Thursday, February 17, 2011

Concerning Dungeons and Sonnets

So I was designing a dungeon the other day (if you need to ask, the answer would  disappoint) using ready made architectural tiles.  It reminded me of writing sonnets.

Just using pen and paper for my map would have been faster and easier.  But the result would be less impressively three dimensional. 

The question has been asked – why, if your poem could be anything, would you accept the limits of the sonnet form? Why write a poem of exactly 140 syllables, no more, no less?  The answer is that sometimes limits force us to use our creativity.  Finding just the right word that fits the requirements of the sonnet means digging through the unused portion of your vocabulary.

The results – dungeon or sonnet – are different than your usual work.  And sometimes the results will surprise you.

And it is true of any art form.  Writing for the stage, for example, has very different limits than writing for a movie.  How we meet these challenges – well, that’s where the fun is.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Strange Reverses

Conventional writing wisdom tells us that dramatic interest is generated by placing characters in conflict.  I’m  not saying it isn’t true, but I’d like to mention a couple of effective techniques I’ve seen that run a little bit counter to the notion – The Reversal and the Optimistic Cliffhanger.

Readers and audiences are quite accustomed to the notion of conflict in stories – they expect to see their heroes in peril (for horror and adventure stories) or in some emotional, social, or moral turmoil.  But they also like to see conflict resolved.  And it’s fun when the resolution doesn’t occur quite when you’d expect.

The Reversal is an old literary device when the fortunes of the protagonist change suddenly and unexpectedly.  The cool bit is that it works when the change is in favor of our hero.  It works particularly well when our hero creates the change in fortune, so his or her actions save the day. 

Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen anyway?  Sure, but the key to the Reversal is that it happens at an unexpected time.  Also, the Reversal isn’t necessarily the point where everything is tied up nicely with a pretty bow on top – its the point where things turn in favor of the hero, who may still have a fair bit of work to do before all conflicts are resolved.  But now, for the first time in several pages, we’re looking forward to the resolution instead of dreading it.

Not wanting to give specific spoilers here, but the second Star Trek movie, Wrath of Khan includes a great reversal if you need an example.

There’s a newer, similar technique that I’ve observed primarily in serial entertainments such as TV shows and comic books.  It doesn’t have an official term that I’m aware of, so I’ll call it the Optimistic Cliffhanger.  In a traditional cliffhanger, the episode stops at the worst possible moment for the hero.  (Note that cliffhangers work in novels, too – look for them at the end of chapters.)

The Optimistic Cliffhanger occurs when the episode ends a few minutes later – just after the hero has escaped from the trap.  The dramatic tension that keeps the pages turning, that keeps us coming back for the next episode, is generated by the promise of what the hero is going to do next.  Instead of ending when the villain plunges the hero into the tank full of sharks, it ends with the hero soaking wet, heading after the villain and grinning, “Now it’s my turn!”

It is interesting to me that both of these techniques draw their power from the promise of resolution.  They form that dramatic points in which the hero starts to create the resolution of the story, the point where we as readers suddenly realize that success might actually be possible.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Points of Interest

The hero of your story has just arrived at a remote village.  The village serves some plot function – maybe it is a place for the hero to rest and recover, or learn something, or maybe it needs to be defended against hordes of killer penguins.

But aside from its plot function, it’s really just a village.

How to we make it something more?  The key here is providing points of interest to our audience.  Something to make the place real, to make the people of the village come alive.

First, there are the minor details that add up.  Does the village have interesting street names? Does it grow crops, raise horses, sell the best  household waste disposal robots in fifty parsecs?  Then there are the living details – maybe there’s a funeral going on when our hero arrives.  Or a romance going on between the farmer’s son and the blacksmith’s daughter.

What does any of this have to do with the advancement of the plot?  Absolutely nothing.  Which means there is a danger of spending too much time and attention on it.  But without something, the village is boring.

And authors never want to be boring.

Besides, some side detail may grow into something important.  These happy moments happen in writing.  It’s part of the creative process.  The blacksmith’s daughter may remind our hero of something important.  Or maybe the best household waste disposal robots in fifty parsecs are just what we need to deal with those pesky penguins.