Three-D Writing: Part One

A guest blog by Karen Traviss

Some day – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, as the man said – you might find yourself wondering why suddenly nothing you write seems to come alive on the page.

I don’t mean writer’s block. You’re still churning stuff out, knowing where you need to go, but when you read it back to yourself it feels flat and lifeless, regardless of the amount of information that you’ve imparted to the reader. It’s hard to put your finger on it: there’s nothing actually wrong with it. All you know is that it just doesn’t fly.

Sometimes walking away from it for a couple of weeks is all you need to see it with new eyes, but you might not have the luxury of time, or it might be a symptom of a broader problem, that you’ve run out of creative juice. It’s not that you don’t know where to take the story next: it’s just that you can’t see a better way of telling it.

There are always different ways to tell the same story. Only you know whether your current version is “wrong” – trust your judgement the way a painter or musician does instead of assuming an outsider will know better – and one size doesn’t fit all. But one way of finding alternatives is to learn from the techniques of other media. Take your troublesome story, chapter, or scene, and see how it works as a comic, movie, or game.

I’m a visual thinker. I have to “translate” my books from mental movies into descriptions and transcriptions. I write comics and games as well as novels, and when I get an idea for a story, my first question is which medium would suit it best. But I’d take a guess that most novelists never write anything but prose fiction or essays, and many don’t read comics or play games, so they’re not used to applying images to story. My advice probably sounds useless: how can you learn anything by doing what you don’t know how to do and don’t even consume? But if you think of yourself as just a writer and reader, you almost certainly watch TV and movies as well. You can use those instead. You already know more than you think.

Take a scene or a few chapters of your manuscript and jot down a summary of what happens. hen imagine that extract as scenes in a movie or pages of a comic. (Grab a video or find a comic in a similar genre and take a look at it first if you’re not sure where to begin.) Then sketch a storyboard of your novel excerpt – stick figures and lollypop trees will do fine – and see what lends itself to images and what doesn’t. And fill those panels with every object you think will be there, even if you haven’t mentioned it in the manuscript. Your brain will probably rush to fill empty spaces anyway. It’s very good at show-not-tell.

You don’t have to get it right. You’ll have clunky transitions, and panels or shots that you just don’t know how to fill, but those gaps will be equally useful in understanding how you can bring your story alive. When you need images that grab the eye, you’ll realise that maybe you need to start the intro with a guy wandering around a museum and being moved on by the staff because he spends so long in there, and ditch the opening where he’s just sitting in his room while he ponders how much he loves history. Just write in what you’re trying to convey in any gap and go back to it later.

Now take a look at the finished storyboard, gaps and all. Does it turn out to be all talking heads because the characters aren’t anywhere specific or doing anything that adds to the story? Do they move around in interesting and relevant settings? Are there objects in their field of view that add information when examined, a portrait on the wall or a warning sign, like discoverables in games? Does the scene end on a dramatic image with an implied “To be continued” panel like a comic? Find your gaps and visually boring sequences, and from those filled gaps, more ideas will flow.

The opening line to this essay is, as I hope most of you know, from the movie Casablanca. Whatever film you use as a crash course in visual grammar to pep up your manuscript, don’t pick that one. The irony is that one of the greatest films of all time is, when you analyse it, almost all talking heads, very few locations, nearly all interiors, and almost no action. But with a great cast, a cracking script, and a solid story, you can get away with it. Just not this time.

Part II: Learning To Take Risks.

About Karen Traviss:
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former journalist and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, and the sequel, Black Run, are available now.
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Twitter: @karentraviss

“No mind.” – Scene Resonance in The Last Samurai

When developing characters, scenes, and storylines, writers strive to build a deep, emotional connection with the readers—resonance. The concept seems easy and obvious, right? I mean, we write in a couple emotional tropes, tie them in to a common experience, like going to the Prom or playing spin-the-bottle or shooting a game winning goal, and sprinkle liberally with sensory details to create an everyman’s scene likely to connect, at least at a basic level, to the majority of your readers.

While the above may build a connection, it’s probably not going to be compelling. It might evoke a memory or grunt of acknowledgment, but not generate the richer experience you’re striving for. It’s too heavy handed and obvious. Readers can spot that crap a mile away.

No, what I’m looking to build is that true connection, that bond that forever sears a memorable event into a reader’s psyche through an unexpected sharing of perspective wrapped in details and emotional beats. Different events/scenes hit readers in different ways based on his or her life experience. For me, a writer, bowler, and youth bowling coach, a great illustration of a scene grabbing hold and becoming a part of your life can be found in the movie, The Last Samurai. The Last Samurai [Blu-ray]

After being wounded and captured by the samurai enemy-at-the-time, Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren, an ex-army Captain hired by Japanese politicians to train their army to fight the insurgents (samurai), is taken to their remote mountain village. Trapped through the winter, he’s given some measure of freedom under close supervision to heal and walk among the villagers. During that time, he comes to appreciate the samurai way of life and finds the peace within himself he so desperately needs. Great stuff. Love the movie. There’s one scene, though, above so many other great moments, that truly resonated with my writer/bowler/coach self and has become part of, well, part of me really.

Once he recovers enough from his injuries, Algren begins to train with the samurai to get back into fighting shape. In an early training scene, surrounded by dueling warriors, villagers going about their business, and curious spectators, Algren gets repeatedly trounced. After another quick defeat, Nobutada, the son of the samurai leader, Lord Katsumoto, apologies and introduces the martial arts concept of mushin, or no mind (focus). In basic terms, Nobutada instructs Algren to ignore the other fighters doing their thing, ignore the villagers doing their thing, ignore the spectators, and focus on the task at hand. He’s got his mind on too many things, not focusing on what’s really important at that moment.

Image may contain: one or more people, basketball court and indoorI get chills whenever I watch that scene because it speaks to me on multiple levels. As a competitor, I’ve been in tense situations where it seems like entire world is watching every move I make. As a coach, I’ve seen how surrounding distractions pull a bowler out of the “zone” or out of the moment. The mental aspect of bowling is a critical part of the sport at the higher, competitive levels, and this scene beautifully encapsulates the mushin concept in a simple, accessible, amusing way. I’ve used the scene to explain the concept to my bowlers and hear the dialog in my head every time.

Now my wife, also a bowling coach, watches the scene and appreciates the concept, but it doesn’t resonate with her. It hasn’t become part of her. And that’s fine because no two people come at any given story or scene with the same background, same life experiences. What resonates with me, will not necessarily resonate with her.

To increase the chance to resonate with your reader, imbue your scenes with life–include sensory details and emotional hooks, relatable thoughts/experiences and clear storytelling. I guess that sounds like Writing 101. The skillful use of basic writing tenets can lead to extraordinary results.

Flash Fiction-It’s Not About Barry Allen

I’ve always admired people who can write short stories. Packing everything needed for a good narrative into less than 10k words is a skill that I struggle with. Besides some success I’ve had with horror short stories, short fiction is not my forte. Plus, I always want to put a silly surprise at the end, which a lot of editors don’t love.

Last year I went to a conference and heard a couple of people talk about Flash Fiction.

Flash Fiction is a story in 1,000 words or less.

Yes, you read that correctly, 1,000 words or less.

During a session at the conference, the presenter gave us some randomly generated story parts (character, setting, genre) and then gave us twenty or so minutes to write a flash fiction story about it.

Can I just say that I loved it? It was liberating staring at a blank page, typing my “parts” at the top, and then trying to put them into a cohesive story that would only last 1,000 words.

I don’t usually struggle with commitment, but I tell you what, these little things are commitment free, and highly addictive. I was hooked after one, wrote a horror flash fiction for an anthology the next day, and then decided I would adopt the platform of Flash Fiction on my website.

Now I kind of stole the randomly-ish generated theme, genre, character…idea from the presenter. I came up with my own five categories, and filled them up. I then dig into my husband’s D&D dice bag and I see what fate has in store for me this week.

Voila, Flash Fiction Friday!

The great thing about it, is things have to connect, but not everything has to be explained. You don’t have time to go into a great deal of background, so to say the character is an angry mobster bent on revenge is enough. And the narrative is so short that it almost has to be a snap shot—a moment where something changes. Or when something should change, but it doesn’t. Get in, tell the story and get out all in less than two pages, single spaced in Word.

If you’re interested in writing, try it. If you’re having trouble with writer’s block, try it. If you’re looking for something new, try it. It’s like a cookie verses an entire cake. Take a bite and walk away.

Make me care – the two sides of Bioware storytelling

I am an avid gamer, as many folks are. Over the years I’ve come to focus primarily on strategy games and role playing games, with the draw of both being the story that unfolds out as you play.

This is especially true for the role playing games produced over the years by Bioware. Bioware has a knack for combining winning gaming systems with engrossing stories that has kept me involved in their products for more than twenty years now.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight two of their most famous game series and how the writing for those series helped me become a better writer myself. Ironically the big lesson for me lay in studying why Mass Effect, one of my favorite games of all time, failed to get me emotionally engaged with the main character.

Mass Effect is the story of Command Shepard, a player-created character who embarks on a mission to save the galaxy from the oncoming threat of the deadly Reapers. The story spans three games, each of which can take hundreds of hours to play through completely. Mass Effects world building is peerless in its industry, and to this day it is my favorite science fiction universe created in the past twenty years. From one corner of its galaxy to the other, the mythos and lore of Mass Effect pulled me in deep.

Yet as connected as I was to the world, I could never connect with Commander Shepard himself (or herself, as I did a second playthrough with a female Shepard). It took me a while to work out why this was, but over time I realized it was a lack of personal stakes for the main character of the story.

Shepard walks through the three Mass Effect games almost as a blank space with the whole world being colored around him. Shepard himself has no family, no background beyond a cursory few paragraphs and no real motivations beyond what the player might give him in their own head canon.

The game is more about the rich worlds Shepard visits and the amazing companions he meets along the way. Over the course of the games characters like Garrus, Liara and Mordin grew into friends to me and what happened to them became important. They grow and change, each going on story arcs that are deep and very impactful. Yet Shepard doesn’t change at all. He’s the same guy at the end of game three as he was at the end of game one. I guess this is why, while I love the Mass Effect series, the main character always left me cold. It was like watching a movie where they forgot to put in the main character.

For the most part, this is the modern Bioware model. The main character is a cipher by design to allow for player insertion. The plot and side characters flow around the MC, and while the player gets to impact the world in a very meaningful way, the game isn’t *about* him or her.

Bioware made an exception to this is the second game in the Dragon Age series, and this deviation is one of the main reasons this game is so divisive among the fanbase. Unlike all three Mass Effect games and the other two Dragon Age games, Dragon Age 2 is very much about its main character Hawke.

Right from the first scene we are given Hawke’s family, fleeing in terror from a horde of monsters destroying their home country. We meet his mother and siblings. Early in the story one of the siblings is killed and the rest of the family is reduced to refugees, begging for work in the streets of their new home of Kirkwall.

Through the course of Dragon Age 2, many of the standard Bioware tropes are still on display. Characters with deep and rich backstories come to your side, and Kirkwall gains depth as a setting as the game goes on. The plight of Hawke and his family never leaves center stage though. Hawke’s fortunes change for both better and worse through the story, and at the end of the tale he is a significantly different character than who he was at the beginning.

I connected deeply with Dragon Age 2’s Hawke in a way I never did with Shepard in the Mass Effect games. The story was about him, rather than just how he impacted the story. Hawke had personal stakes – he wasn’t just a hero trying to save people because that’s what heroes do. He had family in the thick of things, and he had to sacrifice and change as a character in order to try and save them.

The difference between Hawke and Shepard is subtle but important to me, and it’s one I’ve tried to remember as I am writing my own stories. I try to give my heroes personal skin in the game, to make them more than just ‘good guys’ who rode into town to right wrongs but to have something on the line that is personal to them and requires them to grow in order to see things set right.