Plotting: A Suggestion

  • by Gitabushi

I recently “purchased” (it was free) and started reading an e-book on how to plot.

“The Plot Machine: Design Better Stories Faster,” by Dale Kutzera

For the most, it was worth what I paid for it.  Many of the points it made were obvious to anyone who has done any reading at all, much less writing.  Several other points were among the first, and most basic, techniques any writing book will mention.

Since it was free, I didn’t expect much from the book.  Even if free, there is still a time cost, and I invested that cost to get some additional insight into how to effectively plot a novel.

One point it made changed my viewpoint, and I think will have a deep and profound impact on my writing.

The book pointed out that while a novel is more complex that a short story, both should follow the Three Act format. In this format, the First Act is setting up all the pieces. The Third Act is resolving all the conflicts and returning all the pieces to their resting places.

The book says the Second Act: *that’s* what makes or breaks a story.

What makes a story good is what obstacles have been placed in the path of the protagonist, and how the protagonist resolves them. These obstacles make a memorable story. This is where most of the action occurs.  This is where the protagonist’s character is honed or revealed.

The book when on to explain that, in fact, it is the Second Act that defines your characters.  You want to put them through hell to make an interesting story, but they need a *reason* to go through the hell instead of just giving up.  They need a *reason* to be in the position to go through that hell.

As such, deciding on the conflict first can make it clear who your character should be. And deciding the conflict first makes it more obvious how to make the resolution more dramatic and effective.

Okay, maybe I’m reaching with this by embracing the book’s suggestion. Maybe it won’t work for you to write the conflict first. Maybe it won’t end up working for me to write the conflict first.

But too many of my stories have foundered when they reached the conflict stage.  I had a great beginning. I had a decent ending. I couldn’t get through the middle. Too often, the conflict didn’t match the motivations I established at the beginning. Or the method of overcoming obstacles didn’t match the character I established at the beginning.

You could say that this just because I write poorly, and I’d have a hard time arguing that. On the other hand, I think of a character and a starting point, and think I have a story idea.  Perhaps, instead, I should think of the conflict a character is going to go through, and think I have a story idea.

Looking at this from a different direction: I love twisty, complex plotting.  I have a “story idea” right now that I want to turn into a twisty, complex plot.  So I’ve come up with all my main characters, the universe, the starting motivations, and now I want to add complexity.  I can’t really get started on it. I can’t figure out how to put these characters into seemingly no-win situations where they have to dismantle the Destruction Engine piece by piece to avoid their destruction and win the story.

My plan was to start writing and add complexity.

I now think a better idea is to start with a complex, seemingly no-win situation and write backwards, figuring out how the protagonist got into this situation.

For example, I’ve been watching a few Chinese Spy/Suspense television serials.

In one, Protagonist 1 is drawn into the spy world to work for the Chinese Nationalists (who are resisting the Japanese occupation), and from there, gets drawn into being a Communist spy inside the Nationalist organization…because of the temporary partnership to resist the Chinese.  His older brother (Protagonist 2) is a collaborator working with the Japanese government…but is actually a Nationalist spy working to undermine the Japanese, and is Protagonist 1’s superior in the National spy organization. At one point, Protagonist 1 is given the order to assassinate his older brother, Protagonist 2, for being too effective as a collaborator. He didn’t know at that point that not only his older brother a Nationalist spy, but the order itself came *from* his older brother (who, having ordered it, knows how to avoid it, but it helps him gain additional credibility with the Japanese). When it is all over, however, Protagonist 1 learns that his older brother is actually his superior in the *Communist* spy ring that’s inside the Nationalist spy ring that’s resisting the Japanese.  He’s been acting according to his training and character, but he’s been moved around like a chess piece, based on his older brother knowing him, and being his superior two layers deep.

weizhuangzhe2

I don’t think you can build in that sort of complexity as you go.  I think you have to start with that incredible situation, and then work backwards, adding layers to the complexity as you move earlier in the story.

In another, the protagonist is just a normal Nationalist officer in what seems to be a National Guard/Reservist unit.. They are getting ready to go to the front line to fight the Japanese. His unit’s commander is out of action while recovering from surgery, and the 2nd-in-command is leading a cabal of the top few officers to surrender and collaborate with the Japanese.  The traitor has one week to do it, before the Commander recovers and returns to duty. A junior officer (not the protagonist) discovered this, and formed a group of officers and NCOs to resist (the Iron Fists). The protagonist joins, making 30 in all, and they are set to meet at 9pm on a certain date.

At 8:30pm on that day, the protagonist is getting ready to leave for the meeting when the 2nd-in-command traitor locks the HQ down. He then orders the protagonist to lead the arrest of the 30 cadre members who are mutinying. Meanwhile, the Iron Fist group, lacking two members, decides to start the meeting with the 28 who are present.

The protagonist arrives on the scene, and tries to make noise to alert the Iron Fists inside. It doesn’t work. With no other choice, he leads the charge. But the first thing he does is shoot out the light. With the lights out, he trips a few of the capturing force, throws a bench out the window to help the Iron Fists escape, etc. But it is all for naught, all 28 are captured.

The traitor officer knows two people didn’t arrive, and knows the protagonist did some weird stuff. Plus, there’s another officer who isn’t in his cabal. So he sets the 2nd officer to torture a confession out of the protagonist. The 2nd officer is, of course, the 30th Iron Fist (who was also locked up in the HQ building and couldn’t go to the meeting, and so was spared). He finds out that the protagonist was Iron Fist #29, and vows to help him.

But the issue facing them both is, “Who betrayed the Iron Fists?”  All 28 in captivity are executed within a day (to silence them), so Iron Fist #30 begins to suspect the protagonist, despite the protagonist being Iron First #29.

The Traitor officer has two military representatives in custody, one Nationalist and one Communist.  He finally decides (for a couple of reasons not worth explaining now) that *they* are the two missing Iron Fists, and so stops worrying about the protagonist and the other officer.  Except these two officers aren’t part of his cabal, so he doesn’t completely trust them.

To strengthen his position, he decides to get a hostage: the Commander’s mother. So he sends a team to escort her from her home (a day away) to his location.  He puts the protagonist in charge, sets the 2nd officer to watch him, sends one of his cabal officers along to watch them both, and sends along the two military representatives as hostages. They will go near a Japanese stronghold, and the cabal officer will give the Japanese the two military representative hostages to seal the deal that allows the traitor cabal to deliver the entire unit to the Japanese.

So along the way, the protagonist is trying to help the two military representatives escape without letting the other officers know he is doing it. At the same time, Iron Fist #30 officer is trying to help them escape, but not letting the other officers know he is doing it, and doesn’t see the protagonist doing anything to help, which deepens his suspicion that the protagonist betrayed the Iron Fists.

Everything that happens puts the protagonist in a no-win situation.  If he does anything to help get the word out, the cabal officer will kill him as a traitor. If he works too hard to follow his orders, the unit will be handed over the Japanese, and he betrays his fellow Iron Fists.  But when he helps the military representatives escape, he can only help by throwing some things through the window to them, and pre-positioning some escape aids, which they attribute to Iron Fist #30 who was actually able to make contact with them and tell them he was going to help them escape.

I hope that’s clear.  It’s pretty twisty to watch, and hard to explain. Basically, because the protagonist is trying to remain undercover, all his very risky attempts to help get attributed to other officer, so he is still considered a traitor by the people he supports, yet if he is any more overt, the cabal officer will kill him.

Again, I don’t think you could add in this complexity as you go.  The best way to write this (I think) is to start with a no-win situation: your protagonist is in a situation where if he acts overtly, he is killed; if he doesn’t act overtly, he betrays his principles.  What does he do? He tries to act *covertly*, right?  So how can we make those efforts not help? Add in another person who gets credit for it, *and* that person suspects him.  Okay, what kind of person would have the freedom to act *and* be in a position to matter in this sort of betrayal drama? A young officer who is the Commander’s favorite, highly principled and motivated.

Then  you just add in misunderstandings from there, working backward.

Well, time to see if it works.  I’ll report back in a later post, either way.

 

 

Advertisements

“Cultural Appropriation” in Fiction

Let me start by saying that I find the concept of “cultural appropriation” itself to be wrongheaded, foolish, and kind of absurd. It assigns some kind of collective ownership of the nebulous basket of language, tradition, customs, food, clothing, fashion, and all kinds of other ill-defined elements that supposedly belong to a given people.

Nevermind the fact that peoples and nations interbreed and change and that cultures develop and assimilate and adapt.

And who is supposed to arbitrate these transgressions? If one single Chinese person indicts me for enjoying their dim sum, am I guilty of creating a problematic situation?

Does it matter that another Chinese person rules that it’s ok for me to eat dim sum, but that I may not make it myself? Or that a third, more rational native doesn’t give a crap?

Does it change the calculus when the majority of a country or culture like having their culture appropriated (the real term is “appreciated”)? I can tell you from my time living in Japan and consuming Japanese media that the people over there are flattered and pleased when foreigners try on kimono, or dress up as a popular anime character, or take an interest in  Japanese language, lore, history, whatever.

It’s ridiculous to think cultures should be treated like private (group) property.

And so I was disappointed when I was listening to an otherwise quite interesting discussion of an old weird tale yesterday, and the speakers posed the question of whether a white man writing about a black protagonist was cultural appropriation.

Really?

Thankfully they were gracious enough to rule that this was not the case – after all, the white (racist) narrator was really who the story was about.

I’ve gotta say, I find it quite troubling and a bit confusing, how such big fans of speculative fiction could conceivably buy into the idea of cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the fiction they read.

Scifi and Fantasy are full of stories about aliens and other non-human beings. But they’re not real, so I guess this is in-bounds. Well, women write male characters and men write female characters. Should this gender appropriation be pooh-poohed?

Is Captain Blood cultural appropriation, because it sees an Irish protagonist written by an Italian author? Or is this okay because they’re both white ethnicities? Do “White People” all get lumped together into one culture?

Is Othello problematic because its noble Moorish (often portrayed as African) hero was written by a white Christian?

Should books written by White People only feature white characters? If you think so, it sounds like you’re ready to nix an awful lot of cool SFF and other great literature. And why? Because a few emotionally unstable people have nothing worse in life to worry about than some white dude writing a story about a black guy?

51isW1RdvyL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_51oo82fc0kl-_aa300_Zorro

(Whoops – forget that last one – he’s one of those white hispanics!)

Are Japanese manga and anime highly problematic for featuring so many Caucasian characters?

And if you answer “yes” to all these questions, or even if your response is more nuanced or qualified, what’s the solution? Do we need a tribunal to determine which cases are acceptable and which are “problematic,” and then to rule on a remediation?

It’s such a silly piece of business. I’d be tempted to ignore it if I didn’t see the idea as such a threat to creativity and freedom of expression. Of course no one’s talking about outlawing cultural appropriation, but if it’s such a bad thing, I could imagine things moving in that direction in some quarters, someday. And really is there much practical difference between outlawing something and drubbing it out of polite society?

-Bushi

bushi

The All-Too-Real Split Between SF and F, a Rebuttal

  • by Gitabushi

…Here I come.
Walking down the street
I give the craziest takes to
Everyone one I meet!

PC is putting his SF&F thoughts on a new blog, for branding reasons.  I originally tried to leave this response over there, but my browser was choking on the wordpress log-in.  What the heck, yanno? Let’s have dueling posts on this topic.

as you wish

Here goes:

Okay, we’ve had this discussion before, but I’m going to disagree again, even if means retrenching the battle lines we’ve fought so many times.  I actually think you have some new points, but I have some new counterpoints, too.

I think David Brin has a point. Not as much of one as he thinks, but a point.

I think SF&F doesn’t and shouldn’t really matter to the reader. But I think it does and should matter to the writer.

You have to know what you’re writing, and why.

Sure, there are some space operas like Star Wars that can be re-written as fantasies, and probably vice versa, but they wouldn’t satisfy the audience.

Because when I think of all the fantasies and all the science fiction stories I’ve read, I have noted that science fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and fantasy is about extraordinary people…who sometimes are just dealing with ordinary things, like revenge, and rejection from parents and/or being orphaned, or things like that.

Speculative Fiction is really about exploring what it means to be human. Science Fiction tends to be things like, how much can we distort Person and still be human. Fantasy tends to be things like, how much can we distort Reality/Environment and still remain human, and/or how much does power distort humanity versus merely amplifying the baser instincts.

Sure, there are exceptions. Frodo is really just an ordinary person who does great things, as Bilbo was, really. But every non-hobbit in that story was a singular example of something 10 standard deviations above the mean.

Star Wars was both good *and* clearly science fiction when it was just an average farm boy who helps destroy an enemy aircraft carrier with an atomic bomb capability. (Force isn’t magic, it’s *psionics*. #Duh). But it got worse, disappointed many of its audience, and became fantasy when it became a mundane estranged family relationship story. Not that “becoming fantasy” means “gets worse”, but it started as SF, and so got worse the farther it got away from SF and more into mysticism and fate and seeing the future and stuff.

Okay, that explains they difference.

But why does it *matter*?

Because if you are a writer, think of your story. Should it be SF or Fantasy? It depends on who the main character is, what you want him to do, how you want him to change. If you want him to be just an ordinary kid with some exceptional abilities that he can use under duress to save a bunch of people, then you should write a Heinlein juvie fiction SF&F story. If you wan to write about someone who seems normal, but is *really* the heir to some huge power, or huge wealth, or huge kingdom, and he’ll spend his time dealing with office politics, then you are probably better off writing a fantasy.

If you want to write about a humanoid race that thinks differently than human, but just as well, you’re probably going to write science fiction. If you want to write about a humanoid race that is pretty much fully human in intent, motivation, love hate, etc., just go ahead and write a fantasy.

If you want everyone to have the same tools and powers and opportunities, and just one person has the drive, insight, or persistence to benefit from it, you’ll probably use a SF setting. If you want someone to have access to special tools, powers, or opportunities that aren’t available for general use, then you’ll probably write a fantasy.

Yeah, Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Well, Arthur C. Clarke was wrong, and if he’d thought it through just a *little* bit more, he’d have realized it. And if he disagrees, he can come here and post his disagreement.

…okay, that was supposed to be for humorous effect.

The thing is, I think Orson Scott Card nailed it when he said that if you include magic, for it to be interesting, there must *always* be a price to using it. Or else, it’s just unlimited power and that’s boring.

But with technology, there is no price. The price was paid in the development, or in the working out of how to use it without destroying society.

Going back to Star Wars, the Force was fine when it was psionics and there was no price. It became magic when the price was having to struggle with the dark side, maybe cut yourself off from human affections, etc.

There is no price to learning to play guitar except that time it takes to work on muscle memory. But if you sell your soul to the devil to get good…

…that’s the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The reader just wants a good story. But if you want to write a good story, you need to know which you are writing, and stick to it.

“Salad Undressing”, Intermittent Short Fiction by Gitabushi

  • by Gitabushi

Originally done live on Twitter. I came up with the idea, a few tweets in the middle, and an ending, and then just went with it.  I kinda like Twitter for short fiction.  Dividing ideas up into individual tweets certainly paces the unfolding of information, and it can be used to good effect, I think.  But I’m not sure if it works as well out of Twitter.  I’ve added the breaks to try to give that same feel.  Without further ado:

 

I finally developed my Mutant Superpower.

After reading the X-Men comic books, and Spider Man, and the Fantastic Four, I had yearned for my mutant awakening.

Something to confirm my uniqueness in the world, something to justify my sense of isolation.

The day has finally arrived. The moment I’ve longed for and dreamt of for so long is finally here.

Unfortunately, my superpower is the ability to put just the right amount of vinegar-based salad dressing onto a salad so that there is enough flavor while eating, but isn’t a pool of dressing at the bottom when you are finished.

man holding clear glass bottle
Photo by Peter Fazekas on Pexels.com

When my parents found out, they threw me out of the basement. I lost my job. I was shunned. My friends laughed at me, but I could see the terror, lurking in their eyes, behind the rictus of mocking smiles.

My dream had manifested, but at what price?

I struggled. I tried to find other, more socially-acceptable applications of this superpowered curse. I tried to match the right amount of chips to salsa. I tried to make sure you finished the shrimp with the last bit of cocktail sauce.

No luck.

I was undone.

Rejected by society, I wandered the streets accompanied by the jeers of the unsympathetic. They threw rocks. Tomatoes. Radishes. Lettuce.

And even bottles of salad dressing.

But never vinaigrette. Never vinaigrette.

I bottomed out. I considered suicide. I turned to distractions, trying desperately to find acceptance among society’s dregs, like Live Action Role Playing groups.

I finally realized that as my life has become hell, I should embrace it. I sought out pain, and frustration, and foul smells, and risked collision, fire, and asphyxiation.

I rode the DC Metro.

They say life is always darkest before the dawn.

The DC Metro never sees the sunrise.

But in this thick blanket of darkness, among this miasma of urine, amid the non-functional escalators, I have found hope.

A help wanted ad.

…for Summer’s Eve.

The End

Making Your Readers *Feel* It

  • by Gitabushi

One of my more favored authors is Alistair MacLean. When he’s at the top of his game, like in “The Guns of Navarone,” “Circus,” “When Eight Bells Toll,” or “Where the Eagles Dare,” he’s amazing.  When he’s not, well, let’s just say I don’t recommend “Goodbye California” and “Athabasca.”

navarone1

One of the things he does well, however, that I rarely see authors include is make his heroes fatigued.  The fatigue could be seen as a dodge to make it easier for them to make mistakes that help drive the plot, perhaps.  But he does a good job of making you feel how tired the main character is.

In this same vein, when one of my sisters read “The Stand” by Stephen King, she said it entranced her so well that she would look up and think, “What are all these people doing here? Everyone is dead!”

As an aspiring writer, I want to be able to do that.  So I set out to write a section of a story with an exhausted combatant.

The inspiration was somewhat based on this event from my own life.  I had so much to do, and I couldn’t stop until I finished the work for the day.  I just kept going. I got tired, then weary, then exhausted. I got to the point where I had to stop and rest.  But energy would return after even just a 30 second rest.  The thing is, the energy span you get after a rest gets shorter and shorter.  You get so tired your arms just go limp when you aren’t lifting something.  If you sit down, you risk falling asleep if you close your eyes even for a second.  Your skin chafes. You get blisters, and just keep moving…your brain sort of switches off the pain notifications. By the end of the day, you are truly spent.  To the point that you try to eat a hamburger and have to go vomit.

And then you get up and do it again the next day.

Your body has truly astounding reserves of energy.  There’s almost always more you can call on in need.  But every movement takes an effort of will. Just standing becomes difficult.

I wanted to capture that.  Here’s an attempt:

Another opponent.  He staggered toward me, barely able to lift his axe off the ground.  I knew my shield had sagged to the point of leaving my upper body exposed, but I couldn’t find enough energy to lift it any higher.  He summoned a burst of energy to swing the axe upward in an arc, letting the momentum and its own weight bring the axe blade down toward me, inexorably obeying gravity to try to bite deeply into the metal of my armor, and the relative softness of my flesh underneath.

But I was no longer in the axe’s target point.  I had pushed off with my exhausted and cramping left leg, and gathered enough power to move my body out of the way.  I yanked my sword arm up, so the point was no longer pointing at my feet, and fell foward, reaching out with the point for a spot on his side, just above his belt.  I managed to get my foot up in time to place in front of me to prevent falling on my face.  As my sword point cut through cloth and parted hide, I twisted my body to add force, trying to make it go deeper.

The axe head hit the ground, and his body followed it a second later.

I stared stupidly at his dying body, only dimly aware of other things happening on the periphery of my vision.  Unable to hold my arms up a second more, I let them both drop by my side.  I lifted my eyes to my surroundings, willing my head to follow, and looked around me.  I squeezed my eyes shut tightly to try to rid myself of the stinging sweat dripping down from underneath my helment.  I couldn’t lift my arm to wipe away the sweat without dropping my sword, and I didn’t want to do that.  Not until the encampment behind me was safe.

The closest enemy combatants were no closer than a half-dozen yards away, all engaged with different members of my company.  I had time to feel and catalog all my pain and discomfort.

My right hand ached from gripping the hilt of my sword, and a blister had formed and burst on the webbing between thumb and forefinger.  The sweat begain to sting.  My left arm ached from the blows absorbed by my shield. I’m sure the arm itself was mottled with black and purple bruising.  A dozen or more nicks and cuts; nothing deep nor serious, or I would not be able to stand, but with a growing pain, the longer I had time to think and experience the sensations, undistracted.  My head ached where the leather band in my helmet rested. My shoulders burned with exhaustion.  I would have given my right arm for an M-58 and three clips of seeker rounds, but we ran out of ammo two years ago, and the metal from the rifles salvaged for medieval arms not long after.

I breathed deeply, trying to find oxygen to regain my wind.  I buried the point of my sword in the dirt, and fell to one knee, gripping the crossguard and bowing to rest my head against the hilt. I closed my eyes.  I could feel sleep stealing about the edges of my consciousness, ready to dart in and drag me down into blessed oblivion of sight, sound, sense, and pain. The dizziness made my head spin, I felt the sensation of falling…

…and snapped my eyes open.  It would help no one if I fell asleep at this moment.  As exhausted as I was, I had slept more recently than most.

I saw man, clad in enemy colors, trudge up the hill toward me.  He ignored my engaged compatriots and came right for me. He raised his sord to point it at my head.

Show-off. If he were half as exhausted as I, he would regret the wasteful display of excess energy only long enough for his life blood to leak into the sandy soil.

I put the effort of my whole body into standing up.  I still leaned against the sword, as if a cane, with its point still lodged in earth, as my determined opponent approached me.  I could see his eyes light up as I refused to pull my sword, saw the wolfish grin as I let my shield fall, as if from nerveless fingers. He pulled his arm back, and thrust as he stepped forward…

…to pierce the air where I had been. The knife I had drawn with my left hand and concealed along my forearm twirled out, and I let his momentum carry him onto the point, driving it deeply into his heart.  He fell, and I lost my grip on the knife.

I didn’t want to bend over to pick it up, fearing I might fall over.  I stood where I was, still gasping for air, still trying to marshall my energy for my next opponent.

I turned and looked behind me at the summit of the knoll. The defensive wall still stood, and the orange and yellow flag still flew.  It was weighted, and held aloft by a rotating set of the older children. Had a wall breach threatened, or even worse, broken through, the child would have let go the rope to make some pitiful attempt at defense, and the flag would be in the dirt.  Our children remained safe and unmolested.

I turned back to the battlefield, and saw two more warriors notice me, and begin walking toward me.  My breathing had still not slowed to normal, but I had regained a little energy; enough to retrieve and sheath my knife, and even enough to shrug into the battered shield.

The first reached me, and I had gained enough energy to knock his javelin thrust to the side before stabbing him in the throat. He fell to the ground, and the next was upon me.

He swung, and I parried. I thought I saw an opening and jerked the sword up and around in a path to hit him just above his shield, but he raised his shield arm to deflect, while ducking under the rebound.  I had to use energy, too much, to stop the sword from dragging me all the way around.  My sword and shield drooped again.

His dropped, as well. Early in the battle, I would have made him pay for the poor defense, but then, I would have paid for my own.

We stood, facing each other, gasping for breath. Two men. One who turned his back on humanity and civilization, one who defended the last remnants of it. I thought of Sarah, back in the encampment, and the hell I was certain waited for her if I fell. I ignored the seat in my eyes, ignored the pain in hands, and lifted my sword for another attack.

I drove him back with the ferocity of my attack, pushing him to the edge of the nearby gully that guarded our left flank, but even my adrenaline frenzy drained away quickly.  I had to end this quickly. I took a chance.

I beat his sword out of line, and thrust.  He recovered, more quickly than I hoped, nearly as quickly as I feared. His sword sliced my side as mine slid between his ribs.  He fell backward, and my sword stuck on his ribs, dragging it from my grasp.  I let go as soon as I felt it stick, but it threw off my balance.  I staggered foward, tried to catch myself, stumbled, and fell onto the steep slope.

I grabbed for anything I could, but my grasping fingers met only the body of my last opponent, pulling him down with me.  I tumbled for a few dozen yards before tubmling into a crack between two boulders, the body of my opponent on top of me.  I tried to push him off, but with one arm wedged beneath me and trapped by the boulders, I couldn’t summon up enough strength to move him. I closed my eyes to rest a moment before trying again.

When I opened them again, it was night.  All was still.  There were no sounds of battle.

This time I was able to wiggle my way out from beneath the dead weight.  Being so close to the galaxy’s core, the stars were bright enough for me to slowly, and mostly silently, clamber my way to the top of the ravine.  I looked up at the encampment. No lights, but in the starlight, it was clear: the flag was down.

I let the other Bushis read it, and I think we all agree: there’s something good there, but overall, it’s clunky and overwritten.  I think I’m going to distill this down to a page-length or so, then write about the pursuit and rescue.

But what are your thoughts?

Of course, we don’t write about normal body functions in a story, but has anything in your life ever been disrupted by having to use the bathroom?  How about being sick?  How about being exhausted?

If it can happen in real life, why shouldn’t it happen in your story?

I have mixed feelings. I think I’m happy that we don’t talk about urinating and excreting in most stories.  It just gets ignored, right?  On the other hand, could it increase the verisimilitude? Or add further plot complications? Could it be done tastesfully?

What do you do to help your readers *feel* what your characters are going through? What should be out of bounds for inclusion, when it comes to bodily functions?

Writing Topic: Foreshadowing, or Why Does Stuff Happen in a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

A few weeks ago I wrote “Economies of Scale”, a fairy tale.  One thing I wanted to do in that story was make the main character encounter a series of obstacles, overcome them in his path to achieving his goal, and even have some of those obstacles actually contribute to achieving that goal.  Meaning, the main character wouldn’t have succeeded if something that seemed bad at the time didn’t turn out to help.

blur business coffee commerce
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So the story was partly an exercise in trying to make a coherent, believable narrative.

I cheated, perhaps, by making it a fairy tale, which relaxes some of the rules of realism.

It didn’t work for everyone.  One critique I got was that it just seemed like things happened because the author wanted them to happen.  I disagreed: I thought I set up fairly realistic obstacles, had the character make fairly realistic responses to the obstacles, and the outcomes were also fairly realistic.  I just figured he wasn’t the audience for the story (which was a big breakthrough for me in writing confidence).

However, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that what it meant was I didn’t set up the foreshadowing adequately.

[As is my wont, now is the moment when I suddenly make a sharp turn into a different topic that seems like a digression until I bring it back to the main point]

In music, there is no impossible collection of notes.  Anything can be musical.  You can walk up to a piano and slam your fists down randomly on the keyboard and still make it sound like music, if you are skilled.  The trick, the key element, is resolution.  Each note must be carefully resolved toward consonance. If one step isn’t enough, two or three probably are.  In fact, the best music is often that which hits what would be a very discordant, unmusical sound (if heard in isolation) that, nonetheless, is beautiful and even moving when properly resolved to a consonant chord.  You can make it even better if you approach it carefully and properly.

The same is true, albeit in reverse, in writing fiction.

You can have the most incredible, unbelievable, unrealistic event or character action/decision…if, and only if, you set it up correctly.

Chekov said that if a gun is on the mantel in the 2nd Act, it must be fired by the 3rd Act. Or something like that. A quick search returned so many different versions, I’m just going to stick with my gist.

The corollary of this is that if you want to have a gun go off in the 3rd Act, you should have it innocuously appear in an earlier act.  It can’t be just pulled out of nowhere. Even worse if you take the time to set up a conflict that looks completely unresolvable with the current tools and options open to the main character, and then resolve the problem by having them pull out a tool the audience didn’t know they had, like a pistol.  This is how I understand the weakness of a Deus Ex Machina ending.

So one way of understanding why my friend didn’t like the plot development is I didn’t set up each obstacle resolution properly, with enough foreshadowing.

One technique I tried to use was something I don’t know the name of: if the character is going to find or use something that helps, it must also be used to hurt the main character.  The reverse is true, as well: if the antagonist can use something to harm or block the protagonist, then it is fair game for the protagonist to use it in return.

Go read the story again to see if you can spot the times I tried that. Let me know if you thought it too clumsy, or what I could have done to do it better.  I say “could have done” because for better or worse, the story is done.  I like it. It has weaknesses, but I think it works as is, so as is it shall stay.

Later, in a discussion with my friend, he pointed out that another thing that would have helped make the story better is if the main character has a better feeling of agency, meaning that all the actions taken by the characters seem, um, in character with the personality/person I’ve established.

I admit, that one’s harder than me. I have a difficult time thinking in characters. I fear that everything I write is going to end up sounding like “me, as a space pirate”, “me, as a dragon hunter”, “me, as an assassin”.  I hope not.  My characters do seem different from each other to me, but they’ve grown on the page, rather than me choosing a specific voice, or specific attributes.  This is one I really need to work on.

Thoughts?

The Spice of Life

  • Dumb SF by Gitabushi

In 2012, researchers hooked 16,000 computer processors in parallel, with more than 1 billion connections, and let the artificial brain browse a video website.  Before too long, it began watching cat videos.  We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first salvo in the Second Robot-Human War.

The Second Robot-Human War gets all the attention, of course.  Few people even realized there was a First Robot-Human War, which mainly consisted of a street light on 4th and Main deliberately delaying the morning commute of a man named Nathan Alexander.  But that is a tale for another day.

“Perfessor! Jones! Get over here!” the Corporal bellowed.

I scrambled over, sliding over the detritus of a collapsed wall, then clattering down a rickety set of stairs into a basement. I wasn’t worried about noise, because the hiss of ionized air, rattle of nearby explosions, and loud buzz of the ubiquitous sonic repellers covered any noise I might make.

Probably. You never knew when the AI might get a software update that would let it pick out man-made noises.  I had a philosophy for that: when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.  There’s no point in pussyfooting around what the AI might do next. You just did your best, took out a few of the brain nodes if you got lucky, and hoped your genes got passed on.

Jones slid in beside me. He was quieter.  Maybe not so willing to let fate have a free hand?  He was calm, not even breathing heavy.

“What is is, Corporal?” I asked.

“Look what I found, guys!  A whole case of cinnamon containers,” the Corporal said, beaming. “There’s gotta be 120 or more!”

“That’s great Corp! What do we do with it?” Jones asked.

The Corporal looked at me.

“Well, uh…” I began, then stopped. A faint memory glimmered, then ignited into full flame. “Cinnamon was one of the earlier spices prized for food preservation!”

“Hey, that’s great, Perfessor!” said Jones. “Now that the AI cut us off from salt, we’ve had some problems keeping food safe long enough to eat.”

“Hey, do you remember what they used to do before the War?” the Corporal asked.

“Eat apples?” Jones said.

“Make gravy?” I added.

“Throw very small rocks?” Jones ventured.

“Nah, ya numbskulls!  They used to do the Cinnamon Challenge! You used to take a spoonful, then try to eat it without inhaling any into your lungs and making you cough.”

Jones looked blank.  I must have, too, because the Corporal seemed to grow, if anything, more irritated than normal.

“Awright, youse two!” the Corporal said. “We’re going to do it, too.”

“Right now?” I asked.

“Right now,” the Corporal agreed. “I’m in charge of you dolts, and now that I have ascertained a gap in your eddycation, I’m gonna fill it. Put your weapons down and SHUDDUP!”

We followed orders.

He pulled a spoon from his kit, and poured a heaping spoonful.

“Open up, Perfessor!”

I opened up.  The heaping spoonful went in. It…tasted pretty good.  Then it started to get hot.  Waitasecond! Wasn’t cinnamon supposed to be sweet and sticky?  The heat made me gasp–

–and then I was kneeling on the floor coughing out a cloud of light brown spice.  The Corporal was laughing and slapping his knee.  He calmed down and his expression resumed its dour state about the time I coughed it all out.

“Now you, Jones,” he said.

“I dunno, Corporal, I  don’t think–” Jones began.

“–Exactly!” the Corporal said. “You don’t think. You follow orders.”  He poured another spoonful. “Open up.”

Jones opened up. The Corporal poured it in.

Nothing happened. Jones chewed for a while.

“Hold on!” the Corporal said.  “Jones, spit it out. Now!”

Jones spit out the cinnamon.  It was dry and dusty.

The Corporal wasn’t known for high intelligence.  He’d never been a member of Mensa. He was the farthest thing from an intellectual that I could imagine. But he still saw it before I did.

“No saliva!  You’re a bot!” the Corporal said, then opened fire.

The sonic rifle shredded “Jones'” clothes and ripped great rents in his “skin”, revealing a metal endoskeleton, complete with shining cables and joints.  But even at close range the sonic rifle was too weak.  The bot we had thought of as Jones leapt at the Corporal, his hands reaching for the Corporal’s throat.

In a flash, his neck was snapped. I recoiled and stumbled over the crate of cinnamon, knocking over several containers. I reached out, grabbing for my rifle, knowing what little good it would do me.

The bot whirled and advanced toward me. My hands felt something, grasped the cold plastic of…a container of cinnamon. I needed a weapon, but maybe this could buy me time.

I ripped off the lid, and flung the contents at the robot. It ran through the cloud of spice, came at me just as I was reaching my proton disruptor tube…

…and ground to a halt, the fine cinnamon powder having floated into every possible niche, crevice, and cranny of the bot, absorbing lubricant and fouling gears. It was the work of mere seconds after that to destroy the robot’s AI brain.  With luck, I had managed to kill it before it could establish a connection and upload its experience back to the main AI.

And now we have a new weapon. One that we can use as a virtual aerosol defense that destroys mechanicals, but can also serve as a test of humanity to protect ourselves against bots.

Heaven help us if the bots ever develop saliva.

1920px-Cinnamomum_verum_spices
by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:LivingShadow