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Grounding Fantasy

Recently I was asked – by a long-time fan of one of my fanfics, which I am re-writing to be published as original fiction, as it was 97% original everything to begin with – how I manage to make the magic in my fantasy so realistic, subtle, and grounded. This had two results.

The first was that I had a moment of panic because the story they had been referring to is gaining some more …obvious and explosive magic in the re-write.

The second was the realisation that I didn’t actually know how I did it. So, I thought about it for a while and I realised the answer was goldfish. (No, I have not gone mad.)

You see, when I watch or read other works, I cannot turn off that part of be that acts like a belligerent toddler or a particularly sarcastic goldfish. Although I suppose I should specify that I mean a pop-cultural hypothetical goldfish, rather than a real one, as science has disproved the ‘fact’ that they only have three second memories. But I digress. Imagine that this stereotypical toddler is forever asking “Why?” and the stereotypical but snarky goldfish is always asking “How?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what goes through my head when I’m observing other fictions.

For example, back when the Lord of the Rings came out in film, I was watching the scenes in Moria and idly noticed that the characters must have superb balance to avoid falling off because there were no handrails in sight. That set the Sarky Goldfish off. Why are there no handrails? What kind of idiots make giants cities over ravines without handrails? Were they made of wood and simply disintegrated? NO dwarves wouldnt have used wood and if they were stone some of them should have remained. Do dwarves just have perfect balance? No elves are stated to have better balance and THE ELVEN CITIES HAVE FREAKING HANDRAILS. Besides, even if adult dwarves had epic balance skills and never, ever fell, dwarven children (you know, the ones who are always portrayed as rare and precious because ever since Tolkien did it dwarves do not reproduce quickly has been part of the Standard Fantasy Setting) would, because all children, in all species, are reckless idiots. Could it be a point of honour? Honour VS Practicality, City Planning Edition, Round One: TOTAL KNOCKOUT, PRACTICALITY WINS.

And on and on it goes. For every “it is this way” that does not match reality, the Sarky Goldfish in my head wants to know How and Why and won’t rest until it has a solid answer. For every “that can’t happen/be done” the Belligerent Toddler wants to know Why Not and will find a way if a suitably reasonable answer is not produced …or even if it is, because if it took too long the Belligerent Toddler will want to prove the answer-giver wrong. “It’s traditional”, by the way, is not a solid or reasonable answer. Nor are “Because” and “Just don’t think about it”. “Why Not”, on the other hand, is – so long as the question was “Why” and not “Why Not” or “How”.

So, you could say – if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like goldfish – that the answer is really just to think about it. Now, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying “But it’s fiction! It doesn’t have to be realistic! I shouldn’t have to think about it!” and I have one thing to say to that:

When you played with your blocks as a child you had to think about where to put them or they’d all come tumbling down on your head.  When you paint a picture you need to think about what you’re doing or you end up with a mess of squiggles and badly mixed brown. When you create new music – even if it’s jazz and improvised – you need to think about what you are doing so that you don’t make noises only deaf cicadas would love. And when you write fiction you have to think about the way the world you are creating works or it falls apart on you – but whereas child!You got a bruise when their blocks fell and some adult came to kiss it better, no one is going to tell you it’s okay and not your fault if your fiction falls apart because you didn’t construct it properly. Why? Because if you’re old enough to put it out in public, you’re old enough to take the heat for it.

Writing is hard, guys. Writing is WORK.

 

But I digress.

The reason fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin and Glen Cook (if you don’t know who that is LOOK HIM UP) can produce such high-quality writing, writing which is praised for being top-notch fantasy, is that the ground their fantasy in realism.

“Great,” you may say, “but not all of us have a goldfish living in their heads. What do we do?”.

Well, there are two things that work to ground fantasy – and all fiction, to be honest – in realism. The first is to treat the world you are writing as if it was real. But it’s just fiction? Not to the characters who live in it, I assure you. Not to the readers who want to be immersed in it, I assure you. It’s just fiction is an excuse that those who are too lazy, or too entitled, to put in effort hide behind when their half-assed attempts are not immediately hailed as the greatest thing ever. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort: you shouldn’t be writing. There’s enough crap on the market without you joining in.

The world you are creating may technically be just fiction, but good writing – and good authors – transcend that. Writers are often referred to as the God of their stories’ universe. What kind of evil, stupid god would you be if you created a real world but treated it like it wasn’t real enough to matter? Treat your fictional world as if it was a real one. Imagine you really are a god and you are creating the world. That means that, beyond the scope of the Adventure or Romance or whatever the story you are writing is, your world needs to make sense. It shows when worlds are invented to suit the whims of the plot and add tension. It shows in a bad way. People notice when you, say, don’t add handrails to a place where handrails ought to be in order to add Tension. So, what do you have to do? You have to think about the mechanics.

That’s the first thing. The second thing, which you have to do at the same time as the first thing, is to apply Logic.

I know. I know. It’s a scary Maths thing and it doesn’t seem fair to drag it into the world of Arts where you ran to get away from it, but it does need to be here.

In order to build you own Sarky Head-Goldfish and start grounding your fantasy in realism, you’ll want to apply three specific types of logic: Induction, Deduction, and Abduction (no! Not that kind! Don’t run off with that!). If it makes you feel better about adding something as icky as logic to your creative endeavours, put on a deerstalker cap and try not to think about the fact that, no matter what the original illustrations implied, Sherlock Holmes did not wear one of those.

Got your cap on? Great, let’s go.

Deduction is the logic system in which you reason out the definite specific from the definite general – i.e. Dwarves never build handrails. Moria was built by dwarves. Therefore, Moria does not have any handrails. Deductive reasoning – when used correctly, which Holmes did not because he said deductive when he meant a different sort of logic – always comes to a logically valid conclusion. Use this type of logic to determine what parts of your world must be like (conclusions), based on your previous statements of fact (premises). If they don’t line up, you’ll need to change either the facts (“dwarves never build handrails”) or the result (remove the dwarvish handrails from wherever you had included them).

Induction is the logic system in which you reason out a hypothetical general from the definite specifics. The conclusion reached by properly applied induction is a probable, but not a fact and not a mere possible. The evidence given by the specifics supports the likelihood of the conclusion being correct – i.e. Handrails keep people from falling off high things. Dwarves think the risk of falling off high things is a matter of honour. Therefore, dwarven cities probably don’t include handrails in dangerous places. Again, if these things do not stack up when you look at your work, you need to change something. Or, given that induction is about probability, to show in detail what element logically accounts for the gap left by whatever components failed to pass this reasoning test.

Abduction is the logic system in which your reason out a hypothetical specific from the definite general. It’s basically deduction, but questionable. It is also known as “inference to the best explanation” and is the form of logic we are all most familiar with. Why? Because if it looks like a duck, and it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This, incidentally, is the kind of logic that Sherlock Holmes used – as the conclusions he reached were highly probable but not definite. The sheer complexity of human behaviour meant that Holmes was always speaking as certain (a lady of obviously middling means with callouses on her hands from typing is a professional typist) what was merely probable (she could also be a writer or a journalist, you know). This might not seem like a useful form of logic to apply to your fiction, but it’s actually one of the most important, because it allows you to play out the hypotheticals as you try to explain matters to a realistic conclusion – i.e. Dwarves do not build handrails. Dwarves are facing extinction because their children are few and often fail to survive. Therefore, dwarves are probably going extinct because their children keep falling to their deaths.

Then you apply the realism test to your conclusion. In this case: Would an intelligent species – which dwarves have to be if they’re building cities – really wait until they’re nearly extinct to add handrails? Probably not. All it would take would be one human child falling and, honour be damned, a human city council would be under immense pressure to add safety features. If dwarves are building cities they are probably sufficiently similar in psychology to assume that a similar reaction would occur (see that? That’s abduction again).

At this stage you’d do one of three things. Firstly, you could add handrails to nullify the Plot’s Hole’s cousin: Setting Hole (the adventures just happened to pass through the one place where the handrails have been destroyed and note that in text). Secondly you could make it a point that the dwarves cannot add handrails (or do but they keep being mysteriously destroyed) and are trying to keep their children safely away but they tragically keep slipping away and, er, slipping away anyway – in which case you’ve suddenly developed a new and interesting plot which you can write a story around. Lastly, you can nullify the premise which you find most problematic (for example: dwarves are actually facing an overpopulation crisis and breed like rabbits, so the lack of handrails is a deliberate population curbing method).

 

 

And after all of this you are probably wondering “But what about MAGIC? You said you were going to talk about MAGIC!”.

I did, and I did. Whatever rules you give your system of magic – if it even has a system the characters can understand, given that magic is a liminal force that exists in fiction to make us question what we are incapable of understanding and how to cope with the unknowable – you need to treat magic as if it is just as real in your world as practical things like handrails.

Ultimately, the way to ground magic – the way to make it seem like it actually exists – is to treat it like it actually exists.

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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Methods of Plotting

Plotting. It’s the thing that every amateur novelist on the internet urges you to avoid during the month of November and every writing class tells you must have so carefully worked out, before you start writing, that your outline is more like an abridged version of the story and every time your characters start to develop away from it you have to put them in a metaphorical straightjacket.

A more realistic statement on the matter would be that, while it is necessary to do some basic plotting before you write to avoid your work deteriorating into a mess of “and then”s with nothing to hold them together, the amount of plotting you need to do has no fixed amount. It is ultimately dependent on both the author and the type of story – although in every method it is still true that you should not continually try to force your characters to follow the plot you’ve laid out for them if they insist upon taking you down a different road. For all that they are flaunted about by their adherents as if they are the one true answer to everything (that would be 42) the two extremes of plotting are hardly the only methods available. Ultimately, what method you choose (be it one of these or some other I have failed to catalogue) to plot by, (mostly) before you start writing, depends not only on where you’re starting from, but also what works best for your genre and for you.

 

Roadmap Method: This is the method most commonly used by people who know where they are and where they want to end up (and possibly a few places they’d like to stop at along the way) but aren’t overly concerned with how they get there – and who are therefore inclined to plot as they write, so long as they keep going in the right general direction. It is, as the name suggests, plotting your story as if you were looking at a roadmap (or travelling on a road) and trying to decide the route to take. You know where your car, and story, will be starting from, and you know what place they need to end up. But instead of plotting out the sequence of events before you start writing, or driving, you follow the most logical routes – based on road signs and what the setting allows for, on other traffic and the behaviour of characters, and on the way the streets and shops are laid out and what plot events can occur if you choose to drive by or stop at them. This type of plotting means beginning with a very vague outline, perhaps entirely a few vague ideas in your head, instead of a specific one, and then constantly adjusting (just as you would if you were driving in a new place) to work with the way things pan out. This method requires an author to keep a firm eye on the “road” their story is taking, because it is all too easy to go on excessive detours, because this or that looked interesting, and then find that you have gone completely the wrong way, or must double back, or have been circling a roundabout for three hours …while the rest of traffic tries to figure out if you’re street art or just an idiot.

Conclusion: Some people can write naturally in this method without crashing their story into anything, but for beginner writers who don’t find that it comes naturally it’s probably best saved for later projects (just as rush hour driving in a strange city is best left until later for someone who’s just earned their learners plate). Learners and experienced drivers alike must always keep in mind that every choice of turn, speed, and stop, must help them to get from A to B, else they’re likely to run out of gas or end up with their story driving down a one way street and trying to do an illegal turn. (If you can’t imagine why that would be a bad thing, re-imagine the situation with your readers as very enthusiastically vindictive traffic cops.)

Tapestry Pattern Method: This is a good method for people who like to have lists or plan ahead – as well as for anyone writing for the first time, since its key benefit is that it allows you to keep track of all your plot threads (and where they’re going) without becoming obsessively rigid and stifling the story if it wants to do thing differently. It’s also great for keeping on top of things when you’ve got a lot of different story arcs rising and falling around each other. Unlike the Roadmap Method, the Tapestry Pattern Method means that you work out your plot (and all subplots) before you start writing; like laying out the pattern for a tapestry before you start to weave. Generally speaking, with this method, you write up a chapter list – giving bullet point explanations for what things happen in each chapter – so that you have the frame of the story there in its complete form and can see exactly why each thing happens. This also allows you to rework your plot on the grand scale before you begin so that each particular plot thread gets to arc and fall in the right places, without being left to dangle unwisely long. This is akin to having a pattern to work from – and knowing how much of each type of thread you will need and where to start weaving them in – before you create the tapestry (the story) in its filled in, colourful, complete form. This method, of writing up the chapter list or laying out the patter before you begin, also allows you to do something which truly rigid plotting would not: it allows you to – if necessary or if you made a mistake – miss weaving the weft through some of the warp (or drop a stitch, if you want to use, more common, knitting terminology, instead of weaving) or change the plan of your story slightly because you just can’t fit something somewhere. Even better: it allows you to work out with ease exactly how failing to weave or ignoring a thread, or changing colours, at any one point will alter the entire shape of the story tapestry. This is invaluable; because it means that you stop and work out how to work with it, instead of making one change and then finding out down the line that you’ve made yourself a huge knot because you didn’t factor it in. This also means, in none metaphorical speak, that you don’t merely write up one chapter-by-chapter plot outline and then only look at what each chapter’s section says, but that you re-write the outline as you go along, to compensate for changes you make (allowing you to create a slightly differently patterned tapestry than what you’d originally planned, but avoid ending up with a giant knot or fraying mess).

Conclusion: Tapestry Pattern Method is a good choice for any writer who doesn’t mind planning ahead, but especially for beginner writers and those who have a great many plot threads and character arcs which need to have their page time and pacing carefully monitored. Any writer using this method, however, needs to keep in mind that they are working with fabric and patterns, not hard rules set in stone, and anyone who has trouble changing a plan once it’s set in motion would be advised to treat this method with caution.

Jigsaw Puzzle Method: Unlike the previous two methods, the Jigsaw Puzzle Method is not suitable for any type of story (depending on type of author), but rather is suited to one specific kind of story: those which are inspired by the ending and worked backward. Thus this is the best method for the writing of detective and mystery stories. In this method the author starts out knowing the solution to the puzzle or the end situation of their story – just as a puzzler begins working on a jigsaw puzzle with the complete picture on the puzzle box. Then the author, or puzzler, must take all the individual pieces and figure out how they go together to make that ending or image. As with putting together a jigsaw puzzle, it helps to begin with the frame (or a very rough outline – setting the boundaries of the story). After that, however, the method is not about figuring out the order of things until the end of the process, when the best order for the plot to progress will have naturally revealed itself, but about figuring out how all the different pieces of plot, world, setting, and characterisation fit together. Some will naturally tie into each other (once you know – from the finished image – that character X has something to hide, and possibly how they were hiding it, you will know what clues to must be portrayed of it before its reveal and how that character’s pieces connect to the other pieces around them), but there will be no obligatory order in which to start putting it together (that character’s pieces might all tie into place, so that you know roughly what order their clues get revealed in, but float unattached to the main frame until later – unconnected – work allows you to see where they would fit well and slide them into place). The method, thus, begins by writing up the ending scenario or solution. Then you draw lines backward from each fact or image detail in that ending and writing down the steps required to reach it (and what clues it would leave). You then right up a basic frame (“story begins with detective getting request for aid in mystery”,
detective meets suspects”, “near climax detective is almost murdered”, “detective gathers everyone in a room and explains what went down”). Finally, you jigsaw the various events and clues – taking care to watch how they interlock (what has to come before what, what could trigger or flow into something else, etc) – into that framework until you have a cohesive plot outline which matches the solution or ending image perfectly.

Conclusion: This back to front method is pretty much vital for writing anything with a mystery or puzzle of some kind as the main point, but all the plot-thread-reverse-tracking can be a bit of a headache for those who simply started out knowing where they wanted to end up (came up with the idea for a cool climax or ending first), in which case other methods – such as the Roadmap Method – may be more suitable. The Jigsaw Puzzle Method also requires that the author be able to view the plot in a non-linear fashion, and to move the plot and timeline around to suit the needs of sets of cause and effect which ripple out from the complete solution at the end. While excellent for keeping mysteries from contradicting themselves, it can be a headache for anyone not tied to the restrictions of the puzzle-solving types of genre.

Bricklaying Method: This method is akin to the worldbuilding method of starting from a point of major change in recent history (world, local, or personal history). Compare it to coming across a partially-made garden path, where the brickwork which has been done so far has a distinct pattern to it, but it is abruptly left unfinished and all the materials needed to complete it are sitting to the side: awaiting use. The author, or avid bricklayer, can see what has happened up until now (the bricks already set down in hardened mortar being immovable, each representing some incident or plot point) and can continue on using the same pattern, or alter the pattern, as they please. However, they will always be constrained by the fact that they have only the left over materials to use and so must judge how wise it is to make any given pattern. For example, if the pattern was so far chiefly red bricks with a simple diamond pattern of black bricks worked into it, then the author could add three rows of black only brickwork if they so pleased, but they would likely have none left for the rest of the path (massive action in the middle and then talking only for the rest of the story). This method differs from the Tapestry Pattern Method as there is not pre-laid out pattern etched into the ground for the bricklayer to follow the rest of the way. Instead the bricklayer decides how to direct the path and work the pattern by checking back on what has come before and what options they have left – making it up as they go by analysing and comparing to that which has come before. If the story the path is telling is a personal drama, for instance, a crossing point of two lines of different coloured bricks might represent a pair of characters fighting over some issue, in which case the remaining bricks that sit to the side of the path are each representative of the feelings and arguments those characters might have as a consequence of the fight, and which of those the bricklayer chooses to put down – and in what pattern – decides how, based on the building materials on offer from what came before, the story shall progress.

Conclusion: This method works very well for both those people who like to take stock of what has recently happened and what options are immediately available from that and those who have a visual organisational bent and find it easier to understand their plot by drawing up the lines of events in some artistic rendition of patterned squiggles. The author can use the paper or blank image as the ‘main’ or background bricks their pattern is set into, and then use different colours and shapes to show how the characters and plot points interconnect and what they do. However, for those who do not like to constantly look backward before asking “now what” and/or dislike moving forward without a distinct plan it can be a less than appealing method. Writers using this method should also keep a close eye on how many of each type of “brick” they have left (how many big reveals, new characters, types of plot point, etc, they can get away with).

Obligatory Chess Metaphor Method: Have I mentioned that I hate the cliché old chess metaphor? Never mind. This method is the best for those authors who are trying to plot out a political or strategy-heavy work. In order to use this method successfully, an author has to be able to write without playing any favourites among their characters – and that means treating protagonists and antagonists equally. It works thus: imagine how many sides your story has which are fighting each other (this may be armies, or individuals, or both) and imagine that each one is a different colour and side of a chessboard (this almost inevitably means your imaginary chess set will now be rainbow-hued and possible hexagonal – just go with it). It’s possible that your sides/characters are not all starting with an even number of pieces (which is why, were it slightly better known, a D&D comparison would work better, but oh well). In order to keep track of everything, the author will need to make a timeline as they plot – noting down what each side does at each instance. Now, whichever side instigates the plot takes the first move. The author has to imagine themselves as playing that side of the chess game (white, in this case). After this the author needs to go to their timeline page and write down the “opening play” of Round Zero. Next the author needs to imagine themselves playing each of the other sides of the chess game (we’ll say: black, red, yellow, blue, and green, for this metaphor) and each of those sides gets one move to respond to the white pieces’ move. Now here’s the most important thing: you have to play white as if you’re playing to win, but you also have to play black, red, yellow, blue, and green as if you are playing that side to win. Write down these moves in a line called Round One, under Round Zero. This is where it gets confusing. The author will probably do best to cycle through all the colours/sides in a set pattern for all of the remaining rounds (however many that may be) so that they don’t forget any of them, but each round is played to counter the previous round’s moves (by all the sides) and so if red comes after white in the circuit of playing each side, which the author performs each round, then the author must remember to counter only white’s move from the previous round and not the current move (which, supposedly, is happening at the same time). This also means you have to be ware of moves which could cancel each other out (playing from blue side and putting a rook on one square and then playing as purple and putting a knight on the same “empty” square – next round both sides will need to deal with that clash).

Conclusion: This is an excellent method for those writing politics, plotting (as in being sneaky, not story-plotting), and/or strategy heavy works. However, for it to work effectively the author really must be able to play every side as if they want that side to win and most authors have pre-decided who their heroes and villains are and will rig the game by playing less wisely as their less favoured sides. The key with this method is that you have to accept that your designated hero side might lose if you’re using this method correctly and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is an extremely difficult method to pull off, because you really do have to think every action everyone takes through as if you were playing chess against [as many people as there are characters or sides] at once.

Globetrotting Method: As with worldbuilding before, this method is best used if you have a starting point in the form of a world map and want to figure out your plot from there. This method lends itself to journey focused stories, such as but not limited to; adventures, and tends to follow the basic structure of “I’ve made a really awesome map and named all the places, but [happy place name] is near [evil whatever of doom], I wonder how they handle that? And how does stuff from [place on the left] get to [place on the other side of the map] anyway?”. This, you could argue, isn’t much of a structure at all. But this is the method of plotting for those who love travel and the question of where would be interesting to visit. But author beware: anyone using this method should plan it as if they were genuinely in the shoes of their characters and embarking on a journey (thus considering: best travel route to reach destination, amount of money on hand at the beginning to reach destination, and purpose of travel) else they may drive their readers batty by attempting to visit every place on the map. The map isn’t a checklist. Un-visited places are ripe pickings for sequels. In this case, the map shows you where you are, where you want to go, and what dangers (and other travellers) stand between the start and end. In this way it is very much like the Roadmap Method, but where the Roadmap is a fairly small distance (and a metaphor to boot!), the Globetrotting Method means examining the entire world for an interesting journey and deciding the plot based on actual (not metaphorical) locations and traffic issues, rather than treating the roadways as a guideline for possible routes the story might take. In truth the Globetrotting Method is more akin to the Tapestry Pattern Method, as you begin by deciding what would be an interesting journey/nice pattern, and then make a list of how your plot goes from A to B in a step by step form. It’s just that where the Tapestry Pattern Method can take any type of plot and leaves room for adjusting the plotting and chapter list later, the Globetrotting Method creates a travel checklist “go to A, go through B to C and try not to get mugged there then head to D” (the plan the characters have for their travels) and then corrects it to what will actually happen “go to A, go around B because of confusion with guards at A, go to C and get mugged, pit stop at E to regain funds, go to D by way of M” – all according to what the map makes possible. Then these two alternate journey plans are used as a plot outline or chapter list which is followed from beginning to end.

Conclusion: This is a good method for those who like travel stories and exploration. However, it comes with the risk of trying to go everywhere or taking stupid paths if the map itself is not firmly adhered to. It also comes with the binding issue that maps – once complete and making coherent sense – are damn near impossible to change and therefore hugely constrict the number of options an author has for altering their course or getting out of a corner they’ve written themselves into. If you have created an awesome world and you don’t have a story to tell in it yet, then plotting from a map as starting point can be a great way of developing a story – but you have to keep in mind all of the realities of such a journey.

Central Object Method: This is the last method I will list, but is hardly the least of them. The Central Object Method is the method of plotting you want if you’re starting from an idea for an object or item (which could be a location such as a Temple of Doom, or a rare object like a Crystal Skull, or just a casino vault with lots of money). As you can guess, this method leans heavily toward action, heist, and adventure plots, because the plot is built out – both forward and backward – from a stationary object. Once the author has envisioned an object (which will be the objective of the major characters) they will have to decide where it is. The plot will thus be build backward (how did the main characters get into the room with it, how did they reach the room/cave, how did they get on the plane which they used to reach the room, how did they get to wherever they got the idea to find the item and left for the plane from, where were they before they got the idea to go find the item, by taking the plane to the room and the item inside it). But it will, be this before or after building backward, also be built forward (now that the character is in the room with the item how do they get it, how do they get out of the room, how do they get back to the plane/other mode of transportation, and how do they get back to where they started or where they will end).

Conclusion: This method is very much a start from the middle sort of deal, but for stories which are built on physical items, rather than emotional entanglements, it can be a very good method of plotting. It is important, however, to give equal attention to both the building forward and the building backward, else you might end up with a good beginning and middle of your work, only to have your main character do something insane like survive a nuclear blast in a refrigerator because you paid less attention to building out in that direction. It is also important to remember that either the characters must go in a different direction as they go to the item and away with it, or there must be a strong parallel of movement in both directions (go through the same locations with different plot actions within them).

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in On Writing

 

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The Neat-Complex Axis

So despite having called this blog Inspector Faerie I seem to be doing very little actual inspecting of faerie and folklore. Yet again I find myself too bored of or too tired to write another bestiary type post – to either continue on by examining more traditional vampires (Strigoi, Mullo, etc) or to keep the bestiary posts going with other folkloric creatures (Nuckelavee, Djinn, etc) until I can find the energy to get back to finishing the traditional vampire series – even though that is what I intended to do. Does anyone actually care whether or not I keep going with that? Either way; have another decidedly not folklore-focused post:

The Neat-Complex Axis

I had a conversation a while back wherein I tried to articulate this and – much to my frustration – the person I was conversing with assumed I was talking about quality and could not be made to understand that this was not about quality, not about depth, and not about genre. It’s about form. So maybe I should get around to actually saying what it is I’m talking about…

In my experience people tend to define stories as falling into certain categories which are made by two conditions: they are separated as binaries (it is one or it the other) and whichever categorical divide is made it is always the only category division used (a book is either judged as Deep Vs Shallow OR Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, but never both). Furthermore, while genre is divided into more than two categories, books are typically divided as Humorous Vs Serious if such a division is made outside of genre description (which it should be, given that a humorous sci-fi would require very different framework than a serious one and even horror can split into humorous and serious). I found, as I struggled to articulate what it was that made me like one book but not another, that these binary categories (Deep Vs Shallow, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Humorous Vs Serious) were both insufficient to describe the difference I was trying to express and, worse, many carried baggage (Deep Vs Shallow is often wrongly equated with quality – a book doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful to be good quality writing) which made it impossible to use them to express what I was trying to say and which made it hopeless to attempt to repurpose them. Consequently, I had to come up with new terms to describe what I was trying to say.

Now, I assume that people who academically study fiction have already got terms for this – but I’m “just” a writer: that makes me a layman when it comes to writing, as far as academia is concerned and as I tend to talk to other writers rather than those who’ve made an academic study of writing I needed terms for laymen. (If anyone reading this does professionally – whether as a teacher in schools or an academic making a study – make a living off telling people that authors of other works meant/was inspired by/was using as a metaphor [X] in their work when the author themselves has explicitly stated that their works meant/were inspired by/was using as a metaphor [Y] kindly quit lying to your students/readers by insisting that you as the academic or teacher know better what the author meant than the fucking author! Also, if the author hasn’t stated what something meant/etc, don’t put words in their mouth by saying “the author meant” or “this represents” say “the author meant [y] but it also works as a representation of [X]” or “to me it represents” or “it is generally thought to…” Tolkien, for instance, stated emphatically that The Lord of the Rings was not about World War 1 – or 2 – but people still teach in schools that it was! Dear people who claim that “The death of the author” excuses claiming that the author meant something they never said they meant: you are not fucking telepaths; you don’t know what the author meant and you sure as hell don’t know what they meant better than they did – stop talking in fucking absolutes and telling authors they don’t know what their own work represents!) But I digress. Mostly because it pisses me off that some people in this world make a living off claiming to know better than the author of a work what the author meant or intended, but I still digress.

All genres – no matter how tightly they cling to reality – are essentially not reality. Drama set in as real as possible reality still ultimately create something which is not real and must do a tiny, tiny, bit of worldbuilding – even if it merely a town or a house on a street and the people who live in it. The choices the author makes build how that barely-alternate Earth works. Meanwhile, all the Speculative Fiction genres take worldbuilding to the other extreme and sometimes create entire galaxies and new laws of physics. No matter what genre, though, they all bound by several axis of form: Humorous Vs Serious, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Deep Vs Shallow, and – as I’ve come to call it – Neat Vs Complex. It occurs to me, as I write this, that I ought to explain precisely what I mean with the earlier terms (and why I call them separate axes) before I move on to explaining that concept which I had no words for until I came up with Neat Vs Complex.

Tone; Humorous VS Serious: I must repeat, at this point, that this is about form rather than genre. Every genre (except comedy and parody, of course) can be divided into those which take a humorous tone to the proceedings and those which take everything very seriously (which is not to say that either is of lesser quality or that to be humorous a work must be a comedy). This is a matter of how a story treats itself – does the work take itself seriously with everything being treated with a grim solemn attitude or is it able to laugh gently at what happens with in, giving the work a light and gentle touch even when it portrays tragedy? This, I must emphasise, is not the same as Deep Vs Shallow – both Humorous and Serious can be Deep or Shallow. A Deep and Humorous work is called a Satire, while a Shallow and Humorous work is Slapstick; a Deep and Serious work is filled with layers of meaning and musing which are held within a frame of gravitas because the story is treated with the same solemn weight as reality, while a Shallow and Serious work takes itself very sombrely – treating the events inside with the same weight as reality – but is a gentle adventure which does not drag one many layers into the world and does not focus on heavy topics. All four of these, of course, can be written well or written poorly. Humorous Vs Serious is, essentially, a question of whether or not the story (prose, if not characters) is able to admit that the stakes are not that high because ultimately nothing is serious as all is fiction (faintly amused even at its most grim moments), or if the story takes itself very seriously and treats everything with gravitas (unwilling to laugh even at its absurdities).

Quality; Good Writing Vs Bad Writing: Every genre, yes even porn, can be written well or written poorly. This axis is a technical one and has nothing to do with the tone, or meaning, or encapsulation of a story. This is the axis of Twilight VS Literacy. This is the axis of “is the plot full of holes?”, “what the fuck is that comma doing there‽”, “those characters are pure cardboard”, “nice word but not the right word”, “this prose needs tightening up”, and “that doesn’t make any sense, damn you, Mary-Sue”. Quality of writing cannot be judged on genre, on depth, on tone, or on encapsulation – it is purely a matter of the technical skill of writing. This axis is, therefore, entirely unrelated to the others. I mention it only because otherwise people misunderstand and assume that because they believe things must be deep and serious to be worthwhile that Deep Vs Shallow is about quality – which it is not.

Layering; Deep Vs Shallow: Imagine a pond. It’s in your backyard and it’s just big enough for a few little fish to live and for you to occasionally dip your feet in (no higher than your ankles else you hit the bottom and get mud between your toes) and cool down comfortably. This is Shallow writing – the world and characters created are not flat (like a slick of raindrops on stairs) but only gently immersive: you cannot dive into this world, nor can you be pulled out to sea and drowned. It is more than just a surface – it is not like the flat slipperiness of droplets on tiles and 2D writing – but there are not many levels of meanings. Characters on this level are 3D enough but the reader is not required to delve into their psyche – the reader can follow along next to, rather than in, the believable character without having to immerse themselves in the character’s thought patterns. The world is gently formed; it is not a cardboard cut-out but it is also not filled with a rich history and unending locations and cultures. The Shallow story is not one to forget the world in but it is safe and comfortable and good for relaxing. The midpoint of this axis is not a pond: it is a swimming pool. You can swim up and down, dive in and dunk your head completely under the surface of the story, but at all times you can see the edges and it does not take more than a slight kick to break the surface again and return yourself to reality. There is more history, but not an entire history, and characters can be followed within but gently so. It is big enough to play in, but ultimately it is still mostly safe. The other end of the axis is the ocean. This is Deep writing – the world is layers upon layers of histories and meanings. The reader is immersed in the character’s psyches. Although it is a wonderful and seemingly unending thought-world to explore it is also easy, very terrifyingly easy, to be sucked under, or to lose sight of shore completely, and drown in the world because it is all too much. This axis, I cannot repeat enough, is not about quality – it is about layers of world and about how immersed the reader wishes to be. A light read while in the airport or waiting for a meeting is a gently refreshing thing – a story which you can just dip your feet in, because it is Shallow. But if you want to completely lose yourself while you read and be immersed in a richly layered world you want a Deep (and typically fucking heavy) read, which may well leave you questioning your existence months later. Neither kind of work is less than the other: they both have their time and place.

 

So if that’s what I mean by Humorous VS Serious (tone), Good VS Bad (quality) and Deep Vs Shallow (layering), what – you may wonder – the heck was I struggling to explain when I came up with Neat Vs Complex? Well, I’d found that more than tone, layering or genre (but not quality, quality is the deciding factor in the “do I read this?” question) it was how, for lack of a better term, the story was or was not encapsulated that made it enjoyable for me.

Encapsulation; Neat Vs Complex: Imagine two little model villages. On model is standing loose on the table, but the other is encased in a snow globe. Apart from turning it upside-down to make the “snow” drift from point A to point B (like reading a book from start to finish) there is nothing I – or anything else outside – can do to affect that little village. Nothing comes in and nothing goes out because it is an encapsulated world all of its own: everything it needs and everything that has any effect is within the constraints of that little globe. It is, in a word, Neat. Nothing from outside can come in and make it messy or complicated. All the relevant characters are within the constraints of the globe, the nearby area of the world, all of the major plot events can be reached without leaving the village and everything – essentially – which is relevant or important to the plot is already secure within that globe. There are no random occurrences from outside; a cat could run through the other model village and knock things over, but inside the snow globe no cats can mess things up. There are no loose plot threads in such a Neat work – if there’s a prophecy you can be assured that it will refer to characters you already know and who all happen to live within the same country, or city, and who are conveniently both alive at the same time and aware of each other. Prophecies also make sense. Heroes fighting for the safety of their spaceship never need to worry about how the politics of something happening to their trading partners on the other side of the galaxy will affect them because if it was important those trading partners would be within the “village” of the hero. The romantic heroine seeking her true love never needs to go that far to find him or fails and the other potential love interest is conveniently shuffled to the side somehow (and there is no “he still has custody of the kids” or other such problems standing in the way of the plot). The murderer who the detective must track down is always someone in the area and on their suspects list. The villain is always defeated by the one who it most suits the audience’s sense of justice to do so. Good and Evil are politely separated into two teams and proceed to duke it out. It’s Neat. Some people like Neat – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Neat’s not the only way to write a story. The opposite, which I elected to avoid calling “messy” for fear of giving it a negative bent, is Complex. The opposite of Complex I have called Neat because (like “messy”) it would have come across negatively if I called it “uncomplicated”.

Complex fiction is what happens when Setting, rather than Plot, is king of the story. Neat stories may be Deep with layers and mention many historical facts of their world, but these facts ultimately are either only mentioned because they are the key to wherever plot point C is hidden or in order to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot alone. Complex stories, on the other hand, don’t need to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot because the plot-train with the characters will be happily chugging through the countryside when BAM it gets derailed by a passing herd of history.

…Okay, that might not have been the best metaphor. Consider it this way: in a Neat story the hero with the need to avenge a relative will be the one who kills the Dark Overperson, which is awfully convenient given that no matter how many people the Overperson must have pissed off it is the one we readers are following who takes up action and gets the satisfaction of just revenge. That is, as mentioned, awfully convenient – this convenience is what makes it Neat – but the audience gets to feel along with the hero and see him do exactly what they’ve been hoping he will do. In a Complex story, on the other hand, the hero with the need to avenge a relative may find that someone else the Dark Overperson’s pissed off – who the hero has possibly never heard of before this point – has already done the Overperson in, which removes the “isn’t that convenient for the plot” issue because it is more realistic (reality is messy and complicated) but also robs the audience of the chance to see the dramatic Hero VS Overperson fight they (and the hero) had been anticipating. Done badly the first is trite and cliché while the second is deus ex machina. But done well both are perfectly valid stories. It’s just that different people like different levels of complexity. It comes down to the question of whether one likes the satisfaction of a realistic plot or a tidy plot.

Okay, so let’s look at some examples (as if this post wasn’t long enough already). I’m only going to look at Good Quality Writing for this to make it extra clear that I am not saying any of these differing forms are lesser than the others, because they’re not. So, ta-da! Examples:

Humorous, Deep and Complex: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is unmistakeably humorous in tone, is made up of layer after layer of (not always relevant) worldbuilding and the cast is constantly being side-swiped by unexpected problems and solutions from all through the deep layers of worldbuilding which happen to have nothing else to do with the main characters’ plots than that they (sometimes literally) crashed into each other, making the setting very complex. It also sometimes has not so subtle philosophical and political points buried in there (“they have to vote for a [corrupt] lizard or the wrong lizard might win”, anyone?) but that’s a different definition of deep than is used here.

Humorous, Shallow and Complex: Monty Python’s Flying Circus is also without a doubt a humorous work, and although it sometimes gets a touch political (again not the definition of deep herein used) it ultimately does not build layer upon layer of character’s psyches, of history, or of cultural worldbuilding. Meanwhile the surreal work is based on the principle of making it impossible to know what is coming next and each little sketch’s plot has no guarantee that it will be solved by the tidy inclusion of what has come before and not, say, interrupted by a general who insists that it must end because it is silly, or a cartoon foot, or the audience, or just wander off into another skit. It’s complex.

Humorous, Deep and Neat: The Discworld Series is unabashedly pun-filled and humour to its core – even the more serious later books – and is filled with layer upon layer of history, geography, cultures and character’s psyches (admittedly, the history is somewhat skewed on account of history having been broken in the past and the history monks having to patch it up, but in general…). The world, although Deep, is also a Neat world – despite how astonishingly bizarre it can seem because it turns many clichés on their heads. The Discworld runs on an element called Narrativium; meaning that plotting itself is a force of nature in that world and that the world will reshape itself to the plot at times over the plot being reshaped by the world. Although the Discworld can seem like an utterly mad place, the heroes who solve the problems are usually the same heroes who found out about the problems and, when not going to the moon or switching places with a kangaroo in what is definitely not Australia, the heroes typically do not get involved with things too far away …unless, of course, the majority of the plot takes place there. It’s a Neat world – Vimes solves the problems the Patrician tricked him into getting involved with, Granny Weatherwax uses the same tricks subtly shown earlier to defeat the most recent threat to Lancre, and calling an orang-utan a “monkey” results in pain; just as warned.

Humorous, Shallow and Neat: The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best and longest amusing comedic plays in the modern English language. It is all about the wit and for all that the characters take things very seriously, the work itself does not and thus it is humorous. Although time has added extra layers to the work, as happens to all works set in what their authors viewed as the “now”, the play has very little in the way of depths – the characters are fairly straightforward (with uncomplicated inner thoughts), the culture is precisely as it was in reality with no layers added and no histories created, so the reader or playgoer does not have to do more than dunk their feet in a pond which reflects their reality. The play is also extremely Neat: the mysterious parentage of Earnest (who is not called Earnest) is revealed by Prism who (conveniently) works for him (rather than say, having left the country after misplacing him as an infant, which most people would have!) and (conveniently) he is revealed to be the brother of Earnest (who is also not called Earnest) who is his closest friend (how convenient) and (conveniently) makes him a suitable match for the woman he wants to marry. It wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t so convenient.

Serious, Deep and Complex: A Song of Ice and Fire is a work which takes itself seriously. There is nothing amusing about the fact that humanity is too busy being corrupt and at war for petty things while a potentially world-ending force goes near unchecked. The set up could have been played for laughs, but instead it focuses on the tragedy and the gravity of the situation. The world is unquestionably Deep: the history of the entire world is mapped out and has affects on the plot, characterisation and cultures. The map is not merely filled in at a few key points, but a complete world geography which interacts. The cultures are shown through stories, sayings, and a whole variety of behaviours – and each culture is fleshed out, with its own take on the history of the world. This world (Planatos?) is also unquestionably Complex: there is no deus ex machina to rescue the hero from being murdered, those who seem to be set up to have the big dramatic duel to the death so that the more heroic can vanquish the worse while the audience cheers for them never happens, characters long, cunning plans are thrown out the window (pardon the phrase) when their legendary fighter dies of circumstances brought about by a minor injury, and minor characters turn up all the time having been forgotten by or having never met the heroes (term used loosely) to pursue their own goals with no regard for the viewpoint characters’. Oh, yeah, and prophecies are obscure little buggers which sometimes outright fail to happen and the meaning of which no one can agree on. It’s entirely possible, give the sort of world it is, that the guy who thought he was the saviour and then thought his son was and then died IS going to turn out to be the saviour and the world will be even more screwed because he’s dead. It’s messy and it’s realistic – complex to the core.

Serious, Shallow and Complex: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes may seem to be the odd one out here, but as I have said before this is about form not genre. Doyle’s writings, presented as Watsons (and Holmes’, on occasion) do take themselves as seriously as any real criminal investigation would. The world, however, is a Shallow one – like with Wilde’s play, the setting is a mirror to reality in which the reader may comfortably soak their feet rather than risking diving in and being washed away as Martin’s readers are. The characterisation is deep enough, but still counts under Shallow because the people presented are not so different or deeply investigated that the reader risks losing themselves in the characters. The works are unmistakeably Complex, as Doyle wrote before Agatha Christie set the standard for mysteries as “logic puzzles for the reader to solve set in literary form” and so Holmes – unlike just about every detective after him – is free to run about the city looking for the connection between a lost Christmas fowl and a jewel theft, to solve cryptography issues without allowing the readers to see all of the symbols, to have his investigations crashed by someone he didn’t know about looking into the same (or another) mystery, and, yes, to get the answer totally and utterly wrong.

Serious, Deep and Neat: The Lord of the Rings is one of the great epic fantasies of the English language and although it purports to be in a fantastical setting it treats itself with seriousness befitting the grandeur of the events unfolding – and rightly so, as Tolkien was in favour of treating fantasy with dignity and depth. Depth is something which Tolkien’s world (both Arda and the Undying Lands) has in abundance – with culture in every phrase, saying, song and random burst of un-translated Quenya (or is it Sindarin? Maybe both). The history is rich and reaches literally back to the creation of the world, the geography nearly complete (the East, alone, was a little vague) and the characters are immersive in nature because they are so much part of their world. It is, ultimately, a Neat world, though, because (possibly because Eru was nudging things but given his deistic hands-off approach highly unlikely) it has an awful lot of convenient situations – Isildur’s heir happens to turn up at just the right time, the one ring happens to be found by the right sort of person at the right time and handed over to the next right sort of person to handle the mission of its destruction (conveniently) just before the bad guys can work out where their glittery weapon of mass destruction is and ultimately, every character who is important is one the main characters get introduced to at some point and who are of some high regard (there are no “random” murders by common people with a reason to fuck things up, for instance).

Serious, Shallow and Neat: The Harry Potter Series takes itself seriously (perhaps more than it needs to because, seriously, how is it up to the one British teenager to stop Voldemort else the world is doomed when he’s so far only been a threat to Britain, France and bits of eastern Europe? There’s plenty of other continents worth of wizards who could fight him once he became a threat to them – not to mention normal humans who would probably drop a few nukes if Britain came under control of a mad dictator and started attacking with unknown super weapons/magic, would horcruxes really survive that? But I’m getting ahead of myself). Although the Potterverse offers up a great deal of facts about the history of wizards, the majority of the history and culture is a reflection of the modern world and the world of a few hundred years before – Christmas is celebrated by people who learn at eleven how to perform what the bible counts as miracles, the people are essentially just modern people in robes and the historical facts, while interesting to a fan, have no connection or bearing to each other or the story …nor any affect on either. The geography is …splotchy. London and Scotland are where they belong and that’s about it. It is a slightly deeper pond, but at most you can put your legs in up to the mid-calves, rather than just the ankles. It is still Shallow and comfortable, there is no great effort involved as the world is not truly immersive (everything in the magical world is current real society with a few trappings – such as the four house school system, etc). This does not make the world any less fun, but it does make the world non-immersive and Shallow. The world is also, quite undeniably, Neat (both as in cool and as in tidy). The prophecy is fairly straightforward and all players in it, conveniently, know about each other, grew up in the same greater city area (Surrey and London) and went to the same school. All of the plot items needed are to be found in dramatically meaningful locations (conveniently so) and characters duel to the death against plot-appropriate enemies (even if some revenges are unexpected – what happened to Bellatrix, for instance, was Neat in a different way than expected but still Neat). No random victim the hero doesn’t know even tries to put a sniper’s bullet through the back of an enemy’s head, no external politics (that includes muggles) come into play and, as I said before, it’s awfully convenient that the only person who can defeat the Dark Lord is a local boy instead of, say, pissed off foreign governments. It’s Neat. The story, although set in Britain, is self-contained to the point that the magical world of Harry Potter might as well be alternate Britain in a snow globe for all that the rest of the world affects it.

 

Some people like Complex worlds and find Neat worlds to be too simplistic and convenient. Some people like Neat worlds and find Complex worlds to be too chaotic and messy. Some people like both. And some people don’t read fiction. Nevertheless, liking or disliking based on encapsulation (Complex or Neat) is very different than liking or disliking something because of its quality (Good or Bad), or layering (Deep or Shallow), or tone (Humorous or Serious), and is worth having words for, because it makes explaining why you like one but not the other of two well written works in the same genre.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Magic Trick Traits

So for those of you, if any, who’ve been hoping for another bestiary post; I’m sorry. I meant to write one, I even got started on it, but they take a lot of research and I’m really tired at the moment. It’s easier to write On Writing rants because I keep most of that information in my head. Also, I’m open to ideas if anyone would like a rant/would like to read my thoughts on a particular subject.

 

This week’s (weeks? Bugger I’m getting slow at this) rant is brought to you by my irritation with how often characters’ skills and traits are treated as easily switched-out accessories (the ones which flash in and out of existence like a bunny in a magician’s top hat). These “Magic Trick Traits”, for lack of a better term, are really unhealthy for a story and, frankly, they drive readers and viewers so far up the wall that they’re standing on the freaking ceiling. Frankly, I think T.V. series are probably to blame for this one, given that most shows on the telly are written by an ever changing set of writers – many of whom have never seen the show they are writing for and none of whom have time to read all the episode scripts. Given that only some shows are wise enough to have an open file for all writers that lists the basic skills and traits of each character, this is somewhat unavoidable for overworked, underpaid screenwriters in television. It’s decidedly NOT unavoidable in other forms of writing, yet it all too often turns up there anyway. So whether you’re trying to mitigate the problem or avoid it all together, please consider the following:

 

1. Skills and traits shouldn’t appear out of nowhere. Seriously – your character is not a magic trick. The audience will not applaud when something turns up out of nowhere. In fact, it’s likely to tick them off. I can’t even begin to list the number of stories, both professional works in all media and fanfics, in which characters got new traits and skills applied to them haphazardly whenever the plot needed something and working with what was already there would have required effort. Inevitably, the result was that the audience (and by that I mean that other people complained, not just me) would become irritated as they viewed the character as a whole while the writers viewed characters more by instalment. That is to say that when someone takes in a story, be it reading or watching, they accept the illusion that it is real and therefore the fiction that a character is consistent – if a character couldn’t fight off an attacker in chapter one but in chapter four is revealed to be a black belt they will cry foul. Comparatively, the author – or authors – of a work are viewing it from the technical side and therefore are less likely to cry foul at random additions because they are consciously aware that they are creating the character as they go rather than telling the story of someone who exists as a complete being (the way the viewers see it).

Here’s an example to show why it doesn’t work. Um, spoiler alert? In Star Trek: Enterprise they tried to go back to the TOS way of having the main seven cast be divided into the main three (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) and the four secondary characters (Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, Scotty) but in Enterprise the back up four (Reed, Sato, Phlox and Travis) got far less screen time than the TOS secondary quartet. In fact, Reed was the only one who really got much of a personality (and worse, the main three – Archer, T’Pol and Trip – were the main characters primarily so they could be the love triangle rather than say because they were interesting or competent). Then, in the last season, it was revealed that Reed was actually a secret agent for Section 31, or (to translate out of Trekkie) they had JAMES FREAKING BOND on the secondary cast for years and he was never one of the main three. And worse, they barely did anything with it after the reveal. There were a few episodes in which the secret agents had a complicated (and really badly put together – as in “how are these people even secret agents” bad) and other than that: nothing. Yet there were a huge number of incidents wherein being a secret agent would have, or should have, be at least hinted at before and it really screwed up a lot of the believability of the world because a Section 31 agent should have been able to solve a lot of earlier plotlines in half the time but just …didn’t. That’s how it looks to the audience when additional skills and traits are dropped on a character with no foreshadowing – it looks like the earlier story is absurd. Now, from a writer’s point of view that’s not fair because they didn’t know ahead of time their character was going to turn out to be a secret agent, but that’s the point. You NEED to know ahead of time. You NEED to build reveals like that off things that have come before, because if you don’t it won’t matter how many good reasons you have from the technical side of writing: your audience will get annoyed and assume you’re an idiot.

2. If you have to pull them out of nowhere, make sure they make sense. I’ll grant that sometimes you work with a medium – like television or comic strips – where you can’t be sure you (as the writer) know everything about a character from the start or where you’ve got a team of writers and no time to go back and research everything, so you have no choice but to pull something out of nowhere. But here’s the thing: when you have the choice you should ALWAYS choose to avoid Magic Trick Traits. So, here you are, writer for some reason unable to pull some trick or trait out from previous scenes, standing before an audience who are ready with the rotten tomatoes and desperately in need of some sort of prop – but the props department is busy – and so you pull a rabbit out of your hat. That wouldn’t be so terrible, except that you didn’t have a hat on stage with you either. The audience isn’t going to applaud you for getting a rabbit out of a hat-from-nowhere; they’re going to want to know why you didn’t pull the rabbit out of the sleeve of the coat you were wearing or, better yet, a playing card from the sleeve of your coat. That, to them, would have made sense.

Or, to give a more applicable example, when you need to pull a new trick or trait out of your arse, made damn sure you’re applying the right sort of trait to the right sort of person. If you have a tomboyish princess, a farm hand and a jester on an adventure and suddenly need one of them to save them from an attacking beast, it makes a heck of a lot more sense for princess tomboy to know enough about proper fighting with weapons and use the wood axe or hunting bow to save them than for the farm hand to do that or for the tomboy princess to develop random magic powers and “tame” the beast or for the jester to do either of the above. This is because the tomboy princess is the most likely to have learned to fight, given that nobles did not typically allow farm hands to handle real weapons and would be more likely to cave for a princess than a peasant, while jesters are typically safer if they are “harmless” and magic powers from nowhere is always a bad idea. (If the jester pulls out a jesting trick to scare it off, that’s not even a Magic Trick Trait, that’s a trait from previously established traits and the sort of thing you want your characters doing). To compare to the metaphor from earlier; a tomboy princess who can fight is like pulling a card out of a sleeve which is already on stage – the set up is there and the item/trait fits the set up and character. Meanwhile the farmhand with secret sword skills is like pulling a rabbit out of a sleeve that was already on stage (yes there’s set up there but the item doesn’t fit) and the princess with sudden magic powers from nowhere is like pulling a rabbit out of a top hat which also wasn’t on stage (even if the rabbit fits with the hat, the hat/set up comes out of nowhere).

3. If you can; go back and foreshadow. Now, if you’re not writing something that is published in increments, like a webcomic or a television show, you have the chance to go back and foreshadow the skill from nowhere before you send your work out into the big bad world. DO THAT. If you’ve gotten most of the way through writing a book and discover you need your character to rock-climb their way to safety but have never even implied they know how to do that, go back and change a café-talking scene into a talking-while-rock-climbing-for-a-hobby scene. Or put a few rock climbing competition trophies in the description of your character’s bedroom. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it stops your audience from trying to tear YOUR hair out in frustration because they don’t appreciate random new deus ex machina being dropped in willy-nilly to save the day. Now, this also means you have to think about how having this trait will have affected your character earlier – if they got out of somewhere by other means when they could have climbed: why didn’t they climb? Or why don’t they use those other means later? Want to stick with the climb? Okay. So they climb out rather than more complicated means and therefore don’t run into the guard and …oh dear, would you look at that: the string of events has changed so much that they’re never in the original rock climbing debacle in the first place. Good. This means you were paying attention as you re-plotted and added that trait. That means you aren’t giving your characters traits that – like a magic trick – last for one scene and no longer. That’s good. Unless a trait is shown as being learned or lost (painter goes blind, to give a very blunt example) during the story, the character should be able to do it consistently the whole way through – not just when it’s convenient for the author to get help them escape from or keep them in trouble.

4. If you can’t foreshadow; pick up past plot threads and tie them in. Or take incidents and relate them to this new thing so that in hindsight it looks like the person actually was using their skill earlier or had good reason not to. Either way, once you’ve added a Magic Trick Trait you need to stabilise it – to tie it to the rest of the story so it’s not just some random puff of smoke floating by and obscuring things without ever truly affecting them. This is, again, more something which should be done in incremental fiction rather than fiction which can be edited and redrafted before publication. A book will go through many drafts before publication, a film or play many re-writes of script and a fanfic can be re-drafted even as it is published chapter by chapter. But it’s harder to do that with a webcomic and it’s impossible to do it with a television series. So sometimes the best you can do is make sure to anchor this floaty new trait to things that have come before – to take a moment to go over past events and explain how it relates to them.

For the sake of clarity, let us keep with the example of a character suddenly being revealed as a secret agent, but drop the specificity of the Star Trek example. A character is revealed suddenly, well into a story, to be a secret agent. There isn’t time for the author to give lots of spy related adventures or emotional drama of broken trust between characters before the story ends, so it does feel like it comes completely out of the blue. The unwise writer will allow this to stand, possibly making no further mention whatsoever; even in the climax when mad spy skills would be damn useful, and so the whole mess becomes an ugly Magic Trick Trait – there one minute, gone the next. The wise writer, on the other hand, throws in a few one or two line conversational moments wherein the suddenly-a-spy character reveals that some of the apparent lucky coincidences (but not plot holes – there shouldn’t be any plot holes if you’re doing your job right) were neither lucky, nor coincidences, but them working behind the scenes using spy skills. This gets around the “why didn’t you do that earlier you arsehole?!?” reaction the audience will have, although done clumsily it can seem very contrived. A simple joke by a character chapters or episodes later about whether it’s wise to tell personal problems to a spy who might have to make a report on them keeps the new trait from disappearing as if it never was, and that is important. If the spy was friendly to another character at first and then drifted away without explanation, they might mention that they were feeling them out for recruitment and decided against it and suddenly the never explained has an explanation and is no longer dangerously close to a plot hole (a plot dent?). Whatever the skill or trait, whatever character gains it, one basic rule still stands: the more unlikely the introduction of the trait (such as out-of-nowhere-ness) the more often you have to reference and use it in the rest of the plot to keep it from ruining everything like a hit-and-run incident on a quiet street.

5. If you’re willing to be inventive you don’t need to add new traits whenever you’ve written yourself into a corner. Seriously. Let’s go back to the princess, farmhand and jester example for a moment. How many of you would never have thought of having the jester scare off the danger by being a jester? I can’t see through your computer screens for a show of hands, but if that question was applied to the writing world at large the answer would have been: far, far too many. Unlike a tomboy princess or farmhand suddenly showing off never-before-mentioned fighting skills or magical powers, a jester being a jester is not a case of deus ex machina or Magic Trick Traits. It’s a case of being inventive and, frankly, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than yet another inexplicable-sword-fight or glow-y powers of authorial interference episode. When you can’t rely on just adding something new, and hoping the sparkly newness distracts from the fact that you couldn’t figure out how to rescue your own characters from the mess you got them into, you are forced to get more creative and that’s GOOD. Being creative means telling interesting stories: audiences like interesting stories. Yet another blah-blah-blah-Magic-Trick-blah-blah just means they can tune it out and return when what is supposed to be a more interesting than average moment is over. It means they can easily confuse it with the ten million other stories which did the exact same thing.

When the Apollo 13 was falling apart in space and they needed to solve enough problems to get home, mission command didn’t help figure out a solution for them by bringing in things they didn’t have in space with them – they never said “well, we can get you home but you’ll need three spare rockets, four more rolls of duct tape than you have and a cow”. They solved the problem with what they had. If an author finds themselves in the position of apparently having written themselves into a corner, the “if only I had four more rolls of duct tape and a cow” thought may be the most prominent, but that is the train of thought which leads to Magic Trick Traits (there one moment, forgotten the next) and deus ex machina. You should never get on that train of thought. Instead you should glare at the mess you’ve made and jury-rig a workable wagon of thought from what you’ve got – even if that means putting in a lot of effort and getting sweating dragging that damn wagon across the plains of thinking until you reach solution station. When you’re forced to find a solution for your characters with only what you’ve already put in the story, you get a better and far more interesting story. Yes, it takes more work. But here’s the thing: writing is work – it’s not easy and it isn’t meant to be. Put the rabbit and the top hat back on the shelf and let the story shine.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2016 in On Writing

 

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