Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Book Club 3: This Time It's Personal

It's that time again, kids! Yes, it's time to get your read on. And because this is the third annual* book club book recommendation, I'm recommending twice the books for twice the fun!

Sort of!

So the first book I want to recommend is one you might already be familiar with. It's 'The Princess Bride' by William Goldman. You've no doubt seen the movie and heard the quotes and considered buying the t-shirts. I personally recommend the 25th or 30th anniversary edition because it has more features that are quite enjoyable. 'The Princess Bride' is a lot of fun and you should read it. I approve this message!

The second book is not actually a book, it is a series of books. It is 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler.) Yes, I am recommending that you, all you adults out there, read a thirteen book series aimed at children. At least read the first one and maybe the fourth. Books two and three are sort of optional in that they don't do much that the first one didn't. Book four is where it really picks up. But regardless, I say read them all. They're quite enjoyable.

But I'm not just here to recommend books that are good. You can find those books without me. I'm here to recommend books that will teach you something.

Both 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' and 'The Princess Bride' will teach you to be weird. Being weird is good. It's good to be different, to stand out, to be noticeable.

You see there's a standard for books. We see the standard all the time and we learn to write a book like these standard books and there is nothing wrong with that. Many great books are standard books. Some of the greatest books are standard books. But they're still standard. They follow the set conventions. One convention is particular is that the world of the book and the world of the reader are separate and do not intrude on each other. We the reader are not a part of the book and we acknowledge that the book is not a historical record and we're okay with that.

Not these books.

William Goldman provides a framing device for his books in which he is not writing the story but abridging it for re-publication. The book has a fictional history, the world has a fictional history and William Goldman has a fictional history but by constantly addressing us, the reader, and by providing a framing device like this, he blurs those lines and invites us to be a part of the world in which the story is taking place. 'The Princess Bride' is a story told in layers. Both the creation of the book is a story and the book is a story.

It's hard to explain.

I have to admit I didn't care much for it at first and I sometimes wished that William Goldman and his framing device would get lost and let me just read the book. But in the end it grew on me and I became as much involved in the fake story about the book as the fake story that is the book.

Head spinning yet?

You'll have to read it to get a full grasp of what I'm talking about.

A little easier is 'A Series of Unfortunate Events.' The framing device here is similar: The story is real, the people and places are real. The narrator (Lemony Snicket) is a character in this world, a researcher reaching the story, and he is telling the story to the reader. Daniel Handler (as Lemony Snicket) constantly addresses the reader to remind us that the story is true and that there are many happier and less unfortunate stories you could be reading.

Again, the author is blurring the line between the world of the book and the world of the reader by directly speaking to the audience and asking them to believe that they are also a part of the world. You see in the world of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' by Lemony Snicket, there is a book called 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' and it is written by Lemony Snicket and that book is the same book as the one you are reading.

Chew on that idea for a little while and let it settle in your brain's stomach.

Now you might like this way or writing or you might hate it. You might decide to try something similar or you may not. The point is that we have conventions - many of them for a good reason - and we write within those conventions - often for a good reason. But some people don't and we should be aware that we don't have to, either.

As authors we do not read for just enjoyment but also to learn. We learn from those who succeeded and failed before us. William Goldman and Daniel Handler have succeeded and met with much acclaim for their work and they did it, in part, by breaking with convention. Whether or not we walk a similarly unconventional path, we can learn from what they did and we should be aware that rules can be broken.

Jive to your own groove, kids, and keep writing.

*Not really annual.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Soap Box:Don't Feed The Trolls

Fair warning, this post is me doing a bit of soap boxing and some thinking out loud. If you're here for writing type stuff, go on and skip this one and I'll see you next time.

I don't like the word troll. Specifically, the way we use the term for 'internet trolls.'

I've been on this here internets for a long time now and, as the man said, "I've seen shit that will turn you white."

Way back when, around the time the term "troll" started being used, a troll was a kind of prankster. They were the people who spent their internet time dicking with others on whatever forum they happened to be a part of. To call them "devil's advocate" is too be far too generous, but they got their jollies winding people up and fanning the flames of controversy. A troll would drop into a conversation, leave a short inflamatory comment about something, and duck out again.

If I had gone onto a Lord of The Rings fan forum in 2001 and said "This movie is basically a rip off of the Dungeons and Dragons movie that came out last year." and then sat back and watched the fans go nuts trying to prove me wrong and give me an enraged historical lesson on Lord of The Rings, we'd call me a troll.

There's an old joke on 4chan known as "The day /b/ went too far." Google this at your own peril. You'll probably be offended. But the idea is that one person posts a specific picture and asks if anybody has seen it. Everybody who is in on the joke responds with messages like "Too soon, OP." and "Oh god, why did you have to remind me?" and everybody who hasn't been around starts asking what the picture is and why everybody is so upset and nobody tells them exactly why, but keeps on making a fuss about how heart broken they are. It's all done to mess with the newbies.

This is trolling. You could call it juvinile, you could call it a lame way to get your kicks. You can criticise it in all kinds of ways but what you could not call it is damaging or illegal.

Somewhere along the way, the word has changed. I'm tempted to blame news media. The word got picked up by some reporter who didn't understand it but used it anyway. It could also be just plain old evolution of language. How it happened doesn't matter.

But I don't like it.

Because lately there has been a lot of talk about trolls, especially in regards to things like Gamers Gate and similar internet controversy. And now, when we hear reports of people getting threatened with rape and murder, when people's home addresses are shared online against their will, when private data and photographs are hacked and spread around, when people are verbally abused and stalked online or campaigns of hate and character assassination are launched against them, we call it trolling. These are internet trolls.

I can think of some better terms. Scum of the earth, assholes and criminals all come to mind.

Make no mistake, many of these things we call "trolling" are actual crimes. If you did this shit offline, you would be arrested.

I can see no reason why troll should become a euphemism. I see no reason why we shouldn't call a stalker a stalker or why the asshole in the YouTube comments is described as "trolling" when what he is doing is "threatening to break into your house and violently rape you." If you said this to somebody in a bar or on the street, nobody would call you a troll, they'd just call the police.

I don't like the way we use the word troll. It's not because I am resistant to the way language changes out of principal and not because trolling used to be something so harmless. It's because when we call this "trolling" we are hiding what it really is and making it sound a lot less damaging than it really is. These kinds of serious and aggressive actions don't need euphemisms, they need stopping.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Failure Is A Dead End

I'm going to keep talking about success and failure in narrative because it's an important and broad topic and we should all be aware of it.

Last time we spoke I said that success should come with conditions and unconditional successes are boring and should not be common for your protagonist. I'm going to expand on this a little and we'll do that by talking about doors.

A locked door is a basic catch all obstacle for narratives. The protagonist wants to go through the door but the door is locked. The door might not be a door, it might be a wide chasm, a foe he has to fight, a guardsman to sneak by, a shape shifting fox woman he must seduce, a wall he much climb, etc. etc. The point is, when I say "locked door" I'm using it as a kind of stand in for any obstacle which your protagonist must do something to in order to get past it to his or her goal.

A Locked Door.

Broadly speaking, there are four results that can come from trying to go through the locked door. I'm going to borrow RPG terminology again because it's where my brain is lately. Your protagonist can have a...

Critical Success (They get through the door.)
Conditional Success (They get through the door but with a consequence.)
Failure (They do not get through the door.)
Critical Failure (They do not get through the door and something bad happens.)

We've covered why Critical Success is dull and Conditional Success is preferable. So now we'll cover Failure and Critical Failure.

I may have said that writing your protagonist to fail instead of succeed is generally preferable as it does a better job of building tension and drama and excitement and all that good stuff. This is true. But you can write yourself into a trap very easily in doing this so be careful.

Failure is, or can easily be, a dead end. Your protagonist tries to break through the Locked Door and his attempts end in Failure. Now the protagonist is in front of the Locked Door and what he wants is on the other side and he... What? He tries again? He gives up and goes home? More than likely he walks off and finds another Locked Door to go through to reach his objective.

We have a couple of problems immediately with these options. If he can just try again or find another route, then your scene runs the risk of being pointless. It has become padding. If you took this scene out and started with his second attempt to overcome the Locked Door (or his attempt at a different Locked Door) and that's where he succeeds, then you've lost nothing except words and time. It hasn't impacted the plot.

If you can excise a scene from your book and it doesn't change the plot in any way, then maybe that scene shouldn't be there anyway. Judge for yourself. Give scenes purpose.

So Failure at the Locked Door creates problems with your narrative. It can mean pointless scenes and it can mean narrative dead ends (more on this later.)

So instead, consider a Critical Failure. Your protagonist tries to break through the Locked Door. Your protagonist not only fails, but he alerts all the Locked Door's friends of what he's doing and they start gunning for him. Or he fails to break through the Locked Door and knocks himself unconcious, letting the Locked Door take him prisoner. Maybe the Locked Door knew he was coming all along and prepared a trap to drop the failing protagonist into a vat of toxic waste.

What all these results have in common is that they create new scenes out of the protagonist's failure. They up the tension and up the ante and make things happen and move us from one event into another natural event. No dead ends here.

Before we finish I'd like to just elaborate on this idea of a "dead end."

When I say dead end, I'm talking about a scene that stops the narrative flow and forces your protagonist to start again and build up more momentum. A story shouldn't always be moving at 100km/h but it should always be moving. Anything that grinds the flow of scenes to a halt and stall your plot is probably a bad thing.

You might be thinking of another kind of dead end, however. The kind of dead end that impacts you the writer. You say in Chapter 1 "The only way to get the McGuffin is to go through Locked Door 1. There are no other Locked Doors." And then in Chapter 2 the protagonist gets to Locked Door 1 and tries to go through and he fails - because Carl said failures are better - and now you don't know what to do because there's nothing else your protagonist can do to. We call this "writing into a corner." It's something I hear mentioned from time to time and don't worry because it's really easy to fix.

Delete the corner. Just go back, highlight that corner and delete it. Change things up and try again. Or even easier still is if any kind of failure is going to write you into a corner, give the protagonist a break and offer him a Conditional Success. Let him get the McGuffin from behind Locked Door 1 - but in doing so he breaks his leg and then in the next chapter that broken leg means fails to stop the antagonist from stealing his McGuffin.

Writing yourself into a corner sucks and we all do it from time to time, but all it takes is a little work to get out of it. No sweat. Corners are not the same as dead ends. They're more like creative road bumps or caltrops that you drop in front of yourself like a buffoon.

Okay, so, what did we learn today class? No dead ends! Failure is an option but it might be a sucky one so avoid it where you can.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Great Success With Terms and Conditions

Just a short one today because I accidentally stabbed my finger this morning and now typing is both difficult and painful. If I'm going to suffer, I'd rather suffer for a project and not the blog.

A belated wish for a Happy Easter for anybody who is into that kind of thing.

Easter is a long weekend here in Sydney, Australia. The Friday and the Monday are public holidays, which means four days of weekend. Somebody, many years ago, had the bright idea to use this weekend for a Tabletop Gaming Convention. I attend every year and, more often than not, I run RPGs over the weekend as my bit to help out the community. This year I ran Deadlands, if you're interested. Much for was had.

But a good friend of mine ran a game called Dungeon World. Dungeon World is a low crunch rule system that reminds me a lot of first edition Dungeons & Dragons, only with a lot less suck. But there's a very interesting rule in Dungeon World that I've often thought should be included in RPGs but, to my knowledge, hasn't been.

And that is, conditional success.

Now it's not uncommon for RPGs to have varying degrees of success. Most games have some kind of critical success mechanic in which a good roll is a success and a super good roll is a faster, better, cleaner success with a happy ending. That's normal. That's standard. Likewise there's fails and critical fails.

But Dungeon World has a conditional success, in which you succeed on your action at a price. That price might be you take a little bit of damage, you draw unwanted attention to yourself. You succeed in picking the lock but not before the patrolling guard gets back and sees you. In my experience, this is unique to Dungeon World.*

And it works well. But of course it works well. It works well in a tabletop RPG for the same reason it works well in, say, a book. A straight up success is boring. Too many successes is really boring. Failure creates tension, creates drama, creates story. The protagonist succeeding at something without consequence should be the least common kind of resolution to problems in a story you're telling. And when I say "without consequence" I mean consequences that matter after the fact. A chase scene in which your protagonist must outrun a killer cyborg armed with a chain hammer (part chainsaw, part war hammer) is tense and exciting, but if your hero gets away from the cyborg and crosses the border into Mexico where no cyborg may follow, then the drama only lasts until the end of that scene. If your hero gets across the border but drops his teddy bear, without which he can not sleep at night, then you've created a lasting consequence and created drama that lasts until he gets the bear back. You've also given yourself more avenues for story.

Failure is harder in a narrative game. I've mentioned this problem in regards to video games before, but it must be said about tabletop RPGs, too. Failure does not feel good. Players don't want to keep failing. We're trained to see failure as bad and success as good. When a protagonist in a book we are reading fails, it pushes us to the edge of our seat and makes us bite our nails and drives us to keep reading, but it is not as though we failed. We're just spectators. But in a game, where we are not spectators, we want to succeed and feel awesome.

And I don't begrudge anybody wanting to feel good, it's just that it limits how we can tell stories. That's not so good.

Dungeon World has found a way around this by adding a very simple mechanic that replicates the way we write stories for books and movies. By adding a fifth option to the failure/success spectrum, it opens up new opportunities for excitement and conflict in the game. Dungeon World even goes so far as to making this the most likely version of success you get. It makes sense and more designers should use such a mechanic.

And so in the way that the designers of Dungeon World took from literary theory to improve their game, so can we use Dungeon World as a reminder to ourselves of how we can write better.** So I encourage you to make note here and do as Dungeon World do. Failure for your heroes is always best, but when failure is not an option, make them suffer for it, give your protagonists consequences to go with their victory. Give all triumphs conditions. Your readers will thank you for it.

*Various FATE systems make it more or less implicit that you can do this, but only as a thing that is encouraged and not as a core part of the mechanic.
** Role playing and RPGs very rarely serve as a good source of writing lessons. Role playing and writing are not the same thing and should not be mistaken for the same thing. Write to practice writing. Don't role play to practice writing.