The Read/Write/Watch Report

No storytelling class this week, so I’m here with the low-down on what I read and wrote, with a bonus of what I watched.

What I Read

I’m still reading through Dune, out loud, with my oldest child. We’ve finished part two, and moved into the last third of the book. While “feudalism in space” can sometimes seem a little silly, it does lend the book a timeless feel. I think you could change the setting to the middle ages (or a fantasy world based on the middle ages) and very little about the plot would have to change. And there’s no retro-futuristic technology that makes it obvious that the book was written half a century ago.

Of course, that is a pretty good indicator that Dune isn’t very “hard” sci-fi, but that doesn’t bother me. I appreciate sci-fi that really incorporates the scientific elements and futurism into the plot, but I don’t mind a little space fantasy. And sometimes, I think the fetishization of hard sci-fi by a certain readership just results in books that are full of exquisitely detailed technology and populated by dull cardboard characters.

Keeping up the comic book kick I’ve been on lately, I also started rereading Scott Pilgrim. It’s such a weird mix of nerd culture and awkward young people and goofy fourth-wall breaking fun. It surprises you with the semi-serious arc of the titular main character thinking he’s a pretty great guy, only to slowly realize that he’s poisoned every romantic relationship he’s ever been in. Plus, it has a movie adaptation that actually works in spite of all that weirdness, thanks to the genius of Edgar Wright and his close collaboration with the author, Bryan Lee O’Malley. I might just watch that again once I’m done with the books.

What I Wrote

I finished the first draft of a short story, “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” It’s about rich teens trying to rebel in an over-populated and under-resourced future, and the moral complications of pursuing your own happiness instead of actively sacrificing to make the world better.

It’s been a while since I wrote any short stories, and this one just flowed right out. As soon as I finished, I started thinking about some cleanup that needed to be done, including the removal of a couple side-characters that ended up not really having much purpose. I’m going to let it sit for a few days though, so I can come at it with fresh eyes for the edit.

What I Watched

I’ve really cut back on watching TV and films over the course of the pandemic, and I honestly didn’t have much to cut back on in the first place. However, my wife and I had a date night, and we went out to see an actual movie in an actual theater. It’s quite the thing. All of the theaters in our area seem to have converted into the kind that are a fancy, big-chaired, liquor-and-food-serving extravaganza. Which is a big improvement over the cheap, sticky and uncomfortable theaters of my youth.

We saw the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it was the strangest and most enjoyable thing I’ve allowed into my eyeballs in quite some time. I wish we could cut 50% of the superhero movies, sequels and reboots and just fund deeply weird, lovingly-made things like this.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the basic premise involves a middle-aged woman who is not having a great time in life, who finds out that she has the ability to connect her brain to other versions of herself across infinite universes. This lets her tap into her alternate-selves’ life experiences and skills, which is pretty necessary because she also finds herself in a fight against a big bad evil that’s rampaging across all these universes.

A lot of the fun of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the “anything is possible” aspect of infinite universes. You are going to see. some. things. The story also does a great job of tying the really big story of war across infinite universes with the small and personal story of this woman and her family relationships. It’s a fantastic illustration of one of the principles Chuck Wendig talked about in Damn Fine Story: the stakes can be incredibly huge, but it doesn’t matter unless they are also something personal to the characters, something we can all relate to in our own lives.

What I Learned From “Damn Fine Story”

Chuck Wendig is a silly, silly man, who has written a number of bestselling books. My first introduction to Wendig was his book of goofy morning Twitter affirmations, You Can Do Anything, Magic Skeleton.

I recently finished Damn Fine Story, his book about storytelling (and yes, he calls out storytelling as a distinct craft from writing). The book delights in silliness, a sort of gonzo absurdism that lends flavor to the underlying soup of writing craft.

Wendig uses a handful of pop culture references like Die Hard, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illustrate and embellish his points, making the book fairly approachable. He also uses stories from his own life to illustrate a few of his points, proving that terrorists and lightsabers aren’t strictly necessary to craft an interesting narrative.

Characters are the Nexus of Story Elements

If Wendig has a central thesis in Damn Fine Story, it is this: “Character is everything.” He makes a compelling argument that most of the elements of a story are derived or depend on the characters in that story.

The story starts with an interruption to the character’s status quo. Their main problem is this interruption, and it’s what drives the plot. Conflict and tension comes out of the character’s actions as they attempt to resolve that problem to their own satisfaction.

The plot should never control the characters. While unexpected things can, and should, happen to the characters, it’s how the characters act (and react) that makes the story. Characters must have some measure of agency, some ability to affect the world around them and fight for what they want. Characters fighting to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals is what makes plot happen.

The Inner Emotional Story Drives the External Action

One of the key ways characters drive the story is through their own arcs. But a character arc is inherently internal. In most stories, the world around the character may change. The character may physically change. What really pulls the reader in and keeps them invested is the character’s own emotional inner journey. The character may come to grips with their own deficiencies and improve themselves, or they may discover that they’re not as good and kind as they thought, once push comes to shove. By overcoming adversity, they may discover that they had the strength in them all along.

The bigger the external stakes are, the more important the internal stakes become. Huge problems like galaxy-spanning wars and terrorist attacks make for exciting action, but they’re not something familiar and relatable. On the other hand, feeling like an outsider or wanting a more fulfilling job might be things that hit close to home for a lot of people. The inner conflicts faced by characters are often “smaller,” but that’s also what makes them relatable. A relatable inner journey coupled with a thrilling and extravagant external conflict can make for compelling fiction.

Good Characters Are Relatable

Along those same lines, good characters must be relatable—not necessarily in every way, but in some way. None of us are space wizards (probably), so any space wizard you write needs to have some other aspect to their character or personality that feels more familiar to the reader. Maybe your space wizard is a young adult and eager to get away from the place they grew up. Maybe they’re unsure of themselves. Maybe they try a little too hard to be act cool, or to fit in with the cool space smugglers and furry aliens.

Relatability can come in the form of “good” characteristics, but it doesn’t have to. Foibles and weaknesses can be just as relatable. Each of us has a few weaknesses we’re all too aware of. Protagonists are often a mix of traits we can aspire to and less desirable traits we can recognize in ourselves. Even villains should be relatable, though they may take particular negative traits to extremes.

The craziest and wildest stories still need a core of understandable, relevant concepts that readers can map to their own lives in some way. When the story (and especially the characters) are too hard to understand, they’re impossible to care about. If the reader doesn’t care about them, then the story stops being interesting. The stakes don’t matter.

Questions Keep the Reader Reading

As Lemony Snicket said, always leave something out. Every open question is a string, tugging the reader along. Every answer is a small victory. Scenes that end with a question or unresolved conflict keep the reader turning pages.

Wendig says, “Tease satisfaction, but be hesitant to deliver it…Reveal too little and the audience will feel lost. Reveal too much and the audience will feel safe and bored.” You have to ride the razor’s edge. Start with plenty of questions, then progressively answer more and more of them as the story goes on, with the most answers and biggest answers coming at the end. When you run out of answers, you run out of story.

More Wendig

Damn Fine Story is one of several books Chuck Wendig has written on the craft of writing. I enjoyed this one, and I’ll probably be checking out some of the others. If you’d prefer to try Wendig in small doses, you can check out his twitter. For larger, less frequent, and possibly more writing-related content, try his blog, Terrible Minds.

Reblog: Conflict is Only One Way to Think About Stories —Lincoln Michel

Lincoln Michel always delights me with his thoughtful posts about writing. He occupies an interesting position as one of those rare authors who is deep into both literary and genre fiction. In this post, he continues his grand quest to convince Writing Twitter that there is no one true way to write a story.

In response to the question, “Do all stories have conflicts?” he takes us on a journey through Aristotle and Freytag, kishōtenketsu, Vonnegut’s “character fortunes,” and other ways to think about and model a story.

The point here is these are all different metaphors, different models, to think about stories. None of them are “right” or “wrong.” None of them are universally applicable to all types of text that one might call “a story.” At the same time, these models are frequently overlapping and a single story can be mapped onto a dozen different models.

Read the rest over at Lincoln’s Substack, Counter Craft…

Storytelling Class — Beats, Scenes, Chapters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was ways to divide up a story.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

I continued to read Dune to my oldest son at bedtime. I also finished The Unwritten, reading volumes 8-12. I really enjoyed this series, and I think I’d rate it as my second-favorite comic run of all time, after The Sandman. I need to process and unpack, but I’ll definitely have a post about it at some point.

Freya is nearly done with the Harry Potter series, currently reading the last book. She continues to read The One and Only Bob at school, and the Wildwood trilogy (now on book two) with my wife at bedtime.

What Did We Write?

I finished off Razor Mountain chapter 9. I’m also working on getting back in the habit of writing short stories and submitting them for publication. I sent out a story I’ve been holding on to for a while, called “Dr. Clipboard’s Miracle Wonder Drug.” I’ll be working on a new story next week.

Freya continues her epic, “Amber and Floria.” The two sisters are headed to the jungle to look for their lost parents! I’m pretty excited to read this one when it’s done.

Dividing Stories

This week’s topic was about different ways to divide a story into parts.

Story Beats

A “beat” is the smallest unit of story. Each beat moves the story, although this can be forward progress or backward progress from the viewpoint of a given character.

Some example story beats:

  • A character learns something
  • The reader learns something
  • A character makes progress toward a goal
  • A character achieves a goal
  • A new impediment blocks a character from their goal
  • A character fails at achieving their goal, or their goal becomes impossible
  • A character gains a new goal

It’s also worth noting that some books are less plot-heavy and character-heavy and are more interested in playing with language. Beats in these stories might be a little bit more abstract, like:

  • Make the reader feel something
  • Make the text challenging for the reader

(It might sound absurd to make the reading difficult for your reader, but books like House of Leaves do exactly that with the unusual formatting of the text, and books like Finnegan’s Wake use ordinary text, but obfuscate the meaning and structure. Some readers want a puzzle or a challenge or an extremely high level of density.)

Scenes

A scene is usually just a series of beats that happen in the same place, same linear time, and often with the same set of characters. Scenes are often separated by a simple line break or some little visual motif.

Occasionally, you can have more mixed up scenes, where two things happening at once or the story skips around in a non-linear way. This is a little more common in audio-visual media like TV and movies, where tricks like split-screen, voice-over, and cuts between locations make things a little easier to follow.

One of my favorite comic issues growing up was a fantastic example of this kind of “split screen” storytelling. It’s the 1996 Issue 102 of Wolverine, and it stars the title character shortly after he’s suffered severe trauma that’s left him in a state like a feral animal. There are no spoken words in this issue. The visuals of the comic follow Wolverine as he prowls around New York. The text is a story told by an unseen character, about things that happened to her as a child. Both of the stories, text and visual, are about violence, mercy, and redemption. These themes are pertinent at the end of the story, when it’s revealed that the storyteller is Elektra, another superhero, and she’s come to help Wolverine overcome his affliction and essentially become human again.

Chapters

Pretty much all stories are built out of the building blocks of beats and scenes. Once you zoom out into bigger structures than that, you have some choices. Some of these affect the structure and layout of your story, and some of them are more mental exercises of how you want to think of your story.

Some books have only one scene after another, with no larger delineations of structure. These books have a steady, continuous flow. Dune is an example of a book with scenes, but no chapters, and three “parts” that split the book into much larger sections. That said, the majority of books have chapters.

Chapters are the most common way to create a collection of scenes. A chapter may only have one scene, or multiple scenes. Chapters break the story into chunks in a very visible way. This gives them two properties:

  1. Scenes within a chapter have an implied connection.
  2. Chapter breaks imply a separation between scenes.

The implied separations can be just as important the implied connections. They provide what is probably the cleanest way to tell the reader that there is a break in time or space here.

A chapter can be:

  • A super-scene that collects related scenes together (time, place, characters)
  • A way to form a relationship between scenes that might otherwise seem separate
  • A thematic grouping of scenes
  • A clean way to denote separation of time and place between scenes

Parts, Books, and Bigger Structures

Some stories have even larger groupings, often called Parts or Books. These seem especially prevalent in fantasy, possibly because they’re the modern continuation of mythological and epic forms that are often split into similar parts.

These parts can be treated like super-chapters, collecting larger groups of scenes. They can also imply larger separations of time and place.

The split between books or parts will often want to follow your story’s multi-act structure and major events. The biggest, most important parts of the story tend to happen around the end of one act and the start of another, and these can be natural places to break. That said, books or parts don’t have to follow the story arc or act structure. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the last two books each have two parts that cover the exact same span of time from the point of view of two different groups of characters.

Next Time

We decided last week to alternate between story class and extra writing time, so next week will probably just be another brief read/write report.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 9

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Internal and External Plot

I started writing this chapter by focusing on the physical journey that Christopher takes. He has external problems in the form of the tent and the heavy snow and the poor visibility and all of the various difficulties of surviving and navigating in the wilderness without any sort of training.

I had to remind myself partway through that where Christopher is going and all of the external problems he has along the way are important, but only as they relate to his own internal state. He’s gone out of his comfort zone, and he feels the need to accomplish something, but he’s also in a dangerous situation. The circumstances of his arrival were already bizarre, and he has growing evidence that there is someone around. All of it seems outlandish. He can’t come up with any good reason why he would be in this situation. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do. But stagnating in the bunker seems like giving up.

This chapter is all about Christopher’s deteriorating emotional state. He’s torn between pushing forward and going back. His actual journey moves him where he needs to be for the purposes of the story, but it’s his emotional journey that will actually drive the plot, and (hopefully) keep things interesting.

Being Believably Bad

Christopher is not a great outdoorsman. His tent situation is a disaster. He’s having a hard time travelling through the snowstorm. He is certainly not an expert navigator.

Christopher is going to have failures and setbacks. However, I don’t want him to be annoyingly incompetent. He needs to be challenged, and his mistakes and failures need to come from who he is and what he knows (or doesn’t know). What I don’t want is for it to feel like he’s screwing up because it’s convenient to the plot. I want him to fail because he’s out of his depth in difficult situations. Then, when he succeeds, it will be that much more satisfying.

Most of his camping issues are reasonable, considering his lack of experience. These are things that I thought I wouldn’t have been prepared for, having never camped in cold weather myself. They came at least partly out of my research and all of the advice from veteran campers on what to watch out for.

His poor navigation is more about his mental state. He is careful, right up to the point where he thinks he’s made contact with another person. When that happens, he stops thinking about all of his carefully laid plans. When he isn’t able to actually find the person he’s chasing, it makes matters worse. He questions himself and his own mental state. He sinks further into depression.

Next Time

The next chapter brings us back to God-Speaker, and I need to make some difficult decisions about consolidating chapters. I’ve been reevaluating my outline, and I’m thinking I may be able to combine two Christopher chapters and two God-Speaker chapters to tighten up the plot and move everything along a little faster as we approach the end of Act I.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 9.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher let out the breath he realized he had been holding and sat in the quiet place among the birches. He drank his water and nibbled from yet another weird jerky bar. He tried not to fall into the gaping chasm of hopelessness that he felt opening behind his sternum. Why did it feel like the world was playing some terrible trick on him, like he was trapped in this limbo while the real world, the world that he remembered, was constantly lurking just out of sight, constantly retreating just beyond his senses?

“What am I doing?” he asked himself. The footprints were right there, if that’s what they were. They might not be entirely lost to the blowing snow. The longer he waited, the more they would fade. If he followed quickly, he might have a chance of finding something before the trail was lost.

He stood up with some effort, took another swig of water, and checked the map and compass. He suspected that he was well over halfway to the dot on the map, but it was only a guess without being able to assess his wider surroundings. According to the compass, the footprints ran at approximately a forty-five degree angle to the direction he wanted to go: north instead of north-east as he had been traveling. He would be going off-course.

The footsteps faded into nothing about ten feet from the protection of the cluster of trees, but Christopher continued in that direction across the clearing. When he reached the woods again, he paused to scout around. The wind had been blowing from the east, leaving drifts on one side of the trees and protected spaces on the opposite side where less snow accumulated. Sure enough, after a couple minutes he found a few more faint prints on the protected side of a larger tree, south of where he had begun his search.

He consulted the compass, adjusted his trajectory, and went further into the forest. Soon, he came across the tracks again. The wind lessened as he moved deeper into the trees, and the snowfall seemed to be slackening. The trail was better defined as he went, giving him the feeling that he was catching up.

He never lost the tracks for more than a few seconds now. They were still featureless, with no clear boot tread, but they were definitely fresh.

There was a crackling sound in the forest ahead of him. He looked up from the ground and froze, remembering the moose he had nearly stumbled into. With a moment to process it, he decided the sound was probably a tree branch cracking under the weight of the fresh snow.

The snowfall had nearly stopped now, and visibility was much better, although the light was starting to fade into evening. Christopher realized he hadn’t been eating or drinking. How long had he been following the tracks? His careful progress, his reasoned system had all been thrown out in the pursuit of the footprints.

He took out his water bottle and drank.

There was a flash of movement, ahead and slightly to his left. It was distant enough that he wasn’t sure he had actually seen it. He took off anyway, capping his bottle as he ran, not taking the time to put it into his pack.

“Hey! Hello? Is someone out there?”

The trail of footprints led to the place where he had seen the movement. They wove between the trunks, deep furrows showing where their maker had slid here or there, longer strides showing that whoever it was, they were moving fast. Faster than Christopher in his snow shoes, he was sure. He wondered if he ought to have kept quiet instead of shouting. If someone was out here, why were they running from him.

His left foot caught a tree root, and his right slid into a divot, his ankle twisting. He nearly fell and his water bottle went flying, but he caught himself and stood, scooping the bottle off the ground as he went.

The footprints led to an area where the trees were dense. Then they stopped, right in front of a huge pine. It was gnarled and thick with old, dead branches that reached out to the neighboring trees. Christopher looked up. There was a layered canopy of branches above. It would have taken a good jump to reach the first few branches, but a good climber would have little trouble climbing from there. They could even conceivably have moved among the other nearby trees.

Christopher meandered around the area, studying the ground for footprints, then looking up for any signs of movement in the branches above. Minutes passed. The adrenaline faded, leaving behind a residue of disappointment and frustration. He unstrapped his snow shoes and kicked a nearby tree, shouting wordlessly. His heavy boots protected his toes, but he noticed now that his freshly twisted right ankle was beginning to ache again.

He took a deep breath. “I don’t know who you are, or why you’re hiding!” he shouted up into the branches. “I just want to go home.”

He slid to a sitting position on a dry patch of ground and drank from his water bottle. He expected no response from the forest, and he got none.

He opened his pack and took out the carved wooden figure. He stared at it, mind blank for a time.

Nothing made sense. Was there something wrong with him? He wondered what it was like to hallucinate. Wondered if he could even trust his own senses. Maybe he had been traumatized more than he realized. Maybe he was seeing things. Hearing things. He realized he had always thought of hallucinations as something a bit like waking dreams, with the same haziness that dreams always had upon waking. But dreams never felt hazy while you were in them. Most people couldn’t identify the dream from within it.

His sweat cooled on his body, leaving him shivering even without the wind to chill him. He stood despondently and felt a twinge in his ankle as he put weight on it. The light was fading. He had no idea how long he had sat among the trees.

He forced himself to look at the compass and the map again. He had to guess how far he had gone off course, and adjust his heading to counteract it. If the snow would cooperate, he only needed to get out of the trees and get an idea of the surrounding landscape, so he could compare his guesses against the map.

He began to trudge through the snow on his new heading, with the simple goal of finding a good place to set up camp well before dark. He found a place that satisfied him well-enough within a half hour. It was decently shielded by trees, and only lightly dusted with snow.

He set up the tent, doing his best to straighten the damaged poles. It still leaned noticeably to one side when he was done, so he ran a rope through the crossed roof poles and tied each end to nearby trees. He would have to hope that it was enough to secure the tent against whatever the wilderness decided to throw at him before morning.

He used his collapsible shovel to scrape an area clear of snow a short ways from the tent. He collected dead branches and started a fire, using the flame of the camp stove to light it with less effort than the flint and steel. He found a good drift where he could collect clean snow and cooked his rice and beans. He ate, barely tasting the food.

Robotically, he melted more snow to refill his bottles. He cleaned his pot and packed it up.

With nothing else to do, he sat and stared at the fire. The dampness of his sweat in his clothes was slowly drying, although his socks were still wet around the ankles. His face felt wind-burned. His ankle throbbed. His mind was blank, as though it had given up on forming any thoughts more complex than dull disappointment.

Some amount of time passed. No stars in the overcast night sky. No wind. The world was still and silent.

Christopher doused the fire and climbed into the tent. He sealed himself inside, swaddled himself in the sleeping bag.

If he had done well in guessing his trajectory across the map, he might reach the dot sometime around noon on the following day. What he would find there, he no longer cared to guess.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 9.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Morning came, slow and dreary. There wasn’t so much a sunrise as a faint brightening of the tent fabric. Christopher had given up on sleeping, but he thought it would still be best to wait in the tent until morning and whatever warmth it brought. As soon as he opened the tent, his trapped body heat would be lost.

He had time to think and assess his situation. One of the poles that crossed the tent roof had bent significantly. He would have to see if he could bend it back into reasonable shape, but it would be permanently weakened. He also realized that he should not have completely closed the zippered mesh vents at the front door and along the walls. The tent had been keeping him warm enough. He could afford to lose a little heat, and he suspected it was the lack of circulating air that had caused condensation to accumulate: that and the snow that had gotten in and melted.

He had two sleep pads. The bottom one would be wet no matter what he did now. The top one was relatively dry, so he carefully rolled it up and put it back into its bag. He put it into his pack and put the pack in a corner of the tent that was slightly elevated and dry. When he was as prepared as he could be for morning, he sat and planned what he would do when the sun was up. Mostly, there was nothing to do but wait.

When he exited, there was no way to keep out the snow. It was still coming down, although it seemed to have slackened. He guessed there had been at least six inches of accumulation overnight. The real problem, though, was the piles that sloughed off the branches above, and the wind-blown drift that had nearly buried one side of the tent.

Christopher changed into dry clothes and suited up before exiting. All the wet things went into the second sleep mat bag, loosely tied and strapped to the outside of his pack. They would likely freeze, but he could thaw and hopefully dry them by the fire once he was out of the blizzard. With the ground covered in inches of heavy, wet snow, it didn’t seem worth trying to start a fire. He ate a breakfast jerky bar, strapped on his snow shoes and began hiking.

It was immediately clear that his pace would be much slower. The snowshoes helped, but it was still more effort for less distance. The cloud cover and falling snow made for poor visibility as well. He continued to pause regularly to tie ribbons on the trees and drink, but navigation was much more difficult. He had to rely on his compass.

“The safest thing to do would be to go back,” he mumbled to himself. “Of course, the safest thing to do was to not go out in the first place.”

There was always going to be an element of risk. He knew he couldn’t expect the weather to cooperate. Knew that the world around him was inching over the edge of autumn and into winter. The only question was how much risk he thought he was in, and how much he was willing to tolerate. Going back in the face of the snow felt like giving up at the first sign of difficulty. He wasn’t sure how often it snowed in Alaska, but he assumed it was at least as much as it had back home in Minnesota, and probably much more.

He had enough food to travel for at least one more day and still be able to get back to the bunker. He had a good amount of water, and the means for melting more. Hell, he could suck on snow if he had to.

He realized what was really bothering him was his destination, or lack of one. He hoped, desperately hoped, that there was something at the dot on the map. But what did he even hope for? Some park ranger station? Another mystery compound like the bunker he had just come from? What would that even tell him, if these places were scattered across a swath of Alaskan wilderness? His best hope was so vague as to be meaningless, and he couldn’t connect the dots into a believable story that ended with him getting home safe.

Still, if he did nothing, then he was even less likely to get anywhere. The risk was still worth it. He had to keep going, to feel as though he had made an effort to save himself. He would still have more opportunities to turn back toward safety.

He hiked on, up the forested miles of gradual incline. He saw nothing but dense pines, occasional boulders, and blowing snow. He existed in a small bubble of forest, contained within murky whiteness. The trees gave him some cover from the sharp wind, although occasional gusts still chilled him. He took care to keep as much skin covered as possible, and took his water and food breaks sheltered against the largest trees, or behind rocks and escarpments when he could find them.

He continued his careful strategy of frequent breaks with food and water, and still tied ribbons on branches as he went. Now though, the ribbons were lost in the snow after only a dozen paces, and he kept his mittens on against the wind, which made tying them that much harder.

The ground began to level out, and he wondered if he was finally coming out of the forested area he had seen from the cliff. He wasn’t sure whether he should hope for more forest, and the protection that it offered, or for open spaces where he might get his bearings if only the wind and snow would let up.

He came to a clearing, or at least a less dense patch of forest. There was a bowl-like depression with a hill next to it, almost as though some giant had dug out a huge scoop of earth and plopped it, upside down, nearby. Between the depression and the hill was a tight cluster of thick birch trunks. They were rooted so close together, Christopher wondered if they weren’t all trunks of the same tree. They formed a perfect sort of semi-circle to protect him from the wind.

He walked around the perimeter of the depression and approached the cluster with his back to the wind. It did, in fact, have a large drift piled against one side, while the other was so protected that there was scarcely more than a dusting of snow. Within the half-circle was a nest of browned leaves and other forest detritus.

There was also a series of faint depressions in the light snow, leading out from the shelter. Two rows, alternating, fading as they went into the deeper, more windblown snow. Footprints. Human-sized footprints.

Christopher approached slowly, almost creeping, as though he might scare them away. He crouched and examined them. They weren’t clearly footprints. They had no pattern like he would expect from ordinary boots, but they might have been made by something smooth, like a moccasin. He wondered if it would even be possible to make moccasins that were warm enough to protect feet in this kind of weather. He supposed there were native people in Alaska who must have been able to do it. Maybe the footprints were made by boots like his own, and they had just been subjected to enough blowing snow to be partly filled in.

He tried scooping out the snow to look at the ground underneath. There were no natural features below to explain the sequence of divots. The size, the shape, the spacing—they all fit human footprints. Somewhat smaller than his own feet.

He looked around, staring into the blowing snow, looking for shadows out beyond where the visibility faded to shades of white.

“Is somebody out there?” he shouted. The wind and the snow stole away the sound of his voice.

He screamed louder, “Hello? Anyone?”

There was nothing but the wind and the sound-dampening snow.

“Help!” he roared, straining to project his voice. He thought he just might be able to hear a faint echo of his voice from some unseen geography out beyond the veil of snow. No person, no indistinct shadow showed itself. No other voice sounded in the surreal, half-visible forest.

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The Read/Write Report

This week, instead of the usual storytelling class that I have with my daughter, we just set aside some time to write together. It was nice to have that time set aside, and I think we may switch to a schedule where we have our “class” every other week, and just have a scheduled writing time for the weeks in-between.

However, one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about our writing class (and documenting it on the blog) is the opportunity to review what I read and wrote over the past week. I figured I can continue to do that even if I don’t have a separate topic to discuss as well.

What I Read

I continued to work my way through The Unwritten, finishing volumes 5, 6 and 7. This series is my favorite read of the year so far, and quickly becoming one of my favorite graphic novel series of all time.

One of the tricks that The Unwritten pulls off amazingly well is the constant expansion of the story. It’s a mystery at its heart, with the main characters trying to figure out the motivations and powers of their enemies, and even trying to understand how the world around them actually works. In each volume, our understanding expands. We learn more about the world, which reveals more questions and raises the stakes.

I’m already thinking about a dedicated post talking about the series once I’ve finished, so I won’t dig too deep now, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

I’m continuing to read Dune aloud at bedtime with my oldest son. It has been years since I last read Dune, so I get to come at it with fairly fresh eyes.

I’ve been struck by Herbert’s style, which is equal parts florid and terse. He seems almost allergic to conjunctions, and is happy to connect multiple sentences with nothing more than commas. He frequently has paragraphs that consist of a single short sentence, or even a fragment. And yet, there are moments when he waxes poetic, when he’s describing the geography and environment of the desert planet Arrakis, or when delving into the characters’ thoughts on philosophy and politics.

Like many works of science-fiction that have been able to endure for decades, Dune is a strange book. It is a mix of prescient futurism and anachronism.

It is infused with environmentalism and ecological systems inextricably tied to the human populations that live within them. It offers a generally positive view of Islamic cultures. It imagines a universe where people have rejected artificial intelligence, and spent centuries exploring, advancing and honing the possible modes of human thought.

It also imagines a far-flung spacefaring society that is fundamentally feudal, governed by all-powerful emperors and lesser royals, where the populations of ordinary people have no meaningful say in the structure of their society. The only competition for power comes from the Spacing Guild, who monopolize space travel; the CHOAM company, who monopolize life-extending spice; and the Bene Gesserit, who use social, political, and even religious manipulation to infiltrate the other powers and perform experiments in long-term eugenics. Power is almost exclusively amoral and self-serving. It’s not the sort of future most of us would be eager to experience first-hand.

Having read all of the Dune books (at least the ones by Herbert himself), I never felt that any of them stood up to this first one in the series. They are interesting though, because they do a better job revealing Herbert’s interests in vast timelines; huge interconnected systems; and ideas of humanity behaving as a single collective organism, with the fates of individuals being dictated more by the drives of the super-creature than any individual choices they make.

What I Wrote

I got about halfway through Razor Mountain chapter 9. I also started writing a short story that I’m calling “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” The idea was inspired by a Story Engine prompt, and I used a slightly modified version  of Firewater’s Cube brainstorming method to flesh out the characters and setting.

I think I was in need of other fiction to work on alongside Razor Mountain. I’m still enjoying writing Razor Mountain and I’m committed to finishing it, but it’s nice to have small things to work on alongside the novel that I know I’ll still be working on for months to come.

The Challenge of Telling Great Stories in TTRPGs

I recently played A Visit to San Sibilia for the first time, and I found it to be a really enjoyable solo tabletop role playing experience for crafting an interesting story. It appealed to me as a writer much more than as a gamer. In fact, I think part of the reason why it does so well at making interesting stories is that it’s barely on the edge of being a TTRPG at all. All of this got me thinking about telling great stories in tabletop RPGs, and why it can be so hard to do well.

One of the challenges I inevitably run into when I’m playing these games is the desire to craft a good story. I think this is only natural for writers. The problem is that good stories have certain structures, and the game often fights against that.

TTRPGs have three aspects that often disrupt good story structure:

Mechanics

Especially in rules-heavy games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, the mechanics of combat, spellcasting, or even more esoteric things like politics or detective work can really limit the storytelling. If there is a rule for doing something, players tend to stop telling stories and start plugging values into the equation to get the outputs they want. They go into gameplay mode. Plus, working through these rules often throws pacing out the window. I’ve been in more than one session where the story was really getting good…right up until we got in an hour-long fight.

Too Many Drivers

Imagine going to get lunch with a few friends. Now imagine you all pile into the same car, but it’s a crazy car with pedals and a steering wheel for every seat. Oh, and you all want to go to a different restaurant. That’s what trying to guide the story in a TTRPG can sometimes feel like.

Each player has their own character and their own interests in the game. The only person who can really guide the story more than others is the DM/GM who is running it. But even they can’t really force the story to go in a direction unless the players want it to. If they try to railroad the players in the “correct” direction, the players will feel like they have no agency in the game. If they give the player characters the ability to shape the story, they will inevitably steer it away from whatever long-term plans the GM might have, whether on purpose or by accident.

Even harder to control are real-world intrusions into the game. Maybe a player has to miss a session or two. Maybe they have to stop playing. Suddenly a main character disappears, like a star actor unexpectedly leaving a show.

Randomness

Sometimes you get a couple of lucky hits and the villain dies in the middle of the campaign. Sometimes you get a series of bad rolls and miss all the clues that move the mystery forward. Veteran GMs know that you shouldn’t count on any outcome if there’s any randomness involved.

Randomness can make a story arc drag on too long, or unexpectedly end it outright. It can be responsible for incredible highs when the players get lucky at a vital moment, and incredibly low lows like party wipes.

True randomness means you can’t be sure what’s going to happen next. That can be exciting, but it doesn’t help you to craft a tight story.

Story vs. Game?

So, are TTRPGs destined to have bad stories? Not necessarily. But a good story for a TTRPG has a different structure and a different feel to a good story on the page.

In TTRPGs, it’s important that the story give the player characters agency in the world, give them challenges and opportunities. It’s up to the players what they do with them. Much like video games, the fun comes from experience and participation. The “plot” will sometimes stall or take a ninety-degree turn. Or a session will get bogged down in mechanics, and the story will be mostly ignored. All of that is fine, as long as everyone is having a good time.

That said, there’s a reason why TTRPG logs often translate into boring fiction. Good fiction can’t afford to meander. Good fiction has to have tight character arcs, and the success or failure of the characters can’t be thrown out the window at a die roll.

I personally love writing stories and playing games, but I had to come to grips with these differences when I first started running those games. I had to realize that I don’t want a story outline that goes much beyond the current play session. I had to learn that my job was to build interesting settings and experiences and above all, opportunities, and let the players navigate them however they wanted to. I had to create a collaborative environment, and then I had to collaborate.

So if you’re frustrated or worried that your TTRPG sessions don’t feel like you’re playing a novel, realize that you’re not alone. That’s expected. Leave the books for reading, accept that the story in your game is sometimes going to be a little wonky, and enjoy it for what it is: a collaborative experience; part gameplay, part story.

Reblog: Cubing, One Person Brainstorming — Firewater

This week’s reblog is a brainstorming technique explained by the pseudonymous Firewater. The goal is to expand upon an idea by thinking about it in several different ways and making unexpected connections.

The idea of the Cube is just a way to visualize a thing, person, place or emotion that you are writing about. As a cube has six sides, this writing exercise includes six aspects that you keep in mind while you are writing. Since this is one-person brainstorming, you aren’t meant to spend more than 3-to-5 minutes on each aspect.

Read more over at Firewater’s Site…