Build the House Before the Rooms: a Case Study in Framing

Recently I mentioned a series of four short stories I’m trying to write to get back into my deadlocked project. The main idea is to have all four stories in the same release, using a frame story to link them together. It’s a great convention, and can bring seemingly isolated stories together into a cohesive book–but like any writing technique, it’s easy to do it poorly.
I’ve never tried a frame story before, so I thought I’d do some practical research and look at some examples. Here are three of note:

Shades of GrayStar Trek: The Next Generation

We’ll start with the bad. This episode of Star Trek is often pointed to as one of the worst in any of the series, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It also points to a larger problem in television: the clip show. I’ve always thought of a clip show as little more than a marketing tool–it’s a way for producers to reel in potential new viewers by showing them the “best” clips of a series–but most of them are, in fact, frame stories.

The episode starts with Commander Riker getting injured on an away mission. He slips into a coma, and has a series of dreams–which, of course, are shown to the audience as clips from previous episodes. The premise is so on the nose that the writers might as well have grabbed the camera and shouted: “Do you remember this one? Huh? Do you??” I admit that Star Trek has some lousy episodes, but this one is plain ridiculous.

/Vitrol. Anyway, the thing with clip shows is that it’s difficult to introduce a plot while cramming in all those clips from past episodes. And that’s the issue here; the writers concocted a interesting problem for the characters to overcome, but neglected it in favour of showing clips. Riker’s illness could have made a good episode if they concentrated on it, but it’s pushed to the side. The point of this episode from a production standpoint was that they didn’t have the budget to do a big show, and were forced to recycle. Because of that, much more focus is put on the clips than the central problem the frame story introduces, and the episode as a whole suffers for it.

As a frame story, this fails because the frame does nothing to really connect the clips. There’s an excuse that Riker’s illness forces him to relive painful moments, and this is supposed to provide a thread for the episode to follow–but it really doesn’t hold up. The whole episode feels disconnected and thrown together, and as a result is largely forgettable.

The lesson here is that when using a frame story…use the frame story. Don’t introduce a convention then leave it behind, you’ll just confuse your audience.

The Illustrated Man–Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is an unquestioned master of science fiction, and this is probably one of the best introductions to his work. It’s a series of short stories (all but one previously published in periodicals), which, like most great science fiction, deal with the human condition. The stories are often dark, but they all put across some great questions. It’s a really nice collection, and a seminal work for sci-fi enthusiasts.
The frame store here is about a man who comes across a vagrant covered in tattoos–tattoos that move. The vagrant explains that a woman from the future inked them, and that they each tell a story. As the man gazes into the animated tattoos, we transition into one of the eighteen short stories in the book. It’s simple, effective (to a point), and intriguing. But it doesn’t entirely work.

Again, we have a disconnect between the frame story and the short stories written around it. The stories include some of Bradbury’s great classics–The Veldt, Marionettes Inc., and a personal favourite, The Rocket–but they don’t all have a clear connection to one another. The ‘human condition’ theme is vague enough that it covers almost all of science fiction, so it doesn’t really serve to string these stories together.
“But,” you say, “that’s what the frame story is for!” And you’d be right–the purpose of a frame is to create some sort of cohesive narrative. But it’s difficult to do that with such disparate stories; it’s like building a house with rooms that all have different heights. Your ceilings won’t match up, and your roof will end up a jagged mess. Of course, I wouldn’t say this collection is a mess–Bradbury is an excellent writer, and he makes it work. But for those of us who don’t have dozens of classics under our belts, this book can serve as an example: put some careful thought into how things are linked together.

I, Robot–Issac Asimov

And here we come to the shining example of how to do a frame story right. In my opinion, anyway–I have to admit I’m partial to Asimov, so I’m a bit biased. It also features one of my favourite characters in science fiction, robot psychologist Susan Calvin. This book is such a great example of a frame story that it doesn’t seem like a frame at all. It’s more like reading different chapters of the same book.
In fact, that’s kind of what it is. It’s a collection of Asimov’s robot stories, of course, but the collection as a whole is set up as a sort of history of robotics. Dr. Calvin is being interviewed by a reporter looking for the “human angle” in robotics, and she tells him a series of stories in loosely chronological order. The robots are the real characters in this book, and because we sympathize with them, we see how “human” they really are; this in turn tells us important things about ourselves. Which, as I’ve said before, is exactly what science fiction is about.

That’s all well and good, but why does the frame story work so well? Calvin is a peculiar character; she’s cold and generally emotionless, but is excitable in a certain way when she talks about or works with robots. She’s like them–she understands them. And because she’s the one telling the stories, we understand them better too. Her intent in telling these stories to the reporter is to give him a more accurate view of robots, rather than treating them like literal machines, and each of the stories in this collection dance around a similar issue. The frame story is carefully interwoven with the rest, so well that you wouldn’t think that it was written apart from them.

And that, I think, is the secret to writing a great frame story. You build the house so the rooms fit inside it, so to speak, not the other way around. The reader has to care about the frame as much as they do about the surrounding stories. It’s not just a convention, a tool for writers–it should be an integral part of the narrative as a whole.

But, that’s just my opinion. Like I said, I’ve never actually written a frame story before. I want to hear your ideas: what works (or doesn’t work) for you in a frame story?

Indie Review: Bodies of Evidence by Jefferson Smith

***Special note: I got this story as part of a Story Bundle, where you can get a selection of Indie Books for one low price. Check it out!

I think there are two kinds of short stories: the “novel in miniature,” and the “punchline.” The former, as you’d imagine, is everything you’d expect from a novel, just shorter–and most good short stories would fall under this category. The punchline is a story that exists for a specific end; the author wants to make a particular point (not always a joke, mind you), and the story serves as a sort of roadmap so the reader gets there. It’s a lot harder to pull off–but when you do, it’s wonderful. Asimov is a master at these kinds of stories, and in fact, they seem common in the science fiction genre. But I hadn’t really come across one from the Indie Writing community until I read Jefferson Smith’s Bodies of Evidence.

Now, I should make something clear: I like punchline short stories. When they’re done right, they’re a lot of fun: quick, entertaining, and relevant. Even when they’re not funny–Asimov’s The Last Question is the best example of this I can think of–they can be extremely thought provoking. Bodies of Evidence manages to hit both targets. It’s a darkly humorous tale that asks an interesting question: what about the middleman?

I’ll explain, but first an overview of the plot: Sid works for Corpus Corp., an outfit that cleans up the pesky mess left at a murder scene. He’s training a new kid–it’s a tough job, and he has to push the newbie to make sure he’s up to the task. The story follows Sid and the kid as they clean up a relatively simple job–though not less disconcerting for it.
Quick, entertaining, and relevant. These are normal guys just doing a job–a shady job, admittedly, but it has to be done. Sid and the kids are the middlemen–the cogs of darkness as our narrator puts it.

And this is what I like most about the story. One of the necessary failings of storytelling is that you’re always telling the story of something important or noteable. You want to read about the daring knight, not his follow-along squire; the mastermind mad scientist, not the butler who brings him supper. When telling a story, you should always ask “why today?” and “why these characters?” If they’re not important, why bother telling the story?
The result is that stories are always significant and grand–the way we like them. But I always wonder about the people who aren’t important. The ones who make it work behind the scenes. What’s their story?

Bodies of Evidence successfully addresses this question by showing us just another night at work for two people trying to make ends meet. There’s a larger story going on here–a criminal mastermind has just ordered some powerful directed energy weapons and plans to take over the world–but we don’t even care about that. Smith does an excellent job of setting this larger story aside so we can concentrate on the little guy, in turn making that the better story. And it works, very well.

I don’t know if this was the author’s intent, but it serves the story. Concentrating on these cogs of darkness fleshes out his world, giving us a look behind the curtain. This technique can be powerful when used correctly because it provides a foundation for the larger stories when they come along. If Smith were to write a novel set in the same world, he wouldn’t have to waste space on telling us what Corpus Corp does–it’s already here.
But this story is more than just a “behind the scenes look” at the criminal world. It’s funny and explores a couple of good characters. Even without the “cogs of darkness” aspect, it’s a well written and entertaining story.

The one thing I didn’t like about the story is how it’s presented to the reader. It’s introduced by a narrator, Louis Corelli, a go-to guy in the employ of the aforementioned mad scientist. He introduces us to Sid and the idea that the underworld is built on the shoulders of such working class folks, then lets the story tell itself. What’s disorienting about this is that Corelli’s scene is told in the first person. At first this works really well, because he addresses the reader directly, bringing the reader into the world in a personal way.
Once we meet Sid, however, the narrative switches to third person without any real transition beyond a line break and a hint that Sid told the story to Corelli. This makes it seem like part of Corelli’s narrative until you realize that it’s in the past tense.
The story is also framed with a narrative, by Corelli, in italics; he’s blatantly setting up the story for the reader. Normally this would work really well, but moving from that frame story to a first person narrative, then a third person story told by someone else, is a bit disorienting. This isn’t a fault in the writing so much as a stylistic or formatting choice; if, for example, the entierty of Corelli’s set up were confined to the frame story (which is what it really is), the story would flow smoothly.

I also want to know more about Corelli. He’s introduced to the reader as what we’d call a Watson: he’s there to explain things to us so we’re not bogged down by exposition. It’s a great technique, especially when that character has a personal connection to the reader, as Corelli does here. This connection can only grow stronger with further entries into the series. The World Smith has set up is intriguing as well; there are hints of a pseudo-sci-fi bent, with particle weapons and even a mention of time travel, though this isn’t explicitly a science fiction story. It would be very interesting to read about a world where such futuristic technology exists without it being the focus of the World.  As far as I’ve seen, this story is the only entry in a supposed series, but I hope more are forthcoming.

All in all, it’s a great read–you can pick it up at Amazon for $0.99, and I’d certainly recomend checking it out!

Jefferson Smith also has a novel available on Amazon, Strange Places. You can find him on Twitter, Goodreads, and his own blog, Creativity Hacker.

Review Rewind: Star Drake

Sorry for the missing post yesterday; we did bathroom renos this weekend and I fell behind. On the plus side: brand spanking new bathrooms!

Anyway, I don’t have a review prepared for this week, so we’re going to switch things up with this month’s Review Rewind, with a new review next week.

So, here is Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm!

Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm

Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm

J. M. Ney-Grimm writes in a unique–or at least uncommon–genre: Nordic mythology. I’ve enjoyed Norse myths since I was a child, and although these stories don’t involve the familiar Germanic gods and themes, they have a similar feel. When you’re immersed in this world, you’re thinking of trolls, giants, hairy dwarves and buxom women. Okay, maybe not that last part–no Wagner here–but you get the idea. It’s a very particular brand of fantasy, but a refreshing one. Your main elements are present–magic, monsters, and heroism–but it’s somehow more down to earth. I’d say it’s almost “Tolkienesque” in that the stories feel like they’re happening on the Earth we know, but long before our recorded history.

Star Drake features three stories woven together. Gefnen the troll warden searches for a meal for his master; Laidir the zephyr searches for his dear friend Geal, the rainbow; and the sea-lord Emrys and company protect a young boy. It seems complicated at first as the stories ebb and flow, and sometimes each thread only gets a few paragraph’s attention. But before you get twenty pages in, the threads begin to coalesce–or at least hint at doing so–and you see how they’re all inter-related. And this is where the magic of the story comes alive; this isn’t a case where you have a main plot and two subplots. Each thread is dependent upon the others, and they support each other nicely. To explain more would give away too much, so I’ll leave it at that.

The thing that struck me most about this story was the tone. After having read another of Ney-Grimm’s stories, Troll Magic, I was expecting a fairy tale like story with a lighthearted feel. Not so for Star Drake: this one has a deep sense of importance to it, of destiny. It’s still written very much in a storyteller’s fashion, and you can easily imagine it being told around a campfire somewhere in the snows of the North, but it has a satisfying sort of weight to it. At the same time, it has a very dreamy feel to it. The style of writing is hard to describe–I’ve been trying to do so since I read it last week, and still can’t find the right words. The closest I can get is ephemeral. It has an extremely poetic cadence to it, and the words drift across the page like a layer of gauze draped over someone’s shoulder. You get the impression that, while the words are poetic and lilting, the tone belies extraordinarily high stakes.

And that’s not to say that the stakes aren’t explored; there’s a good deal of action in the book’s 60 pages. The way Ney-Grimm’s characters use magic is certainly interesting, and a scene between Emrys and his friends fighting Gefnen is particularly satisfying. I’d like to have seen it explained a bit more, though; it seems to be elemental in nature, but it’s hinted that there are different levels of magic. I got the feeling that there was an underlying structure to it, but one that wasn’t shared with the reader.

And this is the only real criticism I have for this story. The world it’s set in is vibrant and unique, but it seems taken for granted that the reader will relate to it. I don’t know a lot of the mythology of the Nordic region, and while it’s similar enough to the Norse myths I’m familiar with that I can make educated guesses, it’s different enough that I was sometimes left wondering. Things like the relationship between Laidir and Geal are not explained, and I was confused at to who Gefnen’s master was, and why he was hunting at his command. I’m still unsure as to the significance of the titular creature. Ney-Grimm included a helpful guide to characters in her novel Troll Magic; something similar would be useful here.

Fortunately, many of my questions were answered by the accompanying story, Rainbow’s Lodestone, which follows at the end of the book. I would actually recommend readers look at this story before Star Drake, as it helps set up that story, and serves as some excellent background. On the other hand, it does reveal certain plot points that could be considered spoilers for Star Drake, so I’m a bit on the fence as to which one should be read first. At the very least, I’d tell readers to read them both in one sitting, in whatever order. They compliment each other very well.

Rainbow’s Lodestone concerns…well, I don’t want to give away the spoilers I mentioned, so I’ll just say it could almost be a prequel to Star Drake. It has a different tone entirely than the preceeding story, and it’s a testament to Ney-Grimm’s talent that she makes the transition so smoothly. This story is more lighthearted–much closer in tone to Troll’s Belt–and has an almost “childhood bed time story” feel to it. Despite the fact that it deals with a grim act of mischief, it’s a delightful read. This reminded me a bit more of the Germanic myths I know, so it was easier for me to relate to this story. The enchanting thing about it is the personification of the Rainbow, and the general attitude she has towards her fate in the story. There’s a nice underlying moral here.

All in all, these are wonderful stories and definitely worth a read. Ney-Grimm’s unique blend of Nordic fantasy and fairy tale mentality is a refreshing take on the genre, and the poetic style of writing (whichever tone she uses) adds a special sheen to the work. I read a lot of fiction, and I can honestly say I’ve not come across anything quite like this. Fortunately, Ney-Grimm has a respectable body of work, so there’s more to explore!

You can find Star Drake at Kobo and Amazon; if you’re interested in Rainbow’s Lodestone separately, it’s available in both stores as well. You can find the author J. M. Ney-Grimm at Goodreads and on twitter. Finally, if you’ve been following my blog you may remember a couple posts I did on cover design–much of what I learned there was thanks to a post of J. M. Ney-Grimm’s own blog.

Weaving a Tapestry: a Creative Experiment

I’ve talked before about my Tapestry project–a series of stories and novels, each based on a different facet of the Tarot. I’ve also spoken at length of how it’s fallen apart. For a while I considered abandoning the project (a fate that this story has suffered many times in the past decade), but I kept on it, mostly thanks to this blog (which keeps me accountable) and the Indie Writer’s Community (which inspires me to no end). But the fact remains that the project, sadly, has ground to a halt.

So I decided to try something radical to inject some much needed life into the project, something I’ve never done before: a pre-determined plot.

But not like you’d think. I didn’t want to just take a tired trope or formula and churn out a “well made story;” I still wanted something creative and true to the structure of the greater Tapestry project. So I went back to the Tarot.

Tarot is a wonderful tool for a writer (whether you believe in it or not) because essentially, all it does is tell stories. You draw cards randomly and arrange them in a pattern, then read them in a certain order while relating the disparate meanings of each card. The simplest spread is done in three cards: past, present, future. Or, in terms of storytelling, beginning, middle and end.

A simple three card spread

A simple three card spread

I’ll give an overview of this reading as an example. The Priestess represents spiritual growth and intuition, a “lifting of the veil” to find something innate; the Knight of Wands is direct, full of forward momentum, and has a tendency to burn out for all that energy; the Ten of Wands is a symbol of a great project that’s been very successful–almost too much so, as it’s now become so large it can only be sustained through immense effort. If this were the plot of a story, it would be of a protagonist who has great ambitions but ignores their intuition in favour of quick (even reckless) action. The result is that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. There’s a further layer in Tarot; in this spread, the Knight is clearly turning away from the Priestess, but the figure in the last card is working his way toward her, with the Knight “standing guard” in his way. He knows the project is too large, and wants to get back to the “core” of things–but his exuberance and demand for results is preventing any real progress.

It’s the beginning of a fascinating story, which brings me to my point. I wanted to kick start my creativity, so I decided to write four short stories (each based on a different element, the backbone of the “world” of my stories). I drew five Tarot spreads, one more than I needed so I had some leeway. Each spread is intended to be a vague outline of a story, which I’d explore from there.

I was excited to try this; after all, the rest of the project is steeped in Tarot symbolism, and one part of it will follow the “Fool’s Journey” laid out in the Major Arcana–why not try to develop a story from a spread of cards? It appeals to me because each spread is random–unique–and because it would be a challenge to fit my world and themes into whatever came up.

But–there’s the rub.

Has this experiment worked? Yes and no. It’s certainly got me to thinking about my world and characters again, which is great. On the other hand, I find I’m trying to shoehorn that world and its characters into the spreads that come up. To a certain extent, it feels inauthentic. Part of that can be explained with last week’s post about plot vs concept. I’m not sure much will come out of it in terms of actual writing. If I can develop these plots into concepts and further into fully fledged stories, this will have worked. But only then.

In the meantime, it’s an interesting project. I want to continue toying with them; the spreads I came up with all have their own personalities and stories, as Tarot spreads always do. The thing I love most about Tarot is that it makes so much sense when you string everything together. These cards are based on archetypes that exist for a reason–they’re buried in our collective unconscious, as Jung would say–and the interplay of various archetypes is what writing and storytelling is all about. You don’t even need to believe in divination to get some benefit from this–just enjoy the art and the tales the cards tell.

But–for those of you who, like myself, believe that Tarot can enunciate things you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have otherwise, this spread in particular spoke to me. It’s a clear allegory of what I’ve been going through with my Tapestry project as a whole: I have a great idea that speaks to me, burst out of the gate with dozens of ideas I wanted to implement immediately–then watched as it fell under its own weight. Of course, it’s only one in the five I drew. It’s quite an interesting coincidence, I’d say–though there are those who don’t believe in coincidence…

For those that are interested, the deck I used here is the Gilded Tarot by Barbara Moore with art by Ciro Marchetti, which is available at Amazon and many other vendors. It’s become my “go-to” deck because it’s based on the Rider-Waite (the ‘seminal’ Tarot deck) but with much better artwork. If you’re interested in Tarot, this is a good deck to start with, though I’d recommend getting a separate book to help you learn the cards; the one included with the deck is helpful, but not as thorough as others.

Indie Review: Last Dance of a Black Widow

Every once in a while I come across a book that I think I’ve “figured out” in the first few pages. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good read–Michael Chrichton and Dan Brown, both good writers, have quite formulaic books that are nonetheless a lot of fun–but there is a lot of literature out there that is, frankly, predictable.

But the best of those manage to surprise you anyway.

Last Dance of a Black Widow gives away its premise in the title–it’s about a woman who’s spent her life murdering husbands, and is now made to atone for her sins–and if the story were left at that, this would be an unremarkable book. But the “black widow” trope isn’t the focus of the story at all, merely an icebreaker that opens up a delicate and thought provoking series of questions.

The greatest literature almost treats plot as a secondary consideration. It’s there, but it doesn’t matter much at all compared to the theme of the work. Think of Catcher in the Rye (one of my all time favourite novels); lots of stuff happens to Holden, but none of it really matters in the larger context of the work. It’s not about a young teenager’s adventures in New York City, it’s about how he copes with them. While I wouldn’t put Last Dance in the same category as that seminal work, it works in a similar way. The trope used to set up the story isn’t so much a plot point as it is an excuse to explore an important theme.

On the surface, the main question is what happens when we die?–but that’s not the focus either. The real questions are: how does one atone for or explain their actions in life? What happens when you run out of excuses? To whom do we answer? They’re questions that lie at the centre of the human condition–and more importantly, questions that don’t really have quantifiable answers. They’re open ended because each person will bring their own experiences and dogmas to the answer; they’re questions that are intensely personal. These are the questions good literature should ask.
I appreciate that despite the potential for some hardcore religious overtones, those are conspicuously absent. This makes the story more universal; and, as a person with complicated spiritual beliefs, I honestly probably would have stopped reading if it had gotten too preachy. With this story’s subject matter, it could easily have gone that way, and it’s just not my thing. I’ve read books that ask these same questions and try to answer them, but it always seems to leave a bad taste in my mouth; I’m not reading a book to be force-fed someone’s ideologies. Fortunately, Convissar makes no attempt to tell you what to think; he merely leads you through the story, and lets you make your own conclusions.

Inasmuch as that, I wish the story were longer. It’s a pretty quick, one sitting read, and I wanted it to keep going. And yet, there’s nothing missing. The main character–Abbey Whistler–is well explored, there’s some great pathos and development, and a satisfying conclusion. The writing itself is excellent. This is actually a good strategy for an Indie Writer, I think–grab the reader and leave them wanting more. I’m eager to read more of his work–this is another Indie I’ll keep my eye on.

One thing I didn’t like was the way the protagonist’s crimes are set up. From the title I assumed she had made a habit of murdering husbands, but Convissar found it necessary to provide a litany of her crimes. I’m a bit on the fence about this; from a narrative standpoint, it’s important to do this because it sets up what comes next. From the reader’s viewpoint though, I already knew she was a murderer—her crimes could have been summarized without losing much characterisation, and leaving behind a more concise story to boot.
But that’s a small complaint against a relatively strong story. The author makes some good choices here in making it approachable and universal. It’s even touching in places. This is an example of an antihero you love to hate. We’re intended to sympathize with her by virtue of her being the protagonist, but the author makes no excuses for her behaviour. We don’t sympathise because she’s been wronged, we do it because we see a bit of ourselves in the character—it’s only human to worry about how your sins will be judged. Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife, I think all of us worry to a certain extent about what people think of our actions, good or bad. That’s what makes this story powerful for me—it’s a catharsis, as we live vicariously through a character who’s being judged so we don’t have to. That’s the highest purpose of literature, and I’ll recommend this book on that alone.

Special Mention: Blink.

I picked up Last Dance for free at Kobo, and saw another book by Convissar that looked intriguing: Blink. In a move that’s very rare for me, I didn’t even really read the blurb for the book, except for one line: “It’s amazing how quickly everything can change in the blink of an eye.” That, and the powerful cover, sold me immediately.
And it doesn’t dissapoint. Again, it’s a quick read, though this story has a more light-hearted feel, a very tongue-in-cheek tone (pun very much intended) to it. I thought of it as a nice jaunt.

The premise is simple. Brian is a dentist, a down to earth man who loves his job and cares for his patients. But then he stumbles across something…well, I can’t spoil it for you, so you’ll have to find out for yourself. I’m not going to write a full review of this because it’s really just something you should go and read. It’s just plain fun. Really, go read it.

You can find Bradley Convissar on Facebook and Twitter; he’s got a Goodreads profile as well, but the site appears to be down. You can pick up Last Dance of a Black Widow  and Blink on Amazon, or here and here on Kobo. Check them out!

On Wednesday, I’m getting back to my writing with an experiment–something may not end up working at all, but is going to be a lot of fun to try anyway!

How to Bake a Cake–or a Story

Choc-o-late Cake Please, by Darwin Bell c/o Flikr

It’s no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a creative slump lately. I’ve got lots of great ideas, and was charging full speed ahead with them in an ambitious project–but it’s since fallen flat. There are many reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about here, but reasons aren’t solutions. In that respect, I’m spinning my tires somewhat. You can’t correct a problem until you know why you failed in the first place, so I’ve put my mind to why I’ve stalled.

Writing a story is like baking. You have to have the right ingredients, throw them in at the right times and in the right quantities. Sometimes you even need to let it “rise” a while before you start fine tuning it. And if you bake it too long (i.e. work it to death), it’ll end up as a burnt lump of gross. The thing is, every writer has their own recipe–and most writers are convinced that their recipe is the best. Many of them are right–it works for them–but there are lots of writers out there who haven’t figured out their recipe yet. Finding it is just part of the writing process.

Fortunately, it’s gotten easier. With the advent of Indie Publishing, we have an amazing community of like-minded people who (instead of competing with each other for reader’s dollars) are happy to help each other find their way. I came across one such person recently, after reading a fantastic article on his blog: Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept by Larry Brooks over at Storyfix.com.

Go read the post–it’s an important thing for writers to read. It was a revelation for my own Tapestry Project; it crumbled under its own weight, although I can’t figure out exactly why (except that I’ve crammed too many ideas in there). This post made me take a second look at what I’ve written–and lo and behold, I found a major issue. I don’t have a concept.

This is like baking a cake without a recipe. If you’re not a great baker, you’re going to get hopelessly lost as you try to find your way.

Brooks boils it down to one thing: if your story doesn’t have a concept, it’s not going to work. It seems unilateral, but that’s because having a concept is such a crucial part of any story. And, importantly, a concept is different from an idea, which, incidentally, was all I had with Tapestry. As he says in the article, an idea is a place to start, but “not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension” does it become a concept. What does this mean?

Your story isn’t just a narrative, a collection of “stuff that happens.” And if it is, it won’t be very engaging. Brooks has a clear description for this kind of writing: episodic. TV shows and serials get away with this because it’s the nature of their format–they’re supposed to wrap up a simple dramatic question each week, then move on to the next. An episode has a plot and a theme, but not necessarily a concept.

A concept addresses the dramatic tension that arises from plot and theme. If the theme the why the story should matter to the reader, the concept is how that gets across. If the plot is the path the reader follows, your concept are signposts along the way. Without a unifying concept, your story ends up as a jumble of details and thing that sounded better in your mind than they are on paper.

I won’t reiterate the article, where Brooks nails down a concept much more clearly than I could, and tells you how to develop one from a neat idea. But I do want to touch on one really important point he makes: at the root of your concept are three crucial questions. If you can’t answer these concisely, you probably need to do some thinking before you put words to paper:

  1. What is your hero’s core goal?
    If your main character doesn’t have anything to do, why are you bothering to write about it? Even Anton Chekov–who was famous for writing plays in which nothing really happens–had a goal for his characters. This is your hero’s journey, the quest–the plot.
  2. What opposes that goal, and why?
    Of course, every story needs an antagonist. Whether it’s the hero’s nemesis, the environment, or himself, the core conflict of the story is arguably more important than the hero’s attempt to overcome it.
  3. What’s at stake?
    I talk a lot about stakes. They’re crucial. Last week I mentioned that Harry Potter’s climactic battle didn’t have high stakes because Harry was never at any conceivable (literary) risk. The conflict was there, but I didn’t think the stakes were. The result was a long series of really great books that, to me, ended with a whimper.

Okay, so that all sounds like writing 101, and you’re probably well familiar with these points. But I bring them up because answering them will give you your concept. Separately, they’re essential elements of a story, but I don’t know how often people look at the interplay between them–I know I’ve failed to do that until now. They’re just ingredients; you still need a decent recipe to make the final product palatable. Looking forward, these are the three questions I’m going to ask myself before I start writing.

One more thing: Brooks keeps a blog, as linked above, but he also works as a sort of literary consultant. His blog is called Storyfix for a reason: he helps people overcome the deficiencies and problems in their work in the hopes of ending up with a more solid final product. I was lucky enough to get a look at his $100 questionnaire (there’s also a $35 version), and it’s very detailed. He’s looking at each core component of your story–some of which you may not even have considered–and guiding you to a cohesive environment for those components to live in. but, I’ll let him put it in his own words: you can find out more here. You can also find him on twitter.

Tune in next week for another Indie Review, and a new experiment I’m trying to breathe new life into my writing!

Indie Review: The God King by James A West

It seems that most of the Indie books I’m reading are fantasy–and there’s a reason for that. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I admit it’s not my favourite genre to read. Apart from Tolkein and Robert E. Howard, I don’t read a lot of it. Mostly, that’s because I find a lot of fantasy to be ponderous and overwrought. Epic. The great thing about Indie writers, though, is that they write fantasy because they love it. They write what they want to write, not what the publisher thinks will sell. And because of this, the writing (in my opinion) tends to be better.

Enter James A. West. I came across The God King while browsing for free books, and got hooked early on. This is Epic Fantasy at its best. The concept is simple, but captivating: a prince wants more power than he has, and is willing to go to any lengths for it. Of course, he gets more than he’s bargained for–but the nicer twist is that an Everyman Character is granted that power too, and must act as a counterpart to the prince, with precisely zero will to do so. This sets up a satisfying and complex conflict that flavours the book and saves it from being just another ponderous fantasy adventure tale.

We have three main characters; the aforementioned Prince Varis, his Everyman counterpart Kian, and the wonderfully named Ellonlef, Kian’s love interest. This is a nice triad that works well with the conflict posed in the book; while Kian and Ellonlef are obviously on the same side, Varis is much more powerful than either of them. What should be an unstable “two against one” handicap is actually very well balanced. I felt that our protagonists were up against insurmountable odds–which should absolutely be the case in a good story–but that their friendship gave them an edge that Varis lacks.
What’s more, this isn’t a clear good vs evil story. Kian is obviously on the side of right, while Varis is not–but our villain isn’t as much of one as you’d think.  He’s certainly not the stereotype who wants power just because, and to a certain extent he even has a good reason for what he’s doing. He’s not evil for the sake of being evil–he’s evil because his desires run amok and he has no choice but to move forward. Of course, he’s set up as an antagonist, and so Kian and Ellonlef seem convinced that he is completely evil, and must be stopped at all costs. I always talk about stakes: they’re certainly here, as far as our protagonists are concerned.
The really great thing about this, though, is that we as readers get an insight our heroes don’t. We see the foibles Varis has, the very human mistake he makes. We see him shake in fear with the powers he’s unleashed, and his insecurity as to just what he should do with his powers. He’s definitely bitten off more than he can chew, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it now. I got the impression that but for the grace of god, he would have been the hero of the story. A villain of circumstance.

The prose of this book is very good. West has a talent for excellent description–though almost too good in places. He’s got an impressive vocabulary, which is great for any writer, but there were points where it seemed that every noun was coupled with an adjective. It ran against the old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell;” in being overly descriptive it becomes difficult for the reader to experience the world on their own. This isn’t really a large issue, however; after the opening pages, it fades into the background and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.
And the reason for that is the wonderful World West has created for this book. It’s incredibly vibrant, and I had no trouble nestling into to it even in the opening pages. There are several cultures in the World that are well rounded, even if we only see hints of them; castes and kingdoms which aren’t explored but are still described well enough that they seem complete. There’s also a detailed history that’s hinted at here and there, but feels complete without any gaps. And best of all, the religion of the World is well crafted. Competing beliefs make the world seem real, and the characters more human. I particularly like the way he’s able to combine religious dogma and science; for example, there are three moons in the sky, and the people believe they represent three gods. When the moons are destroyed, it has a crippling effect on the faiths of the people. This kind of chthonic religion is natural and realistic. At the same time, West makes it clear that this has a very real scientific effect on the world; you can’t remove the gravitational effect of a moon and be surprised when the sky starts falling.

There’s a lot to like about this book–but on the other hand, there’s something flat underlying it all. It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but I think it has something to do with the well developed World and Characters as opposed to the relatively simple plot. The story involves Varis reaching for this insurmountable power, then trying to take over the realm, while Kian and company chase him down to defeat him. Aside from some setbacks our heroes suffer along the way, it’s pretty straight forward. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course–it’s still an engaging story–but there’s a clear contrast here. The World and Characters are great examples of how fantasy should be done, while the plot is a pretty straight line from beginning to end. It’s also a rather lengthy book, and although there were parts that could probably have been left out without much trouble, it wasn’t padded, and there wasn’t anything that seemed gratuitous. One thing I really enjoyed about the was the book was written was that the last several chapters are significantly shorter than the preceding ones; this gives the climax of the book a nice staccato feel, and really serves the action well. A nice trick, and a great narrative choice.

All in all, this is a fun book. It’s the first book in a series, and though the next book doesn’t seem to expand on these characters, it’s sure to flesh out the world even more–I’m quite looking forward to it. You can find it on Amazon for $0.99, or on Kobo for free. James A. West is on Twitter, and keeps a blog as well. If you like epic fantasy, this is an Indie Writer to watch out for!