Two Reasons I Liked Rogue One

Reminder: Don’t forget about free books!

I feel like this post doesn’t need much of a prelude. Chances are that anyone reading has already seen the newest Star Wars story and doesn’t care about reviews or spoilers, so this is basically a structured rant about a fun adventure/war film. Because I like that sort of thing.

Cinematography…

So yes, I’ve seen Rogue One! I actually watched it about a week before I went to see Doctor Strange (which of course resulted in me wondering why Kaecilius looked so familiar), because although I’m not a Star Wars fan per se, the trailers caught my interest. It didn’t seem like the traditional huge space epic, but more like a smaller and more intricate war movie, which quite honestly appealed to me.

Now you’ve probably heard all the complaining: the pacing was off, the battles were tactless, the characterization was stuffy… and I can definitely agree with most of it. But in spite of all that, I still enjoyed the film. I can’t explain my thoughts precisely in a single sentence, but the closest I can get is this: Despite its mechanical flaws, Rogue One is a genius story idea that taught me two big lessons about writing. And- you guessed it- we’re talking about those two lessons today.

Cue the “blog post proper” theme song…

Reason #1: Most epic use of a plot hole.

Or a ventilation hole, come to think of it.

Anytime I think of plot holes, I think of How it Should Have Ended. Have you heard of it? HISHE is a comedy channel on YouTube that parodies popular movies by asking the question, “Why didn’t they just do X instead of Y?” Thus, they rewrite plots and plot holes and totally change the ending of a movie, to everyone’s amusement. (Note: I didn’t provide a link because HISHE isn’t always clean, and I don’t want to be yelled at for letting little kids watch it. Sorry, kids.)

Now as a moviegoer and fan, I appreciate such parodies and laugh when they humorously point out gaping plot holes. But, as a storyteller, I have a certain fear gnawing at the back of my mind- how does any writer end up with such glaring flaws? Authors’ worst nightmares consist of two things: plot holes, and no book sales. And if we overlook our plot holes, we also get no book sales. Lose-lose.

Well, now let’s talk about the genius of Rogue One.

I imagine that the brainstorming session looked something like this. A bunch of Star Wars fans who also had a thing for storytelling looked at one of the most famous plot holes of all time: why the heck was there a hole in the Death Star that led to the core of the machine? The question had been plaguing fans for years, and these storytellers dared to answer it: The hole was there because the rebels put it there.

For those of you who don’t know, the whole concept of Rogue One is that the guy who designed the Death Star realized too late the destruction it could bring, and he built in a secret weakness with the intent that the rebels could find it and destroy the weapon. Now, the daughter of that engineer and her team of rebels are out to find the plans and bring them to the Resistance.

Thus, what used to be a gaping plot hole becomes an epic heist film.

mind blown

Yeah, that’s how to tell a story.

Lesson learned: seek out and work with the plot holes. They can help you tell a better story.

Reason #2: The bravely creative ending.

Hope.

*spoilers warning spoilers warning spoilers warning*

Let us not mince words.

Everyone dies. 

Seriously, how insane is that? Let’s just leave aside the terrifying awesomeness of Darth Vader- although that, too, was a fantastic scene that no one will ever forget. Think about it; the last twenty or so minutes of the movie is literally a series of death scenes and sequels, which, I think, is quite a fitting end to a war movie about a Resistance team. It’s probably my favorite aspect of the movie: I got to watch a group of regular, courageous people give their lives for what they believed in. It drove the theme home so hard. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

You probably won’t believe this, but at the beginning of the movie, I took a bite of popcorn and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if they all died on this mission so that the rebels could save the galaxy? -But no, that’s crazy. No way would that work.”

And then it happened! Intentionally or not, the story set up a wild idea in my mind and then fulfilled it beyond all expectations.

sherlock benedict cumberbatch sherlock approves

But I have to stop and ask myself, how did that production meeting go? We writers know how it is when we kill just one character; what about a whole cast? There’s always that one lady who despises watching characters die- death is heartwrenching! There’s the money guy who’s still holding out for a sequel- no sequels unless you have characters! And then the focus groups analyst who says that killing characters makes people angry- look what happened to The Walking Dead!

Yet, despite all the craziness surrounding it, the production team went for it. And am I ever glad they did.

It’s the bravest endings that stick with us. Resolutions needn’t always be bleak, nor even tragic, but they should always be a fitting close to the tale we’re telling. And sometimes that means asking questions that sound insane:

What if the Greeks built a giant wooden horse?

What if Romeo and Juliet actually kill themselves?

What if the whole team dies on the planet?

Lesson learned: Ask the crazy questions; go for the extreme endings. They may turn out to be the most memorable stories. 

Well, here we are. No matter if you liked Rogue One or not, I think we can all take a lesson or two from the imaginations behind it, as well as learn from its failures. That’s the thing about movies- there has never been a film that can’t teach us something about writing. And now, thanks to one particular Star Wars Story, I’m inspired to be a braver writer than before.

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Very Young Writers: Break All the Rules!

Adobe Spark (3)

I’m starting a new series of sorts. Yeah, I sound like a Bible-belt preacher. But my little sister has been asking me all sorts of questions about what she should and should not do with the story she’s writing. At last, she asked me to write a blog series for writers her age who just can’t handle all this teenage-and-older advice.

As may be apparent, I thought it was a good idea. So this week I’m starting a new category of blogs written to Very Young Writers- VYWs, for short- in which I post random pieces of advice for writers who are just starting out. No explanation necessary; you know who you are. And if other blog readers are older and more experienced… you can still stick around and help me cook up some good tips.

So, dear VYWs, my first piece of advice is simple…

Break All The Rules

Let’s face it: we writers have made a lot of rules for ourselves. And that’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Who said that you have to write a certain way or else all the readers will line up and slap your hand?

Now, of course there is something to be said for the good advice of authors who have come before. After all, if you tell rather than show, people will probably yawn and put down your story. If you use bad grammar, people won’t understand the book at all. Some of these rules have a good purpose for published stories.

But- I hate to break it to you– chances are that you are not going to publish a book any time soon. I’m a good bit older than the average Very Young Writer, and I’m still considered rather young to be a published author. So spend your time now figuring out how writing works. Break the rules. At your age they don’t matter as much as experimenting, testing, rearranging, and finding your own style.

Critics say comedy stories always have happy endings? Make it sad anyhow. Older writers say you aren’t allowed to describe an object with a list of characteristics? Do it anyway. Teachers say you shouldn’t jump between viewpoint characters? Try it and see.

When you break the rules, one of two things will happen:

  1. You learn why the rules work and decide on the best way to follow them.
  2. You discover that the rules don’t work and make up some new ones.

I will let you in on a little secret: this is exactly how the rest of us older writers learned to write. For example, I learned story structure not by studying diagrams or reading K.M. Weiland’s advice (which is nonetheless very good), but by writing stories that had different structures. Some of them worked, others didn’t. No matter how many infographics I looked at, I would never have known until I tried it.

You have a brain, too, you know. Use that brain and try different things. The first a writer needs to have is an imagination. So, if you have that, don’t worry about making your story fit a set of rules. Good advice for your older sister just might be bad advice for you.

So break a few rules and find out.

Are you an older writer with some more advice? Or are you a VYW who has questions or ideas? Share it all in the comments. 

Playing by the Rules with Description

Narrative is tricky stuff.

Writing teachers throw all kinds of rules at us. Show, don’t tell. Vary the length of your sentences. Show, don’t tell. Adverbs are taboo. Show, don’t tell. Oh, did I mention showing and not telling?

Fantasy writers have the hardest job of all, it seems. When it comes to description, not only are we not allowed to tell rather than show (or use double-negatives), we also are forbidden from using certain narrative tools that help us get the job done. Why? Because some of those descriptions have no place in our fantasy worlds.

“Then Ramilon parked his Corvette by the Waterfall Gate.” (credit)

Let me show you. (Ha, look who’s following the rules!) Say I am writing a scene that takes place just after a battle. Elkay is collapsed beneath a tree, worn out and quite discouraged, when his wife Ivora comes to find him and bring him back to safety. Elkay sees her coming and is overjoyed that someone still cares about him. She looks just like an angel-

HOLD IT! screams the internal editor. No angels! You’re writing in deep POV, which means that you have to step into Elkay’s leathery, mud-covered sabatons and write according to his rules. Elkay has never even heard of the concept of angels; how could he compare Ivora to one?

As much as I hate it, the internal editor is right for once. Elkay doesn’t know what an angel is, nor a demon, nor any such being from the real world. For crying out loud, he doesn’t even know what fantastical creatures like svartalfar would be. When writing a fantasy, I suddenly cannot use the familiar expressions that I use every day without thinking about it. And do you know what? That’s a good thing.

Why? Because when we can’t use all of the common expressions, similes, and other narrative tricks that we love so much, we are forced to come up with our own, and it makes our stories that much more original. If I may steal someone else’s originality to explain, C.S. Lewis puts it best:

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Some (most) of these familiar expressions have lost their meaning through overuse. The first time a person uses an expression, his or her friends appreciate the wit and begin incorporating these new figures of speech into their own vocabulary. Then the friends of those friends pick up on it, and then their friends, and so on, until the expression is nothing but trite. It’s just another meaningless phrase among the portmanteaus and colloquialisms of the English language.

Admit it- a few moments ago, when I was talking about my imaginary scene, you expected me to say that I had to step into Elkay’s shoes, didn’t you? But, while you knew what expression I was using, you didn’t even think about what the expression really meant- not until I used an archaic word like sabatons that forced you to look twice.

Meh… who would want to come up with original words to describe this, anyway? (credit)

I’m not saying we should look to startle our readers with our word choice; too often startling them will take them right out of the story. However, I am saying that we should be glad that all these expressions are now off-limits for us. Other writers, like authors of contemporary romance novels or general fiction, have to work harder to eliminate trite expressions from their stories; fantasy writers automatically must come up with their own.

And what if you don’t write fantasy? You can still learn a lesson: eliminate those overused words and expressions from your work anyway. Be original! You may have to look harder, but any writer worth two cents can come up with new ways to tell his or her story.

Yes, sometimes it takes a little bit of brainpower. I did indeed sigh over the lack of the term “angel,” and I did have to describe instead how Ivora looked. I had to show her dark hair over her white dress, her soft round face, her sad smile that made Elkay feel less lonely. But as Lewis would say, when the readers finished reading that description, they could only say, “Ah, Elkay’s guardian angel!”

You know, I think it’s fun to use my imagination instead of asking my readers to please do my jobs for me.

What expressions and words are off-limits in your stories? Have you ever invented your own? 

Why I Wrote an Encyclopaedia (and Maybe You Should, Too)

Okay. I promise we will have a real post in a few seconds, but first things first. I have gotten this question way too many times, and now I have to clear it up:

Yes, Elkay and Kylo have the same surname. No, that was not intentional on my part. I don’t know about J.J. Abrams.

Get it? Got it? Good. Now on to this week’s real topic.

Let’s be honest again, my writing friends: sometimes we overlook the bloopers in our work. Of course, we don’t realize it until we are happily reading an official paperback copy of our newly-published book. Then we see the blooper, and we panic. It’s too late to contact CreateSpace! Everyone will see this terrible continuity error or plot hole, and they will discredit our work forever! Our books will never be read!

Of course this is all hyperbole, but we writers are very good at exaggerating things. It would seem that we’re also very good at writing bloopers. Wouldn’t it be easier to skip these painful experiences altogether? Wouldn’t it be wonderful never to make any stupid mistakes like that? Ah, wishful thinking.

Or is it?

I have to keep track of a lot of little details that fit together to give my stories a sense of realism. For example, we’re coming up on Ivora’s birthday on 24 May (and Elkay had better not forget this year). The cannon was invented in Lord Vien’s city in 1218, but didn’t catch on in Agran for another hundred or so years because it was so expensive to make. The infamous Farran’s last name was Fenden, and he was an INTJ like me, albeit a more romantic one.

None of those details ever turned up in Son of Ren, but as the author, I needed to know them for myself. But I can’t possibly memorize all of those things or scribble them on misplaceable note-cards as I go. How in the world can I remember all of this random but important information? Because I have an Encyclopaedia. Always, always spelled with a capital “E” and the archaic “ae.”

The Encyclopaedia is basically like the internet. It is a slave that reminds me of random useless things and keeps track of all the details that I would otherwise forget. What should I do with this epic battle scene that didn’t make the cut? Encyclopaedia. Where did I record the laws of succession for Agran? Encyclopaedia. How much older was Sardar than Elkay? Encyclopaedia.

My Encyclopaedia is just another Google Document with a table of contents. I have a timeline of years, historical summaries for each kingdom, a collection of legal codes, a list of character names and etymological origins, the rules of my magic system, and of course an index of deleted scenes. In the past I even had a calendar of holidays that were unique to my world.

Now I might sound super-organized and nerdy. Well, I am not super-organized, not when it comes to writing. However, making this kind of system is really quite achievable, even for a busy college student like me who has to keep up with a lot of other responsibilities and hobbies. And I didn’t write all of it in a week; I created the document in 2013 and have been expanding it ever since as I write my books. You have no excuse: if you have time to write books and stories, you certainly have time to record little details like this as they come up.

As for the nerdiness… let’s face it: writers are nerds.

How do you keep track of all the details? Have you ever forgotten a detail and written a terrible blooper? Share in the comments!

Slow-Mo Is Dangerous

A few months ago, I sat down with the clan to watch a new family movie. Very clean, decently executed, and for the most part well-acted- but I didn’t enjoy it. It felt slow and stuffy for some reason, almost as if I was watching a series of gifs, and I wondered why. I only realized the reason when, in our traditional discussion that finishes off any family movie night, my brother commented, “The entire thing was in slow-mo!”

I (internally) snapped my fingers. That’s it! The whole movie was chock-full of slow motion scenes; probably 1/5 at least of all the scenes had some amount of slow motion. We all chuckled, but everyone agreed. The cinematography had pulled the audience out of a perfectly good story and thus killed the entire project.

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The point I want to make is this: don’t kill your story with slow-mo. How is that possible? Writers don’t tell stories using hi-def cameras, so how can we do slow motion scenes at all?

I’ll show you how with an excerpt from one of my new favorite books, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (page 368, if you care to read the rest of the story):

They rode toward the corner, where the day’s importance reached them. Liesel knew. It was that feeling again, of being watched. A voice pedaled inside her. Two laps.

Look at the window. Look at the window.

She was compelled.

Like an itch that demands a fingernail, she felt an intense desire to stop.

Those paragraphs breaks are not my own additions. They are Zusak’s. He means to convey tension, and he does it splendidly. Read it again- you can feel the strain in the bleak air, the terror of the moment. Visualizing this in your head, you can’t avoid imagining this scene in slow motion. And that’s what I mean.

Isn’t this wonderful, you say? We have the ability to tell stories the way directors do, with colorful mental images. Our jobs just got ten times better.

Seriously. It gets stranger the longer you watch it.

And ten times harder. You see, going back to the movie I mentioned at the beginning, it’s quite possible that we can overdo the dramatic side. Don’t get me wrong; a little drama, while nothing short of annoying in real life, can enliven a story and deliver just enough impact to make the reader care. On the other hand, too much drama will make your story feel like that movie: a collection of slow and stuffy gifs. It’s like the overuse of participle phrases. It’s not a bad thing to use, but too much is simply too much.

What is the simplest way to avoid this problem? I would suggest that we follow a simple two-step plan:

  1. Read what we have written.
  2. Have someone else read what we have written.

Simple as it may seem, we writers tend to be blind to the weaknesses of our own writing. Re-reading and visualizing the scene and then getting someone else to do the same can be a tremendous help. After all, we wrote the story so that readers would enjoy it to the fullest; why not get a test-reader to see if your approach worked? Get a second opinion, and then get down to editing.

Have you ever used slow motion? How did it work for you?

What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part Two)

What to do about exposition?

In the last post, I effectively took the three most popular devices for handling backstory, locked them in a stocks and pillory, and proceeded to throw tomatoes. Obviously, we can never ever ever use those tools again.

Seriously, though, we can’t simply leave the backstory out and expect the reader to keep up. For one thing, some amount of explanation is absolutely necessary to tell an intelligible story to another person. As Brandon Sanderson explains in this video, every book, especially fantasy, has a particular “learning curve” that the reader has to overcome before they can fully understand the story. The reader has to become somewhat familiar with an entirely new world with histories, laws, and magic systems of its own, as well as meet new characters and understand their individual goals and personalities. Any author will have a hard task to explain all this information and still hold the reader’s attention. And therein lies the problem.

Take your pick.

Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when books were so rare and expensive, people liked to take their time and savor the few books that they had available. Therefore, books written in those centuries tend to be slow and meandering, feeding you all the information gently and then starting the real story several chapters later. Les Miserables and Ben-Hur are good examples.

In our age, though, with countless books and e-readers at our fingertips, our stories need to grab the reader’s attention and hold it fast; otherwise, there is always another Stephen King thriller that will get to the point more quickly, and our books are forgotten. Most modern readers have no time to sit around and read about Bishop Myriel and how he got himself a carriage. We want to read about Jean Valjean and Fantine, and we want to read it now!

Let’s start by addressing the prologue problem. If you go to the blog or website of a good author you like and find any advice on writing a prologue, you’ll probably read a post about deleting it. Deleting the prologue. And as harsh as that sounds, it makes sense. Many prologues, no matter how interesting they are to me as the writer, aren’t going to make a whit of sense to a reader who just picked up the book, even in the story’s context.

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Interested yet? And the real story hasn’t even started.

Then again, my prologue might make sense and add to the story. For example, in the Les Miserables concert by Schonberg and Boublil, the entire backstory with Bishop Myriel is gone. The concert still begins well before Fantine dreams a dream, but we’re hooked with the song “Look Down”. A bunch of men in prison? One is going on parole? He has enemies? “Look Down” sets up the rest of the story, makes logical sense, and grabs our attention. If my prologue fits those three criteria- setup, logic, and attention- keep it. (And maybe call it Chapter 1?)

Next comes the infodump, which might be a little bit harder to handle. If you read The Lord of the Rings (props to you!), think back to the chapter “The Shadow of the Past.” For those of you who only watched the movie or don’t know the story, this is when the wizard Gandalf sits down and explains all about the Ring’s complicated history to Frodo.

Notice that I haven’t said anything bad about what Tolkien did here, and that’s because I have nothing bad to say. Tolkien explained the backstory in a compelling and, at that time, non-cliche fashion. (Again, that “slower” culture comes into play; people had time to sit down and read things.) He did it so artfully that all other fantasy writers after him copied what they thought he did.

Unfortunately, when we copy others, we lose our own style and thus end up with a huge infodump that sounds like every other fantasy ever written. We hush our inborn originality and put off our thinking caps. The solution? Make it your own! My favorite writers are those who work in the backstory bit by bit, revealing only as much as needed, using it to build the plot and make the reader curious for more.

The Horse and His Boy, our latest family readaloud, is a good example. C.S. Lewis had a lot of exposition to work into such a short book, but he does it piecemeal, only as needed. We don’t know anything about Shasta’s history until a nobleman drags the truth out of his foster-father, and we hear nothing about Aravis’ troubles until she turns up at the river.

Finally we come to the villain’s monologue. Since it almost never makes sense for the villain to reveal his grand scheme to his mortal enemy, we have to find some other way of explaining the method to his madness. Our first impulse may be to keep what we have already written and simply put it into a logical framework. For example, some writers might have the villains expound their plan to their evil halfwitted minions. Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that stupid yet hysterically funny movie that we writers are all obsessed with? It worked for that one.

The main problems with both approaches vary between points of view. In limited third-person POV, the protagonist isn’t usually around to overhear a scene like this. And why does he need to hear it at all? Instead, if the good guy is really smart enough to defeat the antagonist, he is smart enough to figure out the evil plot by himself. Again, if I’m telling in third-person omniscient, why explain the plan at all? I should tell the plan from the villain’s perspective as it happens and skip the exposition altogether. It’s the old show-don’t-tell rule.

Are you ready, fellow fantasy writers? I challenge us to delete our prologues and write our exposition the way Tolkien, Lewis, and Schonberg and Boublil did- with a dose of creativity from our famous fantastical imaginations.