Tag Archives: J.K. Rowling

Evil vs. Hope

Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.

My answer to him was as follows:  If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?

It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.

This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.

The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.

Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.

But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?

As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?

Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.

Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.

That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.

I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.

When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.

Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.

You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.

That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.

Do you?

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Magic: Part II

Willful Writer is back at his keyboard, typing busily on his latest story. This one is about a young, brainy lad raised as a peasant, but really of noble blood. He has just been apprenticed to Yon Wizard, a fearsome enigmatic figure in a long, tattered robe and even longer beard that he tosses casually over one shoulder to keep from dipping it into his cauldron. After some haggling, the terms of apprenticeship are agreed and the lad is left with his new master. Yon begins his lessons promptly, and the lad proves adept at conjuring, summoning, and magical sweeping. Yon’s hut floor has never before been so clean.

One day, while Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the lad finds a quaking, frightened townsman on the doorstep. The townsman says a giant is attacking the town walls, and Yon must come immediately to drive the giant away before the town is destroyed. When the lad explains that Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the townsman becomes angry and says that Yon has a contract and must offer wizardly protection or he’ll lose his lease.

The lad, being a helpful type and fond of his master, agrees to fight the giant. Standing atop the ramparts, the lad lifts his arms and summons a mighty storm cloud with lightning that sizzles blue fire-bolts all around the giant, catching his tunic on fire. The lad conjures a fierce wind that blows the giant off his feet and tumbles him back from the gates. The lad closes his eyes and draws more deeply on magic than he ever has before. Then he creates an enormous broom with a giant redwood log for a handle and roof thatching for the straws. And with a mighty heave of effort, he sweeps the giant away.

“Hurrah!” cry the townsfolk. “Huzzah! Hoo-yah! We’re saved.”

They surround the lad, slapping his shoulders and asking him what he wants as his reward.

The lad smiles happily, glad to have been of service. “I’d like a beer please,” he says.

“Now there is some good writing,” Willful declares. Typing THE END, he takes his latest manuscript to his writing coach, Ms. Sagacious. She reads it, muttering to herself as she turns every page.

“Awful!” she shouts. “It’s too easy. I hate it.”

Willful, still enamored of his story, dares protest. “Would you like it better if I included Orville the talking cat?”

“No!” Ms. Sagacious tosses his story into the wastebasket. “You’re missing the point. The magic is free, and that’s wrong. You’ve cheated again. Now go away.”

Poor Willful. He’s brought trouble into his story and eliminated the protagonist’s mentor at the crisis point because wizards always seem to vanish just when they’re most wanted. He’s given his protagonist powerful magic and stuck with the magical rules he created by making sure the lad uses a broom to defeat the giant. Why, why, why is Ms. Sagacious so upset with him this time? What’s wrong with free magic anyway?

Do you know, dearest blog reader? Can you guess?

Willful has not put any price on this story’s magic. It’s easy to learn and do, so easy in fact that it’s effortless. The lad does not struggle to master it, does not encounter any difficulties in using it, and suffers nothing in its application. To Willful’s way of thinking, why shouldn’t his protagonist get a break? This nice, heroic lad surely deserves an “easy button,” right?

Wrong!

When a story problem is solved too simply, suspense as to the outcome drops. If the lad never struggles or doubts, there’s nothing for readers to worry about. The story goes flat because a successful ending is too certain.

And magical powers–be they small or great–offer easy ways to success. Magical powers are natural suspense killers … unless a writer tinkers with them.

We do this by putting a steep price on the magic. If a story is to carry any dramatic oomph, then magic comes at a cost. That subsequently serves to counter-balance the effect and keep suspense high.

In The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, the evil magician is dying by slow degrees every time he uses his powers. He suffers nosebleeds after he works spells and grows weaker page by page. His plan is to create a new body for himself and transfer into it before he dies, and he is working against that deadline.

In Robert Jordan’s fantasy world, the male wizards eventually go insane from using magic.

Harry Potter pays the price of having to put himself into danger and face Voldemort, a villain so feared that no one else in the stories will dare speak his name aloud.

What price does Tolkien extract from his hero for wearing The Ring? Poor little hobbit.

In the Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid, Ariel wants to be human so desperately she gives away her lovely voice in exchange for Ursula’s spell.

Horrible or mild, drastic or simple, magic must come at a cost if it’s to be dramatic, effective, and suspenseful. Avoid becoming so caught by your own enchantment that you break this second, very important rule of writing about the fantastical.

 

 

 

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Moody and Broody

Here on the prairie, spring weather has been wild and crazy–much as usual. Fierce winds have buffeted us day and night lately. Last night, the wind blew around the corners of my house and tossed the newly leafed shrubbery and trees. Something–probably the iron structure supporting the bird feeder that’s slowly listing to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa–was creaking outdoors. The jolly string of wooden Easter eggs on my front door clacked steadily against the glass storm door. Night noises all around, never dying away for the stillness of sleep and tranquility. Things going bump in the night.

At one point I looked out the back door, and saw a full moon halfway above a thick bank of clouds to the east. It was an odd sight, very eerie, and seeing the moon like that immediately sparked inspiration. My imagination danced. What if? What if?

So … do you consider mood and atmosphere when you write fiction? When you’re devising your setting, do you incorporate ambiance?

In making setting vivid to readers, the atmosphere is important. After all, it’s hard to maintain a tense, suspenseful tone if you’re describing bright pastel colors and teddy bears and the cheerful sounds of children’s laughter.

You shade reader perception through the tone you adopt and maintain. You affect reader emotions, and stir reader imagination, through the diction of your story. What is diction? The words you choose to use. It’s all about vocabulary and making it work for you.

Consider the following words that have similar meanings but different connotations:

dim ………………………………..gloomy

large ………………………………cavernous

teeth ………………………………fangs

reddish …………………………..bloody

pointed leaves …………………spiky leaves

shy …………………………………withdrawn

Or these:

dim ……………………………….candlelit

large ……………………………..spacious

teeth …………………………….gleaming smile

reddish …………………………vermillion

pointed leaves ……………….palm fronds

shy ………………………………hesitant

Shading your diction or word choice to fit your story setting and its genre is also known as writing in coded language. Readers of certain genres expect writers to employ a vocabulary that suits the genre. Such word choices in turn connote more to avid readers of that genre than they might otherwise to a more casual audience.

Accordingly, romance readers expect settings to be described in ways that evoke the physical senses, are attractive or possibly glamorous, and convey a romantic atmosphere.

Thriller/mystery/horror readers expect settings to hold a sense of danger and to be edgy. Therefore, a poorly lit room might seem romantic in one genre but a dangerous trap in another.

Fantasy readers expect settings to be magical, unusual, exotic, and surprising.

Writers who take the time to enhance their stories with coded imagery–to set the mood appropriate to their plot, location, situation, and scene–add considerably to the overall effect. Consider the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. They ooze dank despair. Consider the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling which enchant and charm on every page. Consider the romantic story The Wedding Dress by Virginia Ellis, in which three sisters distract themselves from the bleak economic hardships immediately following the Civil War by hand-sewing a wedding dress, hoping with every button and every stitch that once the gown is completed a bridegroom will appear for at least one of them.

Now of course, there are some writers who want to play against type. They want to contrast the bright, cheery nursery with a grim crime scene down the hall in the master bedroom. They want to show an empty crib, a dropped teddy bear, and the bloody handprints on the wall going down the stairs. Such writers aren’t ignoring atmosphere or coded language. They are instead making it work for them in a different way, to surprise and stress readers deliberately. Such contrasts create atmosphere effectively.

Whether you set up straightforward mood or go for a contrast, be aware of your setting and make it work harder for your story’s success.

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Wobbly Characters

A few weeks ago, I launched the first of an intended series of posts about breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Then a deadline happened.

With apologies for the one or two of you who might possibly have been waiting on the edge of your seats for the next installment, I am now, at last, continuing.

Although one of the most prevalent reasons readers are bumped from the story are writer errors, inconsistent characters can wreak havoc with suspension of disbelief, too.

Readers come to your story, willing to play, anxious to accept your plotline, eager to enter your story world, and ready to meet your characters.

In fact, they want desperately to like your protagonist. This character is going to become their new bestie — even if for a short duration — and it’s up to you the writer to supply them with a character that’s appealing, likable, pro-active, clever, resourceful, admirable, and capable of heroism.

That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it?

But I think writers hit trouble with characters for two primary reasons:

1) they try to create complexity the wrong way

2) they aren’t paying attention to their own story people

Let’s deal with #2 first.

How, you may be wondering, can a writer lose track of his character? Isn’t the character his creation? His baby?

But a sloppily designed character–one that’s thinly constructed with next-to-no background, few if any physical attributes, no tags other than a name chosen at random, and entirely lacking in motivation for whatever its writer intends for it to do–is quite easy to forget.

What happens when you can’t choose the right name for your character? You realize the importance of connotation in names, but you just can’t find it. Nothing seems right. Nothing really fits. So, with the pressure of a looming deadline upon you–or possibly just impatience to get started–you slap a temporary moniker on the character and proceed.

BOO! Wrong idea.

Sticking a temporary name on your elf is like trying to use one of those modern, stretchy-fabric Band-Aids that are supposed to be ouchless, but instead just fall off.

You call the elf Bob, promising yourself that you’ll find the right name later. But because Bob doesn’t work as the character’s name, you will probably forget it in the heat of writing your battle scene between the elves and the swamp lizards. So somewhere amidst the flying arrows and slashing swords, Bob becomes George. Or Jerry. Or Bill. Or XX.

Yeah, you know. You intend to fix it. But once the battle scene is over, you may be struggling with its problems that distract you away from your nameless elf, who isn’t really working as a character anyway.

If you can’t find the right name, you haven’t met your character properly. You don’t know him. And until you do, you can’t possibly write his dialogue or story actions with any degree of plausibility.

Not knowing your character means you will be hesitant when it comes to what he says and does. This tentative effect weakens the character. It’s easy to forget how he reacted in Scene 1 so that in Scene 7–when Nameless Elf needs to respond in a similar manner to whatever’s happening–you can’t remember what he did before, or you can’t remember his position, stance, or opinion–so you write his reaction differently.

Result? An inconsistent character that no reader will believe in.

Take your character and determine exactly what he looks like. Write a description that’s specific, not vague. Overflowing the sleek Porsche’s back seat, a drooling St. Bernard gusted hot breath on the nape of Joan’s neck is much more vivid than The big brown dog sat panting in the car behind Joan.

When you know what your character looks like–how tall is your elf? Are his pointed ears delicate and small, or huge like Dobby’s in the Harry Potter books? Are his eyes large and protruding? Does he have warts? Is his skin green or as pale as milk?–then you can think about what makes him tick.

If he lived with you, for example, in the here and now, who would he favor in the next presidential election? What’s his favorite food–snail eggs or chocolate chip cookies?

What’s his personality? Is he meek and mild-tempered? Is he rash and impetuous? Does he blurt out comments before he thinks? Is he incapable of lying? Or is he incapable of honesty? What are his best traits? What are his flaws?

Why is he in your story? Maybe you only intend him to appear in two scenes, complaining about your housecat’s forays into his garden, but however minor his role he should be vividly portrayed and matter to the story.

What is his goal? Why does he want that goal? If he fails to achieve his desire, what effect will that failure have on him?

By the time you answer all these questions, you will know that his name is Delfwin, for example. He has come alive to you. You now know him well.

And whether he’s important or minor to the story, your elf will be consistent and plausible each time he appears on the page.

As for reason #1 why story people fail to work, this occurs through a writer’s efforts to deepen character.

Perhaps a writing coach has told you that your character is too one-dimensional and needs to have more depth and complexity.

So you think, aha! I’ll come up with a more elaborate backstory for my shy, orphaned girl that’s backward for her age.

Accordingly, you weave a larger and more convoluted past for the character, making her an orphan raised by wolves from the age of one until she was five, at which time a forest ranger found her and brought her home for his wife to housebreak. Since learning to speak and eat cooked foods, Sheila Wolfbane has grown up wary of people, inclined to snap and lose her temper. But because her biological parents were concert musicians who died tragically in a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, Sheila has considerable talent and plays the piano, violin, clarinet, and harmonica adeptly. She plans to attend Harvard and study environmental law.

Wow! Isn’t she now an amazing character? In draft one, Sheila was just an ordinary backwoods girl, but now … look at her!

I’d rather not, thanks.

Sheila isn’t any more complex in version two than she was in version one. The writer has invented a plethora of extra details about her, but that’s just more sequins glued to her shirt.

She won’t become complex until she has inner conflict. Let’s say that she acts meek and demure, avoiding eye contact and pretending to be shy, when in fact she hates Ranger Rick and Mrs. Rick for taking her away from her true family, her pack, and she’s planning to murder the Ricks so she can run back to the woods where she belongs.

Now when she snarls and snaps, she immediately shuts down her temper and apologizes, but inside she isn’t sorry. She wishes she could bite them and tear out their soft throats.

She’s psychotic, but she’s also more complex than before.

Too far out for your taste? Then perhaps Sheila survived the plane crash in the woods and lived on her own for several weeks until she was found. Trauma has rendered her mute. As she grows to young womanhood, she yearns to speak, wonders what the world is like beyond the forest, but is afraid to leave her home with the Ricks despite the fact that Ranger Rick is getting old and must retire soon. Sheila is terrified of change, yet curious of what she might see and learn. The young, handsome ranger taking Rick’s position is attracted to her. Sheila could live with him, and remain in the woods that are her refuge, yet a part of her wonders if she really loves this man or is just using him as a way to avoid facing her fears.

If a writer doesn’t understand how complexity is achieved, the piling on of more and more detail will at some point become implausible, even silly, and readers can no longer comfortably remain with the story.

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The Star of the Story

The question today is which works better, the ensemble cast or the hierarchical?

Like all such conundrums, the answer can be debated ad nauseum, and such debates are usually stopped only by the answer: it depends!

Ensemble characters work best in television or movies. They can work in mainstream novels if the writer is skilled and insightful. Hierarchical characters work well in any medium, any time, any place.

In the past 30-40 years, modern society has gone through a significant anthropological shift. Young people cluster together in packs of friends. They perhaps rely on these friends more than a traditional family unit with parents. In the past decade, with the rise of children’s and teen fiction as the hottest ticket in publishing, there’s a trend to distribute the story among the players.

Even middle-grade stories now feature multiple viewpoints, and this makes the reading experience more complex and nuanced.

No problem there. However, I think it’s important to realize that despite this new complexity, the balance should not be equal.

A fictional cast of characters still operates more effectively in a hierarchy of importance.

In other words, which character will be the focus of your story?

No matter whether you’re writing for adults or children and no matter how many characters are grouped around the protagonist, there should still be a starring role.

I always wince when I hear someone refer to the positive characters as “the protagonists.”

In my world of fiction, there is only one protagonist. I don’t think all the friends or companions of the protagonist should get equal billing or have equal importance. My casts of fictional characters don’t operate in a democracy. Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence are part of my national heritage, part of my everyday reality. But not in my fiction.

In classical story design–which is the template for most commercial fiction–all characters are not created equal.

One protagonist. Over all.

The friends/companions are simply that. They should fall into the category of secondary roles. They are sidekicks.

For example, if we look at J.K. Rowlings’s triad, we have Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. They are close friends. They work as a team. They each have strengths and weaknesses. They are each, in his or her own way, heroic. Each character is important to the story. Each character has a fan base.

But Harry is the star.

No matter how much he depends on his companions and their help, readers need to have the feeling that Harry could probably succeed alone–although it would be three times more difficult.

Every story in commercial fiction needs a leader. This character gets the spotlight, the major attention. This character drives the story from start to finish. This character is not rescued. This character is the one, ultimately, that stands alone against the antagonist in the final showdown.

The real world always tries to push people into herds. Follow the group. Don’t stand out. Don’t try to make a difference. If you speak up, you’ll be fired. Don’t get involved. Don’t outshine your friends and make them feel bad.

Fiction isn’t about that mindset of mediocrity. It’s about standing tall, stepping forward, taking the risk, making the attempt, accepting the danger of sacrificing yourself to help others in trouble or to save the day.

That’s the definition of heroism. It’s what makes a protagonist larger than life.

Due to my training and personal taste, whether I read genre or mainstream, I want a star to latch onto for the duration of the story.

It’s why I haven’t read past the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. A bazillion people love his work, and Mr. Martin is an interesting and pleasant man in person. But I still want a protagonist. He doesn’t give me one, so I read authors who do.

Again, having one character be the star isn’t the only way to write a story. It doesn’t mean you can’t have lovable and valuable and endearing sidekick characters. (Think of Bob in Jim Butcher’s THE DRESDEN FILES. Bob–the randy old spirit who lives in a skull, forever doomed by a witch’s curse.) I adore Bob. He’s outrageous and funny and wise and pathetic. Do I want to read an entire book from Bob’s perspective? No! Do I want Bob to steal the story away from Harry? No!

Why? Because Harry is the star of the series, and Harry has been designed to make me like him best.

Fictional sidekicks have been famous and much-loved down through the rich tradition of story: Dr. Watson, Mr. Spock, Batman’s Robin, Jeeves the butler, Tinker Bell, Inigo Montoya, Tonto, Kato, etc., etc., etc. They are the helpers, the innovators, the faithful friends. They can also betray the hero or fail or die.

They are useful to writers in so many ways. Yet, part of their success lies in that they are not the lead character. They have different responsibilities in carrying the story forward to its conclusion. Mess with that by making them equal in stature, equal in viewpoint, equal in the number of pages you devote to them, and the storyline becomes in danger of splitting focus.

It makes the ending almost impossible to write well because if everyone is a top star, who deals with the bad guy? Who makes the heroic sacrifice? Who finds the solution? Do we then need an ensemble cast of bad guys?

Be careful of trends. Remember that Ron and Hermione do a lot, but they are never more important to the story than Harry Potter. Rowling was wise in crafting her stories. She offers plenty of good guys to cheer for, but she never lets readers lose sight of her star.

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The Barrier of Fear

When it comes to writing fiction, a big hindrance to idea development is fear.

Ever think or hope that you have a good idea for a story but you’re afraid of it? Are you afraid to believe?

Maybe you lack the belief that it’s good enough to write or good enough to be published. Maybe you don’t think you can do it. 

Maybe you don’t feel you have the skills necessary.

Maybe you’re just psychologically skittish at the prospect of really coming up with something worthwhile.

Maybe you’re unsure you have what it takes to commit yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally to a long fiction project such as a novel.

Whatever the reason, fear can throw a roadblock across our path and stop our potential project in its tracks.

Now, it’s easy for me to quote FDR (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”) and it’s easy for me to tell you to just get over your doubts and insecurities. As the Nike ad used to say–in another context–“Just do it!”

But if you’re floundering in a morass of uncertainty, you need a rope to drag you from it–not a pep talk. So here’s some rope; grab on!

The best way to conquer fear of writing is to gain confidence in your technical skills.

You gain confidence in your technical skills by studying and practicing the writing craft. Pore over the technique books of Jack Bickham and Dwight V. Swain. Follow their advice as best you can, then mark up a chapter or short story by one of your favorite authors and see if you can identify how viewpoint is established or how characters are introduced vividly.

Have faith in your idea.

The Bible defines faith as belief in something unseen.

So do you have faith in your own story sense? Do you think you have a good idea?

Have you tested it along the points I mentioned in my last post?

If it passed those questions, and if it’s still alive in your head and heart, then run it through screenplay teacher Robert McKee’s tests:

*Does your idea have inherent conflict in the situation?

*Is your idea original?

Inherent conflict makes your job as a writer so much easier than if you try to stick conflict onto a bland situation.

Compare the following:

A. Two men–rivals at work and in love with the same woman–are unexpectedly trapped in a malfunctioning elevator.

B. Two men–team members and close friends from childhood–must suddenly come to grips with their feelings when their beloved coach dies.

Neither idea is a bad one. A skilled writer could put together a story from either scenario. But B is going to require a lot of revision because it lacks inherent conflict. The situation is emotional, maybe stressful, but dealing with it will be like trying to push a soggy noodle across a cutting board.

As for originality, all this means is questioning whether your idea is identical to seventy other stories already out there on the shelves or whether you’ve come up with one slightly different aspect than the pack.

Consider the premise of an English child leaving home and going to boarding school.

Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Nicholas Nickleby, A Little Princess, and Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.  Identical premise; all different from each other. They stand out from countless forgettable imitations. Sara Crewe is a girl, her home is in India, and she falls from riches to rags. Harry Potter is attending a boarding school for wizards.

So does your idea have a little twist or a different angle that will set it apart? In the 1920s when Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out, a number of critics yelled “Cheat!” But everyone else was thinking, “Wow!” The book is still in print today, over 80 years later, and its plot twist is still stunning those who read it for the first time.

You don’t have to be brilliant. You just have to offer something slightly different from what everyone else is doing.

So, if your idea doesn’t conform to what other authors are doing, don’t squelch its individuality! Don’t lose your nerve!

Instead, believe in your idea and have faith in it. And if your faith feels utterly blind, that’s okay. Learn to take creative risks.

Maybe you feel no faith in your premise whatsoever. In that case, pretend to have faith by carrying on anyway.

Scared or not, you proceed, one page at a time. And you don’t quit until you can type “The End” at the conclusion of your draft.

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Villains Behind the Curtain

“Orders are nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not nohow!”

                                                                               –Frank Baum

One of the writing tenets I absolutely believe in is that every scene needs an antagonist. Follow this simple principle, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to write.

However, sometimes I meet resistance, puzzlement, and reluctance when I try to share this with others.

“But I don’t want my villain revealed just yet!” is usually one of the biggest laments.

Okay.

Last week, I read several Agatha Christie mysteries. Her plots are marvels; her twists are legendary. She’s deceptively simple on the surface level while offering complex human emotions and motivations beneath. If you’re writing a mystery you don’t want to reveal the villain at the start. The character will be present in the cast, but concealed within a deceptive guise.

Or the villain will come and go in the story, as in the case of the Harry Potter novels. Voldemort is mentioned in Chapter One, and the dread of him hangs like a cloud over the entire series. Yet he actually appears only occasionally, usually at the climax of each book. The rest of the time, Harry and his friends are coping with a succession of intermediary villains. Rowling keeps her young readers guessing by having troublesome teachers prove to be allies and friendly teachers prove to be cohorts of Voldemort’s.

I think that inexperienced writers often stumble here when concealing the real villain’s identity. They hide the character too well, and the individual simply isn’t in the story until the climax. Then a villain pops up out of the blue, and it all looks very contrived.

What a writer must remember to do is establish the villain’s role. Establish the existence of the villain. Acknowledge it either through character comments, the protagonist’s thoughts, or switching viewpoint to the villain for the reader’s information.

To return to mysteries: the identity of the murderer isn’t going to be revealed until the end, but as soon as a victim is discovered, readers and the sleuth alike know there’s a bad guy out there somewhere, a criminal who must be caught and punished.

In thrillers, the villain’s actions are pivotal to the plot. Readers often meet the villain before the protagonist. But the story’s emphasis doesn’t lie with discovering identity; it’s about stopping whatever the villain’s up to. So if you pick up a Ken Follett thriller, say a classic like THE MAN FROM ST. PETERSBURG, you know who the assassin is, you watch the man dodging police and mixing nitroglycerin bombs in his rented room, and you wonder if anyone in the story is going to save the Tsar’s cousin from assassination. To keep his good guys from looking stupid, Follett lets the British authorities know there’s an assassination attempt brewing, but they can’t track down the villain in time. The girl who befriends the villain has no clue who he really is or what he’s trying to do. She thinks he’s rather nice while he makes a patsy of her.

What if you’re writing a fantasy yarn and your characters are on a quest to take back the Scroll of Magick and restore it to where it rightfully belongs? Your band of sojourners aren’t going to meet the villain until near the end, but they have a concept of a villain’s involvement with the story events. They may or may not know the evil sorceress’s name or where her dark castle stands. They may have to search a long time before they confront her. But they are seeking her, and–like Harry Potter–they’ll encounter plenty of trouble along the way. Evil sorceress isn’t going to sit tamely in her castle and wait for them to show up. She’ll throw all sorts of traps and pitfalls in their path.

To satisfy the principle of always having conflict, a writer of the hidden-villain story needs two kinds of opponents: intermediary antagonists and a master villain that’s active behind the scenes.

The intermediary antagonists are often a successive string of foes. They hinder the protagonist as much as possible. Even so, it’s important to salt the plot with a few encounters between the protagonist and the master villain as well.

How?

Be clever. In fantasy and science fiction, you can have confrontations in dreams and via mental communication, teleportation, and spells, etc. In other genres, you can utilize phone calls and text messages. You can have the villain leave cryptic origami birds on the protagonist’s desk at work or inside her apartment as creepy little reminders that no place is safe and nothing is secure.

In my YA fantasy series, The Faelin Chronicles (under pen name C. Aubrey Hall), the protagonist is a boy who has visions. He’s still learning magic, so he misinterprets the information at times. In The Call of Eirian (April 2012), he “sees” a pair of eyes staring at him from the sky just before he and his friends are attacked. He mistakenly identifies the attacker and doesn’t learn the truth until much later in the story. The error keeps the boy’s characterization plausible, sets up for a plot twist, and continues to hide the identify of the real villain for a few more chapters.

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