Category Archives: story

Invisible story grenade

Hey folks – first, an apology for running so late and slow on blog posts right now. Turns out that when you’re writing about the way someone else tells stories, you need to do your research – which, in this case, means watching a lot of wrestling.

Oh boy. So much wrestling. It eats up all my time.

Because there is a lot of wrestling in the world, even though most of what you see/hear about is the WWE product. There are some very different ways of arranging grappling matches, and different ways of telling stories in that space. And if you want to see something that goes in a really distinct direction, while still having some of the same foundations (and still being in English), then you want to look at Chikara.

chikara-2014Chikara is a large independent promotion based out of Philadelphia, who put on shows in their own venue while also travelling for some national and even international shows. (They haven’t come to Australia yet, but fingers crossed.) They’re known for solid wrestling that mixes technical and lucha libra styles, a large roster of over-the-top characters, complex comicbook-inspired plotlines and a (mostly) light-hearted, family-friendly approach to the wrestling form.

What does that mean in terms of storytelling, and what lessons can be learned for prose writing? I have many thoughts. And another long-arse post in which to unpack them.

Making the most of what you’ve got

The first thing you notice when you watch a Chikara match is the low production values – well, low in comparison to WWE, anyway. There are no big display screens, no pyro, no video packages summarising feuds – just a ring and some wrestlers performing for maybe 200 people sitting near the stage. But what Chikara does is use those limitations to their advantage, funnelling almost all their storytelling (apart from the occasional, very basic speech-to-camera promo on their recordings) into the ring. That means that stories and character development happen right in front of the audience, who are close enough to the action to feel like they’re genuinely part of it; that keeps them in-the-moment so that they don’t feel distanced from the crazy plot elements. It all works, and it wouldn’t in a bigger, louder, glitzier environment that fostered a sense of detachment in the fans. (Lesson: Limitations provide the boundaries around a creative space, so work with the tools you have to make something distinct and effective in that space.)

Playing the long game

Chikara storylines are strange (more on that later), but more than that, they’re long. Plotlines play out monthly, rather than weekly, and a plot point set up in January might not fully play out until December or even the following season. The biggest plotlines play out the longest – I think the current major arc, with the evil god Nazmaldun corrupting wrestlers to make an army of demon heels, has been going for about 18 months – but smaller arcs start and finish in the foreground as the big stories grind on. It’s these big plotlines that hook Chikara fans, and the degree to which the promoters commit to them – for one major storyline, they shut Chikara down for an entire year so that they could return with a bang. But they can also make new audiences feel overwhelmed, they’re vulnerable to real-world changes (like wrestlers getting injured) and they have to be paced very carefully to maintain the momentum. Chikara generally pulls these stories off, but the effort involved is clear. (Lesson: Big stories fascinate audiences and get attention, but you have to manage them carefully, and provide entrance points so that readers don’t get lost in all the detail.)

Diversity ain’t hard (but it ain’t always easy either)

Chikara fields a huge roster of wrestlers, with different fighting styles, body shapes, skill levels and performance techniques, and they often host wrestlers from other promotions. WWE’s wrestlers are all ‘competitive athlete’ archetypes; Chikara has many of those but also fantasy princesses, superheroes, clowns, humanoid ice-creams, monsters, cultists, sea creatures, ants (so many ants), dudes with weird names (my fave is FLEX RUMBLECRUNCH) and a man with a mustachioed baseball for a head. And if you held a gun to my head I still couldn’t tell you about 90% of the their personalities or story arcs, because I haven’t had the time to invest in learning about them over those aforementioned long, slow arcs. Chikara has wonderful diversity, but I feel like it comes at the expense of strongly defined characters. (Lesson: try to embed diversity and personality in a small, controllable set of characters, rather than a sprawling ensemble, or else variation comes at the expense of depth.)

Audience buy-in

So okay, let’s talk about storylines. Chikara’s are weird. They involve demonic corruption, supervillains, time-travel, evil duplicates, mind control, black ops military units, magic… it’s superhero-universe craziness, but with fewer special effects. The shorter arcs tend to be a bit less over-the-top, but still aren’t ‘realistic’, and the in-ring storytelling often involves superpowers, magic and other shenanigans. And the audience loves it, because a) it’s fun, b) it’s underpinned by a foundation of really solid, high-energy wrestling, and c) everyone watching knows coming in that this is what Chikara offers, and that getting on board with it is the price of admission. The price is worth it; this is, after all, a promotion where a wrestler wins matches by throwing an invisible hand grenade at his opponents in slow motion, and you can’t get that on Smackdown.

(Lesson: Know your audience and what they’ll enjoy, then make that without too much worrying about justification. They’ll suspend disbelief and come along for the ride if they’re with you.)

Using structure to set up stories

The other, less obvious thing about Chikara’s plotting is how it actively uses the trappings and structure of genuine athletic competition as a storytelling foundation. Like most promotions they have single and tag-team champion belts, but wrestlers have to gain points in order to qualify to compete for those belts; they also have a variety of trophies and other prizes, and tournaments to qualify for them. These elements help to ground the crazy stories, but more importantly they provide a reason for two (or more) wrestlers to fight in the first place – which then opens up storytelling space for more personal issues or feuds to emerge from that initial match. The upshot is that every match, no matter how ‘standard’, feels like it has a reason to exist (something WWE often fails to achieve). (Lesson: every action/conflict scene needs a premise (why they’re fighting) and stakes (what they win/lose) in order to connect to the reader.)

Family-friendly murder

Chikara are a family-friendly promotion, with storylines and ring action meant to engage and entertain kids (and adults). They back this up with some pretty strict performance rules – no blood, no swearing, no sexual content. But murder? Murder is fine. Many wrestlers and side characters have been ‘killed’ in the ring by heels and monsters; a long-running storyline saw the supervillian Deucalion murder more than a dozen wrestlers before he was himself killed by the heroic Icarus. So – kid-friendly, except full of death. Is that weird? Kids don’t think so, because kids love elements of horror and danger in their adventures – just listen to the stories they tell each other – and they can differentiate between fun horror and real my-parents-scream-at-each-other-every-night horror. Sanitised, stylised death raises the wrestling stakes in a way young audiences can enjoy, and it can do the same in many other stories as well. (Lesson: Everybody loves murder. Everybody. Go drop a murder into your Regency romance novel right now; it can only help sales. Especially with kids.)

Oof. That was long. I gotta get these things under control.

If you’re interested in checking out Chikara, almost all of their shows going back 16 seasons (years) are available to stream on their website through the Chikaratopia service; it costs $8 US a month, and you can trial it for a week to see if it’s your speed. If you want to get in on the ground floor of stories, start with the beginning of Season 15 or 16; if you want immediate action, watch one of the King of Trios multi-part specials, which is their annual three-person tag tournament that brings in many wrestlers from other promotions. (I hear this year’s was particularly good; watching it as soon as it’s up.)

But be warned when you watch it. You might be exposed to the most illegal move in all of wrestling history:

And that’s terrible great.

Plot, character, piledrivers

So I’ve been talking about how pro wrestling is a great space for communicating character and story through action – but talk is cheap. What does that actually mean? How do you use ten minutes of sweaty grappling and backflips to define a character, and what kind of stories can you tell through that platform?

The answer is – more than you might think.

I was going to wrap up this series of pro wrestling posts tonight and get back to beating myself up for my lack of productivity, but I kept finding new stuff to write about (and distracted by other stuff, which is why this Monday night post is going up on Friday night) – so let’s assume this is (at least) a two-part post and use part one to set some foundations, with a look at something everyone already knows about – World Wrestling Entertainment/WWE (and also NXT) – and what lessons might be learned.

WWE-logoEven if you’ve never seen a match in your life, you know about WWE; they’re a multi-billion dollar company, the single biggest wrestling organisation in the world. They have two big weekly shows (Raw and Smackdown) on regular TV, monthly pay-per-view events (even bigger shows) and their own $10-a-month wrasslin’ Netflix with more shows than I care to contemplate. The WWE Network is also the home of NXT, their ‘developmental’ offshoot where new performers build their skills/discipline before graduating to the main roster; just as importantly, it’s where they build an audience so that anyone cares about that graduation.

Tonal change is hard

03A lot of folks I follow on Twitter, or who make podcasts I enjoy, are really into the current WWE promotion, or more directly into NXT, and that background interest is probably what drew me back to the sport after a decade away. It’s kind of sad, then, that I find their current product, well… kind of boring. Compared to the flash, speed and silliness of the Attitude Era (late 90s-early 00s), or even the mid-2000s, the current WWE/NXT style of wrestling is more low-key and PG-rated. The focus is on mat-based wrestling, with a mix of technical grappling and strength/power moves – there’s very little aerial wrestling, use of weapons/tools or straight-up brawling. In many ways it’s a ‘purer’ form of wrestling, but I can’t help but miss table/ladder/chair matches. (Lesson: when you set a tone early on, it’s more difficult to bring that tone down and retain readers than it is to raise the stakes and escalate.)

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

The other big change is in the attitude of the corporation, which has come to really emphasise the ‘professional’ in pro wrestling. WWE is a  big, big business, and they don’t want to jeopardise that business by relying on unpredictable, idiosyncratic wrestlers with their own style or ideas about things are meant to work. The result, to my biased eye, is a growing homogeneity among the wrestlers, who are all drawing from the same set of moves and character concepts – moves and concepts largely chosen by an external group of coaches, managers and marketers – rather than bringing their own individual style and flair. And I get that, because you want a reliable and commercially viable product, and for your staff to be safe from injury due to unpredictable circumstances, but it makes it hard for me to tell many of them apart, or to care which one of them wins the day. (Lesson: you don’t have to play it safe, and you can depict any kind of character doing any kind of thing. SO DO THAT. Leave the homogeneity for the real world.)

Stick to the schtick

A lot of character development in WWE comes through visual flags – a wrestler always dresses a certain way, has a specific entrance, uses identifiable gestures. Similarly, every wrestler has signature moves and catchphrases that they’ll use in almost every match and promo – things that reinforce the character in your mind, that make them memorable even if you can’t connect that memory to a specific action or event. That’s a technique that’s very powerful in visual media, but can also be tapped in prose storytelling. (Lesson: set out simple, short signifiers for a character like a piece of clothing, a phrase or even a radical haircut, something you can describe in five words, and drop them into scenes so that readers get that instant bit of connection.)

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Use all your tools – but use them properly

WWE make heavy use of promos, vignettes, backstage skits, brief interviews and other non-match showcases to build character, but their in-ring character development is a bit lacking; the current product doesn’t do much to showcase agendas, motivations or unique traits once the bell rings to start the fight. Almost all of that comes before and after, which is maybe the main reason I find their stuff a bit dull right now. Still, all of that developmental material works in building character nuance and substance. What doesn’t work is when the announce team just tell you a character is awesome, even when you can see that they’re a bit shit. WWE have been doing that for years, and if anything it’s even more distancing and annoying now that the video quality is so good and you can see mediocre characters underwhelm you in HD. (Lesson: character can come from lots of interactions and presentations, big or small – but keep the focus on what characters do, and don’t forget about ‘show, don’t tell’, okay?)

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

WWE’s storylines used to have a few weird and strange elements, but that’s largely been excised these days. Modern storylines revolve around professional rivalries for belts and prime roster positions, which bring larger paycheques and more merch opportunities. In other words, they’re wrestling stories about wrestling; the business is about the business. That has potential for metatextual shenanigans, but they’re rarely explored, and the end result is a storytelling environment that leaves me kind of cold. At the same time, the rare inclusion of a new element – a personal grudge, a lapsed friendship, a reflection of external factors – is just enough to stand out and get my interest, even if it’s never anything as over-the-top as the Undertaker fighting Kane in the fires of Hell. (Lesson: it’s good to set a baseline of realism, but staying there is kind of boring; look for ways to make stories be about more than their own immediate, sensible and predictable contexts.)

Undertaker_vs_Kane_in_the_inferno_match_on_Raw_February_22_1999_crop_exact

Good pacing makes up for many sins

The thing that WWE really understands these days, after decades of experimentation, is the rhythm of action storytelling – the pacing skeleton that supports all manner of wrestling meat. A standard WWE feud starts just after a pay-per-view, with hostilities rising between two wrestlers; at the next PPV they either settle things (short arc) or the situations escalates (medium arc). There’s a consistent, engaging build with peaks and troughs, highs and lows – something that gets you pumped and then lets you cool off. Matches are the same; the rise and fall of energy and spotlight in a WWE show is so crisp you could graph it. (Well, usually; I hear the recent SummerSlam PPV was 6 hours long, peaked too soon and burned the audience out by the halfway mark.) (Lesson: knowing the rhythm and flow of fights and stories is more than half the battle of conveying both effectively.)

I signed up for a free month of the WWE Network; that subscription renewed today, and that’s fine, but that’ll do. That gives me time to watch some of the ancillary shows (Breaking Ground is intriguing) and the Cruiserweight Classic, which is my kind of flippy-skippy wrestling, and maybe to take a few more notes on Raw and Smackdown. After that, I think I’ll be happy enough to let it lie. WWE have their own thing, and it works very well for their audience, but I’m okay with not marking out for them any more.

Who do I mark out for? And plunder for storytelling ideas?

Let’s find out next time.

Moving on up

So yeah, we moved.

It was a pretty big deal.

…okay, to be specific we moved one train station and we’re still in the same suburb. But none of that negates the time, effort, money, beer and stress that went into getting all our stuff in boxes at one end, sticking them on a truck, driving ten blocks and then unloading them all at the other end. Plus furniture.

So apologies for the radio silence; apologies too for being behind schedule on Obituarist II and a number of other things. But the roadblock is now mostly cleared away, there are only a few dozen more boxes of books and artwork to find homes for, and it’s time to get my blog on.

And tonight’s topic is… writing stories in which people move house. Yes, like the time I did a whole blog post about toothache, I’m taking ‘write what you know’ to its most quotidian extremes and then out the other side.

Off the top of my head, then, here are five ways to get story out of a change of address.

Human drama

You don’t have to have explosions or vampires to get a story that’s tense and full of conflict – you just need reasons for people to yell at each other, and moving house gives you plenty of those. The stress of house hunting, house viewing, making applications, dealing with estate agents, emptying your bank accounts, throwing out half of what you own, wishing you could throw out the other stuff, calling movers who never show up, waiting a damn week to get the internet connected… any and all of these can be fodder for a great story about fighting in cars, crying in the shower and having heroin for breakfast. Throw in poor impulse control and a blunt instrument and you’ve got a solid foundation for a crime story; throw in some dick jokes and you have one of the lesser Richard Pryor movies.

What you leave behind

Moving house is never clean; there’s always something that gets lost in the shuffle. What if it was more important, dangerous and/or embarrassing than a pair of socks or whatever was in the oven? How terrible (and storyworthy) if you left behind a door to Narnia or Venus, the Holy Grail, a bagful of severed heads or a body? Or if your wife/friend/housemate did, and this is the first you’ve learned of it? And while losing it is bad enough, the real story comes from what you’ll do to regain access and get it back (or cover it up forever) before the new occupants move in. Especially if things go wrong. (Spoiler: they’d better go wrong.)

Starting afresh

But forget about what you leave behind – think about where you’re going. Sydney, New York, Alpha Centauri… these are places to begin again, to discard the person you used to be and their problems. This can be simple and personal, something that matters to you and only you (much like when I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne). Or you could have the kind of past that follows you from place to place, and you have to do something dramatic and extreme to shrug off that warrant, that horde of evil shadows, that legacy of pirate vampirism that comes of being the last descendent of Captain Dracula. Moving gives you a new status quo – what will you do to maintain it?

New neighbours

It’s not just about where you live, though – it’s who and what lives around you that has a big impact on quality of life. Hopefully the people are nice, hopefully the streets are friendly, hopefully the pub has your favourite beer. It’s always a shame to move to a new neighbourhood and find the gutters choked with alien blood, the drug dealer upstairs constantly bumping 120-decibel dubstep or that the bottle shop only stocks gin and ichor. Or flip it – maybe your new neighbours are great. Better than great. Maybe they want to give you drugs, teach you their language and take you to bed. Maybe that’s when good neighbours become good friends. WHAT A NIGHTMARE.

The house from hell

Horror stories get it – new places to live always come with secrets. Dangerous secrets, like gates and doors that change you, corridors that grow longer and abandon you between dimensions, or maybe just a shitload of ghosts. Moving in means getting caught up in the baggage of your new address – and no matter it seemed during that ten-minute inspection, it’s going to have a hidden drawback. Maybe there’s a briefcase of stolen money buried in the basement, maybe the One True Grail Knight’s mail still gets delivered there… maybe it’s just asbestos in the walls. Hell, maybe it’s built on top of a forgotten graveyard  – it’s a cliché, sure, but then again there’s a golf course built on the cemetery of a 19th century insane asylum not ten minutes from my place. So now you’re stuck with angry ghosts. Or bones getting stuck in your plumbing.

Rightio, that’ll do. Time to walk the dog, climb the stairs, shove a box of assorted connection leads to one side and call it a night.

And if you’re moving house this weekend, best of luck.

To all things… AN ENDING!

‘Endings?’ you snort derisively. ‘What would you know about endings? You’ve spent nearly two years working on the same novel and you haven’t finished it yet, distracted as you are by day jobs, video games and watching Japanese tokusatsu shows on YouTube!’

That’s true, Hypothetical and Unpleasantly Confrontational Reader, although I’ll thank you not to drag my burgeoning interest in Kamen Rider into this. Raven’s Blood is taking too long, but I am drawing close to the end of it, and endings are on my mind, especially after last week’s post on beginnings.

More to the point, that’s not my only project, and last weekend I wrapped up Exile Empire, the 4th ed D&D game I’ve been running for the last 3.5 years. (Only 24 sessions in that time, true, but so it goes.) After adventures throughout Stormreach and against a variety of enemies, the party of heroes ventured into Dolurrh, the Realm of the Dead, to rescue the soul of another adventurer. It was pretty damn fun, lemme tell you – you can read the details here, if you want a bit more context for what follows.

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Now, running a roleplaying campaign ain’t like dusting crops boy writing a novel, but there are things each can learn from the other, as I’ve written about before. Plus, story is story no matter how it’s packaged and delivered, and a satisfying end to a narrative has certain elements no matter whether it’s communicated through deathless prose, dice rolls or a dance battle.

So with that in mind, here are four things that, based on my experiences with good endings and bad (and with the end of Exile Empire as an example), make for a satisfying and engaging ending to any story.

Resolution

The payoff, the big finish, the wrap-up; the ending needs to resolve the core line of the story. That’s not necessarily the same thing as ‘resolve the story’, especially since you might have multiple plotlines going on in a big story and this book might only be the first instalment. But the start of your book is a promise of what the story may hold, especially if you use the start of the story to make your mission statement (and you should); the end of the book is where you need to make good on that promise. In other words, you need to finish, not just end; don’t just come to a sudden stop and say ‘well, book’s done now.’ You might think that would go without saying, but any number of novels make this mistake, including up-to-that-point good ones like Neal Stephenson’s early books.

The premise of Exile Empire was ‘heroes forge new lives in Stormreach and have adventures’, and that’s a formless enough thing that there are many ways I could have ended it. But in those first few sessions we lost two PCs, and that brought up a plot hook where someone stole one of the bodies, and it’s that plot thread – along with arcs that tied back to that hook at some point, and a couple of stand-alone why-the-hell-not side treks – that formed the spine of the campaign; it didn’t start as the mission statement, but it certainly became one soon enough. If I hadn’t made that the central element of the last arc, if I’d dropped that and brought up something new to cap off the campaign, then it might have been enjoyable in and of itself but it wouldn’t have been satisfying. To say nothing of not being as cool as going to the afterlife and beating up a dracolich.

More books should end with dracolich fights. Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you.

Closure and breathing room

As resolution is to story, closure is to character; the time to bring their personal arc and growth to a head and draw a line. Imagine for a second the ending of your favourite big action/adventure story – and then it stops right at the climax, with no glimpse of how the characters feel or cope with their victory (or defeat). Sounds pretty dull, right? Right? (Come on, agree with me.) If you hit all the crescendo notes in the climax (or anti-climax, if that’s your thing) and then stop, it’s like coaxing the audience into a sugar high and then telling them to go to bed right now. The dust needs to settle, the wounds need to heal; we need to see how the fulfilment of the story’s promise has changed the characters and how they move on from where they were. Without that character focus, it’s like seeing fight scenes in a loop; cool at first, sure, but eventually boring. And to do that, you need some time post-climax (stop sniggering) to focus on your world and characters, even if only for a quick scene; enough breathing room for everyone to settle into the new equilibrium.

The odd part of Exile Empire’s climax was that it was all about a character who was dead and who didn’t have a strong relationship with any of the surviving PCs. So to make it satisfying I had to give them reasons to care about saving his soul and to brave Dolurrh. Slaine’s master had been hurt when the corpse was stolen; Ash and Spark were caught up in the Prophecy motivating things; Caleb turned out to have a secret connection to the other dead PC, Jin; and Kaddik… okay, he was mostly along for the ride. I backed that up with encounters with the dead villains they’d defeated, plus chances to see how they’d changed Stormreach for the better, so that the players felt invested. And once the dracolich was defeated, we had quick scenes of everyone’s personal aftermath, giving players room to define for themselves how their characters had grown (or not).

Surprises

The thing about the 100% dramatically appropriate ending is that after you see a few of them they become kind of dull. All those expected character and plot ‘beats’ (god I hate that term) sounding at the expected time – even if they’re beautifully crafted, the gloss wears off. And if they’re not beautifully crafted, you get the same ol’ Hollywood ending we always sigh and roll our eyes at. So mix it up some when you get to the end and throw in something no-one expected, maybe not even you. Kill off a major character! Transform an enemy into an ally! Reveal that Rosebud was a sled, but it’s a talking sled and it’s come for revenge and oh god the sled is calling from inside the house! Or something else that isn’t perhaps so crazy. In my defence it’s very hot in my study and I think my brain has curdled.

The big surprise at the end of Exile Empire was that someone would have to stay behind in the Realm of the Dead in order for Alarich’s soul to leave. I hadn’t foreshadowed or suggested that (although it’s a classic ‘journey to the underworld’ trope), and so even though they knew this was the final session, the players had to wrestle with the notion that it would be very final for one of them. That led to earnest discussions and volunteering to stay behind, but when Spark elected to stay it felt both surprising and right – a shock (including to me) but a satisfying one. The other, smaller surprise was learning of Caleb’s connection to Jin and the secret plot he’d been working on all along – again, no real foreshadowing on it, but it felt right nonetheless.

A few loose ends

The other thing about Hollywood endings, while I’m badmouthing them, is that they can feel pat and contrived; they always wrap everything up neatly at the end. So too do some other stories, especially large ones with lots of subplots and hooks (comics/serial fiction is a particular culprit), and for me that rarely feels genuine. At best it feels too easy; at worst it feels rushed and super-forced. I think there’s value in a slightly messy ending to a big story, one where not every prop introduced in Act One gets used in Act Three (sorry, Chekov). Obviously you have to wrap up the core and most important things, but leaving a couple of things dangling, in a way that doesn’t interfere with the resolution of the main plotline, can make an ending feel that little bit more real. And leave room for a sequel.

Like most ongoing/serial games, Exile Empire had a bunch of story hooks and lines that came and went. The last arc of the game wrapped up the main ones – the Storm Hammers, the Prophecy, the trip to the Underworld – but I deliberately left others undone. Whatever happened to Janda-Shen and Ballast? Will Ash’s demonic relatives ever come for him? Who were those people chasing Spark? What was the real story behind Jin, Caleb and Jaris Cantar? What of the Prophecy and the power behind the Emerald Claw? We don’t know, and it’s okay – it didn’t hurt the story to leave those fallow at the end. (In the case of Spark’s story, in fact, the sudden twist of him staying in the Underworld made dropping those threads all the more dramatic.) I have material to work with if I want to return to the campaign (not any time soon, but it may happen), and the players have that sense of being part of something larger, messier and more interesting than the snippet we saw over 24 sessions.

Well, this was meant to be a short and punchy blog post, but that plan has obviously collapsed and died in the heat. Take a note, RPG writers – examples always eat up the wordcount.

What are your thoughts on a satisfying ending? Leave a comment and tell us what you think, even if – especially if – you disagree with my take. And come back next weekend for a look at one way from getting from the beginning to the ending without losing your readers’s attention.

It involves fishing. Yes, really. Metaphorically. Sort of.

Wiki wiki woo

So one of the things I did on my blogging holiday was write wiki entries.

WARNING

WARNING

WILD AND CRAZY GUY OVER HERE

Specifically, I was writing wiki entries for some of my roleplaying campaigns, and that little sound you can hear is all of my internet credibility squeaking out of my blog as if I was a balloon animal with a slow leak. But no, come back! This is writing-relevant! I doubleplus promise cross my heart!

So anyway, I have an account on Obsidian Portal, a useful gaming site that lets GMs create pages for their campaigns with images, NPC write-ups, session summaries and wikis. I’ve been running a single set of pages there for my D&D campaign since before it started, lo these many years ago, but recently I upped to a paid account so that I could set up a wiki for my Weird West Smallville game and for two campaigns I’ve planning to run once those finish.

Now, indulge me here, folks – go have a look at the pages and wikis for Exile Empire and Tribulation, the two campaigns that I’ve been running for a while. Potter around for a bit, click some links, read some adventure logs and – most importantly – take a brief pass through the wikis. Go on, I’ll wait.

Are we back? Good. Are we in awe about what an amazingly inventive GM and storycrafter I am in my games about fantasy adventurers and psychic cowboys?

…fine, whatever.

Now, pop quiz – what’s the big difference between the two campaign wikis? Anyone? That’s right, Exile Empire‘s is much larger and more detailed than Tribulation‘s – but most of that extra content hasn’t been at all relevant to the story (i.e. the game) that’s based on all that setting information. There’s a tonne of data about districts, factions and characters that have never appeared in the game; meanwhile,  Tribulation‘s wiki has much less material, but all of it is directly relevant to the game.

And why? Because I wrote it after the game had actually started and we’d had all the core plot elements come out in play. Rather than trying to detail all the things that could be relevant, I just had to put in the things that definitely were relevant.

A wiki like Exile Empire‘s is a worldbuilding tool, specifically one aimed at the players of the game; it’s a way of putting everything that could be relevant to creating characters and understanding the world out for their perusal, so that they can explore it, internalise it and come up with ideas of how to use it. It’s a great tool for coming up with the ideas for stories and allowing you to explore those ideas and their connections in a little more depth before picking out those you’ll actually use. You can also see this in the detailed wiki I created for Annihilation, the Marvel Heroic RPG campaign I plan to run when Exile Empire is finished. (Go on, click the link, you know you want to.) Again, lots of information, lots of connections between information – but because the game hasn’t started yet, none of it links up to any story. It’s all potential, all background data for the players to use; all stage, no direction.

The benefit of a wiki like this comes from reading it, whether that’s for players to get character ideas or for me to think ‘okay, let’s come up with a story involving House Tharashk and the Storm Hammers in the Harbour District’ and have that idea drive play for like a year.

The Tribulation wiki, on the other hand, is more of a story development tool. It’s free of any extraneous material and it’s not very handy for developing the world; it’s probably not very interesting reading, even as far as RPG campaign wikis go, because it’s so focused on the essentials. But writing it helped me get a better understanding of how the plot elements I’d already introduced fit together, and in doing so I came up with more ideas of how to progress with those ideas towards the game’s conclusion. So while this wiki maybe isn’t as useful to my players, it’s been very useful to me. I have another game on there, Tales of New Jerusalem, which also has a sketchy wiki, and I’m doing that deliberately so that I don’t overplan or include too much extraneous worldbuilding in the game. Instead I want to focus on short story arcs and connections between multiple characters, and my experience with Tribulation suggests to me that I’ll handle this better if I come back to the wiki after a few plots have already been laid down and explored in play.

The benefit from a wiki like these comes from writing it, from actually sitting down and clearly outlining story elements and their connections; it lets me think ‘there definitely should be connections between the Apache Super-Chief, Delian Sisula and Emmett’ and then develop those connections in the next story arc.

So game nerding aside, what’s the upshot of all this for writing? Two things:

  1. Using a wiki to outline all the possibilities for your story can help you determine which ones you want to explore before you write.
  2. Using a wiki to clarify the connections between plot elements can help you work out where you’re going as you write.

In the early stages of working out the parameters of a story, the kind of exhaustive worldbuilding of a wiki like those for Exile Empire or Annihilation can be really useful – it helps you visualise all the things your story could have in it, then pick out the elements that it actually will have in it, leaving the rest to fade into the background of your mind until they’re needed (if ever). It’s especially valuable for complex worlds that have lots of information in them that readers need to know about; you can see the elements and how to work them into the story.

Writing a wiki in the middle of the story, though, helps you work out what you’ve missed so far and where to take things from here. A lean, sparse wiki like those of Tribulation or New Jerusalem can help visualise the shape of the story so far. Actively spelling out connections between story elements can help you make sense of where you’ve been and where you’re going; it can also show you if those connections need to be explored more in the story, whether going forward or by editing them back into what’s already been written.

Both approaches have plusses and minuses, and both are just one possible example of using an outlining and interconnectivity tool; wikis are one option but they’re not the only ones. Mind maps, flowcharts, stacks of index cards… there are lots of ways to visualise and connect your story elements. You don’t need to use such things – as always, there’s no One True Way to write effectively – but spilling everything out in front of you and connecting the dots can be a big help in marshalling your ideas, whether they’re ideas about what to do in the first place or about where to go from here.

Give it a try; if nothing else, you might find it fun. Certainly if you’re the kind of person who likes sitting alone in a darkened office, cross-referencing notes on the X-Men’s activities in the Kree Empire and seeing how that affects their trip to the Forgotten Realms.

OH DAMN I CROSSED THE STREAMS

The winner takes it all

Hey folks. Last weekend – using ‘weekend’ as a synonym for ‘Monday night’ because shut up – I talked about writing stories about failure, or that drove towards failure. You know, the sorts of stories that most people don’t want to read.

What do people prefer? Stories about success, unsurprisingly; stories about protagonists who overcome conflicts and succeed at their goals. Sometimes those protagonists are regular people; sometimes they’re Superman or Commander Shepard (FEMSHEP 4 LIFE). You know, stories that are fun rather than being a massive downer; stories that have a satisfying climactic ending rather than a gear-shifting anti-climax.

And yet, for all the fact that people (myself included) love these sorts of stories, they’re very easy to do badly. I’ve read too many stories and seen waaaaay too many movies where success seems pedestrian rather than exciting, where heroic competence is dull rather than engaging, and where the climax feels safe and predictable rather than exhilarating.

So once again Mister Tells-You-How-to-Write-Despite-Never-Finishing-Anything is here to give you some tips, this time on writing a strong story about a successful, engaging character. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of Batman comics, I’ve played a lot of D&D; I know how this shit works.

Success comes from competence

You have a main character and she’s awesome. She has two guns and she can pick any lock. And when she gets to the secret base to steal the gold-plated McGuffin, she walks in and out unmolested because Count Bad Guy trips over a staircase and knocks himself out rather than fighting her. Is that an exciting story?

The key to drama is conflict, and the key to an engaging, meaningful conflict is that victory has to be earned rather than given away. It’s important that the character succeeds through their own skill, ability and effort, not just through lucky breaks or through their opposition stuffing up. A hero who wins the day thanks to their rival’s incompetence or because she walked through the right door isn’t interesting, and their conflict (and victory) feels false. So when bringing your character out on stage, show off her skills – don’t hide her light under a bushel. Let her be aware of what she’s good at, let her use those abilities and let them be effective in overcoming obstacles and conflicts.

Failure comes from someone else’s competence

You want your character to win at the end, yes, but along the way it’s good for them to have a few setbacks and take a couple of knocks, if only so that they can bounce back from the defeat and learn from it. But if those setbacks are due to them not being skilled or strong enough to have a chance in conflicts (your hero has two guns but doesn’t know how to shoot them), or if she fails due to bad luck or random chance (her lockpicks get stolen by pigeons along with her lunch), then she doesn’t come across as a credible hero, she comes across as a schmuck.

The way to frame defeats, then, is to give your character competent opposition, antagonists or dangers that are simply greater than even her skills can overcome. She’s a crack shot with her pistols, but Count Bad Guy has bulletproof handwavium skin; she can read minds, but that doesn’t help when her yacht hits an iceberg. Situations like this position your antagonists and dangers as being meaningful and relevant, rather than just set dressing or minor speedbumps, because we never know if or how the hero will prevail. But prevail she will, because these conflicts can’t stop the narrative short; instead, the character can find new ways to get around the obstacle, either through improving skills (making armour-piercing handwavium bullets) or applying different abilities (picking the lock of the frigid prison at the heart of the iceberg).

Randomness brings narrative opportunities

So if you can’t use bad luck or external events to make your character win or lose, then what are they good for? Glad you asked. These externalities – sudden rainstorms, food poisoning, everyone in Chicago turning in a werewolf – open up new avenues for conflicts. A gunfight on the top of a burning skyscraper, with no way of getting off, is a lot more engaging than a gunfight in an empty street on a sunny day. Your hero can pick any lock with the right tools, but her picks were stolen by pigeons (remember?); now she had to improvise tools from bits of frozen scraps before the ice prison sinks. The context of the conflict changes, the parameters of description change, and everything gets more interesting.

External factors like this are also a good way of opening up new directions for the story, because they allow for different consequences and to explore the reactions of the main characters to those consequences. Your hero didn’t set that skyscraper on fire herself, and in fact got burned in the blaze, but now everyone blames her and she must avoid the police while seeking medical treatment. She escaped from the frozen prison before it sank, but now she’s stranded in the Arctic and the ice wolves are coming. None of these things are her fault, but they keep the dangers and conflicts flowing even after she’s succeeded to doing what she needed to do – she reacts to them, rather than them being reactions to her.

Flaws and weaknesses increase the awesome

It goes without saying that flawed characters are more interesting than perfect ones. (And in case it doesn’t, I’ll state it quickly – flawed characters are more interesting than perfect ones.) But flaws need to have an impact on the story to feel meaningful; your character being frightened of octopi doesn’t matter if the entire story takes place in the desert. A good way to make those flaws meaningful is for them to open up new conflicts as the character reacts against them – like an external problem, but internalised. Your hero hates Nazis, so she goes out of her way to bust up a ring of Illinois Nazi werewolves, and now she has to take them on at the same time as fighting Count Bad Guy. If she could have left well enough alone… the story would have been duller.

The other good way of making weaknesses work is to use them to raise the stakes in conflicts. Your hero has a bad temper, so when a contract negotiation goes bad she kicks over a table and calls the Pope a motherfucker. Now this negotiation is a lot more complex and difficult, and if she can’t mollify the Pope he’s gonna open up a can of white smoke on her arse – and won’t lend her the Vatican Guard to help her fight the Illinois Nazi werewolves. Which is going to really hurt when the ice wolves come for her in the Arctic… Flaws exist to get your character into trouble; trouble exists to make conflicts feel more important.

Victory has a price

Nothing in this world comes for free; victory needs not just hard work but sacrifice. For success to feel important, it kind of has to suck for the hero; she needs to give up something in the process. It might be love, happiness, her left arm, the chance to live a normal life or even her life, but whatever it is, it has to hurt; it has to be a price she would rather not pay. This is where too many blockbuster films slip up – the hero works for a victory (often by punching/shooting lots of people) but never sacrifices anything, never has to lose anything important to her to save what’s important for others. There’s no note of sadness (or at best a temporary one) in the relentless bugling of success.

And this, in turn, is the flip side of last week’s discussion. In a story of failure, the protagonist gives up the big goal for the small goal; they choose to fail at one in order to succeed at the other. It’s exactly the same in a story of success, but the priority remains as it was at the start of the story; the main goal is achieved, but the secondary, personal goal is forever lost. Batman can never be happy; Ripley never gets to build a life with Hicks and Newt; Commander Kirk can never just spend his days banging hot aliens. (Well, not unless the film is dumb.) Maybe it comes down to a choice, maybe it doesn’t; maybe the price is paid early, maybe right at the end. But winning has to be a kind of loss; that’s how you know it was worth it.

I really should workshop this gun-toting Nazi-werewolf-fighting cat-burglar concept more. There’s at least a novella in it.

Come back next week when I talk about editing! Or something else if I change my mind!

Fail to win, win to fail

No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful

Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful

No, I’m not depressed (I’m pretty much never depressed), nor am I quoting They Might Be Giants lyrics just because I saw them live earlier this month (an excellent gig). It’s just that I’ve been thinking about failure, as I am often wont to do, particularly on those days when I blow my own self-imposed schedule of writing blog posts on Sunday nights.

I like stories about failure; I like books where the main character sets out to do one thing at the start and ends up doing something fundamentally incompatible with that at the end. You know, books like Michael Chabon writes; pretty much all his novels are about failure on some level, especially Wonder Boys and Telegraph Avenue, both of which I loved. (His other main theme is dysfunctional father-son relationships, so it’s really like he’s writing books just for me.)

Stories about failure aren’t that popular, which is hardly surprising; we tend to prefer stories about success and overcoming odds, which are cathartic and dramatically satisfying. Last night we saw Star Trek: Into Darkness, for instance, which was well-produced and thrilling enough (albeit a bit ordinary on the whole), but there’s nothing in that movie about failure, and nor should there be. That wouldn’t be much fun. Still, sometimes you don’t want fun; sometimes you want to taste that human sadness, and a story about failure has that salty flavour.

So if you want to write stories that melt like mediocrity on the tongue (yep, taken the metaphor too far again), here are a few pointers on how to mix the recipe (doing it again PULL OUT PULL OUT):

Tell the right story at the right length

Genre stories of almost any stripe are rarely appropriate for fail-stories. You could say it’s because genre stories are about plot and fail-stories are about character, but that’s too reductive. Better to say that genre is about exploring ideas and seeing them through to fruition; fail-stories are is about swerving away from that fruition. We want to see the Dark Lord defeated, the mystery solved, the hot plumber nailed harder than Jesus; dash that expectation and there’s not much point in continuing. So fail-stories are generally the traffic of lit-fic; you can pull off something downbeat and melancholy and frustrated in genre, sure, but if you’re not Ursula le Guin maybe it’s best to try something else.

The other thing about fail-stories is that they tend to be either short or long, not medium-sized. Short stories are good fodder for fail-stories, because you can get in, set parameters, subvert them and then get out before anyone has a chance to get disappointed, like jazz in a minor key. Longer stories give you more opportunity to build connection and empathy for your main character (see below), which makes the process of failing more viscerally satisfying. Going for something in between, like a novella or a serial fiction, is trickier.

Focus on building empathy

Like I said, it’s not about prioritising character over plot, except that I lied and it totally is.

If we don’t care about a character, their failures are just boring; if we do care about them, their failures consume us. If we can put ourselves in their shoes and want what they want, need what they need, then their inability to gain those things hurts us, reminds us of all the times we fell short ourselves. To hit that point, we need more than just interest in or enjoyment of a character; lots of people like James Bond but a film where he failed to save the world would not make us happy.

What we need is to identify with the character, rather than idolise them. They need to be someone at our own level, be that conceptually or emotionally or what-have-you; they need to be someone sharing our skin. We need to understand their choices and their pain; we need to be able to nod knowingly and think yes, I’d have done the same thing, damnit. Without that sympathy, we don’t care that Jane Doe didn’t find true love among the dugong-people of Neptune and instead became a Venusian hermit, we just feel frustrated that all that hot manatee-love didn’t materialise and oh God this example has gone very wrong.

Small victories, meaningful failures

The small victories / The cankers and medallions whoops sorry sudden Faith No More lyric let’s start again.

Look, no-one wants to read a book where the protagonist just gets his face rubbed in dogshit for 200 pages and then it’s the end. (If you do, please stop reading my blog, you’re creepy.) An engaging narrative has a constant escalation of challenge-response-challenge, a rising tension throughout the story’s arc – and to keep that arc rising in a fail-story, your protagonist still has to meet and overcome some of those challenges, just like in a regular and-then-he-saved-the-world-from-the-Star-Groaties novel. And no, you can’t just have him win at everything and then fuck up at the final hurdle, because that would just be shithouse.

Instead, your protagonist needs to win at the things that don’t matter to him and fail at the things that do, and what that means will vary from story to story. If the hero has to solve a crime while also keeping his marriage intact, you need to decide which of those is what matters to you, and thus which is what will matter to the character (and the reader). That usually means the one that’s most emotionally meaningful; a story where the detective gets closer to the killer while his marriage falls apart is more interesting that one where he can’t make sense of any clues but his husband can’t wait to go on dirty weekends with him. Go back to empathy; we understand those personal, human failures more than the fictional ones, so that’s where the focus needs to go.

Set stakes and then reset them

At the start of a story’s arc you define the conflicts and the stakes; this is what’s going down, this is the opposition, this is what will happen if the hero can’t get her shit together – and, most importantly, this is what the hero will have to sacrifice to reach her goals. This isn’t new; this is Storytelling 102, after the course in hey-maybe-your character-should-have-limbs. (Unless it’s important for the story that he doesn’t have limbs, which is cool too.)

The key manoeuvre in a fail-story is revisiting those conflicts and stakes around or just past the halfway mark of the arc and giving the character the opportunity to question them – to say ‘shit, maybe I’m not prepared to give up the thing that matters to me to obtain my goal’. I don’t mean that abstractly; I mean that the character has to confront that dilemma within the narrative, to question everything they’ve done before that point. And that’s the point where you posit new goals, conflicts and stakes; that’s the point where you lay out signposts to an alternative ending, one that both the readers and the characters can see.

Failure is a choice

And once those signposts are in place, you put it on your protagonist to decide while the reader is screaming in his ear no no turn back not that way! Because failure due to incompetence or intellectuality isn’t fun to read about, it’s just frustrating; it’s like a gaming session where the player rolls a 1 in the final session and bang there’s two years of the campaign fucked. Failure matters when it’s deliberate, when the hero throws in the towel, turns her back on the fight; when she decides that the TKO isn’t as important as going back to art school, or whatever.

Because in the end, an effective story about failure is a trick – it’s about success after all. It’s just that what ‘success’ means by the end of the story isn’t what it meant at the start. For example, Wonder Boys starts with Grady Tripp defining success as finishing his novel; by the end he defines it as being a decent husband and father, even if that means giving up on his life’s work. He fails at his first target, but that’s okay, because it stopped mattering to him as much as the second one – and because Chabon built empathy and immersed us in Tripp’s head and heart, that’s what matters to us too. Through an act of narrative aikido, the direction of the story’s desire is turned upon itself, and the character makes the choice to be flipped onto the mat.

It’s not failure. It’s just realising that you prefer the taste of defeat. And the reader, hopefully, will too.

I hope all that made sense. It’s been a long day. If not, I admit defeat OH SHIT YO SEE WHAT I DID THERE ah never mind.

As a counterpoint, next weekend I’ll talk about narratives of awesome success and how to make them not suck.

Because if anyone knows about awesome success, it’s me.

 

Fight fight fight

In Sean Howe’s fascinating book Marvel Comics: the Untold Story there’s a bit about Chris Claremont, whose seminal run on Uncanny X-Men defined pretty much the entire superhero genre in the 1980s. Apparently Claremont was completely disinterested in the action elements of the comic, usually letting artist John Byrne take charge of those with a note like ‘fill three pages with fight scenes here’; left to his own devices, Claremont would have just let the X-Men argue with each other in coffee shops about who was sleeping with who.

Stories like that, or the Gail Simone anecdote about an unnamed colleague who would just copy-and-paste the action scenes from previous scripts and then change the names, make me want to find these writers and shake them like Polaroid pictures, and not in a sexy way. To have the opportunity to write a great, meaningful fight scene and say ‘oh, I don’t care about that, just draw dudes hitting each other’ makes my heart fill with sorrow. Sorrow and kickspolde.

Nextwave 7

For my part, I freaking love fight scenes – in movies, games, comics and (especially) prose. Not because I am a hairy-knuckled thug who just likes watching biffo, but because fights scenes are one of the most enjoyable, effective, flexible weapons in the writer’s arsenal. Engaging fiction revolves around action, in the sense that it involves characters acting and doing things, and fight scenes are a powerful way to make that principle manifest. I’m finally getting the chance to write them in Raven’s Blood and they are huge fun, and I find myself wondering why I didn’t write them before now.

So then, in no particular order and at no great length, here are some things that fight scenes provide or illuminate and why you should write them.

Clear conflicts and stakes

Drama is founded in conflict, about two characters or factions competing for something that only one can win. Fight scenes push conflicts into the foreground of your story and make them overt, make them something that can’t be mistaken, and escalate them so that the fallout can’t be ignored in future conflicts.

And conflicts aren’t just about me-vs-you, either; they’re about the setting of stakes and defining what each party is trying to achieve. Again, fight scenes make this explicit, especially when the stakes are very high, such as ‘stop Mega-zilla from eating the world’ – but they also throw smaller stakes into sharp focus just from incongruity. There’s also dramatic potential in mismatched stakes – two parties trying to kill each other is a very different story if one party is trying to escape instead.

Character

Is your character confident? Overconfident? Highly skilled? Lucky? Capable? In over her head? Nothing showcases and demonstrates a character’s traits like throwing her into action. Portraying character, after all, should be done through showing rather than telling, and fight scenes are all about showing, about acting, about writing with strong verbs – about your character applying her skills and style to shaping the narrative, and possibly also staying alive. Even minor, seemingly cosmetic things like tool use can reveal character in a fight; any gamer can tell you that ‘dude with a battleaxe and shield’ feels totally different to ‘equally skilled dude with a rapier’, and both are different again to ‘nun with a shotgun’.

Plot

You think I’m going to quote Chandler and ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand’. And yes, that’s a good way to use a fight scene – to kickstart the plot’s energy when it flags or when you don’t know where to go next. But more pertinently, plots are driven by conflict, and we already established that fight scenes emphasise and demonstrate conflict. That makes fights a powerful force multiplier for plot, because pushing things into a physical confrontation leaves you with a whole host of consequences to follow up. Who got injured and now needs to recover? Who got killed, leaving a power vacuum that must be filled? What got totes blown up and needs to be rebuilt – and what might be found in the ruins? High stakes lead to major consequences, and major consequences reshape the flow of plot.

Setting

On the micro level, fight scenes are an excellent avenue for description; you need to let the reader visualise the physicality of the scene before you set it all on fire. Very few fights happen in featureless white rooms – although that would be an arresting image – and an engaging fight is one that takes in the landscape, tools, bystanders, chandeliers and other features of the environment, letting you describe in context without pausing for exposition. On a macro level, fights can also be used for worldbuilding, demonstrating the weapons, techniques and attitudes of your fictional society. A society where duels are accepted practice is different to one where they aren’t, and a society where duels are fought with giant poisonous flowers (as in The Book of the New Sun) is different again.

Tone

Is your story serious? Then fights are a chance to show broken bones, horrific pain and ruined lives. Is it a story of melodramatic derring-do? Then fights might be a romp where a hero fights off a legion of mooks with only an umbrella. Light adventure? Then all those impossible kicks and last-minute escapes result in no more than bruises and injured pride. Fights are one of the best way of establishing the tone of your story, especially in genre pieces, because they let you flag all the way physical conflict is different from how it is in the real world, and that puts readers on the same wavelength so that they understand the flavour of your gritty thriller, superheroic adventure or cartoon escapade.

Contrast

But tone is also a tool, and one you can use in many ways to keep the reader on their toes. A fight scene is a great way to make a light story suddenly feel serious, or blow off steam by turning a horror story into an occult adventure. Consider one of my favourite movies, Grosse Pointe Blank. For all that it’s about a hitman, the first two thirds of the movie has almost no action and works as a tongue in cheek, self-aware romantic comedy. Then Benny the Jet shows up and kicks the fucking shit out of John Cusack before getting stabbed in the neck in an amazing fight scene that takes a sharp turn into gritty, messy violence. Suddenly the tone is different, suddenly we take the story more seriously; suddenly the stakes – both physical and romantic – feel a lot more real.

Fuck, I love that movie.

Theme

Over and below the level of  plot, the question of what your story is actually about is one you should be addressing – and the best way is almost always through action. Fight scenes won’t illuminate every theme, but you might be surprised how much resonance can emerge from a punch-up that reflects your story’s meaning. If your story is about the price of success and the need for sacrifice, then a fight is a desperate, terrifying clash won only after losing an ally. If it’s about great risk leading to great reward, then a fight could be a kung-fu dust-up on the wing of a biplane with the fate of a city in doubt. And if your theme is ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ or something like that, well, there’s a whole library of fight scenes that have showcased that and similar themes over the years. You should read some of them.

Engagement

Look, let’s just admit it – fights (fictional ones) are fun. They’re exciting, they’re entertaining, they’re full of colour and movement and stunts – and even the realistic ones are tense and gripping in that oh-god-I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can’t kind of way. A boring fight is hollow and pointless, providing no push to see what happens next – it’s like a cheesy karate-fight in a bad 80s action movie. But a powerful, entertaining fight scene draws you in, keeps you in suspense, makes you care about what happens to the characters – and then, having caught your attention with bullets and body blows, makes you care about everything that happens between the fights as well. For further illustration of this topic, see every film John Woo and Chow Yun Fat ever made.

Stylistic freedom

This is what I love most of all about writing fights – all the various ways you can whip up pace and movement and flash with just words. Fight scenes are a time for exclamation marks! ALL-CAPS SOUND EFFECTS! Adverbs! Adjectives! Run-on sentences that evoke a breathless rush and panic and then he turned to smash the zombie with a baseball bat but suddenly –

– there was a jump cut to another scene made with a hanging emdash!

And so on. Writing a fight scene lets me change up my game, vary the voice and style, break all the rules of my story’s grammar and do something different, something with a frantic energy that the story can’t sustain in the long term but that briefly facepunches the reader and then bodyslams them into the rest of the narrative.

Exclamation marks are a hell of a drug.

None of the above means that you must include a fight scene in your book, obviously. It’s not like Love in the Time of Cholera or Middlesex would have been improved by a car chase or a rooftop shootout. But if your genre and voice allow such things, if your story has a place for physical as well as emotional action, try to explore that space.

Jump in and give it a bash – possibly by having a character jump on someone and bash them.

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 2)

Last week I started talking about Guild Wars 2, not because it’s a fun game (it is) but because it’s an interesting object lesson in the use of storytelling techniques. I wrote about 1300 words about that, and I can only assume that I stunned all of you into silence with my brilliance ‘cos no-one offered even a single comment on it.

Well, prepared to be driven permanently mute as I continue to write even more on the topic of story, character and high-level armour drops!

(Also, this was meant to be finished and posted on Sunday night, but the Comedy Festival is chewing up my time and spitting out minutes and limbs.)

(And they’re not even my limbs. Not sure where they come from. Damned creepy, really.)

Choices matter

Throughout your personal story in GW2 you get called on to choose between two or three courses of action, which dictate what the next chunk of narrative will be. That’s excellent game design because it actively engages the player, making them feel that they’re an active participant in the story – even though some choices are weighted pretty heavily towards one more interesting option. (“Well, you could disguise yourself as a minotaur or do LAH LAH LAH NOT LISTENING HAND ME THE HORNS AND SUPERGLUE.”) In fiction you get that engagement by presenting the main character – the reader’s window into the story – with choices to make. Make your main character an active participant in their own story and the reader will follow suit.

…even when they don’t

On the other hand, choices need to be meaningful, and the ones in GW2 aren’t. Sure, they determine which mission you tackle next, but the end point of that mission lines you up to the pre-determined outcome and next stage the same as the alternative would. The game has a path, and your choices just determine which bits of scenery you set fire to along the way. In a story, choices need to be genuine decision points that shape outcomes and have permanent consequences, or else there’s no point writing about them. And as part of that, some of the most interesting decisions are the bad ones, the ones that don’t work out and push the story further into conflict. Go crazy with those.

Voice defines character

A key element of GW2 is that your character speaks, generally in conversational cut scenes – and the most important part of that is that your character develops a distinct voice. No, not voice acting, but a style and tone all their own, from the patient Sylvari to the belligerent Charr to the egotistical Norn. Each character expresses personality through their words as well as their deeds, and that’s vital for any kind of fiction as well. It’s also something you notice when it falls away, as it does in GW2 as multiple plot directions collapse into one, taking with them your character’s distinct voice – so don’t do that. Maintain character voice, even when the plot takes the character in a new direction.

At this point, I feel I should show you my character. His name is Cadmus and he is a Sylvari Guardian and he is level 80 and he fights with a sword and torch and he made all his own armour and he is very awesome and okay I’ll shut up now PS he is boss.

gw002

Fuck lore

I blame Bioware for the trend of emphasising the rich, detailed backstory of their game worlds by littering their games with infodumps and books/scrolls/datapads that you find and reach and squint at instead of actually playing the game. GW2 has plenty of backstory, but rarely stops to tell you about it – it shows you, usually by sending you on missions where history pops up, says hello and stabs you in the face. Short on exposition and long on action/character, GW2’s history leeches into you by osmosis rather than study, and that is a fine lesson to bring to your fiction. Stay focused in the here and now, let your characters discover history organically, and throw out just enough to provide context before moving on.

Genre is a big tent

If you’re looking for purist, traditional fantasy, GW2 is not for you. This is a world featuring giant Vikings, inquisitive plant-people, horned cat-folk undergoing an industrial revolution and a race of freckled gnomish mad scientists with robots and lasers. Add to that pistols, aqualungs, airships, battle armour, dozens of sentient races (most of them bad), anachronisms aplenty and wide swathes of horror and you get a take on fantasy that is anything but traditional. And that’s a good thing. Genre is vast, it contains multitudes, and purity is past its use-by date. Never feel hemmed in by what a genre is ‘supposed’ to contain – put in the things you want to include and the genre will swell to fit.

A consistent tone? What’s that?

Mind you, the problem with a big tent is that you might fill it with boxes, open them all at once and find that they don’t play well together. GW2 tries to present a series, often tragic tone within its main storyline, especially in the third act, but then destabilises that by getting you to enter an 8-bit computer game or fight the terrible Marxist-Leninist mole people in various pun-based locations. It’s hard to have feels when giggles are just a few minutes behind, and hard to maintain a tone of desperate urgency when you can just wander off and ignore the plot for a week while you gather armour bits. Any idea can be serious or silly, calm or critical depending on how you treat it, so long as you pick a tone early on and stick with it. If you’re going to be a purist anywhere in your own work, it should be tone – find your level ASAP and stay there to the end.

Pictures are worth a thousand etcetera

The visual world of GW2 is both rich and very carefully crafted, so that whenever you look around you know where you are. Every location has its own feel, from the sedate human kingdoms to the once-drowned-now-risen wastelands of Orr. Architecture is similarly distinct – you instantly know the cubic, gravity-defying ziggurats of the Asura from the dark satanic mills of the Charr and the re-purposed shipwreck-buildings of Lion’s Arch. Making everything distinct means that everything has instantly-identifiable flavour, embedding players in the world. Writers don’t get to play with visuals (well, most of us don’t), but we have other tools – word choices, prose rhythm, dialect, adjectives and more. Just as you give every character a voice, try to give every location and scene its own voice too; it makes the stories within them all the richer.

Exploration isn’t necessarily story

That said, if all you’re doing is looking at the scenery or exploring the intricacies of how the Shamu-Shamu people make purple whaleskin booties, your story isn’t going anywhere. GW2 encourages exploration with various tools, including the thrill of discovery and the lure of XP and treasure drops, but the story gets put on hold while you check out the landscape. Do you want to put your story on hold while people are actually, you know, reading your story? I thought not. As with lore, position the rich tapestry of your world front and centre by making characters run right through it, showing its colours and complexity for a second and then getting on with things. Story is movement. Always keep moving.

I could probably come up with half-a-dozen more object lessons, but it’s late and this essay is already long enough.

Let’s close by saying this. There was a time where prose was the Only Important Way of telling stories. That time is the distant past. These days there are lots of ways of getting a story into the reader’s head and heart, from games to graphic novels to epic poetry to multi-part interactive fiction experiments on Twitter. I’ve been talking about Guild Wars 2, but I could have drawn similar lessons from pretty much game, any movie, any (mostly) well-crafted piece of storytelling.

Everything you take in can teach you how to tell stories, whether by example or as a don’t-do-this object lesson. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you can learn from any of them. All of them. And make your stories better in the process.

Also, I’m patrickoduffy.3067 on Jade Quarry server, looking for groups to tackle the lower-level dungeons and maybe a guild to join. Send me a tell. I’ve got your back.

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 1)

Look, I make excuse after excuse about why Raven’s Blood is taking longer than expected, and many of those are more-or-less true, but here’s the real reason – I’ve been playing the shit out of Guild Wars 2 for like the last four months.

I have an addictive personality, and MMOs scratch that itch harder than Wolverine with shingles. Which is a terrible metaphor, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on exploring Tyria, fighting elder dragons and experimenting with various ingredient combinations to level up my cooking skills. And something that’s become clear to me is that GW2 is a game based heavily around story, character and exploration, and that it uses some interesting techniques to get those elements across while still delivering lots of action and fights. So, much like I did with Batman: Arkham City last year, I’d like to look at how Guild Wars 2 uses the tools in the storytelling chest to make something that’s more than just whacking digital pinatas for imaginary gold – and how sometimes it uses those tools well and sometimes not.

See, it wasn’t just four months of wasted time; it was research.

Arc after arc, raise after raise

The structure of GW2 is a classic zero-to-hero tale, but one that’s remarkably coherent and well-structured. The core storyline is broken in regular chapters, each of which reaches a natural end point that segues neatly into the next arc, and each of which raises the overall stakes. You start off as just another adventurer, fighting bandits or in a rivalry with mad scientists, and by the end you’re spearheading the battle against the great dragons and their unending army of the undead in order to save the world. And that progression is largely smooth and unbroken; you can always look back and think that it makes sense that you wound up where you are. The pattern of establish a status quo / upend it / fix it / establish a new status quo where the stakes are higher / repeat is the meat and drink of storytelling; it’s always worth considering as your main course.

But keep those doggies moving 

The thing about that arc-to-arc movement is that it doesn’t give you much room to breathe between arcs, or else you lose momentum and don’t make the transition smoothly. Time elapsing in the narrative is fine; time elapsing for the audience is problematic. GW2 does the usual keying of  events to levels and places, and most of the time you gain the requisite experience for the next mission in the process of getting to the location – but not always. A number of times I found myself coming up short and needing to potter around someplace else to gain a level or two, which bled away a lot of the urgency of the storyline.  In your storytelling, don’t give characters unnecessary downtime between arcs – if time has to pass, it’s better to start the next chapter with ‘Six months later’ than to blow a whole chapter describing how nothing important happens for a while.

Character is at the heart of story

It doesn’t matter how rich the backstory and environment of your world is if there’s no-one for us to experience it through. GW2 does a great job of basing everything that happens around your character and their actions. All the plot-important events are instanced, so you don’t see all the other players doing exactly the same mission, and fully-voiced cutscenes bookend each event so that your character is actually interacting with NPCs and shaping the narrative rather than just being given a checklist of objectives. Over the course of 80 levels, I became not just invested in my character’s XP and bitchin’ armour choices but in his personality – a great achievement for an MMO, and the primary thing you want to achieve in your fiction. Do it the same way – build the story around your character and then let personality emerge from action and dialogue.

But your POV might be from the story’s kidney

GW2 positions your character as central, but not as the primary plot-driver; that role is taken up by various characters in the story arcs, with you as their lieutenant/assistant/main legbreaker. Doing so is understandable – you need NPCs to give you missions to drive play – but it still ends up with you being secondary in someone else’s stories. While it’s possible to make this work in a story (such as in the first few of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels), it’s more likely to leave readers feeling that they’re missing out on the story or reading about a less-interesting character. So if you’re going to place your main character outside the absolute centre of your story, make sure that their own story is at least as interesting that what’s going on front and centre.

Situations create narrative

GW2 largely eschews the traditional quest-journal approach of most MMOs in favour of a network of events that are married to locations and situations. Some are static; you enter an area and there are problems that are immediate and obvious (eel-men preying on wrecked ships, unexploded bombs in an orchard, uppity polar bears etc); just by wandering around and interacting with the environment you complete the event. Others are dynamic, suddenly starting up and bringing change into the scene – and some of those are links in a chain of events that change with consequences. If bandits attack a water pipe, you can try to fight them off; if you fail, the pipe is blown up and now you have to help repair it. This gives everything a feeling of import and weight; the world changes with you, even if only for a little while, and other players will be affected by your deeds. This is the kind of feeling you want to impart to events in your fiction. The best stories are not  just handed down from on high; they emerge naturally from reactions to a situation, they shape the actions of characters and are shaped in turn, and the consequences that follow the event meaningfully changes the narrative.

Sometimes that narrative is a bit dull

When a situation calls for a variety of actions – combat, puzzle solving, interaction, chopping down trees or whatever – then it’s engaging on several levels. When it just involves attacking an indeterminate number of monsters using the same two weapons for ten minutes… not so much. GW2’s static and dynamic events are a mix of the inspired (especially when you end up putting on disguises and changing form), the serviceable and the just-hit-enough-things-until-it’s-over, which is as quotidian as it gets for a video game. Over in the writing world, you should probably try to avoid the quotidian, because those are situations that don’t have tension, conflict or emotional resonance, and the narratives and consequences that emerge from them just aren’t interesting. Of course, ‘quotidian’ isn’t the same as ‘ordinary’; lots of normal human interactions are charged with conflict and meaning, and can give rise to powerful stories. But situations that only allow for limited character actions, that don’t matter in the overall storyline, that don’t present more than cosmetic consequences… it doesn’t matter if your story’s set in Melbourne, Metropolis or Moria, that bit of it’s going to be dull. Skip it.

Okay, we’re well over 1000 words at this stage, this post is two days late and I’m only half-finished, so I’m breaking this in half. Come back next weekend for part two, which will be at least as exciting and educational as this one.

Plus I’ll add some screenshots of my character. He looks boss.