Writers – set the controls for the middle of the Sun

There’s no getting around it. No matter how good a plot you come up with for your story or novel, it’ll be dull, dull dull if you don’t wrap it around a character arc. Characters make the story. Without that tension – the character having to learn something.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Want to know what I mean? Check this out:

The cabin alarm blared. Another failure. Captain Fantastic wrestled with the control column. Already the rocket-liner was plunging uncontrollably towards the Sun, its motors dead, but he had to pull clear – had to – because…

  1. Well, he just had to. You know, he was going to die. Uh…boring. What’s at stake, besides this character who we know nothing about? Who cares?
  2. He had 1000 passengers on board and had to save them, no matter what. OK, better. But still, well, a bit of a yawn-fest.
  3. He had to redeem himself after his terrible failure 10 years earlier in similar circumstance. Much better (OK, this one is a cliché, but it really shows up what I‘m getting at).
  4. As (3), but he also has to save the 1000 passengers, some of whom we’ve already learned about as people and therefore worry about. This is best (and it’s pretty much exactly the story of every disaster movie ever made, especially Airport 75, or The Posiedon Adventure.)

Tension comes from the intersection between character and plot. Do we really care if Captain Fantastic lives or dies, if we know nothing about him. And even then – it’s not a question of having character background, there has to be a dynamic interaction between character arc and plot. We care more if we know he’s going to redeem himself. It works even better if he has to learn something – if he has a revelation that allows him to redeem himself.

Put a story together without that element, and all you’ll get is melodrama. Trust me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The secret to writing the same – but different

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now – The Hobbit and Star Wars (the original 1977 movie) are exactly the same story. Really. So is The Wizard of Oz, the movie. They’re all expressions of the classic Hero Journey – a specific story structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

And yet they’re also totally different. So how does that ‘same but different’ work? It’s one of the biggest challenges fiction writers face. Writers have to be original. But if they’re too original the audience isn’t there. Sure, there’s a kind of ego boost in knowing you’ve just written the sort of stuff that leads to being fawned over by pretentious pseudo-intellectual literati, if you’re in to that sort of gratification. But nobody outside the 3 other people in that circle will have ever heard of you. And validation-by-pretension doesn’t pay the bills.

There are reasons why most novels, stories, plays – any piece of fiction, in fact – fall into a particular shape; the introduction, the exploration of the story, then the denouement. Three acts. Sometimes those acts are subdivided, but every story – one way or another – broadly meets that pattern. I’ve seen it argued that it’s actually hard-wired into human nature. I’ve discussed the hero journey before, and using these examples; but let’s explore, now, exactly HOW they differ.

  1. Structurally, they’re the same. Tolkien and Lucas adopted exactly the same narrative structure. And it’s totally classic. The hero, who doesn’t know he’s the hero – is kicked out of the everyday world by a dramatic event, and initially guided by a mysterious wise father-figure. Adventures follow during which the hero discovers more about himself and learns. The father-figure is lost, but by this time the hero has learned enough to be able to meet the challenge they then face. They meet the challenge, and then return to the normal world – changed.
  2. In a narrative sense, however, they’re totally different stories. Tolkien drew on the folk tale tradition, blending that with his evolving Middle Earth imaginarium; Lucas drew on 1940s sci-fi movies. The result was very different characters, plot details, setting and so forth.

I mention these because they’re such clear examples – both The Hobbit and Star Wars follow the hero journey in its specific form. But they’re not alone. For variations, check out Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, or Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

All these are kids books – but that’s not surprising; the hero journey is very much a ‘coming of age’ story, well suited to younger audiences in particular. Robert A Heinlein used it in all of his ‘juveniles’. That base story also features in adult books, if you know where to look. Tolkien repeated it in adult form in The Lord Of The Rings, with other adult-pitched variations in The Silmarillion. And the ultimate form of the hero journey, to my mind, remains Kerouac’s On The Road. See what I mean about ‘same but different’?

Think of these things as layers. The trope provides the foundation, the base that shapes the story and makes it ‘the same’ for readers, something they can identify with and understand. But above that, the author has to create a wholly new superstructure, original, imaginative and ‘different’ – but which, built on that familiar foundation, carries the reader into it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

A Super-Short Mega Story writing challenge

Welcome to a Super-Short Mega Story writing challenge. Your challenge is to use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word super-short story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun.

Lake Dunstan, central Otago.

Lake Dunstan, central Otago. Photo: Matthew Wright, http://www.mjwrightnz.wordpress.com

If it all works and everybody has a lot of fun – which is what all this is about – I’ll keep the contest going. Let me know what you write!

We kick off with a picture I took of Lake Dunstan – an artificial hydro lake in Otago, New Zealand, formed in the early 1990s. But your story can be about anything…can’t it. Are you ready? Set…

Go!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Blue Water Kiwis: cover reveal!

I’ve got some exciting news – my book Blue Water Kiwis, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, is being republished as No. 3 in a new military series by Intruder Books. Here’s the cover.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 px

bluewaterBlue Water Kiwis was first published in 2001 by Reed NZ Ltd, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s founding – though the book itself was about a good deal more than that, tracing New Zealand’s naval story from the early 1870s. I received a good deal of support from the RNZN.

The new edition marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It’s being released for Kindle initially, and follows the two earlier titles in my re-released military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here.

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here. And watch this space…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Chickenosaurus lives! But should we really play God with genes?

In what has to be one of the biggest ‘ewwww-factor’ experiments in a while, paleontologists at Yale recently tweaked chicken DNA to give the birds toothed jaws, a bit like Velociraptor. Although there was a lot of work involved in finding out which two DNA strands to tamper with, the process apparently didn’t add anything to the chicken genome – it merely switched off protein-inhibitors that stopped existing genes from working.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

“I used to be a chicken. Now I’m a fake GMO Velociraptor. And I’m MAD!”

The result was dino-jaws instead of a beak. The fact that this could be done has been known since 2011. It’s just – well, the actual doing of it is a bit mad. We don’t know what gene-tampering will produce, and the team who did it were surprised by the extent of the changes they produced – the birds also developed dino-palates.

Still, this is just a lab test. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Uh…yah…

It’s like this folks. Sure, science is cool. We wouldn’t have all the things we enjoy today without it. But sometimes, it goes overboard. And to me, this is one of those moments. OK, we can do it – but should we play God? We don’t actually know the consequences, and it worries me that we might find out the hard way.

I’m not talking horror movies – I doubt we’ll end up with Chickenosaurs lurking in dark corners, waiting to leap out on hapless humans, Jurassic Franchise style. But genetics can so often throw curve balls. What else does that genetic alteration do? We don’t know – and when we push the edges, when we industrialise science we don’t fully understand, bad shit happens, usually out of left field. The words ‘thalidomide’ (‘stops morning sickness’), radium (‘go on, lick the brush before you hand-paint the watch dial’) and one or two other tragic miscalculations spring to mind.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Plus side (a very, very small plus side) is that it looks like some science has come out of the experiment – specifically, how birds developed beaks rather than the toothed jaws of other dinosaurs. But that particular discovery, surely, didn’t need us to make a mutant Dinochicken to nail it home. We already know that birds didn’t ‘evolve from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs; a specialist flying variety, but dinosaurs through and through. Just this year, paleontologists pushed back the likely origin of birds, meaning they lived alongside their cousins for much of the Jurassic and Cretaceous epochs – underscoring the fact that they were simply another variety, rather than descendants, of the dinosaur family.

The compelling picture has long since emerged showing how this all worked. Dinosaurs first emerged during the Triassic epoch. They differed from mammals and lizards, and though initially they were lizard-like (as were mammals – think ‘Synapsids’), dinosaurs developed their own unique form over time. They had pneumatised bones; many appear to have had feathers for insulation and display; they seem to have been warm-blooded; they laid eggs in nests and they slept with their head tucked under one arm. Many were bipedal, their mostly horizontal bodies balanced by long tails; and we know their arms were feathered – becoming wings in the flying variety.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Many dinosaur families, we now think, became progressively more like modern birds in appearance as time went on. By the Cretaceous period, many dinosaur types – certainly to judge by their fossils – couldn’t fly, but they were bipedal, glossy feathered and brightly coloured. Troodonts, for instance. We also think some had wattles, like turkeys. The feathered varieties confirmed so far include many members of the Tyrannosaur family, not all of which were the size of the one we know and love. Fact is that few dinosaurs were huge, and many species underwent a dramatic shrinking during the Cretaceous period.

Were we suddenly cast into a late Cretaceous forest, we’d find ourselves surrounded by dinosaurs – which to our eyes would look like funny (and quite small) ground-living ‘pseudo-birds’ with toothed ‘beak-like’ snouts. Other dinosaurs – recognisable to us as true birds – might also be in evidence. Birds, themselves, are thought to have lost their teeth and developed beaks around 116 million years ago, though some, such as Hesperornis, still had teeth more recently. Early birds, we think, were a bit rubbish at flying.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right taking an SLR selfie while being mobbed by dinosaurs, thanks to the wonders of green screen.

When the K-T extinction event hit the planet 65 million years ago, it seems, flying dinosaurs (as in, birds) managed to survive it. They were then able to radiate out into new environmental niches, left empty by the extinction. On some of the continents, mammals also filled the niches left empty by dinosaurs. But not all.

Offshore islands – such as the New Zealand archipelago – retained their surviving dinosaur biota. And it’s intriguing that the larger New Zealand varieties – such as the moa (Dinornis)– have skeletal features and feather structure usually associated with ‘archaic’ bird fossils. They survived right up into the last millennium – succumbing, finally, when New Zealand became the last large habitable land mass on the planet to be settled by humans. And why did they die out? Alas, to judge by the industrial-scale oven complexes the Polynesian settlers built at river mouths, moa were delicious.

All of this was known well before we tried playing God with chicken genes. OK – the experiment can’t be undone. But do we need to do it again? I think not.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How to avoid the lure of other people’s ideas in your stories

A few years ago I fielded an approach from someone who’d penned a short story and wanted to know what I thought of it. I had a look. ‘Well,’ I explained, ‘good story, but you need to make up characters of your own. Don’t use the ones J K Rowling invented.’

Wright_Typewriter2It’s not just the fact that Rowling’s characters – or, for that matter, Gene Roddenberry’s – are the intellectual property of their authors and that using them is – technically – stealing. It’s the fact that using somebody else’s characters is naff. It smacks of lack of imagination. Writers need to make up characters of their own.

The same’s true of that awesome scene from The Latest Hit Movie that you just HAVE to end up working into your own story. A derivative scene is usually the fastest way to kill the suspension of disbelief – the emotional entanglement the reader has with the story. I still remember reading a story by a quite well known sci-fi author – it had been published, and everything – and thinking ‘hey, this whole plot is Casablanca!’. Killed the story stone dead.

So why does it happen? One of the main reasons, I think, is that some people are captured and inspired by the emotional response they get – particularly – from movies or TV. But instead of analysing how the scene or characters provoked that response, they look instead to the surface narrative or features that inspired them – and trigger their own writing from that.

Again, apart from the derivative aspects, the risk here is that a film provokes emotion in particular ways. You can’t directly translate those into the written word.

So the onus is on writers to look deeper – to explore why it is they feel so inspired, or fulfilled, or validated, by something they’ve just experienced in another medium. The answer, always, will be in the interaction they have had with the scene or setting. And it is those reasons that will inspire readers – but they have to be clothed in a very different form. Otherwise the writer’s just plagiarising.

It’s that principle of having a good foundation – that emotional response – but building a unique superstructure on top.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – bright skies before a tropical rain

A couple of autumns back I spent a week on Rarotonga, where I took this slightly dramatic picture of a tropical storm looming.

Tropical rain approaching in Rarotonga.

Tropical rain approaching in Rarotonga.

Luckily I was able to get my camera packed away before the storm broke. It was an evocative moment; the feeling of oppression, the stillness – and then the rain, with its feeling of relief. A moment to inspire writing? Absolutely.  You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015