Razor Mountain Development Journal #24

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I made some adjustments to the chapter two summary and expanded chapters three and four.

Chapter 5

God-Speaker and his tribe are traveling through rough, mountainous terrain. He carries the stone god in a carrier on his back, and the weight is hard on him. It has snowed, making travel more difficult.

The tribe reaches an outcrop where there are two paths. God-Speaker consults the god to determine which way to go. He is still grieving Makes-Medicine, and he has a hard time hearing the voice of the God over the cold wind. He doubts himself. He thinks the god is telling him to take one of the paths, because there will be animals to hunt.

The tribe goes that way, and soon finds animal tracks. They find a shallow basin, like an empty pond, surrounded by trees. The tracks are everywhere. It seems like the perfect place to lie in wait for animals. They set up here for a few hours, but only catch a pair of rabbits(?).

Another group of hunters suddenly comes out of the woods on the other side, and there is a tense stand-off. The groups can barely understand each other’s language. After an attempt at communication, everyone lowers their weapons. The other hunters return the way they came.

They find shelter along a cliff wall for the night and cook the meager amount of meat, supplemented by dried food they brought with them, but nobody is satisfied. As it gets dark, they see shooting stars. God-Speaker interprets this as he was taught: as an ill omen. Soon after, there is a small earthquake. Everyone is unsettled.

Cliffhangers:

  • Will the tribe find food?

Mysteries:

  • Are these omens real?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker guides the tribe, but is worried that he isn’t up to the task. He leads them to food, but it is little. Climax: the stand-off with the other hunters. Resolution: things look bleak, and there are bad omens.

Notes:

  • Research a bit about wildlife in Alaska near the end of the last ice age. What animals might they hunt?
  • God-Speaker just suffered the trauma of losing his mentor. He is grieving and looking for reassurance, but not finding any.

Combining Chapters 6 and 7

These two chapters are doing similar work. Christopher is working up the courage to go out and explore, fighting his own fears. To work himself up to it, he needs to practice a bit, and gain confidence in himself. The way I wrote the original chapter summaries, chapter 6 had him making the decision, gathering supplies, and trying winter camping. Chapter 7 had him hiking a half-day out and doing the same thing, with a few more difficulties getting back.

I think this will be tighter and more interesting as a single chapter. As much as I love the completely consistent 2:1 ratio of chapters between the two POV characters, I need to break it. For now, I’ll leave the updated chapters where they fall, and re-evaluate ordering between Christopher and God-Speaker chapters later.

I also noticed that the original chapter 7 summary builds up to a good cliffhanger, where it’s late, and he’s tired and lost, then throws it away by letting him get back to the bunker at the end. I’m going to leave it on the cliffhanger.

Chapter 6 (Previously 6 and 7)

Christopher decides to investigate the closest marked point on the map. He collects all the equipment he thinks he will need. He tries camping outside the bunker to get comfortable with it. He practices using some of the equipment from the bunker: tent, camp stove, flint and steel, snow shoes, etc.

When he feels ready to do a test excursion he plans a day trip to simulate the actual journey. He hikes a half-day out, sets up a camp site, makes lunch, and tears it down, having more trouble with his equipment this time. He hikes to a high spot to look out over the trees. He hears a crack that sounds like a gunshot far away. He heads back toward the bunker. He gets a little lost. He’s tired, and it’s very late. He sees shooting stars in the sky.

Cliffhangers:

  • Will he find the bunker?
  • Are the shooting stars bad omens in this time too?
  • Was it a gunshot?

Mysteries:

  • 6.1 – What are the locations on the map?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher builds up his confidence and goes out exploring, but it doesn’t go quite as well as he expected. Climax: he’s trying to get back to the bunker, but he’s lost.

Notes:

  • Christopher needs to come away from this outing knowing that he’s not an outdoorsman, but thinking he did well enough that he’s willing to take more dangerous steps from here.

Chapter 7 (Previously 8)

God-Speaker and his tribe hike over rougher, rocky terrain, their stomachs growling. They pause for a break, and God-Speaker hears the voice of the stone god clearly for the first time since Makes-Medicine died. It tells him to bring his people to the nearest high place: a boulder-strewn hill that looks like a bald head.

They climb up. From here, they can see a path through mountains and over glacial ice to a grassland bathed in sun. They decide that this is where the god has been leading them. They also see a crater and Razor Mountain, partly encased in ice. This appears to be an evil place, and they will have to pass it to reach their destination. As they look upon it, there is another tremor, and the mountain begins to smoke.

Cliffhangers: No.

Mysteries:

  • 7.1 – What is happening at the mountain? Meteor? Volcano?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker hears the stone god’s voice, and to his relief, it leads them to what appears to be a good place. Climax: they see the danger and darkness they will have to pass to reach it.

Another Cliffhanger Opportunity

Once again, I see a perfectly functional cliffhanger at the start of old chapter 10, where Christopher’s tent collapses in the middle of the night, under heavy snowfall. Easy enough to put it at the end of the previous chapter instead, where it can do more work.

Chapter 8 (Previously 9)

Christopher calms down for a few minutes, then goes to a higher place, where he is able to see the glint of moonlight on the pond in front of the bunker. He makes his way down and goes inside to sleep, exhausted.

He takes a day to recover, deciding that he did well for his first excursion, and he should make his journey, before he second-guesses himself into losing his nerve. He sets out in perfect weather, to find the mark on the map. He figures he can make it there in two days. He travels most of the first day, marking his path by tying red string on tree branches. He gets up higher, but not high enough to see his surroundings to his satisfaction.

He happens across a moose in the woods, which is a little scary up-close, but doesn’t harm him. Then he finds a strange object in a broken tree: a crude wooden carving of a person, adorned with wilted flowers and grass.

He sets up camp. The tent and fire go smoothly this time, and he feels good.

He wakes up when his tent collapses in the middle of the night. There has been a huge snowfall. He is tangled in canvas and half-buried. It is very cold.

Cliffhangers:

  • Will he get out from the collapsed tent?

Mysteries:

  • 8.1 – Who made the little wooden doll and left it in the wilderness?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher gets back to the bunker, then begins his journey, finally taking a risk to try to save himself. He finds a sign that someone else has been nearby. He feels good about his progress. Climax: his tent collapses in the night blizzard, and he is trapped and buried under the snow.

Notes:

  • This apparent success, followed by failure is foreshadowed by the smaller success and smaller failure

Results

I worked through chapters 5-9, expanding the summaries, consolidating two chapters, and adding more mysteries and cliffhangers. I broke the pattern of Christopher and God-Speaker chapters, so I’m making a note to reevaluate that after I’ve gone through all the chapters.

Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #23

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I added detail to two of the chapter summaries, tracking cliffhangers, episode arcs and mysteries, and adding notes for when I write the chapter.

Chapter 2 Redux

After my last post, I kept thinking about where I had left chapter two, and I wasn’t very satisfied. The raid on his people provides some action, but he isn’t really involved. His arc for this episode is weak.

God-Speaker’s theme for most of the story is his escalating fear of death and the lengths he goes to as a result. I’m thinking the raiders attack God-Speaker directly, and he only survives thanks to the intervention of another person in his tribe. This brings fear of death front-and-center.

I also thought that this will mean more if it’s someone important to God-Speaker. I’m thinking it will be his mentor, the one who taught him about spirits and gods and other supernatural things. I’m tentatively naming this woman Makes-Medicine, and she’s something between physician and priest for the tribe. When she dies protecting him, God-Speaker feels guilty that he didn’t somehow do more to save her.

Chapter 3

Christopher wakes in the bunker, injured, but alive.

He finds room with ten bunks, the beds made up, but dusty and long unused. He finds a storage room with shelves of canned and boxed food bearing labels with a mountain symbol he doesn’t recognize. The storage room also contains camping and wilderness gear, and rifles and ammunition. Everything looks old. In the back corner is a strange machine that looks like a 1950s science-fiction version of a geothermal heat and power station.

In the main room, there is a dining table, couches, and a writing desk with a radio. He turns it on, and finds only static. He checks his injured leg, then eats an MRE from the storage room.

As he’s finishing his meal, a voice comes on the radio and speaks a series of numbers, followed by a set of beeps. Then static. He returns to the desk and cycles through frequencies, but the voice is gone.

Next, he goes through the drawers. He finds a folded map with several locations marked, but no legend for the markings. The voice comes back for a few more seconds. He cycles frequencies again and finds it once more. It seems like the voice is constantly jumping frequencies.

Christopher opens the bunker door and looks out across the lake. All he can see beyond are dense pines and mountains. He writes down a message at the desk that tries to describe where he is. Then he reads it out over the radio on several frequencies.

Cliffhanger: No.

Mysteries:

  • 3.1 – Who built the bunker and stocked it so thoroughly. What is the geothermal technology that seems to power it?
  • 3.2 – What is the numbers station signal on the radio?
  • 3.3 – What are the landmarks on the map?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher wakes up and takes care of his injury and hunger. Climax: he hears the numbers station. Resolution: He sends out a radio message to try to get rescued, but it doesn’t seem hopeful.

Notes:

  • After the first two action-filled chapters, this one is a little slower. I need to build tension through the mysteries of the bunker.
  • Research what sort of food is likely to be in a mid-century MRE.

Chapter 4

Christopher wakes up late in the morning, from dreams of hiking through snowy mountains. He gets an unexciting brunch from the store room and eats it at the table. He plans his day in a notebook that he found in the desk.

It is day four at the bunker. He plans to make a signal fire and scout the area around the lake. He thinks his leg may feel slightly better. He reviews notes that he made previously, trying to remember all the details of his ill-fated flight. He remembers two other passengers and the pilot, but no details that offer any explanation for his bizarre situation.

He collects slightly oversized boots, warm clothes, and a hatchet from the store room. He goes outside and chops pine boughs. Then he uses a flint and steel to light a fire on the shore of the lake and burn green branches to create a column of smoke.

He hikes slowly around the shoreline. It is incredibly beautiful, but he sees nothing apart from empty wilderness. There are no signs of people, no planes overhead. After a couple hours, he stops to snack and just take in the beauty of his surroundings. It’s cloudy, and it begins to snow heavily. His leg hurts. He makes his way back as it’s getting dark. His fire is burnt out and covered in a layer of snow.

Inside the bunker, he eats dinner and lays out his notes and the map. He has notes on the numbers and how they cycle through frequencies. He has his notes on the airplane passengers. He has his cell phone, dead after the plunge into the lake.

Having been in a foggy daze since arriving, he suddenly feels panic. He may be trapped in this little bunker, in the wilderness. Eventually, the food will run out and he will die. He lays down in the bed, but he can’t sleep.

Cliffhanger: No.

Mysteries:

  • More building on mysteries from chapter 1.
  • Reveal some additional information about the passengers and pilot. Something about their looks and clothes were slightly off, slightly old-fashioned.

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher has settled into a routine. He is trying to figure out what happened to him and get rescued, but so far has had little success. Climax: the numbness wears off and he panics over his situation.

Notes:

  • This is the first time in the book where I get two chapters in a row for Christopher. At this point, I can really start to build him up as the protagonist. The setting and situation have been set, and this chapter can really focus on his thought process, and how he’s going to react.

Results

I made some adjustments to the chapter two summary and expanded chapters three and four.

Story in Games: Experience and Participation

This is still a blog about writing fiction, but in this post I’m going to talk about video games and the way they can provide some unique narrative experiences that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other media.

Even if you’re not interested in games, it’s worth learning a bit about how narrative in games continues to expand what media is capable of. A good place to start might be interactive fiction, an art form that straddles the boundaries of prose and video games. Interactive fiction is where a lot of interesting experimentation is going on, but more and more “traditional” video games are incorporating narrative lessons that were originally explored by IF.

Gameplay and Narrative

In many ways, the experiences in games can be tracked along two axes: gameplay and narrative.

I’ll define gameplay as systems to be solved or optimized. They are goal-based, whether implicitly or explicitly, and can be open-ended. Examples of gameplay include spinning and placing Tetris pieces or aiming and shooting opponents in a first-person shooter.

Narrative, on the other hand, is the “story” of the game. This may hew close to traditional story structures, as in film or fiction, but it can also branch, or even arise organically from the interaction of systems. Examples of narrative include branching dialogue choices in an RPG, characters talking in a cutscene, or distracting an enemy with a well-placed arrow in order to sneak past them.

I realize that there is a lot that could be argued within these definitions. I made them purposely broad, partly to illustrate how often we categorize narrative and story very narrowly.

Under these definitions, games may still range from no gameplay to all gameplay, and from no narrative to all narrative. However, the presence of one does not necessarily exclude the other — it’s not zero-sum, but it can require a deft hand to balance both.

Preconceptions

There is a certain set of gamers who think gameplay is the most important thing in a game. For this group, a game with little or no gameplay and lots of narrative doesn’t qualify as a game at all. These are the folks who coined the derisive term “walking simulator” for games that are entirely narrative, with little to no gameplay systems or challenges.

In opposition, we find the “games are art” crowd, who tend to be much more inclusive of walking simulators or visual novels, and appreciate narrative as much or more than gameplay. Many of the people in this camp will feel frustrated and excluded if a game has a lot of gameplay to wade through to get to the story, especially if it is difficult gameplay. If the player cares about the story, having that story blocked by gameplay that the player doesn’t care about can be irritating.

What Makes Game Narrative Special?

Games are a special narrative medium for two reasons:

  • They’re experiential
  • They’re participatory

In cinema, TV and books, the author will often try to create sympathy for a character. TV and movies have certain disadvantages here, because the visual media are always showing characters from the outside. Character narration is about as deep inside a viewpoint as they can get. Novels and stories, on the other hand, can use the first-person perspective to put the reader directly inside the character’s head. Even in third-person, they can reveal a character’s thoughts and emotions. The reader can more directly experience what the character experiences.

Games have a similar advantage, and go even further. In games, the player often controls or even inhabits a character. In this way, the player can experience what the character experiences. This is experientiality.

What a consumer of traditional fiction or visual media cannot do is take control of the story. Simple gameplay systems such as choosing where to walk at a given moment, or picking from several dialogue options, make the player an active participant in the story. Even if the choice is artificial and they are eventually funneled into a single location to progress, or the dialogue always ends with the same result, the feeling of participation is a powerful tool.

While other media can give the reader or viewer insight into a character’s thoughts and beliefs, games have a unique power to make the player feel unified with the character. The player becomes invested in the character’s actions as if it were the player making those actions, even when there really is no other option. Players often fall into first-person when talking about actions performed in the game. They say “I accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp,” not “Link accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp.”

Along with this fusion of player and character comes a strange feeling of player responsibility over the story. An unusual first person shooter called Spec Ops: the Line actively explores these concepts of narrative and player agency. The player has no real control over the story, moving from place to place and shooting everyone that moves. But when the characters participate in war crimes, the game asserts that the player did these terrible things. Because of the unification of player and character, it’s hard not to feel some amount of responsibility, even though the only other choice is to put the game down and walk away.

Simple experientiality can be as powerful as active participation and choice, but that power is often underestimated. In What Remains of Edith Finch, the player spends most of the game exploring the many ways that the members of the supposedly cursed Finch family died. It quickly becomes apparent that whenever you encounter a new character, they are destined by the narrative to die. It’s surprisingly crushing then, when you reach a point in the game where you discover that you are inhabiting the perspective of a small child, left alone for a moment in the tub. You know what will happen, and the very fact that you have no power to make a choice to change that outcome is gut-wrenching.

Bringing it Back to Fiction

Games can deploy experientiality and participation to create stories that would be impossible in other media. But is there anything in these concepts that we can bring back to our fiction writing?

I think there is, although it’s a challenge. We may have to dip our toes into the experimental end of the pool.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is an experimental novel that contains a layered narrative. It presents itself as a book pieced together from disparate documents, collected by multiple authors, and based in turn on lost video footage. It carefully passes the story through this chain of custody, from Will Navidson’s videos, to the old man, Zampanò, to the narrator, Johnny Truant. Implied within this is that the reader is the latest custodian of this story, which has driven its previous owners to obsession and insanity.

The text itself is cryptic and formatted in a variety of strange ways, sometimes swirling around the page with swaths of whitespace, colors or boxes. It is riddled with footnotes (and footnotes to footnotes), “supplementary” materials, and copious references to other works, both real and fictional. In some places, the text is so disordered, the reader must choose the order to read it in. At a broader level, the reader must make connections between disparate pieces of text across the book to assemble the story.

Simply by reading the text, the reader becomes a sort of detective, trying to derive meaning from this carefully constructed mish-mash. The reader begins to feel what Johnny or Zampanò might have felt as they compiled scraps of text into the book, or scrawled bewildered footnotes late into the night.

House of Leaves is a challenging book to read, and was no doubt a challenging one to write, but it is clearly trying to pull off the same tricks that many games achieve: to make the reader feel that they are experiencing and even actively participating in the story.

Trade-offs and Opportunities

Different forms of media will always have trade-offs — things they do better than other media, and things they do worse. For games, experientiality and participation are powerful storytelling tools. Working in fiction, we will always struggle to leverage those tools as effectively as games can.

Still, there are lessons that can be learned from this style of narrative, and perhaps opportunities to allow the reader to experience the story and even feel like an active participant.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #22

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I reviewed the overall outline and reread all of the chapter summaries in sequence. I thought about themes and and improvements to a couple chapters.

Improved Chapter Summaries

This week, I started going through each chapter summary one by one. I have a few goals with this.

Expand the Summaries

I’m adding extra detail in the outline so that I have a very clear blueprint that I can follow when it comes time to write each chapter. Normally, I wouldn’t go to this level of detail, and I would be more inclined to do some exploration as I write. However, since I’m going to write and release these chapters serially, readers will be getting them right away. I won’t have the luxury of rewrites and further edits.

Calling out Opportunities for Cliffhangers

Again, due to the serial release, I’m looking for places to stop where the reader wants to find out what happens next. I want to encourage them to come back for the next installment. I’m primarily looking for places to do a chapter break, but I am also considering the option of splitting some chapters into more than one episode, so cliffhangers within a chapter may also be useful.

Mysteries and Resolutions

The other thing I’m doing to create tension and keep the reader coming back is introducing lots of little mysteries. I’m going to note these and track their resolutions to ensure that I don’t leave plot threads hanging.

Arc

For each episode/chapter, I want to track the rising action, climax and resolution.

Notes

This includes things I want to research before writing the chapter, things I want to track, and general reminders of ideas I have for the actual text that may not come across in the summary.

Chapter 1

Christopher wakes up at night on a small plane over the Alaskan wilderness. As he wakes he has the impression that he is in a cave, but this resolves into the dimly lit passenger cabin. He feels  hung-over.

He looks around and discovers that the other passengers are missing. He checks the plane with rising panic and discovers that the pilot is also missing. There are no parachutes. The controls are confusing, but he can see that the fuel level is low.

In his panic, he has a sudden feeling that he knows what he must do: fly low and slow, and jump when he is over water. With uncharacteristic calmness, almost having an out-of-body experience, he watches for a lake, picks a spot, does his best to slow the plane, then jumps. (This is a hint of God-Speaker showing through.)

He snaps back to himself as he hits the water, terrified. The fall and the frigid water numbs his body, but he slowly realizes that his leg was injured in the fall. He manages to swim to shore, exhausted and shaking uncontrollably.

He stumbles around, already starting to lose consciousness, knowing that he needs shelter to survive. He makes his way under a shallow cliff. More by feel than by sight, he discovers a metal door set into the stone. There is a number pad, and he desperately pushes buttons, not expecting it to work. The door unlocks.

He stumbles inside, passing out. He is uncertain if he managed to close the door. He doesn’t know what’s inside, apart from a hard floor that feels surprisingly warm.

Cliffhangers:

  • Christopher jumping from the plane.
  • Christopher passing out as he enters the bunker.

Mysteries:

  • 1.1 – Why do the other passengers on the plane disappear while Christopher is asleep? Where did they go?
  • 1.2 – What is the bunker and why is it here in the wilderness?
  • 1.3 – How does Christopher know the door code to the bunker?
  • 1.4 – What are the strange thoughts that seem to be guiding Christopher?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher faces the confusion of the empty plane, the harrowing jump, injury and swimming to shore. Climax: hypothermia, finding the door, and gaining entry. Resolution: passing out in the bunker.

Notes:

  • Research the kind of small passenger aircraft that might fly between local Alaskan airports, carrying around 10 people.
  • Research the effects of hypothermia.
  • Research realistic height and speed that would allow survival of the jump into water.
  • This chapter could be split into two short episodes for serial release, with each having a cliffhanger.
  • This chapter is action-driven. Readers won’t have a bond with Christopher yet, and will have limited investment in his well-being. His character is just being introduced, so it needs to be clear that he is terrified by all of this. He is surprised by his own decisive action.

Chapter 2

God-Speaker walks past the temporary dwellings of his tribe, scattered along a stream within a mountain valley. Others are packing and disassembling things.

He enters a cave in the cliff-side. It narrows to a crack that he has to squeeze through, then opens into a small space. There, he finds the tribe’s stone god, surrounded by little offerings. He prepares a sort of backpack — a carrier made of wood and animal hide. He puts the stone god into it and asks it for guidance and protection as the tribe journeys.

There is shouting from outside the cave. God-Speaker grabs a sharp rock and squeezes back through the crack. The valley is under attack by a raiding party. There is fighting. One of the raiders and one of the members of his tribe is killed. Another member of the tribe is wounded.

The raiders flee with some food, setting dwellings on fire as a distraction. A couple members of the tribe give chase, but God-Speaker stays — his greatest purpose is to protect the god. The return shortly after, empty-handed.

The tribe finishes preparations. They bury or otherwise prepare the dead. God-Speaker publicly asks the stone god for guidance and protection. They begin the migration, dispirited.

Cliffhangers:

  • What will happen to the tribe? Will they have enough food after the raid?

Mysteries:

  • 2.1 – Is the stone god actually supernatural, or is God-Speaker’s interpretation entirely in his head?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker prepares for migration and is caught in the raid. Climax: The raid. Resolution: he supplicates to the god, but wonders if it can protect the tribe.

Notes:

  • With two POV characters, I have the challenge of effectively having two introductory chapters. Normally, I’d let the reader get to know one POV character for a few chapters before introducing another, but I like that the God-Speaker chapter can be a subtle allusion to Christopher’s fevered dreams/memories, as he’s passed out in the bunker.
  • This is where I need to establish a simplified narrative voice for God-Speaker’s early chapters, if I’m going to do it. My main worry with this is that simplified language will make it sound “dumbed down,” when I really just want to establish a bit of an alien feel with these ancient humans whose daily lives and needs are relatively simple. (https://xkcd.com/simplewriter/)
  • I need to research some details of how these ancient people might have lived. What are their temporary dwellings like? How might they hunt, fish, and fight with other humans? What are social structures like? A lot of this will probably be best guesses and extrapolating backward from more recent, better-documented groups.

Results

I added detail to two of the chapter summaries. This went more slowly than I thought it would, and I had less time than usual to work on it this week. I’m hoping that I can pick up the pace as I go.

I’m itching to get started writing, but I’m going to get through this prep first!

Cliffhangers, Resolutions, and Tension

Last time, I discussed conflict as the engine that drives a story forward. Conflict is one of the primary ways to create tension in a story.

Tension not only makes the reader want to find out what happens next, it is a valuable tool to direct pacing — how fast or slow the story feels.

Chapters Follow Tension

We are so used to seeing chapters that it’s easy to just accept them as the normal unit of construction for a novel. However, chapters are a choice. Some books eschew them entirely. The reason that they’re so common is that they’re useful for breaking the story into discrete sections.

The length of chapters can influence pacing, with shorter chapters tending to feel faster, and longer chapters tending to feel slower. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, and the complication has to do with tension.

Tension ebbs and flows throughout a story, and tends to follow an arc. The conflict, mystery, or other source of tension is introduced, then the tension increases to a peak where it is most problematic or concerning to the characters. Finally, the tension proceeds to a resolution where it stops being relevant.

Chapters tend to feel like good units of story when they follow one of these arcs of tension.

Resolutions or Cliffhangers?

Looking at the way tension ramps up and down, an obvious chapter structure is to start with the introduction of a source of tension and end with its resolution.  This structure provides a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. It makes the chapter feel like a little self-contained story within the larger narrative.

An alternate structure utilizes cliffhangers. A chapter with a cliffhanger ends at the peak of the arc of tension. This is a critical moment when the characters are really struggling, and there is no resolution yet in sight.

If several cliffhanger chapters follow one after another, it results in a structure where the chapters are offset against the tension. The middle of the chapter is where arcs start and end, and the end of the chapter is where the tension peaks.

Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger like this creates the maximum impetus to the reader to keep reading. This style of chapter is often used in fast-paced thrillers to achieve that heightened feeling of action and suspense.

Balance

Pacing is a tricky thing. A novel that is constantly high-tension or continually escalating tension can wear the reader out, to the point that they become inured or annoyed with the continuously high stakes. There are a variety of tropes (this, that, the other, etc.) to describe this kind of narrative, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls.

One of the ways to add variety to the narrative, and to even out the tension is to alternate between fast- and slow-paced sections. A  fast-paced chapter that ends in a cliffhanger could be followed by a chapter that ends with resolution. You may also choose to increase or decrease the tension within a sequence of chapters to follow larger arcs in the story.

With multiple characters or sources of tension, different arcs can be interleaved. One arc can be ramping up as another is resolving. Of course, this adds complexity as all the different elements play off each other.

Cliffhangers and Consequences

Tension plays a major role in pacing, and the structure of chapters is closely related to that. When sections feel too fast or slow, adjusting chapter breaks or the arcs of tension within chapters can help. Tension in each chapter also contributes to the larger arcs of the story.

It may feel comfortable to always end your chapters with a clean resolution, or always go for the cliffhanger, but it’s worth understanding both options and keeping them as tools in your writer’s toolbox. The choice to end a chapter on a cliffhanger or a resolution is a relatively small one, but the consequences go beyond that chapter, across the rest of the story.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #21

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

With my initial chapter outlines done, I took some time to consider what my high-level goals are as I revise those outlines. I’m looking to keep chapters shorter in Act I, and I’m willing to let them run longer in Act II. In each chapter, I’m going to track mysteries and resolutions. I’ll look for opportunities to end on a cliffhanger. I’ll treat each chapter as an episode, with its own mini-arc for character and plot.

Because revising these chapter outlines will result in a lot of small and tedious changes, I’m going to just provide the new and improved summaries and key highlights as I go. I may also add some asides in the midst of the chapter re-working to talk about more overarching changes when they come up.

Reviewing Chapter Summaries

I reread all of the chapter summaries in sequence. My goal here is mostly to just get as much of the story in my head at once as I can; to feel the general shape of it and see if anything sticks out or feels wrong.

In general, I see right away that a lot of these chapter summaries will need more specific detail if I want to use them as a straightforward blueprint for writing the chapters, without a lot of problem-solving during the writing process.

The Fear of Death

To that end, I need to work on really making Christopher’s encounters with death stand out. He faces death jumping out of the plane, out in the wilderness, in Razor Mountain prison, and when he is attacked by Reed. Over the course of these events, he starts out fearful. He finds some peace in the wilderness, when he decides that he will do what he can to survive, but it may be out of his hands. In the prison, he feels that fear of death once again, and has to actively remember and channel his attitude from the wilderness to accept that what will happen will happen. When he comes to Reed’s slightly pitiful attempt at murder, he finds it less scary than his previous experiences, but it gives him an opportunity to evaluate how he feels about death, and come to his final acceptance.

God-Speaker encounters death when he wanders alone, just before finding the artifacts, when his friend Strong-Shield betrays him, when his love, Sky-Watcher dies, and when he is actually killed by Reed. Each event reenforces his fear of death, and he doubles-down on obsessive, paranoid preparations to safeguard his immortality.

While I don’t think this focus requires any major changes to chapter ordering or content, it will affect how I try to write quite a few chapters.

The Artifacts

The artifacts interesting because they are only “on-screen” in a couple places in the entire book, but they are structurally very important to making the plot work, and central to resolving some of the mysteries. I think I’ve thought about them so much that I have been mostly glossing over how to sell them to the reader. I need to make sure that they are clearly and organically explained so that the reader understands what’s going on.

The pool of knowledge they give God-Speaker will be shown when he first finds them, and in the various anachronistic improvements he makes to Razor Mountain in Act II. The reincarnation aspect of forcing his mind into another body can be tangentially hit upon across Act II as we see him in different bodies across time periods, and in his interaction with his wife, trying to explain the process to her. I was thinking that the time-travel aspect of sending a consciousness into a person earlier in the timeline can be explained by his “oracles,” people specially sought in the community and trained to harness this ability, so that God-Speaker can send warnings back to himself. This can come up in the chapter with his wife as well.

Specific Chapter Improvements

Chapter 19, the second chapter of Act II, was originally about Christopher meeting the group of exiles and being questioned by them, with Garrett and Harold looking a bit suspicious as a lead-in to Christopher’s kidnapping.

This foreshadowing and focus on the brothers is fine, but there’s not much point in spending much time on the other exiles. They don’t end up playing a major role in the story. The exiles are there to add some verisimilitude. Razor Mountain is a society with underlying problems, and those problems are bubbling to the surface in the absence of God-Speaker.

I think this chapter will be better served by focusing on Christopher’s emotions and thoughts, with the sudden, overwhelming, and strange interactions with the exiles serving as a backdrop. They keep back details because they don’t trust Christopher, and he’s struggling to understand what is going on here.

Chapter 36 is similarly vague and uninteresting. Christopher talks with some of the secretaries in an attempt to figure out who might be trying to kill him. More of the same happens in chapter 37, and I think these two could be easily merged. Again, a focus on what Christopher is feeling here will be more meaningful than some of the actions he’s taking or the conversations he’s having with characters that don’t necessarily have any impact on the story.

Results

Overall, I feel like the outline holds up well at a structural level. I don’t see a need for any major adjustments to the order of events, the order of narration, or the major characters. Most of the chapter summaries need more detail, and I’ve identified several chapters where certain things need to be called-out clearly.

Next time, I’ll be evaluating individual chapters and expanding the summaries.

Types of Conflict in Fiction

Read any book about writing fiction, and it will probably have something to say about conflict. Conflict is the engine that drives characters to action, and it’s the force that drives readers to keep turning pages in order to find out what happens next. When a story lacks forward momentum, or it feels like the characters are being pushed around by the plot rather than pushing their own agendas, I find that it’s often due to a lack of conflict.

Conflict provides two vital services. First, it makes outcomes uncertain. Characters aren’t going to get what they want easily. They’re going to face hardship. The reader doesn’t know what will happen next. Second, it lets the reader gain a stake in the outcome and invest in the story. As social creatures, we naturally form bonds, even with fictional characters. We will latch onto a character and root for them to win. We will worry if it looks like they won’t succeed, and we’ll share in their joy when they do. We will empathize with them.

Mechanics of Conflict

Despite all of the attention conflict gets as a vital component of a story’s plot, the actual mechanics of creating conflict are frequently glossed over. How does an author create conflict and use it to drive the story?

If you do a quick search for “types of conflict,” you’ll see lists of varying sizes. Are there eight types of conflict? Four? Five? This is one of those topics where you can split hairs as much or as little as you like. The categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. For this article, I’m going to discuss three broad types of conflict, and some ways they can be implemented.

  1. Antagonistic Conflict, or character vs. character
  2. Internal Conflict, or character vs. self
  3. Situational Conflict, or character vs. nature/fate/God

Antagonistic conflict is when characters conflict with one another. As the name suggests, this often takes the form of a protagonist and an antagonist. This form of conflict has the advantage that the conflict is fully embodied in the characters. Many readers love a villain they can root against as much as they want a hero they can root for.

Internal conflict is when a character is uncertain or conflicted about what to think, say, or do. This can be more challenging to depict in a dramatic way, since the conflict is really inside the character’s head. The inner conflict often needs to be “externalized” as dialogue or action to really be understandable and compelling.

Situational conflict provides some external force for the character to fight against. The danger with this type of conflict is that the force is too amorphous or lacks the personality of an antagonist. Some authors would suggest that the situation or force is an antagonist, but I personally don’t feel obligated to personify something like a natural disaster.

It’s important to understand that these different types of conflicts can and do overlap. A character may have the situational conflict of being in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, overlapping antagonistic conflicts with the warden, guards, or other inmates.

Examples

From these three types of conflict, let’s dig down into some common examples. Try to correlate these examples to some experience you’ve had in your own life. We may not encounter such extreme conflicts as we see sometimes in fiction, but we all experience challenges. It’s often easier to understand and write these situations by relating our own, everyday conflicts to those of our characters.

Character wants or needs something that’s hard to get.

I like to think of this as a sort of default conflict for any character. We all have things we want and need, and some of those desires will be unfulfilled. Goals are simply wanting something and taking action to get it.

This basic conflict could describe a heist to steal some valuable artifact, or a romance where one character seeks to win over another.

Several characters want something they can’t all have.

This is almost always antagonistic conflict, pitting characters against one another for something each one wants. It can sometimes be connected to an internal conflict, where one of the characters decides that they don’t actually want to compete for a shallow goal, and turns to a more deeply fulfilling goal.

Examples of this are coworkers competing for a promotion, or a love triangle where two characters compete for the affection of a third. It could also take the form of a Hunger Games-style battle for survival.

Character wants two incompatible things.

This is usually an internal conflict. The character has two or more mutually exclusive desires. Usually this comes down to a choice, where the character has to pick one thing and let go of the others. Sometimes it may turn out to be a false dichotomy, and they manage to figure out a way to get everything. It might put the character in a position where their survival depends on violating their moral convictions or beliefs. They can stay true to themselves to the bitter end, or give something up to fight another day.

Examples include the workaholic who has to decide between wealth and success in business and a fulfilling family life; or a teen whose divorced parents move apart figuratively and literally, leaving her wondering where and how to live her life.

Character’s core belief is challenged.

This is often situational and internal conflict. An event or situation forces the character to rethink something vital to their personality.

The classic example of this is the priest who has a crisis of faith. It could also be the hotshot surgeon who gives up medicine after an important surgery goes awry. It might even be the parent whose child commits some offense that puts them at odds with the rest of the family.

Characters with incompatible personalities are forced to work together.

This tends to be mostly antagonistic, as different personalities butt heads, but you may also have situational elements pushing together people who would otherwise stay far away from each other.

This style of conflict is the basis for some classic genres like the buddy cop story, and many romantic comedies where the couple hate each others’ guts…right up until they don’t.

And many more…

These are just a few patterns of conflict. To discover more, a good exercise is to go through some of your favorite books, movies and TV shows, and try to briefly summarize every conflict you can spot.

Driving the Story

We’ve covered these three types of conflict — antagonistic, internal, and situational. We’ve skimmed the surface of how they can be deployed among characters. What good is it? If conflict is a tool, what do we want to achieve with it?

Conflict springs from the wants and needs of characters. It drives them to action, advancing the plot. It keeps the reader invested and gives them a means to measure the success or failure of the characters.

A short story may only have a single conflict that drives it, but longer forms tend to deploy multiple conflicts throughout the story. A series of conflicts may be chained together sequentially, but they can also overlap across different time scales.

In The Lord of the Rings, the ultimate conflict is the Fellowship and their allies against Sauron and his armies. They need to destroy the Ring of Power before Sauron’s forces march across Middle-Earth.

Within that vast conflict, there are dozens of smaller conflicts that play out within and across chapters. The hobbits hiding from the Black Riders on the road to Bree. The battles for Helm’s Deep and Gondor. The interplay of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum as Sam tries to protect his master, Frodo tries to reform Gollum, and Gollum schemes to steal the ring for himself.

Similarly, if you look at most modern episodic TV dramas, you’ll see some ongoing conflicts, perhaps across the entire run of the show. Then there will be smaller conflicts in each episode, across multiple episodes, and perhaps from season to season.

Chaining and overlapping conflicts in this way provides multiple threads to pull the reader along. Resolving smaller conflicts is also satisfying. There is a sense of closure, and of the story moving forward.

Resolving conflicts is also a central part of character arcs. An arc just tracks how a character changes over time, and resolving conflict inevitably makes characters change. If the character got what they wanted, then they’re no longer motivated to chase that thing. Perhaps they’ll pick a new goal. Similarly, if they failed in their quest, that will change their behavior. They might seek revenge, or turn toward a new goal.

The end of a conflict also often marks the end of a character’s involvement in a story. A beaten antagonist may be dead or irrelevant. A character who resolved their inner conflict may no longer be interesting for the plot to follow.

It’s also informative to look at where conflicts get resolved, and where new conflicts are created or ramped up. Looking at the example of buddy cop movies, you’ll often see that the conflict between cops is resolved just in time for them to work together to stop the real big antagonist. In those romantic comedies, the two leads frequently realize their true love around the end of Act II, only to have some additional complication come between them, providing the conflict to finish off the story.

Writing With Conflict

The next time you write a story, try doing a pass through it and noting all of the conflicts, the characters involved, and their resolutions. Look for chapters that feel weak, or characters that lack motivation. Is there enough conflict, and is it pushing the characters in the right directions? Is it resolved in a satisfying way? Does new conflict pick up the slack when other conflicts end?

Conflict is the engine that pushes a story forward. By evaluating stories as a series of conflicts, you’ll gain an amazing set of tools for creating action, suspense, and excitement.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #20

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I worked out details of Reed’s second attack on Christopher. Then I outlined all of the Act III chapters. I have a full outline of the book!

This session, I want to go through the outline and look at where I need to make adjustments and improvements.

Outlining in Greater Detail

I want to make this outline much more detailed than I typically would for a novel. Normally I leave some wiggle-room to figure things out and make changes as I write chapters. After all, I can always fix things and do necessary cleanup when the chapters are all written.

Because this is a serial project, I want to make each chapter as solid as possible when it is posted. I can’t do a lot of adjustments in the writing process without running the risk of tying myself to choices that can cause problems later on. It’s still an open question whether lots of up-front planning can really solve that. I may still have blind-spots in my outline. I may still discover critical plot holes or other problems when I’m writing. Maybe I’ll still decide to do some serious revisions after I’m done writing the serial parts. I’m going to try the detailed outline and see how it goes.

Setups, Payoffs, and Cliffhangers

There are a few specific things that I’m looking for as I go through the outline.

One of the things I want to note in the outline is where the reader is going to need particular knowledge, and how I’m going to impart that. In a similar way, I want to make a note of all the mysteries that I’m setting up, and the resolutions of those mysteries. If anything is left unresolved, I want it to be on purpose.

Because this will be released serially, I want to treat each chapter as an episode. The “perfect chapter” will present some sort of mystery to draw the reader on, while resolving or answering something presented in an earlier chapter. It will end with a cliff-hanger. It will have some sort of arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

As I go through each chapter outline, I need to note the mysteries that are set up in that chapter, the payoffs for mysteries carried over from other chapters, and look for cliffhanger opportunities. I also need to add some detail on these character mini-arcs.

General Structure

Looking at the large-scale structure of the book from this outline, a few things stand out to me. First, Act I has the most chapters, followed very closely by Act II. Act III has about half as many. Assuming all the chapters are the same length, that’s a bit of an odd shape. I’d typically want Act II to be the longest. However, the number of chapters isn’t necessarily a good indicator of the actual length. If I can keep the Act I chapters shorter, I think it will work out well. Quick pacing up-front can help engage the reader until they can get invested in the story.

As is usual for me, I have a lot of chapters. If these chapters average around 2,000 words, I’ll be in a pretty comfortable novel length. This feels pretty good for me. I think too many chapters shorter than this tend to feel very jarring. On the other hand, I personally have a hard time with very long chapters.

Finally, I need to keep POV character in mind as I am modifying chapters. Right now, I have a very straightforward 2:1 ratio of Christopher and God-Speaker chapters, evenly spaced out. If I need to add or remove a chapter, it’s going to throw off that perfect pattern. I suspect even if many readers don’t necessarily notice, it will feel subtly wrong to break that flow.

Results

Now that I have outlines for every chapter, I took some time to consider what my high-level goals are as I revise those outlines. I’m looking to keep chapters shorter in Act I, and I’m willing to let them run longer in Act II. In each chapter, I’m going to track mysteries and resolutions. I’ll look for opportunities to end on a cliffhanger. I’ll treat each chapter as an episode, with its own mini-arc for character and plot.

I suspect that revising the chapter outlines will result in a lot of small and somewhat tedious changes, so I’m still figuring out exactly how I want to present that in these development journals. I may do a bit more summarizing than I have done so far.

The Clan of Novels Set Far in the Past

This post is one of those perfect coincidences, as I work on prepping a serial novel whose timeline ranges from prehistory to modern day.

It is interesting delving so far into the past that we have little idea what life was actually like. I’ll have to check out these recommendations.

Dave Astor on Literature

Jean M. Auel

Every novel is a work of imagination, but sometimes the imagination can be more striking than usual. That’s certainly the case with fiction set way back in time.

By “way back in time” I don’t mean several centuries. I’m talking about novels written in our modern age that are set millennia ago, perhaps MANY millennia. When a story is that far in the past, there are usually few or no documents for an author to draw on during the research phase of writing — and life was VERY different then. So, more imaginative leaping is needed by the novelist.

I’m currently reading Jean M. Auel’s impressive prehistoric saga The Clan of the Cave Bear, which takes place more than 25,000 years ago — a time when the Neanderthal race was reaching the end of the line and Cro-Magnon people were becoming ascendant. Auel did plenty of…

View original post 422 more words