October 23, 2019, 01:08:13 AM

Author Topic: Always on the move  (Read 415 times)

Offline Yora

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?

Offline S. K. Inkslinger

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #1 on: September 16, 2019, 10:52:26 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?

The Dark Tower series also worked on the wondering and always on the move theme, and showed that books in written in this way could work wonderfully. I'm all supportive of your ideas, Yora. I think that as long as you write what you are confident you could really put everything in, whatever you're writing is going to be worth all the effort.

If anything should be watched out for, hmh... taking from the Dark Tower I'd say if your character is looking for something grand, something that finally marked the end of all those traveling around, you had to be really careful with its ending. Readers' expectations could grow to an insurmountable height, and it will be hard to make a good ending that'll fit all of their expectations. (Pretty much the issue of the last book of the Dark Tower series)

Offline Yora

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #2 on: September 16, 2019, 11:33:54 AM »
I totally have to read at least the first Dark Tower book. I've only heard good things about it, and it should certainly be educational.

Ending is of course a big problem with such an approach. I actually think any series like this can't have an ending. And I also have a personal fascination with the insignificance of everything in an infinite and uncaring universe and finding meaning in things that nobody will remember.
But even such an approach needs to be communicated sufficiently to not create the impression that everything is building towards a resolution that brings clear and amazing answers. You don't want audiences to leave feeling like watching X-Files, Lost, or Game of Thrones. But many of my favorite works have a gradual realization in the second half that the heroes are not going to make it and even in the best case there won't be much of a reward. Determination in the face of futility is a very strong theme when done right.

Spoiler for Dark Tower:
I seem to remember having heard that Dark Tower doesn't really have a resolution and at the end there's exactly the same situation as at the start.

Offline Magnus Hedén

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Re: Always on the move
« Reply #3 on: September 16, 2019, 11:59:18 AM »
Structuring the plot like that is entirely possible as long as the overarching narrative isn't forgotten. Are we talking about a novel here or something more episodic? Because the biggest problem this type of plot structure has is that it's difficult to maintain for long within a larger narrative. If you're not careful you end up telling many stories instead of one story. That's not a problem if you're writing a bunch of connected short stories. But it's a problem if it's within a single novel.

If you do it in a novel, then if you add a bunch of encounters along the way those encounters need to be tied into that main narrative -- meaning they must be advancing it in some noticeable way. I think "self-containing stories" are a huge pitfall in that case. If you've given your characters a purpose and then don't follow up on that, there's a big risk the readers will lose interest. At its core, the narrative of a novel should be telling one story. A story without an overarching narrative structure will fail to keep the reader's attention. Imagine telling a kid you're going hunting for easter eggs and then stopping to smell every flower along the way. Now imagine the kid is your readers' subconscious. :D

But maybe your plan is to make each such encounter a story in its own right (i.e. a full novel or a short story each). Then "the chase" isn't so much a narrative as a part of the setting. That would work better, but it all comes down to how you introduce it. If you start out by imprinting your readers with "WE MUST FIND EDEN" then every moment your characters aren't looking for Eden, the readers will be unsatisfied. You've made it a part of the story. But if your characters are travelling because they have no choice and there happens to be a myth about Eden that some believe and others don't, then that's a part of the setting, and you'll have more room to manoeuvre.

I hope these thoughts help. I'd articulate them better but I'm short on time. And I'm trying to write something about this as a blog post but I haven't quite found the vocabulary yet. Storytelling fascinates me.
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Offline Yora

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #4 on: September 16, 2019, 02:52:31 PM »
I was thinking about episodic. I see it also possibly working for a novel, but that would indeed require a connecting continous narrative arc.

Thinking of the movement as setting instead of plot had not occured to me, but now that you mention it it sounds absolutely right. This is probably quite useful to understand.

In light of that, the motivation to move would probably work much better as a push instead of a pull. With a pull there is a clear expectation of eventually getting there, unless something makes it impossible or pointless to continue. A push can persist forever because the characters move away from it and not toward it.

Offline Skip

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #5 on: September 16, 2019, 05:35:20 PM »
The archetype for this is the detective. Go all the way back to Lawrence Block, or look at Michael Connelly, but there are many other authors. Where someone like Hercule Poirot is pretty much unchanged from one book to the next, these more modern authors have each novel quite self-contained, but the main character changes and grows over the course of a dozen or twenty novels. There's not really an overall arc, just the life of the character. My very favorite is Easy Rawlins, in Walter Moseley's series. Not only do we see Easy change, we see Los Angeles change around him.

So, yeah, totally doable. And your notion differs from the detectives in that they tend to stay in one locale, whereas you're picturing your hero moving from one place to another.

Offline Yora

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #6 on: September 16, 2019, 07:28:17 PM »
Detective stories are also episodic, but I think that's most of the extend to which these overlap. As you said, a detective usually stays in one place, and he also gets involved in the conflicts of other people without personal investment other than pay and optionally an obligation to duty. It's rare to see detectives working to save their own hides. You also have this with monster hunters for hire or the typcical adventurer drifter.

Offline cupiscent

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #7 on: September 17, 2019, 12:58:10 AM »
In general, I am not fond of "journey" plot structures, because a lot of it seems to depend on "here is the next encounter" and I prefer an ineluctable progression of plot.

BUT, that said, it's a structure that a lot of people enjoy. AND I am currently reading Max Gladstone's Empress of Forever, which is both a space-opera (with hefty dose of Wuxia - neither of them things that particularly float my boat) and a journey story (almost Journey To The West in places) and yet I am still enjoying the heck out of it. I think it's because it's hinged so very much on strong characters - their emotional journeys progress right alongside the physical journey.

So for me, that's the thing to bear in mind: your journey is stronger if it is driven by character needs, if they find things they need as well as things they want.

Offline Yora

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #8 on: September 17, 2019, 09:08:46 AM »
I actually thing the journey format has been quite overdone a good time ago. But what alternatives are there? The one other option I see is court intrigue, and that really isn't my thing.
As with all stereotypes, I don't think the problem is that they have been done so many times that they become boring, but that they have been done in always the same way too much. Everything can be made interesting again if you use it in new ways. What people get bored with is feeling like they read basically the same thing again and again.

Offline Bender

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #9 on: September 17, 2019, 07:02:47 PM »
My first thoughts were David Gemmel's Jon Shannow books and King's Dark Tower (though I prefer Jon Shannow by far). And the best visual example would be Stargate SG-1.

For me, as a end result viewer the biggest hurdle would be the balance between the character development vs overarching plot progress. The experiences of individual episodes must in some way link back to main plot, else as MH mentions, it'd become a short story collection. 

Other major drawback is that this does got give much room for various relationship dynamics. Unless it is within the set of protagonists, concepts like falling in love, death of loved on etc which are usually character build cornerstones have far less opportunities.

Again, it depends on the story and theme. Irrespective, just go ahead.
Not all those who wander are lost

Offline bdcharles

Re: Always on the move
« Reply #10 on: September 26, 2019, 11:54:40 AM »
This is, for me, why I get excited about themes. Instead of writing about some distant quest, if I focus on some more relatable issue like, I dunno, let's take "class divide", and get my characters to work to resolve that, then the story doesn't depend quite so much on various set pieces like "which distant realm will they travel to". Those things then aren't the make-or-break elements they might be and can be incuded to serve the theme resolution rather than being the point themselves. I feel that's too much to ask of them. So my MC might have to travel to faraway dragon land because she's poor, let's say. She needs more cash cos I dunno, her aunt is ill or something and she can't afford the magic turnips to heal her. Everyone else has magic turnips, she says. Some tiny domestic problem. She gets to faraway land and in among the fabulous castles and spiralling cockatrices it's all landed gentry who don't give her the time of day. What, then, is she to do? She's a plucky little thing so she'll probably blag work as a maid in a castle that clings like a limpet to the crags of the nearby Big Fantasy Mountain. Then she'll come to the attention of a footman. Then a mid-level staffer who sympathises (being from the same roots herself). This staffer also has a friend who deals in dragons so woohoo she gets to ride on one to go and find the butler, who's on urgent business (cos there's a war brewing, don'tcha know) in an even more magical land. He is in fact acting as envoy to the Countries of the Naga. She flies there - more woohoo flying fantasy dragon naga-land, check-check, check, everything's fabulous and marvellous but of course each naga in the place is hostile to her (the war is between the naga and the humans, over [insert magical resource here - perhaps it's turnip friendly soil]). She gets pressganged into a conflict. Eventually she hears rumour of the butler visiting the camp and sneaks out of her conflict tent to speak to him. It's a real headache to even get close to him but she BS's her way in because there's one naga who quite likes her, whom she takes advantage of. She's pretty worn out by this stage so none of it's easy. But eventually, and because she's so plucky and darnit, so likeable, he promises to arrange a meeting with the king. She can't remember why she wanted to meet the king, and she and the bulter have a little laugh over that. Then the naga who's taken a liking to her (and look at that, we've got a diversity subtheme and all the conflict that entails) pops up again so maybe, just maybe, she could be the one to help unite the races if she hadn't BS'd to him. This the butler sees so it's all the more important she gets to meet the king. His patronage, she remembers, she was after his patronage. The King is in a distant realm fighting some other part of the battle but they must get to him, they must - but all the dragons are in war so they must walk unseen through the occupied lands. War is all around. Battle, battle. But towards the end they get to the King, only to find the old bugger's just been knifed through the heart. As the regal light fades from his eyes she and the butler look at each other. Well this is interesting, they say. All you wanted was a turnip. Look where it's got you now - access to a whole realm of special soil. And you lied to your fancy-naga over there to get to me, so well done with the war effort. You're in a big mess. How will your landworker friends back in Humble Homeland like you now :)

Point? Writing to resolve a theme can generate all sorts of interesting stuff that you can clip neat fantasy content onto.
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