Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Taste of Reality – When Physics and Fiction Collide

(yes, I'm posting a day early, but I'll be without access to the internet from my laptop over the weekend, so.)

Hyperspeed travel.
The Force.
Fresh cookies.

What do these all have in common?
They defy physics in one way or another. And most of them are fictional (cookies just pack too much goodness to be abiding by physical laws). You can find any number of these things in your local library, at the cinema, and possibly in your own writing.

But… they defy physics.
They are impossible by definition. Hyperspeed travel breaks what we know to be true about the speed of light and the atomic structure of the matter  hat is supposedly moving faster than that light. Legolas seems to have no moment of inertia, no transfer of momentum, and an uncanny ability to not run out of arrows (final The Hobbit movie excluded). Shapeshifting unpacks and re-packs matter without caring about the universal truth of density equaling mass over volume. Cookies taste way too good to be realistic when fresh.

Yet… we read about them, watch them, cheer them on, and… accept them.
Let’s take a look.

Suspension and Hyper-Suspension

When we write, we attempt to create a new reality. It’s not identical to ours, unless we’re writing nonfiction. But at the same time… it’s best not to stray too far. The farther from our world you wander, the less your reader will believe.

Take the idea of shapeshifting, for example. If you have a human who can turn into a dog, we’ll accept them. You have two natural things you’ve taken and turned into one unnatural thing.

But when you have an alien with seven hands and no mouth morph into four separate little balls of fur that say “meep” repeatedly, it takes a lot more work to believe and understand.
It can happen, of course. We can believe you. It just… takes a lot more work. I can easily imagine a human morphing into a dog (partially because the idea of werewolves is similar and said idea has been around for generations), but I’m already having difficulty picturing an alien with seven hands and no mouth.

This believing of unbelievable things is called suspension of reality. Your reader gives you the benefit of the doubt and will accept what you offer. To an extent.
After all, it’s your job to create for me – the reader – a world that mirrors our own. If it doesn’t mirror ours, there’s nothing for me to come away with that is tangible and real. Rather, all I can take from it is that your world is cool, mine is not.
Is that the point of writing?
Something says no, to me. Maybe something else tells you yes. But okay.
Suspension can take your story a million places. It varies by reader, but generally stretches farther than you’d expect, but shorter than you wish. A reader of fantasy or science fiction will be more willing to believe that a human can transform into a dragon despite the fact that the mass of the dragon stuff into a human would make the human figure extremely heavy and… yes anyway. A reader of Victorian historical fiction and memoirs is less likely to allow you to do such a thing.

So suspension depends on the audience. It also depends on you. When you set up your story for suspension [by title, genre, and quickly establishing the setting in the first chapter], you can get away with more. If you’re writing a story in the Wild West, don’t introduce cyberpunk elements halfway through your story.
The second you do, the suspension snaps and slaps you repeatedly in the face. And stomach. And face. Mostly the face.

When you reach beyond the boundary of your target reader, they’ll stop believing you. Anything you say after you break the wall of belief will be ignored. Including your theme, the beautiful things you wanted your reader to see through your character.
Kicked out the door because you broke a law of physics.
Take Legolas.
I, for one, am willing to allow Legolas to do any number of things: slide down stone stairs on a shield, walk on top of snow, swing himself about a horse’s neck without affecting the horse, and even balance atop the heads of dwarves sitting in barrels floating down a bunch of rapids.
Because he’s Legolas. He’s set up to be that way. Legolas is an elf, the fleet-footed immortal who can hide in broad daylight and trick the cleverest of dwarves without a thought.
But then, during the last Hobbit movie, he does something… odd. There’s this bridge/tower thing spanning a long fall, and it’s crumbling. Legolas is sent tumbling downward, along with most of the bridge-thing, but he starts to climb up the falling bricks.

Why does this extend suspension too far? The second I saw it, an image of the old Mario games was superimposed over the screen. Legolas became a pixelated Italian guy with a red cap. He bounced up bricks suspended on… nothing?
Now this sounds like something Legolas would do, right?
Yes and no.
Truth is, I would have believed this scene if there had been a hint of physics to it. But no, momentum and gravity stood idly by as Legolas put his full weight (no matter how little that may be) on falling bricks without their seeming to be affected.
How? How?

No one knows, I guess. Bad editing? Poor storyboarding?
Regardless, Legolas broke the wall of believability and it took me the better part of the remainder of the movie to regain that trust of the movie’s actions. I became so cynical after that part of the movie that I found half a dozen flaws that no one else around me seemed to notice.
They didn’t notice because his anti-physics didn’t affect them as much.
There’s the burden of the individual.
And the burden of the author.

A Delicate Line Ten Miles Wide

In that last example, the suspension was broken because I stopped believing. Others around me hardly noticed.
There’s always a chance you’ll break someone’s suspense. If I write a fantasy book, I don’t expect a lot of eighty-year-old ladies who’ve never read fantasy before to be impressed. But I can get away with a lot if I write that same book for an eight-year-old boy.

How do you decide where to stop?
I actually have two simple things for you to follow:
-Newton’s first law
-The indestructability of matter

What are these?
Let me explain:

Newton’s Third Law

You probably know this one from your science class, or from hearing it as a proverb of some kind. Wherever you hear it, it’s the quickest way to maintain that suspension while pushing the boundaries of “fantastical”.

Newton’s third law of Motion is as follows: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

So when you push on a rock, it pushes back. When your character creates heat in one area by magic, some other place has to become cold. When your character climbs by jumping up falling rocks, each step makes the rock stepped on fall faster.
Now I don’t expect you to be able to follow this law – or any of Newton’s laws exactly. That’s impossible in most fantasy and science fiction settings. If you break the second law of thermodynamics ("the entropy of the participating bodies of a system must always increase or stay the same") to use your magic system, you’ll be okay.
Because not too many people really understand what in the world that law actually means. If your magic system doesn’t quite fit the idea of stable or increasing entropy, that’s okay.

But when actions don’t have consequences, you begin to unravel what your reader understands and is willing to accept.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

The Constancy of Matter

There’s this saying: “matter cannot be destroyed”. While not wholly true, it should be true for you. Unless your story deals heavily in antimatter, at which point I hope you have a degree in some sort of nuclear science, yes?

Here’s the deal: don’t “annihilate” stuff left and right. When your Dark Overlord of the hummingbirds starts vaporing planets with his laser vision, everything falls to pieces, including your story. First, for using a hummingbird as your villain. Second, because “vaporizing” matter is hard, and is really more complex than just “destroying stuff with red light”.

Well… I guess it’s that simple. Science lesson is over.

Diversity in Reality

Oh here I go again.
Connecting everything to this topic. I’m so good at this. Meanwhile, what I’m about to say is true. So pay attention.
Letting your story be real allows it to be diverse.
When you follow simple rules of physics, your reader is less distracted by the otherworldliness of your dragon-morphing platypus and more engaged by the story and theme.

Physics isn’t always a pretty subject. I mean, it’s a lot of math and critical thought. Thankfully we don’t have to use all of it.
Just a little goes a long way.

Related Posts:

Featured Post: 
"The Ultimate Canadian Love Story" (Very Serious Writing Show [podcast])

Monday, April 25, 2016

Prose Blip – Varying Sentence Structure

Here’s a topic you’ll often hear about from your essay writers and English professors: you need to vary your sentence structure.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’ve probably seen those little “examples” of how changing sentence structure can make your prose stand out.
So you know this topic up and down, back and forward, right?

I know you know it. So… why am I addressing it at all?
Because there’s more to it than simply injecting semicolons and single-word sentences. I’m here to show what that more is, today.
Right about…

The Emotion of Variance

Most of us have heard of this quote, and it’s a very clever way to describe what is happening when you vary sentence structure, and when you do not.
The ears get bored… or in this case, your mind gets bored.
Not my image, found via Google, no copyright infringement intended
When over and over it hears/reads the same, same sentence. The actual length of the sentence hardly matters. If you have a series of single-word sentences, they’ll become just as boring as a line of five-word sentences.
Don’t do it.
But why? Why is reading the same style of sentence over and over so… boring?

The answer lies in what you attempt to create with each sentence you write.
A story?
Well… technically yes, but not /that/ creation. The other one. Yeah, go to the left of story one. There it is, ruffle its hair for me.
(For the record, Conflict is on the right of Story.)

With each sentence you write, you attempt to create emotion. For instance, I attempted just now to create the emotion of “amusement” in you. It might have worked, it might not have. But I tried.
Other times, I attempt to create interest, surprise, empathy, intrigue, gratitude, and any number of other emotions.

When all your sentences are the same, they become stale. They repeat the same thing over and over until it means… nothing. Nothing at all. Your emotion leaves, giving you only words. Fruitless words.

The Importance of Words

Back in January I talked about the importance of color, and the same idea can be applied to the sentences you right.
Where color can bring your story to life, words can bring the emotion and conflict to life. It’s so easy to imagine the idea that color can do those things, but sentence structure?
It’s hard to grasp, but it’s true.

And so. There has to be some sort of guidelines right? Some fixed set of rules about “use this set of sentences to achieve maximum emotion”, right?

Well… sort of.

Structural Guidelines

Language is fluid. It’s always changing; one moment a phrasing or word order may be unacceptable, then the next it’s common. Go back a hundred years – or less – and you’ll find that “shall” was just as common as “will”, because people used the words “properly”. Nowadays, it’s “proper” to use either one.
Ignoring the prudes who refuse to believe in the evolution of language over time, what is “proper” is hard to pinpoint.
Go back that same hundred years and you’ll find hardly a contraction. It just… wasn’t common. Rather, people used the “proper” full term.
Now, if you try to avoid contractions altogether in your story, we’ll complain of stiff dialogue, stale narrative, and dulled prose.

So here’s the deal: I can only give you general “ideas” for what in the world you can do to vary sentence structure to the maximum benefit for your story.

First, don’t be afraid of the single word sentence. Your word processor will immediately mark it as a “sentence fragment”, but that’s all right. Word processors don’t understand aesthetics or artistry of well-placed singular words.
However, you shouldn’t overuse the single-word sentence. It can provide drama and tension when used correctly, and melodrama and cheesiness when used excessively.
Don’t use it too much, but do use it.

Secondly, use small paragraphs. This is the big picture of sentence structure, but it’s just as important. I’m going to keep this short and sweet: a paragraph that’s more than eight lines long on a standard page [8.5x11 inches], will weary your reader.

I’m not saying you can’t have long paragraphs. Eight lines is pretty long. I like to keep mine between two and five, and I can still get all the information I need into one paragraph.
This breaks up the text, gives you various chances to start new subjects, new descriptions, new emotions. And your reader won’t get “Text Wall” migraines.

Thirdly, long sentences are just as good as short ones. People hate on run-on sentences, but those same sentences can be the ones that pack the most punch and create more emotion impact than a dozen four-word sentences can: to the point where it only becomes a problem to have rambling sentences when the reader attempts to read the book aloud to a child or for an audio book.
Got it?

Lastly, purple prose is only bad in large chunks. Simple words are not always the best words. We like to talk about strong verbs (versus passives ones), but we also like to talk about how evil “purple” prose is. Want an example of purple prose? I give you example 1A: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

This rose–bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it, or whether, as there is far authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the prison–door, we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

I take this quote from first chapter of his book to show you: purple prose can be beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of Hawthorne because his descriptions can get exhaustive (I mean… when you dedicate an entire chapter to the description of one character, you’re going a bit far), but at the same time… he knows how to use words.

Don’t be afraid to use esoteric words. If your reader has to get out the dictionary once in a while, that’s okay. It means you’re making your reader grow.

And… isn’t that the point of writing?

Related Posts:

Featured Post:
"The Ultimate Canadian Love Story" (Very Serious Writing Show [podcast])

Friday, April 22, 2016

Long Winded or Long Plotted?

“Series and Standalones, Part 2”

Last week, I rambled a bit on why you should and should not write a series, then gave you a few vague tips on how to go about writing a series.

They were:
-Pick a Story you love
-Outline, outline, outline
-Don’t give up

Today, I’d like to really dig into what can make a series good.

The Principality of Plot

I seem to say this a lot, so I may as well say it again: characters alone can’t maintain a series. As nice as characters are, most of them… don’t have the ability to take that much weight on their shoulders. Not even Atlas and he holds up the entire sky, ya know.

Here’s why: most of the characters who try to uphold a series are those who are “unique” or “special”. It’s where the “Chosen” cliché of the fantasy genre comes from.
But those characters have to be more than unique. They have to be strong, and they usually aren’t.

What do we use instead?
Plot or setting. You’ve got two other story elements to choose from (unless you consider the idea of theme as a main story element, which I will not for the purposes of this post) to support your story. Setting can hold up a story, but it’s got to be a super unique place. You’ve got to have such a well-developed world that few people try, and even fewer pull it off successfully.

That leaves us, obviously, with plot.
Yup. The princedom of Series belongs to that ever-elusive Plot. For many of us (the Wordsmiths among us), this can be a hard concept to grasp. You’d rather just write the book than waste time coming up with the content for it.
Others among us, the storytellers, will find it easy to come up with a plot to sustain a series of books, or a whole dozen series.

Here’s the deal: you can’t just have any old plot. If you want to write a series (three or more books), what sort of plot do you need?

Arcs within Arcs.

The hardest part about writing a series is finding the right length of plot. Oftentimes, your plot isn’t long enough. You set a goal, find a villain, juxtapose them to the protagonist, and dig up a few conflicts.
Then you write the “series” and find it all fits in one book.

Because you need more. A good series has a complex plot. You need more conflict.
For instance, say your character has to find a map. This map is at a mountain, and you want your first book to be the trip to the mountain to find this map.
Turns out, your character reaches the mountain in the first twenty thousand words and you’re left with the choice of this: combine the first and second books, or abandon the story.
Well, don’t settle for a false dichotomy, and try the third option lurking behind the masquerading two: lose the map. Boom, more conflict. If the map was your character’s only way of finding the villain’s hideout, then they’ve suddenly got to find a new way, find a new map or guide or visit the old hermit in the mountains who practices the cliché Old Magic.
When in doubt, don’t let the protagonist succeed. If they’re trying for something, don’t let them win.
Of course, too many defeats can feel rather morbid, from a reader’s point of view, so try this: every success has to set up twice as many problems.
So: if your character finds the map, that’s fine. Except you’ve got to set up two problems to cancel this success: perhaps it’s guarded by werewolves and is written in old Gaelic, which no one knows how to read.
Now you have werewolves to deal with and characters that have to follow a map purely by the pictures and guesses on the text.
Watch the problems grow: your characters have the chance to take the wrong road over and over and over, to meet new people, new dangers, new side plots, new friends. Your story can increase exponentially, with the problem-to-success ratio of 2:1.

Yes, this makes it sound like any plot can be used, but don’t get me wrong: the plot already needs to be big. You can’t use a single-novel plot and then create enough problems to stretch into three. That’s the common practice among modern trilogy writers, and it always results in awful second and third books. Instead your plot needs to come with enough ready-made information to last three or four books all by itself.
All you need is to create the problems between the big events.

The Other Stuff

It’s hard to write specifically about something like “how to make plots longer”, because it’s subjective. The problem-to-success ratio is really the best one can do when talking generally. If you really need more specific help, the best idea is to find someone who knows what they’re doing to help you brainstorm.

There are other aspects of series, however, that can be answered rather specifically. I’ll phrase them in question form and then answer them:

What Point of View should I write my series in?
Generally speaking, anything longer than a trilogy is written in third person. This isn’t a rule, but a realization that you’ll stumble upon when writing series longer than three books: one person isn’t enough. When your plot is that big, the perspective of one person can’t possibly contain it all.
That’s not to say you HAVE to write in third person. I’d love to see more first person series out there with more than three books. But, for the most part, third person results in a more expansive story. It lets you create and explore subplots that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Should every book end in a cliffhanger?
Don’t do it.
Here’s why: your reader doesn’t want to have to read your second book.
I know, that sounds weird, but it’s true. A reader needs the freedom to walk away. If you “force” them to keep reading by ending your book with a “tune in next time” scene, your reader will feel dissatisfied. Especially if they didn’t like your book.
Instead of ending with a cliffhanger, write a story worth reading more about. If your story doesn’t compel me to keep reading, a cliffhanger isn’t going to help. I need to read on because I want to read on. Not because I feel incomplete if I don’t.
I’m not saying each book has to resolve perfectly. Not at all. In fact, if your book resolves perfectly, that means it’s time to stop at the end of that book and not continue.
Rather, you need to end in such a way that says “you can stop here if you don’t like it, but please read more because you’ll love it”. It’s hard to describe what that means, so let me give you an example of a book series that does this well:
The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are a series. A series of seven, to be exact. They all feature overarching characters and setting, with a basic goal underlying the whole series. Each book ties into the previous, but each book is distinct from the last and the next.
If you read the first book, it ends in a “satisfactory” way, without solving all the conflicts. It tells us “if you don’t like this, you can stop, but we promise there are even better things to come if you keep reading”.

One of the best examples of a well-written “cliffhanger” ending in this series is The Goblet of Fire. In this book, He Who Must Not Be Named comes back. We see him, we’re terrified of him, and then we’re whisked away as the book resolves itself. We’re left wondering what in the world just happened, and what comes next. We don’t know if Voldemort is going to win, or what his plans are, but we do know this: Dumbledore and Harry will be there to stop him.
And, as the book ends, we feel content. Even as we race to find the next book, we could walk away from the series and not drive ourselves crazy with wondering. But we’re already so engrossed that we couldn’t walk away anyway, because we don’t want to.
That is how you finish a good story.

A book series has the potential to become one of the most beloved collections of books in the history of books.
It also has the potential to crash and burn and be forgotten or made fun of for the rest of time.

In reality, the way the potential slides is left to you: the writer.
It’s scary, but it’s also worth it. Because that potential of changing lives and making people fall in love with your story and characters is too amazing to just let go.

Related Posts:

Featured Post: 
Avoiding Lucky Heroes (Brandon) 

Monday, April 18, 2016

World Blip – Races

A while back I talked about diversity (and for several weeks after everything tied back to it because it’s a fabulous subject, for the most part) and today I wanted to return to it. 

One of the many ways you can be diverse in your writing is in the area of races and ethnic groups.

Now, I’m not here to blow the “write from other ethnic and racial viewpoints” trumpet because I find that trumpet to be rather shrill and obnoxious and blown too often, nowadays.
Instead, I’m here to show you how.

The Power of Diversity

My only trumpet blowing will be this: diversity is realistic, and therefore should make sense to include in your novel.
Not as a checklist (see my previous post), but as a genuine realization of “oh, these is what reality looks like”.

The specific type of “races” I’m going to discuss today is the “otherworldly” kind. You know, non-human races. When you write fantasy and science fiction (and paranormal fiction), you find yourself standing in front of an open door that leads to an unlimited number of options, any of which can lead you to diversity, should you so choose.

Well, let’s look.

A Taste of Fantasy

We’ve all read that one book or seen that one TV show that deals with extraterrestrials. You know, Doctor Who, Marvel, The War of the Worlds, Enchantress from the Stars, A Wrinkle in Time, and so forth.
These people (often non-humanoid) can be good or evil or neither or both, and they’re rarely a bad addition to the story.
Moreover, they allow you to create this sense of diversity without the sense of a “checklist cast”. And that is true diversity. When no one even notices it consciously, it means you’ve done your job.

For instance, take the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy. This is one of my favorite Marvel movies for many reasons, but take a look at that cast.

Sure, it features a white male protagonist. But take one peek beyond him, one little look over his shoulder.
Yup. There’s quite the diverse cast back there. I mean, the man’s got a green lady, a raccoon, a red guy, and a tree for a supporting cast and a blue-and-black baddie to face off with.

This single movie has more races (and thereby racial diversity) than all the other marvel movies will admit to. Heck, it’s got more diversity than most any movie out there.
And it has a good story, clever dialogue, and well-developed themes. None of which are dependent on the diversity of race and ethnicity. They are enhanced by it, nothing more.

Why not use races to enhance your story? Not only will they provide your story with some diversity, they can and will help bring your world to life. A setting that is new and real is more than just the latest magic system or government oppression.
It’s the people.

So let’s talk about that.

Creating a People

Worldbuilding is hard, sometimes. Even when it’s fun.
So how do you create a race?
Well, I thought I’d use one of my stories as an example… as I’ve done for the past few weeks.
My current project is a fantasy. If you didn’t know that… you clearly haven’t read the last several blog posts. I’ve been developing the world and plot for about two years now, and the first book is almost complete. Agram Awakens has four main races: human, darlo, melin, and dubin. I’ve created a few other races, but they don’t come in until later in the series. So yes.

{A slight note: when you create races, I would encourage you to avoid capitalizing them. It makes them stand out from “humans” in an awkward and amateur way. So if you capitalize the names of your other races in the narrative, do the same for Humans. *This has been your prose note, thanking you for not being amateur.*}

The four races I'm going to show you are humanoid; that is to say, they are bipedal mammals with human-like features.
With, of course, a few differences. In fact, they’re so similar that you could almost say that these other races are merely new ethnicities of human, as Caucasian and African and Oriental are all differing ethnicities of human.

Putting wordplay aside, these four races are as such:

Humans: well, humans are basically humans in my book… there are the various ethnicities of humans (AKA there’s a bunch of black guys at one point, and a bunch of white guys at another point, and so forth), and their appearance is more relative to where those ethnicities live than anything else. So.

Darlo: These fellows are marked by distinct scale-like patterns on their skin. If the edge of the “scale” is black, the inside is white. And vise versa. Basically, they have skin like a serpent, but the scales aren’t actually scales. Smh.
Meanwhile, their eyes are more likely to be metallic colors (gold, bright violet, metallic green, amber, etc.) and they have an extra finger on their right hand. Darlo, thanks to their genes, tend to be very familial people, and very loud. On average, their taller than their human counterparts, and more likely to smile, revealing sharper teeth.

Melin: this people group is, as a whole, very short. They’re quite pale, their skin darkening when exposed to sun. They are naturally quieter than humans. Their most distinctive feature is their eyes, which change according to the season. For instance, all melin have yellow eyes during the autumn, which slowly change to blue as winter comes on (it is speculated that their eyes change as the tilt of the earth and the angle of sunlight coincide with the feeling of “seasons”, since an melin’s eyes will change color when passing the equator).

Dubin: this group are very secretive, and it’s claimed that they can communicate telepathically. While this is unconfirmed, they are indeed very quiet and speak rarely to non-dubin. Their skin is reddish – like a brick – and very tough. Their pupils are similar to a cat’s. They tend to have little hair, and those with excessive amounts of hair are considered “rebels”.

I figured an example would be the best way to show you what developing a race entails, but let me go on:

When you develop a race, it can’t be for its own sake. Don’t create a race to create a race. It has to fit into your story world. If your world doesn’t need a race, why do you have one?

I wrestled with that question for quite a while: why?
It’s the most important question in writing, whether you’re developing character backstory or your setting or your plot.

For me, I created these races for the themes I could explore. I intend to deal with some heavy themes, over time. Racism is one of them, and so is hypocrisy. Through these races (I found that humanity alone is a cliché way to explore such an issue), I had complete freedom to create and explore those themes without the judgement of others on me for my choices in that. If I have a black human treat a darlo horribly because of the darlo’s race, there won’t be riots in the street.
If I have a dubin hate white humans for their race, no one will sue me.
So that’s one reason.

In addition, the idea of four main races(there are four minor races) also ties together several of the key religions in my world and creates a sense of continuity.

This also allows me to create diversity in my cast, as I have three humans, two darlo, and a melin as my main characters (if you’re curious about the gender diversity as well, two of the three most important main characters are female and the rest of the main characters are male).

So. Why do you have races? Why those races?
They’re important questions, and the answers can result in fantastic stories.
In fact, I’d like to hear them.
Do you have any races in your novels? What makes them unique? Why did you decide to include them in your novel? Leave a comment and share!

Related Posts:

Featured Post: