Snowed in and Snowed under

Snapshot_20140802_2by Chantal Boudreau

This year, the weather has brought me ample fodder for story concepts. Be it imagined scenarios of the aftermath of a bus crash during an April snowstorm or co-workers sharing ideas of snow monsters taking over the world when winter never goes away (not someone who writes stories herself,) the massive snowfalls we have endured here in late winter/early spring seemed to have inspired some unpleasant icy fantasies.

But that’s the thing about fiction – genre fiction in particular. The stories are found in the unusual, not in the norm. You’ll rarely see a “day in the life of…” kind of tale when exploring the speculative unless it’s presented in such a way to highlight the differences between our mundane existence and the strange alien planet, or the magical fantasy realm or the dystopian future society. Everyday life doesn’t tend to make for an exceptionally interesting story unless there is something exceptionally interesting about the protagonist(s)’s everyday life. Even in literary fiction, characters tend to have their eccentricities and are moving toward some point of self-discovery or self-destruction not just adhering to the status quo.

The entertainment value of a fictional story comes from events that wouldn’t typically happen. They might be used by the author for some sort of social commentary or moral point, something not likely to happen as the result of a protagonist sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. Whether a character’s involvement is proactive or reactive, the story results from challenges, accidents, ambitions or extremes – something beyond the average.

I’ve been subject to the extraordinary for years, accused of being a weirdness magnet and of knowing everybody everywhere on more than one occasion (because I always seem to bump into acquaintances in the strangest of places.) I think that’s why, unlike some writers, I don’t cringe when people ask “where do your ideas come from?” I’ll gladly tell them. My life has always run so far outside of the norm, even when I’m trying to be just your average old boring accountant/mom, that I can’t escape new story ideas. I see them in my family, my friends, my co-workers, my environment, my goals, my fears and my trials and tribulations. Sometimes they even show up in the floors, doors or walls. With all this plot material building up in my head, if I didn’t write the occasional story, it might just explode.

So despite my unhappy mutterings about the record-breaking snowfall we’ve had this year, it’s really not all that bad. It’s just another one of those unusual experiences I can file away to break out when I need fictional inspiration – as the urge strikes me.

Something to keep me busy the next time I end up snowed in or snowed under.

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Bridging the Gap Between the Expert and the Unknowledgeable

by Chantal Boudreau

Bruce Blake’s post on the unreliable narrator got me to thinking about narrators, or PoV characters, who are unreliable because of a lack of knowledge. Some readers are able to accept the character’s failing. Others find their narrow perspective hard to handle, especially if the reader is an expert in that area. Their ignorance, even if justified by circumstance, can be frustrating.

One example of this I ran into was when I had a test reader who worked in IT try out a story I had written involving technology gone wrong – a story where the protagonist was a technophobe and for the most part techno-illiterate. The character’s distaste for technology was a reasonable explanation as to why the protagonist had rejected the technology found in the story in the first place, which was an important component of the plot. My reader took issue with the main character’s technological ignorance, trying to impose his own understanding upon the unwary man (he should know this, he should expect that, he should be able to explain these things), even though as far as their technological knowledge base was concerned, they were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Technology was such a fundamental part of the reader’s identity that it created a disconnect between him and the protagonist that he just couldn’t circumvent.

I’ve seen this gap work the opposite way too, when a character is an expert and the reader lacks knowledge. I found this problem with Technicians and Scholars in my Fervor series and some of the more knowledgeable wizards in Masters and Renegades. The character gets excited about things that may not generate as much interest in the average person (think Sheldon talking physics to Penny in The Big Bang Theory) but his or her drive regarding a particular topic could be essential to the plot. As a writer, you may need to demonstrate that the character’s quest for knowledge can border on obsessive, but doing so can risk boring or even alienating the reader, so you have to tread cautiously.

So what can a writer do if this gap can’t be avoided? How does one bridge that gap for the reader while remaining true to the character and the story? How does a writer prevent that frustration or disinterest?

There are a few options. The first is being constantly aware that any difference is there. A writer can remind the reader of a character’s lack of knowledge through narrative or dialogue, at appropriate times, to reduce frustration. A writer can be conscious of when a learned character threatens to share to the point of an info dump. Listening to an expert blather on about a particular topic can put a less interested person to sleep.

Another option is to foil the gap with a secondary character – one more like the reader. That other character can point out an unknowledgeable character’s weaknesses with some sympathy or give the expert character a blank stare or a questioning look…or even a yawn… when they start going into too much detail. He or she can lend some understanding as to why the first character does what he or she does. This way, the impact of any knowledge gap on the reader is lessened.

As much as a writer wants the reader to get inside a character’s head and relate to them, this won’t always work when there is a significant knowledge gap between character and reader. Sometimes the relationship has to be sacrificed in part for the sake of realism. The character can still be likeable and may offer up other traits in common with the reader so they can sympathize with them to some degree, but there may always be at least a little disconnect on an intellectual level. That’s not necessarily a bad outcome. A writer will never be able to capture the full interest of every reader with every character. And sometimes lending a reader a new perspective is the whole point of the tale.

Just something to consider the next time a character in a story you’re reading makes you say: “why would he/she think that?”

A Mother of an Idea

In honour of Mother’s Day, I decided to delve into the topic of mothers…parents in general, actually… in fantasy settings. I addressed the manner in which the parents of adolescent protagonists are often kept out of the storyline in my blog post “Parents – They Get in the Way of Good Fiction” but this is about what happens when a writer reaches that point in a longer running series where they deem it necessary for characters who have been romantically involved to finally start having children of their own.

From what I’ve seen, this is very dangerous territory in which to tread, especially if a writer aims to preserve realism within their fantasy. More than one series has effectively “jumped the shark” by adding children to the mix. You have to consider how children will affect the plot before adding them. Continuing on as if nothing has changed never works, and trying to avoid the obstacles younger offspring pose to progression of the plot has led to some pretty blatantly abused speculative fiction tropes I know that as a reader I don’t usually like to see.

Introducing children brings up a lot of questions modern couples face when deciding if the time is right for them. Should the couple marry if they haven’t already done so? How will the new addition affect character roles and dynamics? How will this impact characters’ health, livelihoods and availability? Will it change how and where they live? If the setting is a static one, like a town or castle, children could be integrated into the story without being overly disruptive, but what about if the story centers on a quest involving a great deal of travel or action? A child isn’t something that can be added to the story as a novelty item and then just swept under the carpet when they become inconvenient…or at least, they shouldn’t be. Plus the pregnancy itself could possibly take one of the characters out of the storyline for the duration, if not permanently.

Whether there has been any consideration with regards to becoming a parent or not, if a writer hasn’t addressed the issue of birth control, which may not be readily available in a fantasy setting, and characters are sexually active, eventually you would anticipate children to be the end result. When some of the young adults in my Fervor series become sexually active with no contraceptives available, they do not do so without consequence. I would expect similar results in novels set in lower tech worlds with no contraception or perhaps with something not consistently reliable.

For example, I have allowed for magical contraceptives in my Masters and Renegades world-building but even those do not always work as expected. Sometimes magic can be manipulated to yield unpredictable results, as my dwarven character in Magic University would attest. Spells can fail or be deactivated. Nothing is perfect.

So once children do come along, what then? You could keep them out of the picture until they are older(and with them likely one or both of their parents), try to work them into the story in minor ways or put them at risk (potentially bad parenting at its worst.) Or you could do something a little more extreme. These are my three least favourite speculative fiction tropes for dealing with the situation (although I won’t promise I’m not guilty of using these myself):

1) Supernaturally rapid aging to hasten the child into adolescence or adulthood – I absolutely hate this one and it has been done to death, from fantasy novels where a pregnancy is magically quickened so the child is born within days of conception so mom warrior-woman can get back to her quest as quickly as possible with baby in tow, to the sci-fi TV series baby who miraculously develops into adult over a matter of days or even hours (or in some cases, instantaneously). This trope is almost always accompanied by some sort of hokey explanation for eliminating the offspring inconvenience.

As I mentioned – I’m guilty of applying these under different conditions. I use it in Fervor, in a way, but in that case the children have been in stasis for years and have been kept in an unnaturally young physical form for their real age. The removal of the stasis causes them to develop rapidly to catch up to their actual age, not to surpass it. That, and the children involved are not a plot device for protagonist parents but the actual main characters themselves. Stasis plays into the plot as a whole and is not a means of hastening the characters into adulthood.

2) The child is outrageously precocious for their age – In more than one way the child thinks or behaves like an adult. While this one doesn’t bother me so much with older children who have been forced to fend for themselves or perhaps been trained extensively since birth, like in the movie Hanna…or have been genetically-manipulated to have heightened intelligence or targeted for such traits like Ender… I object to toddlers and preschoolers spouting Yoda-like wisdom without any attempt at explaining why.

3) The child is the extra special, chosen one, focus of a prophecy, destined to change the world, etc, etc (I think you get where I’m going with this) – I understand this approach more than the other two. It’s an excuse for involving children in a story with their parents where it would have been unthinkable otherwise. If the child has a unique or particularly unusual background, forcing them to be inherent to a plot, it makes some sense. It still seems to be more common than it ought to be though. Just how many “Chosen Ones” are there?

Running into one of these tropes seems to be par for the course in speculative fiction involving children. Then you get the stories that go overboard, like a certain series involving sparkly vampires offering up all three in one child(ugh).

Some writers have managed to handle the introduction of children with great forethought and finesse – it can be done. It requires a certain amount of creativity along with the acceptance that there may be sacrifices required and a reorganization of how things are done, just as you would have to do with the arrival of a child in real life. It helps if the writer is a parent themselves, since the experience is eye-opening. Maternal, or paternal, instinct can be a powerful force.

And remember, parents are still people too, including step-parents, foster parents and surrogates. You don’t just cease to exist because you’ve chosen to procreate (or raise someone else’s procreation.) So if the time is right, let your characters get to it.

Cheers to all the moms out there as your special day approaches.

Show Me Fireworks

You hear it a lot in writing circles: “You have to start with an action scene or you won’t hook your audience,” “today’s reader has a short attention span so you have to keep your plot high-paced,” or how about “this generation is used to TV and movies – if your writing doesn’t compare you’ll lose them.”

I think what people want in a story depends on the individual reader, honestly, and I don’t think you can whitewash readers with a common “generation” paintbrush. I don’t believe it is necessary to open your story with Hollywood-esque explosions, a ridiculously fast car chase or a battle involving detailed and highly-precise martial arts moves. I grew up with TV and movies (I’m not *that* old) and despite my supposedly shortened attention-span I would much prefer to get to know characters before they are thrown into a big action scene. I mean, whatever happened to introductions? I will get much more out of an action event if I feel I know the characters and can relate to them. Otherwise it is all a lot of rather frivolous “flash” “whiz” “bang!” without much meaning or purpose. Who are these people and why should I care?

That being said, I still think action is a very important part of genre fiction, as is pacing, but just as with most writing advice out there, suggestions about action and pacing are seized up by the masses and in some cases taken to some pretty silly extremes. The true significance of the advice is lost on those who absorb it on a very superficial level and then regurgitate it by rote at every prompting. Yes, action and pacing are essential to the standard fantasy plot. The go-nowhere, do-nothing storyline might work for literary fiction but it doesn’t sit well with the typical genre reader. We want fireworks.

This doesn’t mean it has to be something constant, something blatant or something larger-than-life. People need time to learn, to absorb, to appreciate.  And it doesn’t have to mean you need to jar me out of my seat from word one either. A good story-teller will offer events at various points in the story that notably drive the plot, things that will motivate the characters in some manner, be they obvious or subtle, and occurrences that will move readers in a powerful way – that is true. But when you watch a fireworks display, do they start with their biggest “booms!” or do they start small and build-up to the crescendo at the end?

There’s a reason for that. It’s a matter of psychology and expectations.

I can honestly say I’ve been disappointed with a surprising number of novels from larger publishers lately, and in particular, with their endings. It seems backwards to me when all of these books start with a powerful thrust, going for that “hook” effect, and end with what can best be described as a fizzle. They often fail to build suspense and they often prove to be anti-climactic. I don’t remember running into nearly as many books like that in my younger years, nor do I see that problem as much in indie books, where writers have more freedom to write things their own way, rather than adhere to industry-accepted norms.

My son, who is autistic, loves fireworks. We were watching some the other night and just the first few little pops and flashes were enough to rev up his excitement. Normally, he keeps to himself on many levels, but as soon as he knows something is coming, something bigger and better as the display progresses, he is so filled with anticipation that without prompting he’ll turn to me and say “it’s pretty” or “beautiful flowers” (his own personal description of fireworks since he was four.) He doesn’t talk a lot and usually what he says involves requests rather than sharing observations, so when he is inspired to communicate this way, it must really mean something to him – even if the intro isn’t some massive, brilliant hook.

When the show is done, he seems pretty satisfied because the display built up to something special. That’s pretty impressive when it comes from someone who runs on impulse and who doesn’t cope well with transitions. He knows it is over – it feels over – and he gets to walk away with the best of it still lingering in his memories.

So what do I want as a fantasy reader? Give me a story with substance, clarity and an ending that takes my breath away and stop focussing on some grandiose opening to “hook” me. I’m not a fish and I don’t get hooked by some flashy beginning bait. I run deeper than that.

Show me fireworks.

The not-so-secret formula for a great story

by Autumn M. Birt

I have this idea for a story: a character starts off doing okay, then their world falls apart but eventually they overcome their problems and succeed.

Ok, so it sounds really basic that way, doesn’t it? A story can’t be that simple. But in essence, maybe it is. Can you tell me what story I was describing above. How about what story I’m NOT writing about?

Many writers site that all story ideas are recycled. Nothing is truly original – old ideas are just put together in different ways with new characters. Though perhaps it is not just the plots that are revamped. What if there is a formula to the creation of a truly great story? And it is pretty well used?

storytellerIf you haven’t read this article, The Art and Science of Good Story Telling, I highly recommend it. There is so much in there that I love and could happily blog about. How cool is it that a reader really wrapped up in a good book actually experiences the thrills, smells, and sights in their mind as if they are experiencing it? Who wouldn’t want to be able to write a story like that?!

But it was the second part of the article, the formula Kurt Vonnegut puts forth, that really captured my attention. An actual formula to writing a kick-ass story and heck, it is plottable? Really?

I’m an English/Studio Art major that also just happens to have a science degree. And if you trace my history WAY back, I actually studied lasers for a time (independently while all the other high school students were locked in their classrooms even, BWAHAHAHAHAHAH). I actually love math and graphs. It is sad, I know. And um, well, I actually graphed the characters to my epic fantasy novel, Born of Water, while I was first writing it about five years ago. Graphs are sort-of art related…when you use pretty colors. 🙂

Unlike Kurt’s good fortune versus bad fortune, I actually looked at the emotional well-being of my characters, which is their response to the events in the novel. The highs and lows are a reflection of how well they overcome obstacles. After re-doing the graphs (in pretty colors), I can see they are far more volatile than simple fortune. On the other hand, this is also epic fantasy and I’m obviously interested in psycho-analyzing my character’s mental health while sending them on perilous quests and constantly risking their lives. THAT could make the graphs a little…manic?

Though Born of Water starts with four main characters, it is Niri’s desire to save Ria’s life that creates the journey. When I graphed how Niri and Ria faired during the novel together, well you can see it for yourself in the graph above on the right. It doesn’t quite fit the easy curve that Kurt drew, but their are a few elements in common. If I smoothed out Niri’s line especially. When you throw in all five characters (counting Darag who is picked up half way through), it looks far more chaotic!

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However, there is still a trend. Everyone starts in good spirits, experiences something devastating and, in the end, rises above the challenges. Well, everyone starts off okay except for Ty. There were times in Born of Water AND Rule of Fire, that I think Ty is on his own journey.

Rule of Fire has its own level of chaos as the ‘main’ characters tick up to seven. Ack! But in this book, characters break off to meet challenges in smaller groups (lest I go insane keeping track of them). Of course, they start off together and meet up again. But when I break things down into two graphs, the action and responses (and how two characters can affect each other) becomes more apparent. Looking at the precipitous drop at the end for a few of the characters makes me start to appreciate where the term “cliff hanger” comes from…!

IMAGE_421714AA-9C95-44E1-A6CE-2822D30D84A6IMAGE_069EBB84-0907-46E8-9DEC-AC58A8418D12IMAGE_CF45F8BE-2074-4375-994D-A2E40C033614So, what does all this mean? Sure, it is fun to graph out characters and action, realizing how they relate (well, its fun for me). But do I really think that the “formula” for a great story is all that is needed? Tweak everything to a strong wave pattern and voila, I’ve got a best seller?

Um, no.

Maybe I should say, ‘oh, if only!’ But without good characterization, solid world building (considering I write fantasy), oh heck, even awesome editing, and a sprinkling of unique or really-well-worked ideas…it just won’t be even a good story. Keeping the idea for a tried-and-well-loved flow of fortune in mind while writing isn’t going to hurt, but it isn’t going to win any contests on its own either!

Besides, I can think of a very well loved and frequently read, revamped, and copied story that doesn’t fit that graph. Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, maybe tragedies have a different graph. Perhaps each genre really has its perfect flow? What do you think? Does “the formula” work? What are some other classics that break the mold?

– Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water and its Novel Companion and, most recently, the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of e-novels. Her next novel, Rule of Fire, will be available JUNE 21. You can also find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page and on Goodreads.

 

Grounds for a Story

There are some things in life we are drawn to more than others. For example, I’m a tried and true coffee lover. I adore the brew so much I have a cubicle wall dedicated to it, and I think about it on at least a daily basis. When something has a solid impact on a writer’s life, it is bound to make appearances in their writing. Sometimes it is in a very subtle way, as part of a metaphor or a simile:

“Ebon was halfway to his destination when his map slipped away from his telekinetic grasp. This had never happened to him before, but he had also never put such a demand on his physical reach before today. He juggled the map with what little physical force he could still manage to muster, flipping it over so that he could at least memorize its contents.

He continued onwards, abandoning the map face up in the mud. He had not expected this would happen, and knew it meant that he would have to feed, something he rarely felt the inclination to do. This did not please him. Feeding took time and energy, and he had neither.

Arriving at what he believed was his destination, he began his search. He had no trouble locating the leather wallet that contained the token. He could pick out with ease the two glowing magical auras surrounding the purse, and they smelt absolutely heavenly, like the aroma of fresh bread or strong coffee. He salivated at the thought of absorbing all of that sweet, distinctly different energy. The one reminiscent of coffee was harsh and bitter, but strangely satisfying, the other somewhat bland, but slightly sweet and very substantial. That was the only one he intended to feed off of, absorbing what he could as quickly as he could. This was the plan, but once he started, he could not stop.

He had not recognized his hunger, had not realized just how ravenous he had become. He sucked back the spell’s energies, lost in the instinct to feed and absorb. Before he had realized it, he had completely devoured the first spell and had started in on the second. He had lost all track of time, and as the last drop of energy slipped past his ethereal lips, he stretched out, thoroughly satisfied and replenished.”

  • – from Magic University

This is one of those excerpts that come to mind when someone says: “pick a favourite scene”.

Other times the intrusion of these adored items is much more blatant, and the thing in question becomes a fundamental part of the plot. An example of this is my zombie short story “Waking the Dead”, where the tale takes place in a coffee shop and the zombie outbreak is caused by the coffee itself, the infamous Haitian Rouge. I can count several stories where coffee is mentioned, worming its way into my plots in one way or another.

I would expect that this would apply to most writers when they really connect with their story. The things with which you identify most will find some sort of presence in your written worlds as well as your mundane one, in some cases serving as inspiration. In my case, you could say that coffee is grounds for a story.