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CONFLICT (guest post)

Conflict drives a story. This is what we’re told. A character wants something, and something else rises to stop them. Honestly, it can get a little ridiculous when antagonists suddenly appear to prevent a hero from achieving something relatively unimportant like, I don’t know… groceries.

Like most writing advice, the truth is more complicated than that. If we’re being 100% straightforward, who your story has to do is engage and entertain your audience… that’s all. You don’t need conflict to do that if your audience isn’t engaged or entertained by conflict, it just so happens that conflict will do it for like, the majority. Of people.

So, what’s really important in creating entertainment and what role does conflict actually serve? You have to be willing to open your mind a bit to the ideas, because sometimes what really entertains can fall outside the sort of thing you find in the mainstream. Some people are entertained by home videos of people hurting themselves. Cue Jackass.

Schadenfreude is enough of a thing that America’s Funniest Home Videos and Jackass have an audience. Political punditry has an audience too. One of the first things you need to engage is subject matter that falls in someone’s interests. An easy way to start with this is to figure something that interests YOU.

You are potentially a member of your audience. It can be a good place to start.

A weird thing you can try to pull is of course to write on something topical or relevant. Current events or controversies can be subject matter that grabs an audience. It can be seen as “low” or even “pandering” writing to a fad or to rip stories from the headlines — but if it didn’t work, people wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be successful. Dull surprise.

It isn’t strictly necessary to create conflict for your story. So, what kind of conflict benefits your story? You want to include things that enhance and improve your story. Conflict for its own sake is tedious, like drama for its own sake or… anything that doesn’t really contribute or improve your story.

It’s worth looking at the core of your story to figure out what conflict will make it better. You should be able to explain the central points of your story in broad strokes, and add detail in successive iterations like reverse-peeling an onion really slowly. Some conflicts can be doubled and tripled up on in order to make them more relevant.

Ultimately you want to write with both eyes open — don’t add elements to your story arbitrarily. Everything you put in your story is a reflection of you: who you are and what you know. It’s a deliberate act of creation whether you’re fully aware of all your content or if you just coast through it. It’s better to be conscious of your content.

Under some circumstances, conflict for its own sake might be acceptable but you need to decide that when you write it. Don’t be lazy about it, and don’t defend your own lazy writing. Own your conflict. Own your writing.

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Villains Scenes Sans Heroes (guest post)

[My hands are shot, so Dither stepped in at the eleventh hour to help me out. I requested him to cover one of his favourite topics.]

I love villains!

I like to meditate on narrative design, and something about villain scenes has been bothering me for some years: the scenes of villains being demonstrably villainous in the presence of, … no main cast members. It seems to go against good storytelling practices. Yet, these scenes worked. Why?

The first scene that comes to mind is Vader’s conference with the Moffs from A New Hope. As a kid, this was easily one of the most boring scenes to me because I didn’t understand why Vader Force-choked the rude engineer guy. Sure, he called Vader a sorcerer, but then Vader demonstrates his magic by tickling the man’s Adam’s apple. That came out wrong.

I didn’t understand until I was an adult the “senate” that was “dissolved,” and that the conference was about how the Emperor was consolidating political power. The scene is still kind of boring now, but at least I know what’s going on – moreover, it helped me to realize the scene was helping to establish something about the setting itself… it’s an expository scene: featuring Darth Vader.

The second scene, and the far more recent example, is Voldemort’s execution of Charity Burbage at the beginning of Deathly Hallows. Unlike the attacks that Harry witnessed as a result of his connection to Voldemort, this scene seemed like a mistake in my view – either because we shouldn’t see something the main characters can’t see, or because it betrays the fact Snape is one of the good guys.

Something else is going on though, and that’s exposition: in the scene we find out that Voldemort is disappearing people and going about his “New Wizard Order” business. It’s important to note that what is going on isn’t important because it’s from the point of view of the antagonist (or any of the villains), it’s a specific method of delivering exposition.

As a writer, you must be careful about what you show the audience. You don’t want to show the villain being evil for evil’s sake. You risk alienating your audience with arbitrariness, or worse, making the villain more sympathetic or likeable than the protagonist – as is often the case with cartoon villains prior to oh, the 90s. It’s the logical (unfortunate) extreme of “Villains Act, Heroes React.”

If you create a scene in which the villains appear independently of the heroes, remember that you’re writing an expository scene – whatever happens, the purpose of the scene is to deliver to the reader information about the setting or situation (which can be seen as similar to, or as an extension of, the setting itself). It isn’t about characterizing the villain, at least not primarily.

Here’s the thing though: exposition is frequently viewed as boring to the modern audience, and scenes featuring villains doing stuff are often a welcome change of pace. In fact, showing the villains doing stuff can be way better than just having someone tell the heroes that the villains have done Bad Things – it’s part of that whole “show don’t tell” thing we hear all the time about storytelling.

Moreover, using a villain as a vehicle of exposition gives you the opportunity to inject character into the exposition: and you should take that opportunity. If you need the hero galvanized to action by the heinous arson/murder/jaywalking of the villain, then make sure you show the interesting or unique method by which your villain does so: maybe he jaywalks to polka?

It might sound like I’m contradicting myself, telling you to do something that I just told you not to, but you should be used to getting contradictory advice about writing: the point isn’t that there are hard and fast rules to storytelling – but more you should be aware of what you’re doing when you tell a story. “If you’re going to do this thing, but don’t do it like that.”

Villain Scenes Sans Heroes can work when they inject character and perspective into what might otherwise be dry exposition. You don’t have to use them, and oftentimes they might not actually lend anything to the work: and yet, they can be an effective tool in the right story. For example, if you need to introduce your antagonist in Act 1 but the hero doesn’t meet him until Act 3.

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Writing Prompts – Opinions

I wonder all the time how people feel about these things. My own feelings are somewhat mixed, and it takes some doing to get even that close to a conclusive opinion.

At first glance, I want to think that it’s a great idea. Some people just have trouble starting, but once they do, it doesn’t matter how they got started, they end up somewhere awesome. Others might simply want prompts for practise, or something else of minor importance. But this first desired impression either fails to manifest or ultimately dies in disappointment.

Part of the reason is that many if not most writing prompts are generated. This means that somewhere, somehow, there is a formula. And people can’t really agree on what makes a prompt a prompt and not something else. For example, some might not consider, “An island, a rabbi, and a flying pig” to be a prompt. Personally, I see it as a rather absurd list, and therefore not really helpful to anyone.

Whereas, “A teenage girl meets a zombie-angel-vampire and they fall in love, but then Stephen Lynch tries to take over the world,” is (aside from deliriously stupid) a plot, not a prompt. You could still get completely unrelated ideas from it, but that’s true of anything. The function of a sandwich is to ease the pangs of hunger. The fact that I can use it as a projectile weapon does not make it a missile.

This is where my second, usually much stronger and better-formed opinion comes in. Prompts don’t really work. Even if, rather than pumping input into a generator and hoping that people can get something out of it, someone writes them. Consider the fact that the above two examples are ones I wrote. I was probably being intentionally maladroit, but that’s besides the point.

I’ve seen multiple attempts at formula, but it’s such an amorphous, difficult thing to do, I wonder why people bother with prompts at all.

I have 149 gold now, and I’m getting really tired. Also annoyed, as I cannot nap while waiting for a package. For some inexplicable space-reason, Amazon shipped my order in pieces, which means that UPS (I’m not allowed to like them but at least they do their JOBS) got the wall chargers here, while Ontrac (who??) is bum-dragging behind with the actual Kindles. I may not be allowed to do anything with mine yet, but I do get to at least put the sleeve on mum’s so I can make some kind of start getting it ready for her.

OH YEAH. MY BIRTHDAY IS TOMORROW. I KIND OF FORGOT THAT PART. I did mention my birthday, but heh. Tomorrow. I’m old.

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Tips for plodding writers

In my difficulty, I have found a lot of ways to get around the petty details of writer’s block and impatience. Details like frustration even while writing, guilt, aimlessness, and insecurity. And of course, outright inability to continue.

There’s no particularly order to these tips, they’re just things I’ve been doing.

1. Set a goal.

  • This is not a deadline. It’s just something to achieve. 200 words in a session, introducing a certain character, or even something bigger that you’re working toward, such as self-publication.

2. Even if you aren’t interested in a Smashwords ebook, put that kind of front matter into your story document.

  • It might only help with a new story, but having text relevant to what you’re writing already in your document keeps it from feeling less empty, and it also makes it harder to fuss over wordcount.

3. Turn procrastination into planning, not the other way around.

  • If you tend to start making notes and can’t help derailing your writing time entirely to plan ahead with scenes you may never get to, then try doing it on purpose. If you start to wane in writing, outline the rest of the scene or chapter you’re working on. It will give you a sense of direction.
  • Just keep it relevant. While it can be good to make a note of a future plot twist, planning it out in great detail for chapter 20 while you’re stuck on chapter 4 may later feel like procrastination. Which leads me to my next point…

4. Don’t feel guilty.

  • To me, this is the most important. Maybe nobody is counting on you to finish, or maybe you are, and that’s all that matters. Feeling guilty just locks you up and keeps you from writing anything at all. Whatever is causing it, take time away from it. If not writing is making you feel guilty, then write. Even if you throw it away. If you feel guilty even when you write, then try writing something else. But don’t wallow.

5. Change your work space.

  • If you can’t relocate entirely, then try just changing how cluttered or tidy it is. What smells are around. A really good thing to try is a different manner of writing–a different word processor, or a change from keyboard to pen, or vice versa. A change-up can rattle things loose, especially if you like to use lots of different methods in any case, and just got wrapped up in one.

These have been working for me, although it’s still not epic. I just thought I’d like to share them.