Monthly Archives: February 2010

Believe the Lie

One of the most important things you must do when writing any story with fantastical elements is to make readers believe you as you step from the mundane to the magical.  If you can convince readers to make this jump once, they’re likely to be with you the rest of the way in your stories.

If you write with a voice of authority, telling your story with confidence, you can get readers to believe almost anything.  This is a reduction of a point I made a while ago that if you can explain something simple very well, readers will follow you more readily when it comes to something complex.  In this case, if you write about your world with authority, nobody will question the werewolves who hang out at night in Fairmount Park.

The use of figurative language can help get readers to make the jump to the fantastical.  Readers ought to be familiar with similes and metaphors (if they aren’t, one must wonder what they’ve been reading all this time), and these common devices can help ease them past reality.  This is a technique that borrows from magical realism, where language that seems figurative at first can take on more literal meaning as the narrative progresses.

Another point borrowed from the craft of magical realism is the importance of having a reason for unreality.  You oughtn’t to simply have magical creatures because you fancy them; rather, you must justify your departures from reality to readers.  Show readers what the magic can give them in your story that plain old reality can’t.  Alternately argue and charm readers into believing the unbelievable; if you do your job right, they’ll thank you later.

The final point to make is that magic must follow logic and reason; it must be like any other physical force.  It’s not necessary that scientists/wizards make a study of magic in the same manner as they might study physics, but it should be plausible for them to do so.  The wizards of the Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books do just such a thing, going so far as to split the thaum in a reactor on their squash court.

This dedication to the study of magic as a science is an extreme example, but it illustrates my point well.  Magic that can do anything inevitably will, and that is both uninteresting and unbelievable.  Readers will not be satisfied with a mysterious all-powerful magic, so don’t try to give them one.  Better to give them magic which is limited, logical.  You don’t have to give them all the rules, that would bog them down, and they may begin to be able to hear the distant rattle of many-sided dice, but you should know all the rules.


Action

One of the things that tends to be associated with urban fantasy is action/fighting.  If Chekhov is going to show off a gun in the first act, you can be damn sure that it’s going to go off by the third act, and if this is an urban fantasy that you’re talking about, that gun firing is probably going to be intentional.

You’ve probably seen quite a number of action movies with sweet fight scenes in them, and the natural inclination–it was certainly my first inclination when I began writing seriously–is to try to reproduce that sort of carefully-choreographed fight scene in your writing.  The problem with that is that words are not pictures, let alone moving pictures, and it can be hard to translate something you see perfectly well in your head onto the page in such a way that others will see the same things you imagined.

One thing to be sure of, if you have a big fight scene, is to have clear blocking–that is, where everyone important is standing/crouching/lying.  As in the days before it was assumed that you’d be playing D&D with minis, it can be hard to tell readers where everyone is during a fight.  All too often, you may have a character standing in one place, very near an enemy, but readers may imagine that character standing somewhere completely different.  While you’re trying to make your blocking as clear as possible, you must also keep from bogging readers down with information that gets in the way of the action.  You only need to describe the blocking of a scene when it’s very important to know where everyone is; otherwise, you may give broad-stroke information, painting a fight that everyone can imagine without having to tell them “look, here is where the protagonist is, and there are grunts crouched behind barrels here, here, and here.”

As an example, here’s an excerpt from an early draft of an urban fantasy parody that I’m working on:

The sound of the door slamming open was drowned out by the roar of gunfire which accompanied it. The dim warehouse was illuminated by the strobe of muzzle flashes migrating about the floor, going from cover to cover. Sasha had dived behind a huge, disused lathe as soon as she had breached the door, and her Glock chattered out streams of slugs as the thugs shooting at her broke from cover, trying to flank her.

Between bursts, she scanned the room, looking for the shadow of Jack. He had charged in before Sasha was even in cover, his form melting from that of a handsome man and re-coalescing as a large wolf, and he was on a tear. Sasha could only catch flashes of him, but she could hear the results of his work in the screams of the blood-slaves who had been lounging about the warehouse when she and Jack had burst in.

Looking around, Sasha locked her eyes onto the lit window of a small office along one of the warehouse walls. Sasha knew that was where Vladimir’s under-boss, Agrippa, was. She began plotting a route through the room, looking for the shortest distances between pieces of cover. Then, with half a plan in mind as the confidence to make the rest of it up on the fly, she burst from cover, spraying the room with lead for the few seconds that she was in the open.

Crouched behind another piece of heavy machinery, Sasha checked her equipment, noting that she had only a few more loaded clips for her Glock. Holstering the handgun, she unslung the shortened Ithaca pump-action from its place under her trench coat. The next piece of cover was a bit farther away than she had first judged. She peeked around the side of her cover, spotting Jack a dozen yards away, his bare, now-human chest heaving as he crouched, rifle in hand, behind a stack of boxes.

In this example, I’ve communicated all the essential details about the scene without having to give a full layout of the warehouse because readers can imagine what the inside of the warehouse looks like without my telling them every little detail.

There is equal danger in bogging down your readers in a blow-by-blow fight scene.  As is the case with slow pieces of dialog, slow, boring blow-by-blow scenes are better summarized.  There are places where blow-by-blow fight scenes work well, but they’re often better avoided.

The folks over at Writing Excuses did an episode on this topic a while back which I recommend.


Genre-Bending/Genre-Blending

While reading some pieces for workshop shortly after my last post, I stumbled into inspiration.  The piece which inspired me was a choose-your-own-adventure-style retelling of several fairy-tales with a more mature twist, and it got me thinking about those times when a single, currently named genre is not an adequate descriptor for a piece of fiction.  What happens when you want to blend genres, and what are the pitfalls to avoid?

The biggest pitfall that should be avoided is obscuring your story with setting.  As I said in an earlier post, a story can only support one fantastical element.  If you are writing an urban fantasy/steampunk story, you cannot effectively focus on both the fantastical creatures and the clever steam technology that you’ve come up with.  You may try, of course, but your story will suffer as you try to go in too many directions at once.  Better, continuing with the uf/sp example, to use the steampunk as nothing more than a backdrop which could, with little effort on your part, be swapped out in favor of a spaceship, an underwater city, an alien planet, or the “real” world.  On the other hand, you might wish to focus on the steampunk, using the urban fantasy elements as little more than a backdrop.

The second pitfall to avoid is trying to blend disparate genres.  Certain genres lend themselves to being blended with other genres: romance, for instance.  In these cases, the one genre is a sort of template which is laid on top of the other.  Likewise, there are some genres which take the addition of templates well.  Fantasy and science fiction both serve well as bases upon which other genres may be laid.  Common sense should tell you when two genres are unlikely to play nice with each other before you have invested too much time with an idea.  For instance, it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that you’ll be able to write an effective romance/horror story.

When it comes to the bending of genres, the thing to remember is that you can’t make a genre something that it is not.  But that’s the point of genre bending, you say.  Not quite, I say.  In bending a genre, you are trying to make change the shape of the genre in question to accommodate the story that you’re telling.  If you bend the genre too far, though, you’re going to break it.  If that happens, then you were trying to use the wrong genre as a foundation, and you would be better served by another genre.

So how does this apply to urban fantasy?  Let’s run with the steampunk example I was using earlier.  Both genres work well as templates, so it’s a matter of deciding which one will be the base of the story.  Since this blog is ostensibly about urban fantasy in Philadelphia, I’ll say that urban fantasy is the base, and that steampunk is the template.  What I now have is Philadelphia, circa an alternate 1894, where the Reading Terminal is also a sky platform for airships, and automatons, rather than poor laborers, do menial and dangerous tasks.  This forms the backdrop for a story in which werewolves are overrunning the city, and it is the job of a Gentleman Adventurer to stop them.

Throughout this post, I have assumed your familiarity with steampunk, however, if you don’t know anything about the genre/subculture or you want to know more, the Brass Goggles steampunk blog and forums are one of the best places to start.


A Call to Readers

Readers, I do not wish to suggest that I have in any way exhausted my knowledge–I would be lying if I claimed to have nothing more to say–but I do wish to turn to you with a few questions.

Whether you are a repeat visitor or someone who stumbled upon this blog by accident, I want to know what you want to see here.  I write most often about whatever is at the top of my mind, but often what is at the top of my mind is not relevant to urban fantasy, be it Philadelphia-related, or, as has lately been the case, not.  What questions do you want to have answered?  What topics would you like to see covered, or covered more thoroughly?

As in writing workshops, your feedback will help us all, allowing me to expand my work here and providing more entertainment and information for you.


Borrowing and Folk Tales

This post may seem to go against my previous posts about abandoning the same old same old, but bear with me.  One of the best places to turn when searching for story ideas is old stories.  The brothers Grimm made their mark not by writing new stories, but by collecting old ones.  Folklore of all stripes is a wonderful starting-point for a story, even if it’s only inspiration that leads you off on another track.  Likewise, borrowing plots can be a fun exercise, and can start your writing back up when you’ve stalled.

Now comes the part where I tell you not to write the same old same old.  When I say that you should borrow plots, I mean that you should borrow frameworks.  You’ll get a lot farther trying on a framework that you’ve seen used by a favorite author than you will trying to write something that nobody has written before, for, as the Barenaked Ladies say, “It’s all been done.”

Tolkien is a good example of this kind of borrowing.  The Hobbit is Beowulf with hobbits, dwarfs, elves, wizards, and orcs.  If you don’t believe me, go  read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, then come back and see about quibbling with me.

Often, when a story pops into my head, it will borrow its framework from an H. P. Lovecraft story or a piece of mythology or folklore that I remember.  The key here is that, while I borrow that framework, I’m not just writing that remembered story over again with different names.  I’m taking something old and making it new by putting my own twist on it.

When it comes to borrowing from folk tales, I can’t think of a body of work that does so better than Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Maybe you’re not familiar with all the folk tales that are used as the framework for various Hellboy stories, maybe you are, but whatever the case is, you can’t argue with the fresh treatment that they’re given.

Even if you’re not inclined to borrow whole frameworks from folk tales any mythology, it’s worth taking a look at for source material.  Though it may sometimes be disappointing to find that something that you thought was an original creation of your mind actually comes from a story you were read when you were a child, take heart.  Borrowed elements come with familiarity attached to them already, and you can use that familiarity to your advantage, forging a stronger connection with readers and strengthening your own work by incorporating those elements that you had forgotten.

This all comes with my usual boilerplate, don’t overdo it.  It becomes tiring to realize that an author is just using obviously borrowed frameworks, to the point that you may be able to predict the ending from the first few pages of a story.  You can’t rely on the work of others to hold up your own stories, you must support them with your own strong writing if they’re to have a chance of standing up against jaded readers and editors who’ve seen everything twice over.


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