Friday, February 27, 2015

On Endings and Beginnings

Recent events – some personal, some not – have brought beginnings and endings to the forefront of my thoughts. I’ve decided to address them, and shine a light on how they affect writing.
These two simple words carry heavy burdens. Perhaps most especially they bring with them toils and strife in literature. Not just for the author, but for the characters, for the plot, and for the reader. Without a beginning, there is no story. Without an ending, nothing can terminate in a satisfactory way, thus boring readers with an infinitely long book*.
If there is no beginning, why are you writing the story in the first place? If there is no end, how do you intend to finish?

Let us first look at beginnings.
In short, the first four pages of a novel [or any other form of writing] are the most important pages in the entire manuscript. Even if the black moments of chapters twenty and seventy-nine will be the ones to bring your readers to tears, it’s the beginning that draws your reader to those chapters in the first place. Most editors, agents, and publishers will buy or trash a story within the first four pages.
That might not be fair; maybe page six is the most wonderfully written page of prose and emotion since Leo Tolstoy penned the second chapter of part fourteen of War and Peace. However, if you don’t have that same depth and emotion on page one, they’ll never get to page six. 

Every story worth telling starts at the beginning1. It is, after all, “a very good place to start”. This inciting moment compels the reader forward in a journey, whether metaphorically or literally. If the reader picks up a book, they’ve come with questions: What is this story about? Why should I read it? Will it bore me? Am I willing to invest my time and emotions into this work? Is it a genre I like? Who is the main character? What type of prose does the author use? Will it make me laugh or cry? Can it do both? Will I be satisfied by this story? Is it easy to read, or does it require more thought and contemplation? 

That’s a lot of questions, isn’t it? Your average reader won’t consciously ask each of these questions, but when they pick up a book – your book – they’ll expect answers to most of these questions within the first chapter, if not the first few pages. They’ll judge your book by what they first read. That’s often why books with professional-looking covers (or those with well-loved looks from hundreds of readings) are read widely. Sure, the proverb states we shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but most everyone does.
And if someone chooses your book, they want whatever is inside to far outdo the outside.

A good beginning does not, however, truly begin the story. For example:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

You probably recognize this line, even if you haven’t read the book to which it belongs. Ernest Hemingway knew how to start a story. While his story The Old Man and the Sea may bore a lot of readers due to its simplicity, this first sentence is an excellent example of a beginning that simply picks up the story at its most important part. The story could have started eight-five days prior, when the old man caught his last fish. It then could proceed to show us the agony of eighty-four days without even a single nibble.
It might be agony for the old man, and it would certainly be agony for the reader. We don’t want to sit around for eighty-four days while nothing happens. We do, however, want to be there on the eighty-fifth day, when the greatest fish the old man has even seen catches the bait.

A good beginning chooses the right moment to begin, even if the story starts earlier. A moment too soon, and you might bore us before you even begin.2

Endings are just as necessary as beginnings. In the words of the Doctor:

Just because we don’t like them (medical staff mentioned above included) doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
The ending of every piece of writing should satisfy the reader. It should make us feel like that was the best possible moment to end it. There should be no feeling of ‘they should’ve ended it sooner’ or ‘augh I hate that ending, so much feels unfinished’. 

At the same time, however, the reader should feel the need to turn the page, just to check and make sure that really was the end. We should become so engrossed in the story that we don’t want it to end, even if it’s the perfect end. If you get us hanging on your ever word, hoping and begging it won’t be the last, you’ve done your job.
One particular type of bad ending is what I call the Sequel Setup (considering what the acronym would be, I also call it the gestapo). This is when an author has another book or two or twelve planned, and so they purposefully give the reader a cliffhanger.

This isn’t so bad when you and I (the readers) can put down the book and walk away, with no compulsion to read the next one just to find out what happens next. A good example of a well-written cliffhanger-style ending is Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. Each book sets up the next one with a little bit of a cliffhanger, but you don’t feel like you have to keep reading.
However, when nothing feels like it resolved, the reader can (and will) get frustrated with the author. Even if the main goal isn’t fulfilled, even if the Dark Lord Couch Potato still reigns as immortal king of Couchkind, we want to feel some sense of conclusion. Something needs to resolve. Ending the book with Lord Couch Potato preparing to smash the main character under his pudgy thumb isn’t satisfying.
A good ending satisfies the reader. It leaves them content with the story, but begging for one. More. Word.

*as I typed this, I realized how fascinating that would be… a book that has no ending, and an infinite number of pages. I wonder how that would be stored…
1there are, of course, those stories that start with a flash forward, but with those, I would say they simply start at chapter two, the beginning, and chapter one is just in the wrong place.
2one way to start too soon is with a prologue. Next week I’ll discuss these special little beginnings, and their counterparts, the epilogue

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Dietary Restrictions of a Minor Villain, part 2

Last week I talked about minor villains, and their ability to be great, far greater than the majority of villains are these days*. A brief review, if you missed out and/or don’t feel like reading said post:
Your minor villain is an Ally to the main villain. S/he should be intelligent, terrifying, and easy to empathize with. They should stand for something, and deserve their moment to shine.

Where did I come up with all this? If it’s just something straight from my head, why not just discard it as my personal opinion of what a minor villain should be?

I’ll give you three examples (so that if one of them spoils something you haven’t seen/read, you can skip that one) of minor villains that meet these criteria, and why they fit them.

The first example will be from Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien), the second from Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), and the third from War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy; this minor villain won’t really spoil anything, because once you know if him you know he’s a minor villain. So if you haven’t read War and Peace, you can probably still read that portion of this post.) I’ll alert you when the spoilers for one starts, and when the next one starts. (Spoilers will be throughout, but I’ll keep them to a minimum)

First Example: Saruman

Well let’s look at this fellow, using the six tips I outlined last week:
1. He’s an Ally of the true villain. Few minor villains fit this category like Saruman. He willingly (and I find that key) joins Sauron

2. We certainly do detest this fellow. In fact we thoroughly hate him for several reasons. First, for his corruption of Theoden. Secondly, his invasion and desolation of the beautiful land of Rohan and its peoples. Thirdly, for his order to capture the Halflings of the Fellowship. Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), we detest him for his ability to sway men with his words. Everyone dislikes being manipulated, and Saruman is one of the best manipulators around.

3. being empathetic toward Saruman takes a bit more work than detesting him. In fact, empathy towards him may not even occur until the very end of Return of the King, when we see him broken, lost, and forced to travel with a much more despicable creature: Wormtongue.

4. This one is more subtle than the rest, for Saruman. Tolkien devoted more time on his story, and let things like themes, ideals, and such, form by themselves. However, I do think Saruman means something, something that can resonate strong for each person who reads about him. 

5. Saruman stands on his own two feet excellently. Well, more like he stands above his ten thousand orcs and palantir and orthanc and mastery of wizardry. Regardless of what/where he’s standing, he does a good job of it. Saruman is not just some pawn (even though he is), but he’s a terrifying opponent on his own merit.

6. Finally, he’s intelligent. Moreover, he’s one of the most powerful wizards in the history of Middle Earth. That alone makes the reader quake in their shoes/slippers/socks/barefeet. 

Altogether, when Saruman clashes with the heroes of LoTR, the reading is holding their breath. And when the heroes win, we cheer all the louder.


Second example: Draco Malfoy

Once again, we’ll just dissect this sniveling little boy with my six points:
1. This one is, perhaps, the least true for Draco. He is less of an Ally and more of a Slave. However, he still chooses to help He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named of his own desire.

2. Draco is good at making himself detestable. The way he treats Potter, muggle-born, and magical creatures makes us hate him. And it’s not just his scornful, bullying ways that help us grimace when we read about him. His parents are made of the same arrogant material.

3. Flash forward from the first book, across the years of ‘GRRR I THINK DRACO’S ANNOYING’ to the Half Blood Prince. Draco’s joined the Dark Lord of his own free will and now he’s paying for it. His parent’s failures have brought him to center stage as he’s required to do something for the Dark Lord. At first, Draco is excited, but the closer he gets to his objective, the worse Draco begins to appear. He’s haggard, depressed, and moody. At one point he breaks down because a little bird dies during his experiments. Even though we hate him, we feel this moment strongly. Draco is broken. And somehow we hurt despite his annoying nature.

4. The Dark Lord’s Ideal, I think, is Hate. Draco’s is similar, but he defines it in his own way. He follows after his leader, but is strong on his own two feet.

5. Speaking of his own two feet, he certainly gets his chance to do that. Draco is assigned his own mission, and refuses to let… certain people… aid him. He wants to prove himself. And that’s scary.

6. Draco is a leader. His minions (Crabbe and Goyle) are rather… dull-witted. But not he. Draco is clever, he’s well-trained, and well-equipped. So when he reaches his objective, and we’re hanging by our fingernails and hoping he won’t do this terrible thing, we’re terrified he will.

Last example: Prince Anatole Kuragin
This ought to be quick:

1. He actually doesn’t fit the bill here at all. He’s not an Ally of the main villain (France). He’s opposed to them all the way. However, he still does a good job of hampering our heroes and heroines in his own way.

2. Anatole is despicable. He’s a greedy, arrogant, lustful nobleman after his own aims, while all this time he flaunts his flaws as his perfections. We also dislike him because of the way other minor characters seem to flock to him, ignoring his flaws and acting as if he’s perfect.

3. Empathy for Anatole comes later in the story, when he’s wounded in battle. And (*SPOILER*) he loses his leg from said wound. The way in which he is suddenly rendered undesirable, bed-ridden, pitiful, and weak makes us sorry for him. 

4. Anatole carries his own theme with him to the very end, and does it rather well. It’s a theme we all hate, but we all hate it because we can identify with it in our own ways.

5. Anatole never does what he does because someone else wants him to. Everything he does is for his own gain, for his own purpose, and for himself. He stands for himself. 

6. In his own way, Anatole is very intelligent. He knows just how to charm in this way for that person, and that way for this person. However blind he may be in some areas, Anatole sure knows what he knows, and knows it well.


To wrap up, I’d like to ask you a question. Consider the minor villains you love, and the ones you hate. And then ask yourself: Why? What makes this minor villain such a great character? What makes this one a weak character?
Once you know why, think of your own minor villains. What makes them strong characters, and what makes them weak?
I was once told by a very wise friend [concerning theatre] that a strong supporting cast can make a weak major role look strong.
And I think he was right. Even poorly written main characters can begin to look better if they have good supporting cast. A weak supporting cast is like a weak foundation: nothing can stand on it forever.

*these days referring to a lot of villains from books and movies of the past decade.

I do not hold copyright to any GIFs, names, and titles presented herein. 
Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and War and Peace are all property of their respective copyright holders and are used as descriptive examples only.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Dietary Restrictions of a Minor Villain, Part 1

Seeing how tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate do discuss minor villains.
They’re interrelated, you know.


Really they aren’t, but I felt the need to acknowledge the holiday that provides me with a bunch of cheap chocolate.


Minor villains.
It’s a broad category, when you think about it. ‘Minor’ villains include your mercenaries, thugs, assassins, bodyguards, IT personnel, the main villain’s son/daughter who happens to be trained in half a dozen forms of martial arts, and all the other people who side with the actual antagonist of your story.
How many books have you read [or movies you’ve watched] where the minor villains are… incompetent fools? They sleep on the job, lose that all-important sword duel against the newly trained heroine, let prisoners escape under their very noses, they never [ever] hit their target, they’re rude, arrogant, and are dense as a brick wall.

There are people in the world who are idiots like so many of the henchmen in stories. However, if the villain is some kind of genius overlord with a secret plan to rule everything and kill the hero, why is he hiring the least capable minions?
In keeping with your Valentine’s preparations*, I want to give you six tips to make your minor villain a worthwhile character.

1. Think of the minor villain as an Ally to your Villain. Think about this for a minute. Unless your novel(la) has a cast of two, your Hero(ine) will have a friend or two, or even a random stranger they ask directions from. These people are ‘allies’ of the hero.
But what about your villain? Doesn’t he have any ‘friends’ or strangers he uses in his scheme? Of course. I’d venture to guess ninety percent of villains aren’t loners. So your villain has his minions and ninja-like descendants. If you have a minor villain, treat him like an Ally. You don’t make your Allies idiots1, incompetent, and under-developed, do you?

2. Give us a reason to detest them. Please note I’m not asking you to make sure your minor villains kill small children and kick puppies around just so the reader hates them.
However, they are villains. Why should we be rooting for the hero to take down the evil king’s bodyguards? Did they look the other way when a merchant butchered a street urchin who tried to steal from him? What makes the minor villain wrong? Why are they allied to the ‘dark’ side?

3. Create empathy2. Even as we detest them we need to understand why they chose the villain over the hero, or even over a non-committal stance. True, some minor villains want to be villains, but we need to know why.
Did their puppy get run over by the neighbors, so they want the chance to carry out some kind of personal vendetta?
Has the villain offered them a chance at something (power, wealth, freedom, glory, redemption, joy, peace, death)?
Are they working for the villain against their will (through blackmail, debt, a sense of honor, slavery, mind control, father-child relationship)?

4. Give them an Ideal. This can even be the same one as what the villain stands for (Greed, Lies, Corruption, Death, whatever). But the minor villain needs to mean something to me. In order for the reader to care about what is going to happen in this character (which we should; even if we’re rooting for their death, that’s still a form of ‘caring’). Emotional investment should not be limited to just the good guys.

5. Let them stand on their own two feet. When and if your minor villain meets an untimely demise, it needs to be worth my time. Often times the bad guys are just mown down with a machine gun or a few flights of arrows so the hero can get on with the final climactic moment of angsty struggle against the villain (who probably has immaculate hair even if they’re in the middle of a battlefield).
Have you forgotten about the minor villains who just died?
That’s what I thought. We just read that a few dozen people were just wiped from the face of the earth, but we’re too busy chuckling at the hairdo of our handsome villain and the melodramatic waffling of our hero.
*warning lights*
The reader should never read about a death and just forget about it half a sentence later.
Never. Nunca. Ne jamais. Etc.
If your minor villain has to die, make it count. When the Ally dies, plenty of people are affected, so should it be with the minor villain. Everyone has friends and family, even your scar-and-tattoo-covered security guard. With that in mind, their death is suddenly more significant to you, the writer, than if they’re just a nameless, faceless, friendless guy in a uniform.
Now that you know this minor villain’s death will mean something to those around him, make it matter to us, your readers.
6. Make them intelligent. Unless it makes them more real to the reader, your minor villains should only be as dumb as the Allies. In fact, make them four times smarter. If it’s impossible to sneak into the enemy camp to rescue the hero’s sister, thanks to your alert minor villains, the conflict, tension, and dread just skyrocketed.
‘But I need it to be that easy!’ you say?
No you don’t.
Your tired little brain has run out of ideas, and you are, consciously or not, taking it out on the poor minor villains.
What did they ever do to you?
Let’s all take a moment and collectively raise the IQ points of our minor villains by about 300.
Even if this sets your hero’s goals back by about thirty chapters, that’s perfectly fine. If your outline is now blown to bits, I’d get out the broom and start collecting the fragments. There is nothing, nothing wrong with adding a chapter or two or twenty because the story goal just got that much harder to achieve.
In fact, I’d give yourself a pat on the back. Your reader will now be sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting for the heavyset genius you now have for a bodyguard to pummel the hero [again]. When the IT personnel scramble the Hero’s communications we’ll shake our fists at them and bemoan our poor protagonist.
And guess what: when the hero finally takes down the mercenaries, when she figures out how to pull the plug on the IT department, when the dust settles, we’ll be shouting for an encore.

Bonus: yeah I said six, and it’s still technically six3. I just wanted to take a moment to point out how useful minor villains are. Imagine this: your hero [and thereby, you] are stuck in the middle of a dreadfully boring FoTAT, when the intellectual giant (as in, a literal giant) minor villain shows up. Suddenly the FoTAT is now a FoTATV (Forest of Trees and Terrifying Villains). Food for thought.

*I’m assuming that a charming person such as yourself has a lot of prep for tomorrow, yes?
1 There are, of course, those times where the ally is an idiot. That’s all right. Just make the minor villain smarter than them.
2 Empathy is not to be confused with Sympathy. ;)
3 If you’ll note, I put no number before the bonus tip, thereby keeping the official number at six. Shhhhh.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Concerning Death and Emotions

On Wednesday, February Fourth, my extended family laid to rest my great-uncle. He was 65.
I didn’t know him too well; to me he was just a face, a name, a voice. However, I knew several of his siblings (he is one of eight) very well. It’s strange, how the grief of others can be so poignant, even though one’s own mournful thoughts are limited.
Being the writer I am, I spent quite a bit of time during the visitation on Tuesday and the time before and after the funeral service itself contemplating the emotions of the people around me. This side of the family (my mom’s side) is very expressive. They love to laugh, love to talk, they love being with each other. It’s a pretty awesome feeling, being around so many people who are genuinely interested in just talking with one another (it’s a big group of people, thanksgiving with these folks normally includes a good fifty people, and there’s plenty who don’t make it each year).
During the service itself, however, I found it hard to concentrate on the emotions of others.
Partway through, my Great-uncle’s brother (we’ll call this brother Dan) wheeled himself up to the front. Dan had polio as a child and is confined to a wheelchair most of the time (on occasion he uses a brace). He brought his guitar, and played a song (this song, if you want a listen), a song that fit my deceased uncle very, very well.
The song isn’t what got me. It wasn’t even when Dan messed up in the beginning, or when his voice broke during the last line of the bridge. It was when, after he finished, Dan leaned his guitar against the speaker’s podium, rolled his way over to the casket, and patted it gently.
I think the emotional level in the room tripled.

A little later in the service another of the brothers (we’ll call him… Duane) got up and spoke a little bit.
Let me make a note about this brother for a second. He has the driest, most deadpan sense of humor in the history of sarcasm and humor. He’s just the funniest guy. I love being around him.
He even started his little speech at the funeral with a little play on words.
And then at the end of his words he locked up.
Not just like a little sniffle, choking on a few words, stammering and apologizing. We’re talking muscles tense, head bowed, hands clenched, mouth sealed shut, eyes squeezed closed, body shaking. In short, he lost it.
So did every single female and 80% of the males in the audience.
Oh wow that hurt.
Then one of my aunts said, “You can do it, [Duane].”
He nodded and after a second continued to the end.
The service itself was simple, small, and rather quick. The presiding pastor said a few words, there was a song or two, and that’s it.
But the power of those two moments were what really made it real. I didn’t feel very much because of my great-uncle’s death, I maybe talked to him twice ever. It wasn’t because he didn’t like me, or I him, we just never did. One of those things. But I knew both of these brothers. And they knew him. I’ll admit I just about cried at these moments. Not quite, but close enough (recent polls say I’m 95% Vulcan, 4.9% roman god of fire (coincidentally, also Vulcan), and .1% human, so getting me that close to crying was quite a feat).

Grief and death are used a lot in writing. More than almost any other form of emotion and loss, I’d guess. It’s written well sometimes, but often writers gloss over the grief. They need to get to the next part of the story, there’s no time for the characters to mourn. However, the reader needs those moments of sorrow. Without them the death really means… nothing.

I think writers often portray death and grief badly for one of two reasons:
1. The story isn’t giving them time. Say Tommy dies of a bullet to the head, and the bad guys are chasing his best friend Steve. Steve doesn’t have time to grieve for Tommy. He doesn’t even have time to tell Tommy’s mom and sister he’s dead. So the author, being so busy weaving together this plot of dastardly deeds and climaxing conflict forgets it altogether. At the most, he brings up Tommy’s death once or twice in Steve’s thoughts while Steve is hiding in a trashcan to avoid being killed.
But here’s the deal. If the author doesn’t give the audience, and Steve, time to mourn, to show how much Tommy actually meant, we’re not going to care about him. He’ll be collateral damage, just a number in the body count.
But Tommy shouldn’t be nothing. Tommy is a human being. His family are humans. And above all, Steve is human. If we’re going to care about Steve, he needs to care about Tommy’s death.
Sure the bad guys are coming, but there need to be moments (and more than just a few thoughts about ‘I wish Tommy were here…’) where Steve just doesn’t care anymore about the villains. They took Tommy. Is it worth it to carry on? Is it worth sitting in this trashcan in a stinking alley? Is it worth his own life to continue?
We need the chance to see how Tommy’s death is important. It should impact the world of those around him.

2. The writer hasn’t experienced death and loss. You’ve probably heard how you shouldn’t write romance if you haven’t had experience with it. I think death is similar.
Losses like death and gains like love should be treated with extra caution by those who don’t know what it’s like.
Have you lost someone close to you?
I’m not just talking about your great-great-grandpa who died when you were two.
Have you lost a best friend? A parent? A brother, a sister?
There are no words to describe it.
Especially when the person dies long before their ‘time’.
Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write death at all if you haven’t lost all your close relatives and friends, but death is serious. Death is a weight your characters will never be able to get rid of.
Treat the death of a character (any character, bad guys included) as if this person was your best friend or your parent or sibling. Treat death seriously.
Treat it like it’s real.
And you might even get us Vulcans to shed a tear or two.