But I Thought That You…

May 29, 2010 at 4:29 am (Structure, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , )

It’s become almost cliche now.  The moments where in a story where two adversaries are facing off and they are playing mind games with one another that they each tell us their theory on the I know that they know that I know etc, etc.  And it can be exciting to see the twists and turns these minds take in formulating a single move (whether to smile at a certain comment, or would that be a give away).  It can also be exceedingly dull when neither of the characters are as smart as they think they are and their reasoning is both obvious and infantile.

What brought this up?

I’m rewatching Death Note – for the third time, yes, I know. I know.

I can’t help it.  I love the plot. I love a lot of anime but Death Note stands, if not alone than at least a little off to the side of where most other anime stand. There are no epic fight sequences and only a few explosions.  No magical transformations and gravity defying leaps into the air. Death Note is a thrilling crime story where both the killer and the detective trying to play the cat stalking the mouse and end up locked in one of the most intriguing mental play-offs I’ve ever watched (or read for that matter).

The difficulty being that the crime begin committed isn’t really a crime. Light has found a book that allows him to kill anyone if he writes their name in the book and can picture their face. The story is told mostly from his perspective though as the story progresses we begin to see more and more from L, our detective who has to catch a killer when he can’t even figure out how they are killing.

Both characters are brilliant, driven and ultimately, both are willing to die for their beliefs. Light believes he can create a better world using the note while L believes that the mysterious killer is evil and must be brought down.  Both believe they serve justice (though Light strays further and further from this path as the story progresses).

As the two characters meet and begin to work together to solve the crime there are many sequences where the action halts and the internal dialogue is expressed. Both characters are desperately trying to trip the other character up. Light needs L’s real name and L needs proof that Light is the killer and he needs to know how Light has managed it.

All and all, this series works and it draws me in completely. So what makes this story work?

Clever dialogue, intelligent reasoning and very few holes in the logic behind the story. As long as you can believe that the Death Note can work, the rest of the story works perfectly. Even the rules for how the Death Note works are clearly established and maintained throughout the story. Both of the characters are complex and their development is clear. Light’s transformation as he gives in to the temptation of the Death Note is both logical and yet mesmerising.

The only complaint I would have of this series is the length and the lull in the centre of the story. This is caused when L seems to lose his way and in essence gives up. We all know that if characters sit around waiting for things to happen, the story gets dull.

Have you got a favourite television series that has taught you something about writing?

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Rules for Writing Fiction

May 13, 2010 at 7:25 am (Planning, Structure, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , )

I visited a blog called the Life and Laughs of me the other day and came across a post entitled, Rules for Writing Fiction.  It is well worth a read if for nothing else than to get you thinking about whether you have any rules you follow consistently when writing fiction.

Personally, I disagreed with rule 8 on this list.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Personally I like being kept in suspense as a reader, as long as the revelation is worth the wait.

That said, number 6 – be a sadist – is an excellent rule.  Just because you feel connected to your protagonist and have spent so much time on them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t heap ruin and pain upon them. It makes for a far more interesting story.

So what are your rules for writing fiction?

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The Hero’s Journey and Other Things

January 30, 2010 at 5:50 am (Structure, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been thinking about a comment I received to my post on thinking outside the box about the number of fantasy books that do deal with the hero’s journey, either directly or indirectly. Largely these books are epic tales and involve a quest of some sort and our hero goes from naive and weak to brave and wise and strong, usually aided by companions and some form of mentor. And these books are great reads – though the farm boy thing has been done to death at this stage and not every wise mentor has to talk in riddles.

Anyway, I took a look through my collection of fantasy fiction and looked for examples of other stories that I’ve read. Automatically my David Eddings, Traci Harding, Ian Irvine, Terry Brooks collections were put out of mind. Ian Irvine may not deal specifically with the hero’s journey (it is kind of hard to tell at times who the hero of the story is supposed to be) but there are enough similarities that I’m putting it in this category for now. David Eddings earlier works deal with a farm boy who gets lead on a journey to save the world guided by companions and while his later works have some slight variations to the protagonist the basic quest and development remains more or less the same. So, who does that leave me with?

1. Barbara Hambly – Sorcerer’s Ward. I own a few of Hambly’s novels but Sorcerer’s Ward is my favourite. It is kind of a romance/mystery that just happens to involve a Mage as the one trying to solve the murder of her sister (before it happens) who is being thwarted by the witch finders of her world. There is some character development (as there really needs to be for a character to be really good) but Kyra starts out in this book a fairly competent and determined person and the guidance she receives from others is minimal.

2. Camille Bacon-Smith (I hope I got that right I can’t find the book again right now) – Eye of the Daemon. Another more mystery oriented book, mostly because the main characters (one half daemon and two daemons) run a detective agency. Throw in crosses and double crosses, multiple dimensions and the possible end of the world and you have a very interesting story.

3. Terry Pratchett – The Discworld books. For everyone one of these that sends a character on a quest there are at least three that don’t and deal with the every day drama of living in a very strange world.

I found many more examples but the pattern was quite apparent. The big names in epic fantasy do seem to focus on the hero’s journey and I think that is because it is what most of us expect from a fantasy. However there are a lot of sub-genres of fantasy and there are a lot of different stories that can be told. The same is probably true of any genre.

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Stuck in the Middle

January 2, 2010 at 10:12 am (Character, Planning, Structure, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , )

When I first tried writing any extended piece of work I would always jump right into the project and furiously write out a killer opening scene.  I would usually write about four chapters worth of story and then SLAM.  I would hit the wall so hard I would not be bouncing back from it and finishing the project any time soon.

It is a good thing I never delete stuff from my computer because I still have all of those openings and some of them are pretty good (in need of a desperate edit but the ideas were interesting enough).

The point is, I couldn’t write the middle of a story.  I knew where it began and I could usually have written the ending – I actually have the ending written of a couple of them – but I had nothing for the middle of the story.  It was a complete blank.  Why?

  1. Lack of planning (I am all for ignoring my outline and just writing what I feel but if I don’t write an outline in the first place I am setting myself up to hit this wall).
  2. Having no depth to my minor characters
  3. Not really understanding basic story structure

The first one was easy enough to overcome.  Taking the time to plan out the story and write an outline and even draw a timeline showing key events and just basically know what I want to write before trying to write it.  As I said before, I don’t worry about not sticking to it.  I choose to see it like a guide so those days when I have a complete blank I can look at it and think about what is supposed to come next.  Usually that will inspire me to think of what I actually want to write next.  Suddenly getting through the middle part wasn’t as hard when I had a map, of sorts.  I think if I tried to compare my outlines to a map they would be drawn in crayon and have been dropped into the water multiple times, but they are functional.

The second one came as a surprise to me.  Given I love characters and I build the story around the characters I create I would have thought that all of my characters were well constructed and had depth.  Turns out, they didn’t. Which made sub-plots and relationships really hard to build, which in turn made creating a story of substance quite difficult.  As I had to spend more time planning what I was going to write before jumping into it, I also had to put my protagonist and couple of main characters to the side and think about the rest of the cast of the story.

Finally, I had to look at structure.  I could blame being gen Y for this problem but I shouldn’t.  I have read so many novels and yet when I started trying to write one (as an impulsive high school student) I was the master of over simplification.  Introduce a problem and rush straight off for the final confrontation.  Umm…  Something isn’t quite right there.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know what the structure of a novel should look like, it was more that I was impatient, unplanned and just not ready to really write a novel.

I still find the middle of the story really hard to write and to keep interesting.  I am constantly looking for places where the story goes off the rails or drags and trying to improve on it but at least now there isn’t a brick wall sitting in front of me and I am no longer hurtling toward it in a case of story suicide.

How do you cope with writing the middle of the story?  Do you get stuck?  How do you get through being stuck?

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