COULD YOU WRITE A RANDOM FANTASY NOVEL?

Honestly, if I saw this post out there by anyone else I’d be the first person to start throwing rotten vegetables at it. Of course you can’t randomly generate a novel—a work of art—using some computer program or set of charts. That’s crazy talk! Everything has to be a part of an organic whole, a pure representation of the author’s innermost thoughts, feelings, desires, fears…

But wait… could you?

I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while now and I wonder if this might be worth trying.

So, okay, everybody knows I’ve been playing D&D and other role-playing games since 1978 and I’ve got a swell collection of classic RPGs still on my shelf. I have a particular nerd love for the classic Judges Guild D&D game products—the enormous world, the hyper-detailed cities, the crazy weird dungeon adventures… all of it. And I have the same nerd love for all the random tables in various Judges Guild books and in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide—one of which I even quoted in my book Writing Monsters.

A scan of my own copy—an original first printing from 1979.

But even then, it wasn’t easy to use these even back in the first years of the RPG hobby. They tended to be presented as aids for DMs who find themselves stuck, who need a little quick inspiration when a player asks them something they didn’t realize they’d need an answer for, or the party wandered a bit off the map, or insisted on searching every empty corner of the dungeon…

And they all assumed that there were characters, created by the players, who had some sort of goal in mind, were travelling from here to there for a bigger reason, and all that good stuff. This is where the idea of a randomly generated fantasy novel breaks down. I couldn’t imagine going in with random characters. I need to know who this story is about, what the hero’s goals are, what the villain is trying to accomplish, and why. I need to know that everyone has a personal connection to the plot—a reason for characters to do what they do.

But then how to start that process? Is sitting down and thinking a version of “random character generation?”

What if you start by literally rolling up a few characters: the hero, the villain, the archetype, the other archetype, and so on. Now you know things like what they can and can’t do—what their jobs are, and there are random charts to tell you how tall they are, what color eyes they have… if any of that even matters.

I think you could do it—at least to start with.

Here’s one I rolled up at random using the very old, very simple Basic D&D “blue book”:

Strength: 7

Intelligence: 4

Wisdom: 16

Constitution: 14

Dexterity: 14

Charisma: 12

Okay, my hero is a really dumb cleric.

But then I can’t just write a D&D tie-in story, and I feel weird assuming my  “clerics” function like they do in D&D, so let’s say he’s street-savvy but uneducated thief from the tough streets of (rolled a 10 then a 17 on 1d20 on the NAMING VILLAGES prefix chart in Judges Guild’s Village Book 1, then an even number then a 6 then a 20 for the suffix) Honorpause. Even male, odd female and he stays a he with a roll of 2 on 1d6. According to the charts in the AD&D DMG he’s 22 years old (18+1d4). I’m going to use the Rift random name generator and choose Bahmi because the guy in the picture looks kinda like a thief and so let’s meet…

Otgonbataar, a twenty-two year old petty street thief from the hard streets of the cruel city of Honorpause, the city where honor goes for a pause.

Whew.

Will need some more work on that, but that’s the whole idea. I have a start for a character and about 99.99% of the rest will be me actually writing.

Okay, but I need a reason for the story to start. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.

Could you randomly assign a goal for a villain? There are sites all over the place that provide writing prompts. Try one. Seventh Sanctum’s Story Generator gave me ten choices so I rolled a ten-sided die and got four:

The story is about a tired treasure-hunter, an ambitious scribe, a fortune-teller, and a peasant. It starts in a magical dimension. The story begins with an inheritance, climaxes with an infiltration, and ends with a surgery. The end of one era and the beginning of another is a major element of the story.

Now I have an ill-defined beginning of a goal: the villain wants to find a thing that will start the process that will achieve the goal. Maybe the hero has inherited the thing, and I guess I’ll have to come up with a reason not to give it up.

Conflict achieved.

Or maybe the villain knows where the thing is and hires Otgonbataar (who sounds like “a peasant” to me) and his three random friends to go get it. Along the way, Otgonbataar realizes what this thing means and how bad it will be if the villain gets it, so then starts trying to keep it away from the villain, who might just be the “tired treasure hunter.”

What these people are looking for is called a McGuffin, and a McGuffin can be anything: the Arc of the Covenant or the Maltese Falcon or the One Ring. The story itself is really about the effect the search for that thing has on the characters. So the McGuffin could certainly be randomly generated by rolling on one of the lists in the AD&D DMG, Appendix I: Dungeon Dressing, like the one for Religious Articles and Furnishings (47): incense burner, which when coupled with a random name narrowed down by the criteria “Outsider Names” and “Fiendish Names” becomes the Incense Burner of Gadya.

Sounds like a story.

Granted, it’s a painfully simple story, devoid of depth or theme or pathos… or anything like detail. But the same could be said of any story before it’s actually written, can’t it?

If we concentrate on character first—who are these people, what do they want, what are they willing to do and/or sacrifice to get…?—maybe the plot points that build out the story could be random. Otgonbataar and Company actually could journey through a randomly generated dungeon, kicking down doors to reveal rooms inhabited by random monsters.

The AD&D DMG has tons of charts for random monster encounters. Let’s start them out at MONSTER LEVEL III and roll 50 on percentile dice to encounter 1-3 giant lizards—make that two giant lizards. Good one! Generic enough that you can now go nuts creating your own weird-ass giant lizard.

The giant lizards are protecting a random treasure, which the AD&D Monster Manual says is impossible since the treasure type for giant lizards is “Nil.” But if you want a treasure there, say it’s Treasure Type I because… why not I? There will be a 30% chance of their finding 300-1800 platinum pieces, a 55% chance of 2-20 gems (and Judges Guild’s Ready Ref Sheets will help you randomly generate what kinds of gems those are), and a 15% chance of one magic item that you should create on your own so as not to be boring and derivative.

A quick example of just how much Ready Ref Sheets rules

You know what all these are?

Random worldbuilding prompts.

Now you know you need to do some worldbuilding about this particular monster, money in general, and magic items, whatever form they might take.

The heart of any story is the relationships that develop along the way. The characters have to live beyond their “stats,” and beyond their backstories, and come together or pull apart in the moment. And couldn’t a random monster encounter do that? Does it really matter how much money they find, or if their way is blocked by two giant lizards or five bugbears or an ochre jelly or an ogre (all from the same table)?

I’ve said in Writing Monsters and elsewhere that some monsters, like zombie hordes, are really a version of a natural disaster. They aren’t trying to do something—they have no plan or goal or agenda. Like a hurricane they just happen, destroying everything in their path. It’s the effect that disaster has on the characters in the story that matters, how some will find hitherto unknown reserves of heroism while others crumble into paralyzed terror and others see this New World Order as a way to manipulate and profit off of others. Random monsters, like zombie hordes and hurricanes, can bring out the good and evil in people.

Plot points are obstacles to throw in front of your characters on their way to where they’re trying to go. A trap might as well be random, too. Would you know the magical statue that asks for a location (whatever you decide that means) came from the table Startling Statues in Ready Ref Sheets if I didn’t tell you? If the statue stops your characters, complicates things, gets them arguing with each other, or even kills one of them like it might if you had rolled “Casts Spell of Lightning Bolt”…it has served its purpose. The real art is in the relationships, not in the trap, the McGuffin, or the monster.

Great fiction, in any genre, is about relationships.

If you put your art into that, specifics could just as easily be a set of random writing prompts along the way—fleshed out and made real, made personal, made unique, by your imagination and powers of description.

I’ve written short stories based on a simple, random writing prompt. Why not a novel based on a series of the same?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

 

 

 

 

 

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LUISMA’S RETURN: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 21

I’ve been feeling better lately, more positive in general. I’ve started exercising again, working harder—back on top of my workload, and so on. And I’m also a little nervous about how much like the dreaded reviews these things are starting to sound. So for this week’s look back at “weird” fiction from the mid-20s, I’m going to focus only on the positive.

Our next story from the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales is “Luisma’s Return: A Tale of Haiti” by pulp stalwart Arthur J. Burks (Estil Critchie). What’s good about “Luisma’s Return”? What works? What can we, as authors working ninety-four years in the future, learn from this story in a positive way? What can we emulate? What might inspire us?

Even if it starts with a bit of a contemporary history lesson or “scene setting,” in the first page we see that this is a story about people. What a screenwriting teacher would call the “inciting incident” is right up front, too: the evil emperor has taken the woman Luisma loves. On page one, our hero is personally, emotionally involved in what has happened so far, and so is the only other character we actually meet, Madeleine’s mother. This is a story about relationships, right from the get-go.

And here’s something to chew on…

Every story, at least every story worth reading, is about relationships.

That’s not only true for romance, but every single genre, including fantasy, science fiction, and horror. What this “inciting incident” means to the people in the story drives everything, and is always—always—more important than robustly detailed worldbuilding, scientific accuracy, and other things that can support your story, but can’t become a story in and of themselves.

Oh, and we also very clearly know exactly who the hero is (Luisma) and who the villain is (Christophe, aka Henri). Might be a little unsubtle for some modern tastes, but especially in a genre short story, this is a good thing. We have characters in conflict, and the hero is emotionally invested in that conflict.

Right away.

A positively speaking, it’s okay, I think, to also take a certain measure of joy in old stories like this and the way language has changed so that common usage in 1925 (or whenever) now sounds like…

Luisma hurried away, walking erect and unafraid.

Then the very next paragraph:

Luisma stood erect before his emperor.

Cue Beavis & Butthead, laughing.

But that’s okay. We can take a second to smile at stuff like that and still remain erect in our love of mature literature.

The immediate reversal of Madeline’s comes without delay, and has the effect of, as Lester Dent might say, piling grief upon the hero. Poor Luisma’s bad day is only getting worse, and as a result, “Luisma’s Return” is only getting better.

I hereby promise, even if it be a one-man crusade, doomed to inevitable failure, that I shall do everything in my power to return the phrase “Have you taken leave of your senses, man?” to popular usage.

I promised to be positive so will skip over the flagrant racism in this line: “He was slow of thought like all his kind, with the fatalist’s belief that all things are foreordained and that his own time must come in the end.”

In the scene in which Luisma, resigned to his fate, dutifully drills the soldiers under his charge we see the villain being a villain, which is something you know I feel strongly about:

“That one, the blackest one in the rear rank, Luisma,” the monster would say, with a judicial air, “he does not seem to keep step with his mates, exactly. If he were hurled over the cliff we believe that it would improve the appearance of the guard!”

Then we’re shown this poor soldier’s terrible fate and now we see why people, including Luisma, are so afraid of Christophe. He doesn’t just steal people’s girlfriends, he casually orders the unwarranted summary execution of his own soldiers. This only puts us more on Luisma’s side while we also fear the same fate awaits our hero should he step out of line—but then we want Luisma to step out of line and defeat the villain. That, maybe in its simplest, least subtle form, is called: dramatic tension.

And then whoa—plot twist!

Luisma was the first man over. He stepped off into eternity without faltering.

Our hero just marched off a cliff, leading his own men, at the command of the villain. Lester Dent might call this a “complete surprise twist.”

But our hero lives. I was almost going to type, But of course our hero lives. But remember, we’re reading Weird Tales  here. He might just die and come back as any number of avenging spirits in a Weird Tales story. This is where genres like horror, fantasy, and science fiction can really work in your favor. There’s no way for a reader of these genres to assume… anything, really. Maybe “Luisma’s Return” means “Luisma’s Return from the Dead.” We can be kept guessing, staying in the story even when in any other genre either Luisma clinging to life or continuing the story without its hero would be the only choices. In fact, in that context, the fact that he survives is actually a bigger surprise.

And I absolutely adore that the envoy takes Luisma for some sort of undead creature when he heaves himself up over the edge of the cliff to confront the murderous emperor. Note that in this vivid, wild paragraph of pure pulp description, the pronoun is it:

Slowly, like a great black serpent with a broken back, the red-visaged apparition slithered up and over the edge. Its ghastly eyes were staring fixedly at the face of the emperor. Atop the precipice at last, the jelly-like creature slithered toward Christophe and the envoy, leaving a snaky red trail in its wake, dragging the crushed legs, dangling red things, behind.

Speaking of pure pulp, I doubt any of us would get away with this in 2019, but I loved this weird look into the poor envoy’s unfortunate future, POV be damned:

The envoy fled, nor stopped his mad flight until he reached Port au Prince and told his wild tale to Boyer himself. Boyer, knowing that his envoy’s mind had gone, placed him in an asylum, where he spent the rest of his days, happy because he knew that crawling things could never get through the bars to haunt him!

Lovecraftian!

In fact, its madness that wraps up the whole thing—and, arguably, madness that started it.

I promised to stay positive so won’t bemoan an ending someone who hadn’t promised to be positive might have called “rushed,” but the story wraps up nicely, with the hero having defeated the villain not by killing him or arresting him and throwing him in jail, but by haunting him, figuratively speaking, until the villain’s mind snaps under the weight of his own guilt.

This, right here, is why I love reading pulp fiction.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

STARTS THURSDAY!

My online course Advanced Horror Workshop from Writers Digest University is starting up again this Thursday, August 22.

Sign up now!

 

 

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SURF, THINK, WRITE, REPEAT

In June, in a post entitled “Read, Think, Write, Repeat,” I once again urged y’all to read and allow your own writing to be informed by what you’ve read. I also shared my habit of scribbling notes in the margins of (some) books and dropping that wisdom back here or in one of my online courses, or… into a file like the one in my computer called Random Writing Quotes and Examples.docx.

What I said in June for books goes for the Internet as well. I don’t really know how to scribble in the margins of the Internet but I do know how to copy and paste, and in my regular travels around cyberspace words of wisdom and interesting examples and some authority backing up something I’ve said myself or mean to say at some point get dumped in that file if I don’t have an immediate use in mind. I’d like to share the contents of this file with you now, even if I might still filter some or even all of these little snippets into other things, at least in part.

Without further ado, I give you, in no particular order and with no further explanation except the little notes I made to myself at the beginning of each quote…

add to writing as play, having fun with it:

My best writing advice is also the most simple—just have fun with it. Take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to stretch creatively. The external goals—agent, book deals—are all attainable, but what lovely landscape opens up artistically if they aren’t the core reason for your art? Write the thing that’s fizzing and bubbling inside you. Stay true to yourself and explore your passions (even personality-disordered horses!), and remember that you will always be the utmost authority on your writing.

—Kira Jane Buxton author of Hollow Kingdom interviewed at writersdigest.com

re: idiom

Idioms, by contrast, lend themselves to a variety of tones. The verbal melodies they express may appear in unpredictable form. They are perpetually ready to shift shape. By uniting a physical image with an abstract thought, idioms can take their place in many different patterns. When you utter an expression that has startling idiomatic force, it can make your listeners or readers hear or see the world in a novel way.

—Mark Abley “Clichés As a Political Tool

re: cliché

Sometimes the line between idiom and cliché gets blurred. On lists of clichés, I’ve found expressions like “cut off your nose to spite your face,” “a leopard cannot change its spots,” “wear your heart on your sleeve,” and “a few sandwiches short of a picnic.” But are these really clichés?

I don’t think so. If all those expressions were clichés, we could come under fire for speaking in any kind of figurative terms. The distinction between an idiom and a cliché is partly subjective, but it also depends on the rate and type of usage. For an idiom to be broadly understood, it needs to be occasionally heard or read. All four of those expressions would bemuse a newcomer to English. They make sense to us only because we’ve met them before.

—Mark Abley “Clichés As a Political Tool

re: theme? Why we write in the first place (and not for money)

Lord only knows that there are enough problems yet to be solved, books to be written, and music to be composed! Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. Heaven save us above all from the snobbery which not only admits the possibility of this thin and perfunctory work, but which cries out in a spirit of shrinking arrogance against the competition of vigor and ideas, wherever these may be found!

—Norbert Wiener from The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society

in support of fantasy

At all ages, if [fantasy] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.

C.S. Lewis (1956)

maybe add to “intellectual curiosity”

“On the one hand, to function well, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities and summon enormous confidence from somewhere. On the other hand, to write well, or just to be a good person, you need to be able to doubt yourself—to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong about everything, that you don’t know everything, and to have sympathy with people whose lives and beliefs and perspectives are very different from yours.”

—Jonathan Franzen from a New York Times interview

your voice

“I bring everything I know to whatever I write, and I believe the same of other writers. A person’s complete life experience forms the basis of authorial voice, in my opinion. To hold back any part makes a narrative feel contrived.”

—Tade Thompson, author of The Murders of Molly Southbourne

I just like this…

There’s always a moment of transformation in the process of making. Suddenly, you understand what your novel is about or what a short story hinges on or what you’re trying to say in a poem. I love talking to people about that moment, the moment where they knew. It’s like when lightning strikes—another gesture beloved of the gods—and all the trees in a field jump out in stark relief, their leaves hot-white and glowing. But the trees weren’t created in that moment: they were there all along. There are objects in a dark room. A light bulb just allows us to see them.

—Larissa Pham, Paris Review article: “Marlene Dumas’s Metamorphoses

Philip K. Dick defending science fiction

‘If SF becomes annexed to the academic world it will buy into its own death… Professor Warrick’s pound-and-a-half book with its expensive binding, paper, and dust jacket staggers you with its physical impression, but it has no soul and it will take our soul in what really seems to me to be brutal greed. Let us alone, Dr. Warrick; let us read our paperback novels with their peeled eyeball covers. Don’t dignify us. Our power to stimulate human imagination and to delight is intrinsic to us already. Quite frankly, we were doing fine before you came along.’

—Christian De Cock “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society

breaks down the overall goal of Philip K. Dick’s SF:

Dick fully accepts that the late modern condition attendant on the ever-expanding proliferation of realities cannot be undone or overcome (i.e. going back to one reality which replaces values with facts) but has to be faced, tolerated, and worked through. In book after book, Dick portrays an elemental estrangement of reality. Dickian characters find themselves trapped in hallucinations or fake worlds of various kinds, often without knowing it or, if knowing it, without being able to do anything about it. And it is not only worlds that are fake. Objects, animals, people may also be unreal in various ways (Aldiss, 1979). There can be no longer any talk of returning to nature or of turning away from the ‘artificial’, since the fusion of the natural with the artificial has long since become an accomplished fact (Lem, 1984).

—Christian De Cock “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society

pulp fiction moving past its limitations—or limitations being pulled down around it? When does “trash fiction” become “literature”?

[Philip K.] Dick employs glaring clichés of trash (e.g. the usual SF props of precognition, time travel, androids…) to tackle exceedingly complex philosophical problems. This trashy surface allows his novels to survive in different ways in the reader’s environment, either semiotically (awareness of the resurrection of metaphysical values) or semantically (very entertaining, if a bit disjointed) understood. Thus the novels contain some sort of double encoding which Lem (1984, p.85-86) explained as follows:

‘If many coloured flags are put upon the masts of a ship in the harbour, a child on the shore will think that this is a merry game and perhaps will have a lot of fun watching, although at the same time an adult will recognize the flags as a language of signals, and know that it stands for a report on a plague that has broken out on board the ship.’

—Christian De Cock “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society

re: setting/atmosphere

In terms of the landscape, a landscape is always alive. It always has something going on beyond the characters. Sometimes I literally put myself in the place of the particular setting and think about how it might impact the story in some way. That comes to fruition in terms of me thinking in the Southern Reach books about how Area X would have agency and how it would impress itself upon the characters.

—Jeff Vandermeer interview for writersdigest.com

personal vs. procedural

No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness. For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing. Here’s a simple example: as you are reading this, suppose you get a text message from a friend: ‘What are you doing?’ You immediately reply: ‘I’m reading a piece on Hegel.’ You knew what you were doing without having to have a separate act of thinking about it or drawing conclusions. Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. You didn’t look around and infer from the evidence. You didn’t need any particular introspection. In fact, in Hegelian terms, when you are doing something and you do not know at all what you are doing, you’re not really doing anything at all. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.

—Ted Pinkard from “The Spirit of History

 

If you don’t already have a file like this, what are you waiting for?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Starting Thursday, August 22.

Writers Digest University’s Advanced Horror Workshop’s in-depth background material takes writing horror as seriously as you do.

 

 

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WHEN CHARACTERS MEET TECHNOLOGY

I like to define science fiction as stories in which the impossible is made possible by the use of some imaginary technology or scientific discovery. In other words, if the hero gets to a distant planet via a starship it’s science fiction. If the hero gets to a distant planet via magic, it’s fantasy. Clear enough as a starting point, anyway.

So then if science fiction depends to one extent or another on imagined technology, the balancing act is how to keep your story a story, which I like to define as “characters in conflict,” and not a fictional technical paper. The fiction side of the science:fiction ratio demands people doing things in opposition to other people (and feel free to present people as humans, robots, space elves, Martians… whatever) while the science side demands that they do it with science (technology, etc.). Easy.

But then where to draw the line, or where to balance that ratio of science to fiction?

Though she was writing within her comfort zone of “Hard SF,” I was a little pushed back by what felt to me to be an example of what I admittedly too-dismissively call “Hey, look at all this research I did!” in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free:

Leo smiled thanks for the desired straight line. “They are indeed gas porosities. Oddly enough, though, when we crunch the numbers through, they do not appear to be defects. Let us run the computer scan down its length, with an eye to the digital read-out. As you see,” the numbers flickered at a corner of the display as the cross-section moved dizzyingly, “at no point do more than two porosities appear in a cross-section, and at all points the voids occupy less than five percent of the section. Also, spherical cavities like these are the least damaging of all potential shapes and discontinuities, the least likely to propagate cracks in service. A non-critical defect is called a discontinuity.” Leo paused politely while two dozen heads bent in unison to highlight this pleasingly unambiguous fact on the autotranscription of their light boards, braced between lower hands for a portable recording surface. “When I add that this was in a fairly low-pressure liquid storage tank, and not, for example, in a thruster propulsion chamber with its massively greater stresses, the slipperiness of this definition becomes clearer. For in a thruster the particular degree of defect that shows up here would have been critical.”

Whew. Deep breath. And this is actually paragraph six of a twenty-five paragraph lecture by protagonist Leo that runs more or less exactly like this—exhaustive details on welding quality assurance.

It is fair to keep in mind that Leo has come to this space station to teach welding to a team of genetically engineered “quaddies,” bred to work in zero gravity by some interstellar corporation. This scene shows that the quaddies are smart and attentive, understanding all these technical details and all this technical jargon better than… well, better than I did, anyway. We see that Leo seems to know what he’s talking about (as a casual reader I didn’t, won’t, and wouldn’t ever have fact checked this myself) and is doing what he’s been brought to the station to do, despite his initial surprise and obvious discomfort with what are clearly shown to be genetically engineered slaves. But all that conflict-rich set-up—the story at hand—stops for these exhaustive technical details. Do we (Lois McMaster Bujold’s readers) really need to sit through that lesson? I say no, but I understand some readers may disagree.

Rather than a literal technical lecture, in The Fortress at the End of Time authorJoe M. McDermott shows us his characters’ personal interaction with his imagined future technology:

“Ensign,” said the other tech, one of the four women on board, “recording off.”

I nodded, confused. Wong handed me the helmet and the suit. I checked for any signs of damage. We sprayed ourselves with UV blockers, and suited up. We were not in heavy gravity. The airlock door, once opened, would lead to a long tube that ran straight to the central axis upon which we spun. We would fall down into weightlessness and then climb out with ladders to the surface of the station’s outer shell. First, we checked each others’ suits. Never assume a suit is sealed unless it is checked twice by two diligent people. Then plug in the interface, and check the diagnostics for a seal. Recording begins with the computer interface. It can be turned off manually at any time. In cases of imminent death, I am told, it is considered wise to say what needs to be said, then turn it off to protect others from dying screams. There are also situations where communication signals are possibly compromised in wartime, and individual units need to be able to unplug from the network. I did not understand why Wong would want recording off. Even on board the station, while on duty, everything was recorded. We were so accustomed to the microcameras and microphones, we didn’t even see them. Who could bother watching all that footage, anyway, except a machine?

I had to choose between my rigorous training and my new role model’s odd command. Safety protocols trump chain of command. I only pretended to adjust my computer. I consider what I did sinful. Wong had his reasons, and only with the communication recorders off could he even dictate them aloud, but I didn’t think about that in the moment.

 

There’s actually a lot of technical detail there, and in general I would rather see that sort of detail shown in action, and if that’s not possible then rendered in dialog (as Lois McMaster Bujold did), and only after those first two option are proved impossible, in description. But this description, with some thanks to the first person, feels more personal than the welding lecture. This is a human in a weird and dangerous environment, trying to remember his training, trying to make sure he does the right things even when he realizes that the right things might be based on the wrong reasons. Judgments are being made, the motives of other characters are being questioned—this puts me in that character’s experience rather than pushing me into a chair in a classroom.

From a book about genetically engineered “machines” learning to use traditional mechanical devices through an astronaut balancing safety protocols and the apparent “house rules” of the station he’s been assigned to, Ursula K. LeGuin does what both Bujold and McDermott do when we look at their books in whole. She shows that machines themselves are not the real problem or solution, that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” Or in the case of The Lathe of Heaven, Augmentors don’t change the world via effective dreaming, effective dreamers do:

Orr pulled away the electrodes whose wires ran like thread-worms between Haber’s skull and the Augmentor. He looked at the machine, its cabinets all standing open; it should be destroyed, he thought. But he had no idea how to do it, nor any will to try. Destruction was not his line; and a machine is more blameless, more sinless even than any animal. It has no intentions whatsoever but our own.

Fill your science fiction with science and technology, but not at the cost of characters and story. Technology in science fiction—or magic in fantasy, for that matter—is blameless, it has no intentions but your characters’.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Take this post to the next level with…

Engaging Your Readers Through Emotion and Description

Every story is about people, and people experience the world around them (including technology and magic) with lots more than their intellect.

 

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL: THE WORLDS OF ROBERT A. HEINLEIN

Near the end of 2014 I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag, and I have continued to draw books from the box, one after another. I’ve already outed myself as someone who makes notes in the margins of books (sometimes, at least) to call out a few examples of interesting things on the subject of writing, worldbuilding, and so on. I didn’t do that with every random science fiction book I’ve read since then, but I made a few at least in my old 1966 Ace copy of the short story collection The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

The stories in this collection, originally published mostly in Astounding in 1939, 1940, and 1962, definitely fall into the Hard SF category, much more concerned with the science and engineering being done than with the characters doing it. What I actually found more interesting than the stories themselves was Heinlein’s long introduction to the book, “Pandora’s Box”—a 1966 update of his 1952 essay “Where To?”

Heinlein sets the tone of the essay quickly with he simple declaration:“Science fiction is not prophecy.” Then more robustly:

Science fiction is almost always laid in the future—or at least in a fictional possible-future—and is almost invariably deeply concerned with the shape of that future. But the method is not prediction; it is usually extrapolation and/or speculation. Indeed the author is not required to (and usually does not) regard the fictional “future” he has chosen to write about as being the events most likely to come to pass; his purpose may have nothing to do with the probability that these storied events may happen.

Having recognized that, Heinlein boldly lists some of his own predictions of the near future including things like “Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure” and “In fifteen years [1981] the housing shortage will be solved by a ‘breakthrough’ into new technology which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.”

Of his nineteen predictions, eight turned out to have come true (or mostly true), eleven were false, or essentially false, having not happened yet, but they might still someday. That’s not bad, being within a reasonable margin of error of 50/50. Not bad looking from 1966, when a lot of technologies we take for granted now were still either still in the realm of fiction or in their infancy (he said: “Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag”), and a period of extreme social change was only just beginning (as per his thoughts on relations between the sexes, above). This only serves to back up Heinlein’s supposition that the best laid plans of any would-be science fiction prophet will have little better than a coin toss’s chance of coming to pass. And this only made more difficult by a dramatic shift in how science and technology is done:

Even to make predictions about overall trends in technology is now more difficult. In fields where before World War II there was one man working in public, there are now ten, or a hundred, working in secret. There may be six men in the country who have a clear picture of what is going on in science today. There may not be even one.

Weirdest of all here is Heinlein calling for something he understood was necessary, but was way off in terms of how it would actually come about:

Call it the Crisis of the Librarian.

We need a new “specialist” who is not a specialist, but a synthesist. We need a new science to be the perfect secretary to all other sciences.

Enter, thirty-two years later, Google.

Happily, Heinlein was wrong about one common assumption of the Cold War era:

The period immediately ahead [of 1966] will be the roughest, cruelest one in the long, hard history of mankind. It will probably include the worst World War of them all. It might even end with a war with Mars, God save the mark! Even if we are spared that fantastic possibility, it is certain that there will be no security anywhere, save what you dig out of your own spirit.

And here he was, right in the second decade of the Long Peace, and ten years before the Viking lander made it clear that Mars was rather lacking in (at least macroscopic) Martians. See what propaganda can do to even really smart people?

All that said, Heinlein did predict, in the short stories that follow in The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, an awful lot about the coming atomic age. Since the collection was put together in 1966, and surely included some revisions, it’s hard to credit all of these predictions to the original stories published in the 40s. Still, in this collection we can see an author who takes the science in science fiction quite seriously, working with an editor, Joseph Campbell, who took it even more seriously, as what came to be known as “Hard SF” took over from the pulp space operas and science-fantasies of the pre-war era. These early stories also fail to predict Heinlein’s own part in pushing the genre from “hard” to “soft” with his own Stranger in a Strange Land, published just a year before the story “Searchlight” and more than two decades after the rest of the stories in this collection.

A tricky, moving target, that future, isn’t it?

Even our own futures.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Finding the Personal in the Procedural

A Deep Dive into Show vs. Tell

One of the most common refrains from writing workshops is that writers need to show, not tell. Procedural description tells your readers what someone, or worse, something, is doing. But what readers really want from fiction is to feel what it’s like to be in that place and time, experiencing that moment with your character. In this 70-minute tutorial, author/editor Philip Athans looks at some specific techniques to personalize every moment of your fiction to bring your readers and your characters closer together.

 

 

 

 

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FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 20

Let’s finish up “Fog” by C. Franklin Miller from the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we started a couple weeks ago, still examining the story through the lens of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot.

By now we’ve come to the all-important…

FOURTH 1500 WORDS

Let’s say the last fourth of the story starts at the scene break at the bottom of the left column of page 121 with “That settled all doubts,” and see how C. Franklin Miller stacks up against Lester Dent’s advice to…

Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.

This sounds like a difficulty to me:

Our retreat was cut off and the realization unnerved me. If only I could see! Trailed by some inconceivable monster and unable to fight back was too much for the human brain.

They’re still being chased by some unknown thing in a pitch-dark cave. But do the difficulties get thicker?

Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the different murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)

This counts:

“We made a frantic effort to evade its spread. It was useless. Its power of expansion and contraction seemed tremendous. With an unearthly hiss it swirled about us and held us, struggling madly, in its icy embrace.

This is a good example of how when Lester Dent—or anyone who has ever written this sort of formula—says something specific like “buried,” you are not only free to, but are hereby encouraged (by me, at least) to expand the definition of “buried” as far out as you can. Being captured by some kind of enveloping monster counts as “buried,” for sure.

The hero extricates himself using his own skill, training or brawn.

I’m nervous about this, going into the fourth section, since they find their way out of the cave by sheer luck, running madly away from the thing and not using any particular “skill, training, or brawn.” At least not yet.

Uh, oh:

Almost blinded and scarcely able to breathe, I hacked away with my knife, trying to dig a way through the pasty mass. I was like one fighting in delirium. For one agonizing moment I was conscious of a dull roar in my ears and then—

“I must have fainted. With the coming of light I was lying face downward on the ground halfway up the slope. My arms were wrapped tightly around the trunk of a tree. A fine rain was falling.

He passes out, wakes up, and the monster is just gone. No skill. No training. No brawn. No particular effort on the part of the hero—or was he more effective with his knife than we were led to believe? Did he extricate himself by using blind panic and his only available tool—and his brawn, I guess?

Good enough?

The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in the course of the final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

So, as of Moisell waking up and the monster gone, there are two mysteries remaining:

What was this thing? and…

What was he afraid of on the ship—is it the same monster?

Final twist, a big surprise. (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)

The final twist is interesting but for my money a bit too obscure.

Was it really all in Moisell’s fevered imagination? Was Bonner really killed by ordinary quicksand? Was Moisell just lucky enough to crawl out of it before it pulled him under? Is this “putty” in the box some ordinary… putty? Or is it physical proof of the monster that Hunter can’t recognize?

I’m not opposed in any case to stories that end with questions hanging. Not only do I not need but I tend to strongly dislike any sort of “now we’ll explain what happened” ending. But I’m getting an inexplicable feeling that C. Franklin Miller meant for this mystery to have been solved, that Hunter’s conclusion that his friend is crazy is warranted, is the ending of the story, and the solution to the “mysteries” still outstanding.

The snapper, the punch line to end it.

The snapper: “On the bottom lay a lump of putty!” as I said above, doesn’t really solve it for me, but it’s still exactly the sort of thing Lester Dent is calling for. Some final statement, some last idea that leaves us with what he called, “that warm feeling.”

But ultimately, in the case of “Fog,” the final question from Lester Dent: “Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?” remains unanswered.

If the villain is the monster it’s unclear if Moisell actually killed it. Even if there wasn’t really a monster and Moisell imagined it doesn’t matter. The “villain,” as Dent calls it, doesn’t have to be real in any case—again pull out from the obvious to expand the definition of “villain” as far as you want to.

Was this a deus ex machina (machine of God) ending? One where some outside force swoops in to pull the hero’s fat out of the fryer—maybe the Cardinal Sin of contemporary fiction? Or could we call this an insanire ex machina (machine of madness) ending. Is that better or worse?

I honestly don’t know!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

A captivating and unique world is what sets science fiction and fantasy apart from all other genres.

Explore this vital subject in my four-week Writers Digest University course

Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy,

starting this coming Thursday, July 25!

 

 

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FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 19

I’m just going to go right into the next part of “Fog” by C. Franklin Miller from the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we started last week, examining the story through the lens of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot.

Having introduced our characters and set them off on their expedition to find the living descendants of the dinosaurs, we should, at least according to Lester Dent, be well into the story now by now…

SECOND 1500 WORDS

Lester Dent advises we…

Shovel more grief onto the hero.

C. Franklin Miller has added his own chapter numbers, and though the word/page counts don’t perfectly match up, it’s fair to go ahead and start at “2” on page 118, which begins a year after the initial meeting at the Bachelor’s Club. Has Miller shoveled any grief onto our hero?

This encounter with a terror-stricken Moisell definitely ramps up the action, and adds an air of spooky moodiness to the story, which so far has been rather lighthearted. This is a good lesson in terms of writing entertaining short stories, in general:

This story should have started here.

Lose the whole male bonding opening and begin the story on the steamer, with the demented Moisell, solidly in the first person POV of Hunter. This is all much more interesting, attention-grabbing, and story-rich. Am I right?

Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:

Well, I don’t see anyone struggling here, necessarily. It appears that Moisell is about to tell us a terrifying story, and there’s the threat of something on the deck that tried to smother him, but…

Another physical conflict.

…hasn’t actually happened yet. Not only are we missing another physical conflict, we’re still waiting for the first one. C. Franklin Miller is ramping things up… but too slowly!

A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

And there is no surprising twist, either. So far, this looks like a Lester Dent fail, though the story itself, had it started at “2,” is actually pretty good.

NOW: Does second part have suspense? Does the menace grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?

I think this second part does have suspense. For me, suspense comes from an imbalance of information, We (the readers) only know what Hunter knows, which is precious little, while Moisell clearly has had some traumatic experience, and not in some faraway distant past and/or place, but just now on the deck of the ship. What’s out there that he’s so afraid of? The suspense is rising. Likewise, the menace grows as well, for all the same reasons.

But the hero isn’t “getting it in the neck,” he’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with his friend.

As far as logic is concerned—sure. They’re both seasoned travelers and are on the same steamer, and no one has done anything that would seem to break the laws of physics or plausibility.

Let’s press on to the…

THIRD 1500 WORDS

Where Lester Dent urges us to continue to…

Shovel the grief onto the hero.

Now I’m experiencing Hero Confusion.

Hero Confusion is a psychological malady caused by authors who either aren’t sure themselves, want their readers to be unsure, or accidentally cause their readers to be unsure who the hero (aka protagonist) of the story actually is.

It seemed as though, from the first part, that Moisell was the hero, but that clearly switched to Hunter in the second—or, at least, Hunter was the point of view character and maybe I made an incorrect assumption based on that. Now it seems as though we’re going to get the meat of the story told to us by Moisell, reclaiming the role of the hero.

Though purposely evoking some degree of Hero Confusion in your readers can be an effective storytelling tool, where I fear for C. Franklin Miller in this case is that we’re now going to read a story that is told to one character by another character. This was not uncommon in stories from the period (keep in mind, we’re in 1925 now) but I doubt contemporary editors are going to look on this too fondly now. Try it—because anything that works is good—but tread carefully.

As an aside, I’d like to call out how C. Franklin Miller “stages the reveal” of his monster. In my book Writing Monsters, I offered this advice:

Reveal your monsters in three stages [First Encounter, The Growing Threat, and The Tipping Point]. The first and third will be the fastest (using the least number of words) and perhaps most dramatic. The middle section is where you’ll spend time revealing aspects of the monster—what it can do, what it looks, sounds, smells, and feels like—while always increasing the danger to your characters and upping the stakes for your story.

Note that Miller introduces the monster first by the dramatic psychological effect it’s had on Moisell and the traces of gray stuff it’s left behind. When he gets into “The Growing Threat,” he stages the thing in using appeals to senses other that sight. First, smell:

‘‘We had not gone very far in the darkness when I became conscious of a strange, nauseating odor. It grew more obnoxious as we advanced and at times was almost unbearable. I could liken it to nothing I had ever experienced before excepting, possibly, the evil-smelling scum over a sun-baked mud-hole.

Then they see the gray stuff and the body—the effect of the thing. Then we get only a scary sound in the darkness:

“We did—and again came that swishing sound—cumbersome, stealthy, insistent—like some enormous beast stalking its prey. Bonner must have heard it too, for he quickened his pace. But we could not shake it off. It stopped when we stopped, and when we got going again it came swishing out of the darkness with a maddening persistency. It clung to our heels with almost human intelligence—and gained steadily.

Ending with the feeling of it:

I could feel its cold breath on my neck.

Note it has cold, not warm or hot breath like any normal animal would.

Scary! We still can’t see this thing, and being humans, we all tend to rely on sight as our primary sense. But instead C. Franklin Miller has put us in a dark, confined, isolated space, cut off from outside help, and given us ample evidence of something we can’t explain and can’t see, chasing us down. This is a classic monster reveal.

Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:

Miller continues to lag behind Mr. Dent in that no one has made any headway and the hero has been himself cornered by the as yet unseen “villain.” But this all would follow nicely if Miller had started the story with his Chapter 2!

A physical conflict.

Here we’re actually pretty much in line, if you consider this the end of the third section:

Without reasoning I stopped long enough to empty my rifle into the gloom, and then we stumbled along like drunken men.

A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the third 1500 words.

There isn’t so much a plot twist here as the action following along logically—something else Lester Dent urges us to do.

Does it still have suspense? Is the menace getting blacker? Does the hero find himself in a hell of a fix? Does it all happen logically?

And then we’re left with a string of positive answers. It indeed has suspense—what the hell is this thing and what does it want from us? The menace gets considerably blacker—they’re literally being chased through a cave by an unseen, unknown monster. That also puts them in a hell of a fix, and it’s perfectly in line with the story’s own internal logic.

So far, then, a qualified success!

Let’s see how it all wraps up next week…

(Ah, the classic pulp cliffhanger!)

 

—Philip Athans

 

In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

 

 

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