Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Fantastic Crash! a.k.a. A Writer’s Autopsy of Fantastic Four (2015)

Movies and books are sister media.  While there are distinct differences and certainly a need for different techniques, both involve the art of story-telling and you can draw considerable connections between the two.  That is especially true when looking at core story structure and characterization concepts.  This brings us to today’s topic: the newest Fantastic Four reboot movie by 20th Century Fox.

This won’t be a review.  No, this is more of a dissection.  We’ll cut into the main course of the plot and various elements of both that and the characters of the movie and see what is wrong with these things, then apply that knowledge to the art of writing.  For that reason, there will be no talk of the strength of the adaptation itself, no talk of the many known issues of the troubled production, and, unlike my Starving Reviews, there will be spoilers!  If you wish to see the movie yourself with a clear mind, do not proceed!


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: Green Skin, Pointy Ears, Still Human? a.k.a. Depicting Aliens and Nonhumans

It is a common shortcut in writing genre fiction to make nonhuman characters look different, sure, but to be close, if not identical, to human in many of the intangible points.  Emotions, thought processes, and other mental/spiritual/emotional aspects tend to hew close to the human spectrum.  Oh, there may be minor differences, little quibbles here and there, with the occasional notable quirk, but the tendency of many writers is to stay close to the human experience.

In and of itself, this tendency isn’t necessarily bad and it’s certainly not a deal-breaker to me as a reader.  Knowing that the aliens in a piece are perhaps not so alien after all can give nonhuman characters a certain built-in level of relatability, not to mention such situations can offer the author a chance to explore a number of real-world social concerns, such as prejudice and racism, in a fantasy or science-fiction setting.  On top of that, we do tend to write best the things we understand most and most of us are far more familiar with humans than, say, the starfish people of Cyngus XII.

Still, there’s also a point to be made for taking the plunge, to make the effort to make the aliens or fantastical races in a book truly unique species.  The concept of cultural differences isn’t hard for most of us to deal with it as it runs along the lines of something familiar to us (the same political and social differences of different cultures here on Earth), but pushing deeper into trying to create a truly ‘alien’ outlook on the world is something quite hard to accomplish.  It’s one thing to take the human template and tweak it in one direction or another, but to try to wrap your head creatively around something completely different than the human psyche, that’s quite another.

When it is done well, however, it adds incredible depth and an added degree of immersion into the fictional world the author is creating.  Aliens being truly alien represent another mystery for your readers to unlock, and it simply makes more sense to them that something so far removed from our species should have real and possibly quite stark differences in how they think, feel, and react.  The problem lies in the fact that, when done poorly, it can simply be confusing and a waste of authorial time and energy.

Think about it: such a feat does basically add another extensive plot to your book, that being the introduction and exploration of this alien race or races.  Whether you want that or not, you have it, simply because you must explore this race in your book or else your readers will not have a point of reference or relatability with the alien characters you introduce.  Also, there’s the pitfall of introducing something alien, yes, but also uninteresting, at least in a dramatic sense.  If the alieness of a species is going to be part of the plot, it would be wise to weld that exploration of the race deeply into it.  After all, you have to spend the time to establish the race to your human readers!  You might as well spend that time wisely and integrate it into the larger plot, right?

If you’re a genre writer whose next work incorporates nonhuman species, take a moment to consider just how different from humanity they are and whether that level of difference works for your purposes and for your book.  Many approaches are valid, from ‘like us with a different skin color’ to ‘unfathomable cosmic entity’, so you have to tailor your approach to the alien with the needs of your works and the desires of your readers.

Got a thought, question, or input?  Drop a line in the comments below!

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!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: Just Lie To Me a.k.a. The Unreliable Narrator

A key element to creating intriguing fiction is to have an air of mystery and the unknown during the plot.  It works on the basic premise of human curiosity.  We want to know things, to understand things.  There are many ways to go about this, but one particular device that adds a human element to the mystery is the use of unreliable narrators.

An unreliable narrator is, if you didn’t know, a viewpoint character in a story that does not necessarily tell the whole truth.  The actual facts of any scene they are in or story they communicate to the reader may be distorted or straight out fabricated compared to the ‘true’ plot of the story.  It doesn’t matter the character’s reason for doing so or if it is intentional or not; they are still unreliable narrators.

Why bother using such a character as a mouthpiece?  After all, technically, the writer can simply misrepresent facts in the text on his/her own.  There is a problem with that though.  Readers consider words from the author, such as text that is not attributed to the viewpoint of a particular character, as being, in essence, the word of God, true facts.  If you, the author, as the voice of God, lie about the truth of any situation you describe, you build mistrust with your readers directly and they begin to question the entire narrative that you are weaving.  By putting the source of distrust into a character’s viewpoint, you avoid that intrinsic mistrust with the fictional world as a whole.  Any person can lie for whatever reason; the gods don’t.

Now, at first thought, you still might shy away from the concept of unreliable narrators.  If your Point of View character is your protagonist, for instance, and you’ve established her as scrupulously honest, you might feel it’s a breach of character to interject any kind of mistruth to their tale.  However, remember that just because someone always tells the truth doesn’t mean they always speak the absolute facts.  Maybe they don’t know all of the facts and thus have to make conjectures.  Maybe they didn’t see the whole situation and thus misrepresent it unwittingly.  Maybe their other emotions and experiences color their perceptions, turning the facts somewhat into their own personal truth.  Or maybe you just want to have a point-of-view character who is far from honest.

Even if you don’t intend to have a traditional unreliable narrator, you can still take elements of this trope to interject some uncertainty and drama into a story.  If you go with a first-person perspective or a limited third-person viewpoint, there is always room for uncertainty as the information and viewpoints that you use to transmit the story to the reader is limited.  The viewpoint characters probably don’t know everything or perceive every event, so their recollection is inherently skewed.  You can use that to your advantage to turn what the character (and reader) thought was fact into fiction.

In the end, consider using an unreliable narrator, in any permutation, from time to time.  They can add a dash of uncertainty and drama into any literary concoction!

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

Writing Is A Bad Habit: There Are Only So Many Stories a.k.a. How Original Can You Be?

You think you have the greatest, most original plot idea ever … until you wind up looking through your bookstore and see it.  There, right there, is a book that seems to be your exact same concept!  Someone beat you to the punch and so there goes a great idea!  Or does it?

They say there are only seven core plots in the world and that’s pretty much right.  No one has a problem with that.  It is even said there are only so many stories ever and that even makes a certain degree of sense.  When you have billions of people in history all being creative, there’s bound to be convergent thoughts that lead to similar plotlines and story ideas.  That doesn’t mean you should give up or simply throw away anything that seems similar to previously told stories.

The trick about writing is not always coming up with a unique idea (there are few, if any, of those left), it is how you tell the story itself.  No one tells a story in the same way and no two characters are totally identical.  You can take a plot that may be identical in its key points to another story, then change it all up by implanting different characters, different styles, and different dramatic beats.  New themes, new ideas, and your own unique perspective can radically alter a tale.

All the same, if you do find that you’re looking at a mirror image of a book on the shelves, it might not hurt to compare them.  The last thing you want is to wind up on that one-in-a-million chance that you running on such a convergent set of thoughts that it really seems like you *are* copying the other work!

In the end, you can take any plot and apply your own unique style and outlook to make it your own.  Until next time, good luck, good reading, and good writing!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: One of Many! a.k.a. Writing Story Arcs In A Series

Book series are the norm for today’s writing culture as opposed to the exception, much like it is in the gaming and film world.  The reading public overall seems to crave long-term stories as opposed to single flashes these days, so we as authors are often eager to feed that craving.  It helps, as well, that writing in a favorite series can be like snuggling down in a warm, cozy bed, bringing with it a sense of familiarity and ease that makes our work that much easier.  Of course, like any other writing methodology, series writing has its own needs and its own pitfalls.  Today, I want to talk about a particular pitfall that I have run into both as a writer and as a reader: balancing the story arc of a single volume versus the story arc of the whole series.

As with most literary problems, this one seems a simple thing on the surface.  Obviously, it is important for each volume of a series to have a complete story arc that is properly explored while also advancing the overall arc of the series.  The problem comes most often in the implementation of those ideas.  From my reading experience, the most common issue is when the author leaves the story of any one volume rather anemic, instead focusing on the overall story of the series.  In essence, the author turns the series of novels into one giant serial novel.

What’s the difference, you might be asking?  Serials are one continual story, broken into chapters; series are a series of individual stories all with a common theme.  To be honest, most modern book series include dashes of both, leaning towards traditional series, but often with an underlying serial plotline as well.  That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a ‘series’ as a serial, as long as you are clear about that upfront.

However, one vital thing to consider in this ‘serial vs. series’ debate is the length not only of each book but the overall series.  Think of it like this: the longer each book, the greater the need for self-contained story arcs, thus the greater likelihood you need to balance more towards series writing.  Not many readers want to read three hundred pages and have no dramatic pay-off and no real resolutions!  However, if each installment is, let’s say, only a hundred pages, you could easily string together a six-installment serial or more.  A reader will understandably expect more of a pay-off as your works grow longer.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have long-term series storylines!  Naturally, the core concepts of character arcs and continuity call for it.  There are quite a few huge, famous book series with only the loosest of continuities and overall story arcs (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Mack Bolan, The Destroyer, among others), but many modern readers have come to expect continuity in modern books.  Again, this goes along with trends in both film, comics, gaming, and other related creative arts.

What I suppose this comes down to is this: for each volume in your book series, ensure there are some dramatic pay-offs and resolved story arcs, even if you do go full serial or full series.  The more you trend towards series, the more self-contained each book should be, the more serial, the more chapterish each book should feel.  Whichever you decide to do, be clear about it in describing and marketing your book and then stick to it!

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