Big Mother

Julia sank wearily down into the deep cushions of the staff lounge couch. The TV was on, set to some new reality show where politicians cooked meals for celebrities, but Julia hardly noticed. She was still processing.

A grueling, 36 hour labor. Normally a C-section would have been in order, but the patient refused to be cut. And at the end of it all…

Her eyes flicked up to the door. She could still hear the baby crying, though she knew it was just in her head. The Repose Room was soundproof.

Shaking her head as if to expel such thoughts, she looked down at the coffee table. The various sections of Today’s USA were scattered across its surface. The top-most, “Health and Living,” prominently displayed an article titled “New Healthcare Law Protects the Most Vulnerable.” Her eyes scanned the text; apparently it was a story about how the newly expanded universal healthcare system would greatly improve the lives of underpaid journalists.

Julia heaved a heavy sigh and buried her face in her hands. She had known that remaining in perinatal medicine would eventually test who she was. She just hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. Not here. Not at St. Agnes.

But they had allowed it to happen. Jennifer and the doctor spoke for a few minutes, in private, with the patient. And then the baby was wheeled out to the Repose Room.

Julia imagined her own daughter lying in the darkness, alone, left to expire. It was too much. The shock and confusion were gone, replaced by anger and determination.

She pulled herself up and hurried out of the staff room.

Kathy was leaning against the wall next to the Repose Room and nursing a cup of coffee while fiddling with her phone. The healthcare liaison looked up at Julia’s approach and smiled plastically.

“Hi, Julie. Are you okay?”

“No. Nothing about this is okay.”

Kathy reached for Julia’s arm, halting her entrance. She lowered her voice to a hush.

“Look, I know this is difficult. But we have to respect the mother’s choice.”

Julia shook off the restraining hand and entered the room. It was complete dark inside. The baby was no longer crying, but Julia could hear a soft whimpering. She paused as the door closed behind her and Kathy’s surprised exclamation was cut off.

She reached for her phone and unlocked the screen, using the light to look around the bare room. A sink and cabinet fixture was set against the wall – the same one found in nearly every modern examination room. In the corner opposite her stood the bassinet, mounted atop a sterile, steel cart. The baby lay swaddled inside.

As she stepped toward the infant, the door opened behind her and in stepped Kathy, accompanied by Jennifer, the shift supervisor.

“Julie, what are you doing? You shouldn’t be in here,” the senior nurse admonished softly, frowning. She reached into a pocket and drew out her own phone to further illuminate the dark room. Her other arm cradled a clipboard – clearly she had been interrupted while doing important paperwork.

“This isn’t right, Jen. We can’t do this.”

Jennifer’s face softened. It was Kathy who replied.

“It was Mrs. Peters’ decision after speaking with Dr. Danton. Even Mr. Peters agreed. It’s her right. Come on now, everything is going to be all right. Let’s just…leave it alone.”

“Not it, Kathy. Her. You want to let her die!” Julia had difficulty controlling her voice now, and the baby started to whimper loudly.

“It’s not up to me,” Kathy answered. “And it’s not up to you. The infant simply isn’t viable.”

“What the hell do you mean she isn’t viable? She’s laying there right now, breathing on her own. Alive.”

Jennifer cut in. “What Kathy means is the baby can’t survive on her own, without state resources. You know that. She’d have to be put up, and that’s expensive. And there will be no legal parents to put up climate credits…I don’t like it any more than you do, but there’s nothing we can do.”

“For God’s sake, she’s perfectly healthy, Jen!” Julia was practically shouting.

Kathy answered “It’s an unfortunate rarity, but post-birth abor-”

“Don’t call it that,” Julia snapped. “We’re letting a healthy baby die. And for what? Why? Why are they doing this?”

Jennifer and Kathy exchanged an uncomfortable glance and the former answered “Her eyes.”

“What? What about her eyes?” Julia asked.

“The Peters ordered blue eyes, but the baby’s are brown. It’s not what they paid for. Mrs. Peters said that she always wanted a daughter with blue eyes and blond hair, like a doll. She said that…that having to raise a botched child would be too traumatic for her,” Jennifer muttered.

Julia shook her head in disbelief. They were all silent for a moment.

“I’m taking her,” she said finally.

Jennifer’s eyes widened in surprise. Kathy looked scandalized.

“You can’t do that, Julie. It’s illegal!” the liaison exclaimed.

“Think about this,” cautioned the supervisor. “They’ll fire you. Hell, you’ll probably go to jail.”

“I don’t care,” replied Julia. “I can’t do nothing.”

Kathy glared angrily at her, looked meaningfully at Jennifer, and then exited the Repose Room quickly.

“All right,” said Jennifer. “But you’d better hurry. No doubt Kathy has gone for security.” Jennifer, too, stepped out.

Julia switched off her phone and flicked on the room’s fluorescent light. The baby girl squinted and began once again to cry.

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

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Misbeliefs as Story Momentum

  • by Gitabushi

I’m still struggling with the implications of “Story Genius”, as detailed here, here, and here.

brown haired female anime character figure
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For instance, blog proprietor PC Bushi responded to the last post with:

You had me until you said entertainment should not be the goal of a story. Strikes me that this is like saying enjoyment should not be the goal of a meal. Different meals and types of food aim at fulfilling different goals, just as different stories and types of writing do.

I wasn’t trying to say a story should not be entertaining, or even that a good story cannot just be nothing more than entertaining. My point was that if you are going to go to all the trouble to write an entertaining story, why not *also* make it compelling by adding in emotiona and character development?  If you are going to read a story, won’t you be more entertained if you are more deeply invested in the protagonist’s struggles?  Story Genius shows you how to get that.

The only thing is, the more I consider the book, the less certain I am that this is the only way to make a story more compelling.

I mean, I’m fully converted to the idea. It works. I can tell that it works by analyzing a bunch of successful movies, books, and television shows.  I have also discovered there are a bunch of other successful movies, books, and television shows that are not centered on the crisis of a protagonist’s misbeliefs.

For instance, Star Wars is undeniably a great story. Luke *does* start out with a misbelief that adventure is a grand, fun thing, and preferable to boredom on a backwater planet.

This is a misbelief. In short order, he is nearly killed by Tusken Raiders, his adopted parents are brutally murdered, and his new mentor that promised to teach him a whole new set of skills, is cut down while he watches.

But that misbelief doesn’t come to a crisis. He isn’t forced to abandon his misbelief or face destruction.  He just grows through it.

However, his emotional state *is* important to us throughout.

I think Die Hard is a great movie because as McClane is working things out with the terrorists, he’s also sort of working things out with his wife.  Maybe his misbelief is that his wife no longer loves him.  Or perhaps the misbelief that drives the story is his wife’s, in that she mistakenly believes he loves his job more than her.  But it doesn’t drive the story to a crisis, the bad guys do.  And the resolution of their relationship is more that he goes through all sorts of pain and danger to save her life, and that has a profound impact on both of them…but they don’t exactly work through it together.

However, their emotional state *is* important to us throughout.

All this being said, as I type this out, I don’t remember the author of “Story Genius” saying this is what you *must* use to write a compelling story.  I don’t remember her saying this is the way every story should be written.

And now that I think of it in those terms, I can still fully recommend the book. In fact, I urge you to buy it. I think it still is the best $10 an aspiring-but-struggling writer can spend.

Because my final judgment is:

Writing a short story can be hard. It is too easy to start with enthusiasm and excitement, and still hit a snag that blocks you. It is too easy to paint yourself into a corner.  It is too easy to struggle with developing the plot and not being sure your protagonist’s actions make sense.

Writing a novel is even more difficult. You have all the same problems as above, plus you have to layer in subplots.  You have to escalate the stakes to maintain interest. You have to develop deeper characters than in a short story. You have to handle more characters, and make them all realistic.  All this is too complicated: I can’t hold a novel in my mind. With this book, you don’t have to.  It teaches you how to add compelling aspects to your story that grab the reader from the beginning and never lets go, how to develop and mine the protagonists’ backstory for realistic developments, how to layer in complex and interesting subplots, and how to make the reader see through the protagonists’ eyes instead of through the writer’s eyes.

It all works, even if you don’t want to write a story based on misbelief.

But if you want to get a story written and have it be compelling, it’s a great place start.

The implication (mentioned indirectly at least once) of the book is that this process will become second nature as you grow more familiar with it. You could adapt it to other types of stories, but this book intends to tell you about the easiest way to craft an entertaining, compeling, memorable novel.  I think it does that.

For example, while Luke *does* have a misbelief about adventure, it doesn’t drive the story. If anything, the story of Star Wars says that Luke’s misbelief was only partial: it *was* fun, exciting, and enjoyable to fight his way off of the most secure enemy station in the history of the galaxy, join with other advanced pilots and, without any training, save the rebels from complete destruction.  He is rewarded with fame and gratitude, and might even earn the love of a beautiful princess.  Sure, his Aunt & Uncle and Old Ben had to die as part of the process, but they were going to die, eventualy, anyway, right?

The point is, Luke isn’t confronting the conflict his misbelief has created in what he wants and who he thinks he is.  It just ends up not being quite so carefree as he hoped.

But we still care about Luke’s emotional reactions to what happens, and *that* drives the story.  So what we learn in “Story Genius” still applies. It’s just writing a story in which an apparent misbelief actually turns out to be true.

There are plenty of other exceptions.  But these can be your advanced attempts, after you have a few novels under your belt.

Why am I pushing this so hard? Well, I think better when I talk or write. But more importantly, if y’all write more enjoyable, gripping novels, I have better stuff to read.  Buy the book, and write great novels!

What is a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been pushing this book lately, and not just on this blog.   It has the unwieldy title of “Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)” so from now on, I will just call the book “Story Genius.”

I love the book so much. It forced a paradigm shift on writing that excites me and convinces me I will be a successful writer. It also concisely explained much of the dysfunction we see in society, because so many people are laboring under misbeliefs.

For instance, Socialists are laboring under the misbelief that if they can win total political control of all major government and social institutions, they can transform and perfect society so that everyone is equal (at best) or that no one suffers from need (at worst).  There are so many misbeliefs in that assumption.  I think homosexual activists have a misbelief that their unhappiness comes from social rejection, so if they can just force society to celebrate their identity in more and more aspects, they will finally be happy.  The Right has the misbelief that if they just calmly and clearly explain their views and preferred policies, the Right will win elections, enact conservative legislation, and restore the US’ liberty and exceptionalism.  I could go on for days about these misbeliefs, but it is evidence that the book is correct that everyone has misbeliefs.

That’s how it improved my life.

I’ve been mulling on its application to writing for a month now, however.  *MUST* every story be a character development story?  *MUST* every story start with a misbelief that gets resolved?

I’ve really been considering this question. I’ve re-thought this question in light of “13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” and “A Princess of Mars” and “Coming to America” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jack Reacher novels and even “Game of Thrones”.

My answer is that no, not every story must have a misbelief that causes the main character problems and gets resolved over the course of the story.

But the follow-up questions to that are: Do you want people to enjoy and recommend your story?  Do you want to sell your story?  Do you want to write *great* stories, or merely write stories?

Heroic action stories can be enjoyable.  I don’t think the Jack Reacher stories ever have Jack Reacher holding a major misbelief or learning anything in the course of the story.  He’s pretty much unchangeable (except that the author gives him mental abilities needed for the plot that mysteriously don’t exist in other stories where they might have been useful, but the author hadn’t thought them up yet weren’t needed for the plot).  The interest in and success of those stories is the author starts with a perplexing situation, so you want to read to find out what is actually happening.

In “Game of Thrones”, the misbelief is actually on the part of the reader: George R. R. Martin set out to upend several major expectations of the reader, such as Plot Armor and Deaths Mean Something.  I think he’s struggling to finish and the books are kind of fizzling out because you can only deny the expected tropes for so long. If he wants to finish, he’ll have to resolve the story, and it’s going to be trope-y as all get out.

So from that perspective, even if you aren’t dealing with a character’s misbelief, you are still using misbelief to make the story more interesting.

That admission aside, I think that while it isn’t *MANDATORY* to use the techniques in “Story Genius” to load your main character down with one or more misbeliefs that are resolved in the course of the story, it still is a good idea to do it.

Because the book has convinced me that the point of stories is to learn from other people’s mistakes.  You can be entertained by the story, but entertainment is the bonus, and should not be the goal.  We are hardwired to enjoy stories from childhood, but that doesn’t mean we should focus solely on the entertainment aspect.  If we only care about entertaining, we might succeed, and the story might sell, but I don’t think it will have much staying power.  Sure, it might catch on and become famous, and it might be read for generations, like Edgar Rice Burroughs “A Princess of Mars”.  But that’s not the way to bet.  That’s not a good model to base your own writing career on.  When ERB wrote that book and invented those characters, there was no TV, there were no comic books, there were no smartphones, and even movies had no sound or color.  Many people don’t read at all, and we don’t have a unified culture that allows an iconic character like John Carter or Dejah Thoris to capture the imagination of millions.  Put another way: there is so much mindless entertainment already out there, it is advisable to do your best to find ways to stand out.

I think “Story Genius” gives you what you need to stand out.

“Story Genius” requires more prep-work, but in the end, it saves you time.  It’s right there in the title “(before you waste three years writing 378 pages that go nowhere)”.  It keeps you from getting stuck.  It demands you consider every development in terms of the character’s misbelief, which provides a motive force for the story, and only then write the scenes…which keeps you from wasting as much time writing unnecessary filler that you’ll cut anyway.

The book helps you to add layers to your story via subplots.  If everything ties back to both the misbelief driving the story *and* the visible plot developments, your story will have depth.  I thought I might not be able to succeed as a writer because I couldn’t hold an entire novel’s plot in my head.  With this book, I don’t have to.

I have a dozen stories that have foundered on the rocks of painting myself into a corner, plot-wise, or not knowing what to do next.  Thinking about them in terms of misbeliefs resurrects their viability, because it gives me new ideas of how to make them compelling.

“Story Genius” tells you that the misbelief has reached a crisis in the character’s life.  The character has kept the misbelief up until that point because it worked more or less. The misbelief perhaps kept the main character from enjoying life more, or from fulfilling some aspect of life, but it also kept the main character from disaster.  But now the misbelief’s impact on the character’s life has come to a head.  If the character retains the misbelief, their life will be destroyed.  But if they accept life’s lessons and give up the misbelief, their self-image will be destroyed. Everyone thinks they are correct.  Giving up a misbelief is not only admitting you were wrong (very hard for anyone to do), it also is admitting that you damaged your own life for years by not realizing it sooner.

People double down on mistakes. That’s how we hold onto misbeliefs.  That’s why we hold onto misbeliefs.  Only if everything you hold dear is threatened by the misbelief are we forced to actually confront the fact that what we beleived, what we thought kept us safe, was wrong.

Doesn’t that, as a writer, excite you?  Wouldn’t you love to be able to write a story with that sort of impact, that level of import?  “Story Genius” will show you how, and walk you through it.

If the main reason we like stories is because it allows us to safely learn from other people’s mistakes, then yes: underneath and on top of whatever else your story is, you should include a character development aspect. You should make your main character’s misbelief the driving force behind the story.  It will make the story better, and will attract readers.

The only possible downside I can see from this is that it makes it harder to develop a character and setting and write an infinite number of stories in your “franchise”.

Frankly, I don’t see that as a downside.  With the possible exception of Lois McMasters-Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, and the actual exception of the Jack Reacher and Matt Helm series, I don’t want or enjoy series focused on one main character.  There can only be so many self-image-threatening misbeliefs in one character.  Most authors don’t use the same character over and over.  They invent new characters, and new settings.

My favorite author, CJ Cherryh, is my favorite writer because she was good at this.  She had her universe, but she made new main characters for new stories to reveal different aspects of her universe, and it made it better.

Now she’s written an endless “Foreigner” series and I lost interest after book 6.  No one learns anything. The main character is always right. I mean, maybe that’s not completely true, but it’s true enough around book 5 or 6 that I lost interest.

Same with Steven Brust’s Jhereg series.  Same with the Miles Vorkosigan series, but only after book 10 or so, and that was because McMasters-Bujold used different viewpoint characters, allowing her to play off of the new characters’ misbeliefs.

Your fans may want an infinite number books with the same main character. I say, don’t give that to them.  Make new, fresh characters.  Wow them with your ability to create new compelling viewpoint characters, and stun them with your insight into human nature. “Story Genius” shows you how.

Two final thoughts:

No one enjoys message fiction, i.e., “Now I’m going to teach you something I think is true.”  I think “Story Genius” helps you avoid that, by letting you put a misbelief into the main character.  If I wanted to write something against Socialism (and I will), I would make my main character believe that humans are perfectible if they just have the right rules to follow and the right people in charge.  And then I’d show that character how that misbelief will threaten everything they hold dear.  Result: a great story that doesn’t seem preachy.

I haven’t finished my short story, and I haven’t started my novel (waiting to finish the short story).  So maybe I’m wrong about all this.  I don’t think I am. I’m stuck on some mechanical aspects of the short story (what traps or threats can I put into the underground crypt that will drive and highlight the main character’s viewpoint changes?), so I might just drop it for now and start another short story from scratch using this process.  If so, I’ll let you see the results and let you judge if it results in a compelling story.

Further Thoughts on Character Development in Writing & Life

  • by Gitabushi

Recently, I wrote this piece to praise a book that I found to be extremely useful in both writing and life.

I’ve been thinking about it more, and I think the book misses on two points, when it comes to writing.

First, it insists that the misbelief your character is clinging to should be the cause of an imminent problem that the main character can no longer ignore.  Having thought about it a few more days in the context of my own planned story, I think this might not be necessary.

In my own case, the main character wants to gain some local fame for another talent, in hopes that he will then be popular, and being popular, he will get his friends back.  This is a misbelief, but I think he could actually go his whole life without this being a crippling misunderstanding.  Moreover, I want this story to start when he’s 16, for a number of reasons, and I just don’t see how this misbelief could be a crisis at that age.

Instead, the talent that he finds (magic-based martial arts) is going to cause the crisis, as he catches the attention of powers that guard the magic jealously.

Likewise, Luke’s belief that he is stuck in a backwater of the Galaxy and that an exciting adventure is what he wants is what actually kinda keeps him from dying immediately at the hands of the Empire. It is a misbelief, but it drives the story and it is actually his hubris (in combination with a friend realizing that Friendship is Magic) that saves the Rebellion from destruction.

OMG. Star Wars is a My Little Pony movie.

I’m going to forget I ever said that.

The second problem is perhaps not a real problem.

The assertion of the book is that every story should be a character story on some level. On first reading, I found that compelling, and embraced it.  But with another few days’ of thought and trying out this hypothesis on books and movies I’ve enjoyed, I think I’ve thought of at least one exception:

“13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

13 hours poster
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” Promotional Poster

This was a very compelling and moving story, and not just because it was a visual spectacle.  We *knew* the outcome, and it was still worth watching.

But there wasn’t any misbelief on display by the main character.

In fact, I could point out that the movie has some significant problems in its storytelling.  In retrospect, the main character isn’t the main character, and really isn’t much of a protagonist.  He does his job, but he never really makes any choices (the main character should be the person who has the most freedom to choose/act, and has the most impact from his choices/actions).  That story would probably have been even more compelling if told from Rone’s perspective, or even Tonto’s.  Or the CIA Mission Chief.

And maybe it is still a good story because it is a true story. Dunno. I need to think on it a little more.

Another exception is “10 Cloverfield Lane”.  I think that is a good story, but the misbelief that drives the story is not the main character’s.  But the main character *is* the one whose choices and actions drive the story.  It’s a very good story.

Interestingly, “Orcs!” (2011) *is* a story where a main character has to confront a misbelief that has been holding him back his entire life to that point.  This thought is going to inspire another post.  Just sayin’

Anyway, if the point of the writing book was not that everyone story must be a character story, but rather that it is just one excellent and time-tested way to develop a compelling and memorable story, well, I can’t argue with that.

So to the extent that I said that every story *is* a character story, I’m wrong. There are plenty of good stories that don’t focus on character development.

However, if your story idea is just “meh”, or if, like me, you find your stories bogging down and lacking in drive, you should still consider using the character development elements of “misbelief” and “resistance to change until forced by life to do it” to supercharge your writing.  Making your story a character story can’t be wrong, it just might not be 100% necessary.

But in life, I think the point is character development: yours. The point of the writing book is that people usually don’t change until circumstances in life force them into a costly re-evaluation of their paradigms, and that we tell stories to give people a chance to make changes in their lives *before* their misbeliefs force a crisis.  So as you read the book to help your writing, consider your own beliefs, and your own troubles in life, and try to identify which are the misbeliefs causing your troubles.  You might be able to make a change and have a better life before the troubles become disasters.

Writing Breakthrough. And Life. But Also Writing

  • by Gitabushi

I subscribed to Book Bub.  Every day they send me reduced price and free digital downloads.  A lot of the books are crap, but hey: free ebooks!  Every once in a while, a cheap book will catch my attention.

choice

And so it was that I decided to buy

“Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)”

I can’t tell you everything about the book, because that would be stealing from the author.

See, I’ve been writing, and studying writing, for a long time. I know lots of the techniques, in theory: Start with an opening that grabs the reader, format your story based on its type in the MICE categorization (Milieu, Idea, Character, Event), escalate the stakes, etc.

But these are all techniques to make writing better. None of these things really helped me understand how to *write*.

And, sure, you can just come up with a character, and an idea, and keep adding words until you resolve the problem and it’s around novel length.  You might actually end up with something good that way.  Many people have done it.

But that’s not the way to bet. And you’d be taking your chances on catching that lightning in a bottle again on subsequent novels.

So for me, I have a dozen story ideas. I can come up with a story idea a week, and have no idea how to develop it. I’ve got a character, a theme, an idea, and a hook. And it goes nowhere.

Moreover, I want to write a story that moves people. I want to write a good *story*, not just a narrative in which cool things happen.

This book gave me the key.

What’s more interesting, is it added a significant point to my personal life philosophy, and particularly helpful in trying to teach/raise/mentor my kids.

That concept is: everyone has misbeliefs.  Everyone has events in their past that they learned the wrong lesson, and they held onto it, and when it was challenged, they continued to follow the misbelief even though it was no longer appropriate, but they continued to survive, and to their psyche, that proved it worked so they clung to it even more tightly.

Everyone has these issues.

Everyone.

And that’s what makes a good story so compelling. We are hard-wired to resist change. We only change when we have no other choice, when we realize that continuing on our present course will cause disaster. And while we hopefully can think our way through the future minefields and change before we need to simply because we have the wisdom to see it will improve our lives, most of the time we just don’t.

It takes a traumatic event, one in which our old coping mechanism will clearly make the trauma into a disaster, before we finally admit that maybe, just maybe, we should change.

A compelling story lets us live that traumatic event vicariously.  It helps us learn lessons without having to go through the pain ourselves.

This book teaches you to ask questions, and how to find the choice morsels that will supercharge your stories that are hidden in the answers you give. It encourages writing exercises that will unlock depths in your characters.

I haven’t even finished the book, and I haven’t even done the exercises, and a short story that has been stuck for months is now unstuck, and the character is now vivid and lifelike, and has reasons to act.

It also has enriched my ideas for my first novel. I knew the protagonist wanted to be more well-known/popular in his school for something besides being a good impressionist/mimic. And from there, he finds magic-based martial arts.

But from this book, I learned/decided that just a few years earlier, he had a group of good friends, and he thought he was the center of it, but then the one popular friend moved away and the group fell apart, to the point that some of his friends were now rivals and enemies. So he has the misbelief that if he just becomes more popular, he will have friends again, and maybe even get his old gang back together.  And he thinks having an admirable skill will make him popular.

Instead, he needs to realize that magic has a cost, and popularity is elusive and not based on talent. It is his struggle against this reality that will drive much of the plot forward, including bullying of and by various former friends, and becoming a bully in trying to stop bullying.

And this is just from reading through the book, without actually doing the brainstorming and writing of specific past events that help you finalize these decisions.

The thing is, all these elements were already present in my head.  But I didn’t know how they fit together in the protagonist to drive the story.  Now I do.

And now I have additional reasonable arguments to convince my kids that although they crave being loved for who they are, trying to teach them more advanced adult standards isn’t rejecting who they are, but helping them overcome and eliminate their misbeliefs before they become a crisis.

The additional reason I’m convinced this is the key I’ve been searching for is in reading books, watching TV shows, etc., I can *see* how the misbeliefs and coping strategies of characters drive the narrative in great stories as diverse as the Man in the High Castle (first two seasons), Groundhog Day, Star Wars, Chuck, Flash Forward, the Mucker, a buttload of Terry Pratchett books, etc.  In fact, the reason the Man in the High Castle Season 3 isn’t as good as the first two seasons is that they’ve gotten away from that character depth and drive that they had earlier.  Now, pretty much only John Smith has that arc, and the series is the worse for it.  But still pretty good.  It’s why Orphan Black got boring.  It’s why The Walking Dead lost its way. It’s why The Walking Dead was so compelling.

I got the book for $1.99.  I probably wouldn’t have bought it for $10.  But having purchased it, I think this book is well worth the full price.  Highly recommended. For your personal understanding of life and yourself, as well as to boost your writing.

Big Post of Magic Rules, SF vs F Categorizations, and Anything Else I Can Cram in Here

  • by Gitabushi

This morning (establishing a temporal anchor that will be overtaken by events soon), my good friend and compatriot Emily30Red (soon to be known as Kikanshabushi) posted these categorizations on twitter:

And:

Those a pretty good definitions/categorizations as far as they go.  She developed them herself from her own readings and analysis, so they are organic and original.

I have a slightly different take, because my set of readings are different, and my analysis comes from a different brain (naturally).  For instance, I think Fantasy is also about what makes us human, but from the opposite direction than Science Fiction.  To me, they are both speculative fiction because speculative fiction is grouped by the question “What does it mean to be human?”, as explored through “What if humans were in this sort of society, or encountered that scenario of events?”

So with that common starting point for speculative fiction, I divide SF from F thusly:

Science Fiction is about normal people doing great things, and Fantasy is about extraordinary people chasing mundane goals.  There are probably lots of holes you can drive through with that formulation (for example, Frodo is nothing special, but achieves a great success through sheer, dogged determination, which fits more under Science Fiction), but I think it works fairly well for a rough starting point to divide the two.

But another difference is the way the fantastical elements are handled.

This is something I’m a stickler about.

Arthur C. Clarke famously ruined everything by saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I say “ruined everything” because he’s not technically wrong: if you can find a previously-unencountered tribe deep in the amazon, and show them some technology, they’ll freak out as if it is magic, because it is beyond their ken.  In contrast, a 2-year-old exposed to amazing tech will take it for granted, like the baby that thinks a magazine is a broken iPad:

So his formulation is already of limited utility, unless you happen to have some primitive tribes hanging around.  And it ruins everything for writers, because no, significantly-advanced technology is not indistinguishable from magic. To the reader, maybe. But to the writer, they must be handled differently.

Go read this.  Then come back.

And then, I guess you should read the post he was responding to, here. And at this point, maybe the lesson is I repeat myself, because I had forgotten that I had already slagged Clarke for his 3rd Law.

And while you’re at it, might as well read this, too, because I think it captures what my thoughts were on genre early on, before refining the views with challenges.

In fact, you could probably stop there and not miss anything.  However, the value in this continuing post (if there is one), is to sum up some of these views, and go deeper into the difference between magic and technology (in my arrogant opinion).

At one point in my running battle with PCBushi, I referred to magic & tech as furniture, as in, the term gun people use to refer to the things that change the appearance of a firearm without changing its function.  PCBushi correctly countered that another way to put it is like a skin on an app or character.

At one level, technology and magic are like that. This is particularly true in video games or roleplaying games or superheros.  If you blast the bad guy, does it matter whether it is a laser blast or a mana blast? Not really.

Maybe it doesn’t matter much to the reader/audience, either.  No one cares what the tech is behind lightsabers in Star Wars, and you can go round and round arguing whether the Force is magic wielded by Space Wizards or psionics, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just a skin for power.

Except as a writer, it does matter. And to the audience, perhaps it should matter, too, because Lucas doesn’t seem to really be clear what they war, and he made a bunch of missteps as a result.  From my formulation above, Star Wars got worse when it changed from an ordinary farm boy using the exercise of a talent to defeat an Empire to Space Wizards trying to reunite an estranged family.  I.e, a normal person doing great things through effort => special people dealing with normal life problems.

So what makes the difference? How the power is handled.

Orson Scott Card teaches in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that magic must have a cost to make it be interesting in your story.  I think that’s correct, but I don’t think Card really goes far enough, or explains it well enough.  I have the hubris to think I can.

My notion is that fantasy is about great people (special people, uniquely-powered people) doing mundane things.  To the extent this is correct, it is an exploration of what it means to be human, because it shows that even great people deal with normal life problems.  Magic is part of that, because it is magic that sets them apart, and magic must have limitations and a cost to make the story make sense.

This is because if there are no limitations or costs, everyone will have it, and then what’s the story exploring?  A story where everyone had the ability to make wishes come true would probably be a boring story.  But a story where only the protagonist (or perhaps, only the antagonist) had this power…now that creates some interesting opportunities for drama.

The counter to this argument is possibly: well, technology has a cost, too. It’s just the cost was paid in development, or in the expense (not everyone can afford body modifications that include hardwired reflexes?).  But that counter doesn’t work for me.  Televisions provide a communication ability that would be magic to a primitive culture, but what cost is there to the average person in the US?  It’s factored into life.  US cultural statistics went from Zero Anywhere to how many families have one to how many per family.

So while the difference between fantasy and science fiction settings may just be a skin, technology should be something everyone in your science fiction world should have, pretty much without any significant cost or sacrifice.  What makes the story in science fiction, then, is how the main character uses that technology differently to resolve the central problem of the story.

Example, Larry Niven wrote Neutron Star, a story that included an alien-made indestructible spaceship. Magic! Except that anyone with enough money can have one, and so the main character is given one to explore a scientific phenomenon and discover the answer to a mystery.  The answer to that mystery is actually an application of a scientific principle regarding gravity and orbital mechanics. Thus, it is a Hard SF story, despite the potentially magic elements.

Magic, in contrast, should have a cost, or a sacrifice, or a limit of some kind.  Not just everyone should walk around your story with magic.

So you have to consider the nature of your magic.  Is it something anyone can have with enough effort, but to perhaps varying levels of skill?  Compare to playing guitar or basketball.  Literally anyone of sound/whole body can play guitar or basketball.  What makes a basketball or guitar wizard is the years of study put into it…although someone with greater talent may achieve that mastery with less relative effort than someone else with less talent but more drive.  And voila! you might have a story right there.

But mostly not.  In most fantasy stories, the magic character is just special, and it often isn’t explained.  Harry Potter was just a wizard. He had to work to get better at it, but either you had magic or you were a muggle.

The Force started as a talent.  Before the family bloodline storyline entered in later, Obi-Wan Kenobi had no reason to think Luke might not be able to do the Force.  It was something to be taught, and you could take it as far as the combination of your own talent, teaching, and effort took you.  Everyone had some measure of it, but most just didn’t even try to develop it, possibly because most didn’t have the talent or interest to gain any real facility with it.  Like guitar.

But then it changed to a power that ran in the family.  Because Luke had it, and Leia was his twin sister, she has it, too. As did their dad.  As will their kids, if they have it.  I haven’t paid much attention to the reboot sequels, but apparently Rey blows up the blood theory…except that she thinks she’s Luke’s kid because of her power with the force, which just tends to reinforce the “ability by blood only” theory, just her parents were a previously-unknown Force-enabled bloodline.

One theory about magic (to the extent there can be something theoretical about something completely unreal and made up) is that magic should be calibrated so the cost/sacrifice is just slightly greater than the the amount of effort it would take to achieve that goal through mundane means.  So if you want a million dollars, the magic it takes to get it with a snap of fingers should have a cost/sacrifice just slightly greater than it would take to compete for a good college and complete a difficult major and work the drudgery job for enough years to get that million dollars.  The interest would then be why this person wants the money now, instead of putting in the normal effort. What does that say about his character, good or bad? It should always be a slightly higher cost then the mundane path, to balance out the immediacy of the magic.  But this is just a theory of a way to balance magic. I don’t know if I read it somewhere (was it Card?  I haven’t read that how-to book in over a decade) or if it is my own sense of proportion.  But let me know if you try it.

However, that theory aside, this goes back to Emily’s view of Fantasy: what does it do to the Self if you have power beyond that of the people around you?  What if you can snap your fingers and have a benefit or a good that would take others years of hard work to achieve, if ever?  Character questions are absolutely about self, the corruption of unique power is absolutely a common theme in Fantasy, in contrast to the SF common theme of overcoming due to unique force of will (which is how Beowulf survives in Neutron Star, btw).

So to sum up: magic should provide benefits that allow the avoidance of effort. As such, magic ability should be unique and have a cost, or it will be imbalanced in your story, and probably damage the enjoyment of the reader.  The exact same power can appear in science fiction, but the focus is different: the focus is on the unique application of an ability that anyone else could do, but doesn’t; or the focus is on the unique determination of the individual to overcome, in a high-tech world where everyone has pretty much the same physical ability and powers.

The lesson to you is (should be?) that if you are considering including a power or ability in your story, consider whether you want it to be unique or common.  If unique, you might want to write it as a fantasy.  If common, you might want to write it as a science fiction story.  And then further subdivide from there.

You don’t have to do this, of course.  But I’d be interested to hear from those who did, and had it work; those who did, and had it not work (and why); those who didn’t start with this decision and eventually realized they were writing the wrong sort of story; and those who didn’t start with this decision and made it work (not just a random/happy accident).

 

 

 

A Few More Thoughts on Writing

  • by Gitabushi

I *think* I have it all put together now.

flat lay photo of hands typing on a typewriter
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I’m not sure how I got here, exactly.  Big influences were Lawrence Block’s books on writing, “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” and “Spider, Spin Me a Web,” and Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy.”  So maybe you need those as background to find the following advice helpful. I hope not, or else this post will be a waste of your time.

The first key was The Plot Machine.

Oh, boy, does it make plotting machine-like.  The heart of a good story is a person overcoming obstacles to succeed. Or, if you want to write a cautionary tale, a person failing to overcome obstacles (most likely personal flaws) and failing horribly.

I used to think that once I thought of an interesting starting point, that I had a story idea.

But my failure point was always getting to the climax of the book.  And I’d read something like CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine Cycle, and see someone go against their demonstrated character to do something heroic, and get ALL THE FEELZ, and I’d wonder how I could ever write something equally surprising-yet-plausible-in-hindsight that could move someone.

So the Plot Machine recommends starting with the climax of the book, and then writing backwards from there, adding in the obstacles, then setting up the problem, then writing the final resolution.

And to heighten the tension to make the climax of the story better, you make sure you have a a false climax where it looks like everything is going to work out, and then everything goes wrong and it looks everything is going to fail.  But then the hero resolves their fatal flaw, and succeeds.  It makes the story seem worthwhile to read and enjoy and remember.

It makes sense.

But then a friend (who will hopefully be soon joining the blog) pointed out something else in a story idea I was explaining: what is the emotional conflict between the characters I had?

They were in opposition, so of course there was some inherent emotional conflict, but I had described them as friends, so how did the main character feel about winning the conflict?

Boom.  That’s a great point.  That’s one of the ways you can give your reader ALL the feelz.

I dunno. I claim to have it figured out now, but I have no time/energy to write.  So you can take all that with  grain of salt.  Or we can talk it out in the comment section.

But if nothing else, I thought I’d point out a few books that I’m considering buying next.  But I need to finish two stories before I do, because the point will be to make my writing better.  If I buy them and read them before writing anything, I’m just finding another excuse to put off writing.

Still, here are the ones I’m considering:

“How to Write Pulp Fiction,” by James Scott Bell (who has a number of How to Write books).

“Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense,” also by James Scott Bell.  This one seems interesting based on the “start writing from the Second Act” recommendation of the Plot Machine.

And finally, a book I’ve purchased but haven’t read yet, “Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).”

If you have writing figured out, or if you merely think you have writing figured out, what are the key elements for you?