Thursday, February 25, 2010

Easy as A, B...

There's a common plotting trick, called the A Plot and the B Plot. I first heard of in reference to episodic television, but it can work as well any media. The basic idea is to have two running plots in the same setting and period of time.

The first plot, designated A, is in the forefront, involving major action and lead characters. The other plot, plot B, often involves peripheral characters and is likely less significant to the overall story.

I would argue that the overall work is stronger if the running plots are somehow related. I've seen shows were it felt like the two plots weren't even from the same writer -- and given the production schedules of weekly television, I suppose that's entirely possible. I can see at least three obvious degrees of interaction. From strongest to weakest, they are:

The two plots are connected, either in their action or thematically. The solution of one plot's conflict may contribute to (or even further complicate) the ultimate resolution of the other. (And generally, the A plot, being larger and more important, is resolved last.) Even a thematic link makes the overall story stronger.

The two plots have nothing to do with each other. This can still work, but it creates more of a balancing issue to make sure one plot doesn't completely outweigh the other. On the plus side you can cover more bases, maybe an action or mystery plot on one hand and a drama or comedy on the other.

Missed Connection
This one is bad and I've seen it happen. In this sad scenario, there is an obvious way that the plots should interact, but they don't. The characters involved in plot B find evidence that the hero of plot A needs, for example, to resolve a mystery. But even though the characters meet and discuss their respective plots, the plot B folks never bother to mention that they can solve plot A. This is, of course, frustrating to the reader/viewer/audience.

Things to consider when plotting your next work.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mary Sue Jumps a Shark

Nobody writes in a vacuum. Orson Scott Card wrote a short story, "Unaccompanied Sonata," about a musical prodigy intentionally raised with no exposure to music so his compositions would not be influenced by the entire history of musical development the rest of us take for granted. It's an interesting notion, but its purely speculative fiction.

These days, it is easy to be information saturated. A couple of weeks ago I was looking stuff up online while in the middle of a parking lot.

So we might as well learn from it all. There are fan communities out there for just about anything. And they overlap, Star Trek fans posting on Battlestar Galactica sites (blasphemy!), mystery readers complaining about romance novels. People naming genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres -- magical realism, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, dark urban fantasy... Half the web comics out there have wikis, live journals, forum groups and more. Did you know there were Girl Genius groups in Second Life, including a crew of Jaegers? Then again, how could there not be?

I'm not advocating the idea that you have to read everything, but I think there is a benefit to developing a sort of cultural awareness of modern fiction. We can argue all day about whether it would be better to work uninfluenced, like the hero of Orson Scott Card's story, but I don't believe it's possible. But before you get accused of being a Mary Sue, shouldn't you know what one is? Knowing is half the battle, right?

There's a flip side, though. Should your work really be accountable to the opinions of the Internet hordes? Maybe you are well aware that you are rehashing an idea so old that it has five pages on Maybe that's the story you want to tell. And maybe you can tell it so well that nobody cares.

I'm just saying that there's a potential learning curve here outside just the craft of writing. Right or wrong, there's a world of critical opinion and thought (some of it admittedly not worth the paper it isn't even printed on) out there. Shouldn't we at least be aware of it?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

That Magical Feeling

I have observed, on more than one occasion, that the comic book sorcerer Dr. Strange conducts his fights in pretty much the same manner as the starship Enterprise.

Since the good Doctor can fly, fights for both typically occur in three dimensions, moving through a spatial environment. Both Dr. Strange and the Enterprise raise their shields, which are often depicted as taking hits and losing integrity throughout the conflict. Both the mage and the ship start with their basic energy blasts and then escalate to more powerful bolts. Against especially difficult opponents, new and unusual tactics are brought out near the end of the fight.

This post is not about Clarke's Third Law or its inverse. My point is this: For all that I enjoy a good Dr. Strange story, magic should not feel something that happens on Star Trek. So how does an author make magic feel more magical?

Even when accomplishing ends that can be achieved with science or super-powers, magic can use methods that startle, amaze, and confound. There are a number of ways to disarm a gunman in a story, but how often is the gun transformed to moths? Even better, being a weapon, the gun could change into steel moths with sharp wings that cut anyone they brush against until, when they are exposed to true moonlight, the metal flakes off and they become ordinary lunar moths and flitter away.

Magic can be subtle. A series of happy circumstances that might not have been magical at all, except for that crazy person claiming to have made it happen by lighting a single red candle at midnight. Magic is also often depicted has having a price, a cost to the user in terms of temptation, corruption, or risk to the immortal soul.

And magic can harken back to myths, fairy tales, legends, and stories. We have a great treasure trove of folklore giving us magic rings, dragons, and swords of power. Stories of shape-changers, tricksters, and unquiet spirits. Magic has its own recognizable toolbox, as surely as science comes with robots, computers, and starships. Sure, you want to be careful of being too cliché, but the archetypes do exist. When was the last time the Enterprise summoned a demon?

And for those of you poor souls who, unlike me, have no interest in writing stories with magic, consider this: The lesson still applies. Want to write romance? What feels right for romance? What are its elements, its clichés, its strengths? Want to write crime fiction? Same questions. Because your film noir shouldn't feel like a superhero story.

Unless, of course, that's what you really wanted all along.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The...ahem...Sex Scene

Any element of a story - from description to character to plot -- is essentially a point of information. The job of the author is to control the flow of information to the reader. Each scene is constructed to convey important data in an interesting way. Scenes that do not are probably not helping your story any.

So, the love scene... In a very, very broad, general sense, there are two types of information to be covered here. The first is binary: do they do it? yes/no. Are the people in question, in fact, lovers? yes/no. This is essentially a character point. The second datum is how do they do it? In other words, how much detail does the reader get?

The first point, the binary one, is fairly easy and also usually fairly significant. We can clearly establish that our heroes are about to do (or have just done) the deed, with all the action taking place discretely off camera. You knock on the door and someone who doesn't live there answers, wrapped in a bed sheet.

It is also possible to be intentionally unclear on this particular point, if that's what serves the story. Easier, I think, on stage or screen, where the characters involved simply exit the scene together with nothing implied either way about what happens next. But generally, the viewers want the character point. Are they or aren't they?

The second option presents much more of a decision for the writer. How much to show? A sex scene, like any other, can convey important plot and character points. It's a great place for a character to say the wrong thing, for example, or to show the reader just how well (or poorly) aligned the desires and interests of the characters are.

But all that is just whipped topping. I said above that every scene should convey important and interesting information. Sometimes the interesting outweighs the important. So maybe your sex scene doesn't exactly advance the plot. It's a sex scene! You wouldn't pay money for a kung fu movie and not expect to see some martial arts. You wouldn't pick up a romantic comedy and be surprised that it contained kissing.

Oddly enough, in the US at least, its more acceptable to admit liking a good exciting portrayal of violence than it is to admit enjoying a depiction of sex, but you know, we're all human here. A sex scene can exist primarily for its own inherent entertainment value.

Is that something you want to do in your book? Is that something you want to do with your characters -- and will it change how the reader thinks about them? It's another line item on the list of things the author needs to think about. It's a rather long list, I'm afraid.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Revealing Character

Character is a tricky bit of business. No two people, even twins, are exactly alike. But often all the characters in a novel or script are invented by a single author, who only has his or her ideas and experience to build from. Making characters unique and distinct is important but it isn't always easy.

Let's take a quick look at the different ways to tell the audience about a character.

One of the ways we judge people in real life is on what they say and do. The conflict in fiction is often based on the choices characters make as well. So it's worth paying close attention to the choices and actions of the characters. If you tell the reader your hero is kind but you show him being cruel, the reader is more likely to judge him cruel.

What Others Say
This one is a little tricky. In real life, we also form opinions about people by what others say about them. The admiration that the people of Metropolis hold for Superman is, in a way, part of the presentation of his heroic character.

The tricky bit comes when the person doing the saying is actually saying something wrong, either due to misinformation or malicious deceit. If the reader knows they are wrong, no problem. But if the reader is drawing the wrong conclusion about the hero, you need to ask -- is this the direction I want to take my reader at this point in the story? How difficult will it be to correct the false impression and how big is the dramatic payoff for doing so? I'm not saying it can't work. Just be careful. If you are misleading the reader, you want to be doing on purpose, not by mistake.

Objective Narration
All written stories, and some films and stage plays, have a narrative voice. Character information can simply be told to the reader: Mary never liked Betty Jo. This is often the least dramatic and involving way to present info, but it has the advantage of being clear and concise. If there narrator is truly objective and omniscient, they should never give false information to the reader.

It is important to note that first-person narrative is never (or at least should rarely be) truly objective and omniscient. First person implies a specific narrator (usually a person) with all the flaws and limits and reasons to lie that anyone else has.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This Post Isn't About Superheroes

"Batman" is not hyphenated. "Spider-Man" is. There is no rhyme or reason to it, but there you are.

Who cares? Readers care. And writers should care that their readers care. Because even a reader who doesn't care at all about the whole superhero genre can look at a sentence with Bat-Man in it and say, "That looks wrong." In fact, it will look just as wrong as mixing up to, too, and two.

I chose Batman and Spider-Man because they are invented words that follow arbitrary rules. They aren't the only ones. Taser is a brand name and therefore capitalized. On the other hand, eBay capitalizes its second letter but not its first. And there are weird exceptions to the weird rules. Scuba and laser are both acronyms and by rights ought to be in all caps. But they have fallen so deeply into common use that SCUBA and LASER would look odd.

I understand that mistakes happen. I have found typos in professionally published novels by quality authors (including, alas, some of my own books). But my point here is that certain types of words require a little more attention to get right. And where a given typo may appear once in a manuscript, this type of error will occur every time you use the word.

So when in doubt about a brand, company name, acronym, or other odd or recently invented word, take the time to look it up.

Oh, and for the record, both "superheroes" and "super-heroes" appear in common use, along with the less frequent two word version: "super heroes." I know because I looked. Sometimes the research just confuses things. Sorry about that.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Philosophical Question

I've been wondering... Let's say you have your story together. It's a good story. It has a well-constructed plot, interesting characters that grow and learn and face exciting challenges, strong pacing, conflict, all of that. And let's say it's well-written (or staged, or presented, whatever). The words flow easily and are evocative and concise. A good story. A story well told.

Is that enough?

And those three words lead to two more questions. Enough for what? And, What else is there?

You could ask if it is enough to please a reader or enough to get published. And I would answer "maybe, possibly" to both. But what I'm really asking is whether the work is done. Whether it is the quality bit of whatever that you first set out to write. Or does it still feel like something is missing? Like it doesn't quite add up. Like it doesn't say what you set out to say.

All of which brings us back to the other question. What else is there?

I guess the word I'm grasping for is theme. Beyond the plot and action of the characters, is the story actually about anything? Or is it just an entertaining series of events?

Taken together, my Witch Seasons novels are about the responsibility of power. I don't know if that is because I wrote them in a time when I wasn't terribly happy with the national government -- they don't contain any anti-government sentiment at all -- but the theme was clearly important enough for me to explore over four books. So I hope it resonates with the reader as well.

This whole post may be based on a false premise. If you have written a well-crafted story, one with character and plot and conflict and everything else, it probably already has a theme. I say that because you, the writer, probably had something you wanted to express or you'd never have gotten to that point.

And even if all you wanted to do was tell a story, the kind of story you like, the kind you want to share and see more of -- well, the reader is probably still going to find a theme. Because the reader is still going to ask: What is this story about? And because humans have a knack for finding patterns in things.

My real point is that you might want to think of these things first. Ask yourself what you are saying when you write your next scene. Ask what ideas tie your story together. After all, it's going to be your story, with your name on it. So what do you want it to say?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Style vs. Clarity

I've spent a bit of time on elements of plot structure and story development over the last few months. But recently, I veered off to discuss poetry. Plot and poetry -- both are important -- a story worth telling and a story well told.

You can have the best story, but if you tell if too plainly -- Bob picked up the ball. Bob threw the ball. The window broke. -- the presentation will be dull.

But it is also possible to go too far the other way. I have read (or, at least, attempted to read) published novels where the beauty (or, in some unfortunate cases, the sheer density) of the words obscured what was going on with the characters and events.

How do you know if you have gone to far in either direction? There is no one right answer, any more than there is one true reader.

Start by trusting what works for you. Put the story down and read it again days later, when what you meant to say is no longer stronger in your mind than what is on the page. Does it read clear and interesting?

Remember, it's a long road from blank page to finished work and it doesn't end until you say it does. And it's good to get feedback from beyond yourself as well. Some people like to have friends review their work. Some writers are blessed with professional and experienced editors. (There is always the danger that friends will be a little too kind.)

A story worth telling and a story well told -- surely that's a goal worth a little effort.