Category Archives: Action & Adventure

Stab Them in the Back

 

For all of you “Agents of Shield” fans, I think you’ll remember that wrench in your gut when you realized, but didn’t want to admit, that Grant Ward was Hydra. Not only was he Hydra, but he was also quite psycho. Everyone’s favorite character started betraying and killing all of his friends. Except for the recently acquired girlfriend, whom he creepily stalked.

One of the most painful and effective ways to keep our readers enthralled is through the backstabbing friend. What’s the best way to set that up and make it work for you? Let’s look at a few examples from those who draw blood well.

1) Neither the protagonist nor the reader sees it coming. In my opinion, this is the best way to have friend stab friend. It does take finesse, however. For one, you can’t have the stabbing friend act in contradiction to his final evil goal. That doesn’t mean he can’t help your protagonist, seem to empathize, and even help the protagonist further their own goals. It does mean you have to watch out for temporal contradictions. If something nasty happens to the protagonist and the stabbing friend is hiding in the shadows on the dark side, he can’t also be helping his “friend” at the same time. It also means that anything the stabber does for your protagonist has to either not effect his own goals or must further them in some way. He can save his friend’s life, it can seem that it’s because he legitimately cares, and we can find out later that it was only because the backstabber needed information. Besides Grant Ward in Agents of Shield, another great example is in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. (spoiler alert) Throughout the entire novel, Siri finds in Bluefingers a confidante she can trust, until the very end when he and the Pahn Kahl people turn against her and the kingdom. He was the one person she thought she could trust and with that paradigm shift is a plot twist that changes everything.

2nd) The character doesn’t see it coming, but the reader does. This sets up a time-bomb scenario for the reader where they can see the betrayal coming, don’t know exactly when it will happen, but as the suspense builds and the stakes grow higher, so does the interest of the reader. Who can forget the disappointment we feel as Edmund gradually becomes more and more entwined with the evil queen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? We see his betrayal coming, but his poor siblings have no idea until he’s gone. We can unfold the tragedy with carefully placed clues that the reader puts together piece by piece, gradually discerning the awful news that they hate to admit may be true, like in the famed Narnia series. We can also slam the reader with the betrayal for greater impact, putting them suddenly on the edge of their seats as they wait for the protagonist to find out. Either way works and I think the best choice is whichever one fits with the flavor of your book. Is it wrought with mystery so the betrayal is one of many factors or is it a book of many twists, turns, and tragedies where this can be one more layer on the cake?

3rd) We see the possibility, but nobody knows what will happen, including the friend who betrays. I thought this was done rather well in Dr. Strange. Yes, I admit it, I’m a Marvel movie fan. Stephen Strange is championed by Baron Mordo from the moment Strange arrives at Kathmandu trying to find healing. Mordo mentors him, worries for him, and cares for him. Mordo’s negative reaction when he discovers their leader has been using forbidden magic all along is a sign that not all is well. Mordo seems to come around, helping Doctor Strange save the world, and it’s not certain what Mordo will do until the moment comes. Even Mordo doesn’t seem certain what he’ll do. And then he turns his back on his friends and becomes the next super-villain. If we hadn’t already known that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, we might have been on the edge of our seats wondering if he’d really turn to the dark side or come to his senses. Because we do know, it becomes an example for the scenario above. We know it will happen, but how and when is the question. I think the unsure betrayer is one of the most compelling and heart-wrenching scenarios in fiction. It gives our protagonist’s friend a great sense of depth as they struggle with the decision. This one is also hard to pull off well, because we must show those forces of good and evil push and pull in a side character while still keeping the protagonist as the focus. Done well, it’s quite powerful.

I could probably name a dozen more types of backstabs, but I’m not willing to make this post any longer. What are some great backstabbing moments you’ve seen? What are some movies/books that you feel have done it well or some styles other than what I’ve listed above? We’d love to hear from you.

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. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette 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

 

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.

Paid to Play: Writing Licensed Fan Fiction in Kindle Worlds

We’ve all heard that writing fan fiction is something that professional writers don’t do. Fan fiction has a stigma attached to it of being vastly amateur and a waste of time for aspiring authors who should be cutting their teeth on their own works. The truth of the matter is that fan fiction has a very large fan base and can provide a great opportunity for new writers to hone their abilities. Yet, being paid for writing fan fiction has always been reserved for authors who sign literary contracts to write “media tie-ins.” The media tie-in was essentially the sole professional version of fan fiction until Kindle Worlds came along.

Kindle Worlds is a project from Amazon that allows authors to write licensed fan fiction in any of the licensed world. Authors can earn royalties (typically 30%) from their works in a licensed world. Works can be any length from short story to full novels. The only “catch” is that Amazon and that licensed world own your story in perpetuity. Licensed worlds include the worlds of bestselling authors Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, and Kurt Vonnegut. Other worlds include television properties (Vampire Diaries, Wayward Pines, Veronica Mars) and comic book properties (G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero, Quantum and Woody, XO Man-o-War). All an author has to do is have an idea, check the Kindle Worlds quality/content guidelines for that licensed world, write a story, and publish it. It’s licensed fan fiction, and I can say from experience, a huge opportunity.

A few years ago at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, I met Hugh Howey. We had a great conversation then, and ever since via infrequent emails. I first heard about Kindle Worlds from Hugh. Roughly about the time that I finished the second of his Silo Saga novels (SHIFT), I had an idea for a story in his universe. Knowing that the universe was available through the Kindle Worlds program, I worked up a story and promptly hesitated. On the cusp of submitting the story, I chickened out and emailed Hugh for advice. He told me to publish the story, and I did. I’ve published several short stories via Kindle, but none has sold like my Silo Sage novelette “Vessel.” It’s been out for a couple of years and has never left the Top 200 in Kindle Worlds Science Fiction and Fantasy, topping out at #3. The story has done nicely, putting some extra money in my account while generating name recognition. I never thought about name recognition as a by-product for Kindle Worlds until I had an idea for another story in a different universe.

As a kid, the cartoon series G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero was my favorite series of all time. When I saw that its universe was part of Kindle Worlds, I was amazed and thrilled. In the Kindle Worlds stories, there are some really good ones including those by bestselling author Carrie Vaughn and my friends Peter Wacks and Aaron Michael Ritchey. On a getaway weekend to Breckenridge a couple of years ago, I had an idea for a story in that universe and wrote it inside of a week. After some read-throughs and edits, I used the Kindle Worlds cover builder, formatted the book, and set it live. What happened next is surreal. About 24 hours after I set the title live, I had a Twitter notification on my account (@TheWriterIke). I’d been mentioned in a tweet from Amazon Kindle Worlds that reached almost 35,000 subscribers. They’d also tagged one of the major G.I.Joe toy collector groups, and they then retweeted it to another 6,000 subscribers. The story hit #7 in all of Kindle Worlds within the next few hours. I gained fifty or so Twitter followers. Like “Vessel,” my short story “Friends In High Places” has continued to do very well, and the fact that it’s licensed fan fiction is something I’m very proud of.

I believe firmly that writers should seek payment for our work. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Kindle Worlds is a perfect opportunity to play in someone else’s world while earning royalties and gaining exposure. Check them out at KindleWorlds.Amazon.Com and see if there is a licensed world you’re familiar with. Then, if the muse whispers in your ear, sit down and write the best story you possibly can. You never know what might happen with it.

The White Whale of Adaptations – A Blockbuster Video Game Movie

Roger Ebert (may he rest in peace) famously contended that video games are not art. He acknowledged that video games could contain art within themselves, but that they, as a whole, did not constitute art. The reason? The end -user of a video game, namely the player, had too much control over what did and didn’t happen. True art, Mr. Ebert contended, was something that could only be experienced by the end-user, never directed or controlled.

Now, I know plenty of gamers who would love to challenge Mr. Ebert’s assertion, myself included. But in at least one respect video games have lagged behind “story-based” art such as books, television, and films themselves. Despite three decades of in-home gaming, there has yet to be a video game adapted into a movie that is both critically and commercially successful.

Now, as any gamer and movie-goer can tell you, this is not for lack of trying. From 2001’s Tomb Raider to 2016’s Warcraft, Hollywood is littered with video game movies that were critical failures, commercial failures, or more often, both. This despite video gaming as an industry projected to make $82 billion (with a “b”) in revenue in 2017. Put simply, the intersection between moviegoers and video gamers must be huge. There is a ton of money to be made if this pairing can be made successfully.

So why haven’t we had that breakthrough film adapting a video game yet?

In actuality, I believe there are several difficulties in adapting video game into passive viewer experiences. From most to least obvious, I’ll discuss them below.

  1. Many people like playing video games. Significantly fewer like watching someone else play them. Repetitive action by the player with slight variations makes up a majority of most video games’ run-time. For the gamer, this is usually fun if the game is well-designed, because they are in control. For a passive observer, not so much. So the first step of any attempt to adapt a game into a successful and artful film is to figure out which parts of the game have to get stripped out. You’ve got to compress the game to a two-hour run-time without boring people to tears OR losing the feel of what you are trying to adapt. The Last of Us is a beautiful and wrenching story of love and loss in the twilight of humankind, but a film version would still need to find the balance between just-enough and too-much stabbing of fungal-zombies.
  2. Story continues to be secondary in many games. Now this only makes sense. The goal of a game is to provide the player with an enjoyable interactive experience. Telling them a story is generally secondary. While some people (me again) will almost always prefer a game with a well-written story (and there are plenty of those now), many are just looking for an escapist good time with endless replay value and the chance to pretend-kill their friends online. With some notable exceptions, most video games did not expend much effort on a meaningful story until relatively recently (and even now, many still don’t bother). This doesn’t mean that games can’t be adapted into quality films, but it does narrow the field of possible candidates quite a bit. But surely a movie based on the board game Battleship can be green-lit, Hollywood can do better in the video game adaptation department.
  3. Video games are waiting for their champion. This one came to me after Sam Raimi successfully adapted Spider Man into a successful and critically acclaimed movie. At around the same time, Peter Jackson knocked it out of the park with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which Frank Morin will be discussing later in the month as Evan Braun tackles his more complicated The Hobbit trilogy of films. What did these two filmmakers have in common? They were both huge fans of the subject matter they were adapting. And that’s what the coming breakthrough video game movie is going to need, a talented director who grew up loving video games and has a special one close to their heart that they are going to make into a film if it kills them. The problem with video games (as opposed to classic fantasy or comic books) is that the medium hasn’t been around long enough for those directors to really come of age. But do the math with me. It’s been just over thirty years (ugh) since the Nintendo Entertainment System took the home-gaming world by storm. An entire generation of directors who grew up playing video games is just entering the height of their careers. All it’s going to take is the right pairing of director and project.

And that’s where we’re going to wrap things up. Make no mistake, the time of the video game blockbuster film that wows critics is coming, and it’s coming soon. And there are so many games to choose from. The Last of Us has a more emotionally moving story than most movies I’ve seen. With the revivals of both Star Wars and Star Trek, the Mass Effect universe is just begging for a cinematic franchise. Ditto for Dragon Age. Bioshock: Infinite is the very definition of a game whose mind-bending story of parallel universes is better than its gameplay.

So take heart, fellow gamers who watch with envy as every single comic book character is adapted for film. It won’t be long now.

 

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 (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is 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, and the upcoming Dragon Writers Anthology. 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.