Have you ever been able to say exactly what you were trying to say, and later realized that it was exactly the wrong thing to say? I’ve had this experience a few times. It’s not entirely enjoyable. This has nothing to do with today’s post, which will be somewhat random. It’s just something that has come up a few times in the past couple of months and is thus on my mind, which tends to be equally random. The Fragged Empirekickstarter went into its final countdown today, it has less than three days left and at this point has reached almost double it’s initial goal, which is cool. I would love to see it actually reach double, but we’ll see if that happens. Oh, and if you haven’t been following the news, Donald Trump is now the only candidate left in the primary race for the Republican party, though Bernie Sanders has vowed to see his campaign through to the end.
All of these are rather small bits of trivia. The kind of thing that you find in the real world: little bits of news, hearsay, or facts that people care about, even if they aren’t always of significant importance to the overarching story of our lives. This is a sign that the world goes on without us. Even if you die tomorrow, people will continue to hurt each other by saying exactly what they think, Wade Dyer’s kickstarter campaign will successfully fund the next book in his role playing game, and Donald Trump will win the Republican Primary. So, how often does this kind of thing appear in your stories? One of the things that I love about a lot of recent video games is that they create an immersive world. That is, a world exists beyond what you see in the story. Kings die, regents are elected, businesses thrive or shut down, and reality television continues to make everyone’s lives miserable far into the future. None of these things matter to the story itself, but they do matter in creating a believable and immersive world that provides a foundation for the story.
Steven Erikson does this in many ways, but one of my favorites is by introducing his readers to the arts of his world. In his novels he regularly begins chapters with poems from famous writers or scholars from his fantasy world. Many of these you meet briefing at some point in the novels. So, I thought that I’d share a couple of these with you so you can have a sense of what I mean. For the record, all of these poems are present in Erikson’s novels, but were retrieved from the Malazan Wiki:
“The man who never smiles
Drags his nets through the deep
And we are gathered
To gape in the drowning air
Beneath the buffeting sound
Of his dreaded voice
Speaking of salvation
In the repast of justice done
And fed well on the laden table
Heaped with noble desires
He tells us all this to hone the edge
Of his eternal mercy
Slicing our bellies open
One by one.“―In the Kingdom of Meaning Well
Fisher kel Tath
“Down past the wind-groomed grasses
In the sultry curl of the stream
There was a pool set aside
In calm interlude away from the rushes
Where not even the reeds waver
Nature takes no time to harbour our needs
For depthless contemplation
Every shelter is a shallow thing
The sly sand grips hard no manner
Of anchor or even footfall
Past the bend the currents run thin In wet chuckle where a faded tunic
Drapes the shoulders of a broken branch
These are the dangers I might see
Leaning forward if the effort did not prove
So taxing but that ragged collar
Covers no pale breast with tapping pulse
This shirt wears the river in birth foam
And languid streaming tatters
Soon I gave up the difficult rest
And floated down in search of boots
Filled with pebbles as every man needs
Somewhere to stand.“―Clothes Remain
Attributed to Fisher kel Tath
“Coltaine rattles slow
across the burning land.
The wind howls through the bones
of his hate-ridden command.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.
Coltaine’s fist bleeds the journey home
along rivers of red-soaked sand.
His train howls through his bones
in spiteful reprimand.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.“―Coltaine
A marching song of the Bonehunters
So, Selanya has a beast of a schedule at the moment, and I’m sorry to say that you all will have to put up with another week of posts from me. Alayna and I finally made a decision about Ph.D. programs yesterday. It’s something that we put a lot of thought and prayer into, and the program we decided on is one that we’ve been thinking about for quite a while. We had plans about how to handle the program itself, paying for life, moving, etc… Those plans have been entirely upended. At the moment, it looks like we’ll be moving in early-mid August regardless of whether Alayna has found a job where we are moving to (my job travels, but it would be a struggle to support the family as a whole on my income). Most of the things that we thought we would be able to make work won’t work, and we’ve been put back to square one.
Amazingly, I actually have not just one, but two points to make about writing from this situation. First, in your own plotting, writing, and publishing, expect the unexpected. What you expect to happen probably won’t, and things you never could have imagined probably will happen. You might send the manuscript that you’re so proud of to a reviewer, only to get it back ripped to shreds. Alternatively, you might hand a manuscript that you’re not happy with to a friend, and a week or two later get an email from a publisher who wants it (not likely, but possible). Heck, there’ve been a few people who made better than a living wage off of the profit from one self-published novel selling on Kindle for $0.99 (again, it’s not likely, but it’s possible). The point is that you never know what is going to happen. The thing is, the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ doesn’t really make sense. How can I expect something that I can’t imagine? How can I plan when I have do idea what to plan for?
I think the answer is fairly simply: learn to be flexible. If you’re serious about writing then you’re going to get hit, probably repeatedly (emotionally speaking at least, though you might be assaulted by an angry fan… again, it’s happened). You’ll need to learn to roll with the punches. If you feel like you need to be in control of every step of the publishing process then it won’t go well for you (though you should absolutely be in control of your writing process).
The second point is this: you’re characters can’t be in control of their world any more than you’re in control of your world. Even the best laid plans will be upset by a stripped screw or a random bystander. You can use this when you’re plotting out your story. We tend to feel like stories should flow, and in many ways this is true. However, the world is a random place, and your story should reflect this randomness. It can’t be entirely random or you will lose your audience, and the randomness of the world needs to be shown in ways that 1) fit the story, and 2) advance the story. However, your story should still reflect the randomness of the world. If you’ve ever seen the Ocean’s movies, this is something that they do very well. The story flows clearly, and it is engaging and entertaining. However, the number of ‘well… I didn’t expect that’ moments in these movies are an integral part of their humor. They give the viewer a sense of meaningful randomness. These moments of randomness aren’t random simply for the sake of being random (which is a mistake that many young authors make), but instead are random in a way that effectively advances the story and entertains the audience. This is how you want to use these moments in life.
So over the course of the week I’ve been talking about how you can draw inspiration from video games, and how to use your in-game experiences as the beginning of writing your own stories. And I’ve been talking about the process that I sometimes go through of adapting my video game adventures into prose.
I promised you that’d I’d post a story today, to show you the results of that creative process. And I’ve been working on the story all week. But you know what? It isn’t finished. And I could rush to finish it, filling in the blanks and rounding off the conclusion in time to get it up for tomorrow morning. But what I’ve written so far is good, and I don’t want to rush the rest. I want to take my time with it and produce a story that I’m happy with from start to finish, with a conclusion that’s well thought-through. Even if it is too late to post it here, I’ll know that I’ve done it right, and that it’s the best story it could have been.
So today’s post is going to have to be something different. This week’s posts were supposed to be a trilogy, but now I’m going to have to imitate Pat Rothfuss and leave you all hanging after two instalments, without a satisfying narrative conclusion: only the vague promise of more to come, some time in the future. I hope you can forgive me for that! I’m struggling to forgive myself. But sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves, as writers. Sometimes it’s okay to take a little bit longer on a project, to play around with it until it really feels finished. Because ultimately we shouldn’t be writing for money or acclaim or to meet deadlines. We should be writing because we enjoy it.
With that in mind, here’s a short piece that I enjoyed writing a few weeks ago. It was written for a Star Trek roleplaying game that I’m part of, and it’s only ever been seen by a small group of other players. It’s short, and simple – just an old man sitting at a bar, quietly contemplating – but I hope that you enjoy it all the same.
“Friends in low places”
The Romulan Neutral Zone, for all its sins, had been the basis of a lot of livelihoods. Xon had spent the last four decades of his life flying out of neutral ports on Nimbus III and other worlds where certain undesirable elements of galactic society could conduct their business without interference. In that time he had seen petty criminal empires rise and fall, he had dined at gunpoint with pirate warlords who ruled over failed colonies like feudal barons over their fiefdoms, and he had seen more greed and desperation than he could easily stomach, the kind of naked poverty and avarice that wasn’t conceivable to most Starfleet officers or ordinary citizens of the Federation. The black market economy of the Neutral Zone had been brutal and unforgiving to the people at the bottom of the ladder, but it had been stable enough in its own way.
The Treaty of Tarod had obliterated that stability. Spaceports that had operated for centuries as havens for malcontents were now no longer beyond the reach of Starfleet or the Romulan navy. For the first time in Xon’s long life, Romulan ale was no longer contraband in the Federation, and Starfleet was delivering Federation medical supplies freely in the other direction. The smuggling industry, with its proud heritage, was at its end. Whole criminal dynasties had been built upon the presumption that the Federation and the Star Empire would always be at each other’s throats, and now the rug had been pulled out from beneath their feet. The rock had been lifted, and the roaches had scattered.
So when Xon accepted a commission to work in the former Neutral Zone, he had been expecting to run into some old acquaintances. He hadn’t been expecting to run into Igreb.
Igreb was a sort of huge luminous quantum octopus who existed laterally in four dimensions at the same time, but he was also a very fine bartender, whose infamous taverna on Nimbus III had been as old as the colony itself. Xon had never been able to figure out if Igreb was a singular entity or part of a species that had evolved beyond corporeal form, but he had certainly never encountered any other sentient beings who remotely resembled him. If ‘resembled’ was the right word. Even after forty years, it was very hard for Xon to wrap his brain around what Igreb actually looked like. You could stare at him for hours and try to build a coherent mental picture of his appearance, but your thoughts seemed to slip away like water off a stone. Besides which, if you stared for long enough, Igreb would eventually remind you that staring was rude, and that you were sitting on a barstool that could be occupied by a paying customer.
Igreb didn’t talk, or even communicate telepathically, in the conventional sense. He just floated behind his circular bar, served you drinks that you didn’t know you wanted, and embedded vague concepts inside your head. Without exchanging words or specific thoughts, Xon had learnt everything about why Igreb finally packed up and left Nimbus. With the Neutral Zone gone, the power dynamics on the Planet of Galactic Peace had shifted overnight, and a full-scale civil war had broken out, with different pirate clans fighting in the desert for control of Paradise City. Igreb’s bar had been bombed during the opening hostilities. He had heard about Starfleet’s new outpost in the region and correctly presumed that it would need bartenders.
The new taverna seemed like an exact replica of the old one. It had the same pervading emerald light, the same pointless mechanical cooling fixtures spinning slowly overhead, the same garish entertainment consoles, the same NO PROJECTILE WEAPONS sign behind the bar. It was half bar, half cargo bay, or it would be when freighter captains started using the shelves and industrial transporters to auction their wares. Igreb had even brought his famous pool tables, where the balls floated repellently over an actual liquid pool instead of the traditional green baize, either a bad joke or the result of an unfortunate mistranslation. The only things missing were the grime, the dancers, and the scent of death, but Xon was confident that the grime at least would quickly accumulate as soon as Igreb started attracting more of his usual patrons.
Xon had the very real privilege of being Igreb’s first new customer. He was only drinking Altair water, but they had still toasted the new premises, and Xon had entertained some optimistic thoughts that the taverna might grow into Eden’s premier dive bar. Igreb had projected his gratitude. They had been sitting silently for almost an hour, having a lively and convivial exchange of ideas, when Xon heard someone parting the screen of chains that hung over the bar’s entrance. He turned on his barstool, and he was surprised by who he saw…
In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.
My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.
So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.
I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…
…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…
…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.
I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.
Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.
For those interested, it works a little like this:
Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.
Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.
Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health
Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…
And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.
Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories. I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.
But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.
I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?” Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.
I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.
One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?
My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.
I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik. “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.
So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?
I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.
Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.
I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.
I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.
Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.
Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.
One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.
Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature). I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.
Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).
Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.
That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.
If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created, I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.
I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.
I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.
In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…
I’m sorry to say that graduate school is just as hectic as it was when I wrote my last post, so this one is also going to be a little on the short side. One thing that I’ve been slowly relearning in my fiction workshop class is the importance of dialogue—not just any dialogue, but realistic dialogue that isn’t grammatically perfect and that clearly shows each character as a unique individual with his or her own quirks and mannerisms.
With that in mind, I’ll leave you all with another writing exercise. This one is from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, one of the books on the required reading list for my fiction class.
Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn’t worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom. Purpose: to give two characters individual ways of speaking, and to make dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. Remember that in dialogue, as a general rule, every pause must somehow be shown, either by narration (for example, “she paused”) or by some gesture or other break that shows the pause. And remember that gesture is a part of all real dialogue. Sometimes, for instance, we look away instead of answering. (204)
So, graduate school kind of snuck up on me a bit, so I’m afraid I don’t have a long, drawn-out post planned for today. I do, however, have a nice writing exercise from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft for those of you who are interested:
In the movie Wait Until Dark, Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman being pursued by a killer through a darkened house. Audiences usually jump out of their seats during the film’s climactic final scene because they identify so thoroughly with her character. Write a scene where your character is deprived of one of his five senses. Then, set the character in a situation where missing that particular sense would have an especially significant impact. The situation might put him at an advantage or disadvantage, but in any case, he will have to compensate, wringing every bit of useful information he can out of his other senses. Make the situation dramatic, one in which he is driven by a pressing need or desire. (Burroway & Stuckey-French 71)
I can’t speak to the quality of the movie (I haven’t seen it, but if Audrey Hepburn is involved, my roommate would probably insist that it has to be amazing), but I did find this prompt particularly interesting given that a lot of the description in my own writing seems to focus on just one of the senses (usually sight), rather than using all five senses to help describe the setting and action.
As always, feel free to share your work in the comments section! 🙂
Rote (n): routine; a fixed, habitual, or mechanical course of procedure.
It’s been years since I’ve thought of what letters I’m hitting. For those of you who can speed type, you get this. You think of the word. It pops up on the screen. You need to delete a word? Poof. It disappears. There was a time you thought, “Alright, ctrl+delete, and bingo!” There was a time you had to cheat. “Shoot. Is my finger on y or u?”
How many of you turn on your computers and instinctively pull up the tabs in your browser, your emails, and any other programs you start up immediately? Within five seconds I have WordPress, Google mail, and Facebook up and running. Might not even be that long.
I’m sure there are those of you who cook like this. You bring out the food, you chop it up, throw it in, and you’re done. Very little thought. That lasagna has been cooked a hundred times. It is a routine.
Lately I’ve been playing a game called Paragon. It’s a moba. Basically two teams of five clash in epic battle. You purchase skills as you level, and you develop a routine on how you purchase those skills. When I was playing today, after I purchased my first ability, I thought, “Shoot, was that the right one?” Even though I didn’t remember purchasing the skill, I bought my starter skill.
This list goes on. Driving. Swimming. Mechanical work. Those who are masters do the same thing over and over in often times boring repetition. Do you know how many horrible things I said about my keyboard class? But I kept at it. Because mom said so.
Combat is rote memorization. Your body is trained to respond through repetitive exercises. In the same way I think “word” and it appears on the screen, they think “parry,” and their body instinctively blocks the blade. They think “shoot,” and they immediately aim at center mass, compensate for recoil, find cover.
But why do our heroes master these skills in months, sometimes not even?
For your characters to become good at something, they have to be prodigies (I do understand these exist and they learn select skills very quickly), or they have to train for a long time intensely.
This doesn’t just go for combat. Pick up the book Blink. It’s basically all about training your instinct through mastering a subject. By making it rote. Someone bought a counterfeit piece of art. A bunch of experts looked at it and instantly said the buyer, a museum, was making a mistake. They couldn’t say why. Years of training their brain, years of seeing real and counterfeit art, and they knew that art was fake. It’s rote. They made looking at art rote memorization.
Basically I’m just pleading with you to make your characters learn things in a realistic manner. I know there are books which do a great job. But others cheat, and it makes the book feel fake. As for prodigies, just make sure it’s important. Otherwise you’re dangerously close to a Mary Sue character.
I have been playing The Division a lot lately. The game is based on you being a sleeper agent who is to bring order to NYC after a designer virus wipes out about 90% of the population.
NYC is broken up into districts, and each district has a coordinator. This coordinator gives missions. For the most part, you hang out with them for about five minutes of dialogue throughout a couple hours of clearing their district of evil. Then you move on.
In any line of fiction, these people would be forgotten quickly as nearly anonymous NPCs. The characters would all blend together, basically be the same person, and we would all move on and forget them.
However, Ubisoft and the dozen developers and publisher who were involved in this game made a very smart move. They played off stereotypes to create slightly over the top personas that I still remember.
The first coordinator was a soccer mom. “I think this is going to be dangerous, hun, but I’m sure you can handle it.” Then just amplify the worrying about you but believing you’ll do your best by 100%. You could hear the “I owned a minivan and went to soccer games for my kids” in her tone.
Then there was an action movie actor. “Dude, when this thing blows over, you’ll have to talk to my agent. I mean, if he’s still alive. He probably isn’t. So I guess we’ll have to make our own movie without help. But you would be so awesome to act beside.” He was such a tool.
Let’s not forget the zen master. “There is imbalance and a disconnect. Actually literally a disconnect. Someone took down one of our communication relays. Go spread some karma.”
Each coordinator was an over the top stereotype, and that made the character stick. It made it so I could immediately create a concept in my head of who that person was, and though there may have been some deviation at times, overall I knew what I was getting. And it was hilarious.
In your own writing, how many bartenders (or ultimately the role of information broker) do you have? Whether they’re at a space station, in a wooden tavern, or in a downtown bar, how often are those bartenders interchangeable? I try to distinguish them, but it’s difficult. By making them over the top, Ubisoft succeeded in making each of these otherwise anonymous characters pop.
Let’s look at Song of Ice and Fire. Catelyn Stark goes into a tavern where there’s a woman that she remembers as a child. The woman ate a fruit that made her teeth red. Always red. She was an obnoxiously nosy woman. I remember her. She lasted a full ten pages. She was a stereotype of the nosy neighbor.
Stereotypes often exist because of some truth. The soccer mom exists. I get they each have nuances, not all soccer moms are the same, but in five minutes of dialogue you don’t have time for nuances. In ten pages you don’t have time for nuances.
Now don’t take this as me saying everyone fits in those stereotypes. I’m simply stating that if you have a character who will not show up often and will be easy to forget, find a mold, cast him, change a couple things, and plop that person onto a page.
What I am saying is we understand stereotypes. We can create a full image with very little information. Use it. It’s an excellent way to convey a lot of information about a character in a very short period of time.
I was watching an interview with R.A. Salvatore. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of his writing. However, he is successful, he sounds like a great guy, and at the very least he’s wise. I don’t like horror, but I still am glued to anything Stephen King says. You don’t need the author that has you stuck to the pages to find an author who can give sound advice.
Salvatore was asked once what the best college degree would be for a writer. The response left me puzzled.
Why engineering? Maybe if you wanted to write about architecture? Either way, there was a lot of confusion.
You can’t write when hungry.
In this age of self-publishing, if that’s the path you will be taking, it also costs money to make money. You are your sole investor. It’s $200 for an editor on a novel, often times more, rarely less. Even more rarely if you want quality.
An artist is at least $300 for the cover art. Sure you can do the layout. Of course you can go with stock photos that look immensely generic and someone else may have used. However, don’t you want something original? Something tailored specifically to your book? It just looks better.
Then there are book fairs, conventions, writer friend hangouts, and buying enough books up front so you can sell them at different events. This isn’t cheap. Don’t even get me started on the investment in marketing.
Guess what you can’t do if you’re a starving artist? Any of this. You’ll perpetuate the starving part and art will be a miserable endeavor for you. I have friends in this boat. They can’t sell out. Getting a job outside writing will nullify their dreams (marketing, guys, you are all marketers of some sort).
I sell restaurant equipment. This is what I am known for. I sell restaurant equipment and go on mission trips. I work about 50 hours a week. Fortunately in outside sales there’s a little fudge room. I am struck by my muse and 4:30 and nothing is happening? As long as I get caught up on emails before 8 am the next morning, I’m good. I’ve gone on a writing rampage to answer emails at 1 am.
However, this job is my literary life blood. With it I was able to go to a convention in Utah where I learned, networked, and met a friend I’d known online for around three years. I was able to buy original cover art which will eventually become metal bookmarks. And marketing. I so hate marketing.
All of this was because during the day I sell restaurant equipment. I work a normal job. One writer I met in Utah was a lawyer. His hours were significantly less forgiving than my own and he had a family.
The world works on money, and money from a primary source makes it easy to fund the writing (or drawing, painting, sculpting, etc.).
The short of it? The whole Bohemian thing is really cute. Now get a job.