Writing Creative Procedural Fiction

Heroic Journeys are pretty much the gold standard for modern fiction writing. The vast majority of stories written in any genre are heroic journeys wherein a weak/flawed character grows, develops, and eventually becomes a hero. The standard hero’s journey formula runs like this:

  1. Introduction of the flawed character and their world as it is.
  2. Character is forced out of that world by some event.
  3. Character embraces new situation and tries to overcome it.
  4. Character faces first big challenge and overcomes it.
  5. Character faces first major setback.
  6. Character recovers from major setback.
  7. Character faces antagonist/final challenge.
  8. Character wins and enters new world with their flaw overcome.

For those keeping track, the above would be the generic Heroic Journey plot of a 4-act story (each two parts being 1 “act”) and while there’s some variation, most stories run like this. An introduction, the character entering the new situation, the character learning on a “try/fail” cycle until they get strong enough to face their true enemy and walking out a newly minted hero at the other end.

That’s great for a standard heroic journey story, but does it work for a story where the main character is trying to build/create something? I refer to that kind of story as a type of “Procedural Fiction” because we’re watching the main character follow a procedure- a set of steps that need to followed in order to accomplish a goal.

I would say there are three kinds of procedural fiction:

  1. Standard Procedurals
  2. Creative Procedurals
  3. Exploratory Procedurals.

In a Standard Procedural, the character is following a set of steps which are already proscribed by someone else to accomplish a goal. The most common example of this is Police Procedurals (think CIS or NCIS, or The Mentalist, or whatever is popular this season) where the story is the characters following standard police procedure (or their variant thereof) as they try to investigate the murder of the week. The procedural structure of the steps they must follow give the story its form, and there really isn’t any heroic journey happening here, just witty main characters interviewing people and trying to sort through clues to reach a conclusion.

The key to a Standard Procedural is that they’re following a set of steps already created by someone else, whereas in a Creative Procedural this isn’t entirely true. In a Creative Procedural, a character is trying to build something or accomplish a goal which has a set of steps to complete it, but those steps may be somewhat general or vague. Unlike a Standard Procedural (first examine the body, then interview the witnesses, then look for motive, etc) a Creative Procedural is about a person trying to do a task which is as much an art as it is a science.

For example, let’s say a main character is trying to open a business, which is a common enough Creative Procedural in Japanese Dramas. (The Japanese adore Creative Procedurals with a passion, and produce a lot of them.) While there are known steps to starting a business like “write up a business plan”, “find a location”, “create a sign”, and others, there are also a lot of really vague elements like “find something you’re passionate about” or “master the skill that you’ll be selling to your clients” or “find a mentor” that there’s a lot of different directions and ways to go about it. Whether they’re trying to learn to play the piano at a master level, become a golf pro, become a manga writer/artist, master Poker, or whatever the main character’s goal is, a Creative Procedural is about them navigating the world of possibilities involved with following their chosen pursuit.

[Examples- Breaking Bad (TV), Game of Thrones (TV), Bakuman (manga), Team Medical Dragon (J-Drama), One Piece (TV Anime), most Xianxia fiction.]

Finally, there are Exploratory Procedurals. Simply put, an Exploratory Procedural is one where the main character is making up the procedure as they’re going along. They’re following vague logical steps to do what they’re doing, but they’re also breaking new ground or trying to do something that has never been done before in quite this way. A great example of an Exploratory Procedural is The Martian (movie, book, doesn’t matter) where we have a guy left behind on Mars after a failed attempt to set up a base who must figure out how to survive until someone can come help him. He has lots of knowledge, knows the scientific method, and has some clear goals he wants to reach, but there isn’t a set procedure he can follow to reach those goals- so he makes them up as he goes along in a series of trial and error attempts.

[Examples- The Walking Dead (TV), Overlord (TV Anime), Robinson Crusoe (book), The Monkey King (Chinese Classic), We Are Legion (We are Bob) (book), GATE (TV anime), The Cosmic Computer (book), Battlestar Galactica (TV)]

 

So, to summarize:

A Standard Procedural is about following a well paved road between cities.

A Creative Procedural is about following a series of paths and side trails through the forest to reach a destination.

An Exploratory Procedural is about making a path through the forest using a compass and a machete.

 

However, it’s about the try/fail cycle and how it’s implemented where the heroic journey and the procedural have a parting of the ways.

A Heroic Journey is built on setbacks (the try/fail cycle mentioned above) where the main character fails most of the time but succeeds just enough to keep them going until they reach their goal- each “failure” making them stronger through adversity. The drama in a heroic journey is about the character constantly struggling uphill, and even when they win they often lose in some way, unless it’s the big win at the end that makes the audience feel satisfied.

Procedurals, at least Creative Procedurals and Exploratory Procedurals, don’t work on a try/fail cycle. In fact, if anything, they work on a try/fail/succeed cycle, with the “succeed” part being a key difference between them and the Heroic Journey. In The Martian, for example, if the main character had failed at the end of each of his attempts to grow potatoes or jury rig the heating system, he would have died. Each of those were challenges he had to meet and succeed at to keep the story going. Just the same as a young Manga Artist needs to get a few hits under his belt or else he can’t get anyone to publish his work because he’s in an industry where you can only build on your successes.

So, if that’s the case, what would a structure for an Exploratory or Creative Procedural story look like?

  1. A character has a goal. (Usually created by some inner Need, but not always.)
  2. The character begins working toward achieving that goal and tries to solve the first roadblock they encounter, succeeds.
  3. The character is faced with a new more difficult problem, works to solve it (often building on what they learned the last time and acquiring new skills/knowledge/resources) and succeeds.
  4. The character is faced with a new even more difficult problem, works to solve it (often building on what they learned the last time and acquiring new skills/knowledge/resources) and succeeds.
  5. Repeat as needed.
  6. The character faces the penultimate problem that requires they use the knowledge, resources and skill they gained from solving all the previous problems to overcome. They do it, and succeed.
  7. The character has now gone from victim of the situation to master of the situation.

And each of the “try/fail/succeed” cycles above (2-5) would usually involve the following steps:

  1. Figure out what the problem is.
  2. Try to solve it using current skill/knowledge/resources.
  3. Fail to solve it.
  4. Figure out what changes will be needed to solve it. (Skill/Knowledge/Resources)
  5. Acquire what’s needed to solve it.
  6. Solve it.

Of course, this would get dull if it’s the same thing over and over, so a writer will need to vary this up a little by skipping steps, rearranging steps, adding steps. A common trick is to vary the thing which the character needs to solve the problem (skills/knowledge/resource) so that it keeps the pattern fresh and has the character going in different directions and experiencing new things. This is also why the Japanese tend to love this type of story so much, because they use it to work in actual skills and knowledge the writer has and is teaching the audience through the story.

Also, the writer must always be planting the seeds of the next level of the challenge in the audience’s minds. Sometimes this is self-evident (“I have to become a Sushi Chef, so first I must master making rice, and then cutting fish, and then…”) and sometimes this needs to be set up at the start (“If we don’t succeed in just one year, Mother Earth will disappear!”) and sometimes it’s all about throwing new challenges at the heroes every time they think they’ve won.

And this is one of the Creative/Exploratory Procedural’s other great strengths. It can be as long or short as the writer wishes it to be, and can fit nicely into segmented boxes, which makes it great for serial forms of storytelling. Each Episode/Chapter/Arc is a try/fail/succeed cycle covering a different aspect of the character’s progression, and there can be as many of them as the writer needs to fill up whatever space needs to be filled. (If a task normally has 5 steps to mastering it, then there are 5 story arcs about the character mastering that task. If there are 150 Pokemon to catch, then you can have 150 episodes of catching Pokemon…. Unless you keep adding more… and more… and more…)

Which leads me to a word of caution- Procedurals live or die on novelty and creativity. As soon as they become old-hat and the audience knows all the variations of the formula, the audience will get bored really quickly and stop caring. So while the strength of a procedural is that it can be as long or short as the writer wishes, a good procedural writer knows when the say enough is enough and end it. Sometimes this too is self-evident (the character has reached a level where they can’t go any higher or expand any further) and sometimes the writer just needs to follow their guts and quit while they’re ahead. (Leave while they still want more, and they’ll be back for your next story.)

One last important thing to note about Creative and Exploratory Procedurals is that they’re… well… creative! By their very nature, these two types of Procedurals are about a character (or characters) making and accomplishing something. While a heroic journey is about the transformation of the character(s), the heart of a Creative Procedural is about transforming the world around the character. At the end of a Creative Procedural, the world the character lives in is a different place in some way (big or small), while the main character themselves may or may not have really changed that much at all. (This doesn’t mean that the Main Character in a Creative Procedural can’t completely transform, just that they don’t HAVE to transform like they do through a Heroic Journey.)

I think this is why I find them so attractive. They’re positive stories, about characters using their intelligence to accomplish goals and shape the worlds they live in. They’re about building up and making new things like businesses, communities, organizations, or societies. As opposed to heroic journeys, which are all too often about kicking the designated bad guy’s butt in ways which are all too often more destructive than creative.

And a little creative positivity can go a long way in a hard world.

Rob

Lester Dent’s Master Pulp Story Formula Checklist

I’ve been a big fan of pulp writer Lester Dent’s Master Story Formula for a while. I consider it perhaps the simplest layout for a plot-driven 4-act action/adventure story structure I’ve ever seen, and it really does make it easy for almost anyone to plot one of these stories just by following the formula. (Notice I said “plot”, writing it may be another matter.) I’m not alone in this, as many writers have used, commented on, and modified this formula over the years since it was first published.

Recently, I sat down to think about how to improve the formula and make it into a more efficient checklist form for planning purposes. I edited it down to the essentials, added questions, and turned it into a true formula. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m debating about editing the pulp-iness elements out of it, but I thought I’d share it to get feedback and in case it might help new writers or experience writers who are looking to try their hand at writing this kind of story.

Naturally, this formula is like “training wheels”, you should feel free to use it as needed and then dispense with it when the time comes. However, it’s still a very viable and flexible 4-act structure, and I’ve heard of writers even using it as their basis for tales of comedy, horror, romance and even erotica! Also, remember that just because it says 1500 words doesn’t meant that you can’t make that 15,000 words and turn this into a novel writing formula, although that will require a lot more detail such as Michael Moorcock provides in his “How to write a book in 3 days” variant of this formula.

Enjoy!

Rob

I recommend copy/pasting the following into a Word Processing Document so you can work through it as you go, and have it on hand as needed.


Lester Dent’s Master Story Formula Checklist

By Lester Dent, with Robyn Paterson

Go through the formula:

Step 1

Pick From the Following (2 is optimal, 3 is great- make sure these are clear before you move on):

  1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
  1. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
  1. A DIFFERENT LOCATION THAT THE READER WILL BE UNFAMILIAR WITH
  1. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

Notes:

  • A different murder method could be–different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?
    • If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary. Scribes who have their villain’s victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag. Probably it won’t do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.
  • The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones. Here, again one might get too bizarre.
  • Unique location? Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure–thing that villain wants–makes it simpler, and it’s also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpateers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:

Step 2

What three tags make your main character unique in the mind of the reader?

Mental?:

Physical?:

Social?:

 

Step 3

 

FIRST 1500 WORDS

1–First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with. What is the Line?

2–The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.) What is the problem to be solved?

3–Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action. Who are the main characters of the story?

4–Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words. What is the physical threat/conflict?

5–Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development. What is the 1st act twist?

(SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?)

 

SECOND 1500 WORDS

1–Shovel more grief onto the hero. What is the problem the twist leaves them with?

2–Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to another physical conflict. What is the second physical conflict?

3–A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words. What is the 2nd act Twist?

Notes:

  • NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?
  • DON’T TELL ABOUT IT***Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader–show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM. When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page.
  • It is reasonable to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until–surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.
  • BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.

 

THIRD 1500 WORDS

1–Shovel the grief onto the hero. What is the challenge of the 3rd act?

2–Hero makes some headway. How do they overcome the challenge of the 3rd act?

3- and corners the villain or somebody in:

  • A physical conflict. With who?
  • A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words. What is the 3rd act Twist?

Notes:

  • DOES: it still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happens logically?
  • These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.
  • These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once. The idea is to avoid monotony.
  • ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action. ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste. DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water. THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.

 

FOURTH 1500 WORDS

1–Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero. Where is the hero at start of act 4?

2–Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.) What is the situation the hero finds themselves in?

3–The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn. How do they do this?

4–The mysteries remaining–one big one held over to this point will help grip interest–are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand. What is the final overhanging mystery?

5–Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.) What is the final twist?

6–The snapper, the punch line to end it. What is the Final Line?

  • HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happens logically?
  • Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
  • Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?

 

Step 4

Review the above, and look for things you can improve upon. Now that you can see the story laid out before you, what needs to change? Often your initial choices for the first and second part will change now that you have a better idea of what happens in the third and fourth part. Maybe there’s a better location for this story. Maybe you have a better idea of how the villain will menace the hero. How can you make the action more continuous? Tweak the above and play with it- trying different approaches.

 

Step 5

Get out there and write that story! Outlines are nice, but nobody buys outlines! They buy stories, and the story you’ve got now is a winner! So bring it to life and get it in front of an audience! Have fun!

 

 

Children of a Dead Earth

So, the other day I was reading the Tough Scifi blog, a blog dedicated to Realistic Space Combat (a subject longtime readers will know I’m fascinated by) and there was a reference to a new game called Children of a Dead Earth, which I clicked on out of curiosity. What I got surprised the heck out of me.

For years, I’ve searched for a game simulating realistic space warfare using actual physics, weapons and tactics that make sense based on what we know of how the universe and space combat could actually work. (No shields, no FTL, no space dogfighting, etc.) Mostly I wanted a game to simulate the actual physics involved, just to see how the whole thing would play out.

Well, Children of a Dead Earth IS that game.

The title comes from the idea that in this setting (which is our own solar system in the future) the Earth has been rendered lifeless, but not before Elon Musk and friends managed to get us out to Mars and colonize space. So it’s a conflict simulator between system powers, and there is a single player campaign all about this very topic. (Although primarily the game is meant to be a “Sandbox” game where players set up scenarios themselves, build their own ships and weapons, and blow the crap out their enemies.)

Now, one of the things about realistic physics is that it involves a lot of math and advanced concepts, which is why this is a very niche product. However, the game has done a great job of making it all very playable, reducing the math to mostly visual sliders and readouts and keeping the game fun instead of tedious. In fact, they’ve made it so playable it might just reach a wider audience than you’d expect, which manged to get it a Very Positive overall rating with 79 reviews on STEAM, which is where you can buy it. You can watch a playthrough here to decide if this is something you’d be interested in:

I have to say, they managed to make it as visually appealing as they could while staying realistic as well. The ships aren’t ships as in the Starship Enterprise, but structures with a cone of armored plate around them. Lasers are invisible, but railguns and coilguns are quite visually impressive and just plain cool to watch in action. And I find the strategic elements that physics brings interesting as well, since it’s primarily orbital combat and you have limited fuel for maneuvering. (Basically, if you don’t think ahead, you’re in deep trouble.)

This game really ups the Space Combat genre in a new way, and provides Scifi authors with a new tool to see how the battles that they’ve got in their books would actually play out. In fact, it shows just how complicated and interesting space combat really can be, which can add whole new layers to tales of future conflicts.

Rob

DNA Podcast 024 – Interview with Scifi Author Gary Gibson

marauder-by-gary-gibson

In this episode, Rob and Don interview Scottish science fiction writer Gary Gibson about his career, writing Space Opera, and why Science Fiction has become boring. All this, and why Zardoz is a classic film, in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

 

DNA Podcast 023 – Why you shouldn’t be a writer

Houghton_Typ_805.94.8320_-_Pride_and_Prejudice,_1894,_Hugh_Thomson_-_Protested

In this episode, Rob and Don discuss the cons of becoming a professional writer (or artist). While the internet is filled with people telling you that you’re one Kindle book away from quitting your day job (mostly by people selling writing how-to advice and services) Rob and Don look at some of the cold, hard costs and challenges that come with trying to write for a living. Along the way, they discuss ways to overcome those challenges and make yourself a better writer if you’re determined to follow the hard road. All this, and a heaping helping of Dinosaur Porn are waiting for you in the 23rd episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs!

Closing Music: Ode to Joy performed by Oliver Eckelt 

The key elements of a bestselling novel

The Independent newspaper had an interesting piece today about a pair of researchers (Penguin UK editor Jodie Archer, and associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Matthew Jockers) who have spent the last 5 years using computer algorithms to analyze 20,000 books looking for patterns that make best sellers stand out. The result is a system they claim can predict bestselling books by an 86% margin, which is pretty good.

Naturally, they’re releasing what they learned in their upcoming book The Bestseller Code (and probably marketing their software to major publishers as we speak) however they did release a few interesting tidbits from their research:

“Novels with high or low emotions tend to have a stronger chance of hitting the [bestseller] lists and staying on them.

A couple of pointers from the findings: real people are more appealing to readers than fictional being, so stay away from Dwarves, unicorns, and elves as main protagonists. Those characters who appeal the most are also more likely to “grab”, “think” and “ask”.

The words “need”, “want” and “do” are twice as likely to appear in bestsellers, while the word “okay” appears three times as much. Words like “love” and “miss” appear more often in successful books, apparently appearing three times for every two in lesser selling books.

So, basically, people like reading about other people they can relate to, and stories where the main characters are active and pursuing goals (especially relationships) are what readers want. Now, the word “okay” is an interesting bit, and my interpretation on that is that readers like books written in colloquial and easy to understand language. It may also be a side effect of most bestsellers being modern thrillers and romance novels, so “okay” turns up in modern dialog a lot.

It will be interesting to see the results of this research, and how far it can go. Of course, the publishers would eventually like to have machines churning out their bestsellers like widgets, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. Also, it will mean a bunch of books which don’t fit the formula will never get the chance to reach a wider audience, because 86% is not 100%, and many good books could fall between the cracks if publishers start using this to cut costs and be lazy.

Rob

How Koreans get their Web Novels

Yesterday I had a long and fascinating chat with a recently arrived Korean international student about Korean webnovels. Webnovels (books written specifically for the web) are extremely popular in Japan, China, and of course South Korea, and have become a gateway for new and rising authors in those countries. Recently, I’ve found myself reading some (fan translated) Chinese Webnovels (more on this in another post) and so I was curious as to what Korea’s market was like.

The student told me a few interesting things:

  • Her primary reading site of choice is NAVER, which is a popular Korean webportal similar to YAHOO, but which offers Webtoons (comics) and Webnovels as part of its lineup. In 2014 alone, Korean NAVER Webnovels had 3.6 Billion views (that’s BILLION, and remember there are only 50 Million people in Korea!).
  • The comics are more popular than the novels, but the Novels still have a large audience which she said is mostly female.
  • Anyone can write a novel on NAVER, but it sounds like there are three tiers- the stuff that anyone can post, the “Challenge League” and the “Best League”. The latter two being high quality amateurs and professionals who get promotion and profit-sharing with NAVER. (More info here.)
  • Works in the Leagues come out in serialized (chapter by chapter) format, with between 1 and 3 chapters released a week.
  • For the first four days of release, you have to pay for the chapter (using NAVER Coins) but after four days it becomes free for fans to read. (To me, this is brilliant, because human nature says most fans will pay to read early, as apparently the student does all the time. However, the old chapters are still there to help readers catch up and interest people.)
  • Advance chapters cost more or less depending on how popular that story is. So if a story isn’t popular an advance chapter might just be 1 or 2 cents, whereas a super-popular book’s chapter might be upwards of 20 cents.
  • Once a book is finished, after a certain time it is archived, which means the first couple chapters will still be free and access to the rest can be rented (for 1 day/1 week/1 month periods) at a cheaper price than reading chapter by chapter.
  • The Webnovels themselves are mostly written in the Young Adult oriented Light Novel format, which means they’re mostly dialogue driven with lots of spacing and simpler language.
  • The Best League novels not only have covers, but each week there is a piece of art that goes with them showing some scene from that chapter in a slightly iconic style.
  • The Best League novels also have an odd quirk I’ve rarely seen before, when major characters have lines of dialogue without any added exposition they just put a tiny portrait picture of the character. So instead of:
    • Sun-yi said, “I don’t know who I love, Byung-Gin.”
      • it will be…
    • [Tiny picture of Sun-yi] “I don’t know who I love, Byung-Gin.”
      • Which I imagine increases the reading speed a bit, and gets rid of some dialogue tags.
  • They’ve solved the Micropayments hurdles by using NAVER Coins, which is real money converted into NAVER credits. Sometimes it’s a 1:1 ratio, but at certain times of year NAVER will offer better ratios to get people to buy more credits. Users can also win credits through contests, loyalty rewards, and other activities that they can then use for buying digital content on the site.

That was pretty much it, but I thought it was quite interesting. As I said, I especially love the part about offering content early for people willing to chip in a few cents, since most people will do exactly that if they want to read the next chapter badly enough. The student says she spends about (the equivalent of) a $1 a week on buying Webnovel chapters, which doesn’t sound like much, but can add up pretty quickly.

It’s sad that nobody in the English speaking world has made the effort to produce such a scheme, because I think it could be a great platform for authors. Right now your options for getting English Ebooks out is pretty much either give it away for free in some form on a site like Wattpad or sell it as a complete volume on Amazon or Apple iBooks. In theory, you could use Patreon to get readers to support you, and let the Patreon subscribers have chapters a week earlier, but the problem is that Patreon doesn’t work in cents, but in dollars, and it’s pretty clumsy.

What’s needed is a system like this- where vetted authors can make money in a profit-sharing system with the website and not-yet-vetted authors can practice their craft in a place where they get a wide potential audience. (Possibly also having the option of making some money as they write as well, depending on how it was set up.)

In any case, I thought it was an interesting system, and worth sharing. If you’re interested in reading some Korean novel translations, you can find some links here in an older Reddit thread. (There aren’t a lot of them out there, but a few.)

A little perspective change on science fiction writing

I’m currently listening to an audiobook of Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, and while enjoying it a thought occurred to me. We often say that Science Fiction is based on the phrase “What would happen if?” and then extrapolate out the story from there, but I think that’s wrong.

Listening to that excellent novel, it occurred to me that “What would happen if?” actually encourages writers to think in terms of events and plot. If I say “What would happen if Giant Bugs from Arcturus dropped from the sky?” You’ll get a picture in your head of giant purple bugs raining down from the sky to eat all of our Frosted Flakes. (Or maybe that’s just me…) Which is fine, and very dramatic, but also encourages the writer to think in terms of big visual elements based around the thing that’s different.

On the other hand, if I change the question to “What would it be like if?” then that encourages a complete different kind of thinking. Saying “What would it be like if?” forces the writer to think in terms of a person or character’s point of view instead of an abstract idea. This makes the writer begin to think the situation through, and reflect on how they or a character would feel going through that situation. This, in turn, produces a better and more relatable story because it’s being drawn out of subjective human experience rather than based on something more objective and less tangible.

Let’s look at a few examples so you can see what I mean. Think about how each pair produces a different idea in your head.

What would happen if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?

vs.

What would it be like if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?

 

What would happen if dogs could talk to people?

vs.

What would it be like if dogs could talk to people?

 

What would happen if we found a gate to the stars?

vs.

What would it be like if people found a gate to the stars?

See the difference? One is asking you to think outside yourself, and produces plot-based ideas and stories where you have to rethink how to base it around a character. The other makes you think in character terms right from the beginning, and then work out to view that situation from a personal perspective. And, when I think about it, I think most of the better Sci-Fi has actually been based on similar lines of thinking because it comes out from the human experience rather than being based on lofty ideas.

Just my take, anyways.

Rob

 

Hunter x Hunter (2011) Anime Review

Hunter-x-Hunter-1

The manga Bakuman is about two young manga artists (Takagi the writer, Mashiro the artist) who work their way up through the manga industry at it’s top selling publication- Weekly Shonen Jump. Written by two veteran manga creators, it’s a masterpiece on many levels, and at its core it’s both a critque of the industry and a how-to for those who want to become future manga artists. Another way to describe it is if Scott McCloud made his incredible Understanding Comics as a story about a young pair of creators working their way up through the ladder at Marvel Comics instead of in textbook form.

In chapter 8 of Bakuman (“Carrot and Stick”) there is a scene where the two young heroes first meet their editor Akira Hattori, and he tells them that there are two types of manga creators- “the Genius type” and “the Calculating type”. The Genius is the natural creator who draws comics they love and because of their natural talent and passion for their subject matter is able to come up with a hit manga that blows the audience away. The Calculator, on the other hand, looks at it from the audience’s point of view and tries to make something that will appeal to the greatest number of people regardless of their actual feelings about the subject matter.

In a lot of ways, through Hattori the creators are talking about classic writer dichotomy – the Pantser who makes it up as they go along and the Plotter who plans it all out – just taken to an extreme. And, of course, in reality just like that classic writer dichotomy, it’s rare for any writer to be a Genius/Pantser or Calculator/Plotter alone as almost all creators are some mix of the two extremes. Even a Panster will usually at least think about what will appeal to their audience, and a Plotter will generally pick subject matter they’re naturally attracted to and passionate about to some degree. (Few people are good at writing things they honestly hate or dislike, especially if they have any choice.)

As a result, it’s uncommon that you can look at any work and say “that was created by a Genius” or “that was created by a Calculator,” because after all, any work is normally a mix of the two and it’s hard to tell how much of each is involved. There are, however, exceptions to this, and one of those exceptions is something I came across on Netflix a few weeks back when I was looking for something to watch which I exercised- an anime called HUNTER X HUNTER (2011).

Hunter x Hunter is a manga/anime about a stubborn 12 year old boy named Gon who leaves his home village to become a Hunter- a person who travels the world seeking whatever it is they’ve chosen to seek. In his pseudo-modern fantasy world, there are Treasure Hunters, Monster Hunters, Bounty Hunters, Delicacy Hunters, and many other kinds, who brave dangers to find their targets. All of them, however, much first pass the Hunter Exam, which is where the story starts, and get a Hunter License that gives them free access to the world and status as members of the elite. Gon’s (missing) father was one of these great men, and through following his footsteps, Gon hopes to find him and experience the world himself.

Hunter x Hunter (2011, because it’s the second attempt to animate the Hunter x Hunter manga), which can also be read as “Hunter Hunter,” is perhaps the most calculated anime/manga I have ever seen in 20+ years of anime fandom. It started in 1998, and it’s like someone took all the popular elements of the hit manga of the previous two decades, disected them, and then based on extremely careful analysis produced the most planned piece of storytelling I’ve ever seen. I’m not just talking characters and plot elements, I’m talking story, pacing, backgrounds- you name it, there is not a single original element in this story- none. It’s like they had a computer analyze the history of manga and this was the end product.

Yet, and this goes to the skill of the creator Yoshihiro Togashi (creator of the also hit anime/manga YuYu Hakusho back in the 1980’s) I don’t mean that it’s unoriginal in a bad way. In fact, for what it is, it’s actually very well done, and in fact is almost perfect in a textbook sort of way. Whereas most manga are a rough exercise in creative serial pantsing, with the creators only thinking a few chapters ahead, Hunter x Hunter is extremely well plotted and thought out. Everything happens at a carefully measured pace, everything is introduced at exactly the right time in the right way. The humor is in the right spots, the chapters all end on cliffhangers of sorts, and there’s no sense of it being rushed, it’s a piece of art without a line or comma out of place.

Well, calling it a piece of “art” might be pushing it, it’s really a machine designed for maximum appeal and marketing potential. And, like any machine, there’s a certain cold, mechanical nature to it that keeps it from being in the same class as stories like Naurto, One Piece, and even Bleach, which are also top series from the same era. The creator definitely reaches to those levels, but he doesn’t quite make it because of the calculated nature of it all. It’s like Hattori says in that Bakuman chapter- the Calculator has the greatest potential for a hit and long-term success, but they don’t have the same potential as the Genius has for creating a true smash hit story that excites the audience.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Hunter x Hunter (2011) as a watch, whether just to enjoy it as a well-told story, or to take it apart as a creator and see how the whole thing was so well put together. Either way, it’s time well spent.

Rob

What Jackie Chan can teach us about writing action

Following up my post on what writers can learn from Akira Kurosawa, I’m going to do another blog post on writing- this time based on the nine rules that Tony Zhou outlines in the video below about how Jackie Chan masters action comedy. Naturally, it will be easier to follow if you’ve watched the video, so check it out first.

Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Action is primarily a visual creature, and is a natural fit for film, but can you do it well in prose? I would say yes, but let’s see if Tony’s 9 Jackie Chan “rules” can be applied to prose writing.

Jackie Chan’s 9 Principles of Action Comedy (as noted by Tony Zhou)

1. Start with a DISADVANTAGE

This one is pretty obvious. If your goal is to build tension, then having your character at a disadvantage in a scene in a must, whether they’re supposed to fight or just trying to run away. The more of a disadvantage you can put them at, the better, although I should note that Jackie primarily makes action-comedies. There is a reason Batman doesn’t most start fights at a disadvantage- because he’s a kick-butt reader surrogate and is supposed to make the reader feel powerful. If you take that away from the reader, they’re not going to like it much. (Although even Batman does occasionally start fights at a disadvantage for variety and dramatic purposes.)

 

2. Use the ENVIRONMENT

Tony is actually combining two points here in the video under one.

The first point he brings up is that Jackie uses the environment in his fights, which makes them more real and unique in a sense. If you can offer your reader something they haven’t seen before in a fight, like a character fighting with a ladder, then that can show that you’ve actually taken the time to think through this fight scene and make it interesting for the reader. If you emphasize the environment properly, it gives the reader a sense of place and can be used to help set up shots.

Speaking of which, the second point is really to set up your shots! If you want to have an action scene, then give the reader a sense of the terrain before and during the action sequence. Don’t be afraid to foreshadow or even lead a little with your descriptions like Jackie does in his movies. In the example they give, Jackie does a shot of a stuntman being knocked down a spiral staircase before he himself uses it shortly for his own actions- and there’s no reason you can’t do this kind of thing too! Use people, objects and even descriptions to lead the reader through the action, and make it easier for them to follow.

 

3. Be CLEAR in your shots

This is a trickier one for writers than you might think.

Normally, writers increase the pace of action scenes by using short, clear sentences and paragraphs to increase the pace of the action and story. They also focus on the very key elements of the events happening to keep from letting description bog down the action as it’s happening. However, to be truly clear about what’s happening you need to describe the action, and you need to do it in a way that paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind so they can follow it without being confused.

So you have to find a balance:

  • Too much description = slow reading and pacing.
  • Too little description = reader confusion.

This is one of the things that makes writing action so difficult- finding that sweet spot that conveys a clear image of the events for the reader to experience and enjoy while at the same time not bogging them down with too much, or disorienting them with too little detail.

 

4. Action & Reaction in the SAME frame

Not sure if this one can apply to writing. The only think I can think of goes back to #3, about being clear in your shots and #2b about letting the reader know where the action is going before it does. If any of you have other thoughts on how this one could be applied, please leave it in the comments.

 

5. Do as many TAKES as necessary

For writers, this is really about how much time you want to spend on your action scenes and effort you want to put into detailing them out. Especially in the modern self-publishing world where getting books out fast is often linked with financial success, it can be hard to spending days, weeks (or months) planning an action scene or sequence, but there are times when quality really is linked with time spent.

Again, like most things with writing, it comes down to balance.

You need to know what you’re capable of, and how much time you’re willing to spend, and then use that time accordingly. If you think you’ll benefit from storyboarding out a whole action scene first and you have the time, then why not? (It might also make a great extra for loyal readers, or to get people to join your mailing list.) But, if you’ve got two weeks to finish this book or the rent doesn’t get paid next month, then you’ll probably want to just do what you can and move on.

 

6. Let the audience feel the RHYTHM

This goes back to #3- let the audience understand what’s happening and they’ll be able to appreciate it more. Also, too many quick cuts (jumping from different points of view, or jumping between simultaneous action at different places) can prevent the reader from really appreciating what’s happening. Both POV jumping and jumping between scenes are effective tools for dramatic pacing in a book, but if you overuse them the reader can get confused or tired by it- so as with garlic and salt in cooking, use them in controlled moderation to avoid leaving a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.

 

7. In editing, TWO good hits = ONE great hit

This is a film editing trick, and I don’t think it can be applied to prose action writing. However, if anyone has some thoughts feel free to note them in the comments section below, I’d be interested to hear them.

 

8. PAIN is humanizing

This one is pretty self explanatory- we empathize with suffering, especially suffering we’ve experienced ourselves, and it brings us closer to the characters and makes them more human. Don’t be afraid to let your characters be hurt, even if it’s just superficial hurts it still reminds us that they’re people and made of flesh and blood like the audience.

Obviously, it also adds to the drama when characters are hurt, because it puts them at a disadvantage in the action and forces them to try even harder to get out of the hole they’re in. If your characters are macho tough-guys, then maybe you don’t want to show them being hurt too much, but if you want the audience to really feel for the character, showing them suffer is a great way to do it. Writer Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) once advised that if you want to connect with the reader describe a character’s feet or their mouth, because both places are filled with nerve endings and give us intense sensations in real life.

 

9. Earn your FINISH

Story can be said to be about struggle. Nobody wants to watch a story about a guy who just walks through park and nothing happens, or someone doing something that isn’t hard or difficult for them to do in some way. While you don’t have to make it a series of ever-stronger bosses like a Jackie Chan movie, you should do your best to show that the character had to overcome something (mental, physical, emotional or social, or some combination thereof) to reach their goals and achieve victory.

Don’t be afraid to stack the odds against your characters, and let them have to do something outside of their comfort zone to win. Of course, if you overdo it, it can become ridiculous, so make sure your poor character does at least have a slim chance of winning in the reader’s minds.

 

Final Thoughts

I’ve always been fascinated by the art of writing action in prose form. I think it comes from growing up on comics and action films and then transitioning into literature, where unfortunately the ability to write action varies widely by writer. It’s not an easy skill, and it’s one I struggled with when I was writing my Little Gou short stories and novel, especially since that was literally an attempt to write kung-fu adventures! I don’t claim to have mastered it, and I think I learned a few new tricks watching this video and thinking through this article, but in any case it’s a skill any writer can benefit from developing- whether you’re writing kung fu in old China, car chases through Cairo, or gunfights under the Texas sun.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please comment below!

Rob