Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

I’m a big believer in templates and structures. For me, they enhance my creativity by giving me a structure to bounce off and a reminder of all the things it’s good to consider. When I put up my character template a few weeks back some people found it useful, so here’s another one, this time for writing plots.

I’ve taken elements of this template from all over the place, but most importantly from Dan Wells’s seven point story structure. When I’m writing a short story I often just use this template, alongside a character template if I’m developing a new character. For longer works I use this sort of format for each plot strand, and then combine them using another template.

Like I said, I love templates.

So here’s my list of things to consider when planning a plot. If you find it useful, or can think of other things you’d add, or even have your own template to share, please let me know in the comments.

My Plot Template v1

Title

Concept

Theme

Why is this series of events happening and important?

What is the main char arc here? – yes, this might also be on the character template, but it’s important to tie it to the plot – who’s going to change, and how, as part of this.

What’s the conflict, including its type – person vs person; person vs themselves; or person vs environment.

What suspense keeps the audience engaged?

What emotional exploration goes deeper?

What are the pauses for reflection? (I skip this when writing flash fiction)

MICE – is it a Milieu, Idea, Character or Event plot? This is a really useful thing to understand, and the linked Writing Excuses episode explains it
– Beginning, as fitting its MICE nature
– End, as fitting its MICE nature

Foreshadowing

The Seven Key Plot Points

Hook
– Questions raised
– Need created in readers

Turn 1

Pinch 1

Midpoint

Pinch 2
– Unexpected but logical direction
– Time pressure for solution

Turn 2

Resolution
– Answers to questions
– Emotional impact

I recently introduced Laura to the film Tremors, after making the shocking discovery that she’d never seen it. In doing so, I realised how great an example it is of a key storytelling trick – try fail cycles.

Footloose vs Dune

In case you’ve somehow missed this cinematic classic, Tremors is a 1990 film about a small town under attack by giant burrowing worms. Starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as handyman heroes Valentine and Earl, it’s a film that I love not because it’s masterful or innovative, but because it’s so much fun. It uses a horror structure, but lacks the dark atmosphere of horror. It has a humorous tone, but isn’t a comedy. The characters are clichés, but together they’re an interesting mix. The climax features one of the most hilariously in-your-face ropey special effects shots I’ve ever seen.

It’s as if Frank Herbert’s worms from Dune escaped to hunt down that guy from Footloose, and exactly as serious as such a film would be. I love it.

Try, Try Again

Try fail cycles are an important part of plotting stories. They consist of a character repeatedly trying to achieve a goal, and repeatedly facing setbacks, until they finally get there. Those failures are what make the final success feel rewarding – after all those struggles, the character and their plan have grown, and there’s real tension around whether this attempt will succeed. Given that we know that heroes usually win in the end, it’s an important way of creating doubt about the outcome.

In Tremors, those cycles are really clear, and they show how the pattern can vary.

In the first act, Valentine and Earl make repeated attempts to leave town, for a variety of reasons. Every time they are stopped in their tracks. Their eventual failure is what keeps them in town for the film, and for one final escape attempt in the last act.

In the second half of the film, once the monsters are on display in all their rubber and gunk glory, we see two try fail cycles from the townspeople. One is them trying to get to a place of safety, as one option after another at first works and then fails. There’s the same pattern with their attempts to kill the worms. They try, they succeed, but then something means they can’t follow the same approach. It’s not just a cycle of try then fail. It’s a cycle of try then succeed and then fail, which creates strong emotional peaks and troughs. We celebrate the successes and bemoan the failures along with Valentine, Earl and the rest.

Finally there’s the romantic arc, as Valentine tries to work out how to communicate with geologist Rhonda. It’s much less prominent, and less obviously a repeating cycle, but it’s there. Valentine faces his own awkwardness several times, all under the amused eye of Earl. It’s a reluctant try fail, in which Valentine fails toward realising what he wants romantically and how to make it happen.

Learn from the Worms

Sometimes it takes an unsophisticated story to expose the clever tools writers use, and Tremors is one of those occasions. If you haven’t seen it then go watch it – I’ll still be here when you get back. And maybe share your thoughts on the film or try fail cycles in the comments below.

In talking about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree I mentioned the use of arts within the book. It’s an area I find fascinating. The role of art in society and its power to stir emotions are often overlooked in fantasy fiction. What makes it so useful?

For me, there are two obvious points.

Firstly, showing a society’s culture adds depth. It shows that there is more to people’s lives than the struggles they currently face, the wars and intrigues that are the backbone of so many plots.

Secondly, it helps us connect to the characters. We all know what it feels like to be stirred by art that touches something within us. For me, that can be listening to Jeff Buckley’s Lover You Should Have Come Over, watching Lost in Translation or reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You’ll have your own examples, because while the feeling is universal, it’s triggers are seldom the same.

So who else makes good use of culture in their writing?

  • Tolkien uses songs and poems to explore the past.
  • Iain M Banks has games in The Player of Games.
  • John Scalzi’s Redshirts, while taking a different angle, at least shows TV as a prominent part of life.

Who else is there? Which writers do this, and especially do it well?

And what are the cultural experiences that really stir you?

Share your thoughts in the comments. I’ve mentioned a couple of my favourite things, and I’d love to hear about yours.

 The problem with superhero stories is making them convincing. Sure, that’s not a problem when you’re entertaining a drooling fan like me with big spectacle like Guardians of the Galaxy. But when you’re aiming to create something low key, or to draw in a bigger audience, that’s more difficult. It’s a challenge any genre writer will face if they want to reach plenty of readers, and so it’s interesting to see how Marvel and Netflix’s recent TV show Daredevil has handled this.

In my view, there’s one small element that’s incredibly telling.

Superheroes in New York? Yeah Right.

First, lets give a bit of context, because none of what I’m going to say will make sense without it.

The nature of the superhero Daredevil, aside from being the blind martial artist with super senses, is that he sits on the boundary between two worlds. He exists within a huge universe of superpowered characters in a sprawling interconnected epic of comics / films and TV shows. But he also exists as a street level hero fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighbourhood of New York.

This sets up one really obvious problem for Daredevil as a TV show. How do you reference that superhero universe while not making it sound absurd in the context of a gritty crime story?

But there’s another problem, one I discovered reading The Devil is in the Details, a book of essays on Daredevil. Hell’s Kitchen, which was a run down neighbourhood when Daredevil was created half a century ago, has become gentrified. As a setting for a gritty crime drama, it doesn’t work as well as it once did.

Given both of those challenges, how do you put the screen Daredevil in context?

Less is More

The answer, as shown in the first couple of episodes, is by bringing those two problems together and then applying some subtlety.

Almost the only link that the show directly makes to the Marvel universe, in its early episodes at least, is to reference the huge damage done to New York in The Avengers. They don’t talk about what the destruction was, thus avoiding tackling a world of Norse gods and super soldiers, but by referencing the destruction they let fans see that the Marvel Universe has affected these people’s lives. It’s the same trick that British TV show Ultraviolet used for its vampires – if you avoid using the word ‘vampire’ or ‘superhero’, and just include its implications, you can skirt around the potential absurdity.

This reference is also how they deal with Hell’s Kitchen. Thanks to the destruction done in New York, Hell’s Kitchen is a dump again. Hey presto, in a couple of lines they’ve tackled both of their biggest problems, and given the story a rich contextual background.

That, in my opinion, is some clever writing. A lot of thought and time clearly went into crafting a few seconds of dialogue, and it was well worth it. We could all learn from it.

If you haven’t already, then I really recommend watching Daredevil. It features some great writing and acting, a number of good fight scenes and at least one really imaginative one. It comes with a big warning though – it is really not for the squeamish, taking the Marvel tone as far from Guardians of the Galaxy as it can get.

And if you’re into superheroes or want to know more about Daredevil I heartily recommend The Devil is in the Details. It includes some fascinating essays, including one on the old question of how plausible his superpowers are.