Story Challenge of the Week

Sometimes, in the words of Forrest Gump (or more accurately his momma), ‘life is like a box of chocolates’. Of course, sometimes it’s like rooting around in a dumpster, and sometimes its like a work cubicle: small, oppressive, and boring. You never know what you’re going to get, and you never know how you’re going to react to it. Sometimes, people can have the worst reactions to things that should make them ecstatic, and sometimes people will react to horrible news with amazing aplomb. The key in the midst of all of this is remembering that we live in a real world that is not defined by our feelings, desires, opinions, or convictions. The concept of reality is one that, I fear, the Western world is slowly losing any kind of grip on. It is one of the most important concepts in life because, in the words of a Psychology professor I once had, ‘Reality always wins.’ Time spent delving into fantasy can be wonderful. It can be a time to decompress, relax, rejuvenate both heart and mind, and gain new perspective. However, our fantasy and fiction should also tell us something true about reality. This isn’t the same as saying that we need ‘realistic’ or ‘gritty’ fantasy. C. S. Lewis’ fantasies are far from gritty, but they do tell us something true about the real world. However, it does mean that our fantasy needs to be rooted in reality and that it needs to both offer a temporary escape and lead us back to reality in the end. Too many modern fantasies attempt to replace reality, and this endeavor will never end well. Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:


Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Fyodor Dostoyevsky argued that if there is no God then anything is permissible. Philosophers such as Friedrich Nietszche and Jean-Paul Sartre generally agree with his general premise, though, unlike Dostoyevsky (who concluded from this that there must be a God), they thus conclude that anything is permissible if one believes that it is right or necessary. However, other thinkers, such as Aristotle, argued that there is a moral reality to which man is beholden, regardless of whether any god exists, and some have argued that any god or gods are also beholden to this moral reality. David Hume argued that moral principles could not be drawn from observations of the natural world (i.e. an ought cannot be drawn from an is–also known as the is/ought problem or the naturalistic fallacy), but also concluded that while morality is thus subjective, it can still be universal because all men are driven by the same subjective passions–even if they do resist or bury them.

So, I’ve had you all write on the idea of moral realism, both theistic and philosophical, before. However, in today’s challenge I want you to imagine that Nietszche and Sartre are correct. There is no God, and because there is no God absolutely anything is (at least potentially) permissible. What would such a world look like? Why?

As always, answer the challenge in a story of 1000 words.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Well, it’s day two of only sleeping 5 hours a night and I seem to be doing alright generally. I can’t say that I’m doing great with it, but I’m surviving and I can still get stuff don, which is good. I even got most of my reading for the day done, though my ability to keep a sharp focus for long periods is less than it would be on full sleep, but still a lot more than if I wasn’t sleeping. Anyway, today I have a plot challenge for you. This one is new, but its related to our challenge from last week. Last week I asked you to develop a metanarrative for a story: the broad, overarching details and plot. One of the major things I asked you to do is figure out what the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story are. This week, I want you to narrow your focus. I want you to choose two of those three points (i.e. beginning and middle or middle and end–not beginning and end) and figure out how the story gets from Point A to Point B. You want to treat this in the same way that you did the metanarrative–just narrower. So, if you choose the beginning and middle, then the beginning is still the beginning, but the middle is the new end of this portion of the narrative, and you need a new middle or middles. Some questions to consider:

  1. What settings are significant for this section of the story? Does it all happen in one place or are multiple settings important? Perhaps characters are traveling?
  2. What needs to change to move the story along? Perhaps a house burns down? A civil war begins? Someone gets fired? Perhaps multiple things need to happen.
  3. Who are the important characters for this part of the story? What new minor supporting characters are necessary? How much of a backstory do they need to have? Consider that none of your characters should simply be flat. Even if a character is just a bartender who appears in two scenes, you should have some idea of who he/she is and what his/her life story is.
  4. How do you major characters need to change between the Point A and Point B and what is going to motivate this change? If you want a masterful example of masterful character development over the course of a novel read Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger and pay attention to the character Marron Shed.
  5. What needs to happen to set the stage for the next part of the story? Remember that, once you get down under the metanarrative you’re dealing with parts of an interwoven whole. So, what connects this part of your story to the parts that come before and after it? What needs to happen in this part that either ends story-lines from the last part, or opens story-lines for the next part?

Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, the Capitals lost tonight, which has made Alayna somewhat discontent. However, it was an excellent game that went into overtime, so they fought it hard. That also left us getting home very late and fairly exhausted. However, no big problem there as I’m starting a sleep program for the treatment of insomnia that only allows me to sleep for five hours a night. Woohoo… That being said, I have a scene challenge for you. You all should know the rules, but just in case: 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: write me a scene of at least 300 and no more than 1500 words that effectively expresses your take on some current event. This could be a major event (like the US capturing Iranian weapons shipments or North Korea test firing Nukes), or it could be a minor event (like the opening of a new library in your hometown), and what you choose is up to you. This is not to be an essay about your position, nor is it to be a character simply presenting your position in monologue. I want your scene to be vivid, dynamic, and meaningful, but also to give the reader a clear sense of your opinion on the event/issue about which you chose to write. Express your opinion through the way you set your scene, the setting that you choose, the situation in which your character’s find themselves, and the way they interact with one another both verbally and, more importantly, non-verbally. Have fun!

On Fans

So, on Thursday I wrote a post on adding nuances to your world in order to increase the level and feeling of reality in your stories. I believe that this is important. Fiction should be rich, detailed, nuanced, and deep, and this is especially true of speculative fiction. However, there is a flip side to that coin: you are not perfect, and you’re world will not be perfectly detailed. Even modern fiction writers and non-fiction writers deal with this. As authors, we get things wrong. Understanding this and being able to deal with it is incredibly important, especially in the modern context. If you look up any popular movie recently (and many popular novels) you can find entire websites dedicated to explaining, in detail, every single flaw in the work. Youtube is currently filled with videos, often a hour or more long, explaining the many problems that ‘destroy’ Star Wars, The Avengers, Captain America, etc as movies, and you don’t have to look too hard to find the same kind of material for historical movies or movies about current events.

Now, what should strike us as odd is that most of these are created by fans of the movies/books in question. For instance, I have a group of friends who get together once every year or two to marathon the Lord of the Rings movies. Of course, they spend at least half the night bitching about everything that was done wrong and how Peter Jackson ‘ruined’ the franchise… which should lead us to ask why they are staying up all night to watch twelve hours of apparently horrible moves for the sixteenth time. Simply put, the modern world is most critical of what it loves the best. If you make a horrible movie that no one wants to watch, such as that terrible dragon/snake war movie that I can’t even remember the title of… it was probably something like ‘Dragon/Snake Wars,’ then chances are that there won’t be any videos on youtube tearing it apart.

So, the first thing you need to consider as an author is that any fan who is telling you everything that you did wrong in you’re novel is 1) way too invested in you’re writing, and 2) actually read your novel and will almost certainly read the next one. We’re specifically critical of the things that we love, but we’re generally critical of the things that we hate. For instance, Daredevil was a stupid movie: bad casting, bad acting, bad writing, bad fight scenes… the cinematography was okay I guess. I feel no need to go into any detail about what I am critical about in this example because I hated the entire movie. I actually avoided Batman vs Superman because they cast Ben Affleck as Batman… which was just a bad idea all around. From everything I’ve heard I didn’t miss anything. Again, notice that there was no specific criticism there?

Now, in the Lord of the Rings Movies it annoys me that the army of the dead are at Pellanor Fields and that there were no scenes with Tom Bombadil or the Barrow Wights in the first movie. In the Hobbit Movies I’m frustrated at the way the relationship between Gandalf and Galadriel is portrayed and the way they handled Radagast the Brown (maybe… at least the poop-face hat thing). Notice how my criticism was very specific here? That’s because I really liked the movies overall and actually have specific criticisms to make after watching them too many times. I don’t think that Peter Jackson ruined the franchise. Actually, I think he did an absolutely fantastic job with all six movies (and yes, I liked most of the stuff that was added into the Hobbit movies… except the elf-dwarf love triangle… that was weird). However, Peter Jackson wasn’t perfect and he didn’t make perfect movies.

When you’re dealing with fans you will have to remember that they are being specifically critical because they liked your work. They are fans, not rabid monsters out to destroy your sanity (though it can certainly feel that way sometimes). When you are being a fan, remember that whatever you’re talking about isn’t perfect because it wasn’t written, filmed, directed, acted, painted, etc by a perfect artist who made a flawless masterpiece. Of course there are plot holes, you signed on for that when you decided to read or watch a work of fiction (or non-fiction… in non-fiction we call them logical fallacies or factual errors). So, consider how you are coming across as a fan. If you are choosing to read a book or watch a movie for the umpteenth time then chances are that you really like it… do you come across that way?

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Alayna and I saw Captain America: Civil War today, and I have to say that I was very impressed with the way the movie was handled. There was, of course, a suitable amount of action: car chases, fights, buildings being destroyed, etc. However, there was a well-developed plot that, while not exactly the story from the Marvel Civil War comic series, dealt with a number of the same major issues very well. In classical Greek tragedy the focal point of conflict it the collision of two equally real but mutually exclusive goods which inevitably ends in the destruction of one or both. This theme was a major part of the comic series and is a major part of the movie. Most everyone in the movie is actually trying to do the right thing, but they have radically different understandings of what the right thing actually is, and the film paints this extremely well. One of the deeper ethical issues that they handle with a good amount of tact and fairness is the issue of the relationship between volition, culpability, and responsibility. Let us assume that there is a murderer who is not in control of his actions: perhaps the individual is mentally deranged, brainwashed, in the midst of a night terror, etc. This individual kills several people, but does not actually choose to take any of the actions leading up to or including these killings. In the absence of volition but the presence of real suffering is the individual culpable for this suffering? Does he bear full guilt for the actions that were not in his control? Is he responsible in some way, but not in a way that implies legal or moral culpability and thus guilt? Is he freed of any and all responsibility because the actions were not his to meaningfully choose or reject? This is my challenge for you today.

As always, write a one thousand word story that presents your answer to the question. Also, watch the movie to see what their answer to the question was :).

Plot Challenge of the Week

Well, I started my first reading for the official Ph.D. program today. I’m rereading Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and the Moral Order and reading Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, which is fairly interesting thus far. It is certainly going to be an interesting summer, that’s for sure. Anyway, it’s time for a plot challenge. Many of you have probably done this challenge before, so I hope you have fun with it! This week’s post and next week’s post are going to go together. This week I want you to put together a general metanarrative for your story. You’ll need to figure out the following:

  1. Your genre: is this story a fantasy, sci-fi, urban fantasy, spy fiction, mystery, modern adventure, etc?
  2. Your theme: what ideas do you want to explore? Politics, relationship, metaphysics, criminal psychology, theological questions, mystical questions, etc?
  3. Your major setting: what nation, country, locale, village, apartment building, etc is your story set in? Consider that some novels/movies/etc have taken place in elevators… literally, the entire story… in an elevator. Others take place over an entire galaxy.
  4. Your main characters: who is your protagonist? Is he a hero, an anti-hero, a villain, something else? Who is your antagonist? What is his plan and purpose?
  5. Your major supporting characters: who is your protagonist close to? Your antagonist? What major people will help shape the story?
  6. Growth: how will your main characters/world grow over the course of the story? What is the beginning? The middle? The end? Pick out three specific, major events that you want to be the landmarks of your story.

Accoutrements of the Real World

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 Empire kickstarter 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:

In The Kingdom of Meaning Well

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

Clothes Remain

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.
A marching song of the Bonehunters

Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, the process of figuring out a class schedule has begun. I have to take a class in Research and Integration, and I’m considering doing a second seminar and then auditing (not officially) a seminar that I did during my Th.M. but that is being taught by a different instructor and will have some significantly different material and discussion. This might not be what I wind up doing, but it might not. Anyway, I have a scene challenge for you and you all should know the rules, but just in case: 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: I want you to write a scene using sentences of six words or less. The goal of this exercise is to develop a comfort with short, staccato bursts that get straight to the point. This isn’t a style that everyone uses, though some rather well known authors have, but it can be as helpful to have in your repertoire as the long, florid style that we practice using the 150 word sentence challenges. So, your scene should be at least 300 words, preferably somewhat longer, and it should be entirely of sentences that are six words or less. Here’s you’re prompt: “The ship was sinking…”

Story Challenge of the Week

We had Alayna’s baby shower this past weekend, which is why we had guests in. It seems to have been a smashing success (though I wasn’t there for culturally obvious reasons), and Alayna thoroughly enjoyed herself. I’m also eagerly following the Fragged Empire kickstarter. Again, if you enjoy either Role-Playing Games or miniatures, this would be a great one to follow and contribute to. They have very reasonable rewards levels, and the game itself looks to be extremely well put together. For this week’s story challenge I am going to give you a theme and you have to write your story on that theme. However, I am also going to give you four words (a verb, a noun, an adjective, and an adverb) and you will have to use each of those words in your story. The goal in this exercise is to write a story that includes these words in a natural and meaningful way.

Your theme: Curiosity

Verb: Bathe

Noun: Forest

Adjective: Handsome

Adverb: lackadaisically