Category Archives: Storyline

Halo: The Success of Story

I’ve played the first three Halo installments and still consider it to be the best video game I’ve ever experienced. I must admit that I had to hang up my blasters when time management became a challenge, but there are times when I consider breaking out the old Xbox and “blasting me some Covenant troops.”

There’s a reason I still remember Halo fondly. It’s the same reason that the franchise is still going strong, but it may not be the reason you’re thinking of.

I remember watching an infomercial for Halo 2 back in 2004. One of the developers at Bungie Studios said something that has stuck with me ever since. What he said was true, but I’m going to caveat the hell out of it to make a point about the success of the Halo franchise.

Basically, this techno-weenie (an incredible gifted one, I might add) said that if you can make 30 seconds of combat be fun over and over again in a video game, you basically have a winner. He couldn’t have been more right. If you look around you’ll find plenty of examples for this little business model, including Counterstrike, Aliens vs. Predator, and WoW to name just a few. But Halo is the bar in both popularity and raw monetary revenues that virtually all other video game companies strive for.

Most people would just say it’s an epically awesome first-person-shooter, and they’d be right. However, something set Halo apart—something intrinsic to the game that turned it into a multi-billion-dollar franchise still going strong after nearly fourteen years.

Story and character.

Halo is set upon a galactic stage of epic scale, with first humanity and then all sentient life cast in the balance should our hero fail in his objectives. What’s more, players really get a sense of tremendous scope as the storyline unfolds. There are fantastic, deep-space cut-scenes, incredibly detailed starships, and brilliantly created alien settings that literally suck you into the story before you know what’s happened to you. And it is upon this stage that players experience a truly fantastic story. It’s what they call in the literary world are real “page turner.”

In a nutshell, Covenant troops are doing their best to wipe out humanity as part of a religious crusade, and it takes almost no time at all for gamers to become totally immersed in the conflict. The protagonist is Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced and fully armored soldier, who must almost single-handedly stop them. The Master Chief dashes, tumbles, leaps, or flies from one firefight to the next… over and over again.

That’s what the techno-weenie was referring too. There’s an assortment of wicked-cool weapons and uber-awesome vehicles. The basic action of the game is fairly straightforward, but never gets old.

If the game had been left at just that, it would have been very successful, but as far as I’m concerned, Bungie took the whole thing to the next level. They did it not with CGI or harder levels or even any sense of “leveling” the Master Chief. They did what I wish all game design companies would incorporate. They created a story that rivals any epic sci-fi novel I’ve ever read.

To begin with, there’s a sense of discovery built into the storyline that appeals to what must be nearly the hundredth percentile of gaming geekdom. Behind all the action—behind the Covenant and traversing the galaxy—are the Halo rings. It’s this sense of mystery that makes Halo a step above other gaming storylines. Not only must Master Chief beat up on the Covenant—which is tons of fun, by the way—he must discover what Halo rings are, what they’re for, who built them, and why.

Which leads us to The Flood.

Bungie didn’t stop with just shooting Covenant. They decided to throw a real monkey-wrench into the works. The Flood is an alien, zombie-like life form that, if loosed upon humanity, could wipe us out indiscriminately. In just one cut-scene, the whole story takes remarkable sci-fi action and adds a horror element that ups the stakes considerably. Tension just oozes from the three-way antagonism inherent in the Halo universe.

That’s a huge part of why this game has been so successful. Bungie (and later Microsoft) has consistently upped the tension and scale of the story. There’s always something new—something exciting or horrific—just around the next corner.


This is what good storytelling is all about—constantly upping the stakes and making it all plausible as you go along. And the Halo franchise does just that… in spades.

The last caveat worth mentioning here, and it’s a big one, is the characterizations within the story. For starters, the Master Chief is an exceptional protagonist for the story. He’s the nearly indestructible super-hero whose vulnerabilities leave just enough risk to keep things interesting. He’s the stoic, lone-gunman in space, who must face insurmountable odds over and over again out of a sense of duty. I mean, who doesn’t love the honor-bound hero who has no interest in monetary gains?

But Master Chief isn’t alone. He’s assisted by Cortana, a rather voluptuous AI who rides shotgun and scopes out some of the more technical bits of conflict that the Master Chief must face. However, she does serve one other critical function of a more literary nature. She’s easy-access to the deep back-story of the Halo universe, something that every good tale needs. Through her, the Master Chief discovers a lot of what’s going on behind the scenes. She is both his “right hand” and the “investigator” portion of the story. Cortana allows gamers gets quick info dumps about the history and scale of the universe that Bungie continues to expand upon, and does so without wrenching the player out of the storyline.

Again, GENIUS.

In Halo 2, Bungie even upped their game from a characterization perspective. They made the “first person perspective” not only that of the Master Chief, but also a renegade Covenant soldier who is committed to bringing down the Covenant leadership. In one fell swoop, they increased the level of storytelling, created a “sympathetic villain,” and expanded the scope of who and what the person behind the game controls experiences.

Bungie got literally everything right with this game. The nailed the action part, which hasn’t really changed much in the past 14 years, and created a compelling, intriguing and multi-perspective set of characters that make for hour after hour after hour of fantastic gaming experience.

The story, hands down, has some of the very best tools and tricks that keep readers/gamers interested. We are taught from the get-go that there’s always just a little bit more to learn. We come to expect these new discoveries, and thus far we haven’t been let down.

That is why the Halo franchise continues to be best in breed.

The success of Halo is something each and every writer should take notes from. Play this game, from start to finish. Pay attention to story and characterization. Watch how the chapters are laid out and how the designers/writers keep upping their game to keep you riveted to the couch and the controller in your hands.

And when you’ve done all that, apply it to your writing. If you do, you’ll be writing better stories with better characters. More importantly, readers will want to turn those pages till the wee hours of the morning to get to the end… and buy the next installment.

Tools for Creating Your Own Mythology

In yesterday’s post we asked if it was possible to create mythology and why, as writers, we need to. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the tools I use to build mythology.

The truth is that our rational minds want to and need to rationalize what we cannot control. We need to make sense of the paradoxes and the unexplainable. It doesn’t need to be far out – it can be based on pagan principles (survivalist on Maslow’s hierarchy*), technological environment (Robert J Sawyer’s trilogy, Wake, Watch, and Wonder in which hte world wide web wakes up. Although doesn’t tackle the question of myth creation directly, it makes a good case for a developing a myth based in technology). In a world of proto-people, vampires, werewolves, zombies, revenants and the rest, how do your characters view their own origins and existence? How do the humans view them? Are these proto-people like mythological figures to the humans?

The starting point is to look at the geography, the world that your characters inhabit. Is it a harsh environment like the poseidonpolar ice cap, low gravity of mars, void like the moon, rich and abundant like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, or is it an urban setting on modern? Whether it’s an alien on/from another planet, ancient peoples, futuristic people on space ships, a post apocalyptic world (in Hunger Games they lived with the mythology, the “gods’ who determined whether they were chosen to die) you need to know your environment and then determine how your characters will respond to it.

So, what challenges will your protagonist face based on where she lives? How does her environment affect her and those around her? Most importantly, how does she make sense of what is happening around her? In my current work, a fantasy with historical overtures, the ancient civilization lives on a volcanic island. Rules, conduct, religious practices are all based on keeping the God of Thundering Mountain happy so he doesn’t erupt. When He rumbles, then the Magic Master is in trouble. Throw in the Earth Mother and her goddesses who have been upset since the God of Thundering Mountain arrived. Now the world is rife with possibilities. Of course, we don’t get to see the God and Goddesses interact, we know the tension exists between them through the interactions of the High Priestess who serves the goddesses and the Magic Master who serves the god. Throw in some commerce-based political drama, a murder and a foreign kidnapping and all actions in this new mythological background are bound to blow up – literally and figuratively … especially when we learn that the God wants to be incarnate so he can walk the world and rule it.

So you can see how this mythology developed from the environment. First, by determining the geography, the time period and the level of technology. Then there’s the interpretation of that world by its inhabitants which then determines how people act and react. But let’s talk about technology for a moment. In the time period I’m working in, 2000 BC on Crete, archaeologists discovered that the Minoans had developed some basic, actually very sophisticated, astronomy.

The cool thing is that the constellation we know as Orion’s Belt, was known to them as the Double Headed Axe. That’s all we know about it – not even why they saw it that way. Isn’t that the most exciting piece of information a writer can have? I mean, it’s the perfect symbol in the book! When it pops up, all sorts of things are going to happen! And, I’ve even mentioned that for one character, the double axe looks like it’s slung on a belt. That modern reference draws the astute reader further into the mythology because there is now a ring of truth, a familiarity to it. So even basic technology and information can tell us a lot about how people interpreted their world and how they would have reacted. Most importantly, it can help us create that mythology with a deeper meaning rooted in basic survival.

The thing to watch for is not to assume that the current value systems we hold, religious, political, economic and law enforcement systems we adhere to are the same for the characters in your book. If they are, that makes for safe, dull writing unless you’re writing a great emotional drama in that specific environment. The purpose of writing is to entertain, to challenge readers with new thoughts and perspectives. Readers want to understand and experience the world you are delivering. Even if it is set in modern day, they want to read about those who rightly or wrongly challenged the status quo, became the hero, went on an epic journey mentally and physically. And the easiest way, to my mind, is to do that by developing a new mythology for that makes it a fun and safe way to deal with paradoxes.

I’ll share one more tidbit with you. On Minoan Crete, they had tholos tombs where bodies were put to rot before the bones were placed in pithos jars. Cool, eh! So the basic questions are, why? What did this mean? How does it relate to their world view and what’s happening? My answer was that the Earth Mother, who helped give them life needed to feast on the flesh of her children to welcome them back into her womb and her world. The bones remained so people would remember their connection to their ancestors and the Earth Mother. What’s your interpretation? Go, delve into the world you’re creating. Look closely through the eyes of your characters and let them tell you how they see it. You never know what great mythology lies in that first inkling of an idea!

*for more information on Maslow’s check out my post:


Just a small reminder to not forget about Monique Bucheger’s Book Bomb today! You can now get 30 ebooks by participating, 19 free and 11 at $.99. Go to for full details.

Creating Your Own Mythology

Creating your own mythology – how cool! And loads of fun! We write in an era where readers embrace modern and new myth. When Bram Stoker penned Dracula, he took an obscure legend, gave it its own rules and a new mythology was born. Today, we understand the social action and values for vampires, werewolves and zombies. This is newly created mythology has been embraced by generations of readers. In Tolkien’s books, the fantasy world received a new mythology Middle Earth and that lore, that mythology, is still embraced by people today.

There are those who argue that because myth is defined as being of the distant past, that it has its own cultural criteria Zeusand that it requires organic growth in a culture, that it can’t be instantly created. Humbug! Myth is a way for people to reconcile the paradoxes of life – the things that don’t make sense to us. How was life created? How do the gods and people interact? What are the rules for interaction? Apply it to everyday life and we can call it religion. Apply it to books and we call it world building.

And perhaps that is the difference – scholars will argue that because what writers create isn’t part of the everyday, ordinary belief systems for people, then it isn’t legitimate myth. But who draws that line? Who determines when an idea crosses that line? And does it matter? Is it any less compelling? I think not. We no longer believe in the Greek Pantheon of gods yet they’re as popular as ever in literature like in Rick Riordon’s Percy Jackson and the Olympian’s series. Do we have to believe in those specific gods for the mythology to be relevant, to explain creation, our relationship with the world, our struggle with life’s paradoxes and our need to have legitimate heroes to inspire us?  Not at all. When we delve into other people’s belief systems, we challenge and enrich our own. We discover new ways to escape and to solve problems.

Mythology creates rules. How do heroes, people and proto-people (vampires, werewolves and the like) behave? What kills them (silver bullets, kryptonite or a stake through the heart)? Who are the gods, and what are their rules? How did creation happen and what happens after death? Why are their problems? Can man solve them or is he powerless?

We’ve established that not only can we create new mythology we must do it to explain the rules of the new worlds we’ve created. And many myths born of ancient legends and modern science are being created and believed by people (no judgements here). This is the mythology of ancient aliens coming to earth for their own purposes and seeding mankind (biologically and technologically). It is all a way to rationalize, to understand our history, what makes us human and to explain the anomalies and paradoxes of who we are and where we’ve come from.

And where will the next new mythology arise? The future. Outer space, I think. With the newly emerged and proven theories of space and time and the universe expanding faster and faster (not more slowly as some would believe) to end up in a black hole that swallows it entirely – like how do we explain that? Mythology, that’s how. A futuristic mythology born of predicted apocalyptic events. How cool would that be?

In creating the mythology for my books, I look closely at the world I’ve built along with the premise of the story. Mythology is about explaining how things came to be. Why they are the way they are. Why people believe as they do. It’s answering these questions that makes a world unique and believable. In one series, I asked what makes this one item so valuable? Why is it such a threat? How did it get where it is? What happens now that it’s been loosed upon the world? What do people believe about the item and their power to change destiny?

In the historically-based fantasy series I’m currently working on, the creation and afterlife myths mythology are crucial to how this world acts. The problem is, there is very little information about societal beliefs for the time period I’ve chosen to write about and I’ve been scouring academic journals for months. And that, for a writer, is perfect! From minute tidbits of factual information on tools, trade and astronomy, I’ve got just enough information to ground the story in history yet enough leeway to create a whole new mythology as to why things were done the way they were. This has forced me to really see the world through my characters’ eyes and in doing so, their actions and reactions have a genuine truth. And in doing that, the story has become so real, so alive and so fascinating!

You can take more modern or current historical events such as the decay of an empire, an evil despot trying to conquer the world, invading armies, geological tragedies, interpersonal tragedies, whatever you wish – take these larger events and change the details of the experience. Create a new world, a new way of looking at things, a new mythology which your characters use to explain their circumstances, their world, why the scourge seeps through the country – use all that to create and influence your hero, your proto-humans and your society. Or, take one of the ten basic creation myths, put you own spin on it and ask yourself, how would this influence a given society? Again, Rick Riordon did this in his series when he brought the Greek gods to America. Neil Gammon has his own unique spin on mythological figures come to the Americas in American Gods.

So go for it! Create new worlds with ground breaking, mind bending mythologies. There’ll always be a flick of our modern realities and value systems in them, how can there not be? Besides, those bits of our world in them is what will make the issues, the dilemmas and the challenges ring true for the reader. Mix, mash and have fun with it.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about how I create new mythology for my worlds.

Happy mythology building!

Collaborative Projects: How to Write Well with Others

I have written and sold one collaborative novel, and I’m in the middle of writing another, so I have some experience in this sub-specialty of our craft.

Once you’ve gotten past the “Let’s write a novel together!  It’ll be fun/great/a ball!” stage, reality sets in. First of all, forget the idea that it will be less work.  It will take more time and energy total between the two of you to write something than it would if one of you wrote it solo.  You’ll be fortunate if it only takes 150% as much time and energy as a solo work.  Second, this will be different from writing a solo work.  Trust me. Here are some of the practical matters you will need to deal with.  Some of the points are my own observations, and some are gleaned from other authors who do frequent collaborations.

1.  Check your egos at the door.  Really.  You are establishing a relationship here, and although you may or may not be equals in talent, knowledge, skill, and drive, you need to be on a personal basis of honesty, diligence, and compassion.  The old teaching of “Treat others the way you want them to treat you” comes into play.

2.  Determine your collaboration approach.  To steal from my May 28, 2012 Fictorians article “Anatomy of a Collaboration,” you need to settle on an approach like one of these:

  • If sections of the novel require certain knowledge or expertise, one author may write those parts while the other writes the remainder.  This approach seems to be most commonly used when both authors are of similar levels of skill.
  • More commonly, one author will write the first draft, while the other author will do the second pass.  If one author is newer to the craft, he will usually write the first draft while the more experienced/skilled writer will do the final polish/draft.
  • And sometimes one author will look at another and say, “You start,” and the story is built somewhat like a tennis match, with no prior planning to speak of and the authors volleying responses back and forth.  A lot of “letter” stories are actually written that way.

This step is where you agree on how the byline will be styled.  If it’s a senior/junior relationship, the senior author’s name almost always goes first.  This is also where you agree on how the revenue (and any expenses) will be shared.  And even if you’re friends, write it down.  It will save grief later, I promise.

3.  Decide who the tie-breaker will be.  If you arrive at a point where the two of you are in disagreement about something serious and you can’t continue until it is resolved, someone has to break the tie.  Determine who that person is at the beginning of the project.  It may be a senior author.  Or, if you’re writing in a universe created by one of you alone, then that person will probably be the tie-breaker.  But regardless of who it is and how you determined who it will be, if it ever has to be invoked, remember Rule 1 – check your egos at the door.

4.  Do any world-building that has to be done that will be foundational to the story.

5.  If both of you are outliners, you’ll need to write an outline.  If one of you is a pantser, you’ll need to write an outline.  If both of you are pantsers, you’ll really need to write an outline.  Seriously.  If for no other reason than to keep you both facing the same direction.  Especially if you’re doing the “you write this part and I’ll write that part at the same time” thing.

6.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Especially about the important stuff, but since it may be difficult to know what will be important twenty chapters down the line, it’s mostly going to be important stuff.

7.  Again, communicate, communicate, communicate.  If you’re the junior author or you’re working in someone else’s universe, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  And if you’re the senior author and/or the universe creator, don’t brush your partner off.

8.  Remember Rule 1.

9.  For the third time, communicate, communicate, communicate.  If there’s one area where collaborations can really be more difficult than solo work, it’s flexibility in dealing with change.  When you’re working on your own, if you get a brilliant idea when you’re 80% done with the work, backing up and rewriting twenty chapters is not so much of a much.  When you’re collaborating, however, especially if you’re using one of the parallel streams-of-creation methods, your idea may blow up your partner’s work in a big way.  So before you do anything with your Grand New Idea, talk about it-in-depth and in detail.  If the decision is Do It, you revise the outline.  You write it down so you can both be in agreement as to what the change is, what the effect is, and who’s doing what to implement it.  If the decision is No, you continue down the existing path with no looking back.

10.  Remember Rule 1.

11.  Set deadlines as to when milestones will be accomplished.  You may or may not attain them, but if you don’t set them, this thing could drag on for a seeming eternity.  As much as possible, hold each other accountable.

12.  Remember Rule 1.

13.  When the first draft is done, review it together.  Decide what needs fixing, and determine who will do it.  Execute the fixes.

14.  Determine early on who will do the final polish to smooth out the edges and establish a consistent voice.  This will usually be the senior author, the writer who owns the universe, the person who’s the better editor, or whoever won/lost the coin flip.

15.  And finally, remember Rule 1.

Okay, that’s probably not everything that needs to be thought about, but it covers the high points. Good luck!