dramatic tension

The World Of … The Opening Bell: Kayfabe, Backstage Politics, and the Martial Arts Drama

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Kayfabe is a term used in the professional wrestling business to describe the keeping of appearances to create the illusion of hyper-reality of the sport/entertainment.  We all know that the actual matches in modern pro wrestling is choreographed – I hesitate to use the word ‘fake’, simply because of the athleticism and inherent danger involved; it would be like calling stuntwork ‘fake’. – but the efforts of kayfabe are to create that same suspension of disbelief an author uses to engage a reader.

Meanwhile, most of the actual events are determined by the writers and ‘bookers’, the men and women who decide on the match cards, the storylines, and so on.  They would be the reality behind the scenes, the wizard behind the curtain.  Though the wrestlers and other performers have input, sometimes significant, it usually comes down to the Powers That Be to make the final decisions.

How does that all come together in The Opening Bell?

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Writing Is A Bad Habit: Lazy River or Raging Torrent a.k.a. The Many Rights of Pacing

Pacing, pacing, pacing!  It’s one of the most vital elements to get right in a story and it’s one that I wind up commenting on often in my Starving Reviews.  The problem with reading my reviews to learn about pacing is that the ‘right’ pacing for any work is an elusive beast.  When I say in a review that the pacing was ‘sluggish’, that may mean something different depending on the book that I’m reviewing.

Pacing, maybe more than other core plot elements, is fluid.  You need to think of pacing as a river.  A river is water flowing down a channel.  You want a safe current down that river, but how much water you need to make that current depends on the channel that’s cut.  It also depends on what you want to do in that river.  Do you want to go white-water rafting or spend a lazy day fishing on the river bank?

To turn the comparison back into actual literary terms, the ‘right’ pacing for a particular piece is determined by theme, content, genre, and the plot itself.  Action pieces may call for a swift pace.  Introspective pieces may call for something steady and methodical.  It’s even quite likely that the pacing of a work will slow and speed, alongside the rises and falls of the dramatic curve.  This all serves to reinforce the other elements of the book and the all-important dramatic tension of the plot.  This is why pacing can be such a dominant force in whether a reader loves or hates a book.

So, when you put together your next work, pay attention to the ebbs and flows of your plot and use the pacing to help enhance and reinforce that plot.  The pace is the spine and the speed limit of your tale.  You need both to be just right to create the best works you can!

Questions, insights, or critiques?  Drop them in the comments below!  Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: Impress The Readers! a.k.a. Jotun Through a Writer’s Eyes

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Jotun, from Thunder Lotus Games, is an amazing game, at least in my estimation.  Now, I’ve mentioned before that I believe that video games are great and everyone should play them, but that doesn’t mean that all video games, even great ones, are of value to analyze to help a writer on their way.  Jotun is not like most games though, so we are going to take a look at what it can teach us as writers today.  We’ll take a look at the characters, plot, pacing, and style.

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Writing Is A Bad Habit: Dark vs. Evil: The Big Meh? a.k.a. Meaningful Conflict

Conflict is the soul of drama.

I’m certain you’ve heard the phrase before bandied around.  We’ve talked about it a plenty before and it is elementally true.  There is no dramatic tension without conflict.  However, to be one-hundred percent accurate, there should be a clarification to that phrase.  It takes more than raw conflict to make drama; it takes meaningful conflict.  No one cares about a story wherein the main conflict is what the protagonist wants to eat for lunch (unless that choice will having unexpected consequences!).  Pastrami vs. tuna salad is not the meaningful conflict of the ages.

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Writing Is A Bad Habit: The Eight Deadly Words a.k.a. Creating Character Investment

“I don’t care what happens to these people.”

These eight deadly words comprise the sentence you never want your readers to utter.  It is the death knell of creative character-driven media of all kinds.  If the readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your narrative either.  It’s important to note that ‘caring’ about characters does not always equate to ‘liking’ them.  A reader might like a character, but not be invested in them and, to flip it around, a reader might hate a character but be totally entranced by their actions.

So how do we combat this and avoid those eight words?  The first and most obvious step is character relatability.  Again, a relatable character doesn’t have to be liked or disliked, just understandable.  We’ve talked about this quite a bit, but it never hurts to reiterate this.  Characters need to have motivations, thoughts, and feelings that make sense.  If these things make sense to your audience, they will relate to the characters and, likely, become invested in them.  It’s the classic ‘we like what we understand’ thought in action.

There are other things we should do to create this needed investment.  Another way to create that ‘caring’ from the reader is to ensure that there is sufficient risk in the plot line, that there are stakes to the conflicts involved.  Not just stakes, but stakes that fit the conflict involved.  If there is no risk or stakes or drama connecting the plot and the characters, there’s no compelling reason for the reader to become invested in the plot, no matter how they feel about the characters.  Yes, you can have a fully character-driven scene or story, with no real tension from the plot, but that won’t sustain a full-length novel very well.

I think the ‘appropriate stakes to the conflict’ part is something that is often a stumbling block.  Not that you can’t sometimes overblow the stakes, hinging lives on a stand-up comedy routine as an example, but it’s usually best to keep them under wraps.  You especially can’t understate the stakes.  The stakes to a gunfight, for example, needs to, at the least, be the lives of the protagonists, if not more, otherwise there is no tension and no investment.  Risk, sacrifice, and threat are all vital to creating that investment we all desire, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or social.

What techniques and elements do you use to ensure that your readers care?  If you’re just a reader, what do you look for in the characters that you do invest it?  Let me know in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Long Row To Hoe a.k.a. Plotting and Pacing A Series

The book series is a popular thing these days.  For good reason, really, as many readers love to get invested into a fictional world and its inhabitants, so invested that they don’t want the stories to end at just one book.  You can see this same investment in other forms of media and it’s something television especially has made use of for decades now.  While we’ve talked about series writing in the past to some degree, today I’d like to talk specifically about the plot and pacing of a series as a whole.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the first hurdle is to decide just how serialized your series is.  If the project is lightly serialized or not serialized at all, there’s little need for long-term planning.  With each series book being so compartmentalized with no over-arching goal, you only need to worry about the plot of each book as you begin to write them, simply incorporating what changes in canon and characterization are needed from the previous volume.  In essence, each book is plotted and paced as their own entity with no need to worry about the overall ‘series’.

The more serialized your series is, the more you need to focus on the planning of the overall plot.  As our previous article talked about the story arc plotting of the individual ‘chapters’ of the serial, we are going to focus today on the health of the overall story of the serial.  Just as you can’t forsake individual books in the serial, you can also not let the plot or pace of any one book ruin the overall storyline.  It’s a symbiotic relationship, really, and you have to balance the needs of the book versus the needs of the serial.

The hardest part of the balance might be in the pacing of events.  Just as every book should follow a dramatic curve of events, the serial overall should follow that same curve, which can lead to interesting balancing acts.  How do you balance, for instance, a book’s rising action when that book lies squarely in the series as an area of falling action after the initial hook?  What about the ending of the first book of a serial where the denouement of it might fall into a section of the overall plot that should still be part of the rising action?

I’ve found the best way to resolve these inconsistencies is to think of the dramatic curve in terms of relative action.  If the dramatic arc of the entire serial is a much larger, grander curve than those of the books, any out-of-place dips or rises of individual volumes have proportionally less impact.  Think of them as small deviances on the larger plot curve instead of the more dramatic dips they would be on the curve of an individual book.  So, yes, a book set in the falling action region after the initial dramatic hook can still have its own rising action, just so long as it is relatively at a lower level of dramatic tension then what came before.

The real thing to watch for is to ensure that the overall dramatic tension, the ‘stakes’ if you will, never falls too far.  Remember, on your standard dramatic curve, you never dip below your starting point, even in a state of falling action.  The plot must continue to build, it just slows down and relaxes some from time to time to allow the reader to process and recover, as well as allow you, the author, to properly pace things.  What you want your plot dramatic curve to be, with that in mind, is the arcs of each of each book as one continual line, each with their own builds and drops and denouement, using the falling action and denouement of some volumes to bring the curve down enough to let the series overall have its ‘breathing space’, but never bringing the entire curve down lower than the last dip.

Now I wish I had any skill at art or the like, because I could really use a visual aid here!  I hope, though, that my overall point is clear.  The plotting and pacing of a serialized series is just the same as for a book, but on a much larger scale.  There is a strong relationship between the plotting of your books and your series, and you must work to balance both.  One cannot survive without the other!

Questions, comments, concerns?  Leave a comment below!  Want to see more and better content in the future?  Consider supporting me through Patreon or just buying my books!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of a.k.a. The MacGuffin

It’s that time again, folks, for your weekly Writing Is A Bad Habit article.  This week, let us tackle that mysterious source of plot generation, the mighty MacGuffin.  Be it a mysterious briefcase that glows, a lost statue, or the lost manuscript of Shakespeare, MacGuffins are those objects that everyone in a plot seems to want, yet are themselves often unseen or unknown.  It might be considered a bit of a hackneyed plot point, but many great books have been based on the premise of a hunt for a MacGuffin, like it or not.

Why is it that some MacGuffins put us off the books they are in, while others draw us in with their mystery?  There are quite a few reasons behind both of those, many of which are not related to the MacGuffin itself.  See, there’s nothing inherently wrong about using a MacGuffin, just as with many other tropes and plot devices.  It is rarely the plot device itself that makes for a bad bit of writing, but everything else around it.

That being said, I think there are a few important do’s and don’t’s about using a MacGuffin that center on the device itself.  It really centers on what makes a MacGuffin a compelling object to the reader, not necessarily the characters (though that is important as well).  Thinking about it, the two kinds of MacGuffins I have found the most compelling in fiction are the complete mysteries and the intimately understood ones.  It is when the narrative around the object hangs in some vague middle ground that things go wonky.

How does that make any sense, with total opposite approaches being compelling ones?  Well, to me, it comes down to the allure of mystery and the draw of intimacy.  Let’s take MacGuffin A, the mystery briefcase that only is described by the glow that comes from the interior when it is opened.  We are told nothing else about this case save for the mysterious events that happen around it and the fact that so many people want it.  Our protagonists and the readers are kept in the dark, never knowing what it is or why exactly everyone is willing to die (or kill) over it.  That cloak of mystery is seductive.  We read on to find those hints as to the MacGuffin’s true nature and it spurs our imagination as we come up with our own theories and deductions.  That mystery is what draws our interest and keeps us solidly glued to the tale and, as the MacGuffin doesn’t need to be minutely described, the author can concentrate on the characterization and plot, knowing he has your attention.

What about the other factor, that draw of intimacy?  Let’s look at MacGuffin B, the ancient statue.  Though a mystery at first to the readers and protagonists outside of the fact everyone wants it, the statue’s history is laid out for both of us in intimate detail.  We know not just what it is, but why exactly everyone wants it.  Though deprived of its cloak of mystery, that is replaced by the true understanding of WHY this hunk of statuary is so vitally important.  We are pulled in because we so completely know the stakes, so the dramatic tension is set at a suitably high bar.  As with the cloak of mystery, the draw of intimacy again focuses the readers’ attention and, once established, leaves the author free to focus on the characters and plot.

Both of these approaches do have pitfalls.  A mystery MacGuffin can be foreshadowed shabbily, with no real indications given as to its importance.  That glowing suitcase is obviously SOMETHING special, even if we don’t know WHAT it is.  If the MacGuffin is left too plain and a total unknown, with no hints to its nature at all, you don’t generate that interest or spark your readers’ imaginations.

As for the intimate MacGuffin, the risk comes in not making the object compelling enough once you reveal it.  If the rationale for the desire for the object is poorly laid out, if the object simply is uninteresting once unveiled, or if the characterization of those wanting it don’t match what it actually is … there are all potential pitfalls.  In a way, it’s like revealing any other mystery in a book.  If it doesn’t hold together, you exchange the dramatic tension of the stakes for a breach of suspension of disbelief as the readers shake their collective heads.

Those are my thoughts on the venerable MacGuffin.  Do you use this particular plot device and do you have any advice to others about it?  Feel free to drop a line in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!