Thursday, June 13, 2019

New Challenger Approaching

Y’know, I just noticed that there hasn’t been a single comment here in weeks. Not sure if that’s because more people are leaving comments over on Twitter when I link to these... or if I just haven’t been that interesting.

...let me know down in the comments.

Anyway, I’m a bit short on time—the past few weeks have been a bit crazy for me—but I still wanted to get something up here. And I realized there was a topic I hadn’t talked about in a while. Not in any detail, anyway...

One of the basic parts of storytelling is the obstacle.  It's what stands between my characters and whatever they want. Maybe they want to save the farm, but they’re too far in debt and can’t raise the money in time.  Maybe they want the super-bedazzled mitten, but there’s a big purple guy with his own army who also wants it.  Maybe they just want to ask that cute barista if she’d like to, I don’t know, get some coffee sometime or... no, wait, that’s stupid. Auugggggh, I have to go hide for at least a year. And maybe change my name.


Personally, I think an obstacle’s slightly different from a conflict.  It’s just terminology, yeah, but exterior problems tend to be called obstacles, while interior ones are almost always labeled as conflicts. Captain Marvel wants to save Earth from an alien invasion (obstacle), but first she needs to come to terms with the fact that her adoptive alien race, the Kree, may have been lying to her for years about a lot of stuff (conflict).  See what I mean?

Because of this, I prefer the overall term challenge.  I find that thinking about "obstacles" tends to make me think more about physical things in the way of my heroes, like parts of an obstacle course.  And, again, while this isn't technically wrong, it tends to lead to a lot of the same things in my writing.  This is when I get challenges with more of an episodic, low-end videogame feel to them.  My character defeats obstacle A then moves on to obstacle B, obstacle C and finishes up with D.

So here are a few thoughts about challenges, external and internal, that might be worth thinking about while I’m planning out my story—whether I’m writing a novel, short story, screenplay. or six-part epic somethingorother. I’ve mentioned them once or twice before, so if they sound familiar... good job.  You’ve been paying attention

First Thought-- I must have a challenge
I’m sure we’ve all run into books or movies where people either sit around doing nothing or just meander through events with little to no effort.  If the character needs something, they either already have it in their backpack or it’s in the first box they open. If they need help, people are always  able and willing.  Any lucky break that has to happen does happen just when they need it to.  I know these examples sound silly, but it’s stunning how often I see this happen in screenplays and/or book.

There needs to be something between my characters and their goals.  If there isn't,  they would've accomplished these goals already.  Look. I just got up and made myself a drink. I wanted one. I got it. Heck, if I hadn’t said anything you never would’ve known. That’s just not the stuff we see as bestselling, high-stakes drama.

Second Thought--My characters need a reason to confront said challenge.
If my characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it. If I’ve spent the past four days walking through the desert, getting that drink is probably a life-or-death thing for me. Captain Marvel isn’t pursuing the Skrulls as a part time hobby—it’s her sworn duty as an officer of the Kree military. I need to make sure this reason is really there.  It might be clear in my head why the characters are going to undertake a challenge, but is it clear on the page?  This is doubly true for internal things, which can be a lot more subtle depending on what point of view I’m using

Third Thought—My challenge needs a reason to exist.
Like I said right at the start, I need to have some kind of challenge, but I don’t want a challenge that only exists to be a challenge.  It’s got no reason for existing in the world of my  story, no past, no future, no motivation.   It’s only there to serve as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.   We can probably all think of a book or movie where, for no reason at all, an obstacle just popped out of nowhere.   That kind of stuff just weakens any story.

Challenges have a purpose.  Whether they’re the driving force behind my story or minor distractions my characters need to deal with quick, they're a kind of antagonist—something or someone working against my heroes. That oasis is the only source of water for a hundred miles in this desert, which is why the people who used to liver here set so many guards to protect it. There’s also a reason the Skrulls are on Earth (they’re searching for a hidden lab) and there’s a reason they’re tough to find (they’re shapechangers). I need to think about why a challenge is in my story, and if there isn’t a real reason... maybe re-think it
One other note. I think it’s generally better if my audience (reader or viewer) has at least some idea why this challenge exists.  They don’t need to know all the details immediately (or even accurately), but I also shouldn’t be saving them for a last-page reveal.

Fourth Thought—My challenge needs to be daunting.
Not only am I weak from dehydration and facing ten armed guards around the oasis, the actual spring itself is booby-trapped. Someone centuries ago built all sorts of pressure plates around the thing and I’m not exactly in the best condition right now to be tip-toeing and balancing through this spike-launching mine field. Plus, if Captain Marvel can’t find the Skrull agents on Earth, they could establish a foothold here, rebuild their strength, and endanger peace throughout much of the galaxy.

This may be a weird way to look at it, but challenges are things we need to deal with, but we don’t want to deal with. My characters don’t want to deal with this because they don’t even want to be in this situation. I think we can all agree things would be a lot easier if that challenge wasn’t even there.

But it is there, so... goddammit...

Fifth Thought—My challenge can’t be impossible.
Okay, we all right fiction. But even within a fictional world there are things that just can’t happen. Normal people can’t punch out gods or outsmart supercomputers. And if all those guards around the oasis have motion sensors, night vision goggles, and shoot to kill orders, there’s very little I’m going to get—holy crap there’s fifty guards? I thought there were only ten. And when did they all get machine guns?

If you've ever watched a horror movie where the killer is merciless,unstoppable, and inescapable... well, that gets pretty dull after the second or third kill, doesn't it?  One of the reasons Jason Voorhees was scary is that he never ran.  He just sort of... marched? Lumbered?  It always felt like somebody could get away from Jason if they could just go a little faster. If it feels like there’s no chance, it’s not interesting. We already know the outcome.

There are two  other issues with the impossible challenge.  One is if I make my challenge out to be completely impossible and my hero pulls it off anyway, there’s a good chance it’s going to knock my audience out of the story. I’ve just shattered the rules of what’s possible in my story. That usually means it’s “throwing the book across the room” time.

The second issue is when I have challenges that seem impossible to my characters, but have painfully obvious solutions to my readers.  We just don’t like these characters, by nature of their stupidity, and that’s not going to win me any points.

Sixth Thought—Holy crap there are a lot of these
This was supposed to be a quick rehash of an old topic, but I keep finding things I want to add to this. I’ve got editing to do, dammit!

Seventh Thought—My challenge should be unexpected.
This isn’t a hill-I-will-die-on rule... but I’d be willing to fight on that hill for a little while. Once I admit that I need a challenge, it’s kinda the next logical step.

If my heroes are so prepared, so trained and equipped that they’re completely ready for this challenge... well, there isn’t really a challenge, is there? If they’ve covered all the angles, researched every possibility, how can they lose? And if they can’t lose... well, that’s kinda boring, isn’t it? We know the outcome again.

A standard part of so many stories—including Captain Marvel-- is when something changes or goes wrong.  The one thing we didn’t prepare for happens. We learned something new that completely flips our goals and  understanding of the situation.  One way or another, the plan’s shattered into a million pieces. I beat the guards and made it past the booby traps and WHAT? There are albino crocodiles in the oasis? Wait, are these guys actually poachers?

But think about it—when this happens in a story, it’s almost always the moment we love. It’s when my characters get to look good and show how smart or clever or tough they really are.

Eighth and Last Thought--I need to resolve my challenge
Once I’ve set up a challenge, it needs to be resolved somehow. I can’t crouch on a sand dune outside the oasis for five chapters studying the guards and their patrol patterns, then just wander off back into the desert. It leaves a lot of dangling threads and unanswered questions. Who were all those guys? How did they get here? Why did I give up when I desperately needed water?? How did I wander away if I was weak from dehydration? Why did the author spend five chapters on this if I was just going to wander away...?

To paraphrase Chekov, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it on overload in act three. And then either disarm it or watch it take out the Enterprise. Because if I just leave it there buzzing and getting hotter, readers are going to ask what happened. They remember this stuff.

And they will judge me on it.

Those are my way-too-many thoughts on challenges. Maybe take some time and look at the challenges your own characters are facing. Are there any? Are they challenging enough? Does your character have a desire to avoid them and a need to face them?

Next time, speaking of challenges, I’m going to do something I’ve tried really hard to avoid here for years. I’m going to go negative.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

...Versus the World

As most of you know, I watch bad movies. I’m kind of a fan of them. I also think you can learn a lot by reading and watching the not-as-great stuff and figuring out how and where it went wrong. Read the good stuff too, absolutely, but don’t avoid the bad stuff.

Anyway, I was watching one particularly bad movie a week or three back, and it hit a problem. It hit a bunch, really, but we’re just going to dwell on the one. And that problem involved a television psychic.

Y’see, we’d clearly established the supernatural existed in this world.  I mean, I'm pretty sure we weren't supposed to think  demons and ghosts had never existed before this moment in time.  And since we’re dealing with demons and ghosts, a psychic isn’t exactly out of the question.

So... problem. Was this a real psychic or not? I mean, the character existed, yeah, but were they supposed to be a real psychic who had a TV show?  Or were they a fake psychic who performed in a world where the supernatural was real? The directing, acting, and special effects didn’t really help clarify this vagueness. As story choices went, it needed a lot more thought and attention than these filmmakers gave it.

It reminded me a bit of an essay I read a few years back. I wish I could give proper credit on this but I’ve never been able to find it again. I thought I’d read it in the introduction of a Lovecraft anthology, but I’ve gone over my library a couple of times trying to find it. Point is—this isn’t my clever observation.

To paraphrase, this essayist pointed out that we couldn’t really have supernatural stories until the late 18th or 19th century. According to them, it made sense this was when the first names of the genre began to appear.  Why?

Well, until then we hadn’t really defined what “natural” was, and that knowledge hadn’t been widely distributed, either. Sure, we can look back at tales from the Middle Ages and label them as ghost stories, folklore, or what have you, but at the time most people took these as... well, historical record. These were non-fiction. You didn’t put a horseshoe over your door with seven nails because it was a quaint tradition—you did it to keep the damned witch out. 

(...and. prithee, we all know of who I speak when I sayeth “the witch”-- Goody Lesswing! We all knowest this, I am just the one who sayeth it! Her evil eye did make my beans and corn shrivel up!)

In a way, this is the context issue I mentioned a few months back. Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t know what’s natural in a setting—what’s normal—I can’t tell you what’s unnatural. I can’t define an equation without having at least some idea what both halves of the equation are.  It’s like me asking “are you faster than Phoebe?” How can you answer that if you don’t know who Phoebe is? Maybe she uses a cane.  Maybe she’s my two-month old niece. Maybe she’s an Olympic sprinter.  Hell, maybe she’s a racing greyhound.  Likewise, how can I tell you a not-real story if I don’t establish what’s real and possible in this setting?

Now, I brought that up so I can mention this...

I can write an amazing world.  It can be a world at peace where nobody wants for anything. It can be a world of constant conflict.  It could be a secret, magical world or a widely-known sci-fi one.  One of the joys of fiction is we can create worlds where absolutely anything is possible.  Turing-tested artificial intelligence.  Dragon scales as currency. Space elevators. Zombie plagues. Swamp witches who keep you up at night tapping on your window.

But no matter what kind of world it is, no matter how wild things seem, for the people living in it, it’s normal.  If aliens have invaded and we’ve been at war for the past six months and a third of the human race is dead... this is just the way things are. This is an average day. And no matter what kind of world they’re set in, average days are boring. Because they’re, well... average.  They’re just part of the daily grind. Even if the daily grind is mashing moonberries into juice that we use to keep the gorgons calm while we milk them for antivenin.

Y’see, Timmy—yep, a double y’see Timmy. I know, it’s been awhile—this is why worldbuilding isn’t plot.  It’s just setting.  No matter how fantastic or dynamic the world might be, it’s still just the backdrop. That’s it. It’s the world my story’s going to happen in—not my story.

Plot is when something changes in my character’s world. It’s when the norm gets disrupted—no matter how amazing or horrible or routinely frustrating that norm might be. It’s the thing that stands out to them, that drives them into action, that makes today not an average day.  When plot happens we should know it because our characters will know it.

When I’m planning my story, I need to be keenly aware of this. No matter how fantastic my world is, for the people living in it... its just the world.  It’s just the way things are. We want to see people deal with the change, to rise to the challenge of situations that are new to them.

Not deal with an average day in their world.

Next time... I really need to get these edits done, and this weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies, and the Dystopian Bookclub at the Last Bookstore, so getting something done for next time might be a bit of a challenge. But I’ll try to do something.

You do something, too.  Go write.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Who’s the REAL Monster...?

Tomorrow’s my birthday. One of those big landmark/milestone birthdays. Which seems impossible because I don’t feel a day over 200 most of the time.

Anyway... to celebrate my final day as a young man, a couple of us are going to go see the new Godzilla movie tonight (I’ll be watching it at midnight when I become old), and that got me thinking about monsters. 

Monster stories are one of those sub-genres of horror I think get glossed over a lot. I’ve mentioned them in passing before, but it’s worth taking a closer look. Just because I have a monster in my story doesn’t automatically make it a monster story. And it’s my birthday so screw you all, we’re going to talk about monsters.

Horror is, simply put, the scary genre, so it’s not shocking to say that monster stories almost always involve some element of fear. It’s worth noting this fear should involve the characters and the audience. If only the audience is scared, this is more of a suspense situation.  If only the characters are scared... well, that could mean a lot of things.

The big thing that sets monster stories apart, I think, making them their own little sub-niche-genre, is that they’re about unstoppable things.  Go back to Frankenstein.  No matter what happens, the creature always breaks free, always survives. I’d tie this all the way back to the original novel, where even in the end the monster can’t be defeated—he just wanders away on his own terms to die. Except even in Shelly’s original book, we don’t know he dies. Even she left this window of “maybe he’s still out there.” Heck, go all the way back to Greek myths—we can cut off Medusa’s head and she’s still the most dangerous thing in a ten mile radius.

Because of this, a major element in pretty much every monster story is “getting the hell away from it.” Maybe it’s just the two of us running through the forest, trying to catch up with that bastard Wakko who left us behind (he’ll get his, don’t worry...). It might be a full scale evacuation of a city. There may be other elements, maybe even more dominant ones, but trying to get away is pretty much always going to be a big part of a monster story.

Another thing most good monster stories involve is a degree of self-reflection and sympathy. We’re scared by the monster but we also tend to feel a bit of pity for it. Every version of Frankenstein (well, okay, every good version) recognizes that the monster is horribly lonely, desperate to find any sort of companionship. The original Rodan has a complete gut-punch of an ending (I rewatched it recently and holy crap I did not register so much of it when I was a kid). Yeah, the monster in Super 8 is killing people, but it’s also been imprisoned and tortured by humans for the past twenty years or so.

This ties back to a common character trait I’ve mentioned one or ten times—relatability. We feel sympathy for monsters—even if it’s just for a few moments—because they reflect some basic truth about us, or humanity in general.  We all know what it’s like to be lonely. We’ve all lashed out. We’ve all growled at people and waved our arms and retreated up to the old windmill to fight off the villagers.


That leads to another point. Monsters tend to be characters in their own right. They aren’t nameless, unknown, unseen threats. They have personalities and motivations. They often have names. Like, actual, personal names, not just vague titles or pronouns. We all understand the difference between it and It, right...?

And one last thing. This one’s less of an absolute, but I think you’d find it to be a very common element. Comedy. Most of the best monster stories have some kind of comedy element. At the very least, they’re not dry and humorless. Partly because comedy is just unavoidable, and it naturally comes out at the most bizarre times.  But also because it lets us hang a lantern on the inherent absurdity of a lot of monster stories. Yeah, come on.  Be honest. I mean, seriously—how does a 350 foot tall lizard go unnoticed for so long? He’s five times bigger than a blue whale. Think how much it’d need to eat.

I mention all this because monsters are cool.  And because knowing my genre is important. All genres come with expectations, and the more often my genre story deviates from those expectations, the better the chances are it’s going to fall flat with my chosen audience.  If an anthology editor is looking for monster stories and I send in a piece of torture porn... that’s not going to work out well for me.  If I’ve led my agent to expect a monster story and instead I give him a fantasy romp with dragons, he’s probably going to start over from square one in a lot of ways. And if every movie in a franchise has been a slasher film and I suddenly decide to make a sci-fi monster movie...

Well, I’ve just made Jason X. Which isn’t a bad movie at all (I kinda love it), but it went against a lot of people’s expectations and stumbled hard because of that. It’s a monster movie in the middle of a slasher series.

Anyway, there’s some thoughts on monsters. Ponder them while you cheer on your favorite kaiju this weekend.

Speaking of this weekend—even though it’s my birthday, I’m helping out Jonathan Maberry by taking over the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse on Sunday.  So swing by Mysterious Galaxy between noon and three as we talk about writing, publishing, and all that.

And next time, maybe we’ll talk about worldbuilding a bit.

Until then... go write.