Month: July 2013

Soon, Igor, Soon.

Today’s post is delayed – it’s going to be a goals update post, but what with one thing and another and another and another I have not managed to sit down to write it yet, which means it will not be written today now.

This can reasonably construed as a preview of what the goal updates themselves will look like.

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Questions, part 2: Kinds of Questions

This is the second in a series of posts about questions in storytelling. Here I will talk about the subject of a question.

All Kinds of Everything

Questions in a story relate to character, plot, setting, or theme – any element of the story, in other words.

Character

Your characters are what you use to tell the story. It is through characters’ actions, motives, and suffering that we learn what it is we care about in the tale.

When the story opens, we are unlikely to know much about the characters, so there are more questions than answers, but even once the basics of a character are laid out for the reader there may be questions we can ask which pique curiosity.

  • Why is the character wearing a heavy coat on a warm summer’s day?
  • Where did the character get that walking stick with the eldritch carvings?
  • Who does the character think he is, jumping the queue like that?
  • Will the character survive the riot?

All of these questions can be used to illuminate the character, but also to engage the plot.

Plot

Your plot is the storyline that the characters follow. The characters’ actions will affect the plot, and the plot will inflict changing circumstances on the characters.

Plot questions can relate to the core plot, or to a dummy plot, or even to some subplot which has no direct relevance to the central story.

  • Is that walking stick the fabled Shipley Summer Stick, the only hope for exorcism of unquiet spirits?
  • How will the character get to the theatre in time to stop the cultists from opening the gate inside?
  • What will happen now that the crowd is roused against interlopers? (the character and his friends)

Setting

Some stories use settings which are almost no setting – a family home, a quiet street, a park: the term itself conjures the place from the readers’ expecrience – while others weave complex worlds which are themselves entirely novel. Some of these are so explicitly alien that they could be called puzzle novels in themselves (for example, Anathem by Neal Stephenson or Transition by Iain Banks), presenting a barrage of questions to the reader.

  • Why is there a blue police box on this New York street?
  • Why are the character’s parents not at home?
  • Where do the pineapples come from?
  • How do the floating islands stay in the air?

Theme

Thematic elements are of variable importance. If all you want to do is to tell an adventure story about pirates then a theme may not matter at all, but if you wanted to explore themes of defiance, independence, and the inevitable cruelty of the individualist then a story about pirates battling with English naval vessels and privateers could be a good vehicle.

  • How are the events connected together?
  • Why does this character always make the same mistake?
  • Will the character find enough self-knowledge to overcome his selfishness?
  • Can the inevitable doom of the pirates be averted?

So Many Questions

This has been a very quick canter around the kinds of uncertainties that we can raise to engage our reader’s curiosity, but it is worth making one more observation about questions and audience: the kinds of questions you ask must be consistent with the target readership.

For example, thematic questions of existential dread and nihilistic horror would not necessarily be suitable in a children’s book (although some might disagree), while questions about hair colouring and nail polish choice may be a little lightweight for a post-technological science fiction setting.

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Transgression and art

Early in 2012, a study was published which demonstrated a correlation between creativity and immorality*.

Far from being offended by this, I thought it was almost a trivial observation: creative people will naturally tend to think of things that others do not, which may be interpreted as immorality in those with a more conformist mindset.

The thing is that art is often a transgressive activity: creative people look for new things to say and new ways to say them, and this thinking of the unthought can lead to thinking the unthinkable. Making art obviously doesn’t lead inevitably to murder and bestiality, but it may lead to questioning social assumptions.

One interesting question I often see on writing forums is some variant on “can I do this?”: can I write a book about vampires when there are already so many? Can I write a story with a puppy turning into a dragon and then destroying all cats?

I usually refrain from answering because it seems to me to be the wrong question. Writing is not about seeking permission. If you are looking for permission to write something, then I would argue that you’re fettering your creativity before you start. Write about whatever you want: vampires, dragons, vampire dragons, vampire dragons in rockets flying to the moon… all of it is fair game.

Where things get tough is whether anyone will want to read what you write Рwill your book, the umpty-tumpth vampire novel, find an unjaded audience? Will space-faring vampire dragons be perceived as too silly to read? Is what you write going to be interesting to a reader?

This is where the transgression comes in, I think, as well as risk. If you write about something that is unacceptable or uncomfortable to some people, then they decide not only not to read your book but that they should appeal to others to not read your book also. This is where things like library bans for innocuous books like Harry Potter come from: someone gets the idea that any sympathetic portrayal of the supernatural is promoting satanism, and *boom*! the book is banned in schools**. But if you write about things that others are not then you say things that many will want to read.

The alternative, really, is to write the same thing as everyone else, and who really wants to read more of the same thing?

[*] the link rather amusingly suggests there is a link between creativity and immortality, which is almost exactly untrue.

[**] I did look for specific examples of Potter being banned, and this series is apparently now the most banned book in the US the only specific example of a banning which my superficial search found was of a church school in Kent.

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Questions and Cliffhangers

Storytellers are manipulators: we make the audience care about the characters, giving them reasons to identify with these imaginary people, then we hurt them*. Maybe not physically or even financially, but emotionally for sure.

For this is how story is made.

But when we are writing our tales of gut-wrenching woe, how do we keep the reader reading?

Conflict is often mentioned, but more basic than that are questions. We raise questions and then we answer them, but not necessarily immediately and not evenly.

“It is the question that drives us.”

– Morpheus, “The Matrix”

The questions raised can be of many different kinds, scopes and urgencies, and the questions themselves may be raised in varying ways. All of these elements can be mixed and combined to produce different textures and levels of tension.

Tension is what we are looking to induce: not knowing is one thing, but wanting to find out is what makes the reader read.

Putting these questions at the end of a chapter, or even a book, is one way to draw the reader forward into reading just one more page.

The Story

I am concerned with this at the moment because I am writing the season closer for A New Dawn. The player characters have learned of their abilities, that they are not alone, and they have thwarted a robbery. Writing the linkages between those sessions has been pretty simple: the first session ended with the bank wall across the road bursting outwards, for example – it was obvious what the question was there: it was obvious how to do the cliffhanger.

Crafting a satisfying closer this time is going to be interesting.

[*] normally I would disambiguate this pronoun, but here? The ambiguity is appropriate.

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Runners and writers

I run.

I’ve been pretty lucky lately in that I have not suffered an injury which has stopped me running in some time. However, I have learned a great deal about running from injury over the years.

One of these things is to vary your gait. Another is that hills are what running is about for me.

When you meet a steep hill, walking up is allowed but it shouldn’t be your first choice*. This is where it is useful to have more than one gait for your running. I have three normal gaits**: a short stride with rapid turnover which is my base, a longer push stride that I use to vary things when I’m on the flat for a long time, and a hill stride where I plant my heel and straighten my leg***.

Where things get interesting is in recognising when you need to switch gaits. I’ve already mentioned that the push stride is something I use when the short stride needs breaking up, but the short stride only works on hills up to a certain incline or when my legs are fresh. The hill stride kicks in if the slope is steep, or if I’m tired (there are a couple of closing hills on regular running routes which need the hill stride when I’ve already done six miles).

Some of the same principles apply to writing.

There are times when the words flow like storm rain, backing up for want of faster fingers. Other times the need is just to set up a steady pace, to make consistent progress over a long period: a regular flow over a weir, something to keep the story running.

And sometimes other things steal away your time, and words won’t come when you set yourself at the keyboard – you turn the tap and all you see is the dark sludge of a dry pipe.

All of these are different times, but the times will change and your writing gait will change to match.

But you keep writing just as you keep running, and the stories will come, watering the fertile ground of the imagination and blossoming into vibrant narratives.

You write.

[*] I have a known some ultra runners over the years, and one of them said that she only ran up a hill if she could see the top of it. Which is fair enough, I reckon, when you’re pacing yourself for a fifty mile run.

[**] the abnormal gaits are when I have an injury of some kind and I decide that running is still a good idea anyway. For example, the soft tissue injury I had at the base of a toe around Shamrock Run time made me run funny and walk unfunny.

[***] I don’t have a throw forward stride any more. That was one of the things that led me to an excellent knee injury in 2003.

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