Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Order, then, is the opposite of chaos. Order is what happens when everything is organized an runs regularly and predictably.
What I find most fascinating is the gray between the two: ordered chaos.
Imagine a system that is sustainable, but constantly in flux. For example, if you have a government where unpopular leaders are executed by angry mobs, but new leaders all eventually get drunk on power, then you are constantly having new leaders, new regimes, and you never know how long they will last (or what they'll say next), but you can always count on them to get worse and get replaced.
There's an inherent contradiction in ordered chaos. And yet, it can exist without issue. That is what gives it an Erie beauty to me, and why I appreciate the concept explored well.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
My favorite example is from the movie Jurassic Park. Ian Malcolm does an experiment where he pours a drop of water on Dr. Sattler's hand. The first time he does it, the drop falls to one side of her hand, but the second time, it falls to the other side of her hand. That happened because, although the experiment looked the same both times, there were countless differences in exactly where things were and how they fell, which changed the outcome of the results.
In your stories, consider the initial state of characters. You may understand their personalities, but where they find themselves in life could change entirely how they interpret a situation. Being born in wealth is very different from acquiring it personally. Having a friend involved in a dispute will make you more likely to believe their side.
A character could pass through a town that is in turmoil. Whether they enter at noon or at 2 PM could completely change who it is that they meet, the story they end up hearing, and what they believe the right thing to do is.
Granted, when you are writing a story, you get to choose what happens, so at best, this post could be analogous to playing the what-if game. But if you are writing on the seat of your pants, and you have created a scenario without a designated ending, this would be a way to experiment with how things could end up and to determine which would make the most interesting story.
Monday, October 29, 2012
Ultimately, though, heroes die. Not all of them die in the midst of their adventures; many good stories have them returning home triumphant. They may live their lives out as simple people, never having any more adventures. And one day, they will go to sleep and not wake up.
Death is a rough subject. In stories, it tends to be either insignificant by happening to unimportant people, or it is vindicated by happening to villains or happening to heroes after they've saved the day. But one way that we don't often see is the nonchalant death of a hero, decades after their adventure, not for any reason but growing old.
If you have created a bond between your audience and your character, even a humble death like that will be cause for shock. Even for fictional characters, when they die, it feels like a piece of us dies along with them.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
The only time this changes is when the friend/partner was actually the bad guy all along. And that is such a tired twist that I would not really count it anymore.
This build has a purpose; it allows you to make a simple, straightforward story about two-dimensional characters (I say two-dimensional because the hero has to get the girl AND save the day). For Hollywood movies, it gets the job done. Usually, though, they get old real fast when you know the formula.
When you start making your cast of characters smaller, and you start having multiple roles filled by each character, stories get more interesting. Consider what happens when the love interest is also the bad guy's lackey, and that character having to deal with the conflicts of interest. And to make matters worse, the hero's partner is the love interest's ex boyfriend. Also, the hero killed the love interest's father in order to get to the bad guy. Now we have a complex web of relations that will make for a much more delicate or explosive story.
Small casts allow for a much deeper complexity in characters. The only real downside is that it makes you feel like it is a small world. The same seven people are somehow always related to what's going on, so it may be surprising, but when it gets overdone, it just becomes ridiculous. In fact, the one nice thing about a large cast is that it makes you feel like there is a large world.
Both styles have strengths and weaknesses. Use the one that does what you're looking for.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
Imagine having a mastery of Norse history, electrical engineering, culinary arts, still having half your life left to learn even more.
What makes it more exciting is that not every skill has to stop. You may eventually take an injury that prevents you from breakdancing, but being able to tell stories can be done as long as you can communicate. So even if you have seven lives, one does not have to end for the next to start. Similarly, you need not study only one thing at a time.
You could live more than seven lives if you put in the effort to master multiple skills simultaneously.
Friday, October 26, 2012
So what makes a story dark? For me, it is usually a sense of hopelessness. Create characters people like. Follow them around and grow a bond. Then start making things go wrong. We will assume that it is regular adversity that our hero will overcome, either through might or mental prowess. Then keep cutting off options. Make those attempts go awry. It has to all be fair and understandable, not cruel. But by the end, there are literally no more options. Our hero has lost completely and there is no hope for that to change anymore.
Dark stories can also be perverse. I don't mean stories about sexual deviants. And I don't mean gruesome stories about creeps like The Hills Have Eyes. I mean stories about worlds that seem so different from ours, but end up being very similar to our own, just with a slight twist. Rod Serling was a master of this with The Twilight Zone. A classic story was the one where a woman was so ugly that she needed to have surgery to look normal. The well-known twist is that she actually is beautiful by our standards and the "normal" people have grotesque pig faces. But what people tend to forget is the sheer horror and terror of the woman, seeing that her surgery was a failure and she was still horribly disfigured. She could not even be part of society. She had to be escorted by another disfigured person to a colony where they all live, removed from everyone else in the world. THAT is dark. And if we reach a state where ugliness is that rare, do you think we wouldn't do that? It's a disturbing story of a twisted society, but how easily could we become that?
These stories always lead to questions. They make us feel uncomfortable, but they also open our eyes. They make us question things we may have previously taken as normal. These are stories that, though we may not want to make them our main diet, are definitely beneficial to have.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
All along the way, there comes the existential crisis. Why are we here? What's the point of it all? And all of that comes with the fear that we're either doing the wrong thing, or that nothing matters at all.
In order to prevent fear from consuming us, we need a way to cope with it. People all choose whatever it is that works for them, and they usually stick with it until it stops working.
Some people find purpose in their work. Either by being awesome in their field or by helping others with their work. Some people find solace in seeking the answers of the unknown (like scientists). Some people simply seek their own happiness, letting others find their own path to joy.
There are so many questions out there that we just don't have the answers to. We do find more answers with every passing year, but we have a long way to go. Beware anyone who claims they have all the answers. They will always make you feel comfortable and secure, but they will end up holding you back in the long run. You simply let them make your decisions for you. So yeah, you now have a purpose, but that purpose is being a tool.
When the unknown overwhelms you, know that you are not alone. Seek ideas, information, experiences, but not answers. When you have enough of the former, you will find the answers in them.
That is why I write in general. That is why I still maintain Cheff Salad. That is why being happy is my ultimate goal on a daily basis. These are the answers that help me cope with the unknown. Your answers may be different, and that's ok, as long as they don't end up hurting others.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
At its simplest, people will generally choose the approach that is easiest for them. The charismatic person uses trickery or diplomacy. The agile person chooses stealth. The brute uses violence. But there is another level to that.
Each approach comes with different rewards. Diplomacy is most likely to effect official and definite resolution. Trickery is high risk, high reward, including the chance to get more than your bargained for. Stealth allows you to pick up trinkets along the way, since nobody is seeing you anyway. Violence pretty much allows you to continue being violent.
Through violence, you can theoretically beat the opposition into submission, but usually, violence just pisses people off. When you are an aggressor, it makes people defensive. And when you are a bully, it makes others retaliatory. Violence pretty much begets more violence. But if you like being violent, then then violence is its own reward.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
What's in a name? A heck of a lot, actually. Names are how people remember what things are. Many names may seem random or arbitrary, but they all come from somewhere., and they all mean something.
Think about how your names sound, how they feel, and what they imply. Do they sound strong? Do they sound cute? Do people giggle when they hear it? None of these are bad things by themselves, but if they don't match your intent, they'll fall flat.
Monday, October 22, 2012
We can't be productive all the time. Our brains would burn out. Sometimes we need to do something mindless to let it recover.
Sure, there's a point when you're not recovering and instead are just rotting your mind, but a little bit of mental junk food can go a long way in keeping you sane.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Some distractions keep you healthy, like eating and sleeping and exercising. Some distractions like your day job allow you to write in your free time by giving you money that pays the bills.
And some distractions are not so beneficial. A new video game or a TV marathon aren't going to keep you healthy or make you productive. You may enjoy the distraction (that's the one thing they're good for), but it's temporary; you do not get the lasting benefit that writing would provide you.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
When you take up a mantle, you have to know what you're getting into. If you take on an author's pseudonym, you take on their history, good and bad. You should be expected to maintain the style of the original and stay within the realm of subject material.
This idea works for any situation where somebody is taking up a mantle. A character who puts on the mask of a retired hero, or becomes the new leader of a well-established organization, or any other role or title. There will always be responsibilities and expectations. If they are ignored, there will be repercussions.
Friday, October 19, 2012
There's something comfortable about seeing heroes come from humble beginnings. They're so relatable and identifiable. If you opened your story with a rag-tag group of misfits wielding deadly magic and blasting away golems and winged serpents, people may think that it's cool, but weird, and others may just be wondering what the heck is going on and why they should care.
But when you start with characters that live a simple life in a simple town, have some moderate danger come to them, and slowly give them stronger equipment, greater threats, bigger challenges, and have their experiences shape them along with it all, then you can reach that end point, but every change was so slight on its own that nothing ever triggered as being out of place. (The first magical items may have been out of place, but if the moment is awesome, then we don't think about it as being weird.)
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Eye strain is just plain awful. When you have too much light shining in your eyes or you are trying to read small type for too long, your eyes hurt so bad. And when your eyes hurt, it can feel like your whole body is aching.
Give your eyes a rest when they need it. You will not be nearly as effective without it.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
I kind of laughed at the remark. It by no means sounded glorious. My friend is getting his second master's degree and planning on getting a doctorate, and yet he's envying my life. When I sat down and thought about it though, I realized how incredibly happy I was. Not that my friend envied what I was doing, but just that I really enjoyed each of the things going on.
I may not have the most glorious life in the world, but I am en route to having a damn happy one. And ultimately, I'll take joy over prestige.
This is one of those posts that applies to people and to characters. For people, all the info is up there. With your characters, understanding their goals is crucial. What do they think they want? What do they actually want? How far are they willing to go o achieve their goals, and how far astray are they willing to go on a tangent? If you force characters to do things they wouldn't for the sake of your story, either change your character or change your plot.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
For example, if you talk with your best friend every day, you will regularly enjoy yourself. But if you only talk with your best friend every couple months, then it is truly special. Those conversations are rare and, because of that, they are more meaningful to you.
I think it is important to realize that great things can be common or rare; neither one is intrinsic. When a good thing is common, it may be taken for granted. And when a good thing is rare, it may be regarded as special. But when considering the general luck of your characters, don't assume that good things are rare.
The only time I think it is acceptable to use abbreviations is when you are specifically speaking in a culture where the acronyms are standard.
No video game player doesn't know what XP, HP, or RPG mean, for example, so I'm fine using those standard abbreviations when talking with gamers. But if I was writing about video games in Cheff Salad, I would spell them out at least at the beginning of every post where I use them for the sake of those who might not know.
However, it's not always that easy. Some phrases can end up having the same initials. In the music world, DB can be "double bass" or "decibel" (admittedly, the latter is usually "dB", but still it's the same letters).
I remember reading Jurassic Park as a child and getting slowed down by all the acronyms in it. The book would mention some item once, then forever refer to it by the acronym, so if I couldn't remember what it was, then I had to go back and search for the original phrase.
This might not have been an issue if it was for one or two things, and if they kept being used, but I feel like it happened for several objects and yet the acronyms never came up enough to stick in my head.
When you use abbreviations too much, it all just becomes alphabet soup in the reader's head. Things can get mixed up or confused and it can really drag down your story. If you insist on using them all, then at least give us a glossary to keep it straight.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Suffice it to say, it can be difficult doing a road trip with somebody if they hate your music. Fortunately, I have discovered the best way to make people happy. If I'm driving, I connect my music player to the speakers, hand it to my friend, and say, "you DJ with my music."
Basically, what happens is my friend will go through my music player and find whatever songs they enjoy and play them. Since my music player exclusively has music I enjoy listening to, then we will always agree. They won't pick anything they don't like, and they can't pick anything I don't like.
This technique has uses beyond road trips, of course. I am starting a collaborative project with a fellow writer, and the first question is, "what should we write about?" I draw a blank, but my friend is bursting with ideas. So naturally, I let him take the lead. He writes down all his thoughts for interesting subjects and sends them to me. I peruse the list, pick the ones from it that I find equally appealing, and say that any of them would be fine. (Alternatively, I could have just picked one and ended it there.)
It's the exact same technique. I DJ with his music. We can't lose and there's no argument.
Admittedly, this system is not infallible. If I come into the arrangement with an idea I really like, the process can be drawn out. If we cannot agree on a subject, then we're at an impasse (and you should consider it a sign that the collaboration may not be the best idea). I also recognize that having more than two people adds to the complexity of it (though you can turn it into a multi-step project where two people agree on a list, then the third one further narrows it, and so on).
Still, compared to all the other ideas I've come across, I believe it's the best.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
I don't think I would want to do it in the older style of characters talking and then showing the text on screen. What I'm interested in is the power of a story where characters are not speaking.
I heard a discussion of the movie Rocky V, where it was said that the street fight at the end of the movie was more story being told than the entire rest of the movie. The action and the music told everything.
I'm not sure if scenes like this could tell a story on their own, or if they can only be used as a poignant scene which requires dialogue to set up.
Friday, October 12, 2012
For as remarkable as the human body is, it is far from perfect. We may be able to heal broken bones and rebuild blood vessels, but we can't regenerate lost limbs. And when we repair large cuts, it comes with scarring. Ultimately, the body gives out and we perish, and there is nothing we can do about it.
With machines, any damaged components can be repaired. If it gets bad enough, just replace the broken parts. Sure, a mechanical body would slowly decay, not unlike the human body's, but by being able to replace parts, it becomes a non-issue.
You could argue that eventually the mechanical brain would burn out, and this is true, but digital technology can be copied. If you can copy your brain and put it into a new hard drive (or whatever technology we're using), then you can do a transplant and keep living forever (or at least until you forget to back up.
Of course, there become ethical and existential issues with the ability to copy yourself while you're still alive, potentially creating unlimited clones of yourself. It would also be bad if you never updated your backup and reanimated yourself from 10 years ago. (Truly, this is the fodder of our science fiction.)
Ethical and existential issues aside, mechanical life is an exciting prospect, which can remarkably parallel organic life. If it's up your alley, explore the similarities and differences between them, maybe by having two such characters meet up and have a conversation. (Would it be over drinks?)
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Organic life of any kind is truly remarkable for the same reasons. I also am mesmerized at how many ways of sensing the environment there are. Humans have their five senses, but there is so much more. Pit vipers have a sense that "sees" heat. Sharks feel electric waves emitted by any living creature. Many birds navigate by sensing the the earth's electromagnetic field. In fact, basically any measurable thing can be used as a potential sense.
Knowing as much as we do about how organic systems work, the possibilities for story ideas are nearly endless, and so many of them can even seem plausible. I definitely recommend learning about all the cool stuff we can do, and let it inspire you to explore it in your writing.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
My friend and I have several collaborative projects in mind, basically none of them having any work put in them. That's because he's in grad school and has a job, and what free time he does have is often accounted for.
It's not that I fault people for having lives. I just feel like it's really important to be aware of your time. Plan your projects accordingly. Don't take on more than you can handle. When you have so many projects that you really want to work on, you often end up making progress on none of them. But if you are working on only one project, then it's a lot easier to do bits and pieces when you have the time available.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
The human mind is amazing. It is constantly active. Even when you're asleep, it's working hard. When you're not thinking about anything, it's thinking. And even when you are contemplating as much as you can, it's doing that work, plus regulating your entire body to keep functioning.
We so often think of our heroes as having exceptional mental fortitude. And really, most heroes do have that. But all humans have a limit. And when that limit is exceeded, we suffer system shock.
When the mind is overloaded, so many things can happen. It can short out and fall unconscious. It can create any number of mental disorders. It can misfire and cause physical damage to the body. Severe system shocks can cause death.
It is not always easy to tell what can cause such a shock to a person; it's unique to the individual. Some common things like thinking you're about to die or being surrounded by something you are irrationally afraid of (like spiders or clowns) could trigger a system shock.
I find it an interesting subject to explore, seeing all the ways the brain can be broken, and all the things a broken brain can do. It also requires a deep understanding of a person to be able to portray it accurately, which should definitely be considered a point of pride.
Monday, October 8, 2012
It can be a strange thing seeing people vehemently fighting each other, and knowing that they have so much in common that they could spend their days sharing good times with each other.
By the same token, it also seems silly that I have spent so much of my own life trying to understand people who seemed so alien to me, only to find out that only minor differences separated us.
In our stories, characters are either going to be divisive or cohesive - destructive or constructive. The determining factor is whether that person spends more time looking at the differences or the similarities between people.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
If you're reading, chapters are always good stopping points, as are any other break that has a visual component. If not, then either the end of a page or right before a long paragraph is the next best thing.
If you're writing, it ends up being pretty similar. A stopping point is really necessary when you're in a groove because you won't be in that groove when you sit down to write again. Here, I think the best stopping point (and the only acceptable one) is when you have finished whatever scene you are working on. You really need to maintain the continuity of style within the scene and to flesh out all the events and actions that you plan.
Of course, a story is more than a collection of scenes, and you really want a uniformity of style and feel throughout. This is why I recommend taking a bunch of notes as you start to wrap up. Leave reminders as to what your thought process was, where it was going, and key events or dialogue you want to happen along the way. The more you set up the feeling for the next session, the more quickly you will get into the groove again and avoid aching over what you wanted to have happen last time.
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Of course, this is hardly a glowing review, but in a certain light, it can still be positive. You don't have to invest much into the story, but you still get a good return on your investment. It may not have changed your life, but it successfully entertained you.
I sometimes wonder if that is the reason I am always drawn to the short story. Part of it is the challenge of conciseness. But I think I also like the low risk of the low page count. It's like, if you read a terrible novel, you lost hours and hours of your time, but if you read a terrible short story, you lost like 20 minutes. No big deal.
Friday, October 5, 2012
But what if one of those characters is comic relief? What if one of those characters is a brutish mute? What if one of those characters bears the mark of legend and must overcome their personal beliefs to fulfill the prophesy that has guided his life? Should all of these characters have the same number of pages spent describing them?
There isn't a right answer. This isn't a rhetorical question. You need to find the answer for you. Most people will find that a weighted distribution is the best way to go, giving the characters with the most importance the most amount of time. But if you give the same amount of time to all your main characters, you may find yourself discovering that an ancillary character is actually pretty interesting and more important than you expected (though it's not always a guarantee that you'll find that).
For me the answer is usually based on the action. Whoever is doing the most stuff gets the most screen time. But that's me and I like direct storytelling. You may have a character do a lot of things off-screen because it allows you to do a big reveal later, or because you just don't think it's relevant to the plot. You may also find yourself focusing entirely on one character (which I also like to do sometimes), or simply never having your party split up.
This is why you need to answer the question. Most any distribution will work fine, but it's up to you to figure out which one produces the effect you're looking for.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
The catch is that elite can be relative. You can be the best writer in the world, or the country, or state, or city, or neighborhood, or household. Whatever level you may reach, you will find people who look up to you, and you will find others you look up to.
I don't think that you can label every writer as better or worse than any other writer. There may be tiers of quality, but within that tier, everybody is equally elite. You may look up to others and they may look up to you. They may also think that what you have to say is stupid, but you said it really well (there's no accounting for taste, but technical prowess is undeniable).
Probably the worst thing you can do is think of yourself as "the elite". It's perfectly fine to be proud of good work you've done and to acknowledge your skills, but thinking of yourself as better than everybody else is a great way to burn bridges and alienate people.
Be as elite as you are. Strive for as high a tier as you can manage, and wherever you end up, be happy that you made it that far.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Every medium you can use to tell stories will be different. They will each have their own unique charm and nuances. If you tell a story in one medium that truly makes use of its nuances, then by transplanting it to a different medium, you will lose those parts of your story. It may end up completely bastardizing your story in the eyes of its fans.
That said, it is not necessarily true that a story only can exist in one medium. In fact, I would argue that you could tell many stories in most media. They will be different, but each one can have its own charm. You may personally favor one version the most. The general public may generally believe that one version is the best, but it's all opinions, not universal truth.
I challenge you to write a story in different media. Whatever your next short project is, do something with prose. Write a poem. Draw a comic. Write a script. Tell that short story in a few different ways and experience (and embrace) the differences. Let me know how it goes.
I know that I have extolled the virtues of random results in storytelling, and I do still find it a good way to spice up a story that is too simple, but it is a tool that can have negative consequences if used improperly.
The biggest issue is that random results can end up making your story tedious. When you have crafted a path for your protagonists to take, diverging from it will simply make the story take longer to conclude.
Random results really work best when you have a character in a situation that doesn't have a designated endpoint. In this scenario, random results allow characters to find new paths that you may not have expected them to go down. But, again, if you already have a plan, don't worry about it too much.
Monday, October 1, 2012
However, I have found that you definitely can learn from exposure. I have been spending all of my free time listening to reviews and critiques of movies, TV shows, and games for a week or two, and I seriously feel like a much stronger critic because of it. A friend of mine recently asked for my review of Stargate Universe and was blown away with my response. (So it's not entirely me blowing smoke when I talk about my improvement.)
The thing with exposure is that you do need to use your brain. You need to analyze what the authors are doing. What is their subject material? What is it they choose to say? What have they left behind?
The major issue I have with exposure-as-teacher is that good examples show you what can be done, but they don't tell you what to avoid. The bad examples do even that out. So if nothing else, the correct advice would be to read as many authors as possible and make sure you get good and bad ones.
I will always support study and practice as the best instructors and developers of authors. Those are your staples. That said, there's nothing wrong with supplements. Once you have an understanding of the basics of writing, definitely get that exposure to authors, good and bad. With your established knowledge, it will give you the tools to analyze what they're doing and understand why it succeeds or fails. And that is how you really get the most out of it.