Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Where The Heck Did That Come From?

Current Reading: Metatropolis, ed. John Scalzi

Inspirational Quote: "It was a dark and stormy night..." -- Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Some things on my mind:

The Big Bang Theory: how does Penny, a part-time waitress and failed actress, manage to afford an apartment in a building where apartments are so expensive that two physics professors have to room together to afford their two bedroom? The tips must be extraordinary. (Note: This came to me at 11pm, after I had been in bed an hour. I got up and immediately told Penelope, who was out on the living room couch watching the Food Network. She told me I was overthinking things again and that I should go back to bed. She was right, but I think she missed out on the significance of the epiphany. I bet no one told Archimedes to go finish washing up and put some clothes on before he ran down the street shouting. In real life, "Eureka!" moments just aren't as exciting as history makes them appear to be. Such is my life, folks.)

Justin Bieber: The boy gets a lot of trash (and the occasional water bottle) thrown at him. HOWEVER (and despite earlier comments which may mistakenly seem to indicate the contrary, this includes Miley Cyrus), I wish I had accomplished as much by the time I turned forty as he had by the time he had turned seventeen. "I'd rather be a has been than a might have been by far, for a might have been has never been but a has was once an are."

Bulwer-Lytton, it would be wonderfully appropriate if I were to sing your praises off key. La la laaa...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Action Scenes

In a truly staggering moment of genius, I scheduled this post and the "Reaction Scenes" post in the wrong order. Thus we have reaction before action, which may be fine for Blogger, but is going to seriously mess up physics. The laws of causality should never be tampered with, folks.

In the post on scenes, I broke them down into two kinds: action and reaction.

Action scenes show the point of view character trying to change the direction of the story. They begin with a goal, and end with that goal either achieved or lost.


A goal is a simple, short-term objective. Don't confuse it with motive. A character's motive is a long-term desire, likely the focus of the entire novel. Winning the hand of the princess is a motive; getting into the castle where she's imprisoned is a goal. Bringing down the syndicate is a motive; discovering who controls the mob is a goal. A lot of project management guides focus on goal setting and lay out criteria for good goals. If I adapt their philosophy to the goal of a scene, I'd say it has to be:

Specific: I think what the POV character wants has to be clear to the reader going in. The prince wants Rapunzel to let down her hair.

Measurable: A reader ought to be able to tell, when it's all over with, whether the character achieve their goal or failed. Either the hair drops or it doesn't.

Achievable, Realistic: The character has to stand a reasonable, although slim, chance. If he keeps his voice down, he should be able to attract Rapunzel's attention without waking the ogre guarding the castle.

Timely: I don't think a scene should drag on forever. Nor do I think it should be over too quick. The goal should be something the POV character wants and could achieve in the near term. The Prince has to get Rapunzel out of the tower before the ogres eat her for dinner, and by the smell of things, someone's already heating up the cookpot.

I'd also throw in another criteria:

Staked: In order for the reader to invest in the scene, they have to have some understanding of the consequences of the character's success or failure. If the Prince succeeds, Rapunzel lives. If he fails, she dies.

I believe it's vital to get the goal right because so much that follows depends on it.


Once the character has a goal, there has to be some obstacle throwing his/her achievement of it in doubt. Without opposition or obstacles, the scene has no drama. "Rapunzel lowered her hair," is not a dramatic scene. It's a sentence, and not a very interesting one. "The Prince called to Rapunzel, but she could not hear because the window was shuttered," isn't a scene either, but it's the start of one. There's a goal and an obstacle which throws the success of the POV character into question.

Butcher believes that opposition ought to be in the form of another character. I can understand that, because character interactions are always the most interesting. I don't necessarily believe that's something I can pull off all the time, though. I have a subplot in the Somnia Secundus where the protagonist has to solve a puzzle. The obstacle is the puzzle itself, not another character. I like to think the scenes involving the puzzle are dramatic, but I'd be foolish to believe they come close to matching the drama of scenes where the protagonist has to deal with opposition from other characters. It is far more interesting to have the Prince convince an ogre to open the window than it is to have him attack the shutters directly.


Here's the payoff of the dramatic scene, the resolution. Ingermanson insists on calling this the "Disaster," and I can see his point. Butcher points out that a dramatic scene can have four possible resolutions:

1) Success -- The character succeeds. Yay. We're done. How boring. This outcome really ought to be saved for the final confrontation of the book: the climax. Even then, the only drama for a scene that ends in success comes from establishing before hand that success is only remotely possible and is going to be achieved at tremendous cost.

2) Success, BUT... -- The character succeeds, but has set off some unintended chain of events that is going to make things much, much worse going forward. Rapunzel's hair made so much noise coming down that all the ogres are now alert. Getting out of the castle is going to be tricky. This is inherently more interesting and dramatic than success because it makes the reader question the success of the next step in the plan.

3) Failure -- The character has failed, and the goal has been denied. If they're going to act further on their motive, they're going to have to set a new goal and try something else. Rapunzel's hair has been hacked off. If the Prince wants to rescue her, he's going to have to come up with some other way into the castle. Failure is always more affective than success because it raises the question, "Now what?" in the reader. In the next action scene, the stakes are going to be higher and the chance of success slimmer. It's going to be more dramatic.

4) Failure. AND... -- Not only does the character fail, but that failure has made the situation worse. Rapunzel's hair has been hacked off and their whisper back and forth has attracted the attention of the hungry ogres. This is always the most interesting and dramatic outcome. you've put your character up a tree and surrounded it with alligators... and now you've taught the alligators to climb. "Now what?" has become, "What's left?" in the reader's mind.

Dramatically, the flow of a novel should consist of scenes with worse and worse setbacks until, at the climax, the reader believes the situation to be almost hopeless. At that point, success is surprising, welcome and emotionally satisfying, which is the whole point of the reading experience.

"Now what?" is the question that should be raised in the reader's mind at the end of every scene. Seeking the answer to that question is what keeps them reading. But it doesn't pay to raise questions without ever providing answers (Lost, anyone?). That just frustrates the reader and encourages them to put the book down.

I don't want that ever to be an option in something I write, so as a writer, I'd better answer it.

Next time: Reaction scenes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Wonder What He'd Charge?

Inspirational Quote: ""It turns out writers are now a dime a dozen but house painters are becoming rare . . . I will make more money painting three houses a year than I would if I wrote three bestsellers." -- Farley Mowat

I came across this quote here. I remember reading Lost in the Barrens and the Curse of the Viking Grave, although it's been so many years that I doubt I'd be able to tell you anything more about them than the titles.

All in all, an interesting fellow.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reaction Scenes

In the post on scenes, I broke them down into two kinds: action and reaction.

Reaction scenes follow action scenes and show the point of view character trying to deal with the resolution of the action scene. They are prime places for a writer to bolster the reader's emotional connection with the character. They are ideally suited for slowing the pace of a story, introducing a pause in the action and allowing both characters and readers to catch their breath.

Like action scenes, reaction scenes have three phases.


The character has just experienced something of considerable emotional impact. There has been drama. There has been action. Human nature dictates that the first thing a person has to do is react emotionally. How does the resolution of the preceding action scene make them feel? Frustrated? Afraid? Enraged? Giving the character time to react to events is vital to making them accessible and sympathetic to the reader. The prince has discovered Rapunzel's hair is gone. There's no way in and he can hear the ogres stirring. He's crushed... it seemed so easy when he planned things out back in the safety of his fortress. He's also afraid because his sword isn't going to be much use against a family of ogres.


After the character has had time to react, it's time to get over the past and concentrate on the future. The resolution of the action scene makes the reader ask, "Now what?" It should make the character ask the same thing. Only the character had better come up with an answer.

There should be several possible answers in the writer's mind, regardless of how many of which the reader will become aware. Each one should illuminate some aspect of the character's personality. Rapunzel's lost her hair, and the ogres are coming. If the prince is a coward, he could run away. If he's brave but stupid, he could stand his ground and try to defeat the ogres. If he's clever he might hide in the woods and pretend to be an army, running from tree to tree and shouting orders, hoping to frighten the ogres off. If he's a dare-devil, he might try to climb the tower without follicular assistance.


The character chooses one of the options. Now they've got a new goal, and that leads us straight into the next action scene where the character will act on this decision. Will the character succeed with this new action? Likely not, but then what will happen next? The prince decides to hide in the woods and pretend to be an army. Ogres are dumb. They might fall for it. Of course, if they don't, he's wandering around in unfamiliar territory surrounded by ogres that know the terrain...

Unlike action scenes, reaction scenes seem to be kind of optional. To dispute Newton (does that make me a bad physicist, or just a writer who wants to be good?), not every action scene requires a full reaction scene. Sometimes, a few lines are sufficient to provide all the emotional connection the reader needs, and providing more carries us down from drama into melodrama. Sometimes, reactions, dilemmas and decisions can be implied with a few words at the end of the action scene and a true reaction "scene" can be skipped altogether.

As I said before, the flow of action and reaction scenes creates a rhythm in the story, shaping the pace and tone through how much emphasis is placed on each type. The hard part, for me, is learning to write this way, to think in terms of action and reaction during composition. Many times I look back on work I've done and have difficulty figuring out what the character goal for a particular action scene is. Without that, the rest of the scene lies lifeless on the page and I either have to rewrite it or kill it.

It's a lot of effort, but I've seen the technique work very well in Butcher's Dresden novels, Lake's Mainspring/Escapement/Pinion novels and even Yamamoto's work (and he doesn't even write in English). I recently wrote a short story as practice, concentrating on action and reaction scenes. It's the first time anyone in my writing group has told me they couldn't set down without finishing something I'd written.

So, you know... there's that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Beiber's Book Bid

Justin Beiber, the pop phenomenon, has just released a book.
No doubt it is another celebrity book that will sell magnificently.
No doubt it is a book that was dying to be written.
No doubt it is a book I shall die before reading.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Current Reading: Metatropolis, ed. by John Scalzi.

Inspirational Quote: "If we make the analogy that drama is a language for presenting emotional energy and that, as a language, it possesses its own, unique grammar for the construction and presentation of meaningful dramatic actions, then it is not a very big leap to say that every dramatic film scene is analogous to a sentence, for like a sentence, the dramatic scene is the expression of a complete idea - a complete DRAMATIC idea. And like a sentence it is composed of a SUBJECT (the character driving the scene), a VERB (the central action of the scene) and an OBJECT or OBJECTIVE (what the character is striving for)." -- Billy Stoneking Marshall

I've been trying to learn how to write a good novel for a while now. A long while. They say the only way to learn is by doing, but honestly, I don't see how that can apply to activities like flying or alligator wrestling.

Fortunately, writing is not a life-threatening activity (although RSI is a constant danger). There's always something new to learn or discover. For a lot of my learning, I rely either on good books that demonstrate effective techniques, or on writers writing about what they think and how they work.

In the last few months, I've been learning about scenes. "Write in dramatic scenes" is an old piece of advice I keep coming across. But that advice demands some kind of functional definition of "dramatic scene."

A quick web search turns up all kinds of references to dramatic scenes. Most of them contain good information about types and flavors, but there's not very much out there about definition or structure. This was interesting, and Holly Lisle's discussion of scene contains a vital piece of information: scenes are about change. They start with the world in one state and end with it in another. But I think there has to be more to it than that. Five paragraphs describing the turning of the seasons is definitely about change, but I don't think I'd call it a dramatic scene. The drama is missing.

For a real understanding of the dramatic scene, it makes sense to look to the theater (since the western prose tradition arose out of Greek theater). Many articles about writing scenes for the stage contain valuable information and guidance that can easily be applied to writing scenes for a novel. Television writing, strangely enough, can also help. David Mahmet wrote a memo to the writers of The Unit that lays out in plain language everything a writer needs to know about writing the dramatic scene, but as Musashi said over and over again, "You must train deeply to understand this."

Drama is conflict. Conflict requires character. A character tries to move the story in one direction, while another character or force tries to move it in another. The scene ends with success for one side. The story changes. Jim Butcher's livejournal breaks it down very clearly. Randy Ingermanson analyzes it in detail. (I recommend you read those people, and the books they mention. They are both more articulate and more experienced than I.)

I've studied some good books, and I can see the dynamics they discuss put to practical use. It's a good model that propels a reader through the story with a dynamic rhythm, a rise and fall to the action, that I'd love to be able to emulate. To emulate, I must first understand... and this is what I understand:

Essentially, there are two types of scenes: action and reaction.

Action scenes show the point of view character actively trying to achieve a change in the story. They begin with a goal and end with either success or failure for the character.

Reaction scenes (Butcher calls them sequels) follow action scenes and, as may be obvious from the name, show the POV character reacting to the resolution of the action scene. They begin with that reaction and end with the character committing to the next course of action.

Butcher and Ingermanson refer to a novel's plot as being a flow of scenes: action, then reaction, followed by another action and reaction, each building on what went before and heading to the climax. The balance of time devoted to each has a huge effect on the pace of the work. Stories that consist of many long action scenes and few short reaction scenes create a breathless rush. Those that favor reaction over action are likely to be more emotionally intense and introspective.

I suspect all of this sounds rather cold and analytical, and out of place when discussing art inspired by passion. But it's a discussion of a writing technique, a way of achieving an effect that really should be no more out of place than a discussion of pointillism would be when considering the work of Georges Seurat, or a discussion of sentence structure would be when studying Shakespeare.

Art doesn't come from technique. Art comes from the application of technique.

Next time: Action Scenes.

Book Report: The Tales of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

I'm fascinated by languages, not just what they say but how they say it. When I was a kid, I read somewhere that the Eskimos had 21 words for snow. Southern Ontario English has two: "snow," and "d*mned snow." It's amazing because there are some things that simply can't be described in English, while they can be depicted in Innu with amazing accuracy. Add to the different volcabularies the wealth of context and idiom built up by every different culture and you begin to see Orwell's point: if you don't have the language for a certain thought, then you can't think it.

So I was excited to read Yamamoto's book not just because it sounded interesting (AI in a realistic future), but because I wanted to see how the translator dealt with words and idioms that are unique to Japanese. What I found was a beautifully-written book in any language.

It is a collection of five short stories loosely bound together by a narrative thread. A storyteller from a culture of AI-hating humans is captured by an intelligent robot who, to his surprise, doesn't kill him. Instead, while he recovers from an accidental injury, reads him stories written by humans about machines.

What came through in this book was the brilliance of Yamamoto's imagination. He's taken thoughts about artificial intelligence and its impact on human society to place I never imagined existed. In telling the story of the emergence of electronic people, he tells the story of humanity's paranoia, illogic and foolishness (at one point, a medical care AI decides that the only way to understand and accept human behavior is to assume that we are all suffering from various degrees of dementia), yet he manages to extoll our virtues as well, the best qualities that the artificial children of our intellect proudly carry into the future, and eventually to other worlds.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Thought for Food

Current Reading: The Tales of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Inspirational Quote: "Misfortune, and recited misfortune especially, may be prolonged to the point where it ceases to excite pity and arouses only irritation." -- Dorothy Parker

It's Friday evening. I planned to write a post about scenes. It was going to be truly magnificent and inspiring. It's a shame you missed it.

Instead, I want to gripe about my relationship with meals today.

I don't mean to imply that I'm having any disagreements with my digestive tract. Far from it. We're getting along famously. We've forgotten all about that episode with the four-alarm chili and the bean burritos even though my family seems intent on discussing it over and over.


Today I went to an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant on my lunch hour. I went alone, because I like to get some writing done, and because I'm lousy at social interaction. They brought me a checklist of the sushi and rolls they had available. There were no pictures, so I wrote random numbers for quantity beside things that looked either familiar or interesting. They brought it on a flat plate, arranged so much like a Zen garden that I didn't know whether to eat it or meditate on its symmetry.

I was used to tiny sushi: tightly bound rolls and compact rice balls tied to fish with little green belts. This was large and loose and terrifying, and I had no idea how to eat it. I started to panic, but covered it by mixing some wasabi in soy and leafing through the layers of fresh ginger they'd brought.

I guess you should never eat alone in a strange place. You should bring a friend well-versed in the local customs.

I tried one of the rolls, and what I could get to my mouth was quite delicious, but everything fell out of the little green belt, and most of it crashed to my plate. I am not sufficiently good with chopsticks that I can pick up much. Mostly I use the sticks to shovel things around until someone notices my distress and gives me a fork, which I ignore because pride and stupidity are my motivations in everything. I managed to scrape up much of what had fallen out, and eventually turned my attention to the cucumber and avocado rolls.

They were were the size and shape of ice-cream cones and wrapped in dark green seaweed. What was I supposed to do? Use my fingers? Something in my I-aspire-to-middle-class background rebelled against the thought. I surreptitiously glanced around at the other diners in the room, but they were all either experienced or sensible, and had chosen dishes that looked nothing like mine. They were of no use, but I'm a bright fellow. I have a university degree and a history of being too smart for my own good. I wasn't going to let an insensate foreign delicacy defeat me so easily. I assessed the tools at hand.

Chopsticks. That was it.

I also had a little square ceramic platform on my table, and I didn't know what it was. A plate? A place for resting my chopsticks? A miniature podium in case I felt like giving a speech? (Take my advice. Don't try it. The Indian restaurant STILL won't let me back in). I had no knife, of course. I don't think sushi restaurants allow them. We might use them to take hostages.

I considered putting the roll on the podium and lifting it up so it would slide into my mouth, but my mouth was too small. I also thought of using the edge of the podium to cut my food in half. The idea had a certain appeal, since it would solve my problem and justify the presence of the podium. However, I didn't see anyone else using the crockery to flay their food, so I abandoned that train of thought. Finally, I reasoned that there was no taboo against biting off some of the roll and eating it a bit at a time.

Did you know that the green seaweed paper they use for those things is pretty much bite-proof?

Also, that there is no way to look dignified with the pointed end of a cucumber-avocado roll sticking out of your mouth like misplaced unicorn horn, bobbing up and down as you try to gnaw through it?

I learn these things so you don't have to. You're welcome.

I finished off my selections with more determination than style, and I was almost sure that the laughter coming from the other tables was not directed at me.

The waitress, who was a petite Chinese woman who looked very much like she was doing her job under protest, dropped by to clear away the shrapnel of my meal. I thought she asked if I wanted anything more. I said, “Yes.” I hadn't been entirely sure what I was getting into, so I had ordered conservatively. Now that I felt I could handle things, more or less, I was ready to get down to the business of feeding. She nodded, took my empty plate, and vanished. I spent some time writing considering the irony of a Chinese waitress in a Japanese restaurant. It's no odder, really, than having your four alarm chili and bean burritos brought to you by a waiter who's accent couldn't have been more than a year out of Glasgow (what happened to me later was certainly not his fault). It's a small world.

My waitress, obviously as the result of a miscommunication, had vanished and my time for culinary experimentation had expired, so I packed up, paid, and left.

That's why I was still hungry as I walked out of an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Quite a trick.

No matter. I'm not normally a big eater, and I had a nice home-cooked meal waiting for me this evening. Barbecued spare ribs and rice. My stomach grumbled its way through the afternoon, then I picked up my daughter from school and drove home. The house was empty except for the smell of barbecue. Penelope had dumped some back ribs in the crock pot with some sauce and let it simmer for eight hours. Mm. I set Cassandra to do some coloring and cooked up some rice and was about to sit down when the phone began to ring. Telemachus had take a bus to a friend's house and wouldn't be home for supper. Aeneas needed a ride out of town to another friend's place where he was going to spend the night. Penelope had forgotten that tonight was games night at the church, so she and Cassandra were leaving as soon as Penelope arrived from work. Oh, and could I put together a tray of fruit with yogurt and granola for them to take with them for the games night pot luck?

So here I sit alone in front of a rack of barbecued back ribs and eight cups of rice. I think I'll eat the whole thing and then drive into town for chili and burritos. I don't think I can be blamed for what happens after that.