Thoughts on Different Story Structures

My recent article where I was trying to unravel the mysteries of writing what I call Procedural Fiction and a conversation I had with my friend Don have left me thinking about the different ways writers use to structure stories. For most people, the Hero’s Journey is the one true method by which stories are written (an innocent enters a new world, is transformed by it, and returns a more mature and seasoned adult) and this is the basic structure which Hollywood follows today almost religiously. In fact, most of the Story Formulas you’ll find if you click that link up top are variants of the Hero’s Journey in one form or another.

However, that isn’t how all stories are structured. In fact, there are a lot of other ways to structure and tell a story that aren’t heroic journeys at all, or where the heroic journey element is merely a background to the real story.

So what different ways can we structure a story?

  • Personal Transformations (hero’s journeys- see Dan Harmon’s Story Wheel)
  • Situation Driven Stories (where the hero is a pawn of the plot/circumstances which surround them and pull them into the story – see the Lester Dent formula)
  • Standard Procedurals (where the hero is following a series of preset steps to accomplish a goal – see the 12 Chapter Murder Mystery formula)
  • Setting Driven Stories (where the story is really about the setting and the character’s place in it)
  • Creativity Driven Stories (where the character is trying to create something, and the building of that thing forms the basis of the story- see my Procedurals article)
  • Education Driven Stories (where the character is trying to learn something, and learning how to do that thing (for the character and audience) is the real focus of the story)
  • Explorational Stories (where the hero is going out into a new world and the exploration of this new setting and its wonders is the focus of the story- see Procedurals article)
  • Collection Based Stories (where the hero is trying to gather something or find something, and the act of collecting that thing and how it affects those who follow this path is the focus of the story- Gotta catch ’em all!)

I’m sure there are more, but I’m missing them, feel free to make suggestions in the comments. 🙂

Most of these will have a Heroic Journey/Personal Transformation story happening within them on the part of the character, but not always. It’s perfectly normal in a situation-driven story for the main character to change little or not at all by the end of the story, which is why it’s not a heroic journey.

The key is how the setting/world around the character is being used. If the setting is only there to further the growth of the character in a certain direction, then the story is a personal transformation story. However, if the setting or situation and how exploring it affects the character is the real focus, then it isn’t a personal transformation story but a story about the nature of that setting or situation.

Example- Bob the Cricketeer.

  • In a Personal Transformation story, the game of Cricket is a vehicle to transform Bob into the person he needs to be to fulfill his deep inner needs.
  • In an Education Driven Story, Bob’s entry into the world of Cricket is a vehicle to explore Cricket, anything Bob goes through is a natural side effect of exploring the game of cricket and is there to show how CRICKET affects its players, not how Bob grows as a person.

Both stories might end at the same point (or not) with Bob being a newly confident master of playing cricket, but they got there through different paths and the stories will be shaped and structured differently. The Education Driven Story could, however, end with Bob having learned nothing but skills and having made a few friends, and be exactly the same person at the story’s end, and it would still work as a story as long as the audience learned all there is to know about Cricket. However, if the point was Bob’s Personal Transformation and he didn’t transform, then that story would have failed.

I think it’s important to be aware of these differences because they give the writer more control over the story and how they can shape the story. If I try writing a Murder Mystery as a Hero’s Journey, for example, the audience will likely get confused and annoyed because they’re expecting a Procedural structure and I’m trying to give them something else. Likewise, it shows that not every story needs to be a hero’s journey, although many stories do make a nod toward that structure in one form or another. (Or at least go through the motions of a Heroic Journey without actually having any real change.)

What do people think? Am I on the right track here? Am I missing something? Feedback is welcome because I think there is more to it, but I’m still puzzling it out.

Rob

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!

 

 

The Part-Time Writers Podcast

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One of my favourite manga of all time is the manga Bakuman, a fantastic story about two young Japanese comic book artists who are trying to make it into the big leagues by the creators of the famous manga Death Note. Although I use the word fantastic to describe it, there are no fancy elements present in the story, is a very realistic take on what it is like to become a manga artist in Japan. In many ways, is similar to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the greatest book on comic book art ever written, except that this time it’s in the form of a fictional story. Bakuman itself is an exploration of both the business and the creative side of selling Japanese comics, and it is both educational and enthralling. I have read the whole series of 20 volumes through about six times, and will probably continue to read it again once a year because I always get something out of it and find something new with each read through.

I bring this up, because I recently stumbled across a podcast that reminds me a bit of Bakuman, it is called the Part Time Writers Podcast and is a chronicle of two part-time writers, Chris and Lee, who are trying to become a full-time writers in the course of a year. The podcast itself, which is 100% real, is their weekly journal of their efforts to become successful writers, and is a story in and of itself. Although the protagonists of this particular story are a little bit older than the teens of Bakuman, and not trying to get into traditional publishing, they still have to struggle with many of the same creative and business issues that the young heroes of the manga do. Perhaps, this is why find it so interesting to listen to, and it has become one of my favorite podcasts listen to each week.

Now, I may be a bit biased because I’m quite fond of the superhero genre, and their first effort is to try and write a superhero series. But, the two of them do make a pretty engaging pair, as they have different backgrounds and different perspectives on the writing and the approaches that they have to take to get their books out successfully to their target audience. I have to say, as a part-time writer myself, I’ve learned quite a bit from listing to the two of them and find it fascinating to hear their discussions and their ideas, and then to watch them try out those ideas and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. I also find the two of them quite inspiring, as they generally keep a very positive attitude towards their work, and are willing to try new directions and try new things when plans go awry.

This particular experiment started in January 2016, and is still going on right now, being a little over two thirds finished. Although, I suspect (spoiler) that they will probably end up doing the podcast for more than a year for many different reasons.

So, if you get a chance I would highly recommend checking out this podcast. I started listening to it for specific episodes about specific topics, but if I were to try again I would probably just go back and start with the first episode and work up from there. Unfortunately, iTunes doesn’t seem to have the first seven episodes and starts with episode eight on its feed. However, I believe you can get those first seven episodes from the show’s home website if you want to listen to them. You can still get quite a bit by just listening to individually targeted episodes, and really you can drop in anytime, but if you want to get involved with their story and understand truly what’s going on it helps to start from the beginning or close to it.

Enjoy!
Rob

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

Xianxia- The Fantasy Genre that’s Dominating Chinese Web Fiction

Pan Long (Coiling Dragon)

A little over a year ago, I noticed a Chinese name, Douluo Daolu, on the “top 20 manga” of the site Mangafox.com, which I thought was unusual to say the least on a site dedicated to Japanese manga. The site does have Korean and Chinese comics, but to see a translated Chinese one reach a serious English readership (which required tens of thousands of reads a month) made me quite curious. So naturally, I did what I always do when I’m curious- I checked it out! As it turned out, Doulu Daolu was my first step into the world of Chinese fantasy web fiction, but I didn’t know it at the time.

As anyone who knows me, or is familiar with my work, knows I’m a longtime fan of Chinese Wuxia stories and movies. Wuxia, familiar to most English readers through movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is essentially the Chinese pulp historical action genre that holds the same place in the Chinese culture as Westerns do in the United States and Samurai films do in Japan. It flourished during the first half of the twentieth century in newspaper serials, and then eventually moved to the big and small screens in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Even today, elements of it pervade Chinese culture, and even “normal” historical Dramas have a habit of making use of stylized Wuxia-eqsue swordfighting once the action kicks in.

Now, despite Wuxia’s tendency toward “flying swordsmen”, you might be surprised to learn it is often a fairly “grounded” genre. “Standard” Wuxia stories will contain a bit of a jumping around, and maybe a few funky martial arts qi-based abilities, but tend to be light on what Westerners would call “magic” because they were still mostly focussed on the characters and their relationships with their martial arts sects and clans. Yes, there are often lost secret martial arts techniques, but these mostly just make people stronger and faster fighters, and rarely (in the literature) are about tossing around fireballs and summoning monsters.

I always found this groundedness somewhat appealing, that underneath their hyper-stylzed combat techniques, we were still watching skilled humans deal with inherently human problems for the most part. Likely, it also worked for me because this was the power level George Lucas used when he “borrowed” Wuxia tropes and made a little film series called Star Wars. I grew up dreaming of Jedi, so when I was shown Wuxia fighters who could do basically the same things Jedi are shown doing in the movies it didn’t really bother me.

This is also why, when I came across examples of what Chinese would call “Immortal” stories, which are stories about “gods” like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, I didn’t care for them. “Immortal” stories are basically super high-powered Wuxia stories about people who have transcended the mortal realm (or were never human to begin with) and their conflicts with the other “gods”. They spring mostly from Chinese mythology and of course the classic Journey to the West (aka The Monkey King) which in itself is basically an Immortal story about a couple gods hanging around with a priest on Earth and battling other gods and evil spirits.

I like my Wuxia “basic” level, and that’s it. If you want a good example of a Wuxia type of story, I can only humbly recommend my own novel The Crocodile Princess. A swashbuckling story of intrigue set in the martial arts underworld of Old China…

crocodileprincesscover

Or so I thought!

Because it seems the Chinese actually came up with a new genre that sits between the two- Xianxia, which is sometimes referred to as “Cultivation” novels. This currently super-popular genre is one of the pillars of Chinese Webnovel fiction (online serialized fiction on Chinese web portals) and while largely unknown in the English speaking world , has taken the Chinese one by storm. I posted previously about the top webnovel writers in China in 2015, and without an exception, all of them are Xianxia writers.

So, what is this mysterious Xianxia Genre?

For most of my English speaking readers, I can explain it in one hyphenated word- “leveling-up”. Taking its roots from Taoism and Buddhism, the characters in Xianxia novels (often generically referred to as Cultivators) are trying to “evolve” their souls into higher and purer forms and work their ways up to becoming immortals. However, while that might sound boring and make you think of a bunch of monks sitting around chanting and hoping to spiritually transcend this mortal coil (which is the reality version), in a Xianxia novel this has turned into an excuse to give the main characters magical superpowers they use to fight other Cultivators.

I often describe Xianxia novels as Wuxia meets World of Warcraft, which is essentially what they are. They’re stories where a generic nobody hero levels up by fighting, finding magic items, going on quests, and making friends and allies. And while that might sound dull, in the right hands, it is anything but! Since they’re written as Light Novel serials targeted at a Young Adult market, they tend to be action-driven stories filled with adventure, romance, humor, and more twists than a barrel of eels! They harken back to the days of Horatio Alger Jr. stories of a youth becoming a man, but with a uniquely Chinese spin on them.

Having read a few of them, here are a few common “tropes” or standards that seem to pop up over and over in the majority of Xianxia stories I’ve checked out:

 

  • It takes place in a pseudo-historical Fantasy world often based on old China.
  • The main character (MC) is (almost) always a weak young man of low birth.
  • Despite being of low birth, the MC has some weird advantage over others in becoming a Cultivator which kicks in around the time the story starts. (Common ones are they are reincarnated from another time and place, they have been transported to a fantasy world from our world, they have some unique skills from a strange background, or they have some magic item that activates around the time the story starts.)
  • There is a system of rankings which all Cultivated beings in the setting will follow. (This usually involves a combination of Numbers and something else. So the character might be a “Bronze Rank 3 Fighter” or be working up from “Level One White Mage” to “Level 99 Black Mage”, with the colors designating approximate level of spiritual development.)
  • All cultivated beings have some pool of Qi Points (Magic Points) which they use to enhance their physical abilities and cast magical spells. (Often this is called a “Soul Realm” or “Spiritual Energy”.)
  • Magic and magic items are plentiful in the setting, but are pretty much only used for fighting, healing and levelling up. (Other uses of magic aren’t even on the radar- it’s all battle, all the time.)
  • The setting will be filled with wandering monsters of varying rank (which corresponds to the Ranks of character development as well) and these monsters will produce gemstones when killed that can be used in various ways. (Commonly, to be absorbed by the MC to help further their Leveling.)
  • Often the MC will get one of these monsters as a pet early in the story, which will be his companion and level up with him.
  • The main character usually has a mentor, but the mentor will be pretty unreliable and tend to disappear for long periods of time. (Only showed up to help the MC get over critical challenges and occasionally as a Deux ex Machina.)
  • There are clans/sects/guilds that the character will have to become involved with to get the things they need to level up, but by allying with one group, you gain the enmity of their enemies. (Thus perpetual conflict.)
  • Each of the above groups has their own power levels in their society, and there are always top ones which dislike the main character for some reason. (Thus being the high-powered opposition that the MC will need to face toward the end of the story and often they hunt the MC at some point.)
  • There are a handful of “Immortals” who have reached top rank in the setting, and the world tends to revolve around them. Some are friendly toward our hero, some will want him dead. The baddest of these will be the “final boss” the hero will need to face to finish his quest.
  • There was once a great lost civilization in the setting who littered the setting with lost tombs and hidden places filled with cool magical items and books.
  • There will be some variant of a Magic Satchel (usually a bag or ring) which is easy to carry but which allows the MC to store massive amounts of stuff they find with almost no weight.
  • There will be “healing pills” which restore health, and “power-up pills” which help in the character’s levelling. (Sometimes the latter are the gems that monsters leave behind when killed.)
  • The character will gain some bizarre magical superpowers during their journey that seem weak at first, but level up into something massive over time.
  • There is a main female love interest character, but something always keeps them apart. (Usually she is the daughter of one of the clan/sect/guild heads, and will be described as “a fairy” or as the most beautiful woman in the world.)
  • In the meantime, the MC will be pursued by a host of other young hotties who will tempt him and keep the drama flowing and try to seduce him at various points in the story.
  • The female lead will have some ability that enhances or is complimentary to the male lead.
  • Every young man wants to be a warrior/fighter- it’s their dream to fight for their clans.
  • Many Xiaxia stories have a “survival of the fittest/strongest” theme to them.

 

There are other standards, but these tend to be the big ones and the most common ones. Reading that list, you can see what I mean about the similarities between Xianxia stories and MMO’s like WoW. The only thing that makes them different from typical Tolkien-esque settings are the Wuxia twists that tend to be injected into them, and elements of Chinese culture. Also, each author will put his own spin on a number of these elements, and sometimes do some interesting twists on them. (Which will then result in others copying that twist, and innovating it in other directions, keeping the genre evolving.)

Let’s look at a few examples that I’ve enjoyed or checked out:

(Note, many of the more popular ones started as serial Webnovels and have also had comic adaptations, and I will provide links to both when possible.)

battle continent cover

Douluo Daolu (aka Battle Continent), which is the story of a martial arts genius from a Wuxia version of our Tang Dynasty named Tang San who commits suicide and finds himself reborn as a young boy in a high-fantasy Xianxia setting. He uses his Wuxia knowledge to give him an edge when he goes to a magic school (ala Hogwarts), where he forms a team of students and helps them all to level up. This one tends to be somewhat lighthearted and a bit silly at times (he goes to the “Shrek Academy”, which is run by “Principal Flanders”) but the core story is interesting. Most Xianxia stories are very individualistic, but this one is a little more team based. It was the first one I read (in comic form), and is actually one of the most popular Xianxia novels. (Comic adaptation here)

battlecontinentcover3

Doupo Cangqiong (aka Battle Through the Heavens) is the story of Xiao Yan the young martial arts genius of the Xiao clan. However, shortly after his mother’s death Xiao Yan’s spiritual energy all disappeared and he came the laughing stock of his clan. At the start of the story he discovers that it was because the ring his mother gave him on her deathbed contains the trapped spirit of an ancient immortal ranked alchemist with no name. The alchemist’s spirit was sucking away Xiao Yan’s energy to reform himself as a ghost, and once he has reformed, Xiao Yan regains the use of his spiritual energy. Xiao Yan and the alchemist make a deal- the alchemist will become Xiao Yan’s mentor and teach him, and in trade when Xie Ni gets strong enough he will help the alchemist reform a new body in the physical world. This is good, because Xiao Yan just made a pact with his ex-FiancĂ©e that he will fight a duel to the death with her in three years for his clan’s honor. Again, I read this one in comic form, but I have to say it’s one of my favorites, and I still read each new chapter as soon as I can each week. The alchemy angle adds a surprising amount to the story, and the author never ceases to crank the tension or have interesting twists- so highly recommended!  The comic also has nice art, and while more serious than Battle Continent, it still has a good blend of seriousness and humour. (Comic here. Note- the comic translation is way ahead of the novel translation, although both are ongoing.)

issthcover

I Shall Seal the Heavens is one of the most popular Xianxia serials by the master Xianxia author Er Gen (aka I Eat Tomatoes), and is the story of Meng Hao. A failed young scholar, he gets kidnapped by an Immortal (7th Rank Chi Cultivator Sister Xu) and taken to a mountain retreat to become a servant in the Reliance Sect. Through hard work, he goes from servant to an actual member of the sect (Level 0 to Level 1) and becomes one of the hundreds of students who all strive to improve their rank and get martial arts superpowers. However, once he becomes a student he discovers that the sect functions in a dog-eat-dog sort of system, where the strong prey on the weak, and the weak all too often end up dead. As you might guess, this one is much darker than the previous two, and I’m still deciding if I actually like it. (My tastes are for more swashbuckling material.) Try to give it until Chapter 6 before you make a real decision about it, if for no other reason than to find out what the MC’s magic item can actually do. (It has, perhaps, one of the most unique powers in all of fantasy- which will have you laughing like crazy, or staring at the screen in horror, or perhaps both.)

coiling dragon cover

Coiling Dragon (aka Panlong) was one of the first Xianxia stories translated into English by the webmaster of Wuxiaworld, Ren Wo Xing. It is also special in that it takes place in what is a basically western fantasy setting instead of a Chinese one. Linley Baruch, one of the last members of the once-mighty Baruch clan, discovers that he is the inheritor of a great legacy- he has “dragon blood” running through his veins, but it only gives him potential, he has a long journey to make it reality. If you’re looking for an intro to Xianxia novels, and aren’t sure if you can handle all those Chinese names, then this is probably the one for you. It starts a little slow, but is well written, and picks up as it goes. When people go on the Wuxiaworld.com forums and ask where to start among the many series, this is a name that pops up almost every time (along with I Shall Seal the Heavens) and it has the other advantage of being 100% finished in both English and Chinese.

TDG001

Tales of Demons and Gods is a series that I both highly recommend reading, and suggest you do not read as your first Xianxia story. Go read something else, maybe two or three something else’s first, and then come to this one. The reason is say this is because this story turns many of the standard Xianxia tropes on their heads, and a lot of the humor of the story comes from the fact the author is both deconstructing the genre and yet writing a perfect example of it at the same time. That said, I love this story, despite all its weirdness and faults, because it never fails to thrill and entertain. The core story is also a bit of genius- Nie Li is a man who watched his city destroyed by a demon army and everyone he ever loved die, he then went on to become one of the greatest warriors of humanity and lived for hundreds of years until he lost a battle with the Dark Sage and was killed. However, after his death, he wakes up during class in the body of his 13 year old self three years before the demon army comes to destroy the city. He has his knowledge from his previous existence, but is stuck in the helpless body of his young self, and now he has three years to save his city. Of course, every change he makes to the timeline makes the new timeline different than the old one, and spawns even new dangers that he didn’t know existed the first time around. (Last time he was a typical teenage commoner from a minor family with no connection to the political or warrior side of the city.) Nie Li is the smartest and most manipulative older-self-in-kid-body bastard since Edogawa Conan, and I can’t wait to read each new chapter. Another plus is that the comic version and text version are in sync with each other on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so you can read the comic first if you want, and then flip over to the text version (which is about 150 chapters ahead) with no issues at all. (Comic here.)

Of course, these are just a few of the Xianxia webnovels being translated right now by sites like the ones listed below, and are just my own entry points. You should probably check those sites out for more information and find something that works best for you. Wuxiaworld also has very active forums, which can answer any questions you have.

Wuxiaworld

Novel Updates (Xianxia Category)

Dreams of Jianghu: Novel Translations

Jade Water Paradise: Romances, Wuxia and Xianxia Fiction

Shiroyukineko Translations

[EDIT: Since this article was written, I’ve discovered that my terminology wasn’t quite right, and that I mixed more than one category of Chinese fantasy fiction together when I wrote this article. While some of these stories are Xianxia, and I did get a lot of the common elements correct, there is some debate over what is “real” Xianxia and what is really just high magic Wuxia, or another (sub) genre altogether. For more on this topic, refer to this other post about Chinese Webnovel Genres.]

Enjoy!

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

 

Rob Talks the Love of Podcasting with Jack Ward

I recently paid a visit to the Sonic Society’s Sonic Speaks podcast to talk with the incomparable Jack Ward about the history of my podcast- Kung Fu Action Theatre. In the interview, we talk about how I got into podcasting, my experience running KFAT, and my eventual decision to stop doing audio drama. Along the way, we discuss writing and the transition of going between being an audio dramatist and a prose fiction writer, and the challenges that come with learning to tell stories in audio before you’ve mastered prose.


It was a fun chat, and I hope we can do it again sometime. It made me think a lot about the differences between writing for audio and prose that I hadn’t considered, and I think I too learn from the exploration. If you’re planning to do Audio Drama, or make the jump from Audio Drama to fiction writing, it would definitely be a good one to listen to.