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.

No “Hack Jobs” Allowed

MTMTE3When a new movie comes out, or a new toyline releases, or a new TV show takes off, it’s common to see plenty of licensed merchandise on store shelves, hoping to cash in on the “hot property” of the day.

Most of us have probably encountered “hack” novelizations of movies, toy tie-in kids’ books, direct to video sequels….and sometimes feature films themselves which count on popular characters with established fanbases to put butts in movie seats, even if the movie itself is awful.

A major piece of advice I got at Superstars Writing Seminars was never to turn in a “hack” job on anything. If you’re hired to write purple unicorns, no matter how stupid you think purple unicorns are, you turn in the best purple unicorn story you can.

Your name as an author–the foundation of your writing career–needs to be tied to quality work. Don’t get a reputation as a “hack.” Get a reputation of turning in a great story, even if it’s about a concept that you (or other people) might think is silly.

You might be surprised where it leads. 

James Roberts, the writer of Transformers: Lost Light and its prequel series, Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, has won (well deserved) awards for his fascinating, multilayered, inclusive, comic-and-tragic sci-fi storytelling. It’s everything the feature films aren’t.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is beginning its eighth season soon. Along with great all-ages comics, a feature film and a spinoff series, MLP: FIM has expanded the My Little Pony brand to all manner of fans who’d never have thought twice about ponies when the show first started.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has built an empire on one-time “B-list” characters whose rights no film studio wanted. (Black Panther is magnificent.)

None of those success stories would have happened if the creators involved had turned out the minimum effort, taken their paycheques, and gone home.

Make the most of your opportunity. Respect the franchise you’re writing for. And build the kind of reputation you want.


About Mary:

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.

Everything I Needed To Learn About Blocking I Learned From Theater

Blocking. To actors that word mean three hours of standing around, listening to the director say “move a little downstage, now take a small step stage left…good…now cheat out…perfect!” and you have to remember it perfectly for the duration of the show’s run. But for writers it’s completely different. I mean, we can’t tell the characters to cheat out. The page doesn’t work that way. But in many ways, we are like the director and there are a lot of stage blocking techniques that do work well on the page.

Some of you are probably asking what exactly is blocking. The simplest definition is that blocking is the placement and movement of actors and props on stage. You can’t have everyone stand in a line for the entire play. It doesn’t look good and it’s pretty boring. The actors need to fill the space and move about it in a way that is interesting, purposeful, and appropriate to the scene. It’s the director’s responsibility to pretty much choreograph all of this (in addition to everything else they’re responsible for).

Whether there’s three characters in the scene or ten, everyone needs to be visible. It’s impossible for an actor to effectively deliver a line if multiple people are blocking them from view. How else are the audience going to know who is speaking?

How does that work for fiction when the reader can’t physically see the characters? Well, they can see them through the viewpoint character. When crafting a scene it’s our duty to be the director, to make sure that every character in that scene is visible to the POV character. If the POV character can’t see them then we can’t show the reader the supporting character’s expressions, movements, and gestures that can add necessary depth to the scene. The one benefit that writers have that theater directors don’t is that the audience can move with the viewpoint character and we don’t have to wait for scenery changes. If there’s something that needs to start in one room and finish in another, that’s easily done in a few sentences.

So if we have more flexibility than the stage, how can their tricks help us? Again, it’s all about visuals. Whether we’re aware of it or not, certain arrangements are more pleasing to the eye than others. The boring straight line I mentioned earlier? Unless you have a witness looking at a line up, I can’t think of another instance where it works. Why? Because it’s subconsciously awkward and/or dull. For a lot of people it brings back memories of waiting to be picked for a team, and for those that it doesn’t it has the feeling of waiting in line at the DMV. Heck, even in a line up scene it feels awkward but at least in that context it works. Also, lets be honest, in many situations not everyone is going to be standing in an orderly fashion. There’s going to be someone standing a little apart from the group, or someone sitting. There’s going to be some sort of variety and staggering and that’s enough to keep the body placement from putting your audience to sleep.

Another thing you can use blocking for is to facilitate and even highlight the climactic moment in a scene. This scene from Clue is a good example. (Yes, I know. It’s a film, not a play but it’s one of the best examples I know of.)

Obviously the big climactic moment in this is the falling chandelier. But how to make that happen without it looking intentional, and only endangering Col. Mustard? That’s where the blocking comes in. As soon as Wadsworth prepares to ram the door two characters get out of the way. They’re still near enough to be part of the scene and interject with a comment or two, but they also won’t impede anything — which is important given the amount of physical comedy that follows. Wadsworth’s writhing on the ground in pain, causing Yvette to trip over him and accidentally fire the gun is the clever solution to how to bring down the chandelier (without a Phantom). It also provides everyone in the line of fire something to react to — dramatically — and the physical comedy ensues. It’s funny, it builds tension, it solves minor plot problems, and sets up the release at the end that punctuates the joke, that is Col. Mustard’s line “I can’t take any more scares.” The dialogue isn’t much. It’s all pretty plain and standard for the most part. It’s pretty much the blocking that facilitates every part of the scene.

Blocking isn’t that scary. If you take the time to take a long, hard look at your scenes, can be another useful tool in your artistic arsenal. Taking the time to study its finer points and mastering how to use it will make a big difference in the efficacy of your writing.