Scene Challenge for the Day

Tobias is out of range, so he inquired if I could spend another fantastic day with you fantastic folk! I of course said yes. I’m going with scene challenge of the day, because I’m not sure if he planned another one this week. I’m winging it.

Lately, as in last night, I’ve been playing a lot of Civilization V. In fact, I’m currently playing it with my two brothers and my sister-in-law. We roll like that, and they take their time. I’m a little more knee-jerk on my stratagems.


In my game, there was a spearman that went north. He took out countless barbarians, their fortifications, helped city-states in places so cold the tiles they live on are labeled snow.

When he continued his march, basically at the hands of a cold, uncaring lord who just wanted to see how far north the snow went (I am still searching for the ice cap, which I find impressive), I wondered what that journey was like.

Throughout history soldiers were sent to northern reaches, in cold lands, in order to fight. They fought off barbarians, they conquered land, they put down insurgencies. Northern campaigns were a common occurrence throughout history, and here this spearman was enacting it for my kingdom.

So in the spirit of things, write a 1000 word scene about two soldiers around the camp talking about their northern march. Do they miss home? Do they have nothing to go back to? Are there stories of witches trying to snatch them in the night? Perhaps lost fingers to frostbite.

And that looks cold. DVIDSHUB (c) 2012 

On Star Wars: Incomplete Plot Hooks

Note: Might there be Star Wars spoilers ahead? Yes. Yes there are. If you haven’t seen it, or you don’t care, move along.

I saw Force Awakens on opening day. I didn’t plan on it. I planned on seeing it in two weeks on a Tuesday morning when no one was there, but some friends screwed up ordering tickets, so there I was, 10:55pm, at a movie theater two hours from my house, with meetings in the morning the following morning. I got home at three, slept until seven, and off I went. Because Star Wars. I’m actually now a massive fanboy. I didn’t see that coming.

Back on point. The one thing that caught me about the movie was the beginning was very jarring. We had some characters darting around with a sense of purpose, but I had no idea that purpose. There was the most daring pilot of the rebels, or New Republic, and I’d never seen him before. There was some scary guy with a lightsaber. There was a girl on Tatooine Jakku doing cool things in a downed star destroyer from some battle we have no clue about. There was a Storm Trooper who was black, when they’re all supposed to be clones of Jango Fett (so more Hispanic), and the Storm Trooper wasn’t sure if what he was doing was right. I mean, what Storm Trooper takes off his helmet and freaks out when one of his brothers dies? That and there was a woman Storm Trooper. I mean, maybe the galaxy reached the point our society did today and surgery is cool. Secretly Jango Fett wanted to be a woman, and that just came out more with that person, who am I to judge?

By the end of the movie, we’re still wondering who Rey is, where Sloke came from, if Ren is a Sith or just a dark Force user (there is a marked difference, even though it’s likely just semantics to give reason for there to be more than two dark Force users at a time, even though it really is eschewing everything Darth Bane rallied for because it led to the near utter destruction of the Sith thousands of years previous to the movies), why did Luke run away, where did Luke go, etc.

I wasn’t used to this. I wasn’t used to there being a dozen questions asked and two answered. I know the books set up some of the ground work for the movie, but remove the books. Take the movies as themselves.

Harry Potter wrapped up the current questions and conflicts with a nice ribbon. By the end, the only real outstanding question of any movie or book was, “How will Voldemort strike next year?”

Game of Thrones wraps up the current story line, while leading into the next with the final few chapters. They even make it very clear which stories are going to linger and which are urgent, and you can expect anything urgent to be finished at the end. It also started nice and slow, with calm introductions into the world of Westeros.

I wondered how Force Awakens got away with it. Who thought that was a good idea? I enjoyed it, but most audiences would stare in bewilderment. All these thoughts were running through my head when I popped in A New Hope.

I read the introduction, still wondering about those dangling plot inquiries. You know the opening scroll doesn’t really tell you a lot?

Suddenly there are two sides shooting each other, one obviously better equipped (though for anyone claiming the new Storm Troopers are worse than the old, I beg you to revisit them). There’s some creepy guy in a black outfit that’s just walking through the chaos. There are two droids who are at odds with the chaos going around them. There’s a cute woman who is recording something, suddenly the droids are jettisoned to Jakku Tatooine, and I’m staring at it in awe, with every movie reinforcing this feeling.

Why did I notice it for the first time now, when looking at it as if I had seen it with no notice? My entire life I knew Luke, Han, Leia, C3-P0, R2-D2. I knew why Darth Vader was on that ship, what a Death Star was, and that Obi Wan was an old hermit. I knew about Tusken Raiders. I talked to my mom about it after my epiphany, and she reinforced it. The first day they sat in those theaters to see the over hyped space fantasy that was Star Wars, they had no flipping clue what was going on. But it was awesome.

Force Awakens perfectly captures the ridiculous over the top sci fi action, with disregard to all things science about the fiction, as well as giving us a hundred questions, answering twenty every movie, and giving us another ten to worry about. While bucking the new trend, it was totally giving itself over to what it once was, and I admired the heck out of it when I realized what they were doing. It was a beautiful cacophony, one I respect Disney and Abrams for committing to, instead of what the prequels were.

It’s a fascinating tool that most stories don’t use. Leave mystery. Ask questions that aren’t answered. Not to the point of annoyance, and don’t gloss over a scene that’s about to happen just to save it’s mystique. That’s stupid. It makes no sense to give us a PoV character, and then deprive us of information they would know, then jump out and say, “Surprise, this is what happened back then that you should obviously already know!”

Still, give us questions, and don’t always give us obvious answers, or answers at all. At least not until the third book.

Self Publishing III: After Launch

After I was published and let everyone know (a whole three days ago), I had a barrage of questions. Everyone asks the same half dozen questions. I guess it’s a little like going back to college when you go to family gatherings and everyone’s wondering if you’re eating, getting good grades, and got married.

The one big thing to watch out for are the “can you give me a copy” people. You put a lot of work into your novel, and the dream of getting published was not to go broke. Fortunately grandma has been the only one to request a free copy with the claim she doesn’t know how to purchase items from the internet. And I do believe this. I also love my grandma, so she will very likely get a free copy.

I’ve been informed multiple times that the first three to six months are pivotal. Basically at that point you will make the sales you are going to make. By doing sequels, people will go back and buy the older ones, but for any initial sales, you’ve done it.

Since this is all new to me and I have minimal experience, I’ll go over my plan and what I’ve heard from others.

Create a tribe. You should be creating this before you are published. It is a new buzz word. I like having a tribe though, so I’m using the word. Come to my little huts in a beautiful field, and I shall be a benevolent chieftain! I like it.

The idea of the tribe is basically a cult following. Have people come in, assure them the water’s fine, and create a sense of knowing who you are. This is through regular interaction with fans, creating new content, and reaching out to different regions of the internet that may come hang out with you for the long term. You are basically finding your people.

Another concept was to write. A lot. One of my friends who is a little famous in his town (there was a story of two girls talking behind him in a cafe, and one said to the other, “Don’t you know who that is?”) is a prolific writer. He publishes a couple times a year for multiple groups, as well as his own novels. He gained followers because he wrote.

My own goal is within the next six months to have my blog going nonstop with information and to have two short stories (between 10k-20k words) which will both bridge the gap to the next novel and give fun facts about the novel. This creates intrigue and a gap filler and can bolster the tribe.

One day the library of your published works can look like this!

Finally, go to events. Head out to book fairs, hit up writer conventions, and other shindigs. This will help you network with writers, publishers, readers, and so on. Have business cards, have some samples, have a plan, and get out there.

I will be going to a writer’s event in February. Here I will meet a friend while also meeting publishers and agents who need clients. I will have the first ten pages polished of my next novel, along with a cover letter on my novel and plans for future writing projects since they’re interlaced. I will have business cards as well, which are specifically linked to my writing.

In April I will go to a book fair. I didn’t know adults did this. We will sit in a convention center, or something, and people will walk around and buy things from our “booths.” As a restaurant equipment rep, I’m used to booths being huge and including heavy equipment. This will include some books, post cards, and a few free books offered up by my publisher. Along with not free books, but heavily discounted.

I will then go to independent bookstores in the area (probably all three of them) and try to convince them to buy five or something. I do not know how this will go, and considering no one suggests it, I think it may fall flat. I also plan on selling some of my books to Half Priced Books and other used book stores.

This is all the wisdom I have. It is borrowed, stolen, and bought. Now I’m going to learn. I hope your own trip through writing and publication is going well, and I hope you find success in all you do. I do hope that you find this in some way useful to your own ambitions.

Self Publishing II: Before Launch

To those in America, Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that you have a long list of things you are thankful for. I most certainly do. I try to remember every day, no matter how bad the day before was, has the opportunity for me to improve.

Next, I am published. Nothing like driving through Chicago traffic (it’s not as bad as they say as long as it’s not morning, night, or Sunday after a holiday), and you get a phone call telling you the book’s live. Two weeks before what they told you it would be.

“But Paul, that’s great!”

“But human being, you don’t get what goes into marketing!”

Today I’m going to tell you what goes into marketing before the book releases.

First, after you hand in a finished manuscript, you will need to do the cover art. Often you have the option, especially with a vanity press, to use some stock photos, or to supply your own. I appreciate the starving artist, so I often help someone out, especially people just getting into art. Simply because they’re $200 instead of $1000. I can sort of afford one of those.

There is also font to think about. You will need to note internal font (I really like minion, but garamond is pretty solid as well), external font (I literally just told them something that looks like the Aladdin title), and don’t forget to mention what scene breaks look like. While the industry standard (or what I’ve been exposed to) is to leave a space, #, space, for the publisher I used it means keep the hashtag. Awkward. Usually they have some sort of glyph bible to go off.

Depending on how you do self publishing depends on how much layout you have to worry about. Fortunately I worried about none of it.

At this point I also highly suggest you have a platform, some teasers, and you’re looking into events. The platform is something as simple as WordPress. Get your name out there, get people interested. Understand that audience does not equate to sales. I have over 600 followers. If I get 20 sales through my WordPress, not a bad day.

On the flip side, people who read my book and like it will likely look to my WordPress. Now my WordPress is my way to keep a hooked reader coming back, since it will likely be 18 months before another novel, with a few short stories here and there.

Teasers make people interested. You have a cover release. You show the synopsis. Talk about your inspirations. Make sure to be quick to interact with your audience. If they feel they’re getting to know you, they’re more likely to want to read what you write. They feel a connection.

As for events, everything I’ve seen says this is the most important part of sales within the first six months. I will talk about events more on a later post.

This is a good precursor to preparing yourself for the news your book is live. Hopefully you have a more solid date so you can prepare for it, but either way, when you have a plan, you can enact it when required.

Next time I will talk about what happens after the book goes live! Most of this will be what I’m planning, as well as information gleaned by those already published, since I just got published yesterday.

Self Publishing I: After the Manuscript

I get published next week. Or the week after. It’s surreal. It becomes more surreal when you’re told three months after final proof approval you’ll be in print. Then you send in final proof approval and they say you’ll be in print within 5-7 business days. I went to a vanity press, that’s why the dates are a little weird. I also think they’re a little slow and trying to push as much through the pipeline as possible. Being in the restaurant equipment industry, I get this sentiment.

I want to write about my experience with publishing. Despite the dates, with the whirlwind that goes into getting published, it has been surreal. I have been published already two times, but they were short stories and it just feels empty. I don’t know if that’s me or if others get that, but when I see my short story out, I’m a little like Thor.


Publishing a novel feels different. I hope and think. It may also be that I want to build a large literary empire around it. I’m ambitious. I mean, what’s the point otherwise?

Anyway, you don’t care about that. What you care about is what happens after you finish the manuscript. Not after you finish the first draft, the second or third draft, but the draft where you had a friend look at it, your mom loves it, you love it, but it’s time to thrust it into the world.

By the way, did I say this is very subjective and everyone has their own way? I’ve spoken to a lot of published authors and even publishers on how they do this, and everyone has their way. The only thing that matters for success is that you have a way, you stick to it, and you’re hardheaded. Thick-skinned. Heavy-sacked. However you want to say it. Seriously. I just know I was a little side swiped by what all goes into this.


A common trend today in writing is once you’re feeling good about the book, find beta readers. These are often friends, though usually friends with some reading and editing insight. Also preferably friends who are bought off with a signed copy in the future and maybe a hug and a lunch. Or just mutual beta reading. While I still suggest hiring an editor, this is sort of a test group.

Give the manuscript out to a half dozen or so souls you trust for their opinion. Through writing groups I’ve made friends that I trust in different areas, whether it is grammar, plot, etc. They are still friends, but writing groups are also a great way to do strategic networking.

The beta readers can give a lot of information as far as what worked, what didn’t, and where you’ve been so distracted that even though you “edited” the part five times, you missed a period. I’ve had a few correct bad grammar habits I didn’t realize I had. Apparently towards is British and toward is American. Who knew?

After this, give it a run through for the beta readers.

While beta readers were digesting the manuscript, I was also working on some information touches! I give my beta readers a month, and I don’t want to slack off.

Think of a synopsis. I know, 250 words is difficult, but tell your story in 250 words. Keep doing it until it looks succinct and awesome.

Now that that’s over, tell it in 25. I know. Some of you had your eyes bulge. Your gut clenched. You may have even vomited. It’s okay. I’m here to hold your hair back.

The 25 word synopsis is important. This is the keynote, and it’s a brief description so people can get an immediate idea of what they’re about to read. It is not so much about your story, but about what it is like.

For G’desh (though this isn’t the exact one, as it’s on another computer):

An action epic inspired by Arabian Nights, in which two armies declare a holy war. Follow an assassin, prophet, and warrior in this mystical world.

Boom. 25. I rewrote those probably a dozen times. I think this may actually be my best yet, but it’s too late for that nonsense. The more you practice the 25 word keynote/synopsis, the better you get at it. From just those 25 words, a reader knows it’s going to be Arabian, magicky, there will be war and religion, and there are three view points, or at least three central characters. Maybe they’ll read the book based on that alone. Maybe they will at least read the 250 word synopsis which is far more detailed in breaking down the conflicts and characters. At the very least they have a brief idea of the story. This can also be equated to an elevator pitch.

Don’t forget a picture and author biography. Make the biography awesome. There are plenty out there to look at to get an idea. I throw a little mission statement in there about wanting readers to look to the classics, as well as get excited to go on their own adventures. This will help people understand and relate to you. Yes, it’s on a shallow level, but I’m going to tell you now half of it is perception. So figure out the perception you want, and conjure it up in 50 to 100 words.

I also used this time to come up with keywords for Amazon. It helps people search you more easily. I’d suggest doing research on good keywords. Despite the simplicity I probably went a week on and off to figure out exactly what I wanted.

In two days I will go over getting ready for proofs and release date.

As I said, there are a dozen ways to do this, especially self publishing. Everyone’s journey is different, and I’m by no means a master, but I was definitely overwhelmed when I signed the contract for the vanity press. What do you do to get ready for publishing? Leave comments to help educate.

Exhaustion in your hero

I went to Guatemala for a week. I helped pull ten teeth. Five of them were from one lady who was over 70. The heat during the day is incredible. The humidity is unbearable, to the point you sweat at 75 degrees. I was a leader, and that was new emotional and mental pressure.

The bridge is much scarier than it looks. It's an excellent test of mental stamina. At least for me.
The bridge is much scarier than it looks. It’s an excellent test of mental stamina. At least for me.

Then I had a training half the week. I found out how much I can survive on caffeine, sugar, and adrenaline. Three weeks of four to six hours of no sleep is an incredible obstacle to fight through. I’ve no doubt that more than a few of you are insomniacs. It’s amazing what can keep you up at night, too.

This week I go help lead a men’s retreat. I already have nothing to give, and I have to go one more week. I will. Like college students suffer through midterms and finals. Like an Olympian makes it through the final stretch. Heck, can you imagine how that fourth event feels? Nurses and doctors work over 12 hour shifts. They endure through life and death situations and save people. What about soldiers? Our soldiers out in the Middle East, where it is hot, dirty, and they are being shot at. They are being shot. Some of these guys were shot multiple times and continued to fight. They endured.

Is your character getting off too easily? What have they endured?

The protagonist is always supposed to be at a disadvantage. They are supposed to go into odds that are nearly impossible, usually while juggling numerous challenges at once. They do not walk in through the front door and fight the antagonist, walk up to the throne room, and fight.

Sleep deprived, hungry, with a gunshot to the left arm, the protagonist goes to the lair where three dozen goons are waiting. The antagonist is fresh, well armed. He has a fresh weapon that was made specifically for him. The protagonist is likely low on bullets, is using a chipped sword, and so on.

Cowboy Bebop is my favorite example of this. Spike walks in to kill Vicious. Throughout two episodes Spike is getting run down, sleep deprived, and the love of his life is gunned down in front of him. He’s shot, cut, and so on. After breaking in to basically a fort, he’s half dead when he faces Vicious.

Season 2 of Arrow, Oliver loses everything. Before his final battle, all the resources at his disposal are stripped from him. His mother is killed. Slade has Oliver down on his emotional and financial knees before unleashing an army on the city. Oliver must fight the army and take on Slade.

Harry Potter’s always on a last leg, having lost more than resources whenever he reaches the climax. Lord of the Rings puts Frodo at a weak point physically and mentally when he’s about to throw the ring into the volcano.

Before the climax, make sure you cripple your protagonist. Really give us an exciting final conflict.

Be sure to destroy hope

My masochistic post, but I swear there is a writing lesson at the end.

One of those posts. Bored-now (c) 2008
One of those posts.
Bored-now (c) 2008

There’s that ex. She dumped you for good reason, you became a changed man, and liking what she sees, she starts saying things like, “We should get back together…after I dump my boyfriend.” Those with wisdom get on a train and flee with the vigor of a halfling from a troll. Then there are the other ones. The guys like me.

The line is baited and we bite, fat and stupid fish ready for harvest. Hook after hook sinks into our flesh, but instead of saying, “Gee golly this hurts,” we say, “It must mean she’s interested.”

Then one of two things happen. She says just kidding and goes off with the boyfriend. Option two is your testicles finally drop and you snap. Hopefully not kill them snap, but I’m sure that’s far more fulfilling. You go off, you ask what’s the hold up. Startled by your sudden assertion, they walk away.

Either way, the result is the same. You are kneeling on the ground with your heart in your hands, bloody and ruined. The responses are countless, but generally severe. Some come out with depression, disorders, and other internal issues of general self-loathing. Others become jaded, steeling their heart against any fresh invaders. I went Hulk.

This pulls on something we experienced, and it is something we understand. We can pour emotion into it, and give the character authenticity. You got passed up for a promotion? Have a promising warrior passed up for knighthood. There are countless responses to any dashed hope, but they’re almost always severe. They almost always lead to poor decision making.

Set up something for your character to hope for, preferably something similar to what you hoped for. Let it play out. Make us think he will get it, since we are wired to think our novel characters will get what they want. Using Song of Ice and Fire, the series is based on dashing our hopes. We see Bran as a capable climber, and athlete at a young age. Crippled. Ned Stark could be the greatest and most honorable man ever in King’s Landing. Decapitated. Samwell Tarley is sent to the Night’s Watch to die. Survives. Remember, the success of one person’s hopes can dash another’s.

There are also a number of ways people respond to despair. Sometimes they crumble like paper in a strong wind. Other times they soar like birds through zephyrs. Play with it. Even pick a path you did not take. Perhaps you overcame and grew into a better person. What if you became jaded instead?

Go create some despair and pull some heartstrings. Purchase stock in Kleenex and get moving.


World Building: Geography Matters

I got into an argument yesterday. Someone created a map, but only the outline. There was a continent and a handful of political boundaries in an ancient fantasy world. From everything he was saying, there was magic, but nothing absolutely world altering. It was enough to give an edge.

Attempting to be helpful, I warned him the pitfalls of creating political geography on a map before knowing the physical geography. Most political geography revolves around natural barriers. I gave a couple historical examples, and left it at that. There are a few exceptions, but anyone who took geography and history knows this is truth, so I did not expect anything to contradict it.

Then I get the response that magic and modern technology make physical geography meaningless compared to political geography, and the guy didn’t have to care about where mountains or rivers were. I was stunned. Without the ability of flight or instant tunneling, how does one get through a mountain? What magic makes rivers easily traversed, negating the defensive advantage on the other bank? Sure there are forms of magic that assist, but unless the magic is overwhelming, it still takes work, and there is still likely magic to counter it.

Map of G'desh
From my future book. It’s a desert. So most cities are around a lake. The others have a natural water source. Because deserts are mostly inhospitable.Dana Villa-Smith (c) 2015

This went back and forth until I finally gave up, figuring for whatever reason this guy was set up to always be against physical geography dictating political geography, and it likely had something to do with his own writings. I could have given him dozens of historical examples, but at a certain point you know a man has settled on his way and there is no moving him. Never mind the only evidence to the contrary he had were western states are squares and rely on no physical geography. Except maybe longitude and latitude lines.

For those willing to read on, willing to see that history is rife with physical geography dictating political geography without overwhelming technology, I give to you a few examples. I will also give a few examples of people overcoming physical geography.

Rome was kept safe by the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps to the north. Hannibal, with the Carthaginians, overcame the Alps, but did so with great effort. India is difficult to conquer due to hot and humid weather and diseases invaders were not accustomed to. Alexander the Great and China both attempted and both had severely limited success. Japan is an island. Though conquered a few times, it was impossible for anyone to keep because it was difficult to keep a steady supply when trying to rely on resentful locals. It was also impossible for Japan to make real lasting invasions on the mainland for this reason.

Russia defended both against Hitler and Napoleon because extreme cold in the winter cut off supplies and there was nothing to live on otherwise. Hitler had the ability to call in air support, and it did him no favors. For the Allies, Normandy took many lives. Landing on a coast is incredibly difficult and it took absolutely overwhelming force at one focused point, and with the element of surprise, to succeed. They again had planes.

These barriers take many forms. Some aren’t strictly physical geography. It can be heat, cold, and disease. However, when making your political lines, remember that physical geography will never be fully discarded when creating nations.

Your civilization did not survive 1000 years

I’m all about the details. There are few things in writing that irk me more than, “The kingdom began a thousand years ago.”

It hit me real hard with Elder Scrolls Online. “And we were here a thousand years. And them. Those guys were only 500 years, but they’ll be virtually unchanged by Skyrim which is in a few millennium.” It really hit me when people were complaining that the city of Mournhold does not look the same as its Morrowind counterpart. The events of the Nerevarine took place a thousand years later. These same people said how great it was the cities of Skyrim were incredibly similar. This set me off.

The question is not why does Mournhold look different. The question is why does everything else look the same? When I noticed this, I realized this happens all the time in fantasy. To give legitimacy we say, “It’s been around a thousand years.” That’s not realistic.

The longest lasting true dynasty was Chinese, around 500 years. I apologize, I cannot remember which dynasty it was.

“What about the Egyptians, Paul? They were around for three thousand years!” This was brought up. It’s a lie.

Egypt had countless dynasties, empires, kingdoms, and downfalls. For a few centuries in that three thousand year period they were even on the low end of the totem pole, fortunate to just be on the totem pole in an age when the utter destruction of your foe from the history books was common.

“But Paul, China. I mean, they were thousands of years.” Constant turmoil. China is one of the greatest examples of how decentralized government is a disaster. People came in and out of power quickly, and it was miraculous they held the longest lived dynasty.

“Rome.” Nope. Rome went through countless transition, often spurred on by the poor, and a fear the poor would actually demand rights from the rich. Eventually this led to Caesar, which then led to an incredibly weak Rome which was often sacked by folk who were bored and liked their victims witless and unarmed.

I get these are over simplifications of what actually happened, but the essence is there, and there are history books calling your name if you’re curious.

Those are the great and massive examples of how time wipes everything away, without mercy or discrimination. How about something smaller?

If someone from a century ago was thrown into New York City today, they would have no idea where they were. Skyscrapers reach the heavens, layers of old city create the bedrock for today’s modern vision. Rome has only a few landmarks that even slightly resemble its rich past. Cities, countries, societies all change.

For those familiar with NYC, this isn't quite what it looks like anymore. This is 1901. Buildings grew a little. Copyright probably Irving Underhill, currently in the United States Library of Congress (c) 1901
For those familiar with NYC, this isn’t quite what it looks like anymore. This is 1901. Buildings grew a little.
Copyright probably Irving Underhill, currently in the United States Library of Congress (c) 1901

For society, a hundred years ago we didn’t even have welfare. Today approximately 50% of the country benefits in some way through it. Practically overnight, Christians went from 300 years of being used as living lanterns to becoming the state religion. In under a century Islam went from one guy to conquering northern Africa, Arabia, a touch into western Asia, and the Iberian Peninsula, with sights on France and beyond. The world changes rapidly.

For your own fantasy setting, keep static establishments short. Even if ideas, religions, cities, and so on are centuries old, they are rarely ever the same as they once were.

Character and Location Driven Stories

I recently played The Witcher 3 and Elder Scrolls Online. I discovered in my playing two very different and awesome ways to tell a story.

The Witcher 3 enticed me with character based stories. The major plot lines were all moved through an assortment of supporting characters. As you continued their story, you got closer to your end goal. When you finished the main story surrounding the support character you had a personal plot line which gave the relationship some closure.

Usually you were hanging with people. But sometimes you were a lonely mountain.

ESO went a different direction, likely due to the MMORPG aspect. You went from one locale to the next. At each one you were to unravel an issue. Sometimes you fought a war to take or defend a point. Other times there were plagues, spirits, and other oddities to deal with.

Both forms of anchoring gives an easy format to follow as a writer and reader. You can easily trace your story arcs, where they begin and where they end. Readers have easier cues to see the flow of the plot. When you set all conflict for an arc to move along one character or place, it allows better focus.

In The Witcher 3, character based stories hooked us from one person to the next in a hunt for Ciri, a sort of adopted daughter to Geralt, our protagonist. Geralt had to hunt support characters down. Most of them Geralt knew from past adventures, which were hinted at from time to time. After doing a search quest, there was usually some personal favor which occurred. After that, Geralt was given information on Ciri. At this point, Geralt could move on, never to look at that support character again, or he could go back and finish a final personal quest to give the relationship some closure, or provide a little entertainment.

As with anything, there are strengths and weaknesses. For the strength, you get attached to one support character. We get to learn their fears, desires, and wants by the quests they give and the solutions they come up with (or not). The support character’s motives can take them far and wide, so it is easy to change setting. Finally, it gives the opportunity to have your protagonist deal wish issues they would otherwise ignore or not run into. Motivations to keep the protagonist can be money, love, compassion, hostages, information, or any number of other incentives which a support character can provide.

The weaknesses consist of you are very heavily basing the story on a single support character at a time. Other support characters will come in and out, but really we are investing in the one with agency, and any others are in and out with a shrug. The protagonist can be overshadowed as the drive for the story is handed over to someone else. If the support character is flat, you’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort into their tale, and the reader will not stick around.

In ESO, you went into a location and dealt with an issue. As an MMORPG, it requires you to be tied to a place in order to gain levels before forcing you on. To make the game less of a grind, and feel less like you were chasing quest icons, there were locations you ventured into where you resolved some plot. This could be going into a town and discovering some plague. In the next town, you help a temple that is dealing with the ramifications of the fact it’s a zombie plague. You find a cure, then go on to put an end to the organization that created the plague. Each location had its own plot arc leading into the major story.

The advantages consist of you create empathy for a region instead of one character. People are tied into events greater than a single person which allows you to see more politics over a larger scope. More often than not, when a story is revolving around a setting, the character is there to change that location. The character also has significantly more agency as far as how they’re going to deal with the issue, or if they’ll even just walk away and let the location to its fate.

On the flip side, there is the issue of mobility. Your character isn’t going anywhere, so your setting better be interesting, much in the same way the support character above had to be interesting. It can be harder creating a driving force if there is a line of setting based arcs. Home town only works for one location, which is fine if they will be in that one location forever. After that, money or virtue can be excellent motivators. By focusing on a setting, there is the possibility of ignoring people. Make sure you still have a strong protagonist and support cast.

These are just a few of the possibilities. There are plenty more pros and cons, along with countless ways to tell a story, but it was fascinating to see the two very blatant ways these franchises approached storytelling.