Posts Tagged ‘nuts and bolts of storytelling


A post in 2 parts

Part 1: Having it All

So I’m going to get a little personal here, which is something I try not to do because hey, my life is actually kind of dull unless you’re living it. However, recently events have conspired to turn my life completely upside down. In short: I’m pregnant.

Now, this is a cause for much rejoicing. Hooray for the continuation of the species! My husband and I are very excited. But, (and of course there’s a but, what life event doesn’t have a but?) part of me is petrified. Somehow, in the next 2 years, I will need to somehow produce 2 books and 1 baby, all while keeping my day job. Needless to say, it feels a bit overwhelming. I am absolutely determined to keep my deadlines, however. I worked too god damn hard to get where I am and nothing, not a baby, not the apocalypse, will keep me from finishing these books.

But I’m also about 6 weeks into my first trimester, and no one told me how TIRED I’d get. I mean, seriously, it feels like I have the flu all the time. I know it will get better, I’m just worried it won’t get better fast enough, and I’ve got a book to finish, and edit, and cry about, and edit some more, and force others to read, all post haste.

I know many of you are parents. So fill me in, share your wisdom! This does get better, right?

Part 2: Having too Much

One good thing to come out of this whole pregnancy thing was I’ve been having crazy lucid dreams about my book. I don’t know what this says about my brain, but yesterday, while napping I literally dreamed a scene that perfectly fixes several problems I’d flagged at the beginning of my current book. It was like watching a movie, seriously awesome.

However, here’s the rub. I already have scenes that do a lot of what this new scene would do, and I can’t necessarily switch them out one for one. Any way I do it, it’ll add more words to the book, which is already running long. Plus, it’s an entire new scene to be written, edited, rewritten, in a part of the book that was pretty much done. ARGH. Why can’t I have crazy lucid dreams about the problems I haven’t fixed yet?!

So it boils down to a mater of priorities, do I take the risk, go back and fix what isn’t broken in the hopes of taking what is merely adequate to seriously awesome? Or do I save the scene for another book and focus on what does need work, rather than fussing with what actually works. I’ve flip flopped on this for a day and a half now, but this morning I finally decided to stop worrying about it and just take the plunge.

What made up my mind was thinking like a reader, and not a writer. As a writer, I want to finish things on time. I want to solve problems efficiently and then move on, not solve them four times over. But as a reader, I want awesome. I want the best experience possible. I want to be surprised, rewarded for my time. I don’t want efficiency, I don’t want “adequate.” I want amazing.

Since the whole reason I write is to create the stories I want to read, reader brain always wins in the end, and this is how it should be, even though writer brain is appalled at the idea of having to go back to a chapter that was already checked off. I just hope I can pull it off enough to make the detour worth it!


The powerless power

A year or so ago I read the quote from Helen Mirren. It was her answer in response to an interview question about growing older and trying to avoid the “sexy” label:

“I’m still trying to wriggle out from under that label. […] Being a sexual object is mortifying and irritating, yet it’s giving you power–an awful power that you’ve done nothing to deserve, a powerless power. I think some young women fall in love with that power, and it’s really objectifying. And when it starts falling away, it’s an incredible relief.”

Nora’s post on objectification got me thinking about this again. It’s one of my favorite concepts – the powerless power, the power others give you, but that you yourself neither own or control. The quote is talking about sexual power, particularly the over sexualization of very young women, barely more than girls, that our culture thrives on. We take these lovely girls and give them power, media power, money, attention, and then wonder why the sixteen-year-old can’t handle it.

Of course, stars are a bad example, they had to have some kind of talent to get where they are. But think of girls you knew in high school, the really pretty ones. Think about all the women whose main talent in life is being lovely, because being lovely got them everywhere they wanted to be. Who these women might have been with out the free ride of good genes, we’ll never know. But, we all know what happens when their beauty starts to slip, and the power fades away. Several billion dollar industries are funded by women trying to salvage their beauty, and the power tied to it, from the ravages of time, but in the end, it’s futile, because the power was never theirs to begin with. It was always given to them for reasons outside their control, and love of power you do not control is the most dangerous obsession of all.

Which brings me back to fantasy. Fantasy novels are full of people clinging to powerless power, which, in fantasy worlds (places which tend to be populated by kings and born magicians)  encompasses a lot more than just sexual objectification. Tons of fantasies (mine included) have people born with strong, innate magical power. It’s like winning the genetic lotto, you came out an archmagus while your brother got the large nose. Or take the prince, born into fantastic power by virtue of primogenitor. Both of these are powers the person holding them did nothing to obtain. The prince didn’t struggle to better himself, win the hearts of the people, and claim throne. He didn’t even take it by force, at the head of a conquering army. Similarly, the born mage may have to train so as not to blow themselves up, but with that much power she probably didn’t have to work very hard to be at the top of the heap, magically speaking.

It’s not uncommon for a fantasy to be full of people born into power, be it royalty, magical powers, inheritors of some great artifact of a lost age, chosen child of a god, etc., etc., I am endlessly amazed at how decent most authors depict these folks turning out. Compare your average fantasy land princess to anyone an American tabloid would call a “princess,” one saves the kingdom by teaming up with the unlikeliest of companions, the other is up to her nose in cocaine. This is a gross generalization on both counts, but you get my drift. We like our fantasy MCs powerful and good, but when that power comes from anywhere but their own hard work, especially if it comes at birth, you’ve got to take into account how that power warped a young mind notoriously unable to responsibly deal with power on that scale or risk creating a cardboard character.

It all goes back to my post waaaay long ago about letting people be people. If you have individuals born into great power, most of them won’t handle it well, because it’s not their power. It’s power they were given through no deserving of their own, and though you don’t generally age out of great magical ability, I don’t imagine most child prodigy wizards would end up any better than child prodigy actors. Of course, this is where the clever author could start turning things in interesting directions. How many times in fantasy have we seen the young boy born with terrible power, who, though a loving foster parent (since his own are dead, natch), learns to fear and control his own magic and then goes on to do wonderful things. It’s going to take a lot of originality to sell that plot. However, how interesting could it be to have that same child mage become world famous as a magical prodigy, and then lose his power? Everything he’d been handed by life would vanish, and he’d be left with what precious little he’d done for himself. What lengths would he go through to get it back? How would he support his magical coke habit? What if magic itself was addictive (and you know it would be, once you’ve had world shaping power at your fingers, life can never be the same), how would he deal with the withdrawl?

Everything comes down understanding the difference between power a person earns and power they are given. Knowledge, skills, friendship, determination built on your own goals, magic you learned through hard trial, these are real powers, earned, not given, and can not be taken away. But powerless power, especially when it comes at a young age, is never truly the character’s own. Because of this, I think powerless power can be one of the most volatile and interesting elements in a story. Provided, of course, your characters react to it like people, and not like train cars on the plot railroad.


nerding out

I make no secret of my nerd nature (not that I could, really, but whatever). Part of the awesome combination of being a huge nerd and being an author is that you get to steal from everywhere, including things that don’t have anything to do novels. Case in point: the other day my husband (who makes and runs role playing games and is thus an even larger nerd than myself) was talking to me about the theory behind how a good GM decides what kind of threat to throw at players.

According to him, there are 4 types of challenges players face:

1 – Easy

This is a problem the characters can face without stretching at all. Think small scale bandit attack. The characters have to act and address the problem, but they’re not really threatened.

2 – Challenging

This problem forces characters to actually dig into their resources. It’s a serious fight where the characters are threatened and may be wounded, but if they don’t botch, there’s no real risk to their lives and they don’t have to do anything particularly clever to triumph.

3 – Difficult

This is a fight where the characters are outmatched. Their lives are really threatened, and they won’t be able to win unless they use their powers in new and interesting ways. Screw ups, bad decisions, and/or sloppy planning have real consequences in a difficult challenge. Think boss fight.

4 – Overwhelming

The characters are too short for this ride. Overwhelming challenges are large scale plot events the players aren’t meant to be able to face, and are often used by the GM to railroad wandering characters back into the plot. These world-sized roadblocks can only be conquered with help from the GM through deus ex machina or a powerful NPC taking pity on them. 


Generally my eyes glaze over when my husband starts talking about game theory, but every now and then, he comes out with something brilliant. This was one of those times. While all of these are framed in terms of players and a game, it doesn’t take much rearranging to see how diving challenges up into these categories can help with pacing a novel.

For example, an easy challenge at the beginning of the novel is a quick way to give characters instant cool factor. You simply set up a challenge that looks hard, but is actually something the character can do with ease. Stopping an assassin, say, or slaying a demon, it’s rough stuff for us normal people, but all in a day’s work for our heroes. However, this sort of thing can’t be used exclusively. A novel where the challenge level never gets above 2 (challenging) has no teeth. If the characters are never truly pushed, they’ll never grow, and you’re left with dull, static people. Plus, no one likes a main villain who goes out like a punk.

On the other hand, though, you almost never want to use an overwhelming challenge, and certainly never multiple ones. When you give your people a hurdle they can’t possibly jump on their own, you’re taking the power of the story out of your character’s hands, turning them into passengers on their own plot. While taking power away from a normally powerful character can create great tension, powerless characters are boring over the long term, and no one likes to see their favorite heroine get the shaft at the very end.

Yet I’m constantly amazed at how many novels, especially fantasy adventures (my favorites!), start at level 1 and end at level 4, but skip everything in the middle. Or, they start at 3 and never let up, so the characters are constantly in over their heads, and we as readers never really get a feel for them as competent people (which isn’t to say there haven’t been novels that have pulled this off, but it’s not an easy trick to have your character constantly on the losing side and not get beaten down or, even worse, unbelievable).

My ideal story (assuming a fresh book, not #2 in a series) starts at 1 or 2 and then slowly builds up (through a series of 2s and 3s) to a 3.5. This is a difficult challenge that looks like an overwhelming one until the characters apply some new trick and cut it down to size, tipping the situation on its head to come out on top. Those are the best! I love seeing characters start at the top of their game, and then get in more and more over their heads as things get tougher until they’re using every weapon in their arsenal, plus a few they had to make up along the way, to get out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

Again, this is stuff I always kind of knew, and I’m sure none of this is new to any readers of this blog. However, for me, the act of organizing challenge into set levels gives a degree of control over what is otherwise an abstract concept (which is the whole point of role playing games – assigning numbers to concepts). This system of levels allows me, as the architect of the story, to think about the challenges my characters face in a measurable way so as to preserve tension without working my into an impossible scenario I’m going to have to hand of god (or as I call it, WRITER SMASH!) my way out of. When writers smash, books get broken.

Anyway, just another one of those unexpected story paradigms I love and wanted to share, and I hope you found it useful, or at least interesting. For those of you who write, how do you approach conflict and challenge for your characters? Also, do any of you game, and does that experience have any influence on how you approach your stories? Inquiring minds want to know!