Tag Archives: plot

Utopia is boring

It’s an interesting aspect of writing that people who likely despise conflict in their own lives create so much conflict in the lives of those we write about. It seems a bit bloodthirsty, really, but think about it. Only one person I’m aware of has ever made a name for himself writing about utopia, and that was Sir Thomas More. Everyone else seems to take an idea that some characters might think is utopia, and then breaks it in some way or shows the reality behind the façade, resulting in what we of late have dubbed “Dystopic Fiction”.

Of course not every story needs an oppressive government enforcing psychotic laws to have conflict. Nor does a story’s protagonist have to have a miserable life they seek to escape. Conflict can come from something as simple as the character wanting their life to change. After all, how many successful children’s movies revolve around “kid’s life is less than perfect, kid meets animal, kid falls in love with animal, kid fights for animal, kid saves and/or gets to keep animal”?

This is pretty basic stuff, right? We create some sort of conflict around which we can build a story.

So why do I have such a hard time with this? How many times have I gone through world-building only to find I’ve created a relatively peaceful world, or one where the conflicts are superficial and are easily worked out? Or even if I do manage to build some conflict into my setting I find my characters are such reasonable, sensible people that the conflict it worked out far too easily.

I guess not all of us are the type to kick over an anthill just to watch the ants get mad, so to speak. Does this mean we’re doomed as writers? I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to train ourselves to introduce conflict.

I’m an avid role-playing gamer. I’ve been playing RPGs for most of my adult life. Oddly enough, I have no difficulty throwing my gaming groups into nasty situations. I enjoy creating narrow escapes and dramatic fights for them. They players enjoy it, too. They want their characters to be heroic, and you can’t be heroic without conflict. The greater the conflict, the more heroic they feel. And the longer they talk fondly about “that one time when we overcame that …”.

This was reinforced for me once again recently. My daughter has discovered RPGs recently, but her gaming group disbanded before she’d had her fill. I agreed to run a campaign for her and her friends, and have been busily creating a world to play in. And I found myself slipping back into my old, bad habits. I’d create one country and make the people there kinda cool. Then I’d create another country and make those people kinda cool. And of course two different people who are so darn cool would never have trouble getting along, right?

But that won’t be fun. I had to rethink my approach and start building in some conflict. And it was precisely those areas where each country was awesome that I found my points of conflict. I have one country that excels at trade. It occurred to me that not everyone is going to like them trying to control all trade, and may fight back. And that in turn is going to lead some of the less scrupulous of those traders to go to extreme measures to discourage competition. Viola! Conflict!

Even in building in adventure hooks for this potential game group I found just a little more effort would make things much more interesting, and by which I mean create conflict. Instead of creating a benevolent patron who sends the group out on quests I twisted him a little to make him secretive and not entirely forthcoming. He’ll send out the group, but he won’t tell them everything he knows–and some of that information could prove fatal. Bang! Conflict! They need this guy, but they can’t entirely trust him.

I’m increasingly convinced from this experience that the lack of conflict in my world building and plot creation could be from a form of laziness. I could create more potential for conflict, but I don’t want to. I need to force myself to look for those reasons why awesome characters might not get along so well. I need to purposely build in opportunities for reasonable people to reach different conclusions from the same information. I need to be willing to “stir the pot’ and make my characters not get along.

Because it’s fun! Utopia is dull!

It’ll take practice. But most good writing habits do.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

A Thousand Stories

Why do I watch the Olympics? I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but USA’s medal count matters to me about as much as who wins the Super Bowl or World Series (other than knowing for watercooler convos the next day, not much). It’s as much for the stories as anything else. And the Olympics is full of stories.

Often the real story is what the athlete had to go through to get to the Olympics. Sometimes the story is the rivalries that arise during the games. It may be the moments of class, grace, and sportsmanship the occur during the games. It may be the personal struggles an athlete goes through on their way to the finals. Everywhere you look there are stories.

For every big story, like Lithuania knocking off the USA Dream Team, there are hundred little stories. An athlete struggles through Crone’s Disease to win a medal. A seasoned veteran mentors a rookie who becomes the partner that gets him on the medal stand. A coach pulls the goalie who put in a phenomenal first half to put in a less experienced goalie, who then gives up five goals to lose the game.

Every novel has its big stories we want our readers to care about. But one of the best ways to accomplish that is to build a foundation of a lot of smaller stories that make us care about the characters who make up the big story.  Yes, we might care about our interstellar naval captain who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a firefight with an unknown alien race, but we’ll like care even more if we know that this captain has been held back in his career after a brash decision went wrong, and now he second-guesses himself. Add to that a female first officer whose older brother’s shady dealings have put on pressure on her to be all that much more ‘by-the-book’, and a science officer whose father was aboard a ship destroyed by aliens two decades earlier, and you have just added a lot more tension to an already tense story.

So when writing your big story, don’t forget about all the little stories behind that story. It’s those littles stories that help us care about the big story.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Let’s do that twist

I’ve gone on record here before suggesting we don’t always need to have a twist in our stories. Now I’m here to advocate for twists. They can be fun and effective if done well. In fact in some cases your readers will be disappointed if you don’t do it.

I recently read a suspense thriller/horror novel–and for the sake of spoilers I won’t tell you what it was, or anything else that might give it away–that used twists extensively through the book. But there are two specifically I want to mention.

The first was set up nicely by the characters heading into the big finale. In attempting to bring down the antagonist they established that they had only one feasible way to pull it off. That was one we kinda saw coming. When the protagonists go after the bad guy he immediately destroys their one option, then proceeds to kick the team’s collective butt.

Undaunted, the main protagonist fights on coming up with another plan to do in the bad guy. He even engages in some mental brilliance to try and figure out how to trick the bad guy into accepting one specific (and therefore booby-trapped) option out of two choices. We figure it will work–this protagonist is usually spot on with his plans.

Except the bad guy makes a different choice for a consistent, logical reason we should have seen coming but–at least in my case–chose to ignore as irrelevant at the time. We thought the big twist had happened earlier, only to find there was more twisting to be done.

In fact, now that I think about it, there were about half a dozen twists all within a few pages, which really lent itself well to a bang-up ending.

But therein lies the lesson: one standard tool for twists is to reasonably set reader expectations that Plan A or Item 1 is not only the protagonist’s only plan, but the only plan that has a chance of working, and then completely remove that option. The resulting “Oh crap!” reaction from your readers will be something to enjoy.

Even better is when you can reveal a series of twists in a short space of time, further disorienting and shaking up your reader. You’ll then look even more brilliant when you show that you also set up all the pieces for your protagonist(s) to pull out a last-second victory that pays off even more details you planted throughout the story.

As I’ve said before, twists are not always needed–though it’s arguable that some genres rely on them extensively. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be satisfying to the reader if done well. Hopefully this gives you a few ideas on how to sucker your re– I mean, surprise your readers with a good, ground-shaking twist.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Ideation and critical mass

One question writers often hear from other people is “Where do you get your ideas?!” So, since we’re a bunch of writers here, I’m asking you to weigh in. Where do you get your ideas?

For me it takes time. I don’t usually get fully-formed ideas all at once. I usually get a piece of an idea, and I capture it in my “Well” file. Every now and then I’ll read through the Well, but some of the more tantalizing pieces tend to stick in my head. After a while, like molecules in those science videos on how water vapor forms raindrops, they’ll bump into another idea and I’ll suddenly realize they fit together.

Eventually enough of these pieces will coalesce into a coherent idea that achieves “critical mass” and screams to be written. It can take years for this to happen sometimes, or sometimes just a few hours.

Of course that begs the question: “But where do those pieces come from?” Well, I have a terrible curiosity. I’m often scanning the news, reading websites, watching YouTube, and basically running a lot of stuff through my head every day. Sometimes some of it sticks.

A few weeks ago I was looking for a science fiction story idea. Somewhere in my daily web wanderings I stumbled across the term “magenta”. I didn’t recognize that word, so I looked it up. I discovered a new type of star I hadn’t known about previously! The more I read the more I realized it was suggesting a story. That one kernel of knowledge suddenly became the link between a bunch of disparate ideas. Boom! Critical mass.

Some people get inspiration from their dreams. This is rare for me. My dreams make very little sense, and tend to be long, dull things. But just this morning I had a long dream that took a peculiar turn–but not so peculiar it was no longer viable. Granted, it’s bizarre–a group of people suddenly realize a hostile force is forcing them apart into separate realities, and they have to find a way to communicate in order to fight their way back together and overcome the enemy.

It somehow made sense in my dream, and I’ll bet if I think about it long and hard enough I can make it make sense, but for now it’s just another drifting story molecule. One of these days it’ll bump into some other molecules that don’t make sense separately, but suddenly do when you put them all together. I’m looking forward to that moment. Epiphanies are a real kick!

So, back to you! Where do you get your ideas? How do you transition and idea from first thoughts to a fully formed concept? Leave a comment!

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Think a little deeper

Deep in thoughtI recently finished reading “Imager”, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. I was impressed by just how much thought he put into his setting. Granted, Mr. Modesitt is an economist, but it’s clear he took the time to really think through the implications of his magic system in the book. Imagers, his version of wizards, are able to create items merely by picturing them in their minds, but the materials to create that item have to come from somewhere.

This detail is important to the story, but not only does Modesitt adequately establish this “rule”, he takes it a step or two further. We have people who can create complex substances, and with no more energy than solving a particularly difficult Sudoku.

What does this mean for his society? He takes the time to think it through and to educate us in the process. For one, Imagers are able to supplement the government’s coffers with the occasional small batch of metals difficult to make, for only the cost of the raw materials. But for another, if they use this ability too far it will actually ruin the country’s economy, draw undue attention to the imagers’ powers, and possibly turn the population against them. Modesitt thinks through the implications, going just another level or two deeper, and the story becomes stronger for it.

The idea of extrapolating just a level or two deeper applies to more than fantasy, of course. Some of the best moments in any genre come from taking an idea, exploring it superficially–to the level your audience is likely to–but thinking it through a little farther. You can uncover ramifications that, when your audience finally is led to make the same connection, can lead them into a genuine “Oh…crap” moment, one of the experiences we all long to provide our readers.

Take for example the movie “Sneakers”. Robert Redford’s character leads a team of rogue specialists who test companies’ security by attempting to break into it. It’s fun to watch them use their various methods to pull off the perfect heist, and we can feel good about their being the “good guys.”

And sure enough, before long the government shows up asking for their help. A brilliant mathematician has been hired by a foreign power to create the ultimate decryption system, and our lovable team of misfits needs to steal it from him before he can hand it over to America’s enemies. They go to work, and soon they’ve got the device, ready to hand it over to the NSA.
Sneakers
Then suddenly the mathematician winds up dead. Before long it’s become all to clear–it wasn’t the government that hired them. It was an unknown power trying to get the device from the real U.S. Government, and our heroes walked right it. The rest of the movie is all about getting themselves out of the mess they’ve made.

It’s a lot of fun, but I especially love the “Oh…crap” moment. It never occurred to me–just like it never occurred to them–that someone would use them and set them up like that. And yet it makes perfect sense, once we think to think about it. The scriptwriters took the time to think about it, and the result is one of the most fun heist movies I’ve ever seen.

Many of the coolest ideas in novels or film come from taking a cool idea and thinking a few more levels deep. Yes, we could have a good novel from the initial idea alone, but when you extrapolate a step or two farther that’s when the fun really begins and you have a great chance of surprising your reader. Whether it’s an “Oh…crap” moment, a plot twist, or just adding another layer of depth or realism to to your setting or situation, your readers will appreciate it.

You’re always bound to have a few readers who do take your ideas and extrapolate. If you show them that you already did that, too, they’ll respect you more as an author. If you can show them you not only thought that far,  but actually took it farther, you’ll keep them coming back for more.

So take the time to think things through. Play with the “what-ifs”. You may already have a good story idea, but taking it just a few steps farther could be what it takes to turn it into a great idea.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Books that Reel You In: Hook, Line, and Sinker

 

by Alice Beesley

how-to-remove-fish-hook-2

One of my favorite things to do is read a good book, but I have a short attention span, so it takes a lot to draw me in and hold my interest long enough to read past the first page, let alone finish a book. I’ve thought a lot lately about what it is that entices me to read an entire novel, and I’ve come up with a few things that captivate me as a reader that I’m trying to incorporate into my own writing.

1. I read some books purely for the beautiful language. I may not be that interested in the story or the characters, but the language lulls me. For instance, reading Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy is like riding a raft down a gentle river, the way her words float across the page enthralls me. Crossed, the second book in the Matched series starts out “I’m standing in a river. It’s blue. Dark blue. Reflecting the color of the evening sky. I don’t move. The river does. It pushes against me and hisses through the grass at the water’s edge.” Notice how the words flow, smoothly, rhythmically, like a river. You can see it. Feel it. Hear it.
2. Another thing that grabs me like a Pitbull and won’t let go is a unique, engaging voice. I just finished reading Supernaturally, the second book in the Paranormalcy series. The fun voice is part of what carried me through the first two books. It starts out “Oh, bleep. I was going to die.” Whenever the MC swears she says bleep. Cute. Original.
3. Then there are those books I read simply because I adore one of the characters. And it might not even be the main character. Even more than the voice in Paranormalcy, I liked one particular character, who only popped up once in a while and is portrayed as bad, but whenever this character came on the scene, I cheered. In James Dashner’s Maze Runner, my daughter fell in love with one of the side characters and followed him through to the end of the series.
4. Humor is another thing that compels me to read. Even though horrific things happen in Maze Runner, there’s a lot of humor in the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of the characters that tickled my ribs and made me laugh out loud. I especially enjoyed the made up swearwords like “klunk” and “shuck”. One hilarious character named Jorge cracked me up every time he opened his mouth.
5. The story itself, the plot, can hook me and reel me in. Hunger Games is one of those books where the plot, more than anything else, is why I couldn’t put it down.
6. My favorite books, the page-turners, have several or all of these strengths combined. Plot, character, voice, humor, great writing. Some examples of brilliant books I could read over and over again are: Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, Jane Eyre, Lord of the Rings, The Poisonwood Bible, and Harry Potter.

So why do you read certain books? What is it about them that you find irresistible?

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn wrote her first book, about a talking grandfather clock, when she was six – and hasn’t stopped writing since. In fact, she can’t “not write,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She hasn’t missed a day of writing in her journal for the past four years!

As a winner in this year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge, Bonnie produced her latest dystopian novel, "Escaping Safety," and is now working on its sequel. She is also close to completing a fantasy romance series, "The Legends of Elldamorae," whose characters have captured her heart and can’t wait to have their stories revealed.

Bonnie’s mantra is, “I write because I believe every story deserves to be told.”

You can learn more about Bonnie, and read her inspirational blog posts, on Where Legends Begin at http://www.bonniegwyn.blogspot.com/

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.