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Topics - Yora

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Writers' Corner / Always on the move
« on: September 16, 2019, 10:42:31 AM »
In the five years that I have been dabbling in writing on and off, I always only created fragments for short stories, but have never been able to put together a complete narrative that I found satisfying enough to develop fully. The typical 3x400 pages quest to confront and defeat the evil tyrant or stop the demon lord just isn't doing it for me, and it's hard to think of fantasy works that don't follow this template. Neither can I get excited for the vagabond who constantly looks for opportunities to refill his purse by killing things for other people. It's just not things I can relate to or that feel meaningful to me.

When I came back to it recently to give it another try and collected my thoughts on which works I know that have structures I find compelling, I found that several of them follow a pattern of protagonists searching for something that is always somewhere beyond the horizon, with very little sense of progress, and encountering various local conflicts they are forced to interact with before they can continue on their way.
Examples are the movies Fury Road, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Riddick series, and my all time favorite movie The Empire Strikes back. But I really became aware of the pattern when I played the game Metro Exodus last month. It's about a group of soldiers who are forced to flee their ruined city and cross the post-apocalyptic wastelands to search for a place they can live, and perhaps even be a new home for the other survivors they left behind in the burned out ruins. There is no main villain or threat to the world to be stopped, just the fact that they have to keep moving and can't go back. Along the way they run into various groups that block their path, which forces them to get involved with the local conflicts before they can be on their way. But the aspect that I find most interesting here is that they don't win the conflicts for one group or solve their problems, but only help making just enough progress to be able to get moving again. (Most of the movies I mentioned do have the tyrany overthrown at the end, but otherwise are quite similar.)

There are several things I quite like about that narrative approach. Most importantly, it allows for pretty self contained plots that are individually not that big, so it's not such a huge commitment to complete one huge work or be left with nothing to show for. But you also could continue it basically indefinitely if you want to. At the same time you can have continuity and ongoing character development among the group of protagonists.
But it also appeals to me thematically. By having characters stay only relatively briefly and wanting to move on before all loose ends are tied up, you avoid Destined Saviour protagonists, which just always feel a bit wrong to me. It also avoids that notion that everything can be fixed and will be alright with a single dramatic action, which just isn't how the world works. I find it much more meaningful to have stories about how small accomplishments make real believable differences within their limited space, instead of a narrative that things can only be made better by big heroic victories that only exist in fantasy. Or you even can have the protagonists fail and it isn't the end of the story. Instead they continue, having developed further from the experience.

I think this sounds pretty good. Maybe this could work for me?  I am still early in investigating this approach, looking for more examples and what exactly they do. Do you have any thoughts what aspects are central to making such a structure work and what possible points of failure to look out for?

Fantasy Book & Author Discussion / Can Fun be deep and meaningful?
« on: May 10, 2018, 03:40:05 PM »
When I look at all the stories I really like, almost all of them are at least somewhat grim and bleak, though often with a bit of hope at the end (that often feels somewhat out of place at that point). Yet I am not at all a grim or bleak person and see myself as unusually cheery and optimistic compared to other people. Something doesn't seem to fit together there. But probably, it actually does. Somehow.

Why is it that stories that seem relevant and meaningful tend to fall into a somewhat bleak category? Where is the space for fun in these works? Or is there actually space for both?

No really specific question here, but the relationship between fun and meaning strikes me as an odd one, that probably holds some very useful insight for writers.

Sci-Fi, Horror, YA & Urban Fantasy Books / Supernatural Space Opera
« on: May 01, 2018, 09:15:31 PM »
Has there been anything good in recent years? I am thinking of stuff that is basically epic fantasy set in space, like Dune or Star Wars. Something older that isn't that well known would also be appreciated.

Writers' Corner / The Episodic Series Format
« on: April 30, 2018, 08:56:36 PM »
The format of an episodic series has a great appeal for me, primarily because of practical considerations than narrative ones. It allows the author to add new episodes at whatever pace, lets you get from planning to release fairy quickly, and does not tie you into obligations to give a answers to questions left open in the previous episodes. Planning a series of three, five, or ten books is a commitment I am not able to take. I'd most probably end up never releasing a single chapter.
Being able to write one story at a time, and if I feel like it, write another one whenever I want, seems to me like the only realistic way to get my big vision on the page.

But I am also very much struggling with this format as my concept becomes more concrete.Making the stories not build on each other makes it very difficult to have the events having a meaningful impact on the character.There are three works that are using this format that made me become interested in. The Conan and Kane stories and the Indian Jones movies. I think Conan and Kane are both characters who don't really learn anything or grow in meaningful ways. Conan has a slightly different temperament in his youth than in his age, but that's about it.
He doesn't really want anything but to show of his prowress. Once he impressed or intimidated people in one place, he goes in search of adventure somewhere else where he can show off. And Kane is an unrepentant evil immortal who has been at the same game of refusing to escape his eternal torture in death for houndreds or even thousands of years. Refusing to change is the essence of his character. I enjoy reading both character's stories a lot, but when you try to define them they are really shallow and I always have a hard time to figure out the real stakes.
Indiana Jone is different. The movies don't much build on each other and the character doesn't show any sign of change, but the two movies that are universally regarded as the best by far are really carried by their subplots of Indy trying to salvage his broken relationships with Marion and his father. The main plots about snatching a magic artifact before the Nazis do neer have any real stakes that would be interesting. But how often can you pull that off? The movies did it twice but then the formula is worn out.

In a strictly eoisodic series, how can you integrate peronal stakes and make events impactful to the protagonist?

Writers' Corner / Are you an Artist?
« on: April 15, 2018, 08:24:57 PM »
With a capital A. Do you regard your writing not so much as an attempt to master expert craftsmanship in storytelling, but more as an expression of abstract ideas and ideals?

We don't have to make this about great artists, or even good artists. I certainly don't  see myself as one yet. But on some days I find myself being drawn deeply into stuff that I usually regard as pretentious bullshitting. Like the limited perception of reality and our distorted mental images of it, the meaning of faith, searching for subjective morality, the relationships between text, audience, and author, or how the medium of literature affects the message and can manipulate the reader. And I get really excited about working it into writing.  ;D

Anyone else making such considerations, or are you fully pushing this away into literary BS?

Writers' Corner / Insights made about writing
« on: April 14, 2018, 09:31:08 PM »
I guess in the lives of writers, there are frequently moments when you start to realize or learn something that you didn't before. Often not something huge or groundbreaking, but sometimes they are. Things that usually don't warrant to make a big announcement, but that still are steps to improving your writing. And I think a lot of these things might actually be just as useful to other writers in some way as well, even if it's just to add another small piece to larger puzzles about storytelling. So I'd really like to hear what things you've discovered or stumble upon in the future.

The realization I just made is that at the center of all Noir stories, there are characters who all don't fully trust each other. Nobody really trusts anyone. The big majority of all action is simply two or more characters having quiet conversations in which they try to get useful information from one another while subtly communicating that they know the other is up to something. They don't know what, but they are sure the other is trying to trick them in some way. They may have close allies whom they trust with valuables and sometimes even their lives, but never with their feelings. Everyone is always in a state of weary distrust around other people, that really is the core of the entire Noir style.

Writers' Corner / Making great stories ouf of simple plots
« on: April 11, 2018, 07:02:14 PM »
Fantasy is a style of fiction that, especially in recent decades, has a great love for highly complex plots. Lots of characters with lots of different motivation and numerous plans and agendas that keep crossing and disrupting each other, and with a good amount of surprising revelations and discoveries along the way. Stuff you can fill 5, 10, or even 14 doorstoppers with before it's all wrapped up. It's what is considered the default and what lots of writers seem to aspire to after getting some practice with a trilogy or two. And there's a lot of advice for writing fantasy stories that assumes something of this type.

Thing is, this is not really my kind of stuff. I'm much more interested in writing stories that are much shorter in comparison and focus more on exciting moments than complex long term webs of intrigue. To make a comparison, my ideal is less a 5 season TV show and more a 120 minute movie. And when you look at the stories you see in movies, they are mostly really incedibly simple. It's rare to find some kind of action adventure movie and ask yourself "Who is that guy again? What was it that he wants? When did that happen? Why is this important?" Instead these stories become compelling because of the action that is happening is entertaining, or because the characters who are doing them are interesting.

It's not like this is completly alien to literature either. Conan, Elric, and Kane stories also tend to have plots that are not much more complex than "He goes to a place, fights some, and discovers something weird at the end (and probably fights it too)." And some of them are really quite fantastic. Or even just try to sum of the plot of The Lord of the Rings. It's a real lightweight in that regard.

But while this sounds very easy, there's always the risk  of the story ending up having no real substance at all and being just stuff happening that doesn't feel meaningfully connected. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being the worst offender I can think of.) And so far, I've not made any real progress in trying to find any form of advice on writing compelling simple action heavy stories that work with a small cast and a very limited amount of exposition and turning points. Any thoughts or pointers on this subject?

At some point I pretty much lost track of what is being released in fantasy books and most new books I've heard about didn't sound very interesting to me. On a first glance from a diatance it all looked very samey. That whole "assassin has to uncover a conspiracy" thing that seemed to have been all the rage for a while. But I can't imagine this perception is actually accurate in any way.

What books from the last 20 years or so would you recommend for their quality of being creative and imaginative? The only name that comes to my mind is Perdido Street Station.

Writers' Corner / Character sheets (for highly developed characters)
« on: February 27, 2018, 08:48:22 PM »
I fully admit that I am not at all well read in current fantasy books, and not really much in the old classics either. But one thing that I feel I am encountering a lot is casts of characters that are overwhelmingly very nondescriptive. There are a couple protagonists who have been interesting enough to draw so that they now have a recognizable iconic look, but mostly the only memorable thing about them is the things they did. Most protagonists I can think of are either men or women, have a hair color, are sometimes given a height, and a type of weapon they use almost all the time. When it comes to secondary characters things are even worse.
I feel that this becomes a problem later on when such secondary characters show up again later and you can only recognize them if you remembered their name or they are reintroduced by their occupation. I find it much more interesting when you can remember them at least as "that giant with the huge club" or "that assistant with the blue coat who constantly insults people".

Now that I am working on a plot and start to have some ideas which roles will have to be filled, I am thinking of designing multi-dimensional characters with memorable traits before working out any of their scenes or dialogs. The way TV shows design their regular characters before they write scripts for them. And at least now, I still feel the want to give this treatment to every character with a speaking role who appears in more than one scene.

The idea that I have is to draw up a little character sheet for each proper character who appears in the story and list all the traits that stand out and could make the characters memorable: Unusual height or built, memorable pieces of clothing, noteworthy weapons or pieces of equipment, odd habbits or forms of speech, catchphrases, and things like that.
When you do this with every character I see the potential of the story being populated by over-stylized carricatures. But I think that might not necessarily be bad, even in a work with a serious tone and otherwise realistic aim.

So I now got an actual super rough idea for a story of book length and a pretty clear image of the kind of world it takes place in and what kinds of things the characters will run into. Among which are a lot of gods of the land and nature spirits that have a very extensive degree of control over the environment and climate, as well as priests, witches, and sorcerers who are trying to wrestle at least some of that control from them. Then there's also prominent naturally occuring objects and places of great magical powers. It's all going to be very magic heavy and mystical.

And yet, at  the same time, I find myself having absolutely no desire to really hammer out any specifics for how magic actually works. Where the energies come from, how it's controlled, how people learn to access it, how it affects things, and all that kind of stuff. It's not like I've made a deliberate choice to keep these things unexplained to the audience. I just really don't want to do this part of work. I've done it a couple of times in the past and I think it came out really well, but this time I just think about it and thing ...bleh.

I kind of feel like this is something that is going to be important and necessary. Something that I will need for a story with these central elements. But I am also feeling very unsure whether I just got tired of hammering out magic systems, or if my intuition is telling me that it's not appropriate to do so this time.  :P

Writers' Corner / Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« on: February 17, 2018, 05:53:14 PM »
Somehow I got the impression that storytelling in recent years has maybe been putting too much emphasis on surprising twists. There are a couple of really good ones, both now and from earlier, but a lot of fantasy fiction seems to be build around the expectation of an amazing revelation at the end of the story. The Sixth Sense was great and I love "I am your father", but these are both cases in which the real surprise is that there's a revelation at all. It wasn't like the whole plot was set up to make the audience wonder about the answer to a central question and then blow them away with something more amazing than they expected. That's a path I think is really hard to follow and pull off successfully.

When you tell the audience to get ready for a big amazing reveal and leave them in anticipation for 10 years, it's probably impossible to deliver anything that satisfies those expectations. This is a struggle I rather want to not fight at all, even though these days it probably will be the default expectation of most readers when you first release something and they don't yet know that this is not the way you write.

But I also feel that a story has to have a grand finale and there needs to be some kind of payoff at the end. Which becomes a bit more difficult when everyone is already expecting that the hero will kill the villain and get the girl in the last chapter. "Can the hero succeed" doesn't seem like a viable alternative to make the readers anticipating an ending with a nice payoff.

How else could a plot be approached to give it an ending that is exciting and makes the reader feel that their building anticipation had been worth it. I am quite fascinated by the idea of stories that deal with failures, setbacks, and limitations and with making protagonists more interesting by not having everything fall nicely into their lap at the end. From that, one potential approach to tension and eventually payoff that comes to my mind is to make the readers wonder how much losses the heroes will suffer until the end and how much they will end up having to pay for their victory. Like when the heroes decide to assault a stronghold in chapter 16 and you're dreading which nine out of the ten characters will still be around in chapter 24 and how many hands and eyes they will have together. But you can't really sacrifice one or two relevant characters every significant confrontation, so this approach would still need some further refining.

Writers' Corner / Working with symbolic imagery
« on: February 11, 2018, 08:55:48 AM »
I've recently been playing the Dark Souls games a lot, which are quite well known for their intricate worldbuilding. And one thing that keeps striking me as something that looks really interesting for writing is the constant and consistent use of repeated symbolic motives. Almost all of the magic and supernatural stuff in that world either takes the form of, or is described in terms of fire, ash, and bone. It's a world in which fire is the original creative source, but as every fire it eventually burns out leaving only ash. And without the creative energy of fire, people are starting to become undead, which is where the bone imagery comes from.
These images of fire, ash, and bone are absolutely eveywhere. Whenever someone talks about the power of the gods or the human spirit, it's done in fire based terminology. And there are lots of magic bones, ash, and coals that retain some of the divine energy, as well as plenty of magic spells described as projecting the power of the sun. It may seem a bit overdone, but I think it actually works really well. (They also made another game called Bloodborne which has everything themed around blood, eyes, and werewolves.)

I don't remember such an approach being used in other works of fantasy to such an extend. Fire and ice occasionally as a dualism, but without the whole theological and cosmological framework that covers the setting as a whole.

I've been thinking about how I could try something similar with the world I am working on, and two visual themes came almost immediately to my mind. Trees and water. And on second thought, there are so many things you can talk about in tree metaphors. The first thing that I think of as a gardener is structure. A solid trunk that connects roots that are firmly anchored in the ground with a wide spanning canopy that consists of endlesly differentiating branches. Trees also take nutrients and water from the earth and sunlight from the sky, to create life between the two. Wood is also a material that is both solid and flexible and can easily be shaped, and before steel and plastic was the main material from which people made almost anything. Trees also have fruits, which in Europe have been very essential to supplement a grain based diet. And there is so much symbolism you can tap into with the image of fruits.
And it also helps that I base the world somewhat on northeast Europe, where trees have long had a very central role in religious imagery and symbolism. I also like architecture for fantastic places that is very vertical, like towers and very high colums. These can easily be described in tree based terminology.

Water is also quite cool. I used to think of it as the most boring of the elements, but I've come to regard it as the most interesting in it's symbolism. Water is the source of life, and also a symbol of purity, with it being the primary cleaning agent throughout all history. Yet at the same time, water can be incredibly powerful and also destructive. Storms feel so much worse when it also rains, and you have of course all the flooding. Water can swallow up land in very short time and sweep things away to be gone forever. In northern European culture, water is also a gateway to the underworld. Swampy ponds with deep black bottoms are passages to the world of spirits, and the surface of the ocean sits on top of an endless, cold, black abyss that can swallow everything and make it literally vanish from the face of the earth forever. And in a setting focused on costal areas and ship travel, this is something that people are dealing with on an everyday basis.

I also really like fog. It is obscuring and also confusing, but is also associated with illusions and in extension also premonitions. And in a setting based on cold coastal swamplands it's something you can add to scenes all the time and it's something that people would believably make regular use of in metaphors.

I think this is a really cool approach to come up with a religious terminology that people in a setting are using to make sense of the world around them, and it can also be used to add a consistent feel to natural magic instead of scientific human created systems of categorization.

Writers' Corner / Starting close to the end
« on: January 30, 2018, 08:50:48 PM »
Really just an idea that occured to me. But what about writing a story that starts close to the end of the overall plot. Only the final chapters, so to speak. The protagonists and antagonists all know each other for a long time and have a lot of shared history. No flashbacks and only limited exposition. Think of the Iliad, it really only covers the last days of a complex war with dozens of characters that had already been going for years.

It's an approach that works very well in short stories and that I've seen on occasion in other media, but never in a novel. Could this work in longer form? Or would readers automatically have questions about past events that would require a flashback if the story goes on for a certain time? Somehow I imagine such a book would feel pretty artsy.

I was just thinking of how I might go about to search for new books that would deliver what I am looking for in fantasy and it occured to me that at least from the way books from recent years are being discribed and discussed, they seem to be overwhelmingly about politcs, spying, and thieving in big cities. I can't really think of any book from the past 20 years in which wilderness is not just something characters are passing through briefly on their way between places, but in which it takes and active and central role in the plot and the perception of the characters.
I can think of some sci-fi books in which some alien presence turns nature against humans, but I am not aware of anything like that in fantasy.

Does it exist? Was it ever really big outside The Lord of the Rings? Where did it go?

Fantasy Book & Author Discussion / Magically mutable worlds
« on: January 20, 2018, 09:40:31 PM »
Recently I've been fascinated with the concept of fantasy worlds in which supernatural forces are changing the environment or even reality and where these forces can be influenced to some extend by people. Either through active magical influence or just the believes or conditions of the people or special individuals. The most explicit examples I can think of are from RPGs and videogames, but the concept does shine through in The Last Unicorn and The Neverending Story, at least from what I remember. It's also in Andersen's Snow Queen (don't know the English title) and the legend of the Fisher King, whose realm is sick and depressed because he is.

I'm always somewhat tired of stories where the heroes have to go on a dangerous adventure because of a villain who simply enjoys destroying and enslaving everything. These often don't have much room for meaningful reflections on what to do about the situation and which of the many options are actually desirable. You got to straight up murder that guy and that solves everything. And at the same time I often feel underwhelmed by protagonists who simply want glory and riches. They are fun in the moment but tend to lack meaningfulness in the long run.

But making or keepin the world more livable is a cause I can totally get behind. It's also one with potentially a lot of different options what to change specifically, of which many are no more or less correct than the other and all of them will have very serious consequences. It also comes through in Princess Mononoke where the antagonist wants to buy off the emperor to leave her outcast sanctuary alone by getting him the head of a forest god that possesses such a power over the land. Everyone wants to improve living conditions for their people but the consequences are nightmarish. A great source for complex conflicts with deeper meanings, that at the same time allow for a lot of very fantastic stuff to appear or happen.

I think it kind of relates to the classic fantasy image of the cosmic forces of Order and Chaos, as in Elric, Lodoss War, and a whole lot more. Does anyone know of good books that have this element of supernatural forces altering the environment in dramatic ways that go beyond the simple Order and Chaos opposition?

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