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?

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.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Shadows_LingerWell, I’m in the middle of a 12 day stretch writing a paper a day. Admittedly, most of these are 2000-4000 word essays (prepping for the entrance exam for one of the schools I applied to), but that’s still quite a bit of writing to do… and quite a bit of stuff to know about. The prompts for these essays range from identifying and explaining the three most significant theological doctrines for Christian Ethics to discussing the biblical passages having to do with divorce and remarriage and various arguments around them, to explaining the history of abortion in America and it’s impact on the Christian social witness, to discussing whether Ethics is most appropriately placed in the field of theology or philosophy. My mind is going to be a bit drained by the end of the process. However, 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?

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Well, welcome to Friday! I hope that you’ve all had a wonderful week. We’ve had a fairly productive week thus far, especially when it comes to getting our apartment cleaned up, which is a good thing because it needed it pretty badly. Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you, and it’s something a little bit different. In this challenge I want you to work on plotting out a particular chapter or set of scenes. I’ve given you some exercises concerning metanarrative, but now I want you to focus in on the micronarratives of the story. So, I’m going to give you a couple of characters, a setting, and a grand plot, and I want you to plot out one chapter of a metanarrative involving them.

Metanarrative: The work as a whole is a work of science fiction. The story follows a traveler/explorer/merchant/soldier named Simon, a kind of jack of all trades who wanders through the solar system of the near future doing whatever he needs to in order to get by. Simon served on the winning side of the Jupiter Colony Wars, but in the fight to secure the independence of the moons of Jupiter from the Terran federation he did things that haunt him to this day. Because of this Simon has a strong, but warped, sense of morality and the story as a whole is about his quest to find his way back to a moral center. Simon realizes that the war is still with him in many ways, and he realizes that he is far to willing to do some things that should clearly revolt and disturb him, especially when it comes to citizens or defenders of the federation. By the middle of the story Simon has met Lorelai, a terran who has spent her life counseling terran soldiers who were left broken by the way, and who has developed an interest in helping Simon come to terms with his actions during the war, and in his quest to become a better person. By the end of the story Simon has developed a strong sense of virtue and justice, and has begun to shape himself into the defender of the innocent that he wanted to be when he first joined the Jupiter Colony militia.

This chapter: This chapter falls near the end of Simon’s story. He has been traveling with Lorelai for several months and has begun to develop what will become his strong sense of virtue and justice. However, in this chapter that burgeoning understanding of moral limits is sorely tested when his new employer (a recent contract that he picked up from a contact on Ganymede) turns out to be a former special forces officer in the Colony militia who hasn’t left the war behind. Simon’s job is simply to deliver a batch of medicine to the his employer on Phoebos–the moon of Mars. Phoebos was initially part of the Jupiter uprising, but was quickly conquered by Terran forces and has since been devastated by high taxes and draconian import restrictions. Phoebians has become a byword for the poor, oppressed, and distraught, and the moon is desperately in need of medical supplies. However, many of the needed supplies are banned by the Terran government, including the drugs and surgical equipment that Simon is to deliver. However, in the last chapter Simon discovered that his employer doesn’t intend this equipment for any humanitarian purpose, but instead that the drugs and surgical equipment are necessary operating components for the implantation of various cybernetic and biological weapons into willing (or unwilling) recipients in order to create a force of insurgent soldiers capable of destroying the Terran forces on Phoebos and possibly starting the war anew. In this chapter Simon will determine that such a move is morally wrong, not because the Terran forces are undeserving, but because it risks reigniting a devastating war that can only cause further damage to the people of Phoebos.

The Setting: Your settings are Simon’s ship, the Cantilever, and the moon of Phoebos itself. The Cantilever is a relatively small transport vessel with significant stealth and speed capabilities along with some hidden defensive, and very illegal, weaponry. Phoebos is a rathole of a colony that offers little in the way of comfort or luxury outside of the Terran garrison. The moon produces significant amounts of minerals, but the miners operate on a quota system and the Terran government seizes the vast majority of what they produce. What little they are allowed to sell on the open market, and what little they can hide in order to sell on the black market, must serve to provide for all of their needs. Soren’s lab is hidden under a burnt out hospital complex that used to serve the majority of the colony before the war, and it is a ramshackle facility with a mishmash of new and old equipment, some scavenged equipment, and some piecemeal equipment that has been cobbled together by Soren and his techs.

Characters: I’m going to give you several characters. You don’t need to use all of them in your chapter. In fact, you only could use all of them if you were bouncing back and forth between several points of view. So, if you want to plot out the chapter entirely from Wilem’s point of view, that’s fine, just ignore the characters that don’t fit.

Simon: The hero of the story and a man at a moral impasse. You should have what you need from the above.

Lorelai: Simon’s companion, friend, counselor, confidant, and sometimes conscience. She is soft-spoken and easy to get along with, but cursed with a very plain appearance. Lorelai is kind and has a strong moral center, though she sometimes comes across as idealistic and naive, she is actually very intelligent, experienced, and cunning.

Soren: A former officer in the Jupiter Colony militia’s insurgent and recon forces, he specialized in bio-terrorism, counter-insurgency tactics, infiltration, battlefield technology, and medical operations. Soren could be a skilled chemist or physician, but instead he turns his skills towards ‘destroying the Terran menace once and for all.’

Pask: Soren’s second in command and chief technical officer, Pask combines a significant skill in electrical, chemical, and computer engineering with a broad expertise in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.

Lesley: a high-ranking Terran officer in the locak garrison, he is slightly overweight and has expensive and often sordid tastes.

Henry: one of Lesley’s subordinates, he is a man of honor and dignity who is disgusted by the excesses of his superiors. He has requested to be transferred off of Phoebos several times, but thus far all such requests have been denied.

Meagan: A Phoebian woman who is searching for her child, a 13 year old girl who has been missing for three days, and fears the worst.

Kazik: a Phoebian merchant who deals on the black market, selling ore for Phoebian citizens and bringing in a marginal profit for himself. Some believe that he is a good-hearted man simply trying to help and survive at the same time, others believe that he is a brigand who takes advantage of his neighbors.

Your job today is to use what I’ve given you here and your imagination to plot out the chapter step by step. Figure out the major events that need to happen, in what order, and how to make them interesting and fun.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Don-Quixote-and-Sancho-xx-Alexandre-Gabriel-DecampsWell, I took the GRE on Wednesday. My scores weren’t quite exactly what I was hoping for. On the verbal I got a 167, which is a little higher than the 165 I was shooting for and fair bit higher than the 160-162 that I was expecting. I’m pretty happy with that score. For my Quantitative reasoning I got a 152, which is a fair bit less than the 158 I was hoping for, but is around what I could realistically expect with only a month to study and an extremely busy month at that. I haven’t gotten back the composition scores yet, but I’m hoping that their fairly strong.Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you all. Here are the rules for today’s challenge:

Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Source
Source

Well, first of all I want to say congratulations to Sam’s father! It’s very exciting, and I know that publication (that is official publication rather than one of the many forms of self- or vanity-publication) is one of the goals both for many of the writers and many of the readers of this blog! If you have a moment please check out his blog! It looks like it’s just getting started, so the attention would certainly be helpful. Anyway, I have an exercise before. You’ve done this one a few times, but it is fairly new. Today I want you to sit down and write out your basic metanarrative. I don’t want you to building any settings or develop any characters, instead use what you already have and come up with an overarching storyline for a 1, 3, or 5 story series. Plan on these stories being between 10,000 and 35,000 words long and try to have a good flow. I want you to consider and decide on the following points:

1) What locations (i.e. cities, ruins, forests, temples, etc) is your story going to center around? What are the major powers (i.e. national or religious) forces involved and how to they currently relate to one another? How are their relations going to have changed by the end of the story?

2) What characters are involved? Who is your main protagonist? You supporting protagonists? Your main antagonist? Your supporting antagonists? How is each major character going to be different by the end of the story? Is anyone going to be dead? If so, who?

3) What is the introduction, the climax, and the epilogue of each story? What are the three pivotal events that the metastory itself focuses around? What are the major events that come in between them? Try to have a clear but general outline of your plot. Consider what has to happen in the story, and then consider what should happen in the story. Then you can start working out how to get from one to the next.

4) What are going to be your major trouble areas? What events or plot points do you just not know enough about, or are you simply bad at writing? Can you work around these trouble points? If not, is there something you can do to get better at handling them?

Adapting our imaginations into prose

Hello, internet!

I’m slightly frazzled from travelling, so today’s post might be a little disjointed.

After several weeks of intense travelling (and sleeping off my intense jetlag) I’ve finally got myself back into a healthy sleeping pattern where I actually see some daylight now and then, and I’ve found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s really benefiting my writing. I sat down this morning determined to begin a fresh new draft of my book and I shot straight out of the starting blocks, writing 1,000 words and only stopping because I had to go and buy myself a shiny new phone.

I’m back now, with my shiny new phone successfully purchased, and I find myself eager to get back to writing. This is almost a novelty, because I’ve had a few weeks of fairly intense writer’s block, where I’ve been asking myself a lot of crippling existential questions about my writing and my desire to make a career as a writer, and it’s been tying me up and stopping me from getting any words down on the page.

I think there are a few factors which have renewed my creativity, as well as just having a healthier sleeping schedule. One was all of the advice and inspiration that I got from attending NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It’s only now, with all of my travelling done, that I’m really finding time to apply all of the lessons that I learned to my own writing. Mostly the authors speaking at NerdCon just reaffirmed a valuable lesson that I already knew, but had perhaps forgotten: every writer, even your favourite writer, sucked to begin with. All of the great writers in history began with a crappy first draft, which probably didn’t even get published after they’d rewritten it into a well-polished final draft, but the only way they eventually got published was by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. As Maureen Johnson always says, as an aspiring writer, you have to “give yourself permission to suck”. You have to abandon the idea that you’re going to like what you write, at least at first. The only way to get good is to be bad, and then improve.

Sucking at something

I find that advice very empowering, so whenever I get a fresh dose of it, I’m always raring to go and write pages and pages of my crappy first draft without worrying about the quality, which is exactly what young aspiring writers should be doing.

As well as that, though, I think I’ve stumbled across another important lesson, in my recent writing.

I’m really enjoying the latest redraft of my story, which I’ve only just embarked upon, but as I get it down onto the page, I can’t help but shake my head at how different it is from how I originally imagined the story, when I first envisioned the book and the world it’s set in, about two years ago. I like this new envisioning of my book, and more importantly I think it’s the ‘easiest’ incarnation of my world that I’ve ever come up with, in terms of how well the plot and characters melt down into a story that I can actually tell. It’s more malleable, and less troublesome to mould into scenes and plot arcs, linked by a consistent narrative, which of course are all of the essential bare-bones elements of a story that can eventually be turned into a book.

That doesn’t change the fact that the book is very different from the one I was writing a year ago, or even six months ago. The narrative voice is very different, the events have changed sequence dramatically, characters who were in the background have moved into the foreground and vice versa, the technology that they use has regressed by about a century in terms of it’s level of advancement, and I have introduced some explicitly supernatural elements that were completely absent in earlier drafts. All of these changes have made it easier for me to write, and easier to actually tell the story, but they have moved the book further and further from my original conception of the story and the world that it takes place in. And I’m completely okay with that.

I think when authors first conceive of a fantasy world, and think it out, their original idea can be a very beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s fantasy at it’s purest – when it is just mere fantasy, in a writer’s head. But it’s a mistake to think that the world in our heads at the moment of conception is going to be exactly the same world that appears on the page once we’ve finally written the world into prose. The world you’ve created has to be filtered through you if it wants to get into print, where other people can experience it, and you’re an imperfect vessel for that transition. You can’t just open the floodgates and let it pour out unchanged or undiluted. You’re a human being with wants and needs and time constraints and bills to pay, and ultimately you have to change the shape of the world you’ve created so that it’s easy to draw out of yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s no good having a vast, wonderful and expansive fantasy world in your head if you find it impossible to turn into a story which you can actually write: if you can’t mould it into a format that will actually flow through your fingers and out onto the page. Ultimately, I think writability must come first, before any kind of integrity to our original vision. Sacrifices must be made to get the world out of our heads and onto the page.

In short, the important thing is to create a faithful prose adaptation of whatever fantasy world exists in our heads, the same way that a movie director would try to create a faithful cinematic adaptation of a fantasy world that exists in prose. There’s a certain nobility to preserving our original idea as much as possible…but it can be a useless nobility, if our goal is to get published. Sometimes characters must be swapped around, plots must be truncated or rearranged, and extrenuous dragons must be mercilessly excised, in order to make a book writeable. And, for that matter, publishable.

What are your thoughts?

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Plot Challenge of the Week

This piece was done by Jon Hodgson and more of his work can be found here.
This piece was done by Jon Hodgson and more of his work can be found here.

Welcome to Friday! I’ve been filling out Ph.D. applications all week and writing the dreaded ‘why do you want to come to this school’ essays along with the ‘what are your goals’ and ‘what are your strengths and weaknesses’ essays. I honestly don’t know anyone who enjoys writing those, and I’ve yet to find a ‘right’ way to do it (I’ve found a lot of wrong ways to do it though). The thing is, I actually know what my goals are (at least five year goals), I’m just worried that the university won’t think my goals are good enough, or perhaps aren’t compatible with their academic philosophy and culture. Anyway, like I said, I haven’t met anyone who likes writing these things. Regardless,I have an exercise for you. You’ve probably done this one a couple of times. At this point, if you’ve been following the blog, you probably have quite a few settings worked up from our Friday challenges. However, I’m wondering if you’re using those settings at all (if you don’t, then look back through the archive at the plot challenges and you’ll find plenty of inspiration for settings). So, today I want you to sit down and write out your basic metanarrative. I don’t want you to building any settings or develop any characters, instead use what you already have and come up with an overarching storyline for a 1, 3, or 5 story series. Plan on these stories being between 10,000 and 35,000 words long and try to have a good flow. I want you to consider and decide on the following points:

1) What locations (i.e. cities, ruins, forests, temples, etc) is your story going to center around? What are the major powers (i.e. national or religious) forces involved and how to they currently relate to one another? How are their relations going to have changed by the end of the story?

2) What characters are involved? Who is your main protagonist? You supporting protagonists? Your main antagonist? Your supporting antagonists? How is each major character going to be different by the end of the story? Is anyone going to be dead? If so, who?

3) What is the introduction, the climax, and the epilogue of each story? What are the three pivotal events that the metastory itself focuses around? What are the major events that come in between them? Try to have a clear but general outline of your plot. Consider what has to happen in the story, and then consider what should happen in the story. Then you can start working out how to get from one to the next.

4) What are going to be your major trouble areas? What events or plot points do you just not know enough about, or are you simply bad at writing? Can you work around these trouble points? If not, is there something you can do to get better at handling them?