Writing in the sense that we talk about it here relies on the artistic use of language. We use words to inform, influence, and most importantly of all entertain. It’s understandable then that when we use foreign settings, fantasy universes, and alien worlds, we might want to use elements of foreign languages to match those settings.
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?
It’s been a while since we’ve sat back and talked about a writing trope or two. With that in mind, let’s take a casual day today and talk about an interesting bit of trope-y-ness: the Noodle Incident. Sometimes known as the Throwaway Backstory Event, a Noodle Incident (NI for the remainder of this article) is some piece of past history a character in a piece refers to, but never elaborates on, usually with the implication that the event was too ridiculous, unbelievable, or over the top to need to be elaborated on. Whatever the reason for doing so, the NI remains a point of untouched history and, in a long series, may be referenced multiple times.
Last week, we talked about embracing tropes and archetypes, as well as a little bit about how to use them properly. In the further past, we specifically spotlighted reconstruction and deconstruction as means to that end, but there are other ways to make tropes acceptable and endearing to your readers. Get ready for some interior decorating, friends, as we hang some new lampshades on everything!
When you create a character in your works, the depth of that character is entirely up to you, the writer. Every speck of information the reader has about the character is brought to it by your words. Even implied information is implied by other words you write or facts you bring up. It all falls down to you and this is nothing new. It is, however, important to bring back up again as we move onto to today’s topic: how character details can inform us about the ‘realism’ of your fictional world and how they should also be restrained by that.
As we have already seen, it’s a scarily common element of many books (especially of the Young Adult persuasion) to have parental figures be absent, sometimes all adult authority altogether. There’s a connected and perhaps even more common trope, often known as the ‘Adults Are Useless‘ trope, wherein the parents and other adults of our youthful protagonists are around, but range from utterly clueless to downright obstructive to the resolution of the plot.
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!
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!
Many kinds of genre fiction incorporate elements far beyond our normal, everyday reality. Whether it’s advanced technology, magic spells, psionic powers, or superhuman powers, extranormal abilities are a constant in many kinds of fiction. While essential to those genres, these elements can present numerous challenges for a writer. However, there is a way to cut off many of these potential problems before they can even take root: establishing the ground rules at the start.
It’s certainly tempting to leave these sorts of things open-ended. After all, it may seem like it leaves you, the author, with a convenient back-up to unforeseen plot holes. Paint your characters into the back of a valley with an army of monsters bearing down on them? No worries, you don’t need to rethink the scene. Magic can save them! Or the special super-tech device, or the hero’s new super power or … or … well, I’m sure you can see where this is going. It basically can lead to a series of ever-increasingly annoying deus ex machina that will alienate your readers.
The obvious way to avoid that is to bound yourself in, to establish ground rules to how these extranormal or super-futuristic systems work. Even if you never reveal these rules to the readers, keeping those rules in mind will add a sense of order and internal consistency to your tale. In addition, seeing and knowing that these systems are limited will add to the building of dramatic tension, as your readers will know that your protagonists don’t have an unlimited ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card in their back pockets.
There’s one potential trip-up to establishing a set of rules for your extranormal systems and that’s when you want to break them. Yes, it’s true that every rule is meant to be broken. Well, at least some people say so! I would say that it’s perfectly fine to break your world’s rules once in a while. There are always loopholes, there are always unknown exceptions, and no one knows everything about everything, right? So it is fine to break your world’s rules from time to time. The problem comes when you do so on a regular basis. Some authors have a habit of doing this and, again, it breaks your readers’ suspension of disbelief or even feel any dramatic tension. If the rules aren’t rules, why should the readers care or pay attention to them? If the rules may not constrain the heroes’ abilities, why should the readers worry about their survival when they could unleash an unknown new power to save their collective rears?
So, to sum up: genre fiction means cool supernatural stuff which needs rules, dude! You can break rules, but only once in a while or else it’s a bummer. *mic drop*
Until next time, friends, good reading, good writing, and good luck!
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It isn’t hard to realize that I am a big fan of professional wrestling. Heck, I have an entire book series dedicated to it. While this may be a surprise to some, there is actually a strong connection between the in-ring theatrics of wrestling and the art of writing fiction. There are lessons to be learned from one that can be applied to the other and that is something we are going to touch on today.
In pro wrestling, there is a concept called ‘wrestling psychology’ or ‘mat psychology’. What it means is that the wrestlers are creating a believable, logical sequence of events during the match. They are following a consistent strategy for their approach, reacting (‘selling’) to their opponent’s moves, and general convincing the audience to buy into the match, to believe that maybe this could be real. It’s all about making the audience suspend their disbelief, to become invested into the wrestlers’ characters and the action going on.
Now, while we know that pro wrestling is scripted to an extent, it isn’t extensively choreographed like a fight scene from a movie. Each wrestler has to invest their own athletic and acting talents into the match to make it work. It is improvisational, cooperative story-telling told through grunts, groans, slams, and posturing.
That’s where the connection lies between writing and wrestling. Understanding what makes for good ‘wrestling psychology’ can help a writer understand good ‘writing psychology’. Every story, just like every match, has to follow a logical sequence of events. The story must have characters that the readers can believe in, convince them that their conflicts are real and important, and then ‘sell’ the reactions of those characters.
Also, just like the improvisational ring work of wrestlers, writers often need to be able to think on their feet. I have yet to meet or speak with a fellow author that hasn’t been forced to go ‘off script’ when they transfer their concepts from plan to actualization. A good writer goes with the flow and then smooths over the bumps so that you, the reader, never know just how many curves and swerves the writer went through, much like the best pro wrestler. A bad writer, well, you can tell. Either the situation seems wrong (they didn’t go with their instincts) or you can tell when the writing suddenly shifts ninety degrees (they didn’t make sure the changes were done smoothly).
What do you, my faithful readers, think? Do you see the connections or am I just slinging some manure? Comment and discuss below!
Until next time, good luck, good reading, and good writing!