Dan Harmon’s Story Circle Evolved

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m fascinated by story structure, and recently I’ve been probing the depths of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle was Harmon’s way to take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make it into something practical but still all encompassing. This isn’t new, Christopher Vogler did something similar in his famous memo, which he later turned into The Writer’s Journey, and other writers have done their own takes as well, such as Chris Woo’s fascinating take on it. This is possible because Campbell wasn’t writing a book about writing, but a book about comparative mythology, so he left the more practical applications of his work to others.

In any case, I’ve taken to Harmon’s Story Circle for its simplicity and practicality for writers. I won’t reiterate the details whole thing here (read about it on his original Channel 101 posts, which start here, but this is the most important one), but you can watch this video which covers the points of the thing pretty nicely.

So basically in simplest form it looks like this:

1 – You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – Need (but they want something)
3 – Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – Search (adapt to it)
5 – Find (find what they wanted)
6 – Take (pay its price)
7 – Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – Change (now capable of change)

Which is pretty good, and covers a lot of ground. But, as I was trying it out with different stories, I realized something- it actually resembles another story plotting approach utilized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. Now theirs, which I covered here, is a lot simpler, as it’s basically just about turning story outlines into series of cause and effect relationships using words like BUT, AND SO/THEREFORE, and MEANWHILE. But, I noticed that if we combine it with Harmon’s Circle, we end up with…

1 – OPEN ON You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – BUT Need (but they want something)
3 – AND SO Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – BUT Search (adapt to it)
5 – AND SO Find (find what they wanted)
6 – BUT Take (pay its price)
7 – AND SO Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – THUS Change (now capable of change)
And what do you know? It works! We have a story structure of cause and effect relationships that build up into a heroic journey. Who knew?

I’m still debating about the usefulness and nature of the Hero’s Journey monomyth as an all-encompassing story form, as you’ll hear about in an upcoming DNA podcast where writer Jack Ward and I go at it hammer and tong about the subject, but I will admit that this is a useful tool for writers. I’m always looking for ways to give my stories the solid underlying structure they need to become more satisfying for readers, and this is yet another tool in my writer’s toolkit to try out.

Rob

DNA Podcast 034 -What are litRPGs?

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In this episode Don and Rob are joined by the awesome Ramon Meija of the litRPG podcast to talk about the biggest new genre you’ve probably never heard of- litRPGs. The three discuss the origins of this fascinating genre, what makes a litRPG, what books your should be reading, and how the litRPG genre reflects the world we live in today. All that, and how to write litRPGs in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!

DNA Podcast 024 – Interview with Scifi Author Gary Gibson

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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

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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

 

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

What Akira Kurosawa can teach us about writing

I recently watched an excellent short analysis of some of director Akira Kurosawa’s film-making techniques by Tony Zhou, and it got me thinking about how we prose writers could apply some of Kurosawa’s techniques to our own work.

So, before we begin, take the time to enjoy Tony’s short 8-minute video. It’s well done, and just watching it makes me want to run out and watch all of Kurosawa’s films just for their sheer artistry and beauty…

Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Okay, now you’re up to speed, let’s talk about how some of his key ideas can be applied to writing.

Now, my first takeaway from Kurosawa is the obvious one- nothing in a story should be wasted. Everything down to the last period should be in a story for a reason, and should be working to make that story into the best possible story you can make it. Since as a writer you have absolute control over what’s on that page, and what your reader perceives, you can control what they see much like a camera does, and like Kurosawa you should be using every tool at your disposal to bring your story to life with the greatest effect.

Let’s look at a few specifics:

The Environment

One of the first things Zhou discusses is Kurosawa’s masterful use of the environment- Kurosawa uses it to create both visual stimulation and to show the mental states of characters. While it might be trickier for we prose writers to use the environment to create direct visual stimulation, it’s definitely a good reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of weaving the environment into our writing. It’s very easy to write everything as happening during sunny days and breezy evenings, but aren’t you missing an opportunity if you do so? Think about what environmental conditions could help to push your scene or theme to the next level, and weave them into the story in a way which supports and reinforces the story in some way. Whether it’s swirling fog to represent a character’s confusion, or a distant blazing forest fire that progressively fills the character’s world with smoke and indicates looming trouble, it can only make your story stronger.

Groups

Dealing with groups of people might seem a more visual element than a prose one, but it can still be useful for writers to consider. It’s very easy to picture characters doing things alone or with only the other main characters, but having groups of other people around can help to remind the reader that characters do have a place in society. As with the image of the showgirl crying while the other actresses rush past her from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), how groups of people react to a character can very much represent a character’s inner life as well as their greater place in society.

Key Gestures

Kurosawa liked to have each actor take on a unique gesture or way of moving so that the audience would instantly recognize him or her. This isn’t a bad tip for writers in general, either. Just as you can use visual cues like clothing, accessories or appearance to bring your characters to life in the reader’s imaginations, you can use gestures and movement as well. If you give each of the central characters a motion they consciously or unconsciously perform on a regular basis, it acts as another layer of characterization and something to play with. Of course, the gesture shouldn’t be overdone or comical (unless that’s your goal), but if subtly worked in it could reflect a lot about the character and their inner life.

Movement

There are many ways to look at movement and how it could benefit writing prose. The most direct one would be to try to have your characters doing actions or activities in their scenes, which both make the scene a little more lively (avoiding a “staged” feeling) and allows for a lot of subtext where you connect the actions with the inner life of the characters or themes playing out. I can’t recall who it was, but there was a famous author who said that they always started scenes with characters in motion in some way and finished in similar form.

Of course, movement can also be played out with the “camera” of the descriptive prose itself. Looking at description as a camera and thinking through the effects that different “shots” would have like a cinematographer could definitely benefit your writing in subtle ways. For example, did you know that each of the standard camera shots (close up, medium shot, long shot, worm’s eye view, etc) actually have a psychological or emotional effect on how the viewer interprets the character and scene? There is a whole language to film that’s developed over a hundred years and that we learn as children on a subconscious level. Learning the different shots and why directors use them could benefit your writing by letting you tap into that treasure trove of audience psychology.

Regardless of what you decide to use (or not use) from Kurosawa’s approach, thinking through your approach to scenes in a visual or cinematic way can only enhance your final work. However, do remember that the power of prose over video is that it can go deep inside characters and to places that video can’t, and you should be taking advantage of not just the visual and audio, but also the other senses in your scenes as well.

Rob

P.S. Check out Tony Zhou’s other videos, they’re really something else and will give you a new appreciation of the power of film.

Good Advice from Author Scott Sigler about Writing Your First Novel