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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

more thoughts on the epic fantasy thing

My post on writing a long epic fantasy has been generating some interesting discussion in a variety of places: the comment thread, Twitter, etc. I wanted to come back to it long enough to highlight a few lengthier responses that I think make very good points.

The first comes from C.E. Petit at Scrivener’s Error; scroll down to the third bit to find his thoughts. I tend not to talk about “theme” because the word has been so badly treated by high school English classes, but his point is a sound one, and can provide guidance as to how the author might gauge whether their story has begun to grow out of control. Are you diluting your thematic message by adding in all these other subplots? Or, conversely, are you hammering your reader too energetically with that message, by playing through sixteen variations on the motif? (Which is not, of course, to say that the work will have only one thematic message, especially if it stretches to four books or more. But a central line is still vital.)

The second, or rather the second and third, is Patricia C. Wrede’s two-part response to my own argument, which digs further into the question of why authors fall into these traps, and what they can do about them. I want to say that she is 100% right about the arbitrariness of your opening structural decision: even if you base it around some kind of pattern (as she suggests in the second post), ultimately that’s a framework you then try to pour your story into, rather than a natural outgrowth of the story itself. You don’t set out to write seven books because that’s precisely how much character and plot and so on you have to tell; you write seven books because you decided to build each one thematically around the seven deadly sins or chronologically around the years Harry will be in school, and then you try to scale everything else to match.

Note that we do this all the time in fantasy: it’s called a trilogy. You sign a contract for three books, okay, and so you plan your story based around that arbitrary decision. I’d venture to say that the vast majority of series that are planned as trilogies end up as exactly that. There are exceptions (Terry Goodkind, as discussed in Zeno’s Mountains; George R.R. Martin; the Hitchhiker’s series), but it seems that most of us are capable of sticking to three books when that’s what we said we’d do. It’s only when we go beyond three that our control seems so liable to slip — because we have so few models for how to do it right, and because one more book is much less expansion when it’s ten instead of nine than when it’s four instead of three. And, maybe, because if you’re selling well enough for your publisher to support nine books, they’re eager for you to make it ten instead.

But we manage it with trilogies, and TV writers manage it almost without fail when they write shows with season-long arc plots. Absent the network jerking them around, they finish their story in twenty-two episodes of X minutes each, period, the end, no “please just one more ep” or “sorry, this one ran twelve minutes long.”

Is that kind of discipline detrimental to the story? Sure, sometimes. But so, manifestly, is allowing one’s discipline to falter. And I say — with the spotless virtue of an author who has never yet had a publisher throw stacks of money at her, begging for a bestselling series to continue — that I would rather make myself find a way to tell my story more efficiently, with fewer digressions and wasted words, and end it while people are still in love with the tale, than risk losing sight of the original vision in a swamp of less productive byways.

(“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” Speaking of tales planned as trilogies, and delivered that way, and in my opinion all the better for it.)

It isn’t easy. As Wrede points out, it requires frequent check-ins with your plan, however you may have built said plan. It may require you to murder some very beloved darlings. But just as a sonnet’s structure can force you to make really good use of your fourteen allotted lines, so can a fixed length to your series.

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/579046.html. Comment here or there.

How to write a long fantasy series

It took three years and two months rather than the two years I initially planned, but I have, at very long last, finished the Wheel of Time re-read and analysis. And as I promised quite some time ago, we’ll end with what I’ve learned.

This post, unlike the others, is not WoT-specific. I’ll be referencing the series, because it’s the primary source of my thoughts on this topic, but the point here is to talk about the specific challenges of writing a long epic fantasy series — here defining “long” as “more than a trilogy, and telling one ongoing story.” (So something like Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books wouldn’t count, since they’re a conglomeration of multiple trilogies.) My points probably also apply to non-fantasy series, but other genres are much less likely to attempt multi-volume epics on this scale, so I’m mostly speaking to my fellow fantasists.

I do not pretend this is in any way, shape, or form a recipe for commercial success with an epic fantasy series. After all, most of this is a checklist of errors I feel Jordan made, and you could paper the walls of Tor’s offices in fifty-dollar bills with the cash he made for them. Nor am I claiming artistic failure awaits if you fail to heed this advice; you might squeak through on luck, or just really good storytelling instinct. But I do feel that bearing these points in mind can help the would-be writer of an epic series avoid falling off some of the more common and perilous cliffs.

With all of that intro material out of the way, let’s get to it.

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a set of very interesting questions

I could see giving this to physics students as a brain-bender. (In fact, I won’t be surprised if it turns out somebody already has.)

In the first scenario, I believe — operating on the remnants of my physics knowledge — that it would accelerate downward. Gravity still acts on the rod; it will move, and the bits of it that pass through the blue portal re-emerge from the orange one with their momentum conserved, so it’s (I think) functionally no different from letting it fall a really long distance. Probably it will achieve terminal velocity at some point.

In the second scenario, I think the rod would accelerate the other way? But I’m not sure. The falling orange portal would push some of the rod back out the blue portal, which pushes more into the orange portal, and you’ve basically got the same situation as in #1, except in the other direction. But the part I can’t figure out is what happens when the orange portal comes to rest atop the blue one. (Or even not directly atop it — you could stop any distance away that is less than the length of the rod.) Does the rod bend? There’s no longer enough room for all its length between the portals, so I feel like it must, but I’m not sure how the force for that works out. (And actually, if the rod is allowed to move as in scenario #1, then I think you get this problem right away. Because then the rod is trying to come and go from both portals at once.)

In the third scenario, I think that if the portals are shot as depicted in the diagram, you’ve made a weak projectile. Move the orange portal, and now the rod falls through the floor and out the wall. (If you’ve let it build up momentum via the first scenario, then maybe it’s not so weak.) But that assumption depends on what I think is an as-yet unanswered question in the games, namely, what happens if a portal goes away while something more solid than a beam of light is athwart the boundary. I’m presuming it severs the object in question, so that you’ve basically made an ordinary piece of pipe with a solder in the middle, which then falls through the blue portal. I’m not sure we ever saw that issue in action during the game, though, at least not as a puzzle. (Probably people have left turrets or cubes balanced on the portal boundary and then shot a new one; my guess is they fell to whichever side had the majority of their mass. But that may just be a coding default, rather than a conscious choice on the part of the designers to say that portals can’t slice objects in half.)

It’s been years since I thought about this stuff, though. Tell me, O internets: where have I got it wrong?

Suspension

I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in the responses to “Waiting for Beauty.” (You can read it for free online; go ahead and click. It’s less than eight hundred words long.) Multiple people have said something to the effect of “I could tell where it was going, but I enjoyed it anyway.” And this has inspired Thinky Thoughts about predictability in fiction.

Normally my metaphors for writing tend to revolve around textile arts (weaving, embroidery, sewing, etc), but I’ve been having misadventures in piano lately, so this time I’m going to go with music. There’s a thing called a suspension, which you’ve heard many times even if you don’t know that’s the term for it. You know how sometimes, before a piece settles into the final chord, it hangs there for a moment being not-quite-right? That’s a suspension: a note from a different chord persisting before at last resolving into the sound you expect.

Suspension works because you do expect the resolution. You hear it before it happens; you know where the music is going. Resolving into another chord entirely might be a clever trick, but it isn’t “better,” and if you use that trick too often you’ll annoy a lot of your audience.

We tend to talk about predictability in fiction as if it’s a bad thing. The word itself has a negative connotation — and heck, some writers decry “resolution” as being the cheap and easy way out of a story in the first place. But we crave resolution; we derive satisfaction from that feeling of knowing where the music is going, and following it to the end. And it’s true in fiction, too. Predictability is only a bad thing when it’s done badly.

Okay, tautologies are tautological. What’s the difference between doing it badly and doing it well? If I knew that for sure, I’d be selling my wisdom to the masses. But I can suss out three factors, at least, the first of which is that the suspense (in the musical sense of the word, more than the thriller one, though the breathless anticipation of the camera panning around to show the murderer is often suspense of the music-analogous variety as well) — right, that parenthetical got too long. Let’s start over: suspense should not overstay its welcome. “Waiting for Beauty” is less than eight hundred words long because its central conceit can’t bear a heavier weight than that. If I wanted a five-thousand-word story, I’d have to bring in other material, delay for as long as possible the introduction of that element — and that still might not work, because whatever filled the first 4500 or so would have to be substantial enough that it would probably take over the story.

The second factor is that the material of the suspension has to be worthwhile in its own right. “Waiting for Beauty” depends heavily on the specificity of the details along the way, the image it builds up, brick by brick. If that doesn’t work for a given reader (as it hasn’t, for some), the story itself will fall apart on the spot. For other stories, it might be the vivid emotion leading up to the revelation of what the reader has seen all along. Or the clockwork precision of disparate plot elements falling into place. The point is, the general point of “the writing has to be good” becomes critically true when the unexpected ceases to be one of your selling points: you need the reader to admire the journey for its own sake.

And the third, of course, is that the final chord — the thing the reader is anticipating — has to be something they want. One of the things that makes M. Night Shyamalan’s later movies not work for me is that when I see where they’re going, I really, really wish they would go somewhere else. To some extent this ties into the issue of cliches: suspension turns into predictability (in the negative sense) when the thing you’re making the reader wait for is a thing they’ve seen a bazillion times. But it’s possible to be not a cliche, and still undesirable. The Sixth Sense is arguably more cliched than Shyamalan’s subsequent films, but I like the former and dislike the latter because of where he’s leading me in each one.

As obvious as it seems to say that predictability is okay — even beneficial! — if you do it well, I feel like sometimes we lose sight of that in our rush to condemn “easy” storytelling. Some of Shakespeare’s plays start with a prologue that spoils the entire plot; we still keep watching. Uncertainty is not the only thing that can create suspense; sometimes, in a different way, certainty can do the same.

(Re)Visiting the Wheel of Time: On Prophecy

[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag. Comments on old posts are welcome.]

Next month I’m going to dive into the final stretch of the Wheel of Time analysis. But before I do that, I’d like to talk about prophecy.

I thought about waiting a while longer. See, the major example I want to use for illustration is a plot that hasn’t actually paid off yet, as of the books I’ve read. This means that, while I can talk about where I think it’s going to go, I don’t actually know yet if I’m right. (Possibly some of you do, as I suspect the resolution is in The Towers of Midnight. But I dunno; maybe it’s in A Memory of Light. If it’s in ToM, though, don’t give any spoilers in the comments. I want to find out on my own how much of this is accurate.) In some ways, though, I think it’s more interesting to do it like this: to say what I think right now, without the hindsight warping it. So here we go.

The reason I wanted to discuss prophecy is that I think it’s one of the things Jordan does really, really well. In fact, if there’s one thing I would point at as the reason for my fannishness in high school — the thing that made me engage so enthusiastically with this series — prophecy would probably be it. On a metaphysical level, I’m not so fond of the trope: it puts the characters on a railroad track, taking away their agency and making their choices less meaningful. And that’s kind of true here, too, though Jordan sometimes goes the additional step required to make that interesting, which is to have the characters grapple with what it means to have their actions predestined. On the whole, though, it isn’t the existence of prophecy that I like.

It’s the way Jordan handles it. He strikes, I think, a very good (and delicate) balance of foreshadowing, giving enough information to be interesting, not so much as to spoil the entire plot. More to the point, he does this the right way: not through vagueness (which is what way too many fantasy authors try), but through breaking the information up and scattering it in a dozen different places.

It isn’t just the official Prophecies of the Dragon, with their pompous, pseudo-epic verse. It’s Egwene’s dreams, and those of the other Dreamers. It’s Elaida’s Foretellings, and Nicola’s, and Gitara Moroso’s. Min’s viewings. Aelfinn and Eelfinn tricks. Aiel prophecies and Sea Folk prophecies and things that aren’t even prophecy of any sort; they’re just little details of culture and history, stray lines characters speak here and there, tiny pieces you have to glue together to see that they have any significance at all.

Sure, some of it is vague. (Hi, Karaethon Cycle; how ya doin’?) But some of it is very specific, very clear . . . so long as you put it together right. And that’s why I think it works: if you’re the sort of reader who doesn’t want to know where the story is going, you don’t have to. Just read along, notice the obvious stuff, and let the rest surprise you when it comes. If, however, you’re the sort of person who likes to put together narrative jigsaw puzzles — which I am — then you can have a great deal of fun playing chase-the-clue through the books.

Having made the general statement, we’ll now go behind the spoiler cut for a specific example to show what I mean.

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Spoiler Alert! (Watch this make people not read the post.)

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece from January about spoilers and how we respond to them. Short form: for many people, spoilers actually enhance, rather than detract from, their enjoyment of the full story. And this is true even for people who are convinced that they prefer not to have any spoilers at all.

I would put myself in the camp of not wanting spoilers, but when I read through the reasoning presented in the article, it was exactly what I would have predicted. By knowing where the story is going, we allay our subconscious anxiety. Knowing that Character A lives means we don’t have to be as afraid for her; knowing that Character B dies means we’re prepared for it when it comes. As brilliantly cathartic as it can be to go through those experiences without the psychological safety net, that works best when we really, really trust the storyteller not to disappoint or betray us. And how often is that true?

A story can work even when we know the ending — even when we can quote the entire thing line for line. Usually people say this is because you can still appreciate the craft, the process by which that ending comes about, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But it isn’t the whole story (no pun intended). A good enough narrative can still pack its emotional punch as well as an intellectual one, even on a revisit. My favorite example of this is Apollo 13, a movie I adore and have watched quite a few times. Not only is it familiar to me, it’s based on freaking history. You would think that by now, there would be zero suspense for me in the question of whether they’ll get home safely or not.

And yet, every time I watch that movie, I’m on the edge of my seat during those minutes of radio silence.

There’s a secret ingredient that makes it work: empathy. Sure, I know that the astronauts will be safe. I knew that even before I sat down to watch the movie. But the characters don’t know. And because my heart is with them, because I am imagining myself in their shoes rather than sitting comfortably in my own, I am petrified and tearful, just like they are. And when it all turns out okay, I get the same cathartic release.

I find myself thinking that when people say spoilers ruin the story for them, I am the most inclined to believe the ones who also never re-read books, never re-watch movies. But I have plenty of books and movies I revisit, and enjoy just as much (or more) the second time around. So it makes me think that, for me at least, what spoilers ruin are bad stories. Weak ones, that don’t do the work of making me empathize with the characters, and don’t provide the intellectual pleasure of examining how the dominoes got lined up. They have to rely on the element of surprise to engage me, and once that’s gone, they’ve blown their wad. Good stories survive the spoiler process just fine, and maybe even turn out better for it. I can relax into the experience, knowing I’m in skilled hands.

Possibly this explains why I love movie trailers as much as I do. I still get annoyed when I think the trailer gave the whole story away (and feel pleasant surprise when it turns out I’m wrong — that’s happened in the oddest places, sometimes), but I like the preview of what I’ll be getting. I read the cover copy of books, I read friends’ reviews (though I sometimes — not always — avoid the ones that say they contain major spoilers) . . . but I don’t go as far as some do and read the last five pages. I’m sort of tempted to try that now, and see how it goes. After all, the good books should, in theory, be unharmed.

But I’ll still put spoiler alerts on things I write. It’s expected courtesy these days, and I might get lynched if I didn’t. So I’ll just say: it’s okay. You’re allowed to highlight the hidden text, to click through and see what’s behind the cut. I won’t judge you for it if you do.

we can’t all be the goddamned Batman

There’s a moment in The Dark Knight Rises — don’t worry; no spoilers — where Bruce Wayne gets from one part of the world to the other, in a very short span of time, without access to his usual resources.

How does he manage that? As kniedzw said when I brought this up to him, “He’s the goddamned Batman, that’s how.”

And you know, I’m fine with that as an answer. It fits the genre, and the place that scene occupies in the story; nobody wants to pause there for an extended dissertation on the logistics of international travel. Or even a short one, really. If it isn’t an interesting and relevant part of the story, we should skip over it and get to the parts that are.

. . . I talk a good talk there, but the truth is that I have a damn hard time doing this in my own work. Skipping over routine things, sure. I don’t do a blow-by-blow of every last action my characters take. But when something less than 100% routine happens, I have a hard time saying “my character is the goddamned Batman” and moving on. If I’d been writing The Dark Knight Rises, I would have had to figure out — for my own edification, if nobody else’s — just how Bruce Wayne got from A to B under those circumstances. And, if it were a novel, probably looked for a place to toss in a line of narration or dialogue nodding in the direction of whatever explanation I worked out. Because however willing I am to grant other people’s stories the benefit of the doubt in these cases, I have a hard time believing anybody else will do the same for me.

Obviously there are places where the benefit of the doubt falls down. If the thing being glossed over is too outrageous, I can’t bridge that gap, and the stumble distracts me from the story. Or if you make too frequent a habit of doing it, I begin to feel like you’re lazy, dodging all the hard stuff because you only want to have fun (and your fun gets flimsier as a result). Or if you’re trying to be all realistic and crunchy about how things get done, and then you handwave past something major, I suspect you did that because you couldn’t find a way to get it done, and your only answer was to cheat. I also think it’s easier for movies to get away with this trick than novels. They move at their own pace, rather than the reader’s, leaving less time for spotting holes; they also aren’t expected to go into as much detail, lest their run time be nine hours. And some genres accommodate this trick better than others.

But we do it in novels, too, whether the extent is lesser or greater. Dorothy Dunnett spends all of a couple of sentences on telling us how half a dozen guys made their way across sixteenth-century Europe to Russia. Those sentences nod to them having a lot of trouble doing it, but it’s only a nod, with no explanation; we are invited to understand that they are each the goddamned Batman, and that’s how they managed it.

Sometimes it’s a benefit for me to work through those things, to answer all the logistical questions for myself, if not for the reader. Sometimes, though . . . it’s easy to get hung up on this, to stall forward progress because I have to nail down every last detail in my head. And sometimes I catch myself subsequently putting those details into the story, because if I don’t show my math I don’t trust that the reader will trust me.

It isn’t just a plot issue; sometimes it’s a worldbuilding one, too. For Isabella’s memoirs, I’m working through a myriad of details on climate, geology, and other such details of the natural world, because my hindbrain is convinced that I can’t be allowed to gloss over a single thing there. We aren’t talking Tolkien’s suspiciously rectangular mountain ranges here, either: I mean that if I don’t set up the elevation and surrounding topography of the swamps of Mouleen precisely right for the amount of rainfall they receive, everybody will notice.

And the truth is, only some readers will. The climatologists among you. If they’re paying close attention. And maybe not even then, since it isn’t like I’m providing information on the exact latitude of Mouleen, or the direction of ocean currents along its shore. (Though believe you me, my brain would try to work the ocean currents out, if I didn’t keep it on a leash.)

I have to do some of this for the series because it’s about a scientist, and that means I need to be able to talk about the science without the whole thing falling down. But it is also supposed to be an adventure. The adventure tone is not served by me anxiously showing my math on every last detail of plot and setting. And yet I still struggle to believe that I can get away with anything, even as I let other people do it all the time.

I’d be interested in examples of authors you think have done this badly or well. What factors determine how willing you are to leap over those gaps?

Information Density Pt. 2, or, let’s try an example

I said before that it’s hard to talk about certain issues in writing without specific examples. Since I just finished reading a book that I think illustrates the challenge of information density and scale very well, I’m back for a follow-up round.

Before I get into the example, though, an anecdote. One of the archaeological sites I worked on has reconstructions of period houses as part of a public display. Several are very well-constructed, and one is a mess. But I’ll never forget what one of the archaeologists said about that one: “We’ve learned more from our mistakes here than we have from the ones we did right.”

The book I want to discuss is one I think failed to manage the kinds of issues that don’t fit easily into fiction. It tried, but it didn’t succeed. I think well of the author for trying, and am not here to mock or belittle her effort; in fact, as the author in question is Tamora Pierce, she’s someone I think fairly well of overall. But I think you can often learn more from an ambitious failure than a success.

Oh, and just in case anybody didn’t see this coming: there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you haven’t yet read Mastiff, the third and last of the Beka Cooper books, I will be discussing the main conflict (though I will try to stay away from spoiling some of the other important things that happen along the way).

For those who haven’t read any of the series . . . it’s about the Provost’s Guard, aka the Provost’s Dogs, who are the police force for the medievalish kingdom of Tortall. (Aside: yes, it’s odd for a setting like that to have an organized police force. But whatever; it’s the buy-in for the story.) The protagonist, Beka Cooper, starts off as a “Puppy” or new Guardswoman, and becomes more experienced as the series goes on. Each book deals with a different type of crime: in the first one, it’s smuggling; in the second, it’s counterfeiting; in the third, it’s slavery.

. . . sort of. Slavery is actually legal in Tortall; the actual crime in this book is treason. But slavery is more central to the plot in many ways, and if you follow me behind the cut to spoiler territory, I’ll start to unpack that.

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Information Density, or, cramming a fifty-pound sausage into a five-pound sack

alecaustin recently had a thought-provoking post on his LJ, riffing off some recent discussions about the people and issues that are “invisible” in fiction to talk about information density and how you can’t fit everything into a story. In particular, there are certain kinds of topics that fit very badly indeed. He has a few examples of his own, but since I want to dig into this issue more deeply, I’m going to use one I know fairly well, which is the English Civil War.

One of the books I read when doing research for In Ashes Lie was called Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642. As the title suggests, its argument is that the wars of the mid-seventeenth century had their roots in the sixteenth — which is exactly the kind of thing that’s hard to convey in fiction, when the cause in question isn’t a simple case of “this person was assassinated five generations ago, and we still bear a grudge for that.” In particular, I’m going to tease out one economic strand for the purposes of our discussion here. If you’re not interested in reading about that sort of thing (if you aren’t, I can’t blame you), then scroll on down; I’ll get back to my point in a moment.

(Fair Warning: my point is long. And digresses along the way.)

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Causes of the English Revolution, The Nutshell Version.