Category Archives: Social Combat

Wading Through the Muddy Middles

Even with a fantastic opening hook and an explosive inciting incident, many stories spend time slogging through the “muddy middles.” As the name suggests, the middles are the time part way through act two where the story no longer benefits from the momentum of the inciting incident, but also hasn’t reached the point where it is drawn forward by the climax. This sag in tension is a dangerous time for any story as it allows the reader to put the book down. Therefore, deciding how to draw your audience through the middles is an essential part of any plotting.

If you ask a dozen authors how to best navigate the middles, you will often get fourteen answers. In truth, the “best” method depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell and what are the strongest emotional draws for your audience. Rather than listing all the possibilities, I’ll focus my discussion on four techniques that I think can be used in a variety of different stories.

Many thrillers and action/adventure stories will bridge the middles with a series of explosive scenes. By doing so, the author simplifies their task to propelling the reader from scene to scene rather than from initiating event to climax. As the reader progresses through the story, the duration between action sequences should shrink. This gives the illusion of accelerating right up into the climax.

Consider as an example the action/adventure film John Wick. The introduction and inciting incident occur in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the climax occurs at roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. Taken at a very high level, what happens during the hour between those two points? First, there is a period of milieu and character work to establish the character of John Wick and the rest of the world. Then there is a beating delivered by the big bad and the big bad’s first try/fail cycle to resolve the issue without violence. This is followed by a gun fight, a short period of world exploration, a gun fight, a brief pause for recovery, a fist fight, a briefer pause for a few wise cracks, a gun fight, a yet briefer pause in which John Wick sets some stuff on fire, and once again a gun fight that ends in a capture sequence. John then escapes captivity and dives straight into the climax of the movie. The tension is not allowed to slacken for a moment because John is near constantly either in danger and/or kicking some ass.

Though the thriller model is effective, it won’t work universally. After all, mystery audiences won’t be satisfied by explosions and flying fists. Instead, they are looking for intellectual stimulation. However, it isn’t enough to simply give them a puzzle. As the story continues, they need to feel as if they are coming closer to the solution. The key here is to ensure that each new answer they find along the way complicates the puzzle by being either incomplete, misleading, or raising yet more questions. The best, recent example I can think of to illustrate this style of plotting is the movie Arrival. Don’t worry about spoilers. Unlike John Wick (2014), Arrival (2016) is still new enough that I will only speak in broad strokes.

I believe that the story of Arrival works as well as it does because everyone goes into a first contact story expecting an overt conflict between humanity and the aliens. However, twists this trope on its head, which is intriguing in and of itself. The main story is a mystery driven by the question, “What do the aliens want?” Along the way, we the audience are given pieces of the puzzle in such a way that they don’t all come together until the very end. This plotting structure latches onto our fundamental human curiosity and pulls us forward with the illusion of progress towards getting an ultimate answer.

Where action/adventure plots seek to satisfy a sense of physicality and mysteries work to stimulate intellectual curiosity, romances play on the human need for connection. Will our point of view character be able to woo their paramour? Can our protagonist choose between two appealing, yet opposing romantic interests? How will our two (or more) romantic leads be able to overcome whatever forces hold them apart and end the story together? No matter the details, the drive is still the same. Will our protagonist(s) be able to achieve their need for connection? As such, we writers need to maintain tension by repeatedly denying our characters, and by proxy the readers, the connection they desire. We can do this in two major ways.

First is by introducing conflict internal to the relationship. By giving the romantic interests compelling personal conflicts and reservations, you allow them to stand in the way of their own happiness. It’s important to note that the reasons holding your characters apart need to be fundamental to their character, something substantial enough that it can withstand several try/fail cycles and significant enough that it poses a legitimate threat to the relationship. An example of this technique can be found in the early relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke in Naked in Death by JD Robb. During her investigation of a sensitive homicide, Lieutenant Dallas meets Roarke and sparks fly. She feels conflicted because she can’t eliminate him as a suspect in her case, but also increasingly can’t deny her developing feelings for him. Her gut tells her that Roarke is innocent, but she can’t prove it. Robb draws us through the romantic arc by having Dallas’ blooming feelings clash with her sense of duty.

The second option is to introduce some element of external conflict, where your romantic interests strive together to try to overcome a barrier from outside the relationship. Again whatever the threat is, it needs to be big enough to possibly end the relationship. Twenty three books later in Innocent in Death, Robb introduces one of Roarke’s old girlfriends into the storyline to give Eve an extra emotional complication on top of her homicide investigation. The ex-girlfriend’s presence causes friction between Eve and Roarke and in so doing threatens their, by then well established, relationship. In both cases, the emotional distance between the characters drives our readers forward; they want to make sure that Eve and Roarke end up together.

It is important to note that though all the techniques I have described are different, they all appeal to the readers’ emotional draws. Ultimately, we need to ensure that our readers are always having fun, even when the momentum slows. Lucky for us, writers start their careers as fans of their genre. We know what fun is for the genre and our own enjoyment can serve as a metric for how well we are achieving that goal. Granted, this doesn’t hold true for the twenty seventh edit where you brains are leaking out of your ears. Rather, how much fun are you having in the moment of drafting? How much do you enjoy reading your story after letting it rest for a time? If you as the writer aren’t having fun, chances are that your readers will feel much the same way.

So if you ever find yourself drafting your manuscript and just slogging through a slow section, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Why aren’t you having fun? Is there something about this scene you can change to make it more appealing? Does this scene really need to be here or in the book at all? You don’t always have the luxury of changing or dropping a scene. Sometimes you just need to power through it and fix the problem in editing. However, writing should be a joy. If you aren’t having a good time, it’s okay to take a step back and find ways to make your story more awesome.

The Truth About Dark Fiction

The truth about dark fiction is very simple. It’s all about us.

I’ve always thought of myself, as a science fiction writer, clearly on the side of optimism versus doom and dystopia. As a kid, I was certainly a fan of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and their themes of human conflict, but I remember watching Star Trek with a different set of eyes. I only really appreciated Star Wars after traveling halfway around the world during high school. Star Trek pulled me in because it portrayed our current terribly flawed and imperfect society at its absolute theoretical pinnacle in the very near future. Even with the latest movies, in the alternate “Kelvin” timeline, that future world is a darker place than before, but that relentless optimism is there. If you look across the plethora of recent popular books and movies, there is a very strong lean towards darkness and dystopia. Why is that?

It’s very simple. We see the worst of the world every night when we turn on the news. Even the newscasts that end with that thirty-second “water skiing squirrel-type” video are full of dark, depressing themes. It’s no wonder that it calls to us as writers. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopias are easy to imagine because all we have to do is turn the creative knobs to eleven or twelve and our worst fears are easy to explore. The truth of dark fiction is very simple. It’s a reflection of our society, and in some cases, how we view our future selves in the worst way possible. And as writers, it’s pretty damned easy to wrap it around us like a blanket.

Let’s be clear, I’m not disrespecting dystopian, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic fiction. Nor am I saying it’s easy to write and build these worlds. I’m discussing something that writers sometimes fail to notice – our own attitudes seep into our writings. When we’re convinced the world is a terrible place, it’s a little easier to write dark fiction. When we’re happy, writing happy subjects is a little easier as well. Our own personal attitudes and emotions often come with us to the keyboard and until we understand it, there’s nothing we can do to mitigate their effects.

How do I mitigate those effects? Music. There are quite a few folks I know who couldn’t imagine listening to music while writing, but it really helps me leave things behind when I sit down to the keyboard. What music? Whatever fits the mood. For my novels, I usually create a playlist while I’m developing the early outline. Sometimes a song really captures the emotional vibe of a scene. Sometimes, I need a song (or three!) to get me into the mood to even look at the book again. Watching the blinking cursor of doom for a little while without music is almost certainly going to send me on a miserable writing time adventure. On those nights (when I do most of my writing), having that go-to playlist helps me put the day behind me and focus on the next 2,000 words I want to write. That focus, and understanding that the way negativity can crawl inside our heads, is critical.

But what about when I want to look into the darkness? Well, because of my own experiences, it’s even easier for me to capture that emotion than listening to music. I’ve blogged on Fictorians before about a life-threatening illness I faced in 2014. As I recovered, my own attitudes were dark and depressed and I wanted desperately to get back to polishing the draft of SLEEPER PROTOCOL, but I couldn’t. Writing just wasn’t a positive experience. Ironically, the two stories I wrote during my recovery were much darker pieces than I’d ever written before. When I need to get dark, remembering that experience and bringing that attitude to my writing is fairly easy. Experience, especially those that are dark and uncomfortable, helps us tap into dark fiction. I’d wager that our happy dreams and goals are equally powerful, but darkness tends to have a greater connection to us because we’ve lived through it or we are living through it at a given time.

But, we have to come up for air. Not everything is wine and roses in the real world, but we can’t let our miserable world drag us down on a daily basis. We have a choice to respond to every emotion, stimulus, and action we face daily. There are times it’s okay to delve into the darkness and craft the story that needs to be written. It’s human nature to explore the abyss, after all. Just don’t sit there staring for too long. The world needs you and your voice up here. Your characters need you. Dark fiction is all about us, but so is optimistic fiction. There’s no balance to it – it’s a continuum. We’re all out there somewhere. If you’re too far down the dark side and feel like you can’t slide back the other direction, please reach out. I’ll be happy to help.

Misconceptions About Terrorism

Guest Post by John D. Payne

I first learned about terrorism from fiction. My introduction may have come sitting on the couch with my dad, cheering as Chuck Norris shot motorcycle missiles at Arab stereotypes in Delta Force. Or it might have been playing with my G.I. Joes, re-enacting their heroic efforts to defeat Cobra, “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”

But my conscious, academic study of terrorism didn’t start until September 11th, 2001. That morning, I was a graduate student at MIT, on my way to my job as a TA in an American Foreign Policy class. People around me were talking about some accident or catastrophe. I stopped in front of the window of a sports bar in Central Square and saw a TV with video of smoke pouring out a skyscraper in what looked like New York City. One of the little crowd gathered there to watch said there had been a plane crash.

When I got to class, I learned a little more. The second plane had hit the World Trade Center. This was deliberate. Someone had attacked us. I spent much of the rest of the day trying to reach my sister and her family in Manhattan. That night I sat up with my roommates, all grad students like me, talking about what had happened, what it meant, and what we were going to do about it.

Today, I am an Assistant Professor of Security Studies in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. When I am not writing about princesses, unicorns, and dragons, I teach classes (mostly graduate) about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and homeland security.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about terrorism that are quite a bit different than what I picked up from TV, books, comics, movies, and popular culture.

Here are ten.

1) Unlike Cobra Commander, Dr. Evil, and other cartoonishly villainous masterminds, the leaders of terrorist organizations don’t want to rule the world. Personal ambition doesn’t drive them. They have causes they believe in, people they consider to be their constituents (whether or not those people actually see themselves that way). In the words of noted terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman, terrorists are altruists. They do what they do because they want to help someone or something greater than themselves.

2) Terrorism isn’t new. It didn’t start on 9/11, or in 1995 at the federal building in Oklahoma City, or in 1979 when students in Tehran took 52 Americans hostage– or whatever your generational touchstone is. US President William McKinley was assassinated by a terrorist in 1901. And if we really want to turn back the clock, in the first century AD a group of Jews resisted Roman rule by knifing people in public places, which looks quite a bit like modern terrorism. Learning about terrorism (and counter-terrorism) in the past might help us make better policy for the future

3) Terrorism isn’t about expensive, high-tech super weapons like the ones Destro invented for Cobra. It’s mostly low-tech and run on a shoestring budget. Consider al Qaeda, one of the best-funded and most sophisticated terrorist groups of all time. The key to the success of their attacks on September 11th was doing something surprising with ordinary things like box cutters and airplane tickets.

4) Likewise, counter-terrorism isn’t all about action heroes like Jack Bauer or James Bond equipped with amazing gadgets like laser watches. Most of our defense against terrorism is just regular people living their normal lives, like the airline passengers who noticed that Richard Reid’s strange behavior and prevented him from setting off the bomb in his shoes. It’s a lot less Real American Hero and a lot more If You See Something, Say Something.

5) Although individual terrorists might take actions that look very dangerous, terrorist groups are often cautious and risk-averse, particularly as regards new methods or weapons. They generally don’t have spare personnel they can afford to lose in experimenting, so they do what they have seen other terrorist groups do. This also means that once an innovation proves effective (like suicide attacks), it spreads rapidly.

6) With some exceptions (*cough* ISIS *cough*), terrorist organizations are not staffed by sadistic maniacs who kill for no reason. The Dark Knight is often seen as a parable about terrorism, but in real life you don’t want to work with someone like the Joker, even if your job is creating violent spectacle. The operatives who carry out suicide attacks are often referred to by terrorists as “human bombs,” and just like any weapon you want it to be as predictable and dependable as possible.

7) Not all terrorists are motivated by religion. In the twentieth century, religious terrorists were clearly in the minority, and even today scholars such as Robert Pape argue that many terrorist organizations we consider to be religious have ideologies that are more about nationalism and resistance to foreign occupation. We can also look at explicitly non-religious or atheistic terrorist groups, such as the LTTE (or Tamil Tigers) who have been carried out long campaigns of suicide attacks. Their operatives weren’t hoping for a better afterlife, they wanted to bring honor to their families, victory for their organization, and freedom to their nation in this life. It’s easy to dismiss the idea of negotiation when we imagine that we’re dealing with ineffable, otherworldly motives, but terrorists’ grievances are usually more grounded. (Not always, though. See: Aum Shinrikyo, etc.

8) Building a profile of terrorists is really tough. Part of the reason is that life is, naturally, more complicated than fiction. And part of the reason is that terrorist organizations are trying to subvert our expectations by recruiting operatives who don’t fit our profiles. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in the 1990s had a lot of success with female suicide attackers, because that’s not what the Turks expected. Al Qaeda in Iraq (forerunner to today’s ISIS) strapped semtex vests onto mentally handicapped people and children and detonated them remotely as they approached crowded security checkpoints, because it’s so horrible you can’t believe anyone would do that. This is asymmetric warfare, and they know the only way to win is by breaking the rules. So we have to expect the unexpected, which is easier said than done.

9) Killing the leaders of terrorist organizations doesn’t end the problem. Now don’t get me wrong. When I heard the news that Bin Laden was dead, I opened my window, hung out my American flag, turned up my happiest music as loud as it would go, and danced with joy. But one death, no matter how well deserved, didn’t make al Qaeda go away, didn’t make their supporters and sympathizers go away, didn’t make our problems go away. True, al Qaeda is less effective than it once was. But we still have ISIS, lone wolf attacks, mass shootings, etc. We don’t get to ride off into the sunset and roll credits. Terrorism, like crime, and like poverty, will probably always be with us.

10) Fighting terrorism isn’t hopeless. Terrorists don’t always win. In fact, it’s pretty rare that they achieve their ultimate goals. In the two decades after the end of World War II, there were a number of states (such as Algeria and Israel) that won their independence from colonial powers (such as France and Britain), in part through terrorism. But since then it’s hard to point to victory through terrorism. (The Palestinians come closest, but even after decades of struggle they still don’t have a truly independent, fully functional state of their own.) Most terrorist groups fail and disappear. Sometimes they run out of money, or their leaders are all killed or incarcerated, or they just can’t find people willing to fight for them any more.

In the long run, the ‘war on terrorism’ is not about bombs and guns. It’s about ideas, and about will. It’s about hearts and minds. So every one of us is part of this. Just by living your life the way you think is best, by proclaiming your cherished ideals freely and openly and without fear, you’re striking a blow in this war. Keep it up.

John D. Payne:

John D. Payne lives under several feet of water in the flooded-out ruin once known as Houston, Texas. He is currently undergoing nanobot-assisted gene therapy to develop gills so he can keep up with his alluring mermaid wife and their two soggy little boys. His hobbies include swimming, sailing, diving for treasure, and fending off pirates.

John’s debut novel, The Crown and the Dragon, was published by WordFire Press. His stories can also be found in magazines and anthologies such as Leading Edge, Tides of Impossibility: A Fantasy Anthology from the Houston Writers Guild, and Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology.

For news and updates, follow John on Twitter (@jdp_writes) or read his blog at http://johndpayne.com.

Captain America: Civil War. Great Art?

chris-evans-captain-america-helicopter-main_0*Warning: Spoilers in the form of 2 pictures, but that’s all*

They say that great art invokes emotion. If that’s the case then Captain America: Civil War must qualify. It invoked emotion for me, much more impactful than entertainment awe.

First, I have an admission. I’ve noticed that many of our blogs this month are focused on Fictorians’ favorite movies or TV shows. As much as I love Marvel and Captain America, that’s not why I chose it. It sounds a bit shallow, but it may or may not be true that I just wanted an excuse to see the film as soon as it came out and knew that even if taking the whole family wasn’t in the budget, my having to write a post would give me “permission” to go see it anyway. We did take the whole family and at the end of the movie, the emotions and viewpoints leaked into our little family to create another civil war.

One of the great aspects of fantasy and science fiction that I love is the ability to present real world problems and perspectives in less threatening ways. By using a fantastical backdrop and alien characters, we get our audience–whether readers or viewers–to let down their guard. There’s a reason that religion and politics are often a taboo subject in our society. People tend to have very set views in those areas and arguments can heat quickly.

Whether we realized it or not, I believe that Civil War took down mental walls and then slammed us with a very real-world question, one that is both philosophical and political: Is it better to have more oversight in an effort to protect or have less in order to safeguard personal autonomy? How much do we want our police policed and how much do they need freedom to make split-second decisions? It’s a question that comes up in stories of every kind, from traditional westerns to post-apocalypse young adult novels. But I think it’s rare for both sides to be so well balanced. Civil War did a great job representing both sides. Which is what led to the Black family civil war of May 5th, 2016.

Ant ManAfter the movie, we started talking about the parts we liked most; my teenage girls really enjoyed Captain America holding Bucky’s helicopter so he couldn’t take off and my tween son thought Ant-man going giant was pretty awesome. But then my college-daughter expressed how Iron Man had the right of it. Captain America should have just signed the accords. I disagreed. They were too stringent and would get the Avengers caught up in too much red tape. We argued all the way home and it only escalated. Ridiculous, right? And yet, this movie evoked thought, emotion, and real-world comparisons. Which is one of the reasons that I will call Civil War great art.

I think we, as writers, can follow Civil War‘s example. In our own stories, do we evoke emotion from our readers? Does each character’s perspective ring true? Do we present each character’s beliefs like a good lawyer in a courtroom, giving the best representation that we possibly can whether we agree with it or not? As we strive for that level of authenticity, rather than push our own agenda, I think our art can help the world come closer to understanding one another…even if we must wade through difficult disagreements.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. She loves learning new things, vacations, and the color purple. She writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net