Come hear how a Dungeons and Dragons adventure module actually has a story. Then hear how an epic fantasy movie can be turned into an adventure module, and still keep its story.
Category Archives: storytelling
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?
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.
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.
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.