Crowd control

There are two basic problems with controlling a mob of characters: juggling all their individual stories throughout a book, and juggling their conversations when all of them are in the same place and trying to talk at the same time.

The simplest solution to both problems is, obviously, to cut some of the characters, either out of a scene or out of the book entirely. Cutting characters out of the story can be hard to reconcile oneself to, but quite often it results in a tighter, more effective story, especially if the writer is not terribly good at juggling multiple backstories and conversations just yet. Surprisingly often, it results in a more interesting story, because cutting one or two characters forces the writer to consider alternate possibilities.

For example, one writer I knew started with an ensemble group of five main characters. Unfortunately, her world-building included a society that mandated early marriage and treating couples as a single unit (i.e., if you hire an engineer for a project, his/her spouse is part of the package). This instantly ballooned the cast to ten characters, and she hadn’t even gotten around to the bad guys yet.

First question was, did she really need all five of the main characters as she had originally conceived them, or could one of them be the spouse of one of the others? That worked, so she was down from ten characters to eight. Next question: could one of the characters be a widow/widower? That also worked, and provided an interesting opportunity to show how the society would deal with the inadvertently single. What about a gay couple? That didn’t work for the story, but she filed it as an interesting idea to explore at some other time. She was left with five main characters, but only two extra spouses, which was a vast improvement.

Cutting out characters can frequently be done by combining roles. For instance, in the current WIP, I started with a Head Minion, Evil Aunt, Evil Uncle, and Sort-of-Evil Cousin, among others. When I decided I needed to pare down the number of people, I looked at that and realized that there was no reason why the Head Minion couldn’t have gotten his position by marrying the Dark Lord’s sister, thus combining the roles of Head Minion and Evil Uncle in one person.

Cutting characters out of a scene is usually a matter of finding them something else to do while the scene is taking place. “I’d love to come to your meeting with the King of Somewhere and provide you with good advice, dear, but there’s a dragon attacking the town just to the west and I have to go sort it out.”

Sooner or later, however, one gets to a scene where everybody has to be present. Often, this is the Big Climax of the novel, and one can sometimes reduce the numbers present by killing off or disabling a couple of folks along the way. Still, there are probably far more people present than can have a reasonable conversation.

So think about a giant dinner party in real life. Four people at one table can all talk to each other at once, taking turns listening and speaking. Six people can do it sometimes, but if the center of the conversation is at one end of the table, the two people at the other end often start their own conversation. So with six people, you sometimes have one large conversation going, and sometimes two small ones. Anything more than six people is almost always split into two or three two-to-four-person individual conversations. It’s what people can hear and participate in over a distance.

This is surprisingly easy to adapt to writing. First, you figure out where everybody is in this giant scene. If it is a battle, and you have seven or more people involved, they will probably end up in different places, which means that instead of juggling seven-plus people in one scene, the writer can write three to seven individual scenes, each focused on just one or two characters and what is happening to them. Juggling then becomes a matter of cutting and pasting them into the most pleasing order.

If you have something like the grand finale of Mairelon the Magician, where I had sixteen characters in a room at once, all with different agendas and different ideas of what it was important to talk about…well, then you have to juggle the presentation of all the conversational bits. This means you have to figure out who is talking to whom (which starts with who is standing close enough to whom to be heard), and what sorts of overlapping conversations they are all likely to have.

You also have to consider your viewpoint. I like first-person and tight-third person, which give me a nice, clear way of organizing and juggling all the various two-to-three-person conversations going on: they are all filtered through what my viewpoint character is paying attention to at any given moment. If she’s talking to someone, all the other conversations are going to be like bits and pieces overheard in a restaurant; if she’s keeping quiet, she’ll pay the most attention to the people she thinks are the biggest threat or the most likely to have important or pertinent information or ideas.

I don’t tend to plan out my crowd scenes in any more detail than I do most of my other scenes, which is to say that if I am not sure who is where or how various moves will work, I sometimes do a sort of football-play-type diagram with letters representing characters and arrows showing how they’d move or respond to someone else’s movement. That works best for fight scenes, though there have occasionally been tea parties where I needed to know who was where and whether they had a clear route to an exit or a hiding place.

More usually, I have a clear idea of what everyone thinks they are about to do (which generally does not include the presence of any of the other characters – most of my crowd scenes are a surprise to the participants, these days), and then I just start with my main character and let her observe as people arrive. Every page or so, I stop to make sure that I haven’t lost track of anyone – even if the villain is in the middle of the traditional monolog, the viewpoint can see other people reacting in fear or loathing or exasperation, or sneaking off to hide behind the arras, or fiddling with their teacups. More usually, I have several two-to-five line excerpts from one two-to-three person conversation, then two-to-five-lines from a different one, as my viewpoint character tries to keep track of what everyone is doing and saying. If it gets too chaotic, I figure one of the characters will get fed up and yell “Silence!” loud enough to make everybody stop for a minute and start over.

It does take a fair amount of rewriting to make the conversation snippets in a mass crowd scene flow well. Sometimes, you can rearrange them; other times, one set has to come in a certain order, so all you can do is spread it out a bit and interpolate bits of other conversations, so that none of the other speakers gets lost. In the rewrite, the thing to keep an eye on is how long it has been since the last time each of the characters was mentioned. They don’t have to have actually said something; they can roll their eyes or scuff their feet or give some physical reaction to what someone else is saying. You just want to remind the readers who all is present, so that nobody will be shocked when someone who hasn’t been mentioned for ten or fifteen pages suddenly says something. (You also want to keep track of anybody who leaves; it is extremely awkward to have somebody deliver several crucial lines of dialog and then discover that they left the room five pages earlier.)

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Sounding a Little Different

Apparently there’s some interest in techniques for crowd control, so I’ll address that next post. In this one, I want to continue talking about characters’ voices, and ways of making them different. First, a couple of examples of what I mean by “characters who have radically different conversational styles,” that is, characters who are really easy to tell apart:

“Look, fur-brain, if I knew, would I ask?”

“It would probably be very awkward for you to explain. So many things are; awkward, I mean. Large kettles, for instance, and carrying three brooms at once, and those fat brown birds with the red wings whose name I can’t remember just at present. They waddle.”

“Every man has choices. I have made some few of mine, and now the sands fall to your side of the wheel.”

The differences between the voices above are a combination of the things I talked about last time – word choice, syntax, and grammar – plus personality, background, and sentence length. Character #1 is slangy and abrupt; character #2 is more formal and polite, but rambles off-topic at the drop of a hat; Character #3 is also formal and polite, and comes from a different culture with different idioms than the first two. They’re fairly easy to tell apart, even without speech tags.

Most of the time, though, one has several characters, at least, who come from a similar background – same culture, same village, maybe even from the same family – and who can therefore be expected to have speaking voices that are very similar. They still won’t be completely identical, though, and subtle differences in voice can be a lot more difficult to hear, let alone recreate.

A writer who has a few characters with significantly different backgrounds, plus several characters from the same area, is usually best off starting by deciding on the big differences in speaking style that are based in culture and different backgrounds. Once you have that clear, it is generally easier to take three or four characters from the same town and pick out further modifications.

Some writers try to go straight to the dialog by giving one character a stutter or another a tendency to slur words together (hafta, sorta, woulda). This is nearly always ineffective if it is done this way, for this reason, because at the level of “four characters from the same village need different speech patterns,” the difference in voice grows mainly out of a difference in personality. If you give a character a stutter just to make his dialog different, it won’t work, because having a stutter ought to affect other things about him, from his inclination to communicate in general to his self-image.

Sometimes, though, a character shows up who, well, just has a bad habit. The first rule of thumb is that if you are going to give one of your characters a bad speech habit that requires some kind of phonetic respelling, use a light hand. Phonetic respellings, even ones as innocuous as leaving off an initial “h” or terminal “g” (as in “I ‘ave to be goin’ now.”) can get very, very wearing to read, very quickly. And try very, very hard not to have more than one character per book that uses this kind of dialog. Sometimes, of course, you can’t avoid it; if so, recognize that it will take some extra work to make the dialog flow smoothly and readably, especially when your two characters with the phonetic dialog are talking to each other.

Usually, it is more effective to start with the character’s personality, and figure out from that what they’ll sound like. Writers also need to remember that voice is as much about what gets said, as it is about how things get said. A character who is straightforward and efficient may tend to shorter, crisper sentences, and may also stick closely to the point under discussion; one who is a little insecure may feel a need to contribute to every discussion, and perhaps go on a bit longer in order to provide supporting evidence for their contribution. A different sort of insecurity or shyness may make a character disinclined to talk much at all, or to be very diffident about expressing an opinion. So one has to have some idea what a character is like, but also how “what the character is like” will be expressed for that particular character.

A lot of this gets done by instinct or practice. I find, as with much dialog, that reading really good plays helps. Radio plays are good, too, because there really isn’t anything but dialog and sound effects.

I’ll finish with a pair of examples: a brief conversation between two women having lunch together. They don’t sound radically different, but they’re still distinct:

“This place has good hamburgers.”

“Well, I don’t know if I should have one. I read this thing last week – I forget what magazine it was in, but it was all about how red meat is so bad for you. So I’ve been trying to cut back, at least some.”

“You’re always reading things.” She shook her head. “Have the fish.”

“But isn’t there mercury or lead or something in fish? Something bad for you, anyway. Oh, and it’s breaded and fried, I don’t think I want fish.”

“Well, have a salad, then.”

And here’s the same conversation, only with the voices reversed:

“I just love coming here, they have such good hamburgers. Why don’t you have one?”

“I’m cutting back. Red meat is bad for you.”

She frowned. “Well, they have this really good fish – let me see, where is it? There, halfway down the second page, the batter-fried cod with chips, just like they give you in England.”

“Too much grease. Anyway, fish has mercury in it. I’m not eating fish.”

“I suppose you could always have a salad.”

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Sounding Very Different

Characters, like people, are different from each other. They are different ages and genders; they come from different countries and levels of society; sometimes they even speak different languages, at least as their native tongues. This being so, they should by rights sound different from one another. Theoretically, they should sound different in ways that make sense, given all the other ways they differ, but let’s take one thing at a time.

Many writers – me included – start off with all their characters sounding the same. In some cases, the characters even use the same syntax, sentence structure, and vocabulary as the narrator, which really sounds odd unless the story is first-person, and even then it can be something of a stretch. I am perfectly all right with a first-person narrator saying something like “We spent five long, boring days waiting out the blizzard, while our supplies dwindled and our tempers frayed,” but if he/she is actually describing the experience to someone in dialog, I usually expect shorter sentences, more informal word choice, and a more personal reaction: “The blizzard lasted five days. I was so bored I was ready to shoot someone, and we almost ran out of supplies.”

The first step in giving characters their own unique voices is often to go for radically different conversational styles, or to assign one character or another a signature verbal tic, like never using contractions, using lots of jargon and slang, or frequently using an unusual word order. Anyone who’s seen Star Wars can figure out who said “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not,” even if they don’t remember which movie or under what circumstances.

This kind of thing can work well when one has a cast of characters who are supposed to be very different. If your main character is the lone Earth-type human in a group consisting of six aliens, each of whom is a different species from a different planet, giving each character a radically different speaking style not only makes sense in terms of worldbuilding, it also serves as a reminder to your readers that these beings aren’t all from the same place. The main things to watch out for here are 1) making sure that whatever identifying verbal trait you assign to each character is distinct and different, 2) keeping that trait consistent throughout the story, and 3) being sure that the dialog will remain easy to understand in spite of whatever twists you are giving the characters.

#3 is easy to overlook, especially if you assign your verbal tics in advance, or when only two of the characters are having a discussion. Something that works when A is talking to B may turn out to be incomprehensible when B is talking to C, or when there are more than three characters involved in a conversation. It’s particularly awful if you have six or seven characters who have been talking in twos and threes for twenty chapters, and then suddenly they are all together in the same scene and you realize with horror that the discussion is impossible to follow without labeling each and every line. Which leaves you the choice of making it obvious that you didn’t think your dialog choices through (by leaving the scene as-is), or splitting up the discussion so that the characters never, ever have to have a conversation all at the same time (which may not be possible), or figuring out some other speech tics that do work in a multi-character conversation and then doing a massive rewrite (which always leaves one feeling uncomfortable, because by Chapter Twenty, one has gotten comfortable with those characters and the way they sound, and no matter how necessary it is to make the changes, they won’t sound right after that much time).

Most of the time, though, one isn’t writing about six characters who are each a different species. When the characters have more in common, their speech patterns will also have more in common. However, even if you have two people from the same family, they won’t sound exactly alike. Personality makes a difference. I sound a lot like my sisters…but not identical, and the differences have grown more pronounced over the years as we’ve had different life experiences.

These kinds of more subtle differences in dialog patterns are harder to get a handle on (at least, they were for me). I will take a crack at them in the next post.

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Before the Start

“I only need one gun, but it has to be the right gun.” – Lois Bujold

Very few ideas are perfect on arrival. Few non-writers recognize this, and almost none of them realize that the process of correcting them often begins before a word of a story gets written.

This is part of the unwise veneration of “getting a good idea” as applied to writing. The general notion appears to be that getting ideas is very, very hard (or at least, that getting a good idea is hard). The corollary to this seems to be that “getting an idea” is something that, once it happens, is finished and final; if it is a bad idea, one doesn’t use it, if it is a good idea, one does use it, and there’s nothing in between.

There are writers for whom that is true, but the vast majority of us (and the vast majority of ideas) fall somewhere in that large gap where, supposedly, there is nothing. That is, 99% of stories do not end up looking a lot like the idea that got the writer started writing them. Furthermore, they often start changing almost as soon as the writer has the idea.

Non-writers find this nearly incomprehensible (unless they’ve had a lot of exposure to the odd ways that writers work). Even a lot of other writers find it disconcerting when it’s someone else going through it. Those who aren’t used to it – beginners and writers who normally don’t make changes until much later in their process – can find it downright disturbing when it happens to them.

For those of us who normally work this way, though, reworking the idea is a necessary part of the process. And the reworking can happen on many different levels, depending on the degree of detail and the qualities involved in the original story idea. I have one particular story idea that I’ve tried to write three times; each time, it has morphed so extremely before I even started typing that the idea has remained usefully pristine. I may be able to keep trying to write a story from that particular seed-idea for the remainder of my writing career, without ever getting it down on paper.

Other times, the changes are less dramatic. I mentioned last post that the current project is now expected to open with my heroine visiting the State Fair; what I didn’t say is that I already have several unsatisfactory opening scenes on my hard drive, beginning, variously, with my heroine waking from a nightmare, sitting in her bedroom on a hot August afternoon, walking through a park, and leaving the library. Also one truly unworkable in medias res opening that will probably end up being cannibalized for Chapter 2 or 3.

None of those various openings felt right, and consequently, none have been seen by anyone other than me, but quite often, I find myself talking about plot twists and characters and elements that I want to “try on.” Things that might make it into the final story, but I’m not really sure about. The difficulty arises when one of my beta…listeners gets attached to one of these could-maybe-happens that, in the end, doesn’t make the cut.

Most of my beta-readers and –listeners have been putting up with me for a long time, and know perfectly well that until it’s on paper, it isn’t going to make it into the book for certain. Even so, they can’t really help but make sad faces when something they were particularly fond of doesn’t make it. And I try very hard not to cut stuff that more than one person really, really likes, because if two people like it that much, it will probably appeal to a lot of other folks, and appealing to readers is part of the point.

Sometimes, though, things have to change. What I have is a perfectly serviceable idea – a perfectly good gun – but it isn’t the right one. The idea sounds good, sometimes terrific, and everybody I’ve mentioned it to loves it, but I know in my heart that it just doesn’t fit the book I’m getting started on writing.

The obvious thing to do at this point is to go ahead and come up with something else: a new character, a different plot twist, a change in the magic system or the politics or the setting. Oddly enough, it can be just as hard to resolve to make this kind of change before one has written even a word or two as it is when one has 17 chapters written, 14 of which will have to be scrapped. Because whichever point one is at, making the change is going to require more work, and I, at least, resist the inevitability of “more work” as much and as often as possible.

Painful experience has taught me, however, that forcing a project forward when it doesn’t feel right always results in having to scrap a bunch of chapters later in addition to working out all the stuff that needs to be different. In other words, it’s a lot less work to stop and work out the changes when my backbrain first starts looking at something sideways and frowning, rather than waiting until it starts screaming and jumping up and down and refusing to move a foot farther into the story until things are put right.

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Second Opinion, anyone?

I have this new project, which I have been wrestling with for a couple of months now. Mostly pleasant wrestling, as there are a lot of elements that please me. The problem is, I couldn’t get the thing started.

This is extremely unusual for me, but it was pretty obvious why: the thing starts in the present-day USA, and I have no real interest in writing contemporary fiction. Zilch. To the point where I was trying to start with the Second Evil Minion knocking on my heroine’s door and whisking her entire family off to wherever they’re going well before the end of the first chapter.

I had a couple of good reasons for doing it this way – not making false promises about where the story will happen, not introducing a bunch of characters who won’t be in the entire rest of the book – but it really boiled down to “I don’t wanna write present-day stuff! Wah!”

Which, I eventually admitted, is a totally wrongheaded reason for writing something a certain way. Also, it didn’t work. At all.

Unfortunately, that left me with trying to write at least a chapter or two set in present day, without introducing extraneous characters and without misleading readers. There’s also a little matter of foreshadowing a bunch of developments that will happen later on…some of which I have no clue about as yet. And, incidentally, writing all of this in a present-day setting that a) wasn’t a total cliché, b) didn’t necessitate making up a lot of one-page characters who’d look important (like teachers and friends), but who won’t be appearing in the rest of the book, and c) didn’t bore me to write about.

So I did what I usually do when that kind of thing happens, which is go to a coffee shop or restaurant with friends and complain. (This turns out to be a vital, downright indispensable part of the writing process for nearly every writer I know, though it is seldom mentioned in how-to-write books.)

There was some back-and-forth discussion, and then one of my compatriots pointed out that what I needed was to have my heroine appear first in a setting that was inherently temporary and obviously ending soon, like the last day of the family vacation, or summer camp, or a visit with grandparents. That way, readers wouldn’t be expecting to have to remember a lot about the place and people in the immediate opening, but I’d have time and space to develop the character and get some of her backstory nailed down before everything goes pear-shaped for her.

That sounded very promising, though the specific suggestions didn’t ring any bells. The general idea – starting in a place and at a time when things were obviously not everyday business-as-usual – felt spang on the money. We kicked it around a little more, looking for other possibilities, and then the obvious one occurred to me: the State Fair.

The Minnesota State Fair is an annual event, so it falls within the realm of “normal, recurring, part-of-everyday-life” for folks around here, but it only lasts twelve days. So it is inherently temporary, even if people go every year. There are weird things at the fair, and not just on the Midway (crocodile on a stick, anyone? Maybe the bacon-flavored ice cream?), so Second Evil Minion can show up without causing undue comment (other than “What’s he advertising?). And it starts next week, which means I can go and do some actual research, instead of having to rely on my memories of State Fairs past. Most important of all, it will be fun to write about, which will (I hope) get me to stop trying to move everybody out of town faster than they ought to be going.

Oh, and it is really, really going to be fun to see how Second Evil Minion copes with the butter heads, the llama costumes, and the crop art, among other State Fair perennials. Plus, I think the whole group can vanish in a puff of smoke in front of a crowd, and everyone who saw it would just assume it was a publicity trick or street theater or advertising or something. Which would be handy if and when my heroine has to come back, assuming I want to finagle the time differences so that she hasn’t been gone for months and months.

The trick at this point is going to make sure it doesn’t turn into a “Second Evil Minion does the State Fair” book. Not yet, anyway. Maybe a sequel…

The thing is, the story is moving. And I am pretty darned sure that it wouldn’t be, if I hadn’t gone out and whinged at the right people. I was spinning my wheels because all I could see was “writing boring contemporary school scenes – ugh!” (and trust me, if I’d had to write them, they’d have been boring!). I was so focused on what I didn’t want to do that I wasn’t looking for the right kind of alternatives. It took somebody who had no particular list of “things I want to avoid writing” (because she isn’t writing this book) to see what I needed in order to get around the initial problems: a setting that was both obviously normal and contemporary and obviously temporary rather than someplace readers would expect to come back to.

That kind of stuckness is especially frustrating because it isn’t what most folks think of as “writer’s block.” (It’s also a heck of a lot more common than all of the different kinds of “writer’s block” that I can think of, put together.) I know what the story is; I know where it’s going; I know more or less what has to happen next. I just couldn’t get it moving, because I could only see one way of getting it all started, and I really, really didn’t want to write that.

Every person looks at stories from a different angle, and sometimes that’s just what you need to break loose this kind of stuck. It certainly worked for me.

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Into the Unknown

There are a lot of jobs in the world, but for the majority of them, you know what you’re in for. You’re making something, or moving it around, or keeping track of it, or trading it. Even upper-level managers have a pretty fair idea what their job is. Writers, on the other hand, are always moving into the unknown.

I think this is why so many people are so devoted to various forms of pre-writing: they’re trying to make the trip knowable, or at least predictable.

It would be lovely if any of the techniques worked reliably. Not just because it would make the journey a lot easier and less stressful, though that would certainly be nice. Not even because it would make things move faster and more reliably, though that would be even nicer. But because, if you really could make a clear plan for moving into unknown territory, it would be a lot easier to a) sell the story to an editor and b) explain what I do to all the people with regular jobs that I meet every day.

I was thinking about this the last few days, in particular, because during my drive to Chicago last weekend, someone on the radio made the comment that you can’t play golf if you don’t know where the hole is. He was using it as a metaphor for setting goals, and it’s a good metaphor for that. It just doesn’t apply as strictly to writing as it does to other things, even though to some folks it looks as if it ought to.

Let’s start with something easy: My goal is to write a short story. Three to five thousand words, science fiction. That’s nice and clear, and doesn’t even get too specific about characters or plot. Yet I have, several times, sat down to write a short story and ended up with an 80,000 word novel. (The Harp of Imach Thyssel was the first time it happened.) I am not alone in this, either; I have a number of writer friends who routinely end up with novels instead of the shorter fiction they’d intended to write.

As soon as you throw in characters and plot and backstory, it gets even harder to end up where you think you were going. Oh, it may look good on paper, before anything actually gets written, but things nearly always start to drift the farther into the story one gets. Because one doesn’t actually know that the route one has charted through the vast empty unknown part of the map will get anywhere, let alone getting to the exact place it’s supposed to go. Add in process differences – there are folks who really need to know where they’re going, and others for whom having even an inkling of what the destination is like kills all desire to make the trip – and “know where the hole is before you try to play” starts looking positively problematic.

It’s a bit of a conundrum, really. On the one hand, explorers need to be prepared – it is much better to bring sunscreen and bug spray and an elephant gun and antivenin and extra rations, and not need them, than it is to need one of them desperately and not have it. (Especially the elephant gun and the antivenin.) On the other hand, explorers who are too sure that they know what to expect are prone to receiving nasty, sometimes fatal, surprises. Planning is often useful, but as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and other sorts of plans are just as fragile.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. There isn’t even a this-mostly-works recommendation that one can point a beginning writer at. About all one can do is try different things and see whether they’re helpful or not.

This is especially frustrating because the plots and structures and characters and above all process that’s hiding out there in the unknown keeps changing, so what worked for the last book, or the last three or five or seven books, will suddenly not work at all on the current one. The careful planner will find that the only way to get words down is to fly by the seat of her pants; the careless pantser discovers that the latest book requires reams of charts and maps and planning before he can get started. Or it may be less extreme: the writer who has never bothered with character sketches will find them a necessity; the other one who’s always used detailed maps has characters head straight for the blank area; the one who normally writes every morning before breakfast can’t put a word on paper til after lunch.

If you are going to move out into the unknown, you want to be as prepared as possible, but still hang loose so you can be flexible when that totally unexpected thing happens and everything changes (whether the unexpected thing happens to your characters, or to you). You may wind up at a different destination, or you may get where you intended to go, but by a different route. The trip may be completely different from what you expected, or it may have only one or two surprises (there will always be some), but as long as you don’t get too hung up on getting every detail nailed down in advance and then sticking to it, it’s bound to be an interesting journey.

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Cliches and tropes

One of the questions that came up in comments recently was “What’s the difference between a cliché and a trope?”

The simple and obvious answer is “The way the words are currently used on the Internet, not much.” But there’s a bit more to it than that.

Clichés are universally defined as overused and unoriginal, whether the cliché in question is a plot twist, a metaphor, a situation, a character, or even the way someone in real life expresses a firmly held opinion. A trope, though, if you go for the longstanding literary definition, is “a figure of speech, especially one that uses words in senses beyond their literal meanings…The major figures that are agreed upon as being tropes are metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, irony, personification, and hyperbole…” – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.

Another definition of trope is “a significant or recurring theme, such as a motif,” and that is, I submit, where the confusion began. Because anything that recurs has, by definition, shown up more than once, and there appears to be a large segment of the modern would-be writing community that considers anything that appears more than once “overused” and anything that has ever appeared in a story before “unoriginal,” even if the previous appearance was in another story written by the same author. Which leads right back to the current status, where trope and cliché are treated as synonyms, and generally looked down on.

This presents a serious problem for many would-be writers, as there is practically no theme, style, concept, plot twist, or character type that has never once been used in the history of storytelling. Even if you limit yourself to stuff that’s come along in the nearly-700-years since the invention of the printing press, you’re going to have a hard time finding a modern story that’s completely original in anything but the specific details. Stories involving cell phones have only been around for a couple of decades; stories about communications problems go as far back as there have been people.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it is pointless to worry too much over originality. Take any story and start boiling it down, and it doesn’t take very long before you get to “Hey, ‘West Side Story’ is just a remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet’!” Almost every story focusing on an arranged or forced marriage can be boiled down to either ‘Bluebeard’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ depending on whether the ending is horrifying or happily romantic. There are somewhere between 300 and 600 folktale versions of ‘Cinderella’ around the world, depending on just how strict the criteria are – and that doesn’t count any of the numerous modern versions, ranging from hundreds of Romance novels to movies like “Working Girl” and “Pretty Woman.”

The real problem, in my opinion, is that the terms “overused” and “unoriginal” – which pretty much everyone agrees determine whether something is a cliché – don’t have a clear and generally-agreed-upon definition. Even if they did, there’s the problem of personal experience: if Mr. A has seen Plot Twist X in fourteen of the novels he’s read in the past five years, he may well consider it overused and unoriginal; to Ms. B, who is encountering Plot Twist X for the very first time in her entire life, it is fresh and new. And there are also differences in taste – some readers may consider a particular stock character a special favorite, actively seek out books containing such a character, and consider it a problem that there aren’t more books in which such a character appears, even as critics complain about an overabundance of clichéd characterization.

Furthermore, books in general are not necessarily encountered by anyone in the same order they were written. This is why people can watch their first performance of Hamlet or see The Maltese Falcon for the first time and come away saying “I don’t see why people think that’s so great; it’s full of clichés!” It’s also one of several reasons why young writers are advised and encouraged to read widely and deeply, and not just in their chosen field. It can be very embarrassing for a writer to come up with a clever new idea (“I’ll tell half the story in first person, and the other half in third-person omniscient!”) only to have their professor, agent, editor, or critic comment that Dickens did it better in Bleak House.

Finally, there are genre requirements and conventions. There are probably people out there willing to argue that having a murder in a murder mystery is clichéd, but I doubt that there are many of them, and I don’t think the argument would be taken very seriously. Similarly, it would be rather difficult to write a Romance in which the two central characters have no romantic relationship with anyone, or a police procedural in which no one is a police officer, or a thriller in which nothing and no one is ever in danger. These things have transcended cliché and become requirements of their markets.

Personally, I’d prefer to see the terms “cliché” and “trope” decoupled. They are both potentially useful: cliché, for the truly overused extremes, and trope for the things that become more meaningful, more powerful, or just more comfortably familiar with repetition. Unfortunately, language doesn’t generally move backwards.

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Gaming and Writing

As some of you know, I did a lot of role-playing games in the late 70s and early 80s, some as a player character and some where I was the gamesmistress. Ever since, I’ve been running up against other writers with really strong feelings, pro and con, about gaming. The main objection I keep hearing is that “you get lots of bad habits from running a game or playing in a game.” The underlying implication is that running a game is actively bad for your writing, which is not universally the case.

Gaming is a different medium from writing, with different constraints and expectations. Saying “gaming is bad for your writing” is just as true – and just as false – as saying “Writing screenplays is bad for your writing” or “Doing comedy improv is bad for your writing.” Novels, plays, comedy improv, and gaming/gamesmastering are different forms of storytelling. Because each is a different medium, each type of storytelling places different demands on the storyteller, exercises different skills, and is subject to different constraints on the story itself. Because all of them are, at bottom, storytelling, there will always be some areas where the demands, skills, and constraints overlap.

Wherever the skills and demands of storytelling overlap between one medium and another, they will carry over. (An obvious example: one would expect most playwrights to write good dialog, but to be less skilled at writing descriptions of large-scale action scenes that wouldn’t fit on a stage.)

Wherever the demands and constraints of a particular medium don’t match up with those of another, things get murky. A large part depends on the person who is switching from one type of thing to another. If they recognize that there are differences, then they’ll usually also recognize what they should and shouldn’t do differently. For some people, it’s instinctive; others have to work at it.

It isn’t just a matter of recognizing differences, though. It’s also a matter of how well different forms of storytelling fit each storyteller’s natural strengths and weaknesses. A writer who is very bad at worldbuilding can learn a lot from creating their own gaming world (and they’ll have to, if they want to keep their gamers coming back for more than one or two sessions). A writer who is obsessed with worldbuilding, on the other hand, will often gravitate toward games that encourage more and more worldbuilding at the expense of other aspects of storytelling. They won’t learn any new skills, and they may find themselves with a bad habit of overbuilding and overdescribing their background when they get around to trying a novel.

In my experience, most of the folks who discourage gaming and/or claim that running a game made writing harder are looking at places where there is little or no overlap between the skills demanded by the two forms, or else they are looking at places where they have found one way (out of four or five possible techniques) that works for them in one of the forms, but that doesn’t work for them in the other. For instance, one writer complained that games have far more magic items than is workable in a novel, claiming that so many different gadgets would be nothing but distracting clutter at best, and at worst would make the novel’s protagonist too powerful, rendering the plot too easy to solve. That, however, depends entirely on the writing and the worldbuilding. Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos has an enormous number of magical gadgets, paralleling the technological gadgets of the modern world, and everyone in the story takes them for granted and they don’t throw the plot out of balance because everybody else has them, too.

The complainer’s real problems were that a) he didn’t know how to build a world so that lots of magical gadgets would look reasonable, b) he didn’t know how to construct a plot where lots of different gadgets would make things fun and interesting without making it too easy, c) he didn’t know how to handle a lot of magical tools in the prose without bogging down in a lot of boring exposition, and d) the stories he liked and wanted to tell needed magic to be rare and valuable, not common as mud. D) was the only valid objection, in my opinion, and it trumps all the others…for that particular writer. My problem with him was that he wanted all fantasy to be the sort that he liked and wanted to write (i.e., where magic is rare and valuable and doesn’t have to be taken into consideration as a common thing when plotting).

Another writer of my acquaintance claimed that when one is constructing a plot, one has to narrow the central characters’ options down until they only have one choice, a technique that is known as “railroading” in gaming (and heavily frowned on). Whittling down the characters’ options is certainly one way of plotting, and it’s probably quite useful if you are the kind of writer who lays a plot out in advance and expects their characters to follow it, but I’ve never actually written that way. The closest I came was when I plopped an impassable swamp down to keep some characters from heading in the wrong direction. If it had been a game, I couldn’t have done that (because by then the players would have been around long enough to know I’d just invented it on the fly, since it wasn’t on any of their maps), but I could have done something else to head them the way I wanted them to go. One of the advantages of writing a novel is that you can go back to Chapter One and backfill the swamp or the gun on the mantelpiece; you can’t do that in a game.

On the other hand, if one handles things correctly as a gamesmaster, it is perfectly possible to set up a situation in which there is one and only one solution, and your players have to go for it. What you cannot dictate is how they go about getting their hands on the seven ancient statuettes they need for the ritual. It can be annoying when you’ve set up a dangerous obstacle course for your players to go through to get hold of Statuette #3 and one of them manages to bribe a guard to bring it out to them, bypassing all of your plan, but that’s how games go. And one of the advantages, for a writer, is that if things like that happen to you as gamesmaster enough times, you start getting better at finding interesting alternatives, which can greatly improve your plotting.

It all depends on what one’s style is, as gamer, game runner, and writer. I was lucky enough to get involved in a series of games that forced me to work on worldbuilding and characterization, rather than on plotting. I learned a lot from them, because I was working on some of my weaker areas. Somebody who was already good at those things would have likely found them unhelpful. It’s like any writing exercise: some people need it, some don’t; it helps some, but not others.

The reason I think this keeps coming up is that gaming looks and feels a lot like storytelling, with the GM in the role of the author. And it is storytelling – in collaboration. Most novels, however, are not collaborations, and the ones that are generally don’t involve five, six, ten, or twenty different authors collaborating. No, the writing model that best parallels RPGs is the shared-world anthology, where each author has his or her own main character whose adventures cross and intersect other authors’ characters, and the editor has to coordinate it all and has the last word on the worldbuilding and the stuff that affects the shared non-player-characters. The editor may or may not write stories for the shared world, but if they do, their character is not the “main character.” Because in a shared world, as in a game, every character is the hero of his/her own story, but a minor player in everyone else’s. This is, of course, equally true in a novel, but much easier to get around when there is only one author who gets to choose one story as the central focus.

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Too easy

At one of the recent conventions I attended, I ran into a writer who was having what she referred to as plot problems. Actually, they sounded more like ending problems; according to her, she did fine at creating all the setup, but then when she got to the climax, everything unwound much too swiftly and smoothly and she was worried that she was doing something wrong.

Without actually reading her novel, I couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed to me that there were three possibilities:

1) The climax felt “too easy” because it lacked any tension; there really weren’t any doubts or questions or revelations left. The central story questions had already been answered, and all that was left was implementing an obviously-correct and inevitable solution. When the hero’s army outnumbers the bad guys ten to one, the “big final battle” is unlikely to be very interesting, as the only surprises will be which of the characters (if any) are killed or injured.

2) The climax felt “too easy” because the writer mistook the last big action scene for the story climax, when in fact the action subplot was secondary. This is surprisingly easy to do, especially in a story that is character-centered but action-oriented. Action looms large in genre fiction, whether the idea is to find the Holy Grail, defeat the Evil Overlord, steal the Mona Lisa, or capture the enemy submarine. It is therefore natural to assume that the action climax is the story climax, even when the true central story problem is emotional, spiritual, or intellectual.

3) The climax felt too easy because it went by too fast. The hero and his ten stalwart companions end Chapter Twenty-Nine on top of the hill, looking down at the Evil Overlord’s 300 elite guards, and the hero yells, “Charge!” The next chapter has a one-paragraph summary of the battle (which the heroes win), followed by a couple of lines of chasing the Evil Overlord into the castle and capturing him, followed by another paragraph detailing all the precautions the hero and his companions take to keep the Evil Overlord from getting away, and then we’re into slightly more detailed descriptions of the after-battle cleanup, treating the wounded, and arranging for trials, weddings, and medals as appropriate.

#1, lack of tension, is more common than you’d think. The fact that there’s a huge battle in Chapter Thirty does not make the battle tense, or even interesting, if the outcome is obvious – and it is possible to set up a situation in which, by the numbers, there is considerable doubt about who will win the final confrontation, and still have it lack tension because it is so very, very clear from the rest of the story that one side or the other will win.

If the main character has, in every difficult situation thus far, pulled a rabbit out of her metaphorical hat without breaking a sweat, the fact that this situation is the worst one yet is unlikely to be enough to convince the reader that there’s a realistic chance that this time, she’ll lose. If the heroes are smart and cautious, and the author gives them time to work out the flaws in their plans and/or to collect massive amounts of firepower, the “final battle” can be a downright boring foregone conclusion.

You can also get a lack of tension from a one-peak plot – one where there is no build-up of tension over the early part of the story, or even the middle part, and then suddenly there’s this big urgent thing to deal with out of nowhere. For example, the first two-thirds of the story cover setting up a new system to detect asteroids…the political maneuvering, financing, interpersonal conflicts, but no particular outside threat. And then the system goes live, detects a giant asteroid heading straight for New York, and the main characters drop everything else for a chapter and blow it up, all in the last two chapters; The End. Even though most readers will figure out early on that there’s going to be an asteroid threat at some point in the story, holding it off until the next-to-last chapter and then dealing with it in a spectacular hurry means there’s really not enough time for the reader to get properly worried about it, so there ends up not being nearly as much tension associated with the threat as you’d expect.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to allow everyone to detect the asteroid in the first few chapters, in which case the story will be about figuring out how to deal with it before it hits New York. Having a clear, urgent deadline – a ticking time bomb, some editors call it – is one of the simplest and most reliable ways of upping tension. It has the added advantage of limiting the main characters’ resources (they won’t have unlimited time to plan or collect overwhelming firepower). This isn’t the only possibility, however.

Which brings me to #2 – mistaking the action scene for the story climax. If the real story is about the astronomer forming an unlikely alliance with the politician to set up the asteroid-detection system, then the actual climax may be the scene where they get the system approved and/or built; detecting the asteroid and destroying it may actually be part of the validation.

A lot of the older murder mysteries are actually like this. The true climax of the story is the point at which the detective says, “I know who did it;” the scene where he sums up the evidence and/or tricks the murderer into revealing him/herself is really part of the validation that proves the detective was right and wraps up the action plot. It’s tense because most of the readers still don’t know whodunnit, or how the detective is going to prove it, so there are still important central-plot-related questions, but the summing-up and trapping scenes generally roll along smoothly, because the central story problem has been solved and the reader knows it, even if they don’t yet know exactly what the solution is. Part of the fun is watching the revelations unfold.

#3 can happen when the author has gotten a little tired of writing this thing and just wants it to be over, or when the author has backed themselves into a corner by setting up a situation in which the Big Climax is something they purely hate writing (whether that’s a battle or a courtroom scene). Skating quickly past the Big Finale is perfectly OK in the first draft – one of my pro-writer friends used to have a finished first draft with at least one or two places near the end labeled “[Insert final sword-practicing scene here].” If you do that, though, you’d better be ready to come back and fill in or expand the scenes for the final draft.

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