Scene Challenge of the Week

Hint, hint!
Hint, hint!

So, my girlfriend surprised me today with tickets to see Spiderman 2. The movie was suitably awesome, and I can say much the same (well, rather a little bit more, actually) about my girlfriend. There is one particular scene at the very end of the movie that definitely tugged at my heart strings. You’ll know it when you see it… and no, it’s not the scene in the clocktower (if you know, you know). I’m also excited to see a partial line-up for a sinister six movie. I’ll go ahead and say that I hope they bring Electro back (Jamie Foxx did an excellent job in the role), but I doubt that will happen. So far we have the Rhino, the Vulture, Dr. Octopus, and either Green Goblin or Hobgoblin. Technically, Harry should probably be Hobgoblin, but I’m guessing they go with Green Goblin. They’ve also set up Alistair Smythe and his spider-slayers (though you can never tell if they’ll take advantage of that), and Black Cat (though she was never really a ‘villain’ persay and I can’t really see her on the sinister six). I’m personally rooting for Mysterio (because I love him) and someone not-Venom (because trying to do Venom would be a stupid idea) like Shocker or Kraven (who’s name was mentioned in the end of the movie so, maybe).  Anyway, that’s my two cents about Spiderman. Go see it for yourselves. Today’s exercise is a scene challenge. 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 Challenge: amazingly enough I want you to write a scene about superheroes. This is going to be a variation of the movie/book scene challenges we’ve done in the past. Choose one of your favorite scenes from a good movie or book. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a version of what happens that is entirely your own. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in the same way, but that is still completely your own work.

Archetypal Heroes: Series Introduction

Hey everyone, I’m starting a new series of posts about different types of archetypal heroes and how we can individualize them to our own specific stories. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, archetypes exist for a reason, and even though we are striving for originality in our writing it is important to recognize that when something works well we should be willing to adopt it. Simply put, archetypes are practical and effective, but we must not only adopt the archetype into our story we must also adapt it to our character. The archetype is the foundation and it is our job to build a house that people will want to stay in.

1521964For the first archetype I want to look at the Tragic Hero. Tragic Heroes are those characters who have a fundamental flaw or desire that often leads to their downfall. Perhaps the most common example of this character archetype would be Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, although I think a strong argument could be made for Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo as well. Which brings me to an important point; good characters don’t just fit into one archetype. Many of them will have a combination of elements from different archetypes, which is key to creating interesting and original characters. In The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond Dantes’ fatal flaw is that he is too trusting and naive, which leads to his tragic imprisonment where he learns the truth and begins his quest for vengeance. No longer the trusting and naive man that he was, Edmond Dantes escapes prison and extracts his revenge, but loses the love of his life. Even as his simple trusting nature led to their separation, his quest for vengeance caused that separation to continue, even when opportunity arose to be reunited as lovers. In essence Edmond Dantes is two characters, both of whom are tragic heroes; one by nature and the other by his choices. This is one of the reasons why the story is a classic; the character never breaks from the tragic archetype even though he undergoes extensive changes throughout his life. He is both consistent and diverse, and I think that is something that ought to be emulated in our own stories.

Holiday Special: Have your characters celebrate

November and December is an exciting time of year to me. There are a lot of celebrations in a very short period of time. For teaching, it was the promised land of the school year, followed by the drought of no days off until Easter. There are also so many fun festivities to enjoy. Surely you have two or three at the very least between Halloween and now. If you don’t practice them, no doubt you can name them. Many of the holidays evolved, as well. Winter Solstice is arguably one of the first, if not the first in the season. Christmas stemmed from it so the pagans had a reason to convert in northern Europe to Christianity. Don’t deprive a society of a good party or things get ugly.

In your own world you have your mythologies and legends. You have celebrations and holidays. It becomes very easy to leave these in the background and never utilize them when it’s such a story rich point in time. Festivals reveal a great deal about the culture and characters. For culture, there could be human sacrifice. The Mayans had a ballgame where the winner was sacrificed to the gods. There could be a lot of sex. Thank Saturn for those long and exhausting nights. Perhaps people get drunk and play horrible music, while laughing, singing, and dancing. Create a celebration in your world that would compliment the belief structures and cultural norms you already have in place.

Sometimes celebration is a dude wearing a tie, running a spoon up and down a washboard. There was a lot of alcohol involved.
This tells you a lot about both character and setting!

How your characters react also says a lot. An individual who plays very hard at the ballgame believes in the gods and rewards in the afterlife. A character struggling between his wife and the gods may throw the game, desiring to see the birth of his son. During the orgy of Saturn, perhaps a boy has fallen madly in love with one particular girl and has no desire to make love to anyone else. Meanwhile, he catches her being passed from one man to the other, declaring she refuses to ever settle down with a man when such fun is readily at hand. How will he respond? In the drunken celebration, does your character play the washboard like an idiot, or does he scowl and go off in the corner? I picked the route of the joyful idiot. Choose a few characters from your story. Come up with a brief idea of how they react to your festival, along with how they might act with each other at the festival.

Now add some depth to your event. The ballgame was originally entertainment. There was no grand meaning to it, there were no gods watching the game and waiting for their snack. However, a volcano erupted and killed thousands. The shaman said they needed to sacrifice, and a team said the winner of the game should have the honor to feed the gods to save the many. Ever since then, the volcano has been dormant. Obviously it’s working.

Originally the festival of fertility was between man and wife. The goddess was different, along with the religion. When a decadent conqueror saw the ritual, they turned it to their own desires and it became a celebration of unbridled lust. A corporation wanted to figure out how to make a lot of money, so they convinced people to pay in order to watch a musical, drink, eat, and play instruments from the old days. Ultimately, the locals rarely take part in the festival, but the tourists show up in droves. A strange mouse-like creature also appears from time to time. Look at your own cultural celebration. Come up with a history for it, what the original purpose was, how it changed, and why it changed. Remember that history is also written by the victors. Chances are the orgy would be pinned on the “uncivilized” conquered culture and a few generations later no one would be the wiser.

This will give you a few good scenes, something to build up to, and a better understanding of cultures and characters. I hope it helped. If you have other ways you try to incorporate culture into your stories, post it below!

Plot Challenge of the Week

First of all, I want to apologize for the missed post on Wednesday. Usually when someone misses a post, I’m there to put something up, but I’ve been fairly ill this week and I spent most of the day Tuesday and Wednesday curled up and trying not to move. Unfortunately, posting Wednesday’s challenge completely slipped my mind. So, while I’m doing much better than I was, I’m still under the weather, and I’m going to keep this nice and short. Your exercise today is a plot change challenge and the rules are below:

Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (whatever) 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.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Was anyone else's first instinct a monastery?
Was anyone else’s first instinct a monastery?

Well, it’s the end of the week again. I’ve been convinced for a while now that time is really nothing more than our best effort at measuring the process of entropy. Obviously this effort is flawed and somewhat subjective (which might explain why some months feel like days and others feel like years), but still I’m fairly certain that it is a human creation intended to measure the slow decay of the universe. I promise you, this gives that phrase ‘since the beginning of time’ a whole new meaning. Anyway,  you’ve all done setting challenges before… unless you’re new to the blog. So, I’m going to give you a set of general guidelines, and your job is to create a setting that fits those guidelines. Within the guidelines provided you’re free to do whatever you want with your setting.

So, you’re setting guidelines:

1) Your setting must be somewhere that you’ve actually been (generally speaking… specifics will come later).

2) Your setting must be an idealized form of that place. Your job is to create your harmonious (or disharmonious… if you swing that way) vision of the locale.

3) Your setting must not be larger than a city. Preferably smaller (a small town or city block). Try to be specific.

4) Your setting must include a general outline of at least 20 major and minor characters that populate this locale.

5) Your setting must be somewhere that you would want to visit.

Speak for Yourself…

Dorothy L. Sayers, one of my favorite authors.
Dorothy L. Sayers, one of my favorite authors.

…Don’t make your characters speak for you. This semester, I’m in a graduate Poetics class. A Poetic is basically a way of looking a literature and deciding what makes it good. My Poetic is very different from my professor’s, hers is different from Aristotle’s, and  his is probably very different from yours. All that goes to say that each individual person will have a different Poetic. Some ideas about good literature, however, are shared between large groups of readers and critics. For the next few weeks, I intend to discuss some of those ideas.  I may not agree with all of them, but most of them are worth examination and discussion. Today, I want to talk about using the character as a voice for the author.

We writers tend to have very strong views of things – morality, politics, relationships, and so on. We also tend to become very enamored of our ideas. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I occasionally find myself so in love with an idea or with an opinion that I want to get it into my story at all costs. When this happens, the common tendency is to make a character, or characters, convey the idea or the opinion. Leo Tolstoy was particularly guilty of this particular trait – he wrote himself into every one of his already ridiculously long novels, simply to talk about his own views on life, the universe, and everything. It very rarely worked, honestly. Other authors do this as well, although rarely with such frequency and audacity.

Dorothy L. Sayers in Mind of the Maker and John Gardner in On Moral Fiction both absolutely deplore using one’s characters as a personal mouthpiece. A good character, they both maintain, has to have some form of autonomy. It has to have the ability to grow and change throughout the story – and sometimes change of it’s own volition. Making your character speak your own ideas and views means the character is no longer itself. Instead, it’s merely an extension of you, and turning the character into yourself takes away from the integrity of your writing.  You can’t force the character to be you because people don’t want to read you.  If they wanted to read about you, they’d read your autobiography (whenever you got around to writing it).

I actually agree with this idea. I absolutely hate reading a book and coming across a character that is quite obviously the author thinly disguised as a monk or a prince or what have you. That’s why I dislike most of Tolstoy’s works and why I also have trouble with some of John Grisham’s later books. For me, the story starts to fall apart at this realization because all of a sudden, I feel like I can’t trust the author or the story. The book loses integrity, and I lose all interest. I want each character to speak for itself, not for the person who wrote it.


Story Challenge of The Week

ancient-godsWell, it’s Monday and that means that it’s time for another story challenge. As I’m writing this I’m also watching a 40K battle report from Bluetable Painting. Yes, I am a giant nerd. However, this is an awesome group of gamers both personally and professionally, so they are lots of fun to watch. 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 Awakening of Ancient Gods

Genre: Science Fiction

Setting: A heavily populated, technologically advance central world

Character Archetypes:

1) The Android Servant (this could be anything from a butler to an assassin/bodyguard)

2) The Genius but Skeptical Scientists

3) The Prophet

4) An Insane Homeless Man


1) A holy icon

2) A powerful weapon

3) A bracelet

Plot Challenge of the Week

TheMatrixWallpaper1024Welcome to the Matrix. You’ve just stepped into an electronic world that is, as you can see by glancing around, virtually identical to your real world. You are now trapped in here, with the rest of us. There is no escape from the matrix… at least no easy one (don’t follow any white rabbits down holes), so you may allow your despair to begin seeping into your souls. However, you will find that everything in the matrix is almost as pleasant as the real world. Your food will taste almost as good. Your spouse will be almost as attractive. Your job will be almost as bearable. Your favorite recliner (yes, that one) will be almost as comfortable. We hope you enjoy your experience here in the matrix, you’re going to be here for a very long time.

… … …What can I say, I was in a mood. So, this week’s challenge is a character challenge! Isn’t that tons of fun? You all know the rules: I give you some basic criteria for a character and you create a character that includes those criteria.

Your Criteria:

1) Your character must be trapped in some kind of unreal world. This could be the matrix (either ala the movie or ala my introduction), a dream world, an illusion, etc. As long as the world is not a real place.

2) Your character must be an average person. He/she cannot be exceptional, and thus easily capable of escaping this virtual world.

3) Your character must be aware of his/her circumstances, though he/she may not desire to escape those circumstances.

4) Your character must have, or believe that he/she has, some greater purpose in either the real world or the illusory world.

Characters and Conflict

Well, I promised a post from Paul Davis, so here it is! And if you like his writing, check out his blog!

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Throughout a story, characters develop to reveal to the reader who they are. The idea is to find out more about the human condition through these fictional creations. At other times, really we’re just looking for entertainment and to see if the protagonist will change in the required way to save the day. However, when we first meet the character, there is a state of normality.

In video games from my generation, role playing games often started with an average teenager in some village doing what any teenager would do: peek at beautiful women, kill insects, and cut grass. The character is naive, has few skill sets, and ultimately is happy where he is at. If the world never changed, he would marry the girl he “accidentally” peeked at, he would be a great hunter or farmer, kids would be involved, and he would die at an old age as a village elder.
We didn’t play the game for that life (unless you’re playing “The Sims”). We don’t pick up books that tell such mundane tales that we’ll likely live out ourselves. If Bilbo Baggins didn’t have his life invaded by a company of dwarves, we never would have read his story. We didn’t read about Hamfast Gamgee, Sam’s father, the gardener of Bilbo and other hobbits. We wanted action and adventure, not tips on how to have a green thumb.
So how does Bilbo and Frodo go from common, chunky, serene hobbits with only petty cares in the world to amazing adventurers? How does Sun Wukong in Journey to the West become more than a mischievous, no good, magical monkey? How did you go from being some kid dreaming of writing and thinking it could never happen to a writer on some level, living the dream?
(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Conflict. Characters, cities, beliefs, people, and so on, will not change without conflict. Take from your own life on this. Love was a beautiful adventure. There should be wonderful kisses, giggling walks through the park, romantic dinners, and whatever else you dreamed of. Then you date that first person, you give them your heart, you create those magical moments, and at a point they leave you, tired of the over the top romanticism. At that point you change. Your idea of love has been irrevocably altered for better or worse.

When a best friend betrays you and takes the third wheel in your group to the playoff game, you have reached a point of conflict. Will you remain friends and brush it off? Will you go to an equally amazing event and either heap coals of kindness in the hopes they will repent, or you can invite the third wheel and shove it in our former friend’s face.
Conflict changes us, or at least reveals something about our nature. It does the same with our characters. However, remember that a static character tells as much to the reader as a dynamic character. A static character will not change, no matter the adversity. A static character terrified of spiders may have to push a button to save his friend, but there are numerous spiders all over the button. Unable to change, the character allows fear to take over and loses his friend because he can’t push that button. A dynamic character does change and would push the button, capable of overcoming his character flaw.
When plotting your story, keep this in mind. If you plan nothing else, create a basic character and give him a flaw or two. Realize any real conflict, anything that will tell us truly about the integrity of the character, will test those flaws. You don’t need every obstacle to be based on those flaws, such as side stories, but have the key conflict revolve around what would show the character’s growth (or lack there of).
So I ask of you to create a character. Create one flaw for that character, then come up with a way to test that flaw. Write a short story on it and whether or not the character overcomes the flaw. This can be gambling, insecurity, snakes, the dark, Aunt Gertrude pinching his cheeks, or whatever else you come up with. Then decide whether or not the character will overcome. Reflect upon what that says about your character (and scarily enough, sometimes you).
Go to it and have fun!

Early Plot Challenge this Week

This is a political cartoon from 1915. Thought you might enjoy. (Photo Credit)
This is a political cartoon from 1915. Thought you might enjoy. (Photo Credit)

Well, Neal’s in the middle of a piece of Goetic magic, but he’s not feeling very well. He’s promising me that he’ll have the article done by tomorrow, so I’m flipping tomorrow plot challenge over onto today. So, you’ve all done the scene challenge from yesterday, I assume (insert disapproving look here)? If not you’re going to have to do both of these challenges over the weekend as home work (insert another disapproving look). Yeah, I’m kidding! You all should have a handle on how the new plot challenges are working, and don’t forget to look over at the services tab, I inserted something new a while back for any of you that are struggling with either fictional or academic writing. Also, if you’ve never tried writing a blog post while a cat sits on your foot and stares up at you, you should. It makes everything more interesting. Anyway, here’s your challenge: I’m going to give you a goal. Sometimes this will come with characters and/or a setting, and sometimes it will involve rewriting other things. So, you have to complete the goal using the tools that I provide you with.

Your challenge: Sit down and watch a movie you like. As you watch, take some notes on who the character’s are, and how they are developed. Also take notes on some of the basic characteristics of the setting. What are the key setting features that cannot change? Once you finish use the same characters and basic setting features to create a plot in a different time period. For instance, if the movie is set in the 1980s, set your plot in the 1500s. If your movie is a fantasy movie, set your plot in the far future. Have fun with this and be creative. You might want to examine some modern adaptations, both good and bad, to get some ideas of what to do, and what not to do.