Tips for Games for Writers – The CR Trap

Disclaimer: I thought I’d take a new turn with this post. I’ve put out a handful of Games for Writers articles before in which I talk about specific games that promote good writing in large or small ways. However, I’ve never written any warnings to budding fantasy writers about the (many) bad influences gaming can have on their writing. Thus, here we are, with the first of my Tips for Games for Writers. Enjoy!

So, in this month between finishing War of Exiles and starting its content edit, I’ve pretty heavily picked up my gaming again. Not because I need to play video games, but because, in the comfortable glow of only having an outline for a different story to casually chip away at, why not?

As if I need to have goals now, however, I’m not playing anything new; I’ve instead gone back to super old games I never got 100% in (at least until Titanfall hits the 360). Examples of how I’ve been wasting my time: Fallout 3, Beyond Good & Evil, Half-Life 2. Essentially, I’m trying desperately to complete some of my favorites before this generation officially ends for me in September with Destiny.

But anyway, my current gaming goals aren’t the article here. The article—and my particular need to write it—came while playing Fallout 3. I was on an alien space ship, my character, Norman Osborn, discovering that he’d been made into a cyborg by his alien captors (I seriously just took the Cyborg perk [unnecessary roleplay FTW]), was raging, hurling Plasma Grenades everywhere. It was a good time.

Until I reached the higher level aliens. They clearly had shielding that made them stronger, and although it didn’t feel like it made perfect sense, they were so much more powerful than their unshielded buddies that they cut right into my grenade-hurling good times. Fun turned into plugging what felt like way, way too many shots into the same, stringy alien with my extremely powerful Firelance until it finally died.

Which absolutely made me reflect on countless other such moments—particularly in Bethesda games, but really present in any RPG; you encounter a level 20 enemy while you’re level 1 and, OMFG, you’d better run because that enemy, no matter how disarmingly huggable, is just not going down.

And this, of course, reminded me of when I started writing and how the phenomenon of the high level puppy dog not even feeling my rocket launcher shots—what I now present here as The CR Trap—impacted my work for the worse.

First, What’s “CR”?

If you’re unaware, “CR” stands for “Challenge Rating”; it’s a term I picked up from D&D and it’s the result of an equation that dictates how strong a monster is in relation to all of the players’ characters (a CR 5 is a well matched challenge for a team of four level 5 characters). To put it simply, they’re the decided strength of a monster or character, assigned to supplement a gaming experience.

And often found in every other kind of storied media. Movies? Comics? Books? They all have Challenge Ratings, intentionally or not.

Now, What’s the CR Trap?

It immediately sounds like I’m saying Challenge Ratings are bad; they’re not. They are, however, a gaming tool that doesn’t apply well to writing when they’re misused. When used well, Challenge Ratings are fantastic tools for making more enjoyable experiences (comics are notorious for having Challenge Ratings that dictate how much a normal human can withstand for the sake of being more enjoyable to readers [the Punisher and Batman are two great examples of characters who can take an unrealistic amount of punishment and still come out fine because the audience wants them to (and before you start raging, I’m sorry, but Batman would’ve died the very first time Solomon Grundy punched him 30 feet to smack into a wall JLU style; not being abrasive here—just realistic)]).

However, Challenge Ratings can very, very easily become a personal meta that feels unrealistic to everyone else and that cheapens your writing. To clarify here, establishing clear rules for your characters (they’re all vampires or some other race that has what I think of as “the durability suite” of super powers [moderate super strength, speed, agility and endurance]) isn’t what I mean. What I mean is (perhaps unwittingly) setting rules beyond that to further ensure the safety of your characters. What I mean is you’ve grown up with video games for so long that your human characters can illogically take more than a single gunshot wound and still be fine; against all reason, they can get shot eight times and still scurry behind a waste-high wall and meta-heal enough to rush on to some final objective before ultimately surviving. That is the CR Trap in its most basic and universal form.

However, it absolutely goes deeper than that and gets complex enough that I probably shouldn’t be presenting it here without way more explanation of its different facets, but whatever. Let’s have a good time instead!

The RPG-Forged CR Trap and Me

If you’re anything like me, you’re a fantasy writer who grew up on RPG’s. Even if they didn’t heavily influence your writing in any way, it’s a safe bet that you still carry accidental hints of your writing lineage in your work. Maybe your characters are more stylized. Maybe they have more elaborate weapons or you naturally gravitate to more action-oriented plots.

Or maybe… you’ve actually written the scene where the protagonist faces off against a giant monster and, against all logic, the protagonist comes out unscathed… and defeats the monster by hitting it only once. This is the CR Trap I grew up with, forged on the RPG’s inability to realistically portray violence.

And maybe you’re thinking, “What? Seriously? There’s tons of violence in the RPG’s I play.” Not debatable. However, think about a turn-based RPG like Bravely Default. Your characters have their turns—they run up, execute their attacks and then fall back. The enemy they hit reels for a moment, and then falls very cleanly back into the same stance they had before. It’s a small moment and the tiniest lack of realism, easy to keep out of your work.

Until you see it hundreds… of thousands of times without realizing it. It may sound silly, but consider that possibly, without realizing it was happening, you were trained by your turn-based RPG to see that moment—the waiting enemy, the perfect sword strike, the reel and recovery—as a reasonable approximation of a battle with a vicious monster. And, of course, you know that’s not how the fight would actually go, but it is, perhaps, the very first thing you think of when you try to picture said battle.

And now imagine that that single moment… is actually part of a suite of misconceptions video games have ingrained in you.

  • Like the misconception—provided by a truly awesome and high quality game like Skyrim, for example—that attacking a monster might not illicit any physical reaction whatsoever (because Stunning is tied to Critical Hits and certain moves to make it a gameplay feature).
  • Or the idea that an enemy would pose and act for visual flare, never attacking in a way that sacrificed aesthetics for brutal, logical efficiency.
  • Or the subliminal idea that when battles start, all environmental elements are stripped away and replaced with a large, flat expanse as to not impede the action.

I could go on until I round back to the concept of a Level 1 Barbarian fleeing from a Level 99 Tribble, but if you love video games as much as I do, you’ll know all of these incongruities yourself. Because you always have.

The CR Trap’s Effect on Your Fantasy Writing

I’ll be completely honest with you—I did not catch myself falling into the trap until I finished the first draft of War of Exiles. No lie, rereading the Prologue, in which my protagonist has an encounter with a monster (geez, I even used “encounter”), was actually what sparked the need to rewrite the entire book. It was a horrible, horrible mess of a fight because I basically wrote a turn-based RPG encounter. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but… I’ll strike off a list for you.

  • The monster, though harmed, did not suffer any serious damage or react to said damage with anything more than a roar and reel before recovering all of its mobility and faculties. Essentially, it was only pretend harmed.
  • The monster, though intelligent, had a collection of visually impressive but extremely useless attacks and abilities that it used slowly and illogically (classically ensnaring my protagonist and slowly pulling him towards itself… instead of immediately running up and killing him while he was helpless on the ground).
  • The battle started in the center of town, perfectly and unrealistically large for a small town and absolutely devoid of any obstructions aside from one decorative fountain that was effectively cut out the moment the fight started.

The only thing I didn’t do was have Lethe and the monster stand facing each other, weapons ready, posed and breathing as action bars filled up.

It’s odd to remember how much I relished writing the original scene too; it wasn’t just that I thought it was passable—I thought it was cool and exciting.

And that’s what the CR Trap does; it ironically lowers the Challenge Rating of your fight scenes by scripting you with the familiar; you feel right at home and comfortable and successful as your character cuts a giant spider’s leg but doesn’t really cut it because reasons. The spider jumps back and strikes again even though it’s gigantic and this is happening in what was just described as a castle courtyard crowded with statues, the spider missing every now-ignored statue because reasons. When the spider strikes  again, it grazes or, despite what should probably be unreal agility, totally misses. Because reasons. Long-ingrained, comfortable reasons.

Getting Out of the Trap

If you feel like you’ve written these kinds of scenes and want to change them, it’s a not at all simple process of going back and thinking very clearly about what’s really happening in your fight scenes. In particular, think about whatever monster or threat your characters are facing and consider something that’s absolutely foreign to video game fodder—what this monster’s individual motivation is. Try to plot how it would advance and how it would attack and stay true to that even if you still come out with a simple “It wants to kill my protagonist,” and especially if you find a complicated, scene-ruining answer like, “This creature would absolutely run away or try to run away if confronted.”

Also, and probably even more essential for combat scenes, don’t simplify your arenas, whether that means not always putting fights in conveniently cleared out “boss rooms,” or not forgetting the table in the center of the room.

But, if there’s one thing I’d suggest above all of this, it’s to put your characters in reasonable, honest danger. If you want your character to fight a giant spider, alone, admit that there’s a fantastic chance that spider (or a reasonably scaled threat for those protagonists who can easily kill a giant spider) will absolutely, ruthlessly, and efficiently kill your protagonist. At the very least, admit and embrace the idea that your characters can face insurmountable dangers in your story, even if thise dangers are never on-screen; that your protagonist isn’t the untouchable badass you usually follow to the end of a video game. To put it simply, write legitimate, suspenseful danger.

And, hey, while you’re at it, also make sure that no other gaming contrivances are plaguing your work (i.e. no fall damage or extremely convenient, nonsensical inventory systems [in particular, none of last gen’s ridiculously standard, “He slipped the weapon onto his back.”]).

Balancing the Trap

It is incredibly comfortable to just stick with the CR Trap and, for the sake of being cool and more appropriate for more audiences, many, many people do stick to it by small degrees; professionally produced stories absolutely follow the mold for the sake of not challenging audiences, who usually don’t really want to be challenged by their favorite characters dying unceremoniously. And that absolutely makes sense.

But in the case of fantasy, even if the average reader doesn’t want a play-by-play on what parts of a monster are sheared off during a fight (and I think the general audience probably doesn’t), any Fantasy-loving adult would be far, far more engrossed with a realistic, high-stakes battle (or chase or hunt). And none of them really want to read the fantasy novel where characters are never actually in danger or where the environment is oddly cleared for every encounter. There’s obviously a balance here and, like all elements of writing, the Challenge Rating meta you set in your work is up to you. But that’s just it—always be mindful of what you’re doing and make it an intentional choice for your story whether or not characters can takes thousands of pounds of knuckled force to the face and still get up.

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 This wound up being… so much more involved and complicated of a post than I expected. But, if you enjoyed, I’d love a Comment, Like, and/or Subscription. Regardless, thanks for reading!

Very Comfortably Insane

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Not to be a downer, but at the time of this posting, I still don’t feel it.

It’s been a week now. A week since I finished my rewrite of my first novel. And somehow, I still don’t really feel it. There were moments when I almost did–moments when I wrote to a friend about finishing the book and perked up, excited at the thought of moving on to the sequel and other, shorter projects. But every time, the near rush always cut short with a monotone, “Nope. That didn’t do it either–still not excited.”

I don’t want this to sound super dramatic; I’m not numb or in shock. I’m just… unfazed. It’s disappointing, really, because the first time I finished this book, I was out of my mind with joy; I’d finished a book and, oh man, I still had to edit it, but, oh geez–oh man–it was done!

This time, I typed the last sentence. Stared at it. Smirked… And then immediately admitted that I hated the last sentence. I changed it quickly to something I really liked and backed up the finished first (technically sixth) draft. And then I just sat at my computer for a while, aware that now, not only could I do something else with my day… but I had to do something else–even though, this time, I knew the story wasn’t actually done–because it was the next step in my writing plan. In the slow, determinedly celebratory and lazy way of humans, I wound up convincing myself to do all of the things I usually do when I achieve a solid milestone–I played some video games without caring about how much time I wasted that day (ultimately a few hours that felt like far, far too long without the banter of a friend over Xbox Live). I also had a decent lunch. I may have actually bought myself a cookie.

The thing is… I’m much, much different from the 20-something year old who blissfully typed, “The End,” and spent a month celebrating afterward (a month of down time that turned into months of carelessness). Past-Louis thought he was almost done–that the Content Edit and Line Edit would be easy. That he’d finished something great.

Present-Louis, however, has already moved on to another story because he kind of had to. Because Present-Louis knows now that it’s time for the Big Push. The Long Halloween. The Whatever You Want to Call It. This is the year where I keep going and move on to another story with my insane, custom-made, self-taught, monster outlines and try to refine them while learning more about writing; about establishing a flow of projects and trying out my approach for Growing Outlines.

Essentially, now is the time when I actually level up as a writer, again. And it’s terrifying! Maybe because I’ve already finished this same book once without knowing it was terrible.  Or maybe it’s because I have almost no outside opinions on my extremely personal techniques–no other writer to look in and say, “Do you really need to list the clothing your characters are wearing?” or “You should make an extra part in your outlines for [this]. [This] is super important and you’re missing it.”

Or maybe it’s because of that moment in front of my computer, staring at the monitor–at that last line–and realizing that I was nothing without the ability to tell stories. I’ve moved on to a new outline of a standalone idea, deeply revised from the super vague, over-excited concept I had in high school (forged from listening to the heartsick intro music from Chrono Cross), and I’m clinging to that outline for dear life. Because I’m not the kind of writer who can take breaks anymore. I’m the kind of writer that’s too far gone, who’s only real fear is the imagined point when I have no more stories to tell.

Well, that and the impending rejection letters. You hear that, slight inkling of victory? Reality’s a-comin’ for ye!

To put all drama and preemptive bitterness aside though, I am… content. Yes, everything is a challenge right now. But, for writers, toiling away, constructing worlds that may never, ever reach readers, everything is a challenge. I’m glad to have found new ones, but they’re still challenges and they’re still daunting.

Regardless, and because I want even this post to be somewhat constructive, the attack plan is as follows:

  1. Spend March away from War of Exiles before beginning my Content Edit. In that time, I’ll take the month to work on a sparse Chapter Outline for the new story I mentioned, The Hand and the Tempest (expect to see it temporarily replace War of Exiles in my Project Progress bar at the top of the page [although its bar will be stranger, as the goal is to progressively build on the outline until it goes from ‘Short Story’ to ‘Novella’ to (maybe) ‘Full Length, Stand-Alone Novel’–this being the purpose of my “Growing Outline”)]).
  2. When April hits, all outlining for The Hand and the Tempest stops as I return to WoE for the Content Edit and, after using The Hand and the Tempest for practice, begin writing a Chapter Outline for War of Masks, the sequel to War of Exiles.
  3. From there, it’s moving on to a Line Edit for WoE while Chapter Outlining the third book in the series (currently unnamed).
  4. After that, when my submission packet is finished, I’ll review the outline for The Hand and the Tempest, and write it as I submit WoE.
  5. And after that, it’s off to work on an outline for another standalone story–I have another in mind.
  6. And all while, I’ll be staring at the intimidating mountain of information that is my actual, main series–my magnum opus that terrifies me as much as it excites me.

This, it turns out, is what being a devoted, aspiring novelist is like; poor and terrified. Unrealistically devoted and absolutely proud of it (if you’re here with me on this obnoxiously lonely, writers’ path, hi there. Let’s revel in our wildly unstable, conflicting emotions together).

To put it simply, being an aspiring author means that you’re very comfortably insane.

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

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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!

The 3 Great Fiction Sins

First, apologies for taking so long to get another post out; things are a bit rough at the moment and the article I finished last week and was intending to post just wasn’t up to snuff (and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with a post that didn’t offer readers anything). I was going to settle for more generic life update this week, but this idea came first, so let’s get to it instead.

So, The Day of the Doctor happened. And I absolutely missed it; I enjoy Doctor Who a bunch, but I haven’t watched in a long time. I’ll be completely honest about my bias: the 10th was my Doctor, and before you say anything, yes, I have watched a bunch of Matt Smith and I like him, but he’s not David Tennant. Bias aside, I think I actually fell behind because of some of the story elements of Smith’s run.

I won’t get into them because that would be a whole other article, but I will say that one of those elements that nagged me… led to this article, my 3 Great Fiction Sins. What are they? The elements that I believe any fiction writing can easily fall victim to. There are, of course, way more than these three, but I feel that these are the three I’ve seen prevail in professionally produced works of fiction (so more obvious things like creating plot elements that don’t make sense didn’t make it onto this list). These prevailing sins are, however, still extremely obvious and jarring… and sometimes incredibly awkward… So let’s jump right in!

1) Clear and Obnoxious Character Bias

This is not the worst of these sins (worst for last, baby), but it is absolutely the most common. As writers and creators (or finders—whatever) of characters, you’re bound to like some of your characters more than others. The plot may result in some characters being stronger and (very naturally) more awesome than others—perhaps more cunning than others. One character may be particularly funny and, if that’s the kind of character we like, we’ll be drawn to them immediately, wanting to put them at the front of every scene and have them present for every situation. And, for the most part, that’s fine.

What isn’t fine, however, is stopping the flow of a story to include a completely unnecessary scene that is completely focused on:

Omfg! Isn’t he/she/it BADASS!?

If, say, the main characters are trying to achieve something in a limited amount of time, but, unrealistically, everything stops so that we can watch, say, a cyber ninja (the first archetype that came to mind—honestly not drawing comparisons here) cut through a full brigade of soldiers… it’s almost like the writer has slapped the book out of our hand / TV to the floor / controller into the garbage only to jump in front of us, hands held forward, eyes manic as they say, “Okay… PICTURE THIS…” For me, these moments are always that degree of awkwardly invasive—particularly because the intent is always (pretty honestly) to fap over a single character.

Which, of course, cheapens everything else about a story; suddenly, the characters are actors again, the scenes are a plot. To put it simply, your adventure stops being an adventure and turns into a piece of writing a writer wrote. Maybe this is just how I think as a writer, but chances are, scenes like this will still annoy anyone if they very naturally don’t like the writer’s favorite character as much as that writer does; if the audience doesn’t really care about the cyber ninja, they’re immediately going to roll their eyes when he jumps out with his sword in his mouth and starts chopping up dudes effortlessly… without arms (I seriously just remembered that part of Metal Gear Solid 4, so hey, I guess I was drawing comparisons—subliminally. Somebody writing this article suuure hated that scene).

Most times, a writer can handle this kind of character well, showing them off in ways that are natural and—most importantly—non-invasive.

Every other time, though… Well, let’s just say that if there’s any chance you’ve done this, seriously reconsider slapping your audience right out of the moment to hold a loose leaf sketch of the one character in front of them. “He can grab his sword… with his foot clamp!”

2) The Tea Party

For me, this second sin is really bringing it back.

I did not make this one up—a friend back in high school brought this to my attention when we were talking about Xenogears (aaand I just dated myself). Very likely, we were playing it together and got to a scene where a town was burning down during an attack from a mech (if I remember correctly). The main characters were in the process of escaping… when one of them stopped in the center of the town to talk about things I can’t remember—I’ll be honest. The thing was, it didn’t matter what they were talking about while the town burned around them and people ran, screaming, children and possessions theoretically clutched to their chests.

No, what mattered was that they were talking.

And talking.

And fucking talking.

At the time, I was too naïve about writing to realize something was wrong, but my friend said something along the lines of, “I hate these fucking tea parties.”

When I asked what she meant, she explained: tea parties were incredibly suspenseful moments in which characters who are actively running from a very real danger suddenly stop and kick up a conversation, against all logic. Depending on the eminent danger, tea parties can either be as short as a single line or as inordinately long as the full 3 minute long conversation I witnessed in Xenogears (as I remember it anyway). However, no matter the length, characters always stop running / escaping for the duration of the tea party, brazenly defying all common sense.

I immediately took her explanation to heart. And ever since, it has destroyed a surprising amount of reading, watching and playing experiences immediately for me.

In the case of a fantasy read, this sin was at its most annoying when the main characters were in a house that was actively being crushed by giants. An escape vehicle of some kind (I forgot—read this ages ago) arrived a distance from the house and the characters decided to run for it. Most of them ran.

Two immediately stopped running so that one of them could shout about how excited he was to be escaping—particularly to their next destination.

There’s absolutely a chance that I’m being too critical on this one—the intent was to be cute and funny; the excited character was a zany old man if I remember correctly and the character with him was trying to get him out of the house.

But at that point, the giants had already pummeled the house for so long that there was no sense of danger; and perhaps that’s the best definition of a Tea Party: a moment in which all sense of danger is defeated by a clear contrivance of the writer. The player stopped caring about the town burning down around them because none of the other characters seemed to. And the reader just rolled their eyes at the author’s attempt at a laugh because the house—very clearly now—was never going to actually collapse under the tree-hammering the giants were giving it.

3) Incredibly Awkward and Creepily Open Displays of Sexual Fantasies

Best for last, baby.

I watch South Park, so I’ve seen the recent jabs at George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones focusing so much on sex. Before I go on, I haven’t watched the Game of Thrones show because I didn’t like it for reasons I also won’t get into here (my favorite character is completely different—for starters) but one of my big problems with it was the sudden persistence of sex and sexuality in the show. In the books, sex happened when it felt like it should’ve; in exactly the same way that characters used the bathroom on occasion and it wasn’t glossed over, Martin also didn’t gloss over occasional sex because it’s a thing humans do, like urinating. I have heard that he has a lot to do with the show, so I throw my hands up with all of this and say, ‘I dunno—whatever.’

But what I absolutely know is that Martin never wrote 100+ pages of Jon Snow being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo.

Yes, I read that book. And yes, it was an Epic Fantasy novel; not (openly) a hybrid of Fantasy and Erotica. Should it be deemed Erotica? No idea. But 100+ pages of anyone being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo, is a very clear, very awkward, and very open display of sexual fantasy being mass produced and sold to the public.

And it just skeeves me out.

Nothing is wrong with a sex scene. Although I wouldn’t write one, nothing is even wrong with a detailed sex scene.

But something is extremely wrong with dragging out sexual scenes for inordinately long. And yes, any sexual scenes, not just scenes that are fetishistic.

I don’t want to go on because I’m sure I’d just repeat myself, each time getting more and more insulting, but I’ll end on the most tactful comparison I can think of:

Focusing on a character’s sexual adventures in a story that’s going to be mass produced for the general public in a genre that’s not known for sexual exploits is like introducing yourself to someone, shaking their hand with a smile, and then leaning in and whispering, “I like anal.”

Everyone’s reaction: “… : ( I need an adult.”

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Well, I know it’s short and not especially helpful, but I hope you enjoyed. As always, thanks for the read and from this weird void where I never get around to thematically celebrating holidays, I hope yours are awesome. Happy that day you celebrate!

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).

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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.

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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 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]).

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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.

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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

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 0: An Introduction

Disclaimer: The following ideas are based on the observations of an amateur fantasy writer. These ideas are absolutely not fact and should not be taken as more than suggestions for how to look at your own work—a tool that you use to supplement your writing at best. If you like the ideas you find here and find them useful, awesome. If you find them useful and you immediately want to share them, I only ask that you do so via link to this post.

No matter what though, I don’t want to suggest that fantasy writing should be a rote, meticulous thing with categories and bureaucracy. If you find that these ideas make your writing process feel too mechanical, scale back your reliance on them. Remember, these Stats are just a tool.

An Introduction

I blame absolutely all of this on D&D.

I was fine before I played that game. I was 100% heart when it came to writing and ideas just popped into my head whenever they pleased and assembled themselves into fantastic, towering messes that I barely controlled.

But then D&D came around, and playing it was the unintentional end of that era of my writing career. Oh, I’m sure D&D wasn’t totally to blame—this is also when I finally started to read good fantasy as well—but I can’t help feeling that without D&D, I never would’ve considered a lot of things; a lot of fantasy-relevant things, to be sure, but also the idea that a fantasy world could be broken down into numbers—into categories and lists that made world building incredibly more efficient than it had been. Honestly, it’s probably because I immediately wanted to (and tried to) make my own paper games (I got as far as a character sheet and vague character creation guidelines, but the overall rules eventually escaped me). In the end, I think it’s D&D (and also, prooobably college) that finally made me find a balance between mind and heart when it came to my writing.

Because there’s always that balance, right? Writing is a give and take between ideas you love and your ability to decide when, how, and if you can use them; having a great idea for a story but no idea how to deliver it is as bad as knowing how to deliver stories but having no stories to tell.

Well, that (and a lingering desire to obsessively design more character sheets for absolutely no reason) is what led to this–my list of Fantasy Story Stats. It’s years and years later and I find myself channeling that bureaucratic desire for order into the following list that I hope has some practical use for you.

The Idea

This is a list of story elements that exist for and apply to all fantasy stories. The goal here is to bring important elements to light that may, hopefully, help you take a more composed look at your stories, see where they may be lacking in overall composition, and adjust one or more of their elements so they all fit together optimally. Really, that’s it; this is simply a model for categorizing all fantasy stories (that I’ll spend the next few weeks explaining in pairs). You may figure out a better approach to a subtle facet of your work or you’ll realize that your project is similar to someone else’s and compare them to find out why, how you can change that similarity, or what you can learn from that similar project (all according to your own prerogative and objective).

However, while these Stats are meant to help you hone your story and choose elements that compliment it well, the intent here is absolutely not to suggest that any one type story is superior to all others. If you find yourself using this checklist and thinking that you should completely change your story to make it more like A Game of Thrones, for example, you’re doing a disservice to your own story and misusing these Traits. I would sooner say that this story would serve you better if all you took from it was a confidence that your story’s Stats are cohesive and all complimented each other well (as I believe almost any combination of Stats can).

The Stats (So Far)

1) Genre – Self-explanatory. On this site, it’s always “Fantasy.” I’ll be covering this next week (Week1).

2) Subgenre – A more specific classification for fantasy stories. I’ll also cover this next week (Week 1).

3) Theme – The concept that pulls your entire story together (Week 2).

4) Focus – The very possibly unintentional focus of a story (Week 2).

5) Tone – The weight of a story (Week 3).

6) Spirit – This one seriously sounds like an RPG stat, doesn’t it? This is the degree to which a story involves its audience, however subtly (Week 3).

7) Novelty – The overall originality of a story, more generally applied to its premise (Week 4).

8) Concept – The specific originality of a story, applied to its elements (Week 4).

I should clarify that I obviously didn’t create a lot of these concepts; I absolutely understand that but still present them here as part of my list because they’re important to it. That said, there’s a pretty good chance there’s a similar, widely accepted list out there; if you find that this is true, all I can say is, I didn’t know and I hope that you’ll at least get something out of my Stats (I believe my concept of Spirit will still be useful).

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Well, that’s enough of an introduction, I think. Come back next week for a look at Genre and Subgenre (mostly Subgenre). Again, and as always, thanks for reading.

On Choosing the Right Soundtrack

Last time was pretty serious. Well, maybe not serious–maybe more like incredibly straight forward and academic. And <em>boring.</em>

So I thought I’d get a little loose this time—talk about something I like, with the stipulation that I tell you at least twice that it’s something I like.

And that would be assigning a soundtrack for my stories.

Now, before you navigate away, I should specify a few things. Firstly, I use the term “soundtrack” loosely—more on that in a bit. Secondly, I do believe that if you don’t already do this, it can actually help your writing. Thirdly, that is as long as you do it… in moderation.

Firstly, Not Really a Soundtrack

I’m a weird guy when it comes to music (at least). I’m admittedly terrible with actual, normal music; I honestly would not be able to name a single Led Zeppelin song for you. And at the same time, no, I also would not be able to name a Katy Perry song for you—I defy genres and generations with my musical ignorance.

However, I can hear five seconds of original soundtrack from two rooms away, come over, and, without even looking at the television it’s coming from, tell you, “Jurassic Park. The scene when Grant and the kids are climbing over the wire fence. That track is called ‘High Wire Stunts’.”

I’ll go right on to immediately add that I know this is a problem.

However, what I want to specify immediately is that my goal here is not to make that your problem; I’m absolutely not suggesting that you compile a detailed and complete soundtrack. Aside from the fact that it would be incredibly hard to find music that matches all of your scenes and all matches the same tone, it would just be a huge waste of time.

Because, let’s be real—if you compiled a soundtrack worthy of worldwide distribution… who are you showing that to? How are you planning to use it? I don’t want to assume you don’t get it, but this leads right into how you should think of your “soundtrack”—basically, as a writing tool.

I’ll lead with an example: here’s a part of my soundtrack (and yes, it’s more Castlevania). But immediately, let me point out a few things:

1) This song is the theme for an abandoned gallery my characters find at one point. But not all of the song is the gallery’s theme—more like everything but 1:32-2:02 or any other part where it gets insanely Castlevania…y). Those organ solos don’t fit the tone of my story at all.

2) Regardless, there is no point where the piano portion of this song could actually play anywhere in my story; in an animated or live-action version of my story, there just honestly would not be enough suitable time in that gallery.

3) I would also absolutely never write to this song or even reread my work while listening to it; it’s just too distracting.

So how exactly do I use this song at all? Before I write any scenes in the gallery. When I’m thinking about the gallery—how it looks and sounds. When I need to figure out an aspect of it. When I want to remember how it feels to stand in it.

And that means that, like the rest of my “soundtrack,” that song is a kind of personal tool that’s detached from my writing in every way an actual soundtrack shouldn’t be. And that’s what I’m suggesting; that you find whole songs, parts of songs—maybe even clips that are only seconds long—that you compile as writing tools, not expressly as a playlist. And not even expressly music; this is what I played for the weeks it took me to get through chapters 10 and 11, and having this, looped, helped to a degree that’s embarrassing to admit.

Secondly, How This Can Actually Help

Consider what I said last week about assigning a theme song for your characters. I explained that, in my mind, a theme song is a perfect way to hone what you know about your characters. If you can find the right one, they can serve as beautiful, simple summaries of your characters and, when necessary, remind you who the character is and what they’re going through. And if you manage to keep the theme from changing your character, they serve as a great way to hone your understanding of a character.

Well, add to that the idea that your scenes and settings (for the sake of simplicity) are characters. At the very least, they share similar traits; setting can (and should) have a tone. A scene can have a certain mood. A location can and should convey a story, if only briefly and subtly. A cave can be small and close, warm from the fresh fire at its center, where a friend looks up from their book as you enter. Or the fire could be dead, the air acrid with the stench of the charred cook pot hanging over it, your friend’s chair overturned, the man himself missing. In any of those cases, a song used as reference always helps you to find the words that match that tone.

In the case of the example I gave above, the song for the gallery, it’s full of the exact kind of muted, drowned beauty that embodies that setting to me. It easily helps me remember everything about it, from the wet gray color of the gallery’s walls to the sad, sunlit half-silence of it.

I suppose the simplest way to say this is, if you’ve never tried using a song as inspiration, you should absolutely give it a shot. I believe that you can create awesome characters without assigning a theme, but I think having reference music for your scenes is borderline essential.

Thirdly, Be Casual About It

I’m a firm believer that any extra work that’s meant to supplement your writing can eventually hurt it instead. I want to say, “excepts for like, making up a custom language for your world.” But even in that case… if you’ve spent ten years perfecting that custom language … that’s probably not helping your stories in the long run. Particularly because, if you’re like me, you’re an amateur; we don’t have the luxury of spending years honing any one detail because, honestly, the point at which we should’ve been writing—and letting that experience dictate how we refine our worlds—is always. If we spent the majority of our time working on a language or compiling a detailed soundtrack, it would be like someone calling out of work to spend the day sorting their pennies. Probably a horrible comparison, but my overall point is that actually taking time out of a writing session to hunt down relevant tracks? Not a good idea. Using any time that you could spend writing to instead find the perfect pairing for your campfire scene? Not better than just taking a shot at writing that scene.

What I’m saying is, the best way to handle this soundtrack business is to put the entire idea in the back of your mind—not out of mind, but somewhere easily recalled—while you watch movies, play video games, or pretty much do anything. You should take from this the idea to listen to what you hear with the background knowledge that you can apply anything to your writing. Maybe that sounds a little bizarre, being ready to relate everything you hear to your stories.

But, honestly, that’s writing 101. If you haven’t started insanely thinking of everything in relation to some plot you’ve been working on, well, there’s no time like the present to go the writing-appropriate amount of crazy.

All kidding aside, you are a writer. Either you’re sitting here thinking, “I already do this,” or you should be.