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Dense Descriptions and Descriptive Density

I’m really overworked right now (and it’s not as people are desperately waiting for me to publish these) so I’m switching to putting up new posts fortnightly.

 

We all know the phrase purple prose. (If you aren’t included in “all” it means prose descriptions so convoluted and ornate that they intrude upon the story, render comprehension difficult, and often actually mean nothing or involve malapropisms and contradictory descriptions. In other words: it’s too complicated and fluffy for utility of writing.) Many of us have heard the phrase beige prose. (It’s overly simple prose. In other words: it’s too barren and brief for utility of writing.)  While both of those extremes of descriptive quantity are undesirable in writing, quality writing can be filled with or sparse with descriptions without being either of those unwelcome colours. It’s all about density.

No, not as in: being stupid. Nor as in: being difficult to follow due to being closely packed with ideas or complexities of style. Well, a little like the latter. But mostly as in: mass per unit volume.  Mass here meaning, well; meaning, and unit volume being: per word.

This is because, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, not all descriptive text is created equal. It’s possible to write pages and pages of description which are utterly worthless because they, ultimately, signify nothing, and it’s possible to write one word of description which is so evocative that it gives the readers one hell of a punch in the gut.

For example, which of these descriptions works the best?

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said. She was guilty. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she bewailed dejectedly. There were no words for the crushing anguish of guilt which filled her heart like frozen water sinking a broken ship. (Description word count: 24)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. She blinked rapidly, holding back tears, but held her head high – as if that would prevent drowning in grief. (Description word count: 24)

Okay, so none of them are particularly brilliant, given that I came up with them in under a minute, but they illustrate the point.

Option one is Beige Prose; there is no indication of the feelings until they are bluntly, and emotionlessly, stated.

Option two is Purple Prose; not only does trying to invoke the Titanic and its friends detract from the emotional resonance of the scene, the sentence also mixes its metaphors (something that fills as it crushes), and – worst of all – it tells the readers absolutely nothing about how that particular character feels and acts.

Option three isn’t the greatest sentence in the world, but it avoids both the others’ pitfalls, showing rather than telling and, although it has the same amount of words as option one, the description of action and the inference of pain from it tells the reader more.

Option four, meanwhile, has the same amount of words as option two, but they don’t just sit there looking pretty – each word tells the reader something. The emotional situation option two takes a confused metaphor or two and more than twenty words to explain, option four gives in eight (and adds to it characterisation – she’s drowning in guilt but trying not to and holding her emotions in) which leaves plenty of other words for more information and descriptions.

Both options three and four are reasonable types of description, depending on whether you prefer to write minimalist (the least amount of description necessary to get the story across) or with immersive and lavish description (the most amount of description to paint the world and characters without clouding the story). This is because three and four give the reader more information and emotion per word than options one and two. It is also because, all importantly, options one and two – by their under and over stated natures – don’t actually make sense.

And this is what I’m getting at: it’s not enough to have descriptions – large or small – in a work. You also have to understand why they’re there, what they do, and which ones actually function properly.

 

1) Description has to Orient the Reader: Despite what many people think, description is not an optional garnish for the story. Description serves a very vital purpose. This is because it is impossible to show the setting or characterise the characters without describing them. Without sufficient description – without description serving its most basic purpose – you get meaningless, feeling-less, blather by talking heads in white space. The reason that beige prose is bad prose is that it is insufficiently descriptive prose. Minimalist descriptive prose, on the other hand, still has enough description to orient the readers in both the space and the people. Despite the term “Scrip fic” in fanfiction, even real scripts require description of character and setting. Not as much as prose, admittedly, but still a sufficient amount to allow the set and actors to be made and perform appropriately and orient the audience. If a writer fails to put enough description into a scene, the readers will be quite justified in wondering why these toneless, un-embodied, people are floating around in the middle of nowhere. Tacking a quick description onto the end of the scene won’t help, either, because it either is too late to convince the reader that the character’s aren’t in blank space, or – if the reader has done the writer’s job for them and invented characters and a setting for the conversation – it will destroy the mental image and understanding which the reader has built up. Similarly, shoving a quick description at the start will only serve to make the readers wonder where the setting and feelings went. Without sufficient description to orient the reader, they are left dizzy, confused, and failed by the author who did not take the time to ground them in this new reality.

2) Description has to Suit the Setting: Have you ever had the misfortune of enjoying a typically Medieval-esque fantasy only to have your suspension of disbelief brutally slaughtered when something very loud or very fast was compared to a sonic boom? What about a story focused around aliens which describes the villain as inhumane? Or a story set in Victorian London where the prose (which should match the point of view character) described an airship as “cool” or a love interest’s “cute butt”? If you’ve ever encountered anything like that, you probably already get what I’m going on about here. The ONLY excuse for description to be mismatched with the setting is if the point of view character (or omniscient third-person narrator) is explicitly and deliberately being juxtaposed with a setting to which they themselves do not belong. (A book about a time traveller written in tight-third person or first person smartarse might well use descriptions that reference things which have not yet been invented, while an omniscient third person narrator has the pleasure of being able to tell you exactly how many nostril hairs a dog on the other side of the universe, ten million years after the story, has – if they should choose to wander away from the main narrative like that with regularity – or to discuss why a character’s opinion of something being described is inaccurate. Stories which are told from any other point of view than those do not have this pleasure.) Now, this does not mean that every single word has to be from the time and place in which the story is set – else every Medieval-esque fantasy would be written in Middle English – but the author does have to choose their words with care, and avoid those blatantly inappropriate for the setting but normal for the author’s life, so that they do not disturb the setting.

3) Description has to Suit the Character: The funny thing about prose is that, while it is not as directly form a character as their speech, it is still inevitably the story as told by someone. That’s what point of view is, and there is no way to write fiction without a point of view. It could be the protagonist, or a revolving set of characters, or an omniscient being standing firmly outside of the story (i.e. the author’s voice), but it’s still someone’s take on events. This means that the descriptions should be in tune with the character whose point of view the story is written in. An omniscient narrator, who describes every character’s appearance in a sort of oddball way, focuses on the less common features rather than the obvious, and always starts with each character’s worst features should not begin describing a love interest with a loving and traditional run down of their hair, eyes, and skin. A tight-third person story following a taciturn, plainspoken character who is focused on getting to the cells to rescue their comrade should not veer off to gush over the beauteous architecture and how the castle’s high towers touch the sky like little silver needles attempting to pin blue silk. You might think that’s the best description in the world, but if the character whose point of view the story, even in the third person, is told through wouldn’t even be looking at the sky – let alone considering it in poetic burbling – the prose shouldn’t be describing it. If you absolutely need to include a mention of the tall towers for plot and foreshadowing reasons: make it match the character (he might notice the pattern of shadows the towers cause and think about if that will help or hinder the upcoming escape, for instance).

Likewise, an extremely visual or poetic character – such as a painter or, you know, a poet – would be inclined to more lavish physical descriptions, so blunt and minimalist descriptions would not be appropriate. For instance: a painter or tailor confronted with a “green dress” probably would automatically categorise it by the appropriate shade of green, and possibly the fabric, “dress of jade silk” – but if the generic is always used, it starts to feel like the “expert” doesn’t know jack shit about their profession and trade. And that is also important: a character’s profession – and mood – will decide what they will notice (and thus what the prose will describe) as much as their personality will. Thieves will notice escape routes and the expense (and fence-ability) of items before they notice how beautiful something is. Visual artists will give more vivid descriptions of appearances, but chefs and perfumers will take note of how things taste and smell first. A detective will be more inclined to catalogue things factually, while a writer will be more inclined to describe things with indefinite language (it might be this, it could be used for that, why does that person have that, etc).

4) Description has to Suit the Plot: The balance between keeping prose true to the person (that is point of view) from which it is told and keeping your audience from strangling you for seemingly pulling details from nowhere, or constantly dragging their attention away from what is important to focus on décor, is a difficult one. Generally speaking, you need to introduce all the details – that is, describe the things – that are vital to the plot before they become vital to the plot. Or, to reverse Chekhov’s famous point, if you want to take a gun off the wall and shoot it in act three, you had damn well better mention that it’s there in act one. Likewise, if you want to take a gun off the wall and fire it in act three, you have to make sure – back in act one – that the wall is not so cluttered as to render the gun un-findable. To put that in plain English: any detail relevant to the plot must be described sufficiently for its relevance(minimum: a passing note that it exists, so that it does not seem to have been pulled out of the writer’s arse thin air when needed).

In beige prose the problem is that a thing will not be mentioned at all until it is suddenly needed – whether this is a gun on the wall, the fact that the characters are human, or even the location something is taking place in. This is how some, badly written, pieces have characters suddenly and dramatically falling down the stairs and dying, when so far the prose has given no indication that they are embodied and in a building, let alone near sufficiently fatal stairs!

In purple prose, meanwhile, the problem is that the author misbalances the amount of attention each thing described is given – thereby still managing to make the readers feel that they have pulled plot convenient things from their rectums. In these cases the author will give long and complex descriptions about just about everything – except those things which actually matter (location, things that are going to affect the plot, etc). This is how some stories (which will remain nameless) end up with a vague mention that the character is walking down the street, then give paragraph upon paragraph on what they are wearing, only to suddenly have the character nearly run over by a carriage – leaving the readers to wonder why the hell it was not earlier mentioned that there was a carriage racing down the street or, at the very least, that the setting was pre-automotive! (For the record, if a carriage were racing down the street so wildly that someone could be hit, the character should at least notice the sound of hooves and the yelling of people trying to get out of the way that would accompany it.) Likewise, if a character – especially if it is the introduction to them – is described performing some action that is not usually performed while armed (renovating a house, for example) and then when other characters sneak up on them, they suddenly pull out a pair of guns from nowhere; the prose damn well should have mentioned that they were armed before that point.

5) Description has to Suit the Pace: The wonderful thing about prose is that it does not – for all that the overarching feel of a piece should be consistent – have to stay at the same level of description the whole way through. The downside of this is that you have to match the amount of description to how fast the story should be moving at any given point …and many, many authors fall into the trap of assuming that the more important and climactic a scene, the more description it requires. This is how some epic, “fast paced” battles wind up with a paragraph’s description of the light shining off the swords, or the fighters’ clothes and faces, or the picturesque surroundings between every slash and parry. Descriptive prose is not a video camera, dear authors; what the camera tells us in a millisecond takes a page in the prose. Slow and steady, or interaction focused, scenes can bear the load of large descriptions because they have the time and breadth to do so. Fast, or action focused, scenes cannot because they are thin, wiry things and the weight will crush and halt them. This, for the record, is why it’s so damned important to describe what exists before you get to those fast scenes. If the prose describes the winding alleyways, slippery rooftops, and secret escape routes while the thief is on their way to steal the crown jewels, it saves the readers from being rightly pissed off when – later – the thief is apparently chased through white space which morphs into convenient escape routes as needed.

6) Description has to have the Correct Meaning: Vermillion is a kind of red. It is not green. Although livid can mean reddish, when someone is livid with strong emotion it means that they look strangled by it (discoloured and blanched – that is, pale – with a bluish tinge). Tenebrous is dark, gloomy, or obscure – it has nothing to do with being tentative. Greaves means lower leg armour. If your character is wearing their greaves on their arms, they should be both uncomfortable and looking for a new squire. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than: don’t just assume you know what a word means. Check and make sure that your description does not describe something different than what you thought you were describing. Very few words have exact synonyms. More often they mean something very similar, but not precisely the same – be that slightly different shades of colour, or intertwined but distinct feelings, or other gradients. Don’t just look up synonyms in the thesaurus: check the dictionary to see if the words the thesaurus gave you actually describe what you want to describe.

7) Description has to have the Correct Implications: Serviette and napkin both mean napkin. However, in Victorian London (and even, to a far lesser degree, today) which you chose to use would reveal whether you were upper (napkin) or middle (serviette) class. (Long story short: the new middle class tended to use fancier words to sound more posh, while the upper class – secure in their pedigrees – used plain English.) Now, that sort of distinction is going to be more important in dialogue than in prose, but it is important in matching the prose to the point of view the story is narrated from. This fun game, however, is not limited to class-distinctions. Two words with the same meaning can have different implications. Laid off and fired both mean fired, but the general understanding is that laid off wasn’t personal and fired was, not because they have an official difference in meaning, but because people generally use them that way. Fired is evocative of swiftness, anger, and the personal touch. Laid off brings up feelings of mass action, inevitability, and depression. And this, this, is why you can’t just decide to be a writer one day – why not everyone can be one – and why it is actually very difficult. Writing is about knowing the value – the implications, the mass density – of every single word, and knowing how to evoke the deepest and most accurate feeling from them. Implication is to writing as the affects of atomic weight is to science: it is not enough to know what the mean or weigh; you have to know exactly what they can and will do.

8) Description has to be Understandable: Despite what the writers of beige prose think, minimalism does not mean the smallest number of words. It means the smallest number of words necessary to clearly convey the meaning and story. Likewise, writers of purple prose tend to assume that vivid writing is cramming in as much description as possible and highlighting the descriptions, when it is – in fact –using more description in order to give more clarity, realism, and oomph to the story.

 

Don’t be described as dense, know the critical density of your descriptions.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Project Status 3 – Warning: Idea Off Leash

Do you ever have an idea that gets totally out of control? The sort which you intend to grow into a nice, quickly written, self-contained, light novel – just a bit of silliness, really – but which then gets off its leash somehow and before you know it has morphed into a massively complex, socio-political mess which is insisting that it would rather like to be the next A Song of Ice and Fire, no matter how much you tell it “NO!”?

I’m having that problem tonight. It’s an old idea that I figured out how to make work – only for it to get completely out of hand because of that. It’s going to need massive amounts of research and planning. It’s also got hopelessly poor timing, because I’ve got four other writing projects (and this blog, and a job, and a need for a second job) going at the moment. One is in the editing stage (actually, I need to get around to doing my taking in of the edits, but it’s always frustrating and depressing), one in the writing stage (I’m on chapter four), one in the plotting stage (apparently the characters have decided on sit and talk as a plot, as opposed to the adventure I intended), and one in the research for plotting stage (in order to write a story focused around a character’s job, I need to know exactly how it works and that basically means learning new jobs in this case).

What I’m basically saying is that there’s not going to be a proper post this week, because I’m busy chasing a rabid idea. See you (kind of) next week?

 
 

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Artists and Gods

The go to metaphor for explaining the position of a writer to their work is that they are that work’s god (or goddess, or – arguably – pantheon if it’s a co-written project). To someone who is not an artist by nature, this can seem arrogant. This, typically, is due to a critical lack of understanding on the part of the non-artistic person. Writers aren’t merely “telling stories”. Writers create entire universes. And sure, those universes aren’t real, but gods (probably) aren’t real either and it’s actually impossible to prove or disprove whether the universes artists create actually do exists in reality – given that there is no proof that what we call reality is actually real. For all we know the worlds we write do come into existence and we, oblivious, truly are as gods to them in reality. For all we know something that is as a god to us is, oblivious, writing us into reality.

But even without getting philosophical and triggering existential crisis in people, the metaphor remains a metaphor rather than some form of “proof” of human arrogance. Why? Well, here’s the thing; there are only three things in human comprehension which can create universes: artists (writers, directors/producers, computer game designers, etc), the Big Bang, and gods. Of the three, one is what we are trying to find a metaphor for (artists) and one is mindless – thus incapable of the deliberate creation we are trying to compare to – and that leaves only one option (gods).

So why am I gabbing about gods and artists at all, if I don’t think the metaphor is somehow arrogant? Well, because while the metaphor itself is basically the only available metaphor for writers (and associated artists) you could argue that there is some arrogance in the fact that artists almost never flip it.

You see, the standard argument against putting actual gods – or for having them mentioned as real but not really letting them do anything other than send prophetic visions and choose the one hero whose destined to save the world – in fantasy is that gods are “too powerful and would solve the plot too quickly”. …But would they? Really? Sure if you automatically think of gods as omnipresent, omnipotent, pure good beings who nevertheless somehow let evil get created and won’t lift a finger to save their precious mortals from it because it’s a learning experience or unfair or some such. But that’s just true if you assume all gods in fiction must conform, on some level, to the model set forth by the Abrahamic religions. That’s absurd. If you’re in a position where you can choose to nullify the existence of gravity you sure as hell can branch out beyond the traditional forms of deity found in fiction (Greco-Roman-esque pantheons and good-nature-goddess versus evil-technology-god being the second and third choices of most writers, respectively).

The thing about a good metaphor is that it can work both ways. If a writer can be a god, then a god can be a writer – and that opens up, for those who would otherwise have gone for stock options – a whole slew of options for made up divinities beyond Abrahamic!god with the serial numbers filed off, severely confused and oversimplified “pagan” god and goddess, and cardboard cut outs of stock gods from Greece and Rome without acknowledgement of how distinct the two were.

Think about it this way: writers care about their chosen protagonists, but put them through absolute hell for the entertainment value and only reach in to lend a hand when the chosen one is really, really stuck (because deus ex machina ruins the fun of it) and yet are definitely on the hero’s side because they guarantee a win for them in the end (usually). That sounds pretty much exactly like what the non-interference-with-minor-inexplicable-exceptions gods of most fantasy do, only it makes sense because the motive isn’t goodness or righteousness it’s entertainment. Now, of course, if everyone automatically used that model instead it wouldn’t be much use either, but it seems that writers have a far easier time of imagining writers as being varied in nature and personality – of imagining them each with their own quirks and interests – than they do gods. This is probably because even the most reclusive writer has the benefit of learning about all the bizarre truths of famous writers who came before them.

If you start off by saying that your elves worship an omnipresent, omniscient being who happens to like poetry, chances are that the poetry aspect is going to fall by wayside as the worship slides into the clichés of every other Abrahamic religion cut and paste out there. But if you start off saying that your elves worship a Homer-inspired deity who happens to be all knowing and all powerful you are more likely to get something truly unique. (“Gracious poet who watches over us all, listen to my prayer and heed my call, I need advice at this time, preferably in a very brief rhyme!”)

This trick, for getting a non-generic starting point for your deity, works for deities in the plural as well. If you want to avoid the typical Top God/Zeus-lite, Love Goddess/Aphrodite-but-sluttier, Moon Goddes/Artemis-without-anything-that-made-her-awesome, God of Evil/Satan-got-lost-on-the-way-to-Albuquerque, etc, imagining various authors into the pantheon and then working out how they relate to each other and what they represent can be a good method. If you have a writer friend (who can take a joke!) who typically micro-plans everything for their story and then fights with their characters when they try to run off and do something else, you could translate that into a Top God who Has A Plan, Damn It, and gets exceedingly frustrated by the lower ranks constantly not going along with it. If you yourself are the sort of writer who can’t plan worth a damn and adds and removes features at a whim, you can mitigate how bad that is for your story by putting into play a creator god in the story who is constantly making life difficult for their creations by adding and removing things (like, say, gravity) at random points because they aren’t sure they like the look of it. Or perhaps you might base a Top God on William Shakespeare – in which case there might be serious religious schism in the world over whether The Shaking Spear of The World actually created it, or if there was a faceless creator god before him and the Shaking Spear merely took over after the creation was done and breathed life into it.

That being said, in both of these cases there is a caveat: do not simply copy-paste a real person into your work as a god! Not you, not a friend, not a famous person. Use them as a starting point (Lord Byron was famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” which could be a fascinating basis for a God of Love, but not if he’s Bireon the Club-Footed, whose daughter is the goddess of Mathematics and whose wife/favourite lover considers him to be the Mad God, and the god’s history is basically Byron’s life done paint-by-numbers).

 

When there exists something beyond artists and gods that creates entire universes intentionally, then, and only then, will it be arrogant to use divinity as a metaphor for artists. But just as writers can be gods – shaking off the restraints of reality to completely design universes of their own where even the laws of physics are not a requirement – so gods, in fiction, could do with being a bit more like writers. I’d much rather read about a divine war between the God of Politics (inspired by Plato) and the God of Wit (inspired by Oscar Wilde) and mediated by the Goddess of Fear (based on Edgar Allen Poe) than yet another God/ess of Good versus God of Evil fiasco.

Artists, creators, do not fear the omniscient, omnipotent nature you have taken upon yourselves when you began to create – shake off the norms of the (possibly not even real) reality you live in and get creative.

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Methods of Character Building

I apologise for how long it has taken for me to get this one written and up. I’ve been – and for about a month will continue to be – extremely busy with other things (such as editing the writing/characterisation advice book which I hope to publish soon).

 

This is not about fleshing out a character or building them up along the way as you write. Those are things you do when you already have created a character and need to make them more than they currently are. This is not that. This is also not about making yourself a better person.

This is about finding starting points for when you have a cool idea for something other than a character and don’t know where to start in creating a character for it. It is about different types of starting point. This is for when you, say, have a cool idea for a world where extrasensory advertising is a thing, but can’t turn it into a story because you can’t tell a story with no characters and you don’t know where to start because you have no ideas for them. For the natural storyteller, this can be a common occurrence – although whether the inspired idea which cannot tell a story on its own is an item or a gimmick (or image, or character, or map, etc) varies. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put the idea away – in a file, mental or physical – and come back to it a later point (such as when you’ve had a great idea for a character but no idea what to put around them). Sometimes it’s just a bad idea and the lack of auto-expanding inspiration stemming from it will indicate that. But sometimes it is worth going over the idea to figure out if you can create a character from it and, if so, then you can potentially write a very good story. The following are methods, as divided by starting point, of building a basic character (which will later need to be properly fleshed out) for those occasions when you’ve essentially painted a mental picture in detail and bright colours, but lack of inspiration left you with a vague character-shaped silhouette where you need a person (or, at least, a proper profile).

 

Character from Image: If you have a visually-attuned imagination, you may find yourself in the position of having the image of a cool character – like a drawing or a snapshot – but no idea how to turn that into a story because you have no context (you know what they look like, but not who they are, or when or what the heck is going on). Now, if you are a painter or other type of visual artist, this isn’t a problem, but primarily visual imaginations are not limited to those who work in visual mediums. Many natural storytellers who have primarily visual imaginations and no ability to translate what they see in their minds eye into physical images (i.e. can’t draw for shit) will write extremely evocative descriptions into their work or go into film (especially directing) and theatre (where scripts must have some visual elements).

But I digress. Trying to create a basis for a character – and thus story, setting, and plot – is essentially the art of analysing the implications of everything your mind’s eye shows you and extrapolating upon it.  Some images are easy to analysis and extrapolate on – if you see someone locked in battle you can quickly start making suppositions on who they are fighting and why, and if you’re imagining someone say, with distinctly elfin features you can quickly narrow down the situation to some form of fantasy. In other situations there are no obvious tells and the author may have a great deal more difficulty figuring out who this “person” their mind is showing them is. In both cases, however, the key to creating a character from an image is to analyse all the data the image gives you first and then to extrapolate from it. You want, after all, to create a coherent character, rather than a character that has traits (left over from the original image) which do not fit the rest of their stated nature and their setting. This method of character building is pretty straightforward. First you analyse your mental image and write down everything you can see (facts only – that someone’s stance gives them the appearance of being prideful is a fact, whereas that they are prideful is a supposition from that fact, likewise you can say from an image that someone is wearing well-to-do clothing, but not that they are well-to-do). This list should contain everything from what they’re wearing, to what environment they’re in, as well as what their physical position is like, what expression they have, and what they look like. Next go over each item on the list and check out when, where, and why that would exist (clothes belong to specific eras and places or are inspired by them and would have to come from similar cultures in similar eras, different patterns of calluses on hands mean different things and subtle dents on either side of the bridge of the nose indicate that the nose’s owner habitually wears glasses, etc). Use this list to narrow down what sort of era and location, as well as lifestyle, the person could conceivably have – that is: what fits all of the data and the constraints the facts of that data (could only have lived in a time after glasses were invented, clearly does a great deal of work with their hands, etc) reveal. Now there should be a strong frame of what is possible, and from there the writer can extrapolate – deciding which of the options made available by the data’s constraints is the one which suits the character they are building, and so on. Eventually this leads to questions like “Why” – as in “why does this imaginary person have callused hands if they are wearing well-to-do clothing and have obviously expensive glasses?”. Perhaps they are rich and have a hobby which involves a lot of hands on work, or perhaps they are poor and have stolen the outfit in order to pull off a con. At this point it becomes a question of what answers please the author – one is likely to speak to them more than the others –and from there they merely need to keep analysing and extrapolating based on the new information and restraints that are brought with each answered question.

Character from Item: This is what you get when you have a really cool idea for a thing (say, for instance, a longsword that allows the user to fly or a phone which allows the user to time travel) only to discover afterward that, without a character or plot, that cool thing alone does not a story make. From this starting point (a cool thing) you can start to build a character by asking a simple series of questions, they are as follows. Who would make something like that? (Someone capable of making it.) Who would want something like that? (Someone whose motives it would suit to use above other similar items.) Are they the same person? If not, which is more inspiring to write about? Now, these might seem like impossible questions to answer, but they aren’t about who the person is as a whole, but rather what their motivation was. In other words: the potential uses of the object and what would be required to make it must be analysed and from there you can begin to figure out what sort of person would make it, want it, or both.

Let’s take the flying sword as an example. Who would want to have or make a flying sword? Someone who wants to use a sword and be able to fly, possibly at the same time, and doesn’t want to carry around two separate items – this means they must be in need of as much mobility as possible (doesn’t want to carry extras), expects to do close-range battle (what use is a sword, even if it can make you fly, against: arrows, bullets, and bombs?), and who expects to need to get off the ground during combat. So we’re probably looking at someone who lives in a pre-gun world, who travels a lot, and who is expecting to fight something which is much taller than they are (such as a three storey high monster). From this we can reasonably say that we’re looking at some form of knight errant in a world with lots of monsters (possibly dragons, given the whole flying aspect) to slay. If we also decide that they are the same person who made the sword that allows the wielder to fly, we can also argue that they are (given comparisons to how similar historical societies worked) probably a younger son of some gentry or minor lord who has the education to create enchantments on a weapon (an unusually learned man, thus, as many historical lords and noblemen would not have bothered to learn about the sciences and studies of monks, here replaced by apparently workable magic). Now, this is by no means a complete character and much still remains to be worked out, but from the example and analysis it would be a reasonable basis to say that the world is one with magic that can be studied scientifically, and thus is not uncommon, and that the character is a well-educated – and probably with an interest in the practical applications of intellectual pursuits – knight errant from an upper class background or lower nobility who is out to travel the world and slay dragons in aerial hand to claw combat. It’s not a complete or well fleshed out character by any means, but it is a workable starting point.

Character from Location: I differentiate this from setting for one key reason; setting is not by definition a location description as it can also include things like worlds with strange physics as their gimmick. Such worlds will be discussed later. Character from location is the best method for creating basic characters (to later be fleshed out) when you are starting from either a world map you’ve invented or you have, say, a beautiful city or an awesome jungle with a hidden temple in your imagination. Now, depending on the type of location (structure/settlement in use, structure/settlement abandoned, natural location unsettled, etc) you have to start with different questions. When you are starting from a structure or settlement which is in use you have to start by asking yourself why someone would want to live, or work, there – as well as who is in charge there. Now different places will get different answers (if the location is a creepy curio shop with an apartment over it: the answer is probably that they own a curio shop and therefore they are in charge, if the location is a beautiful seaside city: the answers are likely lots of fishermen and someone dedicated to the upkeep of their city, etc). But the key is to answer each question, often with multiple options, and then follow that on to its own question (and in the case of options to choose the one that is most inspiring: that gives you the most next-step questions – in the fishing city example that’s more likely the ruler than the fishermen).

In the curio shop example we can actually build out fairly easily: a shop of curiosities is not going to be found in a town or village; so it is owned by a city-dweller and in an era and location of enough prosperity to support such a business. What’s more: curio is a word from the 1850s, and while there is no reason to believe it couldn’t be found earlier in an alternate world, it is reasonable to assume that curiosities would not have been an overly profitable business before that era’s technological level made middle classes with spare money and longer distance travel common, into normal things. Now being a curio shop owner suggests a middling social class, with some literacy and a curious – likely intellectual – mind given the fact that the shop sells (and thus probably buys and evaluates) curiosities. It is possible that the owner has inherited the shop, but if they were not inclined to curiosities or minded the creepy atmosphere it is likely that they would have switched products or sold the location to pursue a different career at the first opportunity. Further, we can reasonably presume that the owner of the shop is either unable to travel themselves due to financial or medical reasons or simply prefers to learn about the strange things in the world from the comfort of home. The curio shop may be creepy due to the content or due to the upkeep of the actual building and that will determine whether the character has a very macabre set of curiosities or if they merely are not diligent in (or, less likely, unconcerned by) the maintenance of their store. That’s a lot of potential explanations for a character, so for the end of this example I’ll pick those traits I’m most interested by, and conclude from the starting point of “creepy curio shop” that the character is an intellectual, middle class shop owner in a prosperous and post-industrial revolution city, who has macabre interests and is prevented from caring for their storefront and travelling by poor health. That’s not a fully fledged character, but it’s pretty good for building off a three word starting point.

Comparatively, when you’re dealing with an abandoned or unsettled location, you have to ask yourself why someone would go there (and in the case of abandonment: why was it abandoned). Someone who lives somewhere may simply have been born there and never moved away – it takes far more effort and motivation for someone to choose to go travelling (implied in this form of location to character building) than to simply stay where they are. Motivation is a key player here: someone who goes to an abandoned temple in a jungle because they got lost probably isn’t going to be sticking around out of curiosity – but they also must have been trying to get somewhere else – and someone who is out adventuring or exploring (curiosity, excitement, funding from somewhere) is going to be a very different person than the one who comes to that place because they are looking for somewhere to settle (and different again from someone returning to a location they had abandoned!). To give brief examples: the person who got lost and found the temple city may have been travelling through the jungle after being forced off course from some other adventure (this could be anything) and may be on a time limit, whereas the explorer might be an archaeologist or a merchant trying to find a better trade route. Likewise, the settler may well be the leader of an exiled group who pushed into deep jungle territory after recently losing a war, and the person returning to the place they abandoned might have realised that in their rush to leave they forgot something important or be seeking closure. Now, after the slightly divergent first questions (why would someone want to live there versus why would someone want to travel/explore/return there) the process is essentially the same, and I won’t bore you by building out more characters when you’ve already seen it done a paragraph ago. But the main difference to keep in mind is that if you are building a character from a location they are already at it is the location which is the shaping force upon the character, whereas if you are building a character from a location they are travelling through it is the motivation of the character to travel which is the deciding force.  Character from location they’re already in is straightforward, but character from location they’re travelling to is much more a case of character from plot …which leads us to…

Character from Plot: Right off the bat, different genres and plot lines call for different kinds of characters. A detective has to have an inquiring mind or they just aren’t going to bother trying to solve the mystery, let alone actually solve it. Erotica just isn’t going to feature an asexual main character having loads of sex (unless it is purely sexualist discrimination in the form of corrective rape fantasies which objectify and misrepresent an entire orientation). An action hero needs to be a physically inclined sort of person, else they’d be a guile hero and in a very different sort of story. For a story to hinge on a big misunderstanding, one person has to be really bad at talking about anything and the other has to be mildly paranoid, stubborn, and inclined to jump to conclusions – with two straightforward or practical people, it just wouldn’t work.

When people have a great idea for a plot or incident within the plot and have no ideas for characters to run that plot, the most common mistake in attempting to build those characters from that starting point is to ask what sort of person would do that. Yes, I know, it seems counter-intuitive to say that’s not a good plan, but it’s not a good plan. Trying to define a person by asking what sort of person would be in a sort of plot is just setting yourself up for an endless stream of tautologies and clichés. What sort of person would go on an adventure? An adventurous one.  What sort of person would be the hero on the quest to save the world? The reluctant hero. Who are the protagonists in the grand romance? People seeking romance. What kind of person would try to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse? Someone who wants to live. These descriptions ultimately tell you nothing of use.

What you actually need to ask yourself is what each action (each moment in the plot) actually is. What word describes the action of going to investigate a mysterious happening? Inquisitive. Active. Curious. Probably not satisfied with whatever answer everyone else has accepted. What does going on a quest to save the world mean? It means a genuine belief that the world is in danger, degree of self-confidence that they alone can fix the problem – arguably arrogance, active inclination. Party goer at a grand gala meets a beautiful stranger and asks them out? Impulsive. Arguably, they’re more interested in external beauty than internal beauty – lust driven, not love. Also: wealth and possible enjoyment of the festivities. The thing here is that you have to ask yourself to describe the specifics in the plot – rather than just genre – and work from there. From every point in the plot – even if it’s just a vague idea of a plot with some genre attached – you should be able to pull one or two, minimum, adverbs (descriptions of what that action is: cautious, reckless, etc) and from there apply those to the beginnings of a person. These then can be interconnected so that they all make sense together and expanded upon until a basic character has been built.

Character from Setting: Given that I’ve already done location separately, this one might seem a little strange, but it is a distinct starting point. Setting is not merely a location, but also how that particular universe works. One could arguably call this character from gimmick instead, but that has a negative connotation. The best way to find character from setting is to start by asking yourself what the normal of that universe is and then extrapolating on that to figure out what ways a person could differ from the norm. A person who is slightly out of the ordinary is often a good primary character – although, writer beware: most of the first conclusions of who would be out of the ordinary are nothing more than clichés (such as the princess who doesn’t want to wear dresses, the reluctant hero, and the person from a society with some norm we would find alien or repulsive who just so happen to be exactly like us, despite how unlikely that would be). However, you do not have to choose to build a character who does not match their society’s norms if you do not wish to – just so long as you actually have the normal by their standards character behave normally by their standards and are willing to portray them as an ordinary person.

To give you an example or two: let’s say we have a world with two distinct differences from our own – the first is that air and water are essentially bound by the same rules, so all fish fly, and the second is that everyone, upon reaching sexual maturity, is magically bound by a red string of fate which connects them to their soulmate (offensive premise much?). If we accept these as the norm in that world we have to ask what the results of such things would be. Drowning wouldn’t be a thing, obviously, so it’s likely that lifeguards wouldn’t exist. Likewise, fishing might well involve standing on top of hills and shooting arrows with nets attached into the open sky. Arranged marriages probably never became a thing, politically speaking, and the obsessive search for love and romance which suffocates the modern world probably doesn’t exist either. Meanwhile, you have to ask if this red string affects people who aren’t romantically or sexually inclined (given that it comes upon reaching the age when you can start procreating) and how people who are string-free are treated by society. And just like that we have moved from asking what normal in that world is to asking what abnormal in that world is, because defining the one automatically means you have to start defining the other. In such a world, if you wanted a normal person as your character, you could ask what milestones and niches would appear (that is, extrapolate off the first question: what is normal). You might find that given all fish can fly, that sharks can also fly and that your normal protagonist is a shark-falconer: a person whose profession it is to shoot sharks out of the sky before they can swim in and swoop down on populated areas. You might write about the everyday struggle of a young person who just got their red string and was deeply perturbed to find they must go on a long journey to find the other end – or that they know and dislike the person they’re tied to. Meanwhile, if you wanted abnormal people, you might find yourself writing about a fisherman who has started using aeroboats to do his fishing, in defiance of all traditional methods, or explore the ramifications of being asexual in a world where everyone is expected to find their true love the moment they become adults. This means, ultimately, that you start defining the character by comparing them to what normal is.

 

…I think that’s everything? Comment if you think I should have mentioned another method or starting point to begin building characters from, or if you’d like me to extrapolate on something I’ve said – I’d love to hear from you.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 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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Methods of World Building

Some authors have a truly astonishing talent for making everything in their world fit together in a manner which is logical, consistent, coherent, and follows each element’s consequences all while making everything up as they go and working without a plan. These authors have a rare and enviable talent for seeing how an entire world fits together in their heads while they are inventing random new elements they didn’t know about earlier. These authors are rare.

Authors who think they can do this but actually can’t, on the other hand, are surprisingly common. This isn’t a bad thing, nor does it make those authors who can’t tessellate a world on the fly somehow lesser, it just means that they do need to stop and do a bit of planning before they begin writing. It is, to give a more concrete example, as if one in every million architects can build a structurally sound and beautiful house without having a design (architectural plan, floor plan, etc), without ordering all the building materials they’ll need ahead of time, and without even starting construction on something which touches the ground. Those are crazy genius architects. Most really good architects would never consider doing something that insane and likely to fall apart. Most unwise DIY disasters are caused by people who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t realise they need a plan. The wise architect plans. The wise author plans their world building. But there’s more than one way to plan a world.

Now, typically the main methods of worldbuilding are described as top down (outside-in) and bottom up (inside-out), the former being the creation of a world on the grand scale before moving in to look at the location and characters which will focus in the story and the latter being the focusing on a specific location and set of characters and building the rest of the world out from there. The both have cons, they both have pros, and they both have more variables than the typical division acknowledges.

Starting by building the entire world is a great way to procrastinate while assuring yourself that no, really, you’ll get on to writing your epic work in a few more years once you’ve fleshed out those last few town’s economies on the opposite side of the planet some four thousand years before your story is going to be set. Starting by focusing just on the characters and locations of the plot and making the rest up as needed is a great way to turn your world into a DIY disaster because, chances are, you aren’t a crazy genius architect.

What I’m saying here is that if you are creating a world from scratch you do need to do some planning before you start writing, but it’s probably best to do that planning after you’ve got a basic idea in your head of your main characters and settings. Nevertheless, there are different ways to do that. All of these methods fit into the same basic structure: Step 1; have idea, Step 2; plan world, Step 3; write. When people put world build as step one they never really reach the writing stage. When people put world building after writing they end up with incoherent jumble worlds that only superficially look like they make sense. All of the following methods are different ways of doing STEP 2; PLAN WORLD, and all of them belong firmly between the stages of inspiration and writing.

Start From A Character: So inspiration struck and you’ve decided you’re going to write an epic about the buttoned up princess, her love affair with a hero wielding a great sword, and her epic struggle against the Dark One and now you’re ready to start writing, right? Okay, first things first: back away from the keyboard because (despite a complete lack of individuals titled as such in human history) everyone does “Dark Lord” and “Dark One”. Planning a world based on a character means taking those basic ideas you had and stopping to work out what kind of world would have to exist for those elements to be plausible. That is to say, take every single thing about the idea and note down what it means for the sort of world. Some will be exceedingly unhelpful (buttons have existed since c. 2800BCE, in the Indus Valley region so gives no technological level fix), other apparently obvious but do need to be noted because not all worlds will be the same as ours (princess is a gendered noun so we know the species has males and females as a presumable norm – which is by no means obligatory or default in speculative fiction genres and therefore is worth noting). The world princess has been used, that defines the setting as being a hereditary monarchy, and a bit of research will tell you what sort of cultures and technological levels are required to support such a system (many can, but it becomes a question of which is most likely when combined with other attributes).  There is a love interest, which either means that marriage for love is acceptable or that the princess is going to be torn between caring for her feelings and caring for the good of her people, meanwhile the love interest is called a “hero” (that means literary figure renowned for using their ingenuity, bravery, and strength for some greater good) and wields a great sword (is it just an awesome weapon or an actual Great Sword – in which case it’s probably a steel long sword of the kind favoured in the late Middle Ages, found from the 13th to 17th centuries and which would firmly fix the technological level of your world?). Lastly you have a Dark One which implies that your world and culture have the same, near omnipresent, light = good, dark = bad prejudice which is found in the western world.

Starting from a character means analysing like Mr. Sherlock Holmes when he meets a new client. Analyse every part of the character and write down what that means about the world they’re in and you’ll find that much of the world actually builds itself – you just need to map it out, make the history and keep things from contradicting it later.

Start From A Location: So maybe you don’t have any people planned yet. Maybe you just had an amazing dream in which there was a beautiful city of white and pink marble by the sea. Maybe it had high spires glittering and the sun setting behind it, with some mountains between them. It’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever imagined and you absolutely have to write a story about it. Okay, that’s fine, but you still need to plan and extrapolate the world before you can get writing. Despite how it might seem, you can actually tell an awful lot about that world from that brief description – it has a central cathedral, for one, thing, and a cathedral is a Christian church containing the seat of a bishop (which is typically a position of authority or oversight, making this a moderately important religious centre which was given great import when the city was build around it). It’s by the sea, which means that even if the sea is massive enough that they aren’t in contact with the continent on the other end, the people of that city will be sailing up and down their own coast to trade. They’ll also have a focus on seafood, given that most seaside cities develop from fishing villages. If the sun is setting behind it, with mountains between the city and setting sun, the city is either on the eastern coast (the sun is setting behind it in the west, on the other side of the continent) or the city is on a planet which rotates east to west as opposed to west to east as the Earth does. Either the city is obscenely rich from its sea-based trade and can import enough pink and white marble (is that real marble or just called marble by the construction business, which calls any crystalline calcitic rock “marble”?) or, more likely, it brought the marble in from those mountains, which means it has strong connections to mining. That, in turn, will affect what kind of bedrock and surrounding rocks and soils the city is built on, and therefore what grows and how earthquake proof it is. You also need to go back to the image of that location you had and ask yourself if it looked warm or cold (open plan, windows, many gardens, or pointed roofs meant to prevent snow from piling up, etc).

Extrapolation like this will allow you to build up a good idea of what your main location is like, but also what other cultures are in the area and, when you come across some product or resource which would be rare to more than one of them, you can quickly start to fill in the blanks of their history and wars.

Start From Recent History: The key to believable worlds is that history affects what happens later (just like in reality) so if you try to write about some major event without having anything more recent than, say, the dark lord rising to power or the declaration of war between two planets affect it, it’s going to come across as false and cardboard. That would be akin to a world wherein everyone and everything over the age of thirty-five mysteriously vanished from existence, leaving even gaps in people’s memories so that no inherited grudges or prejudices can affect the new squabbles to come (which, frankly, is an interesting idea itself, but runs into the problem that nothing – architecturally, technologically, artfully, etc – could ever be achieved). History is built on cause and effect – and every effect becomes a cause to new effects. This does not mean that a world builder needs to know the entire world history in painstaking detail. It does, however, mean that you need to choose a point in history (preferably several hundred years before) at which point you start your (detailed) history, and paint what comes before in broad strokes which match what else you have created. The point at which to do this is the most major or recent massive change (for example, if you were working with the modern world, you would want to start planning history from the industrial revolution and work step by step to the now, then go back and paint everything from before the industrial revolution in broad strokes). The exception to this is when you are dealing with a story set in the aftermath of some massive, world changing event, in which case you need to work from the previous massive, world changing event so that you know what shockwaves the new change is actually creating and how it has made the world different than your characters remember.

The key here, I should point out, is that you pick a major change in history and work forward from there, as if that point was the start of the world, and every step which follows much make sense given and be built on that point and each step you build away from it. There is, of course, the danger of things not making as much sense as if you had built history from the very start, but it can be mostly neutralised by putting your date of major change far enough back that no one (except maybe immortal beings) is still alive from before it and the world has settled into its new form. This method comes with the benefit of preventing an author from obsessively compiling history as a means of procrastinating.

Start From The Beginning (of The Universe): As I mentioned before, this is the most procrastination inducing method of world building, so unless you’re working on a story in which ancient history or cosmic events are to be of huge relevance, it’s not the best of choices. It can be made more manageable if you work in deliberately broad strokes until you reach a point within a couple of hundred years of your story’s setting, and then begin to work out the history in more detail. In this case you would work out how the universe came to be, when the (or each) planet gained life, then where and when sentient life arose, which groups split off and travelled to settle new lands (and when) and you would make note of roughly when major inventions like the wheel and money turned up, what types of societies formed where, and – of course – who they were in major trade alliances and wars with, when. This is likely to induce self-directed muttering such as “okay so the Soandsos and the Suchandsuches have made peace in the fall of the Whoweretheyagain Empire and one remnant of the empire goes to war with the Soandsos …wait, that won’t work, last time I mentioned them they were trading partners. Okay, so the prince of the Soandsos ran off with the daughter of the governor of the imperial remnant and that sparked a major war – hey, cool, they could be the go-to tragic lovers of that world’s classical literature and be remembered in modern sayings”.

There are two key aspects to successfully using this sort of world building: firstly, you have to restrain yourself from going into detail at every point in history and keep it to manageably broad strokes until you reach things which will be plot relevant and the in-world modern era; and secondly, you have to make sure you stop and ask yourself what the broad results for everyone are each time something happens. This will create a very comprehensive and coherent history, which is good for the author – as it prevents them from putting aging ruins from the wrong culture in the wrong place – but which can be bad for the story as in-universe the people should not have that perfectly correct and accurate an understanding of the history of the world. Real history, to those studying it, tends to be painfully jumbled and the missing pieces get larger the further back you try to figure things out.

Start From A Map: As with beginning from the start of a universe, this method of world building has the double-edged sword of being both extremely good at keeping a universe coherent (assuming the author doesn’t throw a map together with no regard for how geography, geology, and climatology actually work) and extremely good at stalling an author from actually getting any writing done. This is also not the best choice unless you can either draw or use cartography programmes competently. If you’re starting from a map you have to start by deciding what sort of planet (assuming it is a planet or galaxy and not some strange dreamscape) you are dealing with (size, proximity to star, proximity to other planets, number of moons if any and their size, any other oddities to be noted). Then you need to ask yourself about the geological composition of the planet at large, because that will affect a great many things (if you find that one too complicatedly scientific to handle, go with “earth-like”). Now you need to decide on the number of and shape of the continents, based on the appropriate land-to-water ratio for your planet (Earth’s approximately 70% water to 30% land, for instance) so that you don’t make your continents and islands too big or small. Continents don’t perfectly fit together like jigsaw pieces but the general shapes should feel like they almost could – and they should be appropriately spaced so that they could have drifted apart and slammed into each other to form and have been formed by those shapes. Also, if you’re starting from the map, that means that you have to accept whatever currents and weather systems your grand design has caused you (you can’t just remove or shrink something later if you realise there’s no way the described temperate location is not in a rain shadow or should be frozen because there’s no ocean current to warm it from the south, for instance). Now, if you’re world building from a map-starting point then you probably don’t have characters, etc, in your head yet and are likely world building for the sake of world building (which is a perfectly valid thing to do) but if you do have those things in your head and you are struggling with an increasingly nonsensical map in order to make it fit, you might want to try a different method and flesh out the map later.

Once you have the continents in place (and know how much volcanic activity places have, plus a rough estimate of what types of rock are where) and you know how the current affect them and their weather patterns, you need to analyse where mountains, major valleys, rain shadows, and rivers are most likely to be and add them. Beware of being tidy about this – although all of these things need to be in places which make sense, nature isn’t particularly inclined to put things in straight lines or where it’s convenient for people and too many neat rows of mountains will not only strain credibility but snap it. Only once you have these geographical features in place can you start to add things which will be important for when you add sentient habitation. This is the point to work out where rainfall and rivers allow for forests, where the plains are, what areas are lush and which are arid, how far the freeze goes in winter, etc. This is also the point, as it happens, when you need to go back to that information from the start about what kinds of rock were found in abundance where – not only does that affect how plants grow and what kinds of animals will appear, but it also decides what building materials people have and what unlikely locations they might be willing to endure for mineral rewards. Now and only now, is it the time to start placing towns and cities onto the map – based, of course, on where humans would be likely to settle (having water, shelter, and the ability to farm first, then mining communities and the like). Then comes deciding who supports and wars with whom (over what resources are available) and who needs to trade with who (first for survival, then for luxuries). Then comes deciding national borders, as far as such things exist, and zooming in on your map (or creating a paper cut-away) to focus on whichever location on it you find the most interesting and from there to develop culture, characters and plot from the natural constraints of the world you’ve built.

 

All of these methods of world building have pros and cons and each person has their own preferences among them. But they’re all better than just assuming that you can world build on the fly with no planning whatsoever, because all that leads to is an incoherent mess.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2016 in On Writing

 

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What is Quality?

I suppose I need to apologise again for disappearing for so long. I seem to be doing little else but that on this blog of late. But now that the helping with someone moving house situation is over, I ought to have a bit more time for this. This post is more of a thought-piece than an opinion-piece.

 

Most people who want to be writers seek to be either successful (in finance and fame) writers or writers known for making quality writing. The word literature used to hold a connotation of being high-quality writing, as opposed to all other “lesser” writing, but now it just is pretty much synonymous with fiction and is applied to anything moderately successful. According to dictionaries, quality is many things, but the definition of it which is applicable to writing is “character with respect to fineness or excellence” – and that’s character as in “the aggregate features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing”, not as in “fictional person the author puts through hell for the readers’ amusement”. But the thing is: that’s a completely useless definition.

So what actually makes quality writing? Well, obviously not success because (this is the go to example, given the sheer amount of criticism it has received) Twilight and also the majority of the miszpellld fanfiction ob deh internetz!!!1! which get frighteningly large amounts of positive reviews in comparison to the well-crafted and properly spelled, in character fanfics. It’s also not a question, despite what many “serious” writers of tedious real-world-setting dramas may think, of genre because – while I am going on hearsay rather than personal experience here because I’ve never been inclined to read those genres (I haven’t read Twilight either, despite how often I take jabs at it) – there are plenty of quality romance and erotic works out there. They might not have the most philosophical of content, but if seriously questioning ethics, the universe and everything is the key to defining quality then no one’s written anything but trash since Kierkegaard. (Show of hands: who managed to not fall asleep while reading Kierkegaard? Has anyone here actually read Kierkegaard? Did you think, the first time you heard it, that Captain Kirk was guarding something?)

It could be argued that having deep characters or a lot of world building is what’s required for a work to be quality, but many of the great names in Science Fiction basically had cardboard tour-guide characters to show off their cool science ideas for chapter after chapter of math and baffling terminology, while world building is just as unfair a point in definition as genre as world building is the foundation of Speculative Fiction but mostly unnecessary in, say, real world drama or crime novels. Even grammar and spelling being used accurately is not a brilliant gage of quality, although the better the grammar and spelling the more likely a work is to be good quality, because grammar and spelling change over time (you may have been taught in school that starting a sentence with “And” is wrong, but many of the major quality authors out there who have begins with “And” sentences in their works – like George R. R. Martin, who is held up almost universally as an example of quality writing, the way Twilight is almost universally regarded as being very poorly written). Grammar and spelling is certainly a factor, but it isn’t the complete definition.

Often quality is associated with clever language use and choosing the best word, but not every work needs to be packed with juxtaposed antithesis and anaphora (ten points if you know which famous piece of literature opens with that particular pair of techniques) and other extravagantly named techniques or gratuitous amounts of exceedingly sophisticated terminology and units of language in order to facilitate that dubious and non-corporeal status of fineness and excellence. In fact, trying too hard to be clever with language and choosy with word use can, like in that last sentence, actually damage the quality and readers’ ability to comprehend what the hell the writer is trying to say. Likewise, it would be tempting to say that quality is about not using clichés, but what counts as cliché changes with time – in an almost cyclic fashion, akin to how water droplets become part of the giant masses called oceans, then rise to become clouds, rain down on everyone to make them miserable and the plants very happy, and then steadily grows in strength as it goes from stream to river and eventually back into the oceans. But, more importantly, clichés become so ubiquitous because when they are used well they don’t come across as trite (unless you’re stubbornly determined to find something wrong with everything or are suffering from some form of Mary-Sue Paranoia because the idea that female characters can be just as vivid, special, and powerful as the typical main male character without being “badly written” or “unrealistic” because the idea that women are people and capable of being competent scares you – in which case I’d like to suggest you try the perfectly cliché cliff to the left of the stage for you to go clichély jump off). To use my go-to example of good writing: A Song of Ice and Fire contains many things which could be considered cliché – the mad boy king who is a sadist, the heroic bastard, the purple-eyed princess with the pet magical beasts, and the ten million prophecies – but Martin makes them work. The mad boy king is from a far more violent society than we are and so less likely to view what he does as wrong or repulsive, while also essentially being a stupid teenage boy on a power-high, the heroic bastard has to live with the actual social ramifications and restrictions of being a bastard in that sort of society and is by no means viewed as a hero by everyone, the princess avoids being a Mary-Sue (despite having many of the traits often associated with them) because they are played out in ways that makes sense (the eyes are a racial trait, the pet magical beasts are far more beast than pet, being a princess only gets her assassination attempts, etc) and the ten million prophecies are both suitably confusing and free from any guarantees of accuracy or genuine fortune-telling.

I could burble for hours about how excellent his choice of words is (although I, who has repeatedly read entire dictionaries for fun, do keep a dictionary tab open on my computer when I read ASOIAF for when I run into the occasion rare or no longer used word like niello). I could talk about how he’s genuinely built a complete world and all the literary techniques I spotted while reading. I could talk about how deep and well developed his characters are and how he manages to give the readers all the pertinent information without breaking from the third person limited. But while all of those things are factors in what makes a work quality, I think Martin’s magnum opus is a good example of what makes something quality for a very different reason.

The story is king. Not the characters, no matter how much the author might like one better than another. Not the whims of the readers (trying to please readers is an almost universal guarantee that the quality of a work will fall), not the rules grammar and spelling, not what is or isn’t cliché, not the conventions of the genre, not any meaning or message carried within the work, not clever literary and rhetoric techniques, not even what the author might prefer to happen. The STORY is king.

Obviously, correctly used grammar and spelling, well chosen words and techniques, deep characters, significant world building, realism, the ability to dig the bones of a concept out of a dead cliché and make them work again, are all important factors in what makes Martin’s writing such an excellent example of, well, literary excellence, but it is the fact that the story is treated as the most important factor – that which everything else is part of and bends to, rather than which is part of or bent to some other factor – that makes quality.

Quality can never be defined clearly by one factor or another, because it is about how everything works together for the story. Quality is about how everything makes logical sense based on the rules of reality as presented in that story, about how everything that is (not just that happens) has consequences and causes, about how everything remains consistent to itself and coheres with the rest of the reality the story creates. Quality is about choosing to have, or not have, rhetoric techniques and this word or that based on how it works for the story rather than how fancy, plain, accurate, or cliché it may or may not be. Quality is about knowing your grammar and spelling so well that you can know how and when to deviate from it if the story so requires. Quality is about exploring or not exploring the depths of a character based on what the story needs.

At least, that’s my best guess. Quality is one of those annoyingly non-corporeal things which cannot be measured easily and just about everyone has a different opinion on what makes a work quality. What do you think?

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in On Writing

 

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