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Keeping the Tension Ramped Up in Combat Scenes

7 April 2015 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by Doug Dandridge.

I mostly write military science fiction, and am writing military fantasy when not working on the next scifi novel. Exodus: Empires at War is a series with very detailed and lengthy battle scenes told from multiple viewpoints. I originally learned the main technique I used from reading the Dritzz DoUrden novels by R. A. Salvatore. If you’re not familiar with these wonderful stories, they involve a Dark Elf who has turned his back on his evil people and now fights the darkness with his mighty companions. There are very detailed battles in which maneuvers great and small are described, and often the companions find themselves fighting out of sight of each other. Not only are their battles told from their viewpoints, but the point of view of their major enemies. In my own battles, which can last for as many as eight chapters, you get the points of view of characters at different areas of the fight, on the different departments of the ships, even from both sides of the battle. I even switch back and forth from battles going on simultaneously hundreds of light years apart. Some people might find this a bit confusing, but my fans, military science fiction aficionados all, write rave reviews about the amount of detail.

I have seen writers who do their battle scenes from a single viewpoint, and they read like an endless description of the good guys fighting an unknown, a faceless enemy that could be anything. They go on and on with description after description, interspersed with dialogue, until the writer has to get to the climax or totally lose his readers, in most cases much too soon. I like to use a movie approach that switches back and forth and gives play to both sides. For example, think of The Wrath of Khan. First scene is Kirk watching the Reliant approach without establishing communications. The scenes switch back and forth to Khan ordering shields raised, Spock telling Kirk; Khan ordering locking on phasers, Spock telling Kirk; Khan yelling fire. Switch to the scene of phasers hitting the Enterprise, then a shot of the panic in engineering as everything goes to hell. Then back up to the bridge. The action comes in bursts from different points of view, including the omniscient one of the Reliant blasting the Enterprise.

Of course, Hollywood likes to show these kind of scenes in a manner that puts both combatants front and center, even if there are a whole bunch of them. Witness the final two episodes of Deep Space Nine, where there were over a thousand ships, and the screen was crowded with them. Something to do with wanting to awe the audience. In my novels battles are fought at long range, beam weapons almost useless until units get within a light minute of each other. Even at that range it takes time for a weapon to hit, and even ships two kilometers in length would appear tiny if on the same screen. In a book, the screen is the mind, and as long as you can convince the reader of that immensity, they will see it. But even here Hollywood gives an example when they want to. The movie Midway showed the battle between American and Japanese carrier forces, a fight where the ships didn’t see each other, but launched aircraft to do the actual attack. But with judicious switching of viewpoints they conveyed this type of fight perfectly. And it’s much easier to do in a book.

Doing each chapter as a series of mini-scenes in this way makes almost every scene a cliff hanger. Each installment ends with an unknown. Missiles coming in, lasers burning through the hull and klaxons sounding, the characters on the edge of disaster. The next scene does the same to someone else, on some other ship, then to the enemy, who is having problems of their own. Interspersed are scenes of small victories, and, as the fight progresses, much larger ones. After a sequence covering one part of the fight I like to change to a different area of the battle, maybe even a different star system, for the next. In this way I move the reader through an epic battleground where they are carried from tension to tension, with some small resolutions along the way.

To me the worst way to resolve a battle is with a non-event. I have read a lot of books where they build up to the fight, the training, the organization, the hopes and dreams of those involved. And in the next scene, it’s all aftermath. I feel ripped off by those stories. People read books that promise action because they want to read about that action. I provide that action. The first book of my Exodus series, more of a Universe establishment tale, had limited action, maybe twenty to thirty percent, and that is the worst reviewed of the series. After that, the action increases, until the later books have almost eighty percent action sequences. Some people may think that too much, preferring more time for character development or background. The thing is, I am working as a full time author by writing such, and success proves to me, at least, that the method works.

About Doug Dandridge: 11022903_860155284027899_98329783_n
Doug Dandridge is a Florida native, Army veteran and ex-professional college student who spent way too much time in the halls of academia. He has worked as a psychotherapist, drug counselor, and, most recently, for the Florida Department of Children and Families. An early reader of Heinlein, Howard, Moorcock and Asimov, he has always had a love for the fantastic in books ad movies. Doug started submitting science fiction and fantasy in 1997 and collected over four hundred rejection letters. In December of 2011 he put up his first self-publishing efforts online. Since then he had sold over 100,000 copies of his work, and has ranked in the top five on Amazon Space Opera and Military Science Fiction multiple times. He quit his day job in March 2013, and has since made a successful career as a self-published author.

That Extra Touch

26 January 2015 | Comments Off | fictorians

Guest Post by Josh Morrey.

planets of Star WarsWe’ve read in several articles this month that characters are what drive a story. Characters are why we read fiction. Very few people want to read a fictitious science or economics textbook. (Though I’m sure they exist, and someone reads them). For the most part readers require plot and conflict, neither of which we can have without characters to overcome those conflicts or drive that plot.

But a good story requires more than just a warm body to go through the motions. Characters have to be interesting, intriguing. We don’t want just some Joe Schmoe cardboard cutout to destroy the One Ring and defeat Sauron; we want terrified, tender, Frodo Baggins, smallest of all the heroes, to show his incredible bravery as he faces down an enemy that entire armies couldn’t stop. We want Neo, who absolutely knows he’s not “The One”, to stop running and face down Smith and the other Agents and be The One.

So how do we create interesting characters? This is something I’ve spent a lot of time on recently. See, I’m in the process of developing a space opera web comic in the vein of Howard Taylor’s Schlock Mercenary. It’s about a small, intergalactic shipping company. Part of the developmental process is creating an interesting cast of characters to crew my ship.

One thing I like to see in characters, that I think makes them vastly more interesting, is contradictory traits. Actions or personalities that belie their outer appearance, or challenge their stereotype. For example, one of my main characters is an 8’ tall living rock with the strength and toughness of ten men. So, what’s the stereotype of a character like this? Muscle, enforcer, tough guy, brute.

This character, Argnik, is the best friend and confidant of my main character, Dax, and by all appearances is absolutely Dax’s brawn, like Chewbacca for Han Solo, Little John for Robin Hood, or Fezzik for Inigo Montoya. And these are all great characters. But if I merely make Argnik Dax’s brute force, he loses a little originality and is thereby little less interesting. So how do I change that? First, I made Argnik an accountant. And then I made him a pacifist. Argnik wouldn’t hurt the proverbial fly, and wants nothing more than to lose himself in the endless calculations of shipping manifests and invoices. Now, Dax’s enemies don’t know that, so they, like everyone else, just assume that Argnik is nothing but dumb muscle. An illusion Dax is in no hurry to contradict.

Another way to create interesting characters is internal conflict. As Jace pointed out at the beginning of the month, no character should be all good, or all bad. The world isn’t black and white. It’s full of grays and a myriad colors. Just because someone is makes good choices, doesn’t mean they won’t be tempted to make bad ones, and vice versa. We all make mistakes, some more often, or much larger, than others.

People are complex creatures. Your characters should be as well. Don’t make them the sentient being equivalent of Star Wars planets. Planets in Star Wars tend to have only one biome; the forest moon of Endor, the ice planet of Hoth, the desert planet of Tattooine. Earth, on the other hand, has no fewer than five biomes, and as many as fourteen, depending on who you ask and how they’re classified. And many of those biomes are completely opposite to each other; desert vs jungle, tropic vs arctic. Your characters should have just as many biomes in the form of personality and physical traits, and many of those should be at odds with each other. Those create conflict, which, in turn, makes for more interesting characters.

Think about some of your favorite conflicted or contradictory characters. What deep desires does their exterior façade hide? What inner conflicts do they struggle with? Like the ruffians from the movie Tangled, does your hook-handed thug yearn to be concert pianist?

Maybe he should.

JoshGuest Writer Bio: Josh Morrey is a writer, artist, gamer, husband, and father, Josh has been writing fiction for nearly ten years. He is a member of the Word Vomit Writers Group, which group blogs at The Writer’s Ramble. Josh has one story published in Issue 2 of Promptly and has earned three Honorable Mentions and a Semi-Finalist in the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest. He is currently developing a space opera webcomic based on a short story he wrote for NaNoWriMo 2012. It will eventually be seen at Josh lives in Utah with his amazing wife, two beautiful kids, and two tiny dogs.

Setting as Character: How to Give it Voice

14 January 2015 | Comments Off | Ace Jordyn

It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for like when the kids are suddenly quiet and that tells you there’s trouble’s afoot. It’s the same in a story. When setting is too quiet, your story is in trouble. The problem with setting as character is that setting has no real voice, at least it doesn’t participate in dialogue directly – or does it?

Setting, we are told, must do more than be a background for characters to engage in. It should determine HOW they engage, WHY they engage and REVEAL how characters see their world, themselves and others. Setting is the voiceless character who niggles, needles, exaggerates, creates, destroys, challenges, extracts and dampens. How do you write a voiceless character?

For great ideas and the basics on creating setting and world building, you can peruse our archives. But to understand how to make setting as real and alive as your other characters, here are some things to be aware of:

6) Setting is personal. To understand what is important to POV character ask him how he’d react and feel if his world was suddenly changed or destroyed. What would he miss? What would he fight for? When a person loses their home whether it’s because of weather, war, politics or even choice, there is loss and grieving. That makes setting personal. Does setting herald change or present a conflict? Is there a storm? A volcano about to erupt, a nuclear device about to explode? An impending war? Political change? A lost love? A demand to convert?

2) Setting is the voiceless, albeit dynamic, character with whom the POV interacts and relates to varying degrees. This interaction reveals both the world and the character just as any good dialogue reveals something about its participants. How will the man in a suit react if he finds himself: in the midst of a medieval battle against dragons? Hitchhiking with a suitcase in hand? With an extremely belligerent client threatening a much needed sale? Performing on stage?

Let’s take the suit analogy one step further: Setting is more than just the background fabric of your character’s experience, it is the tailored cloth, designed, sewn and fitted just for him. In the pockets of that tailoring, he carries with him the tools he needs to be his larger than life self or not – sometimes it’s the pockets which are stitched shut or the empty ones that are the most revealing.

3) The POV can only see what’s import to him so we must be able to see and understand his world through his eyes. His experiences and his reactions form his dialogue with setting. Is a hot sunny day a reason to hide indoors, play on the beach, curse the office job, time for a cold beer in the pub, a perfect day to move the troops? Is a fog depressing or an opportunity for mischief? Thus the reader learns the most about the character and his setting when the descriptions are filtered through his point of view.

4) Setting reveals what is unique an important for the POV thus allowing his voice to come through. Not every character experiences (physically or emotionally), understands or reacts to the same environment in the same way.

5) It’s more than just geography – it’s the sociology, economy, level of technology, religion, politics, societal and personal values of the POV and those he interacts with. These are areas of potential conflict. Just as importantly, setting tells us what we need to know about the POV. What does the world/setting expect from him? Saint or serf? Hero or villain? It can also include sensory inputs: sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, heat, cold, or the passage of time. Remember the suit? In some societies, clothing symbolizes status and what the POV and others wear is important.

6) Setting is active, has impact and can change throughout the story. Is it friend or foe? Is it a place to hide (friend), a fight on a cliff (foe), dystopia (foe), utopia (friend), does it impede (foe) or help (friend) the POV’s plans? How does it help or hinder a POV from achieving his story goal? If it’s too dull, blow it out of proportion to make it larger than life just like you do to achieve maximum impact with plot or character. A POV can always change the setting, or strive to. Change may be societal, political, within a community, family or locales.

Like other characters, setting can based on an archetype. Archetypes typically offer challenges, gifts and opportunities for POVs. Does the the setting in your story have archetypal traits and if so, what can you do to make it a stronger character?

The Sorcerer: a place of magic which has interesting consequences
The Magician: where we can be made to believe anything but is it real? Is the situation sustainable? What happens when the luck wears off? Is this a place of transformation with the gift of power?
The Green Man: a life force that impels growth, vitality but growth has a dark side of death and decay.
The Mentor: possesses wisdom, is a teacher and sometimes a healer. Can serve as a motivator, conscience and gives the hero a gift once he’s earned it.
The Herald: a challenge for change the herald can be a force, a thing, an event (tornado). The herald disturbs, unbalances.
The Threshold Guardian: tests the hero by providing obstacles; not always defeated but the hero learns from the experience.
The Shape Shifter: friend or foe, will the shape shifter help or hinder/betray? Crafty and charismatic, the shape shifter confuses and tests the hero.

So maybe setting isn’t such a quiet character after all. Voiceless in some ways, but it speaks its own extremely complex language. Archetype, friend or foe, setting is a dynamic environment that is as alive as any other character because it illuminates, challenges, and demands calls the POV to action.

Hot Fun in the Summertime

3 June 2014 | 2 Comments » | fictorians

Guy Anthony De Marco

A guest post by Guy Anthony De Marco

As the summer approaches, there are more items and events that will be tugging on your availability. Full-time writers with several years of discipline under their belt have an easier time saying “no” to joining in on the fun when there’s a deadline looming, but what about the part-timers or those who just made the jump to full-timer?

First off, let’s have a quick discussion about writing. It’s a career or, for some, a creative outlet. In order to write about characters, one has to experience life. Locking yourself in a basement is not only bad for your health (think radon and rickets), but it may lead to a regression in your ability to write realistic characters. Plan your day so you can go out and have some fun and still have time to write your daily word count. Depriving yourself of social intercourse, fresh air, sunlight, and fun may lead to resentment towards your writing, with symptoms including writer’s block and a lack of enthusiasm for writing in general.

With that said, here’s three ways to combine writing and having fun social interactions.

1. Take your current characters with you.

No, don’t smuggle your expensive Macbook Air to the beach. Make a mental list or, if needed, take a couple of index cards with you concerning upcoming interactions between your characters. For example, you have four fighters that are going to a rough neighborhood to stay at a particular inn. How can they interact without sounding like genetic clones?

With these characters in mind, listen to the people around you on the beach. There should be plenty of conversations you can tap into, and having a bunch of people wearing as little as possible tends to lead to a lot of bravado and one-upsmanship. Listen to how they joke around, how they (hopefully) good-naturedly poke fun at each other. Listen to the words they choose, the cadence of their voices, and look at the expressions on their faces. You can get a solid idea how to make your characters sound like different people (and not just projections of you saying the same things in the same manner for all four characters.)

Once you’ve heard enough, move on to the next scene with your characters and find someone who can help expand that scene into something wonderful.

 2. What’s that smell?

Hopefully, that funny smell isn’t you.

Scents are interesting things. They can trigger the strangest memories, or they can make you think of faraway places. Unfortunately, too few people use the sense of smell in their writing because they’re so dependent on visual descriptions.

For this example, let us assume you’re walking to a nice restaurant in New York City to meet a friend. There are plenty of scents surrounding you, and these smells can help your worldbuilding become “real” to your audience. Since it’s summer in Brooklyn, you may smell the boiling hot dogs and the bite of fresh sauerkraut from a cart on the corner, which makes your tummy rumble. Passing by an old Italian delicatessen can fill your nose with spicy dill pickles floating in a wooden barrel and the oily goodness of a Genoa salami getting sliced thin for the customer at the counter. Add in a bit of spicy brown mustard for a fresh pastrami sandwich being assembled by the daughter of the owner and you increase your pace because your hunger has just kicked into high gear.

Continuing on, your lungs get filled with a cool, moist smell of water evaporating off of the asphalt. The firemen have opened up one of the fire hydrants to flush out the water system, and you can hear the laughter of several dozen kids of many ethnicities, all playing together in the spray without a care in the world. Nearby, the lady who has a small fragrant rose garden next to her brownstone smiles at you, so you stop to request a rose to give to your friend. She obliges, and adds in a gardenia from the window-box by her kitchen window. Your friend will certainly appreciate the gesture. Perhaps this will be the day you confess you’ve been crazy about your friend for years.

Two scenes, two sets of smells that evoke memories and emotions in your readers.

 3. Shadows and Light

This can be a fun game to play, and I do it all the time. I try to imagine what someone else sees and feels. If I’m sitting in my car at a long stoplight in Denver, I try to look around and notice what’s really going on, paying attention to the things that are normally ignored as extraneous background clutter. For example, last week I watched a couple have an argument on the sidewalk at a bus stop. I picked one of them and tried to imagine everything they saw from their perspective. I couldn’t hear their words, so I came up with a reason for the argument. Because he was carrying two bags from a local supermarket, I scripted that they ran into an old flame of hers in one of the aisles. He didn’t like how she lit up when she saw him, and he’s now feeling that he’s not good enough for her. She wasn’t saying much back to him, so I imagined her tapping her foot, holding in a lot of the anger she’s feeling about how he conducts himself around other women. Finally she blurts out the way he’s feeling is exactly how she feels when she catches him staring at a younger woman’s figure. Perhaps it’s a breakthrough for the couple, or perhaps it’s the end of the relationship, all because they decided to go to the store for some chips and salsa.

At the next light, I notice someone waiting for the signal to turn green in the opposite lane. They’re languidly sliding their gaze over everything, yet not actually seeing what they’re looking at. I imagine the elderly driver looking into my car and notice I’m watching her. It’s fun to imagine someone else peering at you, and trying to figure out how they perceive you. Perhaps she gets startled that someone is watching her, wondering if that big scary-looking man is a criminal searching for someone to rob. Or perhaps I remind her of a friend of her ex-husband, and that triggers a flood of memories and emotions.

 4. It’s Your Turn

Don’t assume that because you’re not sitting in front of a keyboard that you’re not writing. The tough part of being an author involves working things out in your head. Physically poking keys with your fingers is the final process of dumping your brain-story into a medium that other folks can read and enjoy. You can do a lot of your “writing” while getting out in the world, talking to people besides yourself and the television, and avoiding rickets and writers block.

Guy Anthony De Marco Bio:
Guy Anthony De Marco is a speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® finalist; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia,, and


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