story craft #5 Make Them Real

Mike Grist Story Craft 2 Comments

I just saw the movie Kickass, and loved it. Of all the superhero movies out there, it was the one that most made me actually get up on the edge of my seat as the main guy goes into battle. He seems real, and it seems like he could get hurt. He of course does, quite a lot.

At the same time, you`ve got Hit Girl bouncing around like your traditional super hero, just about impervious to damage, killing dudes in their slews. The film-makers get to have their cake and eat it too.

How is it done?

I`m working on Dawn book one. In the first draft, most of the first 50 pages was like a skeletal telling of the story so far. We bounced from one character to another character, learning their back story in sequence. We even jumped around in time, 10 years forwards, then back, then forwards again. Besides simply being confusing, it meant there was no compelling through story, no sense of character continuity, and no belief in the characters as real people.

So how to fix that?

I have to make them real. Ideally I want them to be sympathetic too, but perhaps I`ll talk about that later. At the moment I`ll focus on getting them real, so that the world they live in has consequences, and their life choices count.

1- A compelling through story.

I`m very drawn to alternative narrative structures. What Nolan did with Memento and Inception gives me the shivers, along with books like Everything is Illuminated, House of Leaves, and even Life of Pi, where more than one story is happening at the same time through more than one viewpoint. I loved the way Orson Scott Card made Ender`s Shadow wrap beautifully around Ender`s Game, whilst adding depth and fresh revelations throughout.

But those alternative structures will fail if there`s no strong and believable through-story linking them together. And through-story means drive, which ultimately means conflict. There`s a gap between reality and the protagonist`s idea of reality, and somehow the gap must be closed. That`s the story space.

In my first draft of Dawn, that gap was assumed. I didn`t explain it. I instead wanted Dawn`s extreme actions to bespeak his deep motivation. The audience looks at how intense this kid is and thinks- `he must be driven be something very powerful`. But that drive was inexplicable, other than some sort of in-born desire. And how can we empathize with a kid who`s just following an inborn knowledge none of us are privy to?

Maybe we can`t, or at least we can`t care til we know more about it. So, all of that needs to be brought into the open. My main guy Dawn is now basically a real kid. He wants what a kid wants, and his quest develops gradually through a series of escalating sub-steps. It`s gradual, and we can see his progression, so hopefully we`ll believe it.

2- A sense of character continuity.

The story before jumped around. There were huge gaps, and I only dropped in for the moments of highlight. That`s not such a bad way to do it, but there needs to be some padding either side of the highlight moments, some moments of down-time that lead-in gradually to the next moment of highlight and set up the conflict in a world we can believe in.

I`m adding that. I`m learning so much about these characters, which is weird because I`ve already written almost three books featuring them, but never stopped to quiz them about how they felt, rarely stopped to show them in their ordinary state.

What do they each want, why are they each there, and how do they actually interact with each other. It`s nuts and bolts, but feels good.

3- A belief in them as real people.

This is about their capacities and knowledge. I can`t really expect Dawn to beat Alan into a coma and have that be believable, unless he has some special powers. But he doesn`t, so it has to be changed. I can`t expect him to kill grown men, certainly not Malakites, without some serious special training. The will to do it is just not enough.      

That`s the lesson from KickAss. He has the will to kick ass, but not the ability. We feel it when he goes into his first battle; he`s just some limp punk kid who`s training has been very lax, mostly of trying to jump across an alley-way. He knows no martial arts. He has a stick he prances about with in front of a mirror. His will is admirable, but his ability is laughable. So he gets his ass kicked. We can believe that.

Dawn has to follow those rules too. He can`t break them without some good reason, like special training or knowledge. If he has that knowledge or training from birth, it`s a lot less than interesting than if he has to earn it.


So the book is getting longer. But even to me, it is getting less opaque, and less jumbled. Before there were whole sections that could have been slotted in almost anywhere. Now though they are getting knitted into the narrative and can`t be moved. There`s still complexity, with 6 main characters taking point as we go along, but now they`re bonded to the story by real events that step up the quest log gradually.

The first book is now about 140,000 words long. I just checked, that`s as long as The Two Towers, second book of the Lord of the Rings!

It was originally about 140,o00 words long, then I split it into two, and was down to 70,000 for each. I`ve since filled it up with another 70,000, almost a whole new novel worth of material, and still going. Epic fantasy is something like 200,000 and up (with Robert Jordan And George R. R. Martin occasionally tipping the scales at 400k!).

This book will probably peak around 170,000. That`s as long as The Fellowship of the Ring. Then I`ll have to aim for a similar figure for each of the subsequent ones.

Book 2 is at 70,000, where I left it after the split, with lots of sections that need to be filled out. Book 3 is at 110,000, with the final third still to be done. Books 4 and 5 are a few pages of notes, synopses, and summaries.

Comments 2

  1. Your narration of your own writing process is fascinating. I once dreamed of being a science fiction writer myself. Maybe I should actually give it a go sometime.

    1. Post

      For sure you should give it a try! If nothing else, it can be good fun just to make stuff up. I personally love inventing new words- there`s plenty of room for that sort of thing in SF too.

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