Friday, April 03, 2015

Emotion as Story

Interestingly, this popped up on i09 today by Charlie Jane Anders:  "2 Secrets to Writing a Story that People Can't Tear Themselves Away From."

In which the second secret is:  "Emotions create their own suspense."

Pretty much exactly what I was trying to get at in my lecture on Wednesday night.  Charlie Jane (unsurprisingly) gets to the point far more succinctly than I ever could.  She writes:

What's the worst that can happen if you think of your story as "a succession of great moments strung together"? Well, it could be kind of incoherent. At worst, the story might actually not make sense, or contradict itself. Those are things that might need to be fixed in the rewrites — but they're easier problems to fix than a story that's lifeless except for a few turning points. 
And this is where the second statement, "emotions create their own suspense," comes in. If the characters and their emotions are consistent, then each "great moment" will absolutely feel connected to the next. Because the characters will keep caring about the things they care about. 

Yes.  Thank you.  This.

(Also Charlie Jane also wrote "How to Turn a High Concept into a Story" in case you want to check to see if she continues to be more articulate and accessible than I could ever hope to be.  ;-)

Thursday, April 02, 2015

From Idea to Story

Last night in class, I started off by reading out loud Neil Gaiman's essay about where ideas come from:  Where Do You Get Your Ideas? 

I do this regularly, because I love the simple complexity of his thoughts here and also because: so accurate.  Yes, ideas do just come out of your head.  It's also so much more than that, but half of the battle is being willing to ask all the child-like questions.

After reading this, we all agreed that the ideas were "the easy bit," so we next attempted to discuss the harder bit--which is how to turn an idea into a story.  There were pictures:

Let me take a stab at pulling order out of chaos.  This is what I promised my students I would try to do the day after, so I'm going to give it the old college try.

It starts like this.  So, you've got an idea for a story.  You've been thinking about Humpback whales, how their song gets longer every year.  This makes you think about human history and about how stories used to get told by poets like Homer, out loud and changing by audience and as they got told over time and again and again.  Then, you hear about a whale in California (is it a Humpback?) that's been pushing further and further inland up a fresh water river.  You think about whales in general.  What is their life like when the world they live in is hostile to them.  Can you imagine living where you can't breathe?  What if you also grew up hearing songs about a time when whales lived on land?  

This is a story idea, you think.  There's SOMETHING here.  Something you want to say.


But you can't figure out how to turn this bunch of jumbled, kind of connected ideas into a story, so you have to ask yourself.  What are the essential elements of a story?

First of all, you have to have a character--someone who tells the tale; someone who the story is ABOUT. (A whale?  A scientist studying whale language?)  

For the story to work as a story, however, something has to happen.  This is will be the plot, but, it is important to remember, that plot moves via conflict.

Thus, there has to be something at stake.  The fate of the world can hang in the balance, of course, but, as I told the class, you don't have to think in hyperbole to tell a rip, roaring story.  The thing that is at stake can be personal and small, so long as it matters.  How do you make the reader care, make things matter?  (Well, sometimes you just can't, but) one way is if it matters to you.  If you have something you want to say, it can carry you a long way.  Writing is an investment of time and energy, so if you have a story where you have something you want to say about the human condition, the nature of the world, life, or your favorite pair of socks, that will help invest the story with a sense of movement, of 'what's at stake.'

Also, if what's at stake is something that has the potential to change your main character in some way, that will also breathe life into a story idea.  Is there something to be learned?  Something that can challenge the character to reach for their better selves (even if they don't get to it)?  

Ideally, whatever is at stake is also, in some way, in conflict with main character.  They have to push themselves to get the job done.  This makes for an internal conflict.  A really energetic story will have both external and internal conflicts.  The bad guys with ray guns are your external forces; the heroine's crushing agoraphobia can be the internal one.  

You don't have to buy into any of this for a story to work, of course.  But, the point of the lecture is to consider ways in which you can get the ball rolling.  So, the questions you can ask your story idea is: who is the main character of this story?  Who will be most changed by the events?  How are they affected by the events of the story?  What do they have to lose?  What's at stake (for them and for the larger world)?  What flaws/internal conflicts might the main character have to overcome in order to get to the end/win the day?  

Then the big question becomes: where do you start the story?

My answer has always been: two seconds before everything changes.  

This is true of almost every story you tell, anywhere, to anyone.  "OMG, Barb, I was just walking along and BAM! There was Julius! My ex!"  

Two seconds before everything changes.

Because any good opening (hook) has the listener/reader asking, "What happened next??"

The two seconds is hyperbole again (you have to watch that with me), because with a novel and a short story you have a bit more time to set up and explain the status quo before you turn it on its head.  For commercial fiction, I wouldn't say you have a LOT of extra time, but you do have more than a precise measure of seconds.  You could have ten lines, you could have most of a first chapter, or you can even just do it in one....

"The comet passed through Earth's atmosphere, ripping the world apart." 

I mean, there are lots of ways to do this, but ultimately stories are about change.  Something has changed, and someone has to change in order to fix/solve/survive/(or not) it.

When we talk about openings in more detail, I will discuss the various ways you can hook people without an action that changes everything.  But I maintain that all stories, ultimately, are about an event that changed everything (probably for the worse, before things get better.)  A hero/ine is that person who will do something about the change (make it better? Make it worse?  Doesn't matter, so long as the change is acted upon).  

Protagonists need to protag.  

They need to act and they need to change.

And for me, and I think most modern readers, the hero/ines need to have some reason to do it, some way in which all of this affects their lives and emotions and thus reaches across the chasm of the page and relates to the reader.  There has to be something in their plight or situation or personality that makes the reader say, "Ah, this is just who I'd be, if I were this person."  (Or, best, perhaps, this is just who I WANT to be, if I were this person.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book and Con Review/Report

First, a book review. I posted my review of Jennifer Marie Brissett's Elysium, or the World After up onBitter Empire. This is a book that 100% fits Tempest's Challenge, by the way, because Brissett is a woman, and, according to the bio in the back, identifies as a British-Jamacian American.

Here it is, Tuesday morning, and I'm mostly recovered from the one, 12-hour day I spent at Anime Detour. The thing that should be known about Detour is that the median age is 14. That means I'm approximately three times older than the average con goer, and SIGNIFICANTLY older than many, many others. This con is also very, very well attended, so much so that getting from point A to point B often involves a myriad of "excuse me!"s and "summimassen!"s as costume bits get jostled against you and there is a general press of bodies akin to walking against the flow on the streets of New York City during rush hour.

I am an extrovert, but I am not a fan of jostling.

Also, this year I wasn't in costume. We really only have the one. Mason says, we're like those three old women in the myths who share the eye. It's not even mine, I've been borrowing it from a fellow Bleach fan, Anna Waltz, for about three or four years now. (Luckily, she's pleased to see it so often used and is happy to continue to extend the loan.) Mason decided to go as pre-evil, pre-"hair lock" Aizen, so the only thing I needed to add to the costume was a captain's coat (a haori). So my friend Naomi and I did a little thrift shop hunting and found a silky bathrobe that only took a bit of removing of bits in order to passably pass as such. I painted on the appropriate number in Japanese (5) and Mason was good to go.

Mason as Aizen:

Aizen as Aizen:

Not a bad likeness, neh?

The five on the back, which you can't see here, pretty much cinches it for most Bleach fans. But, the nice thing is that Mason already has the hair and the glasses, as a kind of gimme, so he was very easily recognizable. In fact, in the first few minutes at con, Mason got the reaction I was expecting. I was taking his picture with an Ichigo (there is always more than one) and a stranger came up (like they do at cons) and exclaims, "Oh, I get it! It's all been part of Aizen's plan since he was, what, ten?" I corrected, "Eleven, but basically yes." Aizen, since most of you probably don't know, is that villain who is always saying, "Ah, so you see, every moment of your life up to this point has been planned by me!"

So, that was kind of the highlight for Mason's cosplay, I think.

We went with Mason's friend Molly who went as Kyubey from Madoka Magica. I saw a number of other Kyubey's but Molly was the only one who had the actual magical girl contract and soul gems for people to have. Most of the people Molly asked knew enough about the anime NOT TO SIGN THE CONTRACT. But she found a few to play along and those that did were really, really charmed by the soul gems she handed out (which I think were Lego gems or possibly beads).

Molly as Kyubey:

Kyubey as Kyubey:

Since I wasn't in costume and was mostly playing "mom," I ended up going to more paneling than I normally would at Detour. I went to two panels which were different versions of "What You Should Be Watching." The first one was run by a guy I instantly mentally labeled as "Anime Hipster" because, while these two things should be mutually exclusive, this was a guy who experienced anime the way hipsters experience everything: ironically. So, you know, his recommendations were all super-obscure and kind of arty in a way that didn't appeal to me because I am a rube who does not appreciate the finer things in life and how awesome irony is when its very IRONIC. For the most part I watched his recommendations with a lot of head shaking.

However, I did write down a live-action show called Aoi Honoo/Blue Blaze which is about a manga artist student in the 1980s.

The other panel like this I attended I actually ended up writing down a couple of recommendations. This person still had things on her list that I wasn't fond of, but Mason noticed right away that one of my favorite anime of this last year, "Barakamon," was on her list.

Of hers, the one I thought I'd be most likely to watch is called Hamatora. Mason pretty much loved all of her recs, but I only wrote down this one and one other, Akatsuki no Yona/Yona of the Dawn.

Though I think Mason and I have agreed to try Hamatora first, just because the action in the clip she showed us looked super cool.

Otherwise, as mom, I spent a lot of time hanging out at the manga library station because that was our designated "meet up" spot, and that way the kids could come and go from there as they pleased. I brought along GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith, which I'd been reading, and mostly just sat on a bean bag chair on the floor and alternated between people watching and reading. Even so, the press of people really wore me out.

A good time was had however.