Oct 28, 2011

Enticing Endings

This week I'm talking about story structure.

Here's the thing about endings. No ending should be the end. The best ending, while satisfying, leaves the reader wanting more, and also hints that there might still be more to come. Whether it's just the end of a chapter or the end of the whole book, there should be something calling the reader back for more.

When I finish a book, even if it's the last in a series, I want to believe that the characters could still have more adventures ahead of them. I feel like, if what I'm seeing is the greatest adventure these people will ever have, how sad will that be for them? To go through life knowing they've already achieved the best they can hope for? In life, I believe the next greatest thing we experience is always just around the corner. Things should keep getting better. I want the same in the books I read. This might be why I love origin stories so much - When you're seeing the protagonist just become the hero for the first time, you know he's got countless stories ahead of him.

An ending which is clearly the last point of a character's adventures can be deeply satisfying as well, but I think I'll always have a stronger fondness for seeing the hero ride off into the sunset in search of more dangers to face.

My least favourite kind of ending sees the story come slowly to a standstill, like the fuel of the story has simply run out. If an ending has happened just a little too late, coming because there's simply no more story to tell rather than being the perfect moment to say goodbye to the characters, I tend to feel somewhat hollow. It's like waiting around too long at a party and realising you're the last one left. It's just you and the leftover streamers lying across the tables, the band packing up their gear, and an empty glass in your hand.

Do you have any favourite endings? What do you long to see most as you turn those last few pages?

I'll be at Gaelcon for much of the weekend, so my replies to comments and general online presence won't be as frequent as usual.

Oct 26, 2011

Romantic Subplots

This week I'm talking about story structure and some of the different elements to how a story is crafted.

Today I'm discussing romantic subplots. I love romantic subplots. Even when there's no prominent romantic plotline, I'll be looking for ways to pair characters together.

The thing is, it drives me crazy when a romantic subplot suggests that certain behaviour is a positive thing when in fact it's really unhealthy in a relationship. Things like where a girl has a brief encounter with another guy and decides never to tell her boyfriend. Or a man who treats his wife badly and, rather than being made to answer for his behaviour, is instantly forgiven with one nice gesture. I'm a big believer in truth and honesty in relationships. A couple doesn't have to share every intricate detail of their day every evening, but no-one should ever feel that they can't tell their partner something, and they should realise that their partner deserves to know about things that have an important effect on them.

I realise that not every story can afford the time to detail every argument and reconciliation in a relationship, and not every relationship in fiction is going to be a positive and healthy one. What worries me is when the author seems to be suggesting that clearly unhealthy behaviour is something to aspire to. This is especially worrying in fiction aimed at teenagers.

I believe quality romantic plotlines can show the consequences of unhealthy behaviour, and the rewards of a strong relationship.

What do you think? Are there any romantic plots that have driven you mad? What about them got your hackles up? Are there any love stories you think stand out as great examples of how to write a romance?

Oct 24, 2011

Trilogies and Tetralogies

This weekend my wife and I will be at Gaelcon, the largest gaming convention in Ireland. I typically run a roleplaying game at the convention. Since running rpgs features a lot of consideration for story structure and offers a great proving ground for plot ideas and usage of themes and tropes, I thought I'd spend this week talking about certain aspects of storytelling structure.

For today's post, I'm dealing with two of the most common series formats, the trilogy and the tetralogy, going all the way back to ancient Greek theatre.

Ancient Greek theatre was often crafted and performed in a 3-play format. We get our term "trilogy" from this, when audiences would spend a day at the theatre, seeing three tragedies forming one over-arcing story, accompanied by a more comedic "satyr" play.

The trilogy has remained with us to this day, becoming the most common form of storytelling in any genre and format. Even within standalone novels and movies, we talk about the 3-act structure. In a typical trilogy today, the first story will handle the introduction of the heroes, the villains, and establish both the state of affairs from before the beginning of the story, and a new status quo after the villain's defeat. The second story further develops the nature of the heroes' struggle and often reveals more of the villain's motivations, often culminating in an ending that pitches the heroes into their darkest hour. Finally, the third part of the story will bring elements of the previous instalments together as the heroes come to their final realisations, unlocking their true strength and finally overcoming the villain.

A four-part series is properly termed a tetralogy, coming from the Greek "tetra." When the trilogy of tragedies in Greek theatre is taken together with its accompanying satyr play, it forms a tetralogy. Unfortunately no complete ancient Greek tetralogy survives. The only Greek trilogy which survives is the Orestia. Recently movie trilogies have been revisited, turning them into tetralogies. Examples include the Rambo, Die Hard and Indiana Jones series. However the term quadrilogy, first actually recorded in 1865, is usually used instead when marketing 4-part movie series.

The structure of a tetralogy is more difficult to define. In planned 4-part series, tetralogies often eschew convention and while the third part may resolve many of the challenges faced by the heroes, the final victory will be delayed until the fourth part, or a previous lesser antagonist, or even an entirely new threat, may rise to challenge the heroes one last time.

Other formats of set series include a diology, pentalogy, hexalogy, heptalogy, octalogy, ennealogy and decalogy. These become ever more difficult to describe in terms of a predictable act structure, and usually become either more or less standalone stories connected by common characters and possibly an over-arcing metaplot, or simply one ongoing story broken up into component parts. In most cases, once a series has gone on long enough to move beyond five or six instalments, it can become difficult even for the author to define what kind of series it is until the final instalment has been released.

Do you have any favourite series? Is there a particular series length you find you prefer over others?

Oct 21, 2011

Heroes, In The End?

This week I finished playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Like many games with RPG elements, the game has the possibility for several different endings, each one with a different moral spin.

Here's the thing. I like it when my heroes do the right thing in the end. Typically, multiple endings are lost on me because I'll always try to figure out the one that simply offers the most honest and just ending for all involved. The ending I'd want to see if the game were a movie or a book. As much as I love seeing heroes go through hardship, suffering loss and setbacks, seeing loved ones die and facing almost unbearable defeat at the hands of the villains, in the end I want to see good prevail.

Because the best villains don't see themselves as evil, sometimes you can see an ending, especially in video games, where the hero sides with the villain's cause, if not their methods, and chooses to complete a (hopefully) less immoral version of their plans. This often rings a little hollow for me, because it suggests that, but for a few mistakes here and there, the villain's plan, the very thing the hero has spent all this time fighting against, was actually the right thing to do. Since the involvement of the hero inevitably causes the violence of the situation to escalate, how many lives could have been spared if he just hadn't gotten involved? In these cases, is the hero really any better than the villain?

Examining what a hero must become in order to defeat the villain is an important aspect of storytelling. It's a difficult balance to master. Push the hero too little, and there is no internal conflict, no struggle to find the right choice. Push the hero too far, and you risk the audience wondering what was the goal of the story.

What do you think? If a hero only succeeds because they become like the villain, or have lost so much of themself, and gained so little in return, that they're truly broken, have they really won? If you allow your enemy to change you just so you can overcome them, can you truly call yourself strong? Or has the villain just found another way to make you weak?

Oct 19, 2011


I'm doing a bit of world-building at the moment for another of my side-WIPs. It's a dark fantasy set in a massive tower city. There's a lot to do because it's a very unusual setting, a world with no sun. I want to make sure the world feels like it could be real and the people in it live their lives as people who have never known light greater than torches and firelight.

All this work got me thinking about the importance of world-building, not just for very unusual fantasy settings, but even for everyday settings. I like to think of the writer's job as being a puppet master, with a great big curtain between the audience and his collection of puppets and props. The audience may never see everything that's behind that curtain, but the writer simply must have a complete selection back there, and be familiar enough with every prop and tool to be able to put any one of them to use at a moment's notice. I think most readers can tell when an author has had to scramble to find an explanation for certain unexpected events, or pull out a new character they weren't prepared to use.

Even if you're writing in a modern day setting with no monsters, sci-fi or magic, it's so important to make sure you know the ins and outs of the place your characters inhabit. Is the hero's work next to a dry cleaner or a pizzeria? How often does it rain? What's the daily commute like? These small, simple details can help you add life to your story, giving you background and ways to interact with the world beyond pursuing the over-arcing plot.

I like to plan out bits and pieces like that before I start writing. If I'm using a real city I pick out the real-world locations I want to include and decide how they fit in. I come up with the fictional places and people who add to the setting. I like to play around with real places and give them my own twist. It frees me up to do things with the setting I couldn't do if I was restricting myself solely to how a place exists in reality. When creating a fictitious setting I tend to start with a more overall, macro-management approach. I work out the things most important to my protagonist first. In Nightfall, for example, I created the town of Little Falls, and started out with things like developing the local school and popular places for kids to go driving up in the hills and woods near the town.

I won't have the chance or even the need to reveal everything I've come up with, but it's comforting to know the information is there. It's like a wonderful security blanket, knowing it's there should I need it.

What about you? Do you enjoy world-building? Have you ever experienced a jarring moment in a movie, tv show or book where you just get the feeling the author needed to come up with something quickly to get through a scene?

Oct 17, 2011

Sacrificing Story

I play video games sometimes. I tend to prefer ones with rpg elements because I like deep storylines and an idea of character evolution.

A lot of such games these days have plotlines that diverge based on a player's choices. Make one choice, and a certain supporting character will be there for the rest of the game, involved in the story. Make a different choice and that character might die and a major element of the story is gone.

That gets me thinking. Gone. Not just changed. Gone. So is the player missing out because of a particular choice, or are both versions of the story just as fulfilling?

I think this question can be applied to writing. When we decide to subject our characters to something potentially life-changing such as the death of a loved one or other major trauma, how often to we consider how this decision will change the story? Do any authors ever wonder what stories they're giving up my removing a character for good?

I've never really thought too much about it until now. I think, especially when writing a series, it's dangerous to throw in a death for the sake of drama without considering how that will affect the rest of the series. Otherwise, you could end up in situations where you need to introduce a similar character just to fill the role now left empty. Or worse, pull out a "back from the dead" plotline, which rarely goes down well, especially when it's out of the blue.

What do you guys think?

Oct 14, 2011

David Boyer

The other day I read this post on Writer Beware about a man named David Boyer.

This man plagiarises the work of other authors - established, debut and those yet unpublished - and then sells it under his own name or one of a series of pseudonyms. B.Thoughtful's blog contains a wealth of information about Mr. Boyer's publications and his aliases, as well as the people whose work he has plagiarised. His attitude towards those who call him on his behaviour is nothing short of despicable.

It sickens me that Mr. Boyer has been able to get away with this for so long. Even if an author were successful in the expensive legal battle over copyright infringement, Mr. Boyer has so far been able to prove that he lives below the poverty line, so he can escape being forced to make reparations. The worst of it is that the small minority of individuals like him creates this atmosphere of mistrust and fear throughout the writing community. Having a story stolen and sold as someone else's work is probably the worst nightmare of every writer, but it's incredibly rare. Certainly, no legitimate agent, editor or publisher will ever attempt to steal someone's work. They've got enough of their own work to handle without adding plagiarism to the list. Still, the fear that it could happen seeps through the community, to the point where the first thing I was advised to do by my parents way back when I first started writing seriously was, before submitting anything, to send a copy of my book to myself by registered post as proof I had written it. Now, my publisher, like so many, would never dream of betraying my trust and is always honest with me, but when you're just entering into the publishing world, that lack of experience allows so much fear to influence your decisions.

If people like David Boyer didn't exist, that fear would never have found its way into the collective conscious.

However, there is at last hope that something can be done. Ferrell Rick Moore was one of David Boyer's earliest victims. He has filed a Consumer Fraud case against Mr. Boyer, on the grounds that he is defrauding those who purchase books from him. If the case is successful, it could result in jail time. Mr. Moore has asked for support in this, for which he provides information on his blog. He is asking people to write to the Indiana State Attorney's office by letter or e-mail, bringing to their attention the fraud that David Boyer is committing and supporting the case against him. All the information needed is in the link I've provided. I have sent my e-mail and I hope more people will too. If nothing else, I hope I can help spread word and awareness of David Boyer so others can be warned off dealing with him or purchasing anything that bears his name or one of his pseudonyms.

There is also a Facebook page set up to spread awareness of David Boyer.

The last thing I'll say is that any budding writers reading this should not be afraid to seek publication. Do your homework, absolutely. Before querying to an agent or publisher, before hiring an editor, research them as much as you can. Make sure you're dealing with a legitimate professional and you'll be safe. Above all, keep writing and keep querying. There are so many stories out there, it would be a shame to lose even one just because of one man's selfish actions.

Oct 12, 2011

Music to Write to

I love music. I've never studied it, I can't play an instrument, and my singing voice is forgiveable. My wife is the music expert, not me (and you should hear her sing!), but I know what I like and what works to go along with a narrative. Music's like the most amazing drug. It just lifts me and invigorates me.

So it should come as no surprise that I love listening to music while I write. I'll assemble playlists in Media Player, on iTunes, on my iPod, or even just on Youtube to play while I work, depending on my WIP, and often keep certain songs playing just to keep my mood in the right place.

I thought I'd share some of the tracks that most often find their way into my playlists to keep me in the right mindset.

This song was my main theme for writing my first novel. Particularly significant, I feel, is the line "Fire and water, earth and sky. Mysteries surround us, legends never die." This is Nathan Shepherd's theme song, most definitely.

This is just a track I found on Youtube which really resonated with me. It's got such a great beat and the rising motif really gets my heart thumping.

Back to Nathan Shepherd again. This is my "Nathan saves the day" track. Apart from the quiet section in the middle, it just exudes heroic moments. I have an edited version on my PC with the middle section removed. It works really well.

I love me some Wicked. This version of Defying Gravity has become the theme song for my current WIP, Nightfall, since my hero suffers under a curse that turns him into a half-bird creature every night. Through the course of the story, he learns to turn his curse into a gift and use it for good.

How many of you listen to music while you write? Care to share any favourites?

Oct 10, 2011

Finding My Voice

Everywhere, you see people talking about an author's "voice." Writing blogs tell you to develop it. Reviewers comment on it. Agents and publishers look for it.

For the longest time, I have to admit I didn't understand voice at all. I thought it was just something to do with writing style and word choice. Finally, however, I get it. It's so much more than just word choice. It's the use of sentence structure, the flow of the language. The way the words feel when you see them or read them aloud.

I've spent several years trying to model myself on specific authors whose books I enjoy, but it's only now that I'm branching out my reading choices that I'm starting to see more variety in voice. As a result, I've learned that the authors I've been trying to model, while excellent, have their own unique voice. I need my own. Not theirs.

My voice isn't about long descriptions or minutae. It's not about a narrator cracking comments to the reader. It's clear, concise, but vivid. My editor tells me I excel at dialogue and action. I was thrilled to hear that. These are the areas for me to focus on, because they're my strengths. The more I write and edit, the more I learn to let go of clunky, repetetive dialogue tags or overly-wordy narration. I want to write the way my voice tells me. Fun, snappy dialogue. Fast-paced adventure. I want to entertain readers with my own unique voice.

I don't have to be like any other author. I can be myself.

What are some authors' voices you've loved? If you're a writer yourself, how did you find your voice, and what is it?

Oct 7, 2011

The Solution to Bullying

It was this vlog by Hannah Moskowitz for the YA Rebels that got me thinking about bullying this week. It takes a lot of strength to dig into yourself and share something like that.

I'm sure I've also been guilty of hurting someone's feelings, talking about them disrespectfully, or treating them badly for one reason or another. I wish I could apologise to everyone I have hurt like that. I think everyone has it in them, somewhere, to act like a bully. Bullies are all afraid of something, and instead of facing that fear, they bury it. They lash out at their insecurities by targetting those weaker than themselves. They're cowards.

All of us are cowards sometimes. And it's okay to be a coward. We each have learn to deal with our fears in our own ways. It becomes a problem when we divert our fears and attack someone else because they're short, overweight, dress differently, have religion, have different sexual preferences, or have different opinions to us. All forms of prejudice come right down to bullying, pure and simple.

How do we stop it? On a case by case basis, don't stand for it. Don't let yourself be victimised just because you're different. If what you choose to wear, say, think, feel or do causes no harm to others, then stand up for your freedom to be who you are. Celebrate it. Love it. Love yourself.

On a more long-term outlook, the only way to erradicate bullying is for every person to make the choice not to do it. To educate, embrace, and accept. If you've been bullied, don't carry that pain and force it into someone else's life. Don't repeat what was done to you. Raise your children the same way. Teach others, whatever way you can, to love and respect one another.

In short, folks...

Oct 5, 2011

Bullying and Prejudice

I've made no secret of my dislike for prejudice. I've previously blogged about gender double standards in particular. Today I'd like to talk a bit more about bullying and similar forms of abuse.

Like a lot of kids, I suffered from bullying throughout my time in school. Some of it was brought on by others taking issue with decisions that made me stand out from the crowd; I had long hair, didn't wear the same clothes as other children, didn't like the same music, and was generally quite withdrawn. Some of it was just because the people in question wanted someone to target and would pick on anything from the way I walked to the way I spoke - I just happened to be an available target. Some of it was worse. Some of it was an attempt to let me into a particular circle and let it appear as thought I was welcome when in fact I wasn't and wouldn't realise what was actually going on for a long time.

I had my share of emotional, verbal and physical abuse in school. I've had my sexuality taken into question in the most vulgar ways. I've been threatened and physically attacked. I've listened to my spiritual beliefs be ridiculed. I hardened myself to it. Told myself everything would be better once I was done with school. What I wasn't prepared for was for that abuse to continue in college. It was by no means as frequent and, unlike school, it never resulted in violence. However when the people responsible are older, I believe there's a higher level of intentional cruelty present. The thing about it, in this case, was that I hung around it far longer than I should have because the people responsible were popular members of the college drama society.

I love theatre. I grew up around theatre and music and was part of a youth drama group during my teens. I was never able to be part of any of the cliques, though, and this inability followed me to college. The college drama society had some pretty bad ones while I was there. I let some of them treat me badly, never standing up for myself because I was so afraid of not being part of the in-crowd, when in truth I was never a part of it.

The last mistreatment I allowed was when some of the in-crowd sat in the front row of a one-act play I had written, while it was being performed, and laughed at it. It wasn't the best thing I'd ever written and it could have used some more rehearsal time, but there was no call for that. One of them did come to me to apologise after the last performance. I told her I didn't appreciate their behaviour. It was the last time I spoke to them. Thereafter I associated less and less with the drama society, spending more time with the games society, which became my second home. That was where I started to find myself, with the help of my friends.

Looking back, I know that those people made the drama society a cruel, toxic place. I should have left long before I did, but I was afraid. I'm not afraid anymore.

If anyone is reading this who has found themselves trying to please others while suffering their behaviour, staying for fear of what might happen if you're not accepted into their world, don't be afraid. You wouldn't want to be one of them even if they wanted you. You're better than that. Bullies never change. They're all made strong by people who suck up to them and people who fear them. You don't have to fear them. You can just walk away and find something better, because you are amazing, even if you don't realise it, and the right people will love you for just being you. Once you turn your back on those kinds of people, you'll be surprised who you find waiting to accept you.

Oct 3, 2011

Benefits of Not Writing

If you'd told me even a month ago that not writing can be good for you, I'd have scoffed and gone back to slaving away at my MS. I was a firm believer that a writer had to write every single day. I still believe that a writer should write as much as possible, but I don't think there's any need to feel guilty about taking time for yourself to just unwind and get your head out of the work for a while.

I'm just back in the office after a 4-day weekend during which I barely even thought about writing. I got up in the mornings and played some Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I had breakfast with Jen when she got up. Then we went out for a few hours or had people over.

On Saturday night we went to the Batman Live show in the O2 in Dublin, which was fantastic. It was a very well put-together production with excellent multimedia elements and just enough campiness to make it family-friendly, but not so much that anyone over the age of 12 was going to cringe. Highlights include the self-driving Batmobile designed by a Formula-1 engineer, a comic book-style display on the massive bat-shaped screen behind the stage, and some non-show related moments like seeing two parents, one dressed as Robin and the other as Batgirl, with their two sons dressed up as Batman, and one lone child shouting "Batman! Behind you!" at one point in the show.

I've also started reading The Hunger Games and I'm loving it. The first-person present-tense narrative takes some getting used to, but I love Suzanne Collins' writing style. I could learn a lot from her.

I'm feeing quite nicely recharged and looking forward to getting back to work on my writing.

What do you find helps you recharge? What's your most guilty non-writing pleasure?