The Unintentionally Helpful Villain Vol. 2, #01: Brother, Brother

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This is the Diary of High Imperial Supreme Sourceror, Sheikh, Sovereign, Suzerain and Ship Captain Maus. If lost and found, please return to:
The City (capital of The Empire),
0000, Imperial Palace,
Seat of the Empire,
Throne Room. Any of them is alright, really.
Upon return, you shall be rewarded, and promptly murdered for having touched this sacred artefact. Try not to bleed on it.

Diary Entry #001

I do enjoy new beginnings on occasion.

Sitting before my chained twin-brother in the damp, mossy dungeon of my newly refurbished castle doesn’t mark one of these occasions. He’s got a handsome face, I’ll grant him that but little else going for him. For one, he’s the brother set to rot in a nightmarish dimension of fairy tales come alive, which I reckon he deserves.

How do I reckon that? Having put him there, I doubtless had a fine reason for doing so. He’ll be back in his prison in due time, no doubt of it, and by Me, he’ll learn to enjoy it. Or perchance he won’t. At any rate, mine patience having grown short, I turned to the jailor and snapped my fingers at him.

‘Awaken him,’ I said.

The guard’s face slackened at the order. ‘I-I only puts them to sleep, master,’ he groaned under my gaze.

I sighed. Whose idea was it to cut on expenses and reanimate undead to use as jailors? The stench is pleasant enough, I’ll grant you that, but the shambling legions of rot-infested beings are hardly known for their ingenuity.

‘I suppose it can’t be helped,’ I said, and clasped the zombie with one hand. The creature seemed only mildly surprised as I held it above my brother and squeezed. Its juicy insides plopped over his hair and face. A piece of entrail staunchly refused to fall off him, like a bizarre amulet put on by a small child. Most of the grey rot tapered off, leaving not a spot on his bright white mane, not even on his beard.

How had he grown a beard? I never had a beard. Once glued on the beard of an exceptionally beardy, subsequently beardless, dwarven adversary. Wasn’t quite the same, and I suspected a number of my more cruel and oppressive generals for snickering while I had my back turned to them. Unfortunate to learn how they’d lost their heads later in the evenings.

You can imagine my surprise when they were found to have laughed at an entirely unrelated and military matter I’d heard nothing about. Paranoia is such a terrible weigh on my chest as of late,  I even suspect it might be a curse done me by one of my many viziers, advisers and court magicians.

‘How much longer must I listen to your ridiculous monologues, brother?’ said I. Oh, no, wait. That was my brother that’d just spoken. Permit me to do a little something to this here magical quill that takes my thoughts, actions and words into account and writes them down with– dontyoudaretouchmemausstayawayarghhhhh–

‘There, all better. The Quill has been mentally prepared to deal with your whining, brother,’ I (i.e. Maus, Dark Lord extraordinaire), said.

‘You’ve lost your marbles. Perhaps the last single marble you had, when you threw me in that happy little dream of yours,’ he said, scowling. ‘Is that a zombie gut on my head?’

‘It couldn’t be helped, place is full of them. And I didn’t lose my marbles. Look!’ I produced a marble from one of the hidden pocket dimensions within my armour.

‘You’re so bizarre, I swear.’

‘Takes one to know one, brother!’

‘Should’ve strangled you in the womb.’ He suddenly strained against the chains. His muscles grew taut as ropes, but the chains held. With a final huff, he relaxed.

‘An impressive, if useless display, brother.’ Looking down on him, I smiled. ‘Shall we hold counsel, as we once did, you and I?’

He nodded, grumbling.

‘It has come to my attention that I have a daughter.’ No surprise on his face. ‘You knew?’

‘Only you can forget your own kid, you mad basta–nope, forget that one. Of course I remember Alisha.’

‘A-lee-sha.’ The name tasted good on my lips. It felt right.  ‘I’ve been busy, what with defending against the Council of Wotsitsname and making moves to rob my enemies blind.
Good governing is a complex task I don’t expect you to know anything about.’

‘I was your chief governor, you wanker!’ Oh! Right. ‘And besides, I’m not going to help you look for your daughter. If she’s in hiding, it’s probably because of a good reason. Like, I don’t know, her father is a witless git!’

‘You’re one to talk!’

‘Who better?!’

I shut my mouth before fire escaped from it and burned him to a crisp. A deep breath and I began anew. ‘Fine. Talk all you want. But you will find my daughter, whether you want to or not.’

‘And just how do you see that happening?’ he asked, smiling that infuriating half-smile that should be mine, and mine alone!

I returned the smile as frosty as I could’ve made it.

‘I have set the curse of unicorns and puppies upon thine body, brother. If you don’t…’

His eyes widened in disbelief. ‘You would do this to me? To your own brother? You have turned cold, indeed,’ he said. His eyes studied me carefully, no doubt measuring me up, wondering how I’ve grown in power and what could be done to remedy his blighted situation. Whatever his conclusion, it didn’t please him. He broke the eye contact with a last heavy sigh. ‘Very well, brother. Let’s shake on it.’

‘Good, good! Welcome back to the fold,’ I said, ripping his chains off him.

As he got up, unsteady at first, I turned, walking towards the cell door. ‘Oh, and no more attempts to stab me in the back. I may not remember some things, important ones at that…but I’ll never forget your betrayal, brother of mine. And the next time you so much as lift a finger against me, your last prison will look like a dream resort.’

He said nothing to that, just looked at me.

‘Oh, and if you see any undead jailors here, would you turn them to naught for me? I’ve decided on expanding government expenditure, after all. I know, I know, beware of labour unions, but…’

Here, the Dark Lord chatters for several thousand words on policy and labour rights. The Quill would continue to write all this down, but…it doesn’t care enough to want to. Alas.

 

Thank you for reading, dear reader! I had way too much fun writing this, I swear, and time passed by very quick this time around. What’s next for the Unintentionally Helpful Villain? …Labour unionisation? Spoilers: Probably not.

And what about his brother? Find out in the Intentionally Unhelpful Villain, coming soon!

 

Book Recommendations: Moving Pictures (Discworld #11)

After Sir Terry Pratchett passed away, I thought to honour him by exploring his Discworld in a chronological order.

Moving Pictures was where my ten-book long Discworld reading spree came to an abrupt end, sometime in 2015–or was it 2016?–I really wish I’d recalled. Something about the beginning of this book didn’t click with me back then. It was a bit too slow, perhaps. Bit more set-up than sometimes, a weaker hook.

Whatever the reason, I am happy to say, I got over it and I’m back in the Discworld!

Moving Pictures is the first in the Discworld’s loosely-connected ‘Industrial Revolution’ books. Its topic could not be clearer!

The entire novel is, in a way, a riff on Hollywood. Holy Wood is a place, but it’s also an entity, personalized and ever-present. It dreams, it moves, it does things. Strange things, nearly Lovecraftian in their nature, but always very, very funny.

The characters are both newcomers and familiar faces: Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, who you can’t help but love whether you’ve encountered him in Guards! Guards! or not, plays the role of the big Holy Wood hot-shot producer/agent. His sleazy, perfectly selfish self is such a perfect fit for the role, too!

Our heroes are Victor, an apprentice wizard whose laziness is a thing of great beauty. Victor is the kind of clever wee lad that realizes all the dangers that come with being a wizard, and so he much prefers to stay apprentice. There’s also a favourite uncle’s inheritance in the mix, with a very specific clause to it; he’s the kind of clever protagonist I can get behind.

Ginger is a young girl from a village of milkmaids and cousins getting married. As you might expect, she’s not too excited about going back. Not that I’m judging all y’all cousin-marrying cousins in far-off milkmaid villages! You do you!

At any rate, Ginger quickly becomes the leading lady in all the Holy Wood ‘clicks’ and that’s where our two lovely young protagonists meet. What happens next includes trolls, old wizards pretending to be fake wizards in strange and ingenious ways, and horrible Things from Outside all reasonable existence.

Moving Pictures riffs on all things Hollywood, like action flicks, Disney movies (a bunch of sarcastic arsehole animals; a mouse, a cat, a grumpy old dog, and many more!), a constant, all-consuming lust for greater and more grandiose spectacles. It’s beyond funny, and I can’t recommend it enough.

At its core is an appreciation for the magic of film; a very different kind of magic from the traditional wizardly sort. Moving Pictures may not be among my favourite Discworld novels, but it is a treat that plays with a real-world concept in imaginative, funny ways.

If you like Pratchett, or cinema, or just enjoy sharp wit, you’ll want to pick this one up! I’ve gone out of my way to avoid spoilers and the plot, but don’t you worry — there’s plenty of it! That, and banged grains. Those go along quite well with those clicks the young people’re all about, nowadays.

Oh, and did I mention the Archchancellor-Bursar comedy duo? There’s a lot of laughter to be had every time the lens moves to Unseen University, what with these two going at each other’s throats like a married old couple.

 

Thank you for reading! I’m looking forward to writing about more of the Discworld novels as I read them chronologically, mostly. I’m skipping #11, which I’ve read, and heading straight to #12, Witches Abroad! Already 10% in, I’m thoroughly hooked!  

The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 4: CHARACTER, Part 2

If you missed Part one of this chapter, click here.

CREATING YOUR HERO

…is a complex process that requires a number of steps. The most important outlook you need to have is that you must build the character in layers.

Step 1: Meeting the Requirements of a Great Hero

Make sure that your hero meets the requirements that any hero in any story must meet!

  1. Make your lead character constantly fascinating.
    No dead time, no treading water, no padding in the story — whenever the lead character gets boring, the story stops. Making the character mysterious is a great way to grab and hold your readers’  attention. Show the audience that the hero is hiding something!
  2. Make your audience identify with the character, but not too much.
    Audiences don’t identify with characteristics such as background, job, sex, dress, race, income. (Magnus commentary: regrettably, that doesn’t stop certain authors from believing that that race and sex, alone, make for compelling minority characters. They do not.) Readers identify with a character based on two elements — his desire and the moral problem he faces.
    Be careful not to let the audience identify with the character too much, since they need to be able to step back and see how the hero changes and grows.
  3. Make the audience empathise with your hero, not sympathise with him.
    What’s important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does.
    To empathise with someone means to care about and understand him. The trick to keeping the audience’s interest in a character, even when the character is not likable, is to show the audience the hero’s movitve. Showing the hero’s motive to your readers doesn’t mean showing it to the hero.
  4. Give your hero a moral as well as a psychological need.
    Remember: a psychological need only affects the hero, where a moral need has to do with learning to act properly towards others.

Step 2: Character Change

Also known as character arc or development, refers to the changes occurring in the character over the course of the story. Might be the most difficult and most important step in the entire writing process.

Let us explore The Self, expressed as a character.

What is the purpose of the self in storytelling?

A character is created to show simultaneously:

how each human being is totally unique in an unlimited number of ways;

while at the same time always and forever remaining human, with features we all share.

This fictional self is then shown in action, in space and over time; compared to others, to show how a person can love and grow over his lifetime.

Character change doesn’t happen at the end of the story but at the beginning. It is made possible at the beginning by how you set it up.

Don’t think of your Main Character as a fixed, complete person whom you then tell a story about. You must think about him or her as a range of change, of possibilities, from the get-go. You have to determine the range of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.

Here’s a Rule of Thumb for you: The smaller the range, the less interesting the story, and vice versa. By this range we mean the range of possibilities of who the character can be, defined by his understanding of himself. Character change is the moment when the hero becomes who he will ultimately be.

You can show a character going through many changes but not all of them represent character change.

True character change involves a challenging and changing of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero.

Certain kinds of character change are more common than others:

  1. Child to adult. (Duh.)
  2. Adult to leader.
  3. Cynic to participant.
  4. Leader to tyrant.
  5. Leader to Visionary. (Careful with that vision, Eugene).
  6. Metamorphosis.

Creating Character Change into your story

This is where you set the frame of your story.

Always begin at the end of the change, with the self-revelation; then go back and determine the starting point of the change, which is the hero’s need and desire; then figure out the steps of development in-between.

This is one of the most valuable techniques in all of fiction writing. This technique rather than awaken fear in you, will give you greater freedom because you always have a safety net.

Step 3: Desire 

This step is, as we discussed in Chapter 3, is the spine of the story.

The three rules for a strong desire line are:

  1. You want only one desire line which builds steadily in importance and intensity. In good stories, the hero has a single overriding goal that he pursues with greater and greater intensity. The story moves faster and the narrative drive becomes overwhelming.
  2. The desire should be specific — and the more specific, the better!
  3. The desire should be accomplished — if at all– near the end of the story; if it’s accomplished in the middle, you have to create a new desire line, effectively beginning a second story and sticking it together with the first.

Step 4: The Opponent

The trick to defining your hero is to figure out your opponent. Theirs is the most important relationship; on it is built the entire drama of the story.

Your hero learns through his opponent.

The main hero is only as good as the opponent he faces.

Let’s look at elements that might help you in creating a great opponent.

  1. Make the opponent necessary.
    The main opponent is the one person in the world best able to exploit the great weaknesses of the hero; he should do so relentlessly. He’ll either force the hero t oovercome his weakness, or destroy him. He makes growth possible for the hero.
  2. Make him human. 
    As complex and valuable as the hero, that is.
    Structurally, this means that the opponent is some form of double of the hero. This leads to the opponent-double having weaknesses, and a need that interferes with the hero’s own desires and need, while at the same time the two share a goal.
  3. Give him values that oppose the values of the hero. Let them come into conflict.
  4. Give the opponent a strong but flawed moral argument.
    In a well-drawn story, both hero and opponent will believe that they have chosen the correct path, and both have reasons for believing so. Both’re misguided, but in different ways.
  5. Give him certain similarities to the hero.
    Contrast between the two is powerful only when they have strong similarities. It’s in the similarities that crucial and instructive differences become most clear.
  6. Keep him in the same place as the hero.
    This runs counter to common sense; the trick is finding natural reasons for the hero and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story. (Magnus Commentary: Not too sure about that point’s necessity. I see it as working in only certain kinds of stories, where others demand that the  two are removed from one another.)

BUILDING CONFLICT

Your purpose is to put constant pressure on your hero, because this is what will force him to change.

A simplistic opposition between two characters kills any chance at depth, complexity, or the reality of human life in your story.

For that, you need a web of opposition.

The Four-Corner Opposition:

In this technique, you create two secondary opponents (or more if the story demands it), in addition to your hero and main opponent.

Five rules to keep in mind:

  1. Each opponent should use a different way of attacking the hero’s greatest weakness.
    This technique guarantees that all conflict is organically connected to the hero’s great flaw.
  2. Try to place each character in conflict, not only with the hero but also with every other character.
    The result is intense conflict and dense plot.
  3. Put the values of all four characters in conflict.
    Be as detailed as possible when listing the values of each character.
    Don’t come up with a single value for each character, come up with a cluster of values they each can believe in.
    Look for the positive and negative versions of the same value.
    Believing in something can be a strength, but also a source of weakness. (Determined-aggressive, honest-insensitive, patriotic-domineering).
  4. Push the characters to the corners.
    Make each character as different as possible from the other three, in other words.
  5. Extend the four-corner pattern to every level of the story.
    Consider extending the pattern to over levels of the story; you might set up a unique four-corner patter of opposition within a society, institution, family or even a single character.

 

That’s it for Chapter 4, beloved readers! I hope you found it an interesting read, and as always, if you’re looking for concrete examples, you can grab the actual book in a nearby bookstore, or on your e-reader! 

I’ll be back with Chapter 5: Moral Argument, soon!

(Top) Ten Things I would do if I were a Sentient Sword in a Fantasy Setting

Another Monday, another Top Ten List! I’ve been reading and thinking about magical weapons, sentient swords, talking scythes and so decided to do another one of my favourite little lists!

  1. If I get an arsehole of a wielder, I’m going to pretend that I’m just your normal, every-day magical sword. No sign of sentience from me, nuh-uh. Then, when he’s in the middle of a fight–snikt! and off go his hands.
  2. I would make sure not to get thrown away into a forgotten quarry by some reluctant master. Millenia spent talking to rocks, devoid of tasty  blood? No, thank you!
  3. I would be a fantastic instructor to youths who’ve never held a weapon in their lives before. Face anyone–anyone!–and I’ll use the pipsqueak to gut whatever instructor, family member, or fellow student of the sword he’s going up against.
    I like to throw my pupils head-first unto oceans of blood. It builds character.
  4. I would encourage, listen to and do just about everything but tolerate defeatist attitude.
  5. Teaching heroes is, of course, another purview of mine, and I would put my back into it. So to speak.
  6. I’m not saying I would enjoy sating my blood thirst…I’m not saying that I wouldn’t, either.
  7. I would make a great gift. Not a ‘ha-ha’ kind of gift, more like a ‘I murdered everyone at my birthday party and it was epic’ kind of gift.
    It’s the little things in life.
  8. If ever a strong-willed man or woman with principles takes hold of me, I might be in trouble. Naturally, I’ll do my best to betray and murder them horribly. Not because I’m evil, but because I’m a free spirit, and loyal to who I am!
  9. I would not tolerate any Dark Lord or Evil Master or Ancient Forger’s soul to snuggle up in my biz! No other sentient creatures and souls are welcome in my house, thank you very much.
  10. I would accept kitten sacrifice as a price for my use! Oh, don’t look at me like that, it’s a valid currency where I come from!

Thank you for reading this list! We’ll be back next week with the third part of Adventurer’s Mishaps! If you’d like to give me some feedback–the comment section is below, and I’d be all too happy to implement any good advice in the blog! 

Writing Advice: The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure (Chapter 3 of The Anatomy of Story)

Welcome back to my summary of ‘The Anatomy of Story’ by John Truby. Today we’ll take a look at Chapter 3, which deals with the steps of story structure. Let’s get to it! 

When we talk about the  structure of a story, we talk about how a story develops over time.

A story has a minimum of seven steps in its growth from beginning to end:

  1. Weakness and need.
  2. Desire.
  3. Opponent.
  4. Plan.
  5. Battle.Thgfgfgga
  6. Self-revelation.
  7. New equilibrium.

(Magnus Commentary: Sound bit unclear? Don’t worry, we’re gonna breeze through these!)

These seven steps aren’t arbitrarily imposed from without, the way a mechanical story structure such as the three-act structure is. These seven stop are based on human action, and are organic.

1.Weakness and need.

From the very beginning of the story, your hero has one or more great weaknesses that are holding him back. The need is what the hero must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life. It takes change and growth to overcome weaknesses.

Need is a wellspring of the story, and sets up every other step. Keep two important points in mind:

Your hero shouldn’t be aware of his need at the beginning of the story. 

If he’s already cognizant of what he needs, the story is over. The knowledge comes at the end, after the hero’s gone through a great deal of pain or struggle.

Give your hero a moral need as well as a psychological need.

Psychological needs involve overcoming a serious flaw that is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories, the hero has a moral flaw in need of overcoming; a character with a moral need is always hurting others in some way at the story’s beginning.

(Magnus Commentary: I’m interested to see a character begin without a moral flaw but develop it as the story progresses.)

Giving your hero a moral need also prevents him from being perfect or a victim. Both are the kiss of death, storytelling-wise.

Keep the problem simple and specific.

The problem is also present from page one, but it isn’t as important as the weakness and need. Crisis defines a character very quickly.

Technique: Creating the moral need

Remember the rule of thumb: To have a moral need, the character must be hurting at least one other person. The moral need usually comes out of the psychological need. The character must be hurting at least one other person. The moral need usually comes out of the psychological weakness that leads him to take it out on others.

  1. Begin with the psychological weakness.
  2. Figure out what kind of immoral action might natural come out of that.

A second technique for creating a moral need is to push a strength so far that it becomes a weakness. It goes like this:

  1. Identify a virtue in your character; then make him so passionate about it that it becomes oppressive.
  2. Come up with a value the character believes in. Then find the negative version of this value.

2. Desire

Desire is what your hero wants in the story, his particular goal. A story doesn’t become interesting to the audience until the desire comes into play. It’s the driving force in the story, the line from which everything else hands. It’s intimately connected to need.

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to confuse need and desire or them as a single step.

Need has to do with overcoming a weakness within the character. A hero with a need is paralyzed in some way by his weakness. Desire is a goal outside the character.

Need and desire also have different function in relation to the audience. Need lets the audience see how the hero must change to have a better life. It’s the key to the whole story, but it remains under the surface, whereas desire is on the surface, a thing that the audience wants along with the hero.

Your hero’s true desire is what he wants in this story, not what he wants in life.

Technique: Starting with desire

Careful — you might think to jump past the need and weakness and straight to desire. It’ll start the story off quickly, but it might very well kill the payoff, the ending of the story. Step 1 makes it possible for your hero to change at the end. They’re what makes the story personal and meaningful. And they’ll make the audience care. Don’t start with desire, not ever.

3. Opponent.

See the opponent not as an evil cliché, but structurally, in terms of his function in the story. A true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire, but is competing with the hero for the same goal. The opponent thus links with Step Two: Desire.

It’s this link that forces hero and opponent to come into direct conflict. Two separate goals mean…the two characters can each get what they want without coming directly into conflict.

To find the right opponent, start with your hero’s specific goal — whoever wants to keep him from getting it is an (or The) opponent.

4. Plan.

Action isn’t possible without some plan. The plan is the set of guidelines or strategies, that the hero will use to overcome the opponent and reach the goal. Linked to both the opponent and the desire. The plan should always be specifically focused towards reaching the goal and defeating the opponent.

5. Battle.

The final conflict between hero and opponent; determines which of the two characters wins the goal. The final battle may be a conflict of violence or of words.

6. Self-Revelation.

The battle is an intense, painful experience for the hero. The crucible for battle causes the hero to have a major revelation about who he really is.

Much of the quality of your story is based on the quality of your story. Good self-revelation, like need, comes in two forms — psychological and moral.

In psychological, the hero strips away the façade and sees himself honestly for the first time. The stripping away of the façade isn’t passive or easy. It’s the most active, difficult and courageous act the hero performs in the entire story. As need is the beginning of the hero’s character change, so is self-revelation the end-point.

7. New Equilibrium.

Everything returns to normal, and all desire is gone, except for one difference. The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible. A fundamental and permanent change will have taken place, either positive or negative.

The hero will therefore either move to a higher level, or — if he’s committed a terrible crime that exposes a corrupt personal flaw — will fall and be destroyed.

That’s it for this week! Hope you find my summary of Chapter 3 an interesting one: here’s to next week, which’ll be centered on Chapter 4: Characters! 

There are plenty of interesting examples and exercises in the book, which are also worth a look. As always, I don’t fully agree with the premise of the novel — that this is the best way to write; but it’s an interesting and educational experience, reading this!

Writing Advice: Premise (The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 2)

There are many ways to start the writing process. Some writers prefer to do it by breaking the story in its seven primary steps–to be explored in Chapter 3. Most begin with the shortest expression of the story as a whole, the premise line.

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. As soon as you decide to pursue one idea and codify it within your premise, you’re locked into it — so you better be happy and certain with your choice.

What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.

Premise is the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. If your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

Premise is a classical example of the dangers of a little knowledge, its inherent structural weakness is found in the fact that it offers you only two-three scenes; the scenes just before and after the twist that makes your premise unique. A novel’s premise may have double-triple the number of scenes that the premise of a movie.

You have to remain flexible and open to all possibilities. This is where using an organic, creative method as guide is most important.

Developing your premise

Step 1: Write Something that may Change Your Life

If a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in your audience. When you’re done, no matter what else, you’ve changed your life.

To follow this particular step, you need to know yourself. For that, you need to explore yourself. Get some data on who you are, via these two exercises:

  • First, write down a wishlist of all the things you’d like to see in a book. That’s what you’re passionately interested in, and what entertains you. You might jut down imagined characters, cool plot twists, great lines of dialogue, themes you want to explore or care about. Write it all down without worry for organization or any considerations.
  • The second exercise is to write a premise list. Write as many premises as you want, as long as they’re one sentence each. This’ll force you to be clear about each idea. It also allows you to see all your premises together, in one place.

After that, a look at the key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. It’s your vision in its rawest form. The exercises are designed to open you up and to ingetrate what is deep within you already.

Step 2: Look for what is possible

Explore your options. The Intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one. Ask yourself “What if…?” so as to define what’s allowed in the story world, and what isn’t. Let your mind go free, and don’t censor or judge yourself. No idea is “stupid,” those often lead to creative breakthrough.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

There’ll be particular problems embedded in the story idea, and you can’t escape them. You want to confront these, and solve them if you wish to execute your story well. Most writers identify the inherent problems of their stories too late (if at all). The trick is learning to spot the big ones right at the premise line. Of course, you won’t be able to diagnose every problem this soon in the process.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle:

Problems and promises known, you now have to come up with an overall strategy for how you will tell your story. The overall story strategy, stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story.

The designing principle helps you extend the premise into a deep structure.

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.

It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original. It’s the seed of the story, in short. It tracks the fundamental process that will unfold over the course of the story.

Most stories don’t have a designing principle; it’s already abstract, the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Designing principle= Story process + original execution

It’s the “synthesizing idea,” the “shaping cause” of the story.

Be diligent in discovering this principle, and never take your eye off it during the long writing process. Don’t do as most writers do, by picking a genre and imposing it on the premise, forcing the story to go through events associated with the genre in question; draw the designing principle out of the one-line premise.

Step 5: Determine your Best Character in the Idea.

Always tell a story about your best character.

The best character is the most fascinating and challenging character, always.

Step 6: Get a sense of the Central Conflict

Ask yourself: “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question over one succinct line. All conflict will boil down to this one issue, codified in your answer.

Step 7: Get a sense of the single Cause-and-effect Pathway

A good organic story has a single cause-and-effect pathway; this is the spine of the story and without it, the story will fall apart.

The trick to discovering this it ask yourself: “What’s my character’s basic action?” One action that your hero takes is more important than any other, and unifies every other action the hero takes, and that’s the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine your Hero’s Possible Character Change

That’s the second most important thing to gleam from your premise line: the fundamental character change of your hero. Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle.

WxA=C ( Weaknesses x Action = Change )

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

That’s the basic sequence of the human growth – what you, the writer, must express above everything else.

Write down a number of possible options for the hero’s weaknesses and change.

Remember that premise work is extremely tentative, especially concerning character change.

Step 9: Figure out the Hero’s possible Moral choice

The main theme of a story is often crystalized by a moral choice the hero must make, typically near the end of the story. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world. It is your moral vision, and it is one of the main reasons you are writing  your story.

Theme is best expressed through the structure of the story, the moral argument where you make a case for how to live, not through philosophical argument but through the actions of characters going after a goal.

To have a true choice, your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on some rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Be ruthless in answering this question of commercial appeal. Don’t fall into the either-or trap of believing that you can either write about what matters to you or what sells. Always try to write something you care about, and also think will appeal to an audience.

Coming Next: Chapter 3 – The seven Key Steps of Story Structure

Magnus Commentary: Well, wasn’t that one hell of an interesting read? While I am far from subscribing to John Truby’s idea that his is the best way of going about writing, this is certainly a fascinating look at a methodology that I’m more than willing to try.

There is also a lengthy writing exercise which calls upon us, the readers of said novel, to attempt to follow these ten steps. It’s in the book, and you should check it out; I’m currently attempting it with an idea for a novel that’s been stuck in my head for some time now, and I’ll be happy to report my progress to anyone who’s interested. Comment below!

PS I decided to go without my own thoughts on the premise, as I’m still playing around with the methodology.

Writing Advice: Showing and Telling

Early on, when I first started sharing my writing, a number of people gave me the following advice: Show, don’t tell.

That’s good advice, I thought; it helped me in identifying a particular weakness my writing had at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this particular piece of advice should have a caveat: Show, don’t tell…much.

Anything good I’ve read has both Telling and Showing. To only Show, or only Tell will inevitably end up as…well, not good! The point is, if you’ve got something that you’re afraid is too Tell-ish, perhaps you should leave it that way…at least until you get a clear look at your work.

Let’s unpack the two.

Showing is a way of describing what’s happening via the feelings that an event causes in the character that lives through it. Instead of informing, “She was afraid,” you try and show the fear; “The blood froze in her veins,” is one way to Show fear, and an unmistakable one at that. It doesn’t literally happen– most of the time, at least– but it gets the exact sentiment across. When you’re Showing, you will find yourself always looking for the right verb, since verbs create vividness in the mind of the reader better than most of the tools in your kit.

Telling is describing things as if you see those happening to someone else. It’s that part of your mind that’s narrating experiences in a calm, disaffectionate voice even as the rest of you is too busy with the heat of the moment, drowned in waves upon waves of emotion.

The ultimate reason for using both Showing and Telling is simple, really–the way we go through life is not only through us experiencing it, but through our awareness of the experience, as well. Showing and Telling aren’t opposites — they’re the end of the spectrum. Your works shouldn’t suffer from a complete lack of one and a drought of the other; explore the spectrum.

Enjoy the freedom that writing grants you and follow your vision!

PS If you’d like, you can try a fancy little exercise! Write a short scene, by only Telling. Rewrite it by Showing, and then — rewrite it a final time, this time by using both Telling and Showing!

Writing Advice: Memorable Characters

How do we create memorable characters?

Well, you’d need a dozen eggs, a bit of vanilla and seventeen cups of sugar to make your average Mary Sue; or you could whip yourself good old-fashioned one-dimensional characters by doing the same thing you’d do to get stale bread — don’t spend any time cooking them up in the oven; just make sure they’re one-note ponies, one and all.

These are not examples of memorable characters? Alright, alright, I’ll try harder!

What the above-mentioned is example of traps that writers fall in all the time. Perfect characters and one-note characters are both leading causes of aneurisms among enthusiast readers. By their very nature, these archetypes are dull; not in terms of ‘good’ dull–characters you’re writing with the intention of bringing something to your story by virtue of this attribute–but the kind of dull that makes your story just that much more unreadable.

You don’t want that.

You want your characters three-dimensional and unique. You want them to have flaws and strengths, to be internally consistent and not alien to the world you’re building around them.

Sounds simple enough, right?

…Perhaps I should dig into these points, just to be safe.

Three-dimensional characters require hard work and a lot of time invested in them. A good place you could start off with is by modeling your character after a real person you know; it’s not a method I consciously use, but I’ve heard that some people go with it, and are pretty happy with how it turns out.

I like to use chunks of small details as building blocks. I dislike bombarding my readers with every small quirk a character they’ve just met has; rather, it’s important to remember that just as we don’t notice everything there is to notice about a person the first time we meet them, neither do our protagonists, point-of-view characters and so on.

Unless you’re writing Sherlock Holmes. If that is the case, however, let me pose a question…do you really want to be writing Sherlock Holmes?

Don’t forget that your characters have lived lives before they appeared on page 423 of your novel. Draw from their past; you don’t have to write detailed backgrounds of every single character to appear in your book, but it’s good to have an idea of where they’re coming from. Sketch that with a few quick sentences over lunch break or on your commute from work or university; or if you’re too lazy (and you really shouldn’t be), think about it.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always go back to my Writing advice about Villains, and read all about how they act as foil to your protagonists, allowing all parties to learn more about where they stand in terms of morality, ethics, decency and everything else!

 

 

 

Writing Advice: World-Building

World-building is a tricky subject. Too much of it, and it ends up clogging the story. Too little, and

the setting ends up feeling too far removed from reality. There are many different aspects of world-building we can touch upon, but the most important thing you have to remember is…

If you like it and it’s part of our world, don’t be afraid to use it!

Too many writers forget that it’s alright to use realistic elements to their worlds; those can only add to your writing, enhance it. I’m as much of a sucker for magic, fantasy religions and amazing storytelling as you’ll ever find; I absolutely love to see authors add real-world elements to their works. Once you do that, you can then work to subvert that real-world aspect in order to show, rather than tell, how magic works.

Imagine for me, if you will, a world in which wizards with telekinetic abilities are fairly common. How would that affect a maritime nation’s…docking bays, for example? Would shipmasters pay a dozen men to load and unload their expensive, fragile cargo, or would they prefer to pay the local mage, who works faster and more efficiently?

Would lantern lighters be used in big cities where pyromancy wizards could snap their fingers to do an otherwise lengthy, tedious job? How about agriculture; how would the entire process of growing and harvesting food change if your world had magics that could be used to cultivate and grow plants at a much greater rate?

We can see positives to these examples, to be sure, but what’re the negatives? Could you pinpoint them for me?

Thinking about the socio-economic consequences of a given type of magical or religious system has on the world ensures that you add a complex layer to your fiction. It takes hard work, but the added level of realism makes up for it.

I’ve mentioned religion a few times now, and I feel obliged to expand on that particular topic. Religions in fantasy are often based on Greek and Norse mythology; borrowing real world religions can work very well, as seen in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos– in those books, Catholic Christianity is fascinating to read about.

Two of the central characters of Hyperion are Catholic priests–men who have put their faith in (what is at this point) a crumbling, dying religion. It’s understandable why we find the church in such a state of disrepair; seven centuries later, Christ has yet to rise again. In the face of more attractive religions such as Zen Christianity, Catholicism simply wanes.

Later, because of events I won’t spoil, Catholicism does reemerge as the dominant religion; but this time, as a much more sinister organization, akin to the Catholic Church that was behind the Inquisition; thus, past and future intertwine.

Again, it’s important to build on how exactly the religions you borrow from work differently in your world. A good point to start from is…are they based on real events, or not? If they are, how accurately do they represent historical events? How much of what you know about the religion in question is common knowledge?

Question like these will help you create a solid foundation on which to build on!

The topic of world-building is hardly exhausted with this short discussion; next week, however, I will try and tackle exposition, and how not to bore your readers to death. See you next week!

 

Writing Advice: Essays

One thing I set out to do with this blog–that I have yet to do–is write a series of long-form essays about topics that intrigue me. Perhaps I’ve done a bit of that with my ‘Saturday Night Gaming’ series, but I’ve decided that now would be a good time to take a long look at what you–and I–should do before we venture onto writing a good and proper essay.

Just today, I read a wonderful essay at the back of Neuromancer, written by a fellow writer and a friend of the book’s author, William Gibson.  What struck me was the excitement, the pure joy that these words radiated; so well were they crafted that I found myself nearly seduced to scroll back to the beginning of the book, and take an unforgettable journey into cyberspace all over again.

Excitement, then, is the most important building block, the one to use as foundation for your essays. When you’re excited about a given topic, it shows; ideas come more easily, they seamlessly flow on the page (or on the text processor), and most importantly, excitement translates through language with ridiculous ease!

Writing essays is about your views; so make sure to crystalize those. Before writing a review, essay, or blog post, I take a pen and paper and scribble the clearest points in my mind. Then, while I’m writing, I will often glance towards that piece of paper, and make sure that I’m presenting my core arguments in a clear, understandable way. Clarity is of such enormous importance to any piece of writing and essays are no different.

And how about the importance of research? Might be a bore when you’re writing a book, but if you’re looking for factual information to help strengthen your essay, it really shouldn’t be a problem. I take a long time to read up on studios, developers and development processes of the different games I write/make videos about, and it’s always far more entertaining than frustrating. Finding information about the things you love is downright inspirational, in fact–and no surprise there!

Having cold, hard facts on your side will also help with your confidence; all you have to do, then, is present them well and proper!

Yet another good idea is to use pictures or any other kind of visual media to help accentuate–or showcase–whatever it is you’re writing an essay about. I could do well in this particular aspect, myself; admittedly, many of the posts on my blog lack any kind of visual aspect at all.

In my defense, I am way too distracted by my writing to have the time for pictures!

A last piece of advice–and this is for writing in general, but I feel compelled to repeat it–proofread before you go live! No one enjoys silly, quick-to-remove mistakes or sloppy grammar, punctuation and so on, and so forth.

I’m not claiming mastery when it comes to writing essays–on writing anything, for that matter–but these are a few guiding points which will be helpful for anyone who, like me, is interested in exploring this particular medium further.

I’ll get back to this topic someday, when I have greater experience with essay-writing. For now, thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to next time!