Category Archives: storytelling

What’s the worst that could happen?

Learning new skills usually require learning things in the right order. It’s kind of pointless learning how to differentiate a mathematical equation if you don’t know algebra. It’s fruitless to learn how to form a subjunctive clause in a new language if you don’t know how simple verbs work.

It happens when you learn how stories work, too.

I had a revelation about stories the other day. I haven’t been doing much writing in the last year. A big part of that is that I’ve simply been living (I live on my own, well, with my cat), but another important reason is that I’ve been a bit frustrated at my inability to put a story together. There’s a reason this blog is called “Just Add Story”, after all.

Back to my revelation. I read a couple of webcomics on a nearly daily basis. One of them is Schlock Mercenary, a science-fiction action comedy set a few hundred years in the future. And the current point in the current story arc could best be described as “things go horribly wrong“. Up until this point, the toughs were doing something fairly tame. No-one was getting shot at, for instance. They were retrieving artifacts for some grumpy scientists and trying to appease a local alien race whose world they’re, well, plundering. Except these aliens have just now out-smarted the heros and have begun causing them a certain amount of chaos.

This happens fairly regularly in this webcomic. A large part of the reason is that the main characters running the show are not the sharpest crayons in the box – a fact frequently mentioned, but rarely successfully mitigated against. Thus we have all the things to Make A Good Story Happen.

How have I not noticed this before? Well, I have, but I wasn’t ready to learn it. What happens is the writer goes “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” – and then proceeds to do pretty much exactly this. It’s not a new concept. I’ve seen it mentioned a few times by writers and readers on my Twitter feed in the last month. But now I was ready to learn it.

My current novel has languished for a long time. Some of the reason is time – but that’s actually no excuse because I often do find time to do what I want to do. So why was I not interested in writing? Because it was getting boring.

That’s when I had my revelation. The protagonist in my writing has lost his farm, his village and his livelihood. He’s been thrown into (and out of) a city he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. Now he’s following someone else who he doesn’t know well and who also doesn’t know what’s going on. However, he has his pregnant wife with him. She’s important to the larger story because she’s pregnant – but that isn’t so important right now. In fact, it’s kind of getting in the way. Meanwhile, our hero doesn’t have a direction in the story – he’s flailing around with nothing to do. And that’s makes for a story that isn’t going anywhere.

I’m guessing that experienced writers will probably say at this point: take the wife off him. And that’s the key. Do that and now he has something to do (get her back) vnd has to canvass help from a range of new acquaintances to figure out how to do it.

Basically, why would I give the hero a wife if I’m not going to take her off him?

 

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Handling Death in a story

Us human beings have a kind of macabre fascination with death. We always have. Maybe this is because death is a part of life. There are always things dying for us and near us. Plants. Animals. People.

Exploring death is a ripe subject for a story. In today’s modern western society, it has been said that we don’t see personal death as much as in other cultures or societies, nor as much as in past centuries. We do see old age death, though. I had a grandfather recently die basically of old age. And although it was sad to see him go, he was 71 and that is generally considered a decent length of life.

An untimely death of someone much younger is often handled differently. You might think that a violent and untimely death of someone we know, whether pre-meditated or an accident of circumstance, is not something the average person will encounter much if at all in their lifetime. But that’s not the case, as many non-caucasian people in the US would testify. So such people can and do tell stories to help share to those who have not. And also to help themselves understand the own reactions.

Anne McCaffrey’s famous novel The Ship Who Sings does that. It is a series of short stories and in the first one, we meet Helva (the titular spaceehip) and watch her story unfold as she begins life as a human brain wrapped in a spaceship. And we also see her as she falls in love and then sees her love killed in an accident basically right before her electronic eyes. It is a strongly emotional scene. McCaffrey is on record as saying she wrote this story as catharsis for dealing with the death of a family member.

The TV series Broadchurch also does this. It looked at what a death of a young boy does to the residents of a small, somewhat isolated British town. We see death dramatised on our movie and TV screens so much more than our parents and grandparents, particularly a most deliberate kind of death: murder. This story was an unusual telling, though. It begins as a Police Procedural. This is a modern version of the classic Murder Mystery story that’s been with us for decades and still makes for blockbuster movies and long-running TV series. Broadchurch takes one or steps in that direction, then does the narrative equivalent of stopping and taking a long look around. It is at that point it then becomes an exploration of how a murder creates ripples and waves in the relationships of the people in the town. Some people have to deal with the deceased not being there anymore. Others have to work out how to talk with others dealing with this. There are secrets uncovered, motives questioned and relationships sundered. There are many and varied reactions.

But that is holding a mirror up to the real world.

In speculative fiction, particularly classic Fantasy, death is not always permanent. Sometimes it almost feels like it comes with the genre. Almost. In settings like The Forgotten Realms there are numerous ways to be resurrected or to live on beyond death. This is kind of expected as its world rules are Dungeons and Dragons and in this world and others with highly pervasive magic systems, it is often possible to resurrect a killed person. This is not always the case, though. In David Edding’s Belgariad, resurrection is a highly dangerous exercise. It only happens when the plot demands it.

J. K. Rowling takes this further. Again, this is a magic-rich world where a lot of medical problems have magical solutions, from broken bones to the common cold. But not death. It is a key story-point in one of the later novels that even in Rowling’s world, death is permanent and irreversible. And it is significant that Rowling puts her characters (and readers) through the wringer over several deaths that happen. In fact, defeating death is the goal of the villain of the whole series. And look at what it does to him!

Rowling’s handling of death is a touch point curiously close to the real world. It was remarkable when I read it and still is when I re-read it.

But do we need to explore death in stories? In a sense, yes: it is an important part of being human. There is a certain fascination with it’s permanence and trying to put it off as long as possible. Or even entirely. And this is why stories get written about it.

 

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Another quick look at Show versus Tell

One of the pieces of advice frequently told to writers, particularly new writers, is to show what happens rather than telling what happens. It comes out in all sorts of ways. Things like “show me the frost on the grass rather than just say it’s cold”. Problem is, a lot of writing needs the tell component – it’s a kind of short-hand really and doing so for less important aspects of the story can help keep its pace up.

But sometimes you come across an example of show that can exceed what novice writers think is possible.

The following is a music video from a Korean group. Never mind if you can’t understand Korean. In fact, it works better here if you don’t because it tells a powerful story in five-and-a-half minutes with almost no words. Yes the song is actually relevant, but that’s beside the point.

I dare you to not feel the emotion.

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Let there be conflict.

There are many pieces of potted advice given out to writers. This is the sort of two or three sentence idea that is intended to address a specific problem. Or sometimes a favourite observation. Or just a favourite response.

Not that they can’t be helpful. One reasonably common one is that every scene needs a conflict.

Usually when people hear the word “conflict” they think of two people in strong disagreement, perhaps so strong as to warrant a physical altercation. Trench warfare is a conflict. Armed robbery is a conflict. Domestic violence is a conflict. But so is a mild difference of opinion. In writing, the term seems to have a unique definition.

Of course, a lot of conflict will be heated and/or violent. In writing, this is where weapons often come out and characters can be injured or killed. In real life that tends to bring down the force of the law on to you in the first world (not always, I’ll admit). In fantasy writing, you often find out who is quicker or more accurate with a sword or crossbow. Or who is just luckier.

But conflict in writing can and will take many forms. There is a conflict if someone has incomplete information and says something that betrays that. That could lead to another conflict if they don’t want to be corrected, but it could also be a process of gaining understand that involved a to-and-fro as they grasp it. There could be a conflict of motive, where two people want to achieve the same task for entirely different reasons. At first they could work well together, but because of the difference of motive there is a chance that this will devolve as they approach completion.

Sometimes the conflict itself can be mis-characterised. This might happen if one person sees two points of conflict whilst the other sees just one. You’ve probably seen this in real life where two people disagree over a fact, and then one makes it personal, which is rarely helpful and they don’t always realize they’ve done that. Now we have more than one conflict in play.

Writing conflict is not easy for me. I do not have a good physical reaction to the stress associated with high-levels of conflict and I struggle to not take verbal conflict personally. So writing scenes where this is needed can be stressful all by itself. Oddly enough, writing armed conflict is easier, as is a simple transfer-of-knowledge scene.

Still, that’s what learning to write is all about:  figuring out where your weaknesses are and bettering the skills. I know enough to realize that when a scene is not working it is because there is no “conflict” hinging the interaction.

 

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Review: The Gone-Away World By Nick Harkaway

Most books I read I have some idea what the story is. This one I did not. Instead, it came as a recommendation from a good friend.

I was really not sure where this story was going at the start. For one thing, it is definitely post-apocalyptic, yet the world is not completely destroyed. People still have a life that resembles what we consider normality. And then once things got going, we had a massive flashback to what is clearly before whatever forever changed the world.

Harkaway’s writing is what I would have to call florid. Current advice about writing encourages shorter sentences over long meandering description. Would-be writers are shown how to break a long sentence up. However, Harkaway meanders not just with description but with narrative and even plays with point-of-view. I find this a highly unusual style – yet it works here. He has clearly been developing this style for a while.

I was also unsure as to quite what sort of story was being told. Several times I wondered if a statement was being made about climate change, or nuclear war. Many many novels have been written down through the decades about what humans would do after some sort of catastrophe, either man-made or otherwise. But I’m not sure that that was what Harkaway was intending. Regardless, the actual mechanism of the Go Away Bomb is certainly unique. The pseudo-science behind it is certainly creative and effective. The full description unfolds in pieces as the narrator grasps it and the final pieces get ever more chilling.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still not sure what story was being told. There is definitely an exploration of coming-of-age early in the flashback. There are several personal reactions to a number of different types of wartime or war-like situations. And a couple of times the narrator has to deal with people not only vastly different to himself, but also to honest kindness from the same.

In the end, the story asks a really serious question about the right to make the world “normal” and who or what should or could be sacrificed to do so. And I’m still not sure if it really answered it.

 

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Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

This book is what Neil Gaiman does best: make the mundane meet the fantastic.

And I mean that in a quite literal way. In all of the Gaiman novels I have so far read (American Gods, Stardust and Neverwhere), the protagonist is an otherwise ordinary human being somehow thrust into or put in touch with an alternate world, sometimes by accident, sometimes by circumstance. Each does it differently, but each does it in a uniquely Gaiman way.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is no different. This time, the lead is a middle-aged man re-remembering when he was seven. And that’s an important detail that gives the book a frame. There is a single narrative, a single voice. Gaiman captures the peculiar point-of-view of a seven-year-old as a remembrance. All the action happens in and around an isolated farmhouse down the end of a laneway in rural England, one short of an even more remote farmhouse at the end of the lane.

It is easy to spoil this book. Too easy. There is so much that you simply need to experience for yourself by reading it. The titular ocean is a character of its own, though it is off-stage for much of the story. There are several cats with important roles. And there is another world complete with its own monsters and monster hunters that can touch ours in ways strange and yet completely logical.

There is loss, there are mistakes. There is hope and there is melancholy. It is a story both rich with emotion and room for the reader to add their own.

This is a story that shows you how to be happy with regrets.

This is a longer version of my GoodReads review.

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Write the crap.

It is a sobering fact that a successful author with a few novels to their name will have probably written several million words of original fiction by then. This is an uncomfortable fact that new writers have to both ignore and respect. Including me.

When you do get the writing bug and want to create The Next Great Novel, many new writers launch into it with a vague idea and just spew out a cascade words of undirected fiction. This is how NaNoWriMo is intended to work and some people create best like that, but there is a much older technique, too. And that is to write less than novel-length stories. Lots of them. Your first half-dozen might tap out at a few hundred words, but with even this little practice you will get better at creating bigger ideas. Before long two thousand words feels like not enough. Given enough time, ten thousand words will sometimes not be enough room.

However, it is still a god-awful big leap to go from a ten thousand word story into a sixty thousand word novel.

And I still cannot resist editing as I write, which makes my own raw output considerably slower than it could be.

So what do I do?

Well, I started paying attention to some of the more sober advice about writing. They usually all descend into: write. Write lots. And then write some more. No, still more. When you reach at least a million words of finished work, throw it all away and keep going. This is the writer’s version of an old programming mantra: “Be prepared to throw the first one away.”

Another way of putting it is that anyone has to practice a new task before they get better at it. Our brains don’t come with much pre-wiring. Unlike most mammals which can figure out how to walk in a few days, we need about a year. Any task needs practice. Although I did woodwork in high school, I’m still pretty crap at it. I still usually fail to cut wood square and easily strip screw heads. But I know it’s just a matter of practice. Likewise, I’ve picked up a few random phrases in Korean, but if I want to speak the language, I have to learn it properly.

Writing is the same. “Waiting for the muse” is a furphy.

Similarly trying to produce Great Writing means you first have to produce Good Writing. And that means you have to first produce Okay Writing. And that means you have to first produce Crap Writing.

So I’m trying to just write potential scenes for one or more of my Works-in-Progress. It doesn’t matter how well they all meet up. There will be conflicting storylines. That’s okay. Once I have a body that tells a more-or-less complete story, I can clean it all up into a coherent work. But there needs to be the writing to edit first.

After all, you can’t edit an empty page.

 

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