Category Archives: Tropes & Archetypes

Pre-Writing and Screenwriting

Until 2012, I was a pantser. Truth be told, I still write short fiction without a plan sometimes, but I’ve been fully converted over to outlining. It’s a long story, but it’s worth the effort. The very first novel I wrote, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, took me 18 months to write. Without a roadmap, I would write all the little ideas and delete troves of words before latching onto another idea and doing the same thing over and over again. It was a slog and I hardly remember finishing it. When I had the idea that became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL, I vowed that I wouldn’t do that whole awful process again. I determined that I was going to figure out how to write a novel. I’ll cut off some of the story here, but a book on screenwriting changed the way that I write. That book was “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” by Jeffrey Alan Schecter. It’s a quick, easy read that gives you insights into character development, story pacing, and a structure that resonates with your reader.

Schecter’s book impressed the folks at Mariner Software enough that they built a screenwriting program called Contour that follows his method to the letter. When I found out about Contour, I quickly downloaded the free demo. From there, I ended up purchasing the program. It’s a part of my pre-writing process, which is the theme of the month, so let me break down how I get ready to write a novel.

Let’s say I have an idea already pretty formed in my head. Chances are that I’ve started gathering some notes on that idea in a notebook (yes, I have a notebook problem – there are never enough). I take that pretty formed idea in my head and start to make sure I can craft it into some of the key notions that Schecter teaches about character development. The takeaway here is that without good characters, your story doesn’t live to tell the tale. Forget to develop your protagonist and your book never reaches the end of Act One because there’s nothing to change them. Fail to develop a solid antagonist and your story dies in Act Two. By building the character development first, even before I start the plotting pieces and exercises, I have a solid idea of where the story is going to go based on the goals of my characters. From there, I go through Contour’s beats and guide sheets to develop a “straw” outline – that’s my first pass entirely through Contour. I come back and add more detail to the areas that need it – thanks to big text boxes and the like. Once I’ve done that, it’s time to open Scrivener, my writing software.

Once in Scrivener, I use what’s in Contour to help flesh out a basic structure. I create the building blocks in various ways – either folders and chapters for scenes, the cork board function for random thoughts or unplaced ideas, and any references I need to consult as I write. With the data from Contour about specific plot points, character goals, and what the characters need to discover/solve/act upon, by the time I’ve laid out my pre-writing, I have a serious amount of data already in the program ready for me to use. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but for me it’s better than trying to handle those dozens of notebooks and pieces of scratch paper. If I take the time to enter the ideas in Contour, it asks the questions for me and my answers further flesh out the plot. From there, writing is relatively easy.

How easy? At this point, I’ve invested several hours in building out Contour and laying out Scrivener the way I want it to. For me, the end result is that I write faster. Remember RUNS IN THE FAMILY? Eighteen months from start to finish? With the method I laid out above, I wrote SLEEPER PROTOCOL in seven weeks. I wrote the recently published sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL in about nine weeks. It’s a much faster process when I know the route that I’m going to take. By laying out the entire novel, if a character decides to do something differently that I want them to, I can let that play out a little and still have a clear ending in mind. I can adjust things as I go, which is much easier than stopping and starting all over. With a full outline, I know where I have to get back to, and it makes a difference.

No two methods are the same, though. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, that intense planning and note taking process leads to big changes with my speed and productivity, but it may not work for you. There are a million ways to write a novel, but they don’t all require any prewriting. They do require writing, so get to it.

 

When Setting Defines (or Defies) Genre

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve referenced in multiple posts here at Fictorians regarding how the kind of universe your story exists within helps define its genre. The rule was brought to my attention via Daniel Abraham in a Clarkesworld post on grimdark fantasy that’s well worth a full read. Mr. Abraham in turn attributes the rule of thumb to Walter Jon Williams, and I’ll quote the relevant passage of the Clarkesworld piece (one of their “Another Word” series of posts) below so that no meaning is lost in the paraphrase:

“In fantasy, the world is essentially benign; in science fiction, the world is essentially amoral; in horror, the world is malefic. Put in terms of illness, fantasy evil is an illness from which the world must recover. In science fiction, evil is a social construct put on a universe that simply is the way it is. In horror, evil is the natural deformity of the world from which there is no way to recover.”

— Daniel Abraham, “Literatures of Despair,” Clarkesworld, 2013

Now, as with any rule of thumb, there are grains of truth to this surrounded by sand-hills (salt-mountains? I’m not clear on what kind of “grains” this metaphor refers to, and so my metaphor is collapsing) of wiggle-room. I’ve spoken at length about how genres tend to bleed together and how often works of fiction fail to fall squarely into one genre or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take this rule of thumb at face value. Close examination of the physical (or metaphysical) underpinnings of what makes your fabricated world tick can help you decide what kind of story you should be telling, and even how that story ought to end. For those authors who have an easier time coming up with fantastically detailed worlds than they do defining a particular story to tell within them (you know who you are), here is one way to narrow down the multitudes of options. It can also be a useful set of guideposts to pantser-style writers who find their story getting away from them in ways they don’t like, as opposed to ways they do.

And that’s not all the rule is good for. Like all rules, it’s good for breaking. Say your goal is deconstructing a popular genre. Well then, perhaps your Tolkienesque epic fantasy story can run afoul of a universe where everything is horrible all the time and the heroes can ultimately lose or the horrific truths forming the foundation of your world can be unexpectedly defeated by the actions of the protagonist, fundamentally restructuring everything that came before. Nothing can be as exhilarating (if done well) or as frustrating (if done poorly) as a twisted expectation.

If you do go this route, I recommend a “frog in boiling water” approach, even though that particular metaphor is untrue (it turns out frogs are not that stupid). Begin with the obvious notes of one genre but quickly introduce a discordant note that points to the genre your story will eventually more into. Gradually shift from one to the other as the plot progresses, so that the transformation feels necessary by the very end. This is particularly effective in shifting from fantasy or science fiction into horror, particularly if you can ramp up the dread while staving off the final realization in the reader until the last possible moment.

In the end, it’s best to think of this rule of thumb, like any rule of thumb, as a tool rather than a boundary. Just remember another saying I’ve become fond of: don’t tear anything down before you understand why it was built in the first place.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

Don’t Forget to Tweak the Recipe

Bakery dessertsAs Guy discussed yesterday, sometimes it’s necessary to change up an author’s approach and writing style when developing stories in very different genres. It’s also important to make sure different stories in the same genre feel unique and fresh, even though they’re recognizable as written by the same author.

You can use your own special sauce, but still need to tweak the recipe so stories don’t feel so similar readers feel bored or frustrated.

A great example comes to mind. Long-time favorite author, David Eddings. He wrote great epic fantasy, and part of his special sauce included large casts of endearing characters. Sure, a lot of those characters easily fit into fantasy tropes, but he portrayed them with flair and humor and made them real. As a young reader, the characters felt alive to me, like long-time friends, and I was eager to share in their adventures.

Eddings introduced some of my all-time favorite characters in The Belgariad, a five-book series that followed the development and growth of the simple farm boy Garion until he matured into Belgarion, the mighty sorcerer and king of a league of nations. Cool stuff. Belgarath, the ancient and grumpy old sorcerer was a hoot to read about. Silk, the spy/assassin/thief, fascinated me, while Barak, the hulking viking-type warrior was a classic brute with a heart of gold.

Then in The Mallorean, Eddings again launches into a very similar tale, using the same beloved characters. That second five-book series was one of my favorites as a teen. The characters were well developed, they played off of each other extremely well, and their adventures were fun and creative. Eddings even poked fun at the fact that the second series was so similar to the first, and that actually worked really well.

A later series that Eddings wrote offers a cautionary tale, though. The Elenium, although a fantastic series in its own right, included perhaps too much of Eddings’ special sauce. Although on its face the story is very different from the epics centered around Garion, it explored very similar concepts. The most striking similarity was how the characters interacted. The makeup of the protagonist team was very different, but it felt like they were falling into the same patterns as the group of companions in the Belgariad and the Mallorean. For me that made it harder to enjoy the books because it felt like Eddings was trying to imbue the same hearts into his cast. That was sad, because they were really good books, but they needed a little more space of their own to really shine. I wonder sometimes, if I had read them first, would I have loved the Elenium more and felt the Mallorean was too much of a copycat?

I still recommend reading all of those series. They’re classics and well worth the read. I’ve found that with pretty much every favorite author, there are lessons I can learn. With Eddings, it’s distinguishing the different series a little more. I’m grateful to find examples of what works and maybe what doesn’t already out there to learn from and make my own writing that much better.

So develop your special sauce, be aware of it, and at times be sure to change up the recipe with a new story or series.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

I Heard it From a Fool

the man who knew too little“The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”
~ Winston S. Churchill

The Fool, often known as The Jester, is a well-known and very useful trope in both TV, theater, and novels. Sometimes in our work, the tomfoolery is subtle, or devious, or creepy. With The Fool, it’s in your face.

In TV, the fool can come in various shapes and sizes. Often they really are clueless, but blessed with abundant luck and usually a cheery outlook. The ridiculous, almost accidental ways they escape bad things is always great for a laugh. They’re excellent for comic relief in an otherwise tense situation.

A great example is the movie, The Man Who Knew Too Little. Bill Murray gives a stellar performance as Wallace Richie, a bumbling incompetent who is mistaken as a spy and ends up stopping an international assassionation plot without understanding anything that’s going on. Simply brilliant.

Other times, perhaps they’re more the Profound Fool, an idiot who still offers spot-on advice and remarkable insights that no one else seems capable of figuring out, despite their genius or heroic attributes. And it’s often because the fool is so simple that they can see the truth about problems, which everyone else is complicating unnecessarily.

Bill and TedThink Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This classic time travel sci-fi movie follows the high-school slackers Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan, who have delusions of greatness with absolutel nothing to back up their claims. They’re failing school, and can’t even play the instruments, even though they want to start a band. Even as they embark on their excellent time-traveling adventure, they really don’t seem to get it for a while.

For example, when the Evil Duke at the castle where they fall for the princesses decides to kill them by torture and orders, “Put them in the Iron Maiden.”

Instead of shuddering with their impending doom, they think he’s talking about the rock band.

But of course by the end of their awesome adventure they meet cool historical figures, ace their history presentation, and set everything right with the universe with their momentary flashes of insight, and their determination to “Be excellent to each other, and Party on.”

Then there’s the Fool of Shakespeare’s time. That kind of Fool can say anything to anyone, and they usually do. In otherwise strictly-managed social heirarchy, the fool grants a way for truth to be shared, to poke fun at pompous or foolish or disturbing tendencies or justifications.

“That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.”
~Isaac Asimov, Guide to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was famous for using ‘the fool’, and took the trope to whole new levels. They were usually ignorant or poor, low class commoners, who used their wits to tear down or humiliate or make fun of their betters. They could be used to poke fun at moral issues or the lies or justifications that nobility tried to use.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
~William Shakespeare

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
~Feste, Twelfth Night, I.5.328

If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage.
~Clown, All’s Well That Ends Well, I.3.372

Winning will put any man into courage.
~Cloten, Cymbeline, II.3.983

the Court JesterOne final type of fool I’ll mention are the Jesters. In the middle ages, these were entertainers of nobility. Singers, dancers, storytellers, satirists, and comedians. They perfected the art of being clever fools, and a wonderful example is the movie The Court Jester.

Hawkins, the main character in the classic movie, The Court Jester. Danny Kaye did an amazing job playing Hubert Hawkins, who has to go undercover as Giacomo, King of Jesters and Jester to the King. The entire move revolves around his antics and the intrigue and plots he gets caught up in more by accident than any design. If you haven’t watched the movie, do it now. You’ll thank me later.

So when designing your stories, don’t forget to consider including a Fool. It might turn out to be an extremely wise decision.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org