February 22, 2024 / 2 Comments

Balancing Point

As some of you know, I play tabletop games. I have for about… wow, almost twenty five years now. I spend a month or so painting up a hundred-plus little toy soldiers and then my friends and I roll dice and move them around the tabletop. The hobby side of it is kind of meditative for me, the gaming side is a great reason to hang out with friends.

I started out playing a lot of Warhammer 40K and Fantasy, but for the past two years or so I’ve been much more into One Page Rules (shameless, unsponsored plug). It’s a simpler game that lets you use a lot of the same models (if you want), but doesn’t require as many books and charts and dice rolls to do things, which means we can focus more on just hanging out and having fun. Which is, y’know, kind of the point of most games.

But one thing we’re still getting used to is the balance shift. Because OPR doesn’t use as many mechanics as 40K, a lot of actions and results seem under- or overpowered to what my gaming group’s used to. We want things to behave a certain way, yeah, but we also don’t want to discover that something’s drastically weaker or waaaaaaaay too unstoppable now. This is an inherent part of most gaming—no player should have an immediate or inherent leg up over the others.

And it may sound obvious but… games are set up that way so it’s fun for everyone. Yeah, every now and then it’s great to when everything goes your way and it feels like you’re essentially playing in god mode. With the right people, you can even have fun when absolutely nothing works out for you. But if this is the standard result… well, it gets frustrating and boring really fast. Who wants to play a game where whoever gets to play the blue guys always wins? Even when you’re the blue guys, it gets boring.

So, what does all this have to do with writing?

Well, stories need a degree of balance, too. We want characters to have a chance at achieving their goals, but we also want them to face a challenge getting there. If my story leans too far one way or the other, well…

If my antagonist is all-powerful, and my hero never has a chance… that’s boring as hell. There might be a few dramatic moments if I do things just right, but probably not. The truth is, we want to see our heroes win on some level, and if it becomes clear the only real outcome is getting ground into the dirt… I mean, who wants to read that?

I’d also point out that beating the antagonist doesn’t mean defeating them utterly. There are pyrrhic and moral victories, too. But as far as my main character is concerned, they have to have a chance to succeed at their particular goals. No chance means no interest.

The flipside of this is also true. If my main character is completely prepared and capable and never loses or suffers any setbacks… that’s not very interesting either. It might be kind of amusing to watch Reacher take out that one wiseassed teenager, but if all he did for ten episodes was beat up unarmed sixteen year olds again and again, it’d get uncomfortable pretty fast. And then boring. Characters who are basically playing in god mode aren’t interesting because they never get challenged. The reader (or audience) quickly understands there’s no danger or threat the hero can’t deal with. Ever.

Like, okay, let’s talk superheroes for a minute. Look at Thor. An actual god in the Marvel Universe. And the only character to get four dedicated movies. But let’s look at those movies for a moment. They’re not all winners. Even the most die-hard Marvel fan will admit this. I don’t think I’m out of line saying most people would probably say the original Thor and Ragnarok are the better two, while Dark World and Love & Thunder are the lesser two. The exact order shifts for everyone, I’m sure.

Now, if you accept this rough order, let me ask a question. What makes these two pairs different? What happens in Thor and Ragnarok that doesn’t happen in the other two?

Y’see, Timmy, I think one of the big reasons those two movies are more popular is that Thor loses his godlike powers (and his connection to Asgard) in both of them. In the first one they’re stripped away by Odin as a lesson. In the second his mystical hammer, Mjolnir, is destroyed, and much of his power lost (or is it…?). Both times things that would normally be easy for him are suddenly very difficult, and he’s forced to adapt and improvise and change. Y’know, good character stuff.

And in the other two movies he’s.. a god. Dealing with other gods. Doing god stuff. In god mode.

If I’ve got an overly powerful protagonist or antagonist in my story, maybe I should take another look at her or him. Do they need to be that strong? Wouldn’t they be more interesting with feet of clay? Maybe both feet and a leg?

Isn’t my story going to be a bit more interesting if the outcome doesn’t seem guaranteed from the start?

I mean, I think it would. But I’m weird that way.

Next time, I’d like to talk about something simple.

Okay, technically, next time will be the newsletter going up here. But after that… something simple.

Until then, go write.

December 21, 2023

Important Holiday Choices

Well, it’s that time of year again. Christmas movie time. Maybe you’ve got a bunch on DVD or BluRay. Perhaps you’ve gone all digital. Heck, I think most streaming services have playlists ready and waiting for you.

I thought I’d take shameless advantage of the holidays to revisit an idea that I haven’t talked about in a while. It’s writing in-general relevant, but as we’ll see it crops up a lot in holiday movies. Especially…

Well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s start with basics.

A lot of story (in the bigger plot-vs-story sense) boils down to “what my character decides to do.” Are they going to play it safe, try to fade into the background, stay home and do those TPS reports? Or are they going take a stand, take a chance, and go on that adventure?

Usually these choices boil down to a binary. Do X or do Y. Suck it up or quit my job? Help the little girl or mind my own business? Tell the truth or try to keep it hidden for a little longer? There’s a few trillion examples of this. I tend to think of these as triangles. My character is one point (A), their two options (we’ll say B and C) are the other points. You’ve probably heard of romantic triangles, yes? That’s a pretty standard dramatic device that pops up in a lot of stories.

Now, here’s the catch. Triangles—of any sort—only really work when B and C are both viable options. If my choices are stay late at my soul-crushing job where I’m unappreciated or go see my kid’s school play… well, that’s not much of a choice, is it? and if my protagonist chooses to stay at work, well… what does that say about them?

Granted, there might be a very good reason to stay at work that counterbalances this. Maybe there’s a big bonus they really need for finishing on time? Could a promotion be in the balance? Heck, maybe they’re helping someone else out. No point both of us missing the play—you go, I’ll get all this cleaned up. All these are good, viable things. But they need to be there for that balance to work. Otherwise, my character’s just making bad choices.

This imbalance shows up a lot in romantic triangles. One person is sweet and funny and supportive and attractive and the other side is… well, horrible. Selfish. Self-absorbed. They scowl so much they have permanent wrinkles in their forehead—and they’re only 23! I mean, if my choice is to be with Sam or be with Roy, and Roy is a misogynistic Nazi… well, that’s not much of a choice, is it?

When we don’t have balanced options, there isn’t a lot of dramatic weight to the actual choice. It’s like Eddie Izzard’s old “cake or death” routine. It’s not that surprising that everybody picks cake. And if I base my whole story around “gosh, will Jamie pick cake or death? Which one’s she going to choose?!?”… I mean, it won’t really shock anyone when Jamie picks up the dessert fork, right? It’s not exactly a surprise outcome.

So when my characters needs to make choices, there has to be some value to each choice. It needs to be a choice that takes effort to make. If there isn’t, I run the risk of them looking… well, a little foolish at best.

Also, just to save someone the time, yes, sometimes my two options are both bad choices. But that’s still a choice with dramatic weight. Let your best friend die or let a hundred strangers die? Starve to death or cut off your own arm?

Now, on that note, I told you all this so I can talk about Christmas movies…

Christmas movies are a solid, dependable genre. And a subgenre of several other standard movies, too. People try to sound intellectual and artsy by talking about superhero fatigue, but in all seriousness—Christmas movies are the real machine. Look at Hallmark, Disney, and Netflix and add up how many new Christmas films and specials they’ve made between them this year. You’ll hit double digits, easy. Might even get close to triple digits. And that’s just three streamers! I mean, at this point Shudder’s got a very solid Christmas sub-genre going.

Now, one recurring theme we see a lot is the Christmas romance. Yeah, don’t lie. You’ve seen a lot of them. Probably this year. They can be oddly comforting, even though some of them are also really awkward and fumbly.

I’d like to talk about the awkward ones.

A pretty standard Christmas romance goes something like this. A young woman (it’s almost always a woman) falls for a guy who’s a few weeks away from getting engaged, married, etc. The two of them have chemistry, while his current partner rages away at her big corporate job, becomes a larval Bridezilla, or maybe is just a generally awful person. Eventually the guy comes to see the error of his ways and our two impossibly good-looking people end up together just in time to kiss on Christmas Eve.

(you know which movie I’m talking about, right?)

Now right off the bat, this is one of those unbalanced triangles I was talking about above. One good choice, one awful choice. Wow, what a shock how things went, right?

But there’s another problem here that’s a little tougher to notice at first glance. A really basic flaw in how a lot of these holiday movies set up their triangle. It’s why they always come across as a bit weird and the protagonists always seem a bit… well, wrong. And I think it’s one of those things that’s really easy for me to avoid once I see it all laid out

Let’s use that basic structure up above for our example. Our test story, so to speak. Alexis (A) has a meet-cute with Ben (B), who is in a relationship with Chloe (C). Amy and Ben have chemistry, Chloe is bordering on (if not openly) awful and clearly wrong for Ben. And it’s Christmas because… y’know, that’s when this always seems to happen.

Now, normally in one of these romantic triangle situations, our protagonist would be Ben. After all, he’s the one who needs to make a choice here, right? He needs to be active and decide if he wants to be with Alexis or Chloe.

But

See here’s where it gets weird. Our protagonist is Alexis, but she’s technically the B in our “choose B or C” triangle scenario. So Ben’s the one choosing (the A), and she’s the one getting… chosen? See, that’s confusing just typing it out.

Plus, the only way I can make Alexis active in this situation is to have her do some, well, questionable things. If she tries to improve her relationship with Ben—all those normal romance beats like long talks and quiet dinners and shared passions—well, that kinda means she’s undercutting Ben’s relationship with Chloe. Which is a little tough, morally, no matter what we think of Chloe. And geeeeez, if things get physical to any level, well, now they both look bad. Alexis is making moves on somebody in a relationship. And Ben’s hooking up with someone else? I mean, how awful does Chloe have to be for us to be cool with him cheating on her? And if she’s not that bad, then… well, yeah, he’s a jerk. So why does Alexis want to be with him?

Yeah, okay, sometimes odd things happen between people in really specific situations. Everybody reacts differently to stress and fear and all that. Firm embraces may happen. Maybe even a kiss or desperate proclamation. But that’s a reeeeeeeeally fine line. Scary fine. It’s so easy for that situation to go from somewhat one-time excusable to what-the-hell inappropriate.

Y’see, Timmy, as I mentioned above, when Alexis is this point in the triangle, she isn’t the one with a choice to make. Not a real one, anyway. So she has two options. She can do nothing (which ends the story pretty quick) or she can try to disrupt Ben and Chloe’s relationship. Those are her only paths, as far as our plot goes, and neither of them is a great one from a storytelling point of view.

I think when writers make this mistake, they’re confusing the outcome with the choices that lead to it. We’ve all heard “the ends justify the means,” but this tends to ignore that the means I use also determines what kind of end I get. And more importantly, how we perceive those end results. There’s a bunch of ways Alexis and Ben can end up together, but a lot of those paths can make one (or both) of them into characters we don’t really like or care about. In some cases, we may even be actively rooting against them. Cause they’ll be horrible people.

Don’t worry about outcomes. Outcomes are the conclusion of a story. Think about the path to that outcome. The choices my character has to make in order to get there.

Because those choices are my story. They’re my plot. And if there aren’t any real choices, or they’re all being made by supporting characters, or they’re all just questionable, really bad choices… well…

I shouldn’t be shocked if people think it’s a bad story.

Speaking of stories and holidays, here’s a shameless reminder that ebooks and audiobooks make fantastic last-minute gifts. Have I mentioned those two anthologies that just came out? I’ve got a story in Joe Ledger: Unbreakable and one in The Reinvented Detective. And both of them have loose tie-ins to other work (hint hint hint).

Next time, I’ll probably do one of those annual round up/ list of accomplishment things all the cool kids are doing.

Until then, go write.

And have a happy and peaceful holiday season.

So here’s an easy thing to look for. I used to do this… let’s say a fair amount in my early writing. I see it happen in other’s people’s writing—especially first big projects. And I see it happen all the time in low-budget B-movies that didn’t bother with, well, a script. It’s really common when actors start to ad-lib scenes. Enough so that I feel very comfortable saying it’s really common.

What is it? Well, wouldn’t you like to know. No, I don’t have to tell you. BECAUSE I’M IN CHARGE, THAT’S WHY! WELL THEN GO START YOUR OWN WRITING BLOG!!!

Okay, let’s just pause for a moment, all take a breath, and try this again…

NO, YOU DIE! YOU GO TO HELL AND YOU DIE!!!

Anyway…

If you spend any amount of time online, arguments almost feel like the default form of human interaction. Because let’s be honest, there are some folks out there who just want to argue. About anything. You like kittens? Of course you would. That’s exactly the kind of thing someone like you would like!

As we’ve all learned, these sort of arguments rarely go anywhere. The people starting it, well… they’re not really interested in opposing views or hearing a counter-argument. So these discussions often amount to a lot of yelling that goes nowhere. Everyone ends up more or less right where they started, position-wise. Nobody’s been convinced to hate kittens or stop carrying their AR-15 to the elementary school bus stop. So in retrospect… they’re kind of a waste of time.

When we’re writing, I think arguments are an easy form of dialogue. Lots of folks think shouting means conflict and tension and drama, so if all my characters are shouting at each other, well, my story must be filled with conflict and tension and drama. Right? Plus, wow, that just filled three pages. It must’ve been good.

So characters argue about a lot of really stupid stuff. Like, anything at anytime can set off an argument. And these irrational arguments go on and on, no matter what else is going on. There can be a kaiju stomping toward our car but the five of us will sit and argue for ten minutes about driving away vs getting out of the car and running away vs just sitting here because maybe we’re just imagining the kaiju, did you think of that?

No? Well that’s why I’M IN CHARGE!

Anyway…

I think a lot of the time when characters are arguing in a book or movie, it’s the writer trying to create a false sense of tension. Or just padding. Or both. Maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously.

Please note I said a lot of the time. Not all. This isn’t a blanket rule, and there are some fantastic examples out there of characters who have heated discussions in books and movies. Or who just, y’know, argue all the time. Because in any good story there’s going to be actual conflict and there are going to be things people have real, justified arguments about.

And, sometimes arguing can be funny. It can actually lighten the mood to see people start bickering over something really silly and irrelevant. Especially when we see the context of what they’re arguing about and where/ when they’ve decided to argue about it.

But all of these arguments have a point to them. They’re either advancing the plot somehow, or advancing the story of one (or both) of these characters. In some cases, they might even be representative of some other intense interaction…

As of late, if I find my dialogue sliding into combative arguments, I try to step back. Look at the scene and the story as a whole, not just my brilliant and snarky dialogue exchanges. What else is going on right now? What’s the actual point of this moment? Does it make sense that these people would be arguing about this? Right now? Is this really driving anything forward?

Or are my characters just arguing to make it seem like there’s some sort of conflict going on? Is it a bunch of false drama that doesn’t really make sense when you consider the characters and what’s happening to them at the moment? Am I just boosting my page count?

So if you’ve got a two and a half page argument… maybe look at it again. See if it actually makes sense. And if it’s really doing anything for the story as a whole.

BECAUSE I SAID SO, THAT’S WHY!!!

Next time… well, next week’s my birthday, so I think I’d like to put on my old white beard and blather on about some life-experience wisdom type stuff. As I have in the past.

Until then, go write.

March 18, 2021

Good and Bad Conflict

Sorry I missed last week. Taxes. As I mentioned earlier.

A few weeks back, during my usual Saturday geekery, I had a sudden epiphany about Asylum movies. Even though, technically, it wasn’t an Asylum movie I was watching. I feel safe saying whoever made this film studied at the feet of the mast… well, at the feet of the Asylum producers. And it’s a problem I’ve seen in a lot of book manuscripts. So I made a note of it and told myself I’d have to do a post on it sometime soon.

And then last weekend’s geekery gave me a trio of movies that suffered from the exact same issue. So I thought, wow, serendipity. Definitely a sign of… something. So sometime soon became this week.

Once or thrice here I’ve talked about the ideas of plot and story. Plot is what happens outside my characters, story is what happens inside my characters. The basic idea of a narrative is that conflicts (of many different types) will drive that plot forward, and the plot and story will work together and feed off each other like some beautiful alien symbiote that bonds with you and manifests as bio-armor under times of stress or when you summon no, wait, that’s the plot of the Guyver. I’ve talked about how plot and story work together before. Stick with that, forget the Guyver. For now.

What I wanted to talk about was the conflicts, all those roadblocks that pop up between the beginning and end of the story. The things that get in the way of my characters getting what they want. Because some of these things are great and some are… not so great.

As I mentioned above, I have conflict in my book to drive the plot. My character has to overcome social pressures, financial constraints, power structures, ancient death traps, and a variety of other obstacles. Dealing with these things (or failing to deal with them)  forces my character to grow and change internally (sometimes called a character arc) while at the same time usually subjecting them to greater pressures/constraints/death traps. That’s dramatic structure. Who my character is at the beginning of the book starts and shapes the plot. Who they become at the end helps them resolve the plot.

Here’s a cool way to think of it. Picture a staircase. Every time we climb up a stair, it feels like we’re on level ground, but we’re actually higher than we were before. As we keep climbing stairs, we keep going higher. That’s conflict moving the plot. Climbing stairs moves us higher. Make sense?

Now, the problem I was seeing is that some storytellers had lots of conflicts popping up—but they didn’t actually do anything. They didn’t affect the plot in any way. They’d encounter a new obstacle, deal with it, and then be… right back where they started. Nothing gained. Nothing accomplished. Nothing learned. Our characters haven’t moved any closer to the end of the plot, haven’t grown or changed in any way. These conflicts were so self-contained we could just snip them and lift them out and there wouldn’t be any real change. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even need to stitch things together on either side.

If you wanted to use that staircase analogy, at this point the steps have kind of fallen over and become more a line of peaks. Every time we go over one, we’re just… right back at ground level. Not to mention, they’re all kind of the same peak. None of them stand out, and we realize pretty quick it’s just going to be that same thing again and again.

A term I’ve brought up here before is episodic. Yes, like TV episodes. Its when the conflicts resolve and the plot and story basically reset to where they were at the beginning. Our characters don’t grow or change in any way, they gain nothing, they just… go to the next episode. Which is exactly the same.

Neat thing to think about—because of that “reset,” it doesn’t matter what order we watch a lot of older shows in. We can go from episode twenty-three to episode fifteen to the eighth episode of season four and… you can’t tell. There’s no change because there’s no actual goal. The characters aren’t really trying to accomplish anything past the particular obstacles of this single episode.

When this happens in a larger story—say a novel or a movie—the storytellers are just dropping in these episodic conflicts because… well, we need conflict, right? So we’ll get a flat tire, spend ten minutes changing it, and then we’re back on the road. Or we’ll get caught in a super-embarrassing, borderline scandalous situation at work that nobody remembers or comments on the next day. Or we’ll find ourselves going out to rescue Wakko againand drag him back home because he just won’t stay put during the zombieapocalypse. These events are there. They fill pages. But they have no repercussions. No lasting effects. They don’t spark any changes in the way anyone thinks or acts.

Y’see Timmy, there’s conflict that advances the plot and conflict that just prolongs the plot. It isn’t there to help develop the characters or their stories, it’s just there to keep us from reaching the end too soon. So people get flat tires. Or wander out of their house during the zombocalypse. Or—no joke—fall off the Great Pyramid of Giza.

And absolutely nothing happens. No one suffer any consequences from these events at all. None.

Now, this isn’t to say nobody can get a flat tire in my manuscript. Flat tires are a real thing that happen to all of us. But I should think about why this flat tire’s happening. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the all-powerful Creator-of-your-choice in the world of my story. Nothing happens here except by my choice and my will. So why is this flat tire happening? What purpose does it serve in my story? Is it advancing the plot? Giving someone a moment to expand their character arc?

Or is just happening to keep them from getting where they’re going too soon?

Look over some of your story points. Are they advancing your plot? Or are they just stretching it out?

Next time… I had a new idea I wanted to talk to you about.

Until then, go write.

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