear (or don't wear) to what coral grows in the oceans they have a whole world envisioned.  Others are supreme at creating unique, believable, flawed, and dynamic characters that linger in the memory and fascinate.  Some are gifted in description, able to turn a phrase that gives just the right imagery and pictures in the mind of the reader.  Each writer has their gifts and weaknesses, and each has what they enjoy doing and struggle with.

But the one area every author needs to be skilled at, or they are not worthy of the title, is the Story.  I don't mean weaving an exciting tale, or crafting a thrilling plot, not character development or "showing instead of telling."  I mean the soul of a book, the reason why its written.

All books have a plot: this happens, then this happens, and it comes to a climax with that event or thing, and so on.  The plot is a sequence of events and challenges which the characters face, a timeline of things that take place.  Every book needs one of those, too, even if its just folks sitting around talking.

No, I mean the Story, the reason why the plot takes place and matters at all.

Different people express this in different ways, but there are really only a small handful of different Stories which can be told.  These storylines are usually expressed in short phrases but each has a world of possibilities within them.  These are the core of the tale being told, when stripped down to its most basic and simplest expression.  Here are the most common and often used Stories in this sense of the word:
  • Man Learns A Lesson
  • Boy Meets Girl
  • Man Takes a Journey
  • Man vs Man
  • Man vs Self
  • Man vs Environment
  • Good vs Evil

Each of these different stories  has a wealth of possible plots, characters, settings, and situations that they can be told around, but the core inside is this one story that drives the tale.  By having a good story to tell, a book goes from being a sequence of events and people to a meaningful work that has something to say.

The story is different from a message or a "narrative" in the postmodernist sense.  This isn't a chance to hammer people with your pet peeve or to proselytize.  The story isn't about convincing or persuading, it is about a purpose and movement to your book other than things that take place.  It gives your book a why instead of just a what to the tale.

For example, The Lord of the Rings is an epic story, with many events, characters, and a beautiful, detailed setting.  But it has a beginning, middle, and end which moves from one point to another for a reason rather than just being a historical account of a fictional land.

Tolkien's masterpiece was written to be an examination of several concepts, but the basic core of it was the tale of Good vs Evil.  Along the way there were other micro stories within such as the "man learns a lesson" as Pippen and Merry grow up, there's an epic "man takes a journey" with Frodo's walk across Middle Earth, and so on.  But the overall Story told is of a struggle of good - weak, outnumbered, seemingly hopeless - against a vastly more powerful evil.  The triumph at the end is at great cost, against a great foe, for great good.

Not shown: sneakers she snuck on after the glass slippers
Or consider Star Wars: it contains several subplots with their own story, but the main storyline is Luke learning to master his abilities to face the great evil and save the galaxy.  It seems like good vs evil, but in the end, its about Luke's journey of learning to control the force and avoid becoming evil, and through that triumphing.  His journey is so compelling and his character so strong by the end, he saves his father from the dark side as well.

Another example is the old fairy tale of Cinderella.  An ordinary girl in awful circumstances finds a wonderful future through love by being just right for the prince.  What is Cindarella's Story?  Well its a sort of boy meets girl tale of romance, but the core of the Story is (Girl) vs Environment.  She is trapped in an awful place surrounded by people that despise and abuse her, and fights against this with her own abilities and the assistance of others, to escape and find a better life.

Other familiar books and tales have similar sorts of core stories that we know but don't pay close attention to beneath the entertainment.  If this is done well, the story is woven into the tale in such a way that you don't notice them, like the skeleton in a beautiful girl. She'd be a shapeless mass without it, you know its there, but that's not what you pay attention to or consider.

Almost all good books also have several of these Stories running through them in addition to the main one.  There's romance (boy meets girl), survival (man vs environment) and so on within the tale as the main Story is developed and explored.

Have you ever heard of Newton's Third Law?
By contrast, consider some other tales that have been told, which have no story to them.  What is the meaning and "why" behind American Beauty?  Or Requiem for a Dream?  What is the Story being told in No Country for Old Men?  Some of these may be exquisitely told with fascinating events and characters, amazing visuals and quality acting or directing in terms of movies.  But in the end they have no soul, no purpose, no why behind them.  They're just a sequence of awful and interesting events which comes to a conclusion.

No Country for Old Men seems to have something until the end when the cranky old sheriff is told off by his friend, basically saying "its not worse now, its always been horrible, life has no meaning or purpose" as the bad guy gets away with everything and drives off.  Its not that evil triumphs, its that the tale told has no meaning or purpose beyond basic entertainment.  It made the Coen brothers a lot of money and people forgot life for a few hours.

But in the end, its quality was diminished and its longevity truncated by having no Story behind it.  If you've ever read a book or watched a movie and at the end thought "why did they even make that, what was the point?" then you've just encountered this sort of empty tale.  Its like a very lifelike statue: it has the appearance of life, but ultimately is just a hollow facsimile.

By being able to write a good Story within your book, you have more than a mere retelling of events, but a spine to build around, a soul within to give the tale life and meaning and purpose.

So don't just write a fun book, tell a good Story!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


One of the most memorable bad guys in film was played by Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard film.  He was brilliant, interesting, had a great plan, was always in command even as things fell apart around him, and all the way to the end seemed to be better than Detective McClane.  From his ruthless shooting of the CEO to the laughing attempt to kill McClane at the end, he was always interesting.

Wanting to kill a bird makes you psychotic, apparently
And that's what a bad guy needs.  Its not enough to be bad, the bad guy has to be worth reading.  By contrast, consider Charles Muntz from the movie Up.  An otherwise well done movie, Muntz is one of the worst, most arbitrary bad guys in film history, as if the film makers just said 'well we need a heavy in this piece, so he's going to be one' without much thought.  At Cracked magazine, here's how Rohan Ramakrishnan puts it:

Carl, his floating house and a Boy Scout named Russell somehow make it to South America and inadvertently befriend the same strange-looking bird Charles Muntz has been looking for all these years. As a result, Muntz sets Carl's house on fire, kidnaps Russell and then tries to kill them both by sending an army of talking dogs to shoot them in little planes.

Uh, why?

And don't say, "Because he was evil!" Even in terms of carrying out an evil plan to kidnap a rare bird, it doesn't make sense.
It doesn't make sense from any angle for him to chase and terrorize the bird's friends for half the movie. If he had bothered thinking this through instead of instantly jumping to canine homicide schemes, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble and a lot of money in ammo and doggy parachutes.
Other bad Bad Guys they examine include the pointlessly hostile and cruel police department in First Blood who tormented and jailed a guy for not leaving town when they said to, and Good Morning Vietnam which although based on real events, invented a vindictive and humorless sergeant who wants to destroy the comedic DJ for no reason except "we need a conflict here."

The article is wrong about 5th element and Demolition Man - both were good villains, particularly the diabolically smooth and PC Raymond Cocteau but most people miss the point of that movie.  But its true that a story can suffer greatly from a weak antagonist, resulting in a dull or confusing, pointless tale.

A useful way to make a bad guy interesting is to make the reader root for him, or at least sympathize with his cause a little.  Consider Magneto in the X-Men, whose goal is to prevent his people, mutants, from suffering the same awful fate as his parents did in a concentration camp.  Magneto fears the same horrible things in the future for mutants and will do anything to prevent that.

Or look at Boromir from the Lord of the Rings.  Boromir wants the ring to protect his city and his people, he can't see having this amazingly powerful weapon and destroying it when Gondor is facing extinction at the hands of horrific evil monsters.

Another example is Long John Silver from Treasure Island.  You can never really tell what side he's on, and he seems to be the one character who genuinely likes and appreciates the hero and narrator Jim.  A boy surrounded by adults with their own agendas, he finds a friend in the often treacherous and even murderous Long John Silver, but you always find yourself liking the pirate a bit anyway.

Not until you tell me what conditioner you use, Vlad!
Books are full of these sort of villains, from the dignified and educated Captain Hook to the tragic, love-torn Dracula, a good writer can find a way to make the readers appreciate and even like their villains.  Each of these bad guys has a reasonable motivation and a turn to their character that you can appreciate or at least understand, if not agree with.

One way to approach this is to give them some human turn, some thing that they've been denied, or fear, some reasonable concern they are reacting poorly to, or some endearing quality that sets them apart.  That may be a loved one they care for in a particularly sympathetic way, a surpassing genius and cunning that one cannot help but admire, or some other characteristic, but the goal is to make not just a memorable villain, but one that the reader believes is a proper threat to the hero of the story.

This "give them a sympathetic back story" can be taken too far however, such as the way modern screenwriters feel the need to give every bad guy a sob story and broken home, explaining that Loki never would have gone bad if it hadn't been for his mean daddy lying to him and humiliating him in front of everyone.  This is turning into a cliche, with every bad guy being not really bad, but driven that way by mean people.  Where this stack of turtles starts (who was the first bad guy to make the next one evil and how did he start out that way?) no one knows, but it isn't necessary.

Professor James Moriarty didn't need a back story to explain his evil.  Its never looked at by Doyle, yet he's one of the most memorable, interesting, and famous villains of all time despite only being in one Sherlock Holmes story (plus a brief mention in a handful of other stories).  We don't know why he turned out bad, and it doesn't matter.

What makes him work is the fact that he's so skillful and gives the great detective so much trouble that ultimately he nearly kills Holmes.  Moriarty was unique in the annals of literature to that point: the super villain, the scheming mastermind who personally was not a major criminal, but was the brain behind the many deeds of evil, giving plans and coordination to thousands of lesser crimes.  And that made him interesting.

Padme fell for this chump?
What a writer needs to avoid is making the villain a snarly one-note thug.  If your bad guy is just bad without any distinctive quality or feature, then they are easily forgotten.  You can get this wrong in a lot of ways, such as in Star Wars I-III where Palpatine's motivation and even scheme is confusing and lost in the details.  And Anakin's alleged slide into evil doesn't work because he seems more whiny and petulant than evil, more a spoiled brat than a villain.  When he does suddenly turn bad, he becomes contradictory and arbitrary, nearly killing the girl he loves... because he's afraid she'll be hurt?

A good bad guy can make a book satisfying and give the main character(s) something truly challenging and intriguing to deal with.  The bad guy that's always one step ahead or seems just too tough to beat, or has everything on their side gives a tough fight for the hero, but an interesting bad guy makes the fight worth reading about.