Well, it’s the beginning of a brand new week, and for some reason I feel like it’s going to be a long one. I can’t really explain why, and I certainly hope that I’m wrong, but it’s just the feeling that I have at the moment. So, last month I gave you a story challenge asking you to explain what Courage is. This month we’re going to look at Temperance. So, this is your story challenge today!
Your Challenge: Write me a story about the nature and meaning of temperance. What does it mean to be ‘temperate’? What makes us ‘temperate’ and how do we know if we are ‘temperate’? Is it possible to be temperate in the absence of temptation?
Hello everyone, Saturday has rolled around once more, and with it comes another philosophical story challenge. We’re going to keep this week’s short and simple. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings he used all the different races he created to represent different aspects of human nature. Loosely speaking, Hobbits represent the desire for simplicity and pleasure, Men represent the desire for instant gratification, Dwarves represent the desire for wealth, and Elves represent the desire for natural beauty. By combining all these races into once story, Tolkien succeeded in not only creating an interesting story, but also in delving into the realm of human nature itself. Your challenge this week is to write a story about a race of your own creation which represents an aspect of human nature in a similar way as Tolkien’s writings do. As usual, please keep your stories under 1,000 if you want to post them on here, but feel free to write more if you want.
Today I want to wish one of our followers, whom I know personally, a very happy birthday. Wayne, I hope that you have a thoroughly wonderful day! It’s time for a plot challenge, and to be honest, I’m not feeling particularly creative at the moment, so with no further ado: I hope you all enjoy yourselves thoroughly! So here are the rules for today’s challenge:
Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.
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Yes, the title is intended to be clever. Honestly, I think I did a pretty good job at that. We all know that the ‘secret’ to a good story is conflict. This is something that we learn in middle school English. Whether its internal conflict (man against himself), personal conflict (man against man), or conflict with the world (man against nature), it is conflict that makes a story interesting. This is one reason that I’m guessing very few of you have read Thomas More’s Utopia. There’s not a lot of conflict in that book… also, it’s about 500 years old, which probably doesn’t help much. Still, if the secret to a good story is conflict, the secret to a great story is that it gives meaning to the mundane. This is what makes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a great movie, and it’s something that I’d very much like to see more of in fiction overall.
Walter Mitty is, at its core, a story about a man who has to go on an adventure to actually come to the realization that he didn’t have to go on an adventure. Keep that in mind, it’s important and I’m going to get back to it. In modern fiction, and especially in the Science Fiction/Fantasy and associated genres, the concept of adventure is key to the story. Follow the genre back to its origins and you find that Jules Verne wrote about people who went on adventures, George McDonald did the same. Tolkien’s beloved characters weren’t so cut out for adventures, but Bilbo and Frodo both had them nonetheless. The heart of speculative fiction, even moreso than normal fiction, is the adventure. It might take the form of a galactic war, a mythic quest, or a noble uprising, but the adventure (as Joseph Campbell tried to point out about myth… you can ask Selanya, I am not a fan of Campbell) often has similar basic elements. However, one of the problems that I’ve found with a lot of speculative fiction is the idea of adventure for the sake of adventure. We don’t write stories about the cobbler who worked for 45 years to support his wife and children. Why? Because he isn’t interesting.
So, why is this a problem? Because adventure for the sake of adventure is pointless. We can, and have, argued for decades about the glorification of war and violence, the need for accountability in the portrayal of harsh subjects, the importance of including clear and real consequences in fiction, but ultimately having an adventure is not the answer to a meaningful life, and a lot of our fiction treats it like the holy grail. If you’re not happy with your life, have an adventure, make drastic changes, turn your world upside down… etc. Even those stories that impose adventure on unwilling heroes attempt to create meaning through that adventure, not through the mundane.
This is where Walter Mitty shines. Does the story have adventure? Sure, as we said, the basic building block of an interesting story is conflict. However, Walter Mitty doesn’t make the mistake of attempting to use that adventure to create meaning. Instead, it uses the adventure to make the point that mundane, everyday, humdrum life is where we can and should find meaning. My favorite phrase, and a keystone of the message itself, is ‘the quintessence of life’. This phrase is used to describe the main character’s devotion to his mundane job. Mitty is a character who devotes himself to doing his best at basic things. He doesn’t ask for attention, doesn’t demand praise, in fact, he isn’t really noteworthy in any way, and the overarching point of the movie is that this is the core of a meaningful life.
This reminds me of the message of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The author’s final message, after address the meaninglessness of all the things that we seek to find meaning in: obey God and enjoy life. Adventure is not what gives life its meaning. It is not the salt or the spice of life. Adventure merely allows us to appreciate the meaning that can be found in a day’s work done well, or in pursuing a devotion to God through obedience. The salt and spice of life are found in how we live day to day, and this is something that I would very much like to see more of in the speculative fiction market.
Well, I hope you all made it to the middle of the week. I know that some weeks can be difficult, and sometimes the middle winds up feeling like the beginning all over again. So, I just want to say that today doesn’t feel like Monday. Anyway, it’s time for a scene challenge, and if you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene. Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction. If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit. If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.
Your rules: You task this week is to write a scene of at least 150 words that is all one sentence. If you’ve been following the blog then you’ve seen this challenge before. Remember to make sure that the scene is grammatically correct, and that it flows well. Again, you might want to give it to a grammar nazi after you finish to make sure that your grammar is solid. Your cue: “It would never be like this again…”
A few weeks ago, I went to see The Book Thief at the local Dollar Theater. [NOTE: vague spoilers follow, so if you haven't seen the movie or read the book, skip this introduction]. The movie was well-written, and I enjoyed it…mostly. Near the end, there’s a bomb strike and multiple characters die. Their death scenes were very powerful and poignant because the entire scene was understated. It was narrated by Death himself, and he spoke a few words about each character that reminded you just why you cared about them. I’m not ashamed to admit that this particular scene made me tear up; it was that well-written. It all fell apart in the next scene, however. A young girl holds her dying friend in her arms and he chokes out “I love…” just before he expires. At that point, the girl starts screaming and passes out. A soldier picks her up and starts slow-mo running towards the camera while dramatic, emotional music plays in the background. It was at this point that I got very angry with the directors. That entire scene was specifically designed to elicit a particular emotion from the audience. It practically begs you to cry, and it pulls out every stop to ensure that you do. I really hate it when movie directors or writers obviously try to force me to have a specific reaction…I don’t react well to manipulation, particularly when it’s so blatant. In this case, the sin was particularly egregious because the scene before it was so well done. At any rate, this entire long introduction serves to say that I want to spend today’s post talking about how to identify oversentimentality in your writing (and why it’s a bad thing) and how to avoid it.
So what exactly is oversentimentality? In this case, it’s manipulating your audience into experiencing a certain emotion, often sadness or nostalgia. Before everyone gets all up in arms here, let me say that I know we want people to feel certain things through our writings, particularly when it comes to poetry. We want people to empathize or react a certain way based on the circumstances we portray. What I’m talking about is doing so in a kitschy way that is forcibly created by you, the author, and doesn’t arise out of the text naturally. It’s easier to spot in movies because of music choice, camera angles, slow-mo movement, and so on, but it can be just as devastating in literature as it is in film. An author usually slides into oversentimentality when he or she drags out an emotional scene so that the reader is hit with every possible little detail that could cause a specific reaction. This frequently happens in death scenes when the author wants the reader to upset at the loss of a character. Often, this takes the form of an unnecessarily vivid or visceral description of the death itself (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin), or an in-depth depiction of everyone else’s response to the loss (some of Brian Jacques’ later novels have scenes that stray into this category). When an author forces a certain response from the reader, he or she divorces the emotion from the text. It detracts from the story because it’s not true to the story or the characters you’ve created. When I saw that particular scene in The Book Thief, it completely pulled me out of the story and made me angry because it was so blatantly manipulative. It was forced and not real, and it completely ruined the ending of the film for me. I’ve read books that cause me to have the same reaction – I respond to the word choice and technique, not to the actual event or because of the character(s), which is a problem. Not just that, but it often makes the reader feel talked-down to. It’s as if the author/film director believes the audience is incapable of experiencing the sadness/nostalgia/whatever of the scene without being prompted along. So if the manipulation weren’t enough, the condescension makes everything worse. It’s annoying, and few people respond well to it.
How do you identify and avoid emotional manipulation in your writing? Well, there is no clear cut “do this and you’ll avoid the problem” formula, but I can offer some tips. Whenever you write an emotional scene, put it aside for a while and then come back to it. Examine it thoroughly. Does each description need to be there? Are the characters reacting the way they really would in that situation, or are they overdramatic? Do you have too many descriptions? (Also: if it’s a death scene, is it raining? If there’s rain involved in the scene, you may have a problem). Have someone else read the passage for you. How do they respond to it? I usually have a list of questions ready for my peer editor for when he or she is done reading, so that I can judge the responses and tweak my work accordingly. Above all, don’t set out trying to make your reader experience a certain emotion. Let the text go where it will, tweaking as needed, but don’t set about trying to force it. Audiences don’t respond well to manipulation, and it won’t help you at all with your writing. Emotion is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.
Getting older is interesting. Most days I’m not actually conscious of how old I am at all. I live in a constant state of being and forget that I’m not 22 or 23 anymore. Other days, I’m acutely aware of how old I am, of all the things that I haven’t done, and of all of the things that I still hope to do. The human ability to put things out of our minds is, honestly, nothing short of amazing. Anyway, I have a story challenge for you. So, let’s get straight into the exercise. You’ve done this kind of story challenge before, but it is fairly complicated. I’m going to give you a series of criteria including genre, theme, some character archtypes, etc. Your job is to write a story that includes all of the features required in the challenge. If you intend to post it here, please keep it short. However, the complexity of this challenge often requires a longer story.
Theme: The Infinite Journey
Genre: Speculative Fiction (i.e. Any kind of fantasy or science fiction genre)
Setting: You’re choice, but it must be extremely large. This story could take place in a black void, in the desert wilds, in a grand forest, etc. Whatever you want.
1) A genius scientist/wizard
2) A silent warrior
3) A monstrous being of some kind (it doesn’t have to be evil, just something that we would normally think of as a monster)
4) A piemaker
1) The essence of existence
2) A human heart
3) A cheese knife
Well guys, Saturday is here again so I’m here to bring you all another philosophical story challenge. This week’s challenge revolves around the idea of redemption. It’s pretty much common knowledge that people feel a need for redemption. We know that we are flawed and we seek someone or something to redeem us from these imperfections. What is interesting is the nearly universal acceptance of the implicit idea that we cannot redeem ourselves, at least not from our character flaws. We can redeem ourselves for specific actions, but most people seem to agree that we cannot redeem ourselves from the parts of us that we dislike. For your challenge this week I want you to write a story about this search for redemption. I leave it up to you to determine everything else. As usual, keep the story under 1,000 words if you want to post it on here, but feel free to write more!
So, it’s Friday, and that means that it’s time for me to give all of you a plot challenge. Today’s plot challenge is a basic one. I’m going to give you a setting and a few characters, and you’re going to give me story plots that use them.
Your Setting: A Sunday Cafe. This could be a fantasy, science fiction, or modern world, and you are welcome to change the characters to suit, but it is definitely a cafe.
John Tarkington: John is a local scholar of some note, though he has yet to make a name for himself on the national/international scene. He spends his days either in the library researching, or writing in the cafe. No one really knows where he gets his money, but he always seems to have enough.
Sally Laels: Sally is a waitress in the cafe. She loves her job, but has always dreamed of being more… something. Growing up she alternately dreamed of being a wife and mother, or a fighter pilot (dragon rider/space navigator/etc).
May Flowers: May grew up in a small home and always assumed that she’d be a housewife. However, when she was sixteen her amazing voice got her a recording contract (audition with the district lord/etc) and she’s been a professional musician ever since. However, she never finished school and is currently recovering from an injury that may have damaged her vocal cords.
Shaun Linder: Shaun is the owner of the Cafe. He spends most days trying to figure out how to make sure that everything is running smoothly, especially since they’ve been so busy lately. By nature Shaun is a workaholic and micro-manager, and busy times tend to make him even worse.