Category: Writer Resources (Page 2 of 7)

Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 2: Scope Creep

The characters have to do the thing.  Just one tiny little thing.  Uh-oh.  Remember the last time we had to do just a tiny little thing? It didn’t go well.

  • The characters have to do the thing, which is usually identified as being super-easy.  (Usually, there’s more than one character, although one of them is definitely in charge.  Someone has to listen to all the smartass remarks the main character is going to be making.)
  • FFFFFFFFF.  In order to the thing, we have to do this other thing.  And this other thing.
  • The tasks necessary in order to do the thing become all out of proportion in effort, risk, or stakes.
  • The characters beat the holy hell out of all the things by the skin of their teeth.
  • Either they emerge victorious, having done the thing, or they have been so vehement in their duty that they have made doing the thing impossible, mostly because they broke it.

This is Star Wars: A New Hope.  The Conan stories.  Roger Zelazny’s Amber (and a good bit of his other work).  Stephen Brust’s Dragaera stories.  Sword & Sorcery loves this:  the format is basically a heist story in fantasy clothes, or some other type of crime story in fantasy clothes, although I do love the Conan story where he and his ladyfriend are basically just looking for water in this deserted desert town they run across and all hell breaks loose.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 1: Danger Behind Us

As far as I can tell, there are three main areas of contemporary fantasy that are so separated from each other that it’s pointless to try to lump them together.

  • Epic/high fantasy.
  • Urban fantasy.
  • Everything else.

Tropes and fans can and do cross over, but trying to figure out what’s going on seems to require some categorization.  Grimdark is another question entirely, because it has both fantasy and science fiction under its umbrella.  Portal fantasy fits comfortably under epic, at least as far as I can tell.

So when I talk about epic fantasy, I mean fantasy set in a secondary world, not Earth as we know it (although it may turn out to have been Earth all along), to which the term “grimdark” may or may not apply.

The first plot I’ve picked out:

  • There’s something that the main character must do.
  • In order to do this thing, the character must always go forward, never back.
  • Behind the character, everything is destroyed, ruined, and cut off.
  • It’s often only at the last moment that the character is able to move forward, before being destroyed.
  • If the character does manage to go back, it’s a really bad idea–traitors, traps, destruction, abomination.
  • In the end, the character reaches the final destination and does the thing; they may or may not sacrifice their life in order to do so.

This is The Lord of the Rings.  It’s some of the Narnia books (The Last Battle especially).  Exhaustion, PTSD, grief.  The Last Unicorn.  It’s not like the horror movie It Follows, where no matter where you go, the thing is following you.  It’s just not that personal.  This is more about war.  Strangely, Star Wars, which uses a ton of fantasy tropes, or rather tropes that were strongly adopted by the fantasy genre, doesn’t do this.  The characters in Star Wars are often going back to places they’ve been, or not going the places they were supposed to go.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

When to Tell the Reader?

Here’s the structure of a scene tends to go:

  • Beginning
  • Middle
  • Ending

Tell the reader everything they need to know for that scene in the beginning of that scene, unless the information spoils a plot twist or a reveal somewhere in the middle.  Do not tell the reader anything they don’t need to know for that scene.  Like a two-year-old’s, a reader’s expectations should be managed.

You can tell them more things in the scene, in dialogue, in backstory, etc.  That’s fine.  Just don’t save the information until after the reader needs to know.  It’s too late.  The toddler is in the middle of the grocery store screaming; the reader puts the book down.

The most important thing you can tell the reader is information that will lead to the reader wanting to spend more time with the characters, in that world.

Not action.  Like…any…action.  Your characters may pick their noses.  That’s about it.  They may not act or react to any events.

That goes in the middle.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

On Breaking Rules

Every writer has at least a couple of rules that they have to break, in order to become their own best writer.

You may only break those rules if the reader will get more pleasure/interest/benefit out of those rules being broken than otherwise.

Don’t be lazy.  Be creative.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 5: Here I Stand

A door opened, and an apocalypse stepped in.

  • It wasn’t something that could be helped, really.  I mean, it might have escaped from a government lab, but it was a perfect storm, a once in a million years incident of bad luck.
  • Only, something decided to exploit that bad luck.  It went beyond chance or an act of nature or anything like that.  It was of purely evil intent.
  • Good God, why?
  • We try to survive by keeping our heads low.  It doesn’t work.  Humans don’t work.  But if that’s the case, what’s even left?
  • Better just to lie down and die.
  • But I will not.  I will stand.
  • I may resist and defeat that which has opportunistically made the bad situation worse.  I may fall and be overcome.  But I have stood.

This is, obviously, The Stand.  But it’s also things like Braveheart, the Mad Max series, The Dark Tower, and more.  Epic horror?  Got it covered.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

On Editing

A lot of writers edit their words until they behave themselves properly.

Don’t be that writer.  Words shouldn’t behave themselves.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

What Is a Cozy?

Cozies are a subset of the mystery genre in which the author distracts the reader from the PTSD areas of their lives.  They’re the gentle hugs of stories, and yet they revolve around some crime, because nothing is as entertaining as gossip.

</snark>

Cozies actually:

  • Feature a main character you wouldn’t mind going on vacation with.  The character might be annoying, but in such a way that you could totally put up with for a weekend.
  • Are set in a place that you would like to go on vacation, or center around a job/lifestyle that you wouldn’t mind having yourself for a few days.
  • Are about the messiness of life finally getting sorted out for five minutes.
  • Are generally about the theory that if people would just talk to each other, it would all work out for the best.
  • Are about selfish geting what’s coming to them, and generous people who make terrible mistakes and get mercy and forgiveness instead, although they first have to be genuinely sorry.
  • Feature things that people enjoy as part of their relaxation rituals.  Pets, hobbies, food, hot beverages, walks through picturesque landscapes, warm blankets, friends who are there for you, hugs.
  • Should be like being offered a hand.  “Come with me,” says the author.  “We will make real life hurt less.”

An Agatha Christie quote I pulled from Goodreads:

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

Like that 🙂

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

 

A Song of Ice and Fire: Structure/Word Count Case Study

The post about word count and subplots was getting long, so I’ll break this out here:

I think George R.R. Martin is writing parallel novels inside each of his books.

  • There is a main plot and a main character to each book.  You can figure this out by counting which POV character has the most chapters; usually, the main POV has an undistinguished number of chapters in the first half of the book, and then comes to dominate the number of chapters in the latter half of the book.
  • The main POV character’s “novel” seems to have a main story and multiple subplots.  If that “novel” were stripped out on its own from each, it would probably be 120-150K all by itself (I should check this but haven’t yet).
  • The other “novels,” a.k.a. POV characters in each book, have main plots, mostly without subplots but sometimes with.
  • All “novels” except the main POV’s have a strong chance of terminating abruptly, simply so the main POV can dominate the latter half of the novel.
  • This doesn’t mean that the main POV won’t get killed (ahahahaha), but that the main POV will at least have a solid beginning, middle, and ending to their story within that book.  If they live, then they’ll have stuff ahead of them, but the arc for that book will feel more or less complete.
  • Some of the POV characters’ “novels” span from book to book, so you’re only getting a beginning, part of a middle, or an end per book.
  • Some of the POV characters’ “novels” truncate abruptly with no real ending/wrapup, so you feel cheated (when they die or get massively screwed and you’re just left hanging).

In conclusion, GRRM is probably structuring his books specifically to mess with your sense of how a story “should” be, and killing off characters just so you can have the requisite number of pissed-off moments per book.

I need to do a lot more work on ASOIAF, so this is really tentative 🙂

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

 

How Long Should Your Book Be?

This is a terrible question.  It doesn’t really mean anything other than “on average, we see XYZ wordcounts in this genre.”  And it says nothing about why.

Here’s a better question:

When do readers of this genre want to see subplots, and what kind?

A novel with one main plot is about 40-50K.  For example, The Stepford Wives is about 45K.  Most pulp novels have one main plot.  The early Doc Savage books are about 50K each.

Epic fantasies, contrariwise, have lots of subplots.  In fact, the readers would be upset if there weren’t subplots.  The Wheel of Time books are about 300K each.

In between are the things like The Maltese Falcon, which has the main plot (falcon/murder) and a subplot (love triangle). 67K.

Subplot = wordcount.

“Let’s talk about the current political situation at length” is a supblot.  See 1984 by George Orwell (88K), which has a romance, a rebellion, and a political treatise.

I could go on, but let’s say in general, a single subplot is about 15-20K of sheer words (about a novelette’s worth of plot*).  And that anything over 50K should have subplots.

And that when you get an arbitrary “how long your book should be” number from an agent or editor (or even just checking word counts on bestsellers), what you’re seeing, in general, is how many subplots are popular in a novel these days.

 

*I’ll post my best guess as to GRRM’s structure on a different day.  It’s different than this.

I’m trying to find an “ask” format that I feel comfy with.  I still haven’t yet.  I’m going to keep posting this one for a while, at least until I come up with something better.  Better than nothing, this one is, but not by much!

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

 

Plot Shapes: The Turn of the Screw

I’ve been studying The Turn of the Screw lately.

  • A group of people are sitting around the fire telling Christmas ghost stories, as you do (this is a Victorian UK thing).
  • Storyteller (Douglas) claims that the story he’s about to tell comes from his sister’s governess, who has been dead 20 years.
  • He sends away for story, which later, before his death many years later, he gives to the unnamed narrator.
  • Douglas reads the story at this post-Christmas house party back in the day, which the narrator copies out exactly from the manuscript.  However, the setup that the narrator gives is from memory.
  • Then we get to the main body of the story.  For now, let’s just leave it at that, but there are more layers there.
  • The “frame” story never intrudes again, and never closes.  You never go back to the narrator or Douglas again–it’s not a frame story at all.

At first the significance of this didn’t hit me.  Okay, so it’s not a frame story, it’s just an introduction; that’s fine.  But this is kind of a standout as far as stories go.  Much like An American Werewolf in London, the story just…stops.  There is no wrapup, no denoument, no validation.  It just stops.

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.  I caught him, yes, I held him–it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

That’s the last paragraph of the story.  We don’t get what happened to the governess, what happened when that was the end of the story among the friends listening, or what happened with the narrator, as he wrote that all down.

Everyone talks about how the plot of The Turn of the Screw is about whether or not the two children were seeing ghosts or had just gone mad–or whether the governess had seen ghosts, etc.

Nobody talks about how the governess could have just been writing fiction–nobody has heard of these two kids dying in the first place–or how Douglas could have written this–there’s a hint in the beginning that he did (“But Douglas, without heeding me, had begun to read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author’s hand”), or it could have been the narrator making all this up.  Clearly, Henry James made all this up–but which, if any, of the successive levels of narration are unreliable (if any?).  Is there a truth or a falsehood to this narrative at all, or is it all in the reader’s mind?

Is this a story more about readers than it is about ghosts?  About how we forget that we’re reading a story at all?

As far as I can tell, the shape of this plot is a downward spiral, not just in “madness,” but into what makes a story in the first place.

 

(A note on the pacing and style in The Turn of the Screw.  The sentences and paragraphs tend to be long, full of clauses and punctuation–and interruptions–and multiple layers of reality; a paragraph isn’t just a straightforward relation of events, but a description of how the governess tells the story of what happened to Mrs. Grose, that shifts into straight narration of what happened, completely ditching the level of narration by the end of the paragraph sometimes.

Example:

Mrs. Grose watched them with positive placidity; then I caught the suppressed intellectual creak with which she conscientiously turned to take form me a view of the back of the tapestry. I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority–my accomplishments and my function–in her patience under my pain.  She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan.  This had become thoroughly her attitude by the time that, in my recital of the events of the night, I reached the point of what Miles had said to me when, after seeing him, at such a monstrous hour, almost on the very spot where he happened now to be, I had gone down to bring him in; choosing then, at the window, with a concentrated need of not alarming the house, rather that method than a signal more resonant.  I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge. As soon as I appeared in the moonlight on the terrace, he had come to me as straight as possible; on which I had taken his hand without a word and led him, through the dark spaces, up the staircase where Quint had so hungrily hovered for him, along the lobby where I had listened and trembled, and so to his forsaken room.

This whole book is like an unclosed parenthesis.

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