Tag Archives: conflict

Ending a Series

Years ago, I started Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series. The first book, Mister Monday, was so great. Intriguing, strange, fun and imaginative. It set up so many mysteries that I could hardly wait for book two to come out. Then book three…

But after that my attention waned. The plot become convoluted. I struggled with the fact that each book posed more questions, but did not answer them. By book five, I didn’t bother to read it until a friend had reminded me that it was out. In the end I finished the series. Monday through Sunday. Seven books. The first two or three had captured my imagination. The rest tried to soar, but didn’t get far.

By the time I got to the last book, I remember distinctly giving the great big reveal—the thing we’d been waiting for since Arthur had been dragged into this whole mess by Mister Monday—a slow blink.

Really? That’s it? All this trouble, and ruining this kid’s life, for…that?

Now I’m not here to diss on Garth Nix, because he’s pretty much brilliant. What I’m here to address, is the difficulty in keeping a series going. A multi-book character journey is not as easy to write as one might think. Because your characters need to grow and learn each book, but they still can’t be perfect. They still can’t quite get over it, because if they do, then there’s nowhere for them to go at the end.

How many of us were slightly disappointed by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Either because the Hallows seemingly came out of nowhere, or because the big reveal didn’t shock us? Again, I’m not putting J.K. Rowling down. She’s amazing, and somehow kept her sanity while writing seven books of one of the most successful series of all times.

Think about it. How many times have you been let down by a series finale? Either on Netflix, in a book series or a last movie?

I used to wonder why that was, but now I have a few ides.

I started my Jagged Scars series four years ago. I was vaguely familiar with this problem, so I combed through the internet to find answers. One woman had a brief synopsis of each Harry Potter book and Harry’s character arc in it. This was most helpful, and I used it as a guide to outline Wendy’s journey through Jagged Scars.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Fractured Memories: After a bitter betrayal, Wendy learns to trust others again.
  • Severed Ties: Wendy learns to trust herself.
  • Shattered Dreams: Wendy finds love, and feels worthy of it.
  • Crippled Hope: Wendy has to face the fact that not everyone wants to fight their way through life, and that that’s okay.
  • Broken Worlds…

Well, I had a plan for book 5, the final book in the series. I thought it was brilliant, but as I started writing the book, it felt forced. The journey I thought I wanted to take Wendy on turned out to be someone else’s journey, and I literally spent nine months writing the book four times—each time finding at the end that it lacked.

People around me accused me of needing the perfect story, and that it was probably fine. After round four, I sent it to my beta readers…and as I had suspected, they hated it. Every conflict I had tried to shove in felt forced, even to them.

So I started again. Only this time I decided that the book was a finale, and I didn’t need a big character arc for Wendy. I’d write the dang book and then see where it took me. Which I did. And as I did, I realized that I’d let Wendy grow too much in the other books. She’s gotten over her fear of the Skinnies, and of the monster inside her head telling her to be horrible. She can think about her dad again and she loves people—something she couldn’t do at the beginning. She’s even started to understand others when they’re not like her.

I’m still not quite finished with the book, but I think I understand how to fix it. However, the next time I start a series, the first thing I’m going to decide is what the main character’s overall arc is going to be. Once I figure that out, I’m going to make sure I have a really good, but hard, place for the character to go in the last book.

Because the reason we read books or watch TV is to see people overcome, and the stories that stick with me are those in which the character overcomes themselves, in addition to the big bad. The moment when the character chooses teamwork over winning the big game. The moment when he/she chooses family instead of fame, or the moment when they let go of their hate, and learn to love.

 

 

 

 

Tension in Physical Confrontations

Martial ArtsCujoWhich scene evokes more tension?

1 – Two master martial artists dueling in a high-flying contest of furious fists?

2 – A child trying to hold a door closed against a huge, rabid dog?

Most people choose number two, even though both contests could likely result in at least one person dying, and the first contest might be more visually impressive. Why is the image of the child against the rabid dog inherently more tense?

Here are a couple of reasons:

  1. Need a real threat of danger. If we don’t feel the threat, we don’t feel the tension. That’s why humorous confrontations lack tension. (Think most of the fight scenes in Get Smart) In the amazing martial-artist duel, there is a threat of danger, but if both men are equally matched, that threat alone is not enough to ratchet up the tension. We need to add in another element.
  2. Disparity of force. If the hero is most likely going to lose, we feel more tension. Think David vs Goliath (if we didn’t already know the ending). In the martial-arts example, it’s more tense if the hero is somehow at a disadvantage and more likely to lose. One of the major reasons we feel such tension in the child vs dog example is that the dog holds a huge advantage unless the child can lock the door. Add to that the natural tendency of most people to want to protect children, and the tension grows tenfold.
  3. Stakes. The higher the stakes, the greater the tension. If the outcome doesn’t matter, there’s no tension. If the hero’s life, or the life of a loved one, is on the line, the tension can shoot through the roof. Add to that the fact that the hero finds themselves at a terrible disadvantage, and the tension ratchets up another white-knuckled notch.

Also remember, often the lead-up to a fight is more tense than the fight itself. In the middle of a fight sequence, we get caught up in the thrill of the battle. Sometimes we get swept away by how cool the fight sequence is and may not actually feel so much tension as we did before the fighting started.

Batman vs BaneLet’s look at a couple of examples from well-known films. First consider Batman’s final fight with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. An awesome fight scene, but what filled it to overflowing with tension was the fact that Batman had faced Bane before and lost. The hero faced a very real possibility of losing again, of getting broken and defeated. But he stood up and faced his enemy, despite the risks, and that made us cheer for him, even while filled with nervous tension that made the eventual victory that much more delicious.

ANeo vs Mr Smithnother great example is in The Matrix in the fight scene between Neo and Mr. Smith. The entire movie sets up the tension, with the viewers being told and demonstrated over and over again that the Agents were impossible to beat and that everyone who had ever tried to stand against them had died.

Then Neo is forced into a position where he chooses to fight anyway, and the tension is awesome. The resulting fight scene is super-epic, our enjoyment magnified by that huge tension build-up.

An important note is that the stakes need to be believable. For example, in the recent hugely-popular movie Avengers Civil War, the tension didn’t work for me because I felt he set-up for the fight between heroes that I both thought were great wasn’t done well. I didn’t believe that they had sufficient justification to try killing each other, so the stakes felt hollow, and the tension weak. The fight scenes were well choreographed, but they lacked true tension because they felt forced.

And sometimes the most tense scenes are the ones where the hero and the antagonist are forced to be polite to each other, but are yearning to leap at each others’ throats. The tension in such pre-fight confrontations can be dialed up to delicious levels.

One great example is Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy meets his arch rival, Belloq, in the café, right after the scene where we’re led to believe the leading lady, Miriam, just died. The conversation is laced with insults, and the threat of fatal violence bubbles just under the surface. It’s a great example to study.

So, let’s assume we’ve got a great confrontation planned, with serious stakes that have been well established, with a very real threat of danger, and with the bad guy holding every advantage. It’s still all too easy to destroy the tension by failing to manage the pacing, or by including too many details.

Princess BrideConflicts have to move along at an increasing tempo. They can start slow – think the epic sword duel in The Princess Pride – but the tempo must increase, then increase some more, that rising tempo helping to raise the tension level.

During a fight scene is not the time to suddenly pause to discuss the finer details of craftsmanship of the weapons being wielded, what types of metals were used in building them, or the history of their use. If fighting with guns, don’t pause to discuss the pros and cons of different calibers, or compare the ballistics. Nor is it the time for long monologues or exhaustive self-analysis. Such detours kill the tempo and pacing and snuff out the tension. If such details are important, include them somewhere prior to the fight so the reader already understands.

One must also be careful not to share too many details. Imagine trying to read a detailed blow-by-blow account of an epic martial-arts duel. Such a chronicle would run for pages and pages, and would bore the readers to tears and destroy any chance of maintaining pacing or tension.

So pick the most important details and focus on those. Paint the other aspects of the fight with broad strokes, including enough sensory detail to lock the reader into the scene. Make sure the blocking is clear so the reader understands the physical location and how the combatants are moving within the space, but don’t describe every punch, swing, or the trajectory of each bullet. Then dive deep into the critical final sequence, slowing the action and increasing the level of detail so the reader is absolutely dialed in to what is happening. This will increase tension even more, as well as the pay-off.

If those moments are properly set up, they will explode across the page with increasing tempo, careful choices of details, focus on the stakes and the ultimate conclusion, resulting in amazing scenes that will linger in readers’ minds long after they reach the last page.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
No Stone UnturnedFrank 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 sci-fi time travel thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Tension

If you pull on an object with a rope, the rope will stretch slightly (often imperceptibly). This stretch in the rope will cause the rope to be taut (e.g. under tension) which allows the rope to transfer a force from one side of the rope to the other.

We’ve all seen movies or read books that had us either figuratively or literally sitting on the edges of our seats. Those crazy action sequences where you can’t see a way out for the hero, or the moment when the love interest has to come clean about lying to the heroin in order to win her heart, or that breathless heartbeat right before the couple’s first kiss.

As a writer, your reader’s emotions become ropes, and your story the force pulling on them. Not pushing, but pulling. Drawing them in, keeping them wondering how the guy can date two women on the same night and get away with it, or watching as the characters step farther and farther into the haunted mansion.

I remember reading Fellowship of the Rings for the first time. It was early in the morning and I was in my creepy basement on the treadmill. I only turned one light on so I could read while I walked. This particular morning I found myself in the section of the book where the fellowship enters the Mines of Moria. The prose is of course beautiful, the language masterfully chosen to set the air of fear, suspicion, and abandonment.

By the time the party reaches the room where Balin made his last stand, I was on the edge of my seat. They find the book and begin to read about how the dwarves were overwhelmed by the orcs. Then the drums begin.

Boom.

Doom.

My heart was pounding far faster than it should have been, and I kept turning the speed up on the treadmill.

Seriously, I was practically running. It was at that moment I understood what an author could make a reader feel with tension. How Tolkien slowly pulled on that rope, tightening it with each page while at the same time giving the characters just enough hope to keep them going.

This month we’ll be sharing some of the ways to put tension into stories. From romantic to action. There will be something for everyone. Stick around, it’s going to be good.

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.