Games for Writers: The Walking Dead – Season One

LS-G4W-WalkingDead

Wow. I haven’t written one of these in a while. But as Season Two of The Walking Dead releases tomorrow and as I hit more scenes in my Outline that need to be completely overhauled, I felt now was a perfect time to get back to my Games for Writers series.

Why The Walking Dead?

I have a tendency to buy critically acclaimed titles and just leave them alone for years (I’m still sitting on Fez). In most cases it’s because I know something intense and high quality is waiting and I want to be sure I’m ready for it. That was especially true with Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. I was told the ending was heartbreaking and I generally prefer to control my intake of “heartbreaking.” So I put it off until this Halloween, at which point I discovered that oh man, seriously, I underestimated just how hard I would be hit by the story—particularly the last few hours.

However, this article isn’t about the conclusion. While the drama of No Time Left, Season One’s final chapter, was really, really potent, there’s something a bit more practical and universal that makes this game worth a play for any writer. Not the concept of making people bawl their eyes out, but the concept of Choice when it comes to your characters and your writing. Yes, if there’s one thing I think writers should play The Walking Dead to experience, it’s the constant, inescapable presence of Choice.

You and 45% of players gave her the gun

For writers, Choice is a very serious, very high stakes, and very constant factor in the story-telling process. The writer experiences it themselves the moment they take up their pen, because even that moment—before any words have even been set on paper—is steeped in choices: “Where do I start?” “Who’s in this scene?” “Where do I want this to go?” “What are these characters going to do?” I believe all writers know this, and I believe that even if a writer played this game simply to experience the way it trains you to make important choices, they will have gotten their money’s worth.

Clementine will remember you said that.

LS-Dubious-tineKnowsHowever, Choice goes deeper than just what the writer wants. At the very least, in the best stories, choices are also constantly and logically made by characters. I think we’ve experienced a handful of games that pervert the concept; while I love it, games like Skyrim present you with a mostly blank slate to mold into whatever character you like, and in my experience, most people turn that canvas into a confused, meta-self portrait with no real in-game motivations. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who choose to roleplay their characters, but I’m also sure most people just did a 100% play through where their incredibly judgmental, culturally traditional, Storm Cloaks-aligned Nord just said, “Fuck it. Yeah, I’ll be a vampire. : D Cause, vampire powers!”

The Walking Dead, however, makes choice something that characters do. You can absolutely play it the way you want and make your own Lee with his own consequences, but the consequences are what make the experience, and those consequences are largely out of your hands because, most of the time, they’re based on the actions of NPC’s. More than any other game I’ve played, The Walking Dead makes you believe and relate to the characters around you, even if you play a completely meta Lee. It does a frighteningly good job of making you understand why and how Lilly is crazy, for example, or most often and most clearly, what Clementine thinks of you based on what you say, do and tell her. To tie it in more tightly here, it shows you exactly how your decisions—your choices—affect others and lead them to choices of their own. In short, it gives you characters that feel frighteningly real and whose ability to think for themselves is absolutely a lesson any writer would benefit from experiencing. I don’t think every story can foster a host of character decisions, but The Walking Dead stands as a compelling example of how characters should act—alive. Self-centered. Real.

All of the Decisions Ever

However, there’s another meta take on all of this. I mentioned earlier that I was reaching more parts of my Outline that needed to change in my first draft. The thing is, that statement implies that I found mistakes and inaccuracies that needed fixing. In some cases, yes. But in most cases, I realized a fact that The Walking Dead makes incredibly obvious:

There are almost infinite ways that scenes can work—almost infinite ways events can unfold in a story—based on the desires, beliefs and decisions of its characters.

There’s an inherent pressure in writers to find the “right” scene. We reach for vaguely defined, optimal approaches—infinitely perfect moments—for each scene that we believe will make them perfect. In a lot of cases, this ideal scene is the beginning of our story and many of us wait for that lightning to strike until we sadly forget the expected shape of it and move on to something else. The thing is, there is no ideal—no brilliant first sentence that will shake everyone who reads it. That isn’t how writing works; no one falls in love with a novel because of its first sentence. People memorize the first lines of classics and brandish them on occasion, but the merits of classics are not in the sentences they begin with. They’re in the characters they begin with.

And that is why I changed some scenes back to the way they were; when I chose to add or subtract moments in an attempt to find that ideal, I ignored what characters had done before as illogical. But then, during the actual rewrite, as I started to listen to my character’s decisions, I found that a lot of those ideal changes I made didn’t make sense; in the final version of my book, scenes either regressed to mirrors of older scenes with drastically different, more character-relevant tones, or I changed them a third time, based on how my characters felt and what other decisions they’d made.

The lesson for me, and the one The Walking Dead makes clearly, is that the choices all of your characters make are as important as the choices you make as a writer. And those two things are not always the same and can’t always be the same; at the risk of sounding completely crazy, your characters can and will disagree with you and you have to let them. Even if it means you’re undoing your own work or sitting at your computer for hours trying to figure out—“Wait… so, if he does that here… that means… … <sigh>.” Put simply, if you don’t consider what your characters actually want to do or say—what they actually think and feel—in favor of putting them where you want them and speaking your words through them, you need to play The Walking Dead if only to be humbled. If only to realize that your character’s decisions can and should come first.

thegang

~~~

Well, that got intense. As always, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this latest in my Games for Writers series, there are three others here (although, friendly warning, they’re all over three years old and may contain a lot of snappy jokes [that I’m… willing myself… to not edit out for the sake of honesty and integrity]):

Games for Writers: Silent Hill 2

Games for Writers: Metroid Prime

Games for Writers: Metal Gear Solid 3 – Snake Eater

All Likes, Comments, and Subscribes are appreciated as well, but regardless of those, I hope you have an awesome holiday!

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 5: A Conclusion & Using the Stats

Man, did this one take longer than it was supposed to. What you’ve found is the final part of a look at my Fantasy Story Stats. Because, after four solid weeks of looking at each in-depth, I think a serious refocus on how these should be used is in order. And the best way to do that? Just use them on different properties and see what we learn.

Now, all of these stories are my favorites, first of all; seriously, I love each of the following properties. That said, I’m going to try and be really honest about them—because if you’re not honest with them, these stats do nothing. Sound interesting? I hope so; I’m pretty intrigued to see how this goes.

Disclaimer: Of course, as always, I have to remind you that I’m not an authority on any of the stories I’m about to discuss; these Stats are not a way of dissecting them and I’m sure that when I reread any of these stories, I’ll find reason to contest what I’m about to put down. However, I can confidently say that I am someone who’s been trying to complete a story of his own for years and, that said, someone who found looking at stories through the lens of these Stats helpful for my own compositions. As I’ve said before, these Stats are just tools and using them is more of an experiment and an opportunity for creative reflection than anything else.  

Let’s do it!

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire)

By George R. R. Martin

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Family

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot

Tone: Heavy/Semi-Realistic

Spirit: Low

Novelty: Medium

Concept: Medium-High

The striking thing about A Game of Thrones was how realistic it was for the genre. Oddly enough, this is absolutely in spite of the very first scene literally involving evil snow zombies. How does that even work? Because everything that comes after the White Walkers is absolutely realistic and heavy in Tone. Incest? Little kids getting paralyzed? A “dwarf” who isn’t at all the fantasy standard dwarf? All of these things (High Concept, Low Spirit elements for the genre) counteract the first scene, even undermining strong hints at dormant magic as omens or strange coincidences.

But oddly… even though the Tone undermines all of those fantasy elements… it also serves those same elements. Where other authors use incredibly unique world concepts, races, creatures, and monsters to draw readers, Martin’s work features humans almost exclusively. Humans with extremely Earth-centric towns, weapons, equipment and cultures. Humans who consider slightly large (based on the show) wolves as horrible beasts, and where genre-typical dragons and honestly super-familiar undead warriors stand as the most outlandish monsters you can find. But, really, these elements are served by the Tone. Having everything be so normal and real makes the White Walkers terrifying. It makes slightly bigger wolves really awesome. It makes a sword forged of slightly darker metal that always holds its edge the most incredible weapon ever (in direct contrast to extremely flashy lightsabers, for example). It makes you afraid of magic and uncertain what will happen when someone pisses off a witch. Overall, it is an absolutely masterful control of the reader’s experience and I bow before it.

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle)

By Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Stories, Myth, and Their Influence on Reality

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot, 2.5-Location

Tone: Medium/Semi

Spirit: Medium

Novelty: Medium-High

Concept: High

Here, I feel the Focus is especially interesting; there’s no question that The Name of the Wind is a story driven by its characters (the story is, literally, being provided by our protagonist after another character persuades him to tell it). Beyond that, however, I feel it’s arguable whether Plot or Location is the more interesting drive for readers. I can’t see how that could be an insult, but I’ll immediately specify that I found the story’s locations that intriguing; for me, part of the joy of reading was getting back to the Eolain and seeing what would happen there. Or getting to Elodin’s or Kilvin’s next class. One of my favorite moments in the story was when Kvothe explored the Underthing with Auri, and, in retrospect, I divide the story into four parts without trying: Kvothe with his family and traveling in their caravan, Kvothe in Tarbean, Kvothe at the University, and Kvothe outside of the University with Denna (all of these obviously focusing on locations).

Also, as always, I could go on about how High Concept this story is—the fact that it’s being related by the protagonist after he’s gone into hiding; the incredibly believable treatment of magic in the frame of the story; the specific allure of Naming; the countless, personal events that drive the plot and mirror our own lives. I would go on, but if you’ve read The Name of the Wind, you already know all of this and I have to immediately stop this from turning into a review.

Another note: Despite what I’ve said before (told you this would happen), I do think the Novelty of The Name of the Wind would be Medium-High; there’s just a lot more than simply “orphan boy goes to magic school,” a vague overview that absolutely undermines my love for the book.

Mistborn (The Mistborn Trilogy)

By Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Rebellion Against Oppression on Personal and Social Levels; Faith, both Personal and Religious

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character

Tone: Light-Medium/Fantastic

Spirit: Medium-High

Novelty: High

Concept: Medium-High

Despite being set in a world where an evil god rules over a land constantly marred by black ashfalls, Mistborn winds up being Light-Medium in Tone and Medium-High in Spirit. How? Also, perhaps, what?

Well, the simple answer is Theme, Tone and Spirit.

The story carries a heavy Tone of Rebellion that’s supported by its characters—friends who have very jovial interactions with each other (in direct contrast to the gloom outside). The oppressive world is also undermined by the powers of the mistborn, who consider the mists (which come out at night—the most mythically dangerous time of day, as the story establishes early on) home. Vin in particular feels “free” in the mists (which is obviously relevant to the Theme). Finally, add to that the actual power that a mistborn can freely use out in the mists and how exciting those powers are for the characters and readers, and it’s actually easy to forget about the gloomy setting. On the contrary, as mistborn are generally only mistborn when they’re out in the night in secret, Pushing off of coins, the story actually becomes more exciting when it would otherwise be at its gloomiest. There’s seriously no end to how amazing I think this massive, thematic Soothing and Rioting is.

And now, for the sake of acknowledging differences in the same writer’s projects…

Warbreaker

By Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Choice

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character

Tone: Light/Fantastic

Spirit: Medium

Novelty: High

Concept: High

In contrast, Warbreaker does not have to fight to maintain light Tone; the magic system of the novel, Breath, is based on color, resulting in a fictional society that employs color vibrantly (an obvious difference from the blacked out landscape of Mistborn).

More important here, however, is Spirit, which, in my Stats, is Medium (possibly weird at first glance). However, Warbreaker actively challenges your concepts of right and wrong, evil and good (something that the Mistborn series doesn’t start doing until the second and third books). Without spoiling anything, the Theme (as I see it) of choice creates a grey area that the novel settles into—not all villains are completely evil and not all people are completely good. As is the case between Siri and her sister, people can absolutely be different and make different choices or act in different ways, but that does not mean either way is inherently wrong or right. The world is too complicated for that because it’s a place where people can choose and those choices are really all that matters. All of this, along with a magic system that’s slightly more out-of-the-ordinary than mistborn powers (the overall effects of which are more familiar [as Jedi powers or superpowers] than the ability to breathe life into inanimate objects and have them do your bidding) means that there are more challenging elements in Warbreaker. It is, on the whole, a less comforting and familiar read than Mistborn despite the lighter Tone and premise.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: YA (?)

Theme: Responsibility

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character, 3-Location

Tone: Light /Fantastic

Spirit: Medium-High

Novelty: Low-Medium

Concept: Medium-High

If you have not seen Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, not the movie) then all I’ll say is that you should absolutely give it a chance because it’s legitimately amazing. On the list of kids’ shows that are not just for kids, Avatar is easily among the best.

But before I continuing gushing about how great it is, what’s interesting about its Stats? For me, the Focus; this is a case where almost all three elements of Focus are equally balanced in a story. You read to find out what happens next in the Plot (as with any syndicated show), but every episode also has pertinent character  growth, supported by the ever present questions of what Aang will find in whatever drastically changed place from his past the group stops in. And there, of course, is also Location coming into play as the third Focus, although the world itself with the dynamic of the Four Nations, their cultures and the myth of the world of Avatar is enough of a Location draw on its own. Generally, however, each season takes place in another of the Four Nations, making Location that much more important.

Of course, the balance of Spirit is also interesting. Avatar is another case where the audience is presented with grey areas that challenge what they expect from character archetypes. This is an extremely important part of the show from the beginning. Bending is also unique enough of an approach to elemental magic that it feels silly to call it magic. Counteracting all of that, however, is the playfulness of the show; despite the setting, characters speak in what I consider Standard American, a term that extends to include extremely Earth-general mannerisms (people don’t fist bump or do peace signs, but they might bow or shake hands, never using any unfamiliar, Avatar-esque hand gestures or sayings [outside of ones that are meant to be funny because they’re so awkward and non Earth-Standard]). Avatar also creates and revisits its best jokes. And, finally (really), the premise is very nearly the old standard of “boy has great, exclusive power that he must use to defeat evil.” All of this creates an extremely comfortable atmosphere that balances the more challenging elements of the story extremely well (and hopefully proves that, used right, a degree of familiarity in a story can do incredible things).

Okay. Going to stop now. However, for the sake of looking at the difference in sequels (and the reason why I brought up a show from crazy long ago)…

The Legend of Korra

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: YA

Theme: Sibling Rivalry

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot

Tone: Medium/Fantastic

Spirit: Low-Medium

Novelty: Medium-High

Concept: High

In contrast, The Legend of Korra has a much lower Spirit; it’s far more challenging to its audience. Even though it’s a direct sequel to The Last Airbender, it’s a much different show with a much more unique premise, a more complicated plot, and a far deeper look at the grey areas already mentioned here. On The Legend of Korra, people are often not who they seem and characters’ actions are often more personal and individual than they are cohesive and single-minded; on The Last Airbender, everyone was ultimately trying to help Aang defeat the Fire Nation, but in The Legend of Korra, everyone’s doing what comes naturally to them. Even characters who were set on helping the protagonists in the first season have now very naturally fallen back into roles that hinder the progress of our protagonists (Beifong being a great example). On top of that, the world from Airbender has evolved, becoming something much more unique. Even in the case of the protagonist, Korra is a very strong female lead who is actually vulnerable and human (directly challenging stereotypes of the flat, over-compensating super-badass female lead, or the comic-typical super-feminist). She’s so progressive that her sexual orientation and hairstyle choices are not the focus of any parts of the show—at all; in fact, her love life even takes a serious backseat to other issues that matter way, way more (like stopping wars).

The only balance is the way Korra is absolutely a legacy story; many subtle references are made to moments from Avatar. The story also actively uses the mythose of Avatar’s world as plot elements in Korra. Overall, these elements make the experience more comforting (and again demonstrate how well the High Spirit of a story can supplement a more challenging, Low Spirit sequel).

~~~

Well, I think that about wraps it up for my Fantasy Story Stats. Thank you, as always, for reading, and if you gained anything from these stats, please subscribe, drop a comment, give me a like, or do all of those things—I’d appreciate it.

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 4: Novelty and Concept

Disclaimer: If you’ve been following these posts from the start, then you’ll need a quick clarification; I’ve been figuring these Stats out every week as I’ve written these posts and, as a result, I absolutely wound up changing the name (only) of one of this week’s stats. It went from “Originality” to “Novelty,” a really small change that I immediately felt was so important and essential that here we are.
If you haven’t been following this whole time, then no, nothing’s changed; I perfectly one-shotted all of this—you kidding?

Well, here we are—the last(ish) Week of my Fantasy Story Stats. Our final two stats are Novelty and Concept which are both totally focused on the originality of your work. If you combine them with the idea of last week’s Spirit as a rating of playfulness via predictability, that’s three facets of originality in my Stats… Maybe I’m obsessed?

Anyway, let’s get to it.

Novelty: The Overall Originality of Your Premise

You’re in a book store and you pick up a mass market to read the back cover copy. It goes something like, “As darkness rises in the land, one boy will find that only he can wield the mystical power that can save the world.” By my standard, that book would have Low Novelty. As per my points about Spirit last week, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Because Novelty is a vague overview of your story. Its rating comes from taking a distant look at what you’re writing and summarizing it honestly for the purpose of understanding how someone else might see it and what they might assume about it.

Although, as with most of my Stats, this doesn’t say anything definitive about what you’re writing. This could hint that your story isn’t original and that people might not like it for that reason. However, at the same time, by my definition, The Name of the Wind would actually be Medium Novelty. Before I go on, I love The Name of the Wind and think it’s amazing—I don’t want to even vaguely suggest that I don’t love that book, its sequel, or that I don’t respect the hell out of Patrick Rothfuss, because I absolutely do—but if you step back and take a long look at it, “orphaned young boy goes to wizarding school” would be part of The Name of the Winds’ premise. Again, I absolutely love that book, but I have to use it here as a fantastic example of how Novelty is not an all inclusive definition; the Novelty of your piece doesn’t make or break it. As with all of my Stats, it’s just a facet of your work for you to consider, for better or worse—not to be defeated by.

Particularly because Novelty is directly balanced by Concept.

Concept: The Originality of the Elements Within Your Story

Immediately going back to The Name of the Wind, it’s safe to say that if you’re a fan, you were probably outraged. You were probably like, “That’s not all the book is about! It’s absolutely and incredibly original!” and you’re completely right, because there are tons of unique elements in that book. From characters to moments, concepts to scenes, The Name of the Wind is incredibly fresh. In particular (to me), Sympathy is handled in a very original way, making it so believable that I almost wanted to try it myself.

And that originality—of smaller, more personal, and nearly infinite facets of a story (from its tone to the noise a particular fantasy creature makes) is its Concept. Concept can be as concrete as a strange hairdo on one of your characters (instead of Middle Earth-centric long) or as vague as the way a particular element (region, force, what have you) makes the characters (and you) feel. It can be a fresh approach to magic that either makes it feel incredibly real (like Sympathy) or allows characters to achieve extremely awesome and cinematic feats of combat (like Allomancy) instead of only allowing for the blatant use of Magic Missile and Flaming Hands. To force myself to stop ranting, Concept can present in any facet of a story. It is, among my Stats, the purest representation of a story’s originality and, in my experience, the one that stands out most to readers. Concept is more personal and inclusive however, as generally, only those who have read your work will see the majority of your original concepts (this being the major difference between Concept and Novelty [which casual onlookers will see]).

There’s not much more that I can say about Concept outside of the fact that despite there being many, many small, personal ways for a story to be truly original and High Concept, it’s still easier for a story to be wildly unoriginal. I usually put a short, concluding disclaimer on all of my stats, and I suppose that for Concept, it’s this: of all of these Stats, take Concept most seriously. If it’s important to be honest about any of these Stats, it’s Concept. It is the best marker for how derivative your story is, because just as there are innumerable ways for your story to be High Concept, there’s exactly the same amount of ways for a story to go wrong and be Low Concept. Because every good, original choice can instead be an absolutely obvious, horribly derivative choice. For example, your protagonist can have a sword that does something an audience hasn’t seen before or it can glow when certain creatures are near—or it can eat souls (you get it). Your protagonist can wake up from the nightmare they always have and, say, write it down in a journal that’s filled with the same recounting of the same nightmare or they could jump awake and hold a knife to the neck of the person who innocently tried to wake them. The point is, these decisions are always decisions and, in my mind, they—and your Concept rating—should be taken very seriously.

~~~

Well, that concludes our look at all of my Fantasy Story Stats. Despite the original schedule of four weeks, I’ll do a conclusion next week listing my Stats for different, popular series. But for now, if you’ve missed any of my previous weeks, here are links to Week 0, Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3.

And, finally, here are the complete Stats for my novel:

2013-WarofExilesStats

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 3: Tone and Spirit

Welcome to Week 3 of my Fantasy Story Stats. This is another exciting Week as it’s another where I get to go on about one of my own Stats. And really, it’s the statiest of the Stats so far—Spirit. Spirit, which was actually the first of them and the reason these posts exist at all.

But anyway, enough pre-rant. Let’s get to it.

First…

Tone: The Overall Mood of your Work

As per usual with my posts, let’s start off with something familiar that you really don’t need to hear much about—Tone. The weird thing about Tone is that I’ve always heard people mention it, but… always just mention in; I’ve been taught about characterization and narration, plot and settings, but never tone. It was always just the word—Tone.

In part, it’s because it’s obvious. Question: what’s the tone of a story? Answer: it’s the tone of a story. Light, heavy, dark, gritty, tone is obvious within the first few pages of a book and the first few moments of a movie. The very first exchange between Waymar Royce and Gared of the Night’s Watch makes it clear that George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is going to be serious; Will’s observations of Waymar’s armor make it clear that it’s going to be a realistic approach to a genre that often celebrates impractical armor and weapons. To polarize a bit, the intro to Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings boldly embraces the fantastic, establishing a much lighter, less realistic Tone. Each story defines their Tone early on and carries it for the whole book, assigning it an emotional weight that’s consistent throughout the entire story.

And, right there, that’s how I classify Tone: the consistent, emotional weight of a story (from Light to Heavy [but with an added, second classification of Fantastic to Realistic that usually coincides directly with Light to Heavy]). Light would be anything emotionally simple or literally light-hearted; something like a fun superhero comic, a more jovial or cool horror movie like The Cabin in the Woods, or a Terry Pratchett Discworld fantasy novel. On the other end of the spectrum, Heavy would be Watchmen, The Walking Dead, or Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

I believe the added classification of Fantastic to Realistic explains itself, but to quickly provide examples, a Light/Fantastic story would be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, a Medium/Semi story would be Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and a Heavy/Realistic story would be Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (by fantasy standards… at the beginning, anyway).

Finally, because I feel I have to say it, consistency is an incredibly important part of my definition for Tone. Because I’ve seen a story drastically shift from Medium to super, crazy Light in Tone and it was incredibly jarring. And I don’t usually do this, but (with a quick disclaimer that Stephen King is an established and skilled writer and I totally respect him) I will say that it was the Dreamcatcher movie. If you want a fantastic example of what not to do to your tone, you should watch Dreamcatcher. I don’t want to explain how, but it goes from emotional and personal to “Really!?” in the span of seconds.

Spirit: The Completely Subtle or Absolutely Obvious Playfulness of Your Work

Spirit is my concept and the fast way of describing it is to admit that I thought of it as “Camp” for a while. I felt I needed to change the name because camp has a pretty intensely bad connotation, but the idea persists; Spirit is the degree to which the author engages the reader. And that makes it sound incredibly unwieldy and obvious, doesn’t it? But no—it absolutely isn’t; Spirit can be subtle and silent or it can be ham-fisted and campy.

But to clarify, Spirit is a classification of playfulness. A story with High Spirit actively engages its readers through its elements, its dialogue, and its events.

A fantasy story with High Spirit Elements will feature a Millenial Fair where a kid gets special powers that only he/she can use to banish whatever evil is approaching from the north. In other words, there are elements that the reader knows and can trust that lead to moments a reader expects and welcomes subliminally. An old wizard/mentor will show up to guide the hero into the wild and teach him/ her about their powers, the hero will meet a special someone along the way, etc. And all of this is extremely comfortable for the reader because it’s so familiar.

A story with High Spirit Dialogue would be something written by Joss Whedon; obviously not exclusively, but if you’re a big fan of the Marvel Universe of movies, almost every other line of dialogue on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far has been a reference to previous movies or characters, often with those characters having no knowledge of those characters or their dialogue (“With great power comes a ton of weird crap,” spoken by Skye in the first episode is a fantastic example). This approach is inclusive—you’re in on the joke and you like it (or hate if you want to be like that). In other cases, the dialogue might simply be familiar with fantasy characters using one-liners or variants on Earth-Modern or Fantasy-fandom centric insults (“By Grog’s hairy balls!” or something like that, for example). At its most basic and simple, the ferocious dragon you expect only to breathe fire might instead turn out to be a female dragon who starts talking about how lonely she is, playing with the reader’s expectations and likely getting a laugh from them.

A story with High Spirit Events will follow a comforting plot structure. To put it simply, all sports underdog stories are High Spirit; you go in absolutely knowing that the Mighty Ducks (or whoever) are going to win. More relevantly, you always know that the young hero or heroine with the super rare and exclusive magical powers is absolutely going to kill that evil from the north in the end.

In contrast, stories with Low Spirit aren’t comforting. That’s the difference I want to make here; High Spirit isn’t “campy.” A story with High Spirit is not a bad thing, which I’ve tried to reflect in the examples I provided above. High Spirit stories are friendly. And engaging. And comforting. You enjoy them and they’re an easy choice when you don’t want to experience a completely unpredictable and often Heavy story.

Not to say that Low Spirit is bad either. By my definition, Jonathan Stranger & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark would be Low Spirit. So would Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard, and I enjoyed both of those books. They just had very non-standard, unpredictable elements and plots that were more challenging than comforting. The very fiber of those examples was doing something completely different to great effect.

~~~

That said, I don’t think I can keep going here without running into next week’s stats, Novelty and Concept. If this is your first time reading and you’ve enjoyed, I’d appreciate a Like, Comment, or a Subscription. If you haven’t checked out my other Stats, you can find an introduction here, Week 1 here, and Week 2 here.

And, as always, here’s where I stand on my list of Stats:

War of Exiles

Genre… Fantasy

Subgenre… Dark Fantasy

Theme… Living with loss.

Focus… 1-Character, 2-Plot, 3-Setting

Tone… Medium/Semi

Spirit… Medium

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 2: Theme and Focus

Apologies for getting this one out so late; crazy week. Crazy enough that I’m writing this in a laundromat. Seriously. There’s a Marc Anthony video playing on the big TV they have here… Let’s do this!

So, I’m excited about this week. This is the first time where a stat that I made up actually gets a mention—Focus. So let’s not waste any time. First..

Theme: It’s the Uniting Concept of Your Story

I feel I don’t need to spend too much time on Theme because I’m sure you already know at least 10 of its 30 million definitions.

But Theme is the uniting idea behind what you’re writing. It can be direct and it can be abstract, but it acts as a foundation for what you’re writing. It can be the moral of your story, but it can also be vaguer than that. It can be something as simple as “Doubles,” or something as complex as “Who we are as opposed to who we want to be.”

The thing about your Theme is that it should permeate every aspect of your story. It doesn’t have to, but a good writer reflects their theme in their descriptions and their dialogue. It’s mirrored in the plot and the characters, making a singular, united experience. For a theme like “Doubles,” characters should be mirrors of each other. Descriptions should be used at least twice, or perhaps certain settings should be visited at least twice with a large time gap in between (or something). So, really, of all the Stats, Theme is probably most important because it’s a foundation for your story.

And as a foundation, Theme should be your first step towards perfectly composing all of the elements of your story and a focal point for all of your Stats (particularly because it should come naturally early on in the story-building process [somewhere between making up characters and starting your plot]). Is your Tone too light for your story? Are you unsure it has enough Spirit? Does your Focus make sense for your story? Well, how do all of those elements work with your Theme?

Anyway, enough of that. On to Focus.

Focus: It’s the Story Facet You Unintentionally Focus On

Wish me luck—they put on kids shows now and I can barely do this with Mickey Mouse soft-shouting about Mouseketools.

So, Focus (ha—ironic) is the part of your story for which you take preference. This doesn’t mean a story only focuses on one facet (because no stories do that), but the one facet will naturally be more important and garner more attention from the writer. It’s not something that they realize and not necessarily something that needs to change; ultimately, I’m not even sure that a writer can change what they generally Focus on, but hey, why not try?

So, what are these facets of Focus?

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Plot

I’m sure there could be more, but seriously, Mouseketools, so let’s just focus on these three.

A Character-Driven story relies very heavily on its characters. A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantastic example of a character-driven story; there are a ton of characters and we’re expertly made to care about (even/especially the villains). The major incentive for reading the series is seeing what happens to the characters. Seriously, the chapter titles are the names of characters.

A Setting-Driven story focuses heavily on the area where the story takes place that place. In most cases, the setting is ultimately the most important element and winds up being a character itself, engaging the reader by making them wonder what they’ll see next. Alice in Wonderland is a fantastic example of a Setting-Driven story. For something a little more contemporary, any of the Silent Hill games or movies are Setting-Driven.

A Plot-Driven story is something more along the lines of a thriller. The Focus isn’t on what the characters will do next or what they’ll see next, but instead what will happen to them next. These are essentially Character-Driven stories where the characters don’t have control over what happens to them (for the most part) and don’t decide what they’re doing. Generally, horror stories are Plot-Driven; you watch a horror movie waiting to see how the next person dies (or, in simpler terms, how the next plot event happens).

Now, again, all of these distinctions are not exclusive; characters will always influence your stories, just as setting and plot will. However, the prominence of these elements in your writing is important to your stories and your style as a writer, and being aware of them is another solid step towards looking clearly at any piece you’re putting together and considering its composition honestly.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll add here that when I list a story’s stats, I list Focus on a ranking system (literally as “1-,2-,3-” to denote an order of Focus [which feels more accurate]).

~~~

Thanks for reading, and again, here’s where I stand on my list of Stats:

War of Exiles

Genre… Fantasy

Subgenre… Dark Fantasy

Theme… Living with loss.

Focus… 1-Character, 2-Plot, 3-Setting

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 1: Genre and Subgenre

There’s not much I can tell you that you don’t already know about genre and subgenre. The former is a broader classification and the latter is more specific. Both are categories into which your book fits.

But is that really all that they are? Are they the serious afterthought they generally seem to be? Or a small facet of that initial spark when you realized, “I want to write Fantasy [Sci-Fi/Mystery/etc.]!”

Well, according to me, of course genre and subgenre are more than that. They’re your story’s character class.

Genre: It’s Like Choosing a Character Class

I promise I won’t spend the next few weeks relating each of my Fantasy Story Stats to D&D; I understand that not everyone has played it and that’s cool. But what I’m getting at here will make sense to anyone who’s played a video game—or any game—with character classes.

For the sake of this article being remotely interesting, I’m going to assume you understand what character classes are—that you’ve played something where you sat considering a collection of archetypes and abilities. You may consider all the different kinds of classes in the game you’re playing, weighing the Warrior’s abilities against the Rogue’s. Or, if you’re like me, you either read all of the Rogue’s abilities and select them without even looking at the other classes, or you skip the whole reading part. Either way, you look at what’s out there and you decide what suits you—what abilities you can work with. To a very simple degree, deciding what genre to write works the same way. The comparison isn’t perfect but that’s in part because, as writers, we usually make this decision very early on without much consideration—I’ve known I wanted to write fantasy instead of anything else since grade school.

Where this comparison gets more complicated and more interesting is not in how your chosen class relates to you but how it relates to everyone else. If you choose a warrior, everyone’s going to expect basic actions from you at the very least; you’re supposed to have high strength, for example. It’s not absolutely essential, but it’s a general facet of your chosen class and the people you’re playing with will expect it and make decisions based on your choice.

The same can be said of your audience. If you choose Fantasy as your genre, they’re going to expect Fantasy and at least a few of the genre’s standard elements. And the use of those elements will dictate how you interact with your audience—what your story does as part of the genre (what subgenre it fits into, to be oblique). Do you want to use fantasy races? The generic set or ones of your own making? Do you want to use a magic system? Do you want to use a very simple and vague one that will compliment the tone of your story, or do you want an incredibly original or complex one grounded in reality that readers can relate to? Of course, there are no demands that you use any of these elements, but very likely you are, because if you don’t use magic/special powers, dragons, fantastic monsters, fantasy races, or any other element of the genre at all, you’re may not be writing fantasy anymore. And to say it directly and in a useful way, if you expect to write Fantasy effectively (or any other genre) and use its elements to properly convey your story t expectant readers, it’s important to read up on the genre.

Because just as you won’t understand what you’re capable of in combat if you don’t read a character class’s description, you absolutely won’t know what you’re capable of in your own writing if you don’t spend a good amount of your time reading; it’s incredibly easy to just shrug and say, “I’ve got this,” without doing research, but there’s no way you can possibly know how good your story is if you’ve never read any other stories.

Particularly, you can’t fathom the impact of that one series you really love if you don’t read a different series by a different author. It’s like being a kid and having your introduction to Street Fighter being this match:

(Apologies if you hate eSports or Street Fighter).

The point is though, suppose you see that and you immediately try Street Fighter. Who are you going to pick? Well, Daigo used Ken and you admire the hell out of Daigo now, so chances are… you’re picking Ken. Even if you wind up using someone else all the time, you’re probably starting with Ken.

Consider then that picking up a single Fantasy series when you’re young (as we all have) and sticking with only that one is just like picking Ken in this hypothetical situation, only about a billion times worse. Because Street Fighter gets boring if you only choose the one guy. However, epic fantasy novels are generally a thousand pages long with multiple installments, equaling a ton of reading time. It’s incredibly easy to choose the one series and stick with it (out of love and a usually fierce loyalty). That’s fine for the common reader, but it’s terrible for writers.

Because, at worst, you’re doing everything the one writer does without realizing that it’s making you derivative; you’re using every fantasy element that author used to achieve the same goals because you literally don’t know anything else. At best, you’re trying to go with characters, themes and dialogue that are a direct opposite of those in your favorite series, thus still letting it dictate your writing.

Maybe this is common sense—maybe you already know all of this. But maybe you haven’t read enough of your genre to know every facet of it—to know everything you’re capable of, to know the ideas that already exist and might work well with your writing, or to see enough of it to know which ideas you want your story to subvert.

Subgenre: It’s Like Expressing Yourself

Everything I just said above winds up being more important when you decide on a subgenre. I don’t want to spend too much time on those points because I’d be repeating myself, but I will summarize; the elements that I mentioned above (dragons, races, magic, etc.) all play major roles in helping you decide your genre (Epic or High Fantasy, for example, is very likely going to have strong magic while Superhero fiction isn’t going to have any). As with genre, considering these elements is important and finding the subgenre that they fit with is essential to being the strongest Fantasy writer you can be.

So, instead of repeating myself, I’d rather make a distinction between the two. As this short list represents (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fantasy_genres), Fantasy subgenre is a big place that’s open to expression. And that, right there, is the distinction. Categorically speaking, at least. If Fantasy is a huge wall displaying all of the possible elements you can use and stories you can tell, your fantasy subgenre should be a clear indication of those choices. Not just as an indication for browsing fantasy readers, but as a personal emblem (because, among Fantasy genres, it’s a given that we write Fantasy, so subgenre becomes the actual distinction that matters). You should be able to look back at your story, find the subgenre of your choice, and assign it with pride.

But in that order; if picking your genre came so naturally and involuntarily that it happened before you even knew you wanted to write, then deciding what subgenre you fit into should come after the entire process is over; after you’ve come up with a story, characters, and perhaps written something—then you should decide on your subgenre. Because, if you choose one first, it might put its own blinders on you, making you write for the subgenre, not for you or your story. And just as you don’t want to accidentally be derivative of that one author you admire, you don’t want to set boundaries for your plots before you’ve even begun. Remember, genre and subgenre, as classifications (particular on this list), are tools for you to use. The elements and concepts that come with them are fuel for your creative fire.

~~~

Well, I think that’s a start. As a standard for these Story Stat articles, I’ll leave you with the stats for my novel so far.

War of Exiles

Genre…               Fantasy

Subgenre…         Dark Fantasy

RED Comics #2 – There and Back Again

Disclaimer: RED Comics are written and assembled by Louis Santiago using screen caps from DVD’s. All issues of RED are free; they are made as non-profit entertainment by a man who loves to distract himself from his writing. However, the RED name / logo and the Louis Santiago logo (aka my own face) are creative property of Louis Santiago. Enjoy!

RED Comics #1 – A Game of Checkers

Disclaimer: RED Comics are written and assembled by Louis Santiago using screen caps from DVD’s. All issues of RED are free; they are made as non-profit entertainment by a man who loves to distract himself from his writing. However, the RED name / logo and the Louis Santiago logo (aka my own face) are creative property of Louis Santiago. Enjoy!