Being a Better Writer: Empty Details

Today’s topic is a bit of the inverse of the one I wrote last week. I didn’t intend for this at first—in fact I had no plans for an inverse article when I sat down last Monday; the appearance of this one is entirely coincidence brought about by something I was reading.

But coincidence aside, it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss, because it’s something that can crop up all to easily in fiction … even among experienced authors. For example, while I tend to notice empty details occurring pretty regularly among young writers, I also occasionally find them in finished works as well (one such notice being the result of today’s topic). Given all the time that I’ve spent on this blog discussing the importance of little details and how we can feed things out to our readers, I feel that it’s important, then, to discuss the inverse: empty details.

Empty details are the result of trying to add too much detail to one’s writing. It can stem from a number of sources. Maybe the author in question feels that the isn’t enough going on and tries to liven a scene up by adding more detail. Maybe they’re worried that their dialogue seems sparse (this is one area where this issue seems to crop up most often). Or maybe they’re just trying to reach an arbitrary word count for the day.

It could be any number of reasons. Well, the end result is that they fill their scene with these empty details.

Right, I’ve used that term a couple of times now. What do I mean by it?

Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: Story Bibles and Other Forms of Story Organization

Well, after a wild weekend consisting of both roller coasters and more viewers in a day to the site than I normally see in six months, I’m back! To those of you who are regular readers, hello again, and to any of you who are new, I hope you like what you see and stick around!

Right, down to business, or brass tacks, or whatever other work-based colloquialism you might be able to think of. Today I’m tackling another reader request topic, but before I do, I’ve started to notice a trend with these. Lately, a lot of the requested topics have been—How to put this?—mostly on one side of the writing spectrum. Dealing with structural topics, such as organization, motivation, or the like, rather than close-in topics like characters, tropes, or plots.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ve noticed the trend, hence I’m not going to be using requested topics all the time as I’d like to keep BaBW from focusing solely on one aspect of writing like that. As important as things like motivation, goals, and other bits “surrounding” the act of writing can be, I don’t want to write solely about them for a long period of time because there are readers out there who want to hear about characters, pacing, tropes, and other fun topics that you’ll run into in the act of writing. So in the future I’m going to try to make sure to balance that a little better, as I feel that lately a lot of the topics I’ve discussed have been that “infrastructure,” for lack of a better word, surrounding writing that doesn’t as commonly prove to be an issue with writers.

That said, this week’s topic probably rests somewhere in the middle between those two points. Story bibles, along with other forms of story organization, are a particularly common tool in the toolbox of most writers, even among those that are primarily the “write-as-you-go,” pantsing sort. No matter what someone is working on, there’s usually a point where it can’t hurt to have a little bit of a reminder sitting there to help them keep track of what they’re working towards. Or to have something to serve as reference material.

Now, this is actually trickier to write about than most would probably expect (and certainly moreso than I expect the reader who requested this topic guessed), and not because of how tired I am (pretty tired) but more because this is one of those topics where so much of it boils down to both individual preference between authors and the story itself, changing from project to project. For example, while I usually create a story bible for most of my works, there have been times when I have not. The forth-coming Colony, for instance, despite being a juggernaut of a book and universe, never had a story bible. No, the most I ever wrote up for it was a few lines about one of the main characters back when I was starting out, and a simple checklist timeline of “This needs to happen by the end of the book.” And Colony is one of my longer epics to date.

But it didn’t need a story bible. Though to be fair, it was also a book where I wanted to see how I did pantsing a story, so not having one was deliberate (Knowledge gained from this experiment? It took me twice as long to write Colony—six months—as it did the similar-length story Beyond the Borderlands I wrote right after it which had a full story bible).

My point is that there’s no “right” way for me or anyone else to follow here. There’s no set “proper method” for doing a story bible. There’s no right way to do an outline. At the end of the day, whatever assists you in getting your story written is what you want, and that can be anything from a large, complex story bible to a simple checklist of events you want your story to wind its way across.

No, in this case, the only thing that could be said to be “correct” is that the outline, checklist, bible, or whatever else you create does its job in helping you formulate and write your story. As long as it does that, its good. That’s all it needs to do!

Right, now, that all said, there are undoubtedly a few readers out there who are looking for a few pointers on where to start, so let’s go a bit past the name. Let’s look at story bibles, but also a few other other frameworks of organization and planning that various authors make use of.

Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: Static Backdrop

You ever watch an old movie? Not like black-and-white, pre-talkies era, but forties or fifties-era flick. You know, color, but early color, surprisingly regular inclination to break into song and dance?

It was a thing.

Anyway, if you’ve ever sat down and watched one of these older flicks with friends, family, or even on your lonesome, it’s likely that at some point during the runtime of the film, a comment similar to the following was made:

Hey, you! Don’t walk into the backdrop!

For those of you among my readers that are younger, or perhaps haven’t watched a lot of older movies, this comment comes about because in older films, they didn’t have the amazing special effects we have today, where different scenes can be easily stitched together with computer composites and the like. No, in the old days there were much more difficult tricks for creating certain shots. If you wanted to have your characters come around a road and into view of an ancient city, for example, you couldn’t just throw together some awesome CGI and call it a day. That just wasn’t an option. Nor was building a real “fake” ancient city from scratch (though a few over-the-top productions did their best to get close).

No, what these old movies had to do was find another solution. A popular one was using a model (if you’ve ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a certain line may be coming to mind right now lampshading this effect). The studio crew would make a detailed model replica of the ancient city, and trick photography would be used to place the actors in front of it at an angle that made everything line up correctly (or they’d use an early form of “green screen,” there were many methods of pulling this trick off).

Of course, a model costs money. And so for many, a much cheaper, easier solution was used, one which had served stage plays for centuries: the painted backdrop.

It was pretty easy to do. Get a large cloth and a bunch of painters, describe the scene and the angle at which it’ll be shot, and then hang it in the back of the scene. Have your actors walk around in front of it and act as if it’s the real deal, and boom, problem solved.

Well, almost. As you can imagine, it’s usually pretty obvious to the audience what the backdrop is. Any number of little details can set it off—and the lower the film’s budget, the more likely that you’ll notice them. The background rippling in some unseen breeze, for example, is a little telling. Or the fact that much of the film is three-dimensional right up until a certain point where everything becomes slightly flat. Or maybe it’s that the lighting isn’t right, and you can tell that the character is about to run into a “background”. It can even be something as simple as a backdrop of a bustling city that is—often without comment—completely stationary or suffering from sudden, jarring movements.

Now, my point here isn’t to disparage old films. They did what they could with what they had … even if sometimes it made it look like an actor who was “riding off into the sunset” was about to slam headfirst into it.

So then, some of you may be wondering, where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with my writing? Well, let me tell you a little story about this weekend.

Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: Sidekicks

The original concept for this post, or rather I should say request as that’s what it was, was for information regarding a comedic sidekick. But I’ve decided to expand on that a little for two reasons. First, dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Really hard. I envy those who can write comedy, like Adams, Prachett, Taylor, or Korman. It’s a serious talent. The art of regularly keeping a comedic tone, building things up for comedic beats not just every once and a while, but with a regular rhythm? That’s really hard to pull off, to start. It takes a lot of practice and understanding.

Second, because a comedic sidekick isn’t exactly a great point to cover. It’s like looking only at one side of a building. Sure, a comedic sidekick is great an all … but what about the other sides, those other types of sidekick? What about the foundations of having a sidekick at all? What makes a sidekick different from, say, a partner character?

See, I consider these questions just as valid and important to consider as the original question of a comedic sidekick. Also, I can answer many of them to my satsifaction, or at least give a much more concise, clear opinion on things. I can’t really do that with a comedic sidekick in more than a glancing manner. After all, comedy is not my specialty. I can give a few pointers, but that’s a pretty short post.

Sidekicks, however? I can talk a bit more about that. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic

Apologies for the delay. Once again I had a Monday morning shift. I am considering moving future Being a Better Writer posts to Tuesdays for the time being as a result. I’ll keep you updated!

This post was bound to happen. Sanderson’s Three Laws have been a frequently requested topic since the very beginning of this blog, and it’s a staple of a lot of writing education these days (especially fantasy), so I knew there would come a day when I had to write about it. Of course, I wanted to ease into the topic first, which I did two weeks ago when I wrote a post about creating magic systems. During that post, I referenced the Three Laws, saying I’d talk about them later. You see, before I got into talking about the Three Laws, which are more about how to use magic in a story, I did want to dedicate some time to the subject of creating magic first, so that there would be a basis for Sanderson’s Laws to dig into.

Now, with that post behind us, the time has come to look at Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic.

Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: So You Want to Be a Wizard, Eh?

Picture this, if you will, for a moment. Imagine a young man, an author. Well, a writer who has just recently become an author, having successfully published his first book. He’s just been invited to a big convention, where to his excitement, he will be on a panel alongside some of fantasy’s greats in writing (if I’m being sparse on details here, forgive me as I don’t remember all of them).

Anyway, our young writer sits down, understandably a little nervous considering the plethora of talent stretching down the table—many of whom he has read and enjoyed. The panel begins, and the spokesman fields the first question from the audience: A question about writing magic and how they start. And, for whatever reason, perhaps fairness, youth, or simply his place at the end of the table, the spokesman looks at this young writer and calls on him first.

Nervousness is probably a little higher now, but understandably so. Nevertheless, determined to make a good showing at his first panel, answers with what seems to be a reasonable response: ‘Well, to start, magic needs rules.’

Cue explosive “What!?” from the other members of the panel, all of whom immediately disagree in various manners and are ready to tell this young upstart where he’s gone wrong.

Now, this story? This actually happened, though not exactly as presented here, as I am retelling it, having only heard the story from that then new author’s point of view.

But that new author who gave what seemed to be a such an innocuous answer? A then little-known fantasy writer by the name of Brandon Sanderson.

Yes, you may have heard of him.

Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: Micro-Blast #3

Yep! Another Tuesday BaBW post. While this has been the standard for the last three weeks, I don’t think I work this next Monday, so hopefully I’ll be able to break this chain and get back to posting these on their usual time. Granted, I could write them ahead of time … but the other blog I post these on doesn’t allow for scheduling, so it’d just end up fragmenting my reading base more than it already is, and since I’ve been working on the days I would normally write these in advance …

Anyway, I’m doing what I can. I’ve also noted, however, that my blog postings have really slowed lately. Especially since starting my job. The frequency of my postings has dropped about 50%. Which isn’t great. I’ll see if I can get some more posting done to keep everyone more up to date, even as I work on finishing the first draft of Shadow of an Empire and move Colony towards Beta.

Right, now, on to today’s posting! Today I’m clearing out some of the more short, easy answers from my topic list, which means it’s time for another micro-blast! Number 3 (1 and 2 can be found at those links, respectively). Micro-blasts are when I have a selection of topics up that are good questions … but aren’t necessarily worth long, drawn-out answers. It’s not that the questions are bad, but that the topic is usually precise enough that the answer can be a paragraph or two rather than a longer, in-depth explanation. So rather than give a shorter BaBW post, I collect several of these shorter, simpler questions together in one post and tackle them altogether.

Right, now that the explanation’s out of the way, let’s get to answering!

Continue reading

Epics and the Details – A Short Post

Extra Credits is a great Youtube series. In fact, at one point, they were even featured on my Links page. I tend to rotate things there from time to time, and maybe I should be giving them another go.

Anyway, I wanted to draw your attention, please, to what I find to be my particular favorite sets of their videos. A good chunk of Extra Credits is talking about game design and development. Mostly video games, which if you have little interest in, doesn’t make them that appealing.

But then there is the other set of videos they do, which I absolutely, positively recommend: Extra History. A series which sets out to talk about (and discuss) history you may not know, understand, or recognize.

And these are great, especially because they often focus on small details that most history books don’t. A generic history book may tell you that X ancient ruler went to war with their neighboring country. Extra History, on the other hand, will delve into the reasons why, bringing up things such as “this adviser to the ruler knew that their neighboring country had access to a trade route that could make them all very wealthy, and therefore pushed for the war for economic reasons.”

Why am I bringing this up? Mostly for the writers of epics (or would-be writers of epics) among us. One of the requirements for an epic is capturing the full scope of a conflict, rather than just a small, tiny facet of it. An action-adventure fantasy war novel will simply be about the protagonists awesome, butt-kicking actions in a couple of battles, probably presented in a way so that they are responsible for the final blow that ends the war. An epic action-adventure war novel, on the other hand, will delve into the details of the war as a whole in some manner: the political ramifications of a battle, the decisions that lead to each deployment of force, the reason locations are held and kept, etc.

And before you can write about such things, you need to understand them. You need to understand the complex myriad of decisions that can and will go into a world-spanning conflict so you can put that to work in your story.

And where can you start to get a taste for such things? Why, Extra Credits‘ Extra History videos, of course! They go into all sorts of interesting details that, for most, happen “behind the scenes.” Why did X country go for this location and not another during a war? What sort of political diplomacy had an effect on what decisions? It’s a series that is great for broadening the mind and opening up the kind of critical thought that’s necessary for writing a true epic, and not just a really long action story.

Looking for a good place to start? I’d recommend the first of their three video series on how WWII was “The Resource War,” which talks about how much of that war’s strategic and tactical decisions were shaped by needs for basic things, such as access to aluminum, cobalt, oil, and food. It’s a great primer for looking at what sort of details you can put into your epic to make it a real epic.

If you’re still hungry for more (and not just about war), then I’d recommend watching second their series on both the Punic Wars (which shaped the world in impressive ways) and the South Sea Bubble, followed by the rest of their material. It really will help you look at history in a new way, seeing the complexity that goes into each and every step of decision.

And once you’re looking through that lens, you’ll be able to turn it to your writing as well.

Enjoy!

Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding Names

This post was originally written and posted January 26th, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

And so, with the death of the king, the land fell into darkness. Bereft of the powers of light carried by his crown, evil filled the kingdom, spreading suffering and death in its wake. The people despaired as their once peaceful, idyllic lives were beset by crime, villainy, and evil. The once-chancellor Valkeriank—

“Wait, what?”

The chancellor. Valkeriank. You know, the one who murdered the king?

“Well, yeah, but what kind of name is Vala— … Valker— … Valla-something?

What’s wrong with it? It’s a perfectly ordinary name

“It doesn’t look like it.”

Well it is. Now, to continue with the story. As I was saying, the once-chancellor Valkeriank, assisted by his henchman Grotkkv—

“Okay, now that’s just ridiculous.”

What?

“Gro—Grot-kk— … Yeah, I have no idea how to pronounce that. Grot-kiv? Gro-tik-vee? And who spells a name like that? It’s got two Ks in it!

It’s a perfectly acceptable name in this kingdom.

“The king’s name was Jack.”

So?

“So what kind of kingdom has a range of names from ‘Jack’ to ‘Valkerwink’ and whatever that last one is?”

A multi-cultural one.

“Right. You sure you’re not just making stuff up? And what other cultures? The map at the front of the book doesn’t talk about any other lands! There’s just “The Known Kingdom.”

Oh, they’re out there. Look, can we just move on? You’re making this very difficult.

“Fine.”

Ahem. As I was saying, assisted by his henchman Grotkkv, the chancellor ruled with an iron fist. The only hope of the people was a name.

“Is it a real name?”

Shut up. Anyway, the only hope of the people during this time was the missing prince, Prince Shadow—

“What. The. Abomination.”

Oh, now what are you on about?

“Prince Shadow? Could you get any more cliche?”

What? It’s a perfectly fitting name! He’s like shadow of justice, moving through the night. Brooding and mysterious! It’s edgy!

“So his dad—who’s name was Jack, just to reiterate to make sure I’m not pronouncing it? It’s not Ja’ack? No, anyway, so his dad, the king, looks at his baby son and says ‘I’m going to name him Shadow?'”

Yes.

“I … You know what? Fine. Move on.”

I’d like to. Now, the only hope of the people during this time was the missing prince, Prince Shadow, a noble warrior who fought against evil …

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Nothing, nothing. Anyway … And so, all across the kingdom of Lt’Namur’ik””t’sephat—

“That’s it! I’m done!”

What? What did I do? Was it too few apostrophes? I knew it! It was too few, wasn’t it! It doesn’t feel authentic enou—hey, where are you going? We’ve only just started! We’re not even off of the first page? There’s still two-hundred and seventy-four more to go! Don’t you want to hear what happens when Prince Shadow faces the dark beast of the Undershadows? In the dead land of Y’rrr’itquart? You’ll love it! Come on! You’re missing out!

Names. They’re kind of a big deal, which is why we’re talking about them today (in case you hadn’t guessed). Because despite how entertaining that little clip above you might have been, a good chunk of the humor in it comes from having been that poor reader. You know, the one who suffers through names of places that have way too many apostrophes. Or the place name that’s completely unpronounceable. Or the character name that just entirely shatters the mold of the world simply because the author wanted them to have a cool name.

Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: Some Tips for Writing Mysteries

What a weekend. I don’t know about you guys, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Halo 5: Guardians and played through it. The short? It’s a good thing the multiplayer is so good (and I do mean good) because the campaign and story are flat-out awful. And I do mean awful. The shooting’s fun, and the environments are neat … but the story is a hackneyed, jumbled, poorly thrown-together mess, and the dialogue … oh the dialogue …

Look, Halo has never been pushing for awards for great writing, I get that. But the first three games at least put together a fun, grand story that had some great moments. Guardians, on the other hand … Well, lets just say that there are a few scenes that couldn’t bemore poorly written. No joke: if I ever teach a class on creative writing or fiction writing, I’m using one of the cutscenes from Halo 5 as an example of what not to do, because it’s just that bad.

So yes, great gunplay, dialogue and writing so bad it made me cringe. Everything you heard about Guardian‘s poor story is absolutely true. In fact, it might be truer than you expected. If they handed out razzies for poor writing in games (and maybe they do, I don’t know), I’d be nominating Halo 5 this year.

Right. To business. Mysterious tips!

Continue reading