Romance! As Understood By Little Girls

With Valentine’s Day coming up, and our theme on this month’s Roundtable being romance, I thought it was apt to write a little something about romance. But we don’t need just little old me talking about it. Oh no no, we need some fresh, young perspective! And so I decided to interview my little sister and her friend. Who better to give romantic advice than little girls? Cianna is 6 and her friend Chastity is 9. Let’s see what they have to say about this whole love thing, and about what makes a good romance story.

Do you believe in love at first sight?

Chastity: No

Cianna: Yes

Oh? Why do you, or don’t you believe in love at first sight?

Chasity: I think it’s really really weird. I don’t think you can start a relationship before you actually have a relationship as friends.

Cianna: Because it’s cute

Tell me about your favorite love story.

Chastity: I really like the love story of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider. And I also like the love story of Aladdin.

What is it about those love stories that make it your favorite?

Chastity: Um, I don’t know. They’re really cute and adorable and sweet how they… they just meet and grow in their relationship together, and um…. it’s really adorable.

What is it they do together, or for each other, that strengthens them and makes them a good couple? Like, do you think making sacrifices for each other is a good thing?

Chasity: Yes yes. Like I watched a Tarzan video last night, and Tarzan sacrificed his life for his whole family, and for the girl that was killing him.

Wow, that’s pretty intense. Why did he sacrifice himself for the girl that was killing him?

Chastity: Because he’s such a nice person. *giggles*

What about you Cianna, what’s your favorite love story?

Cianna: Robin Hood. (note: She is referring to the old classic with Errol Flynn from 1938… she’s obsessed with it!)

What makes Robin Hood your favorite love story?

Cianna: ummmmm….. Robin.

What is it about Robin?

Cianna: Well he’s nice and practically the main character in this story.

Is it because he’s brave and dashing, and puts others before himself?

Cianna: Uh huh!

And what do you think of the maid Marian?

Cianna: Well she’s cute.

Why do you think they fall in love with each other?

Cianna: Well…. it’s kinda cute….

Chasity: We it’s probably because they are both really caring and loving to other people, and put others before themselves. So they have a lot of similarities so… them um…

Cianna: Yeah that’s what I was gonna say.

Chastity: *giggles* Yeah right!

I was just watching it, and I think when maid Marian saw that Robin Hood was actually the good guy and really helping people, that opened her eyes. And then when maid Marian helped rescue Robin Hood, he saw how much she cared about him. And so he fell in love with her, too.

Are there any stories that it didn’t make sense for the people to fall in love?

Chasity: Uh…. I think in a dream? Oh I remember! It was in the Braidy bunch, when a guy just met the girl that day. And they get married in the guy’s house.

Then the girls started talking about something else, and laughing and giggly, and the conversation was at an end. Ah well, I managed to get some good thoughts.

 

The first thing I noticed is that in Chastity perspective, the best relationships start small. Growing from a friendship into something more. Cianna likes ones that are cute. I think these things relate- that is, I think having a relationship that grows from the bottom up is what makes it cute.

See, Cianna used to not like kissing. She would be the first to say “eww” and hide her face when the characters kissed in a movie. But that has changed recently, and I think I have my oldest brother and his new wife to blame for that. Because she used to think kissing was weird (which it kinda is, I mean if you really think about it….. kissing is really weird!) What makes it not weird is when there’s meaning and intimacy behind it.

Cianna, from basically the day she was born, has seen Jubal and Bethany together. First as friends, then as best friends, then dating, then engaged….  Now that Jubal and Bethany are married and can kiss, she doesn’t think it’s weird at all. Because their kiss has a lot more meaning to it. Part of that being that they saved their first kiss ever for their wedding day, and the other part that they really have grown together. Something my little sister has seen and picked up on.

In a good story, a character is not the same from the beginning to the end. It would be boring and disappointing if there was no character development. That goes for relationships as well; the two characters, and the relationship itself, need to change and grow. I believe the strongest relationships grow from friendship and a genuine care for the other person. But in a story, you might not have time to lay out the relationship from the very beginning. That’s where some skillfully placed back story comes in handy, with the present taking place where the relationship is changing. Also, a dramatic life or death situation is great for bounding!

Another theme I noticed from our short conversation, is that the principle of sacrifice makes for a strong romance. Now it doesn’t have to be a total self sacrifice in which one person gives their life for the other. (That can be very dramatic and good, but it’s also very sad, so be careful, you don’t want the fans and shippers coming for your neck.) It can be any sort of sacrifice: spending time helping them with something instead of something you had planned to do, caring for them when they are sick, putting yourself at risk by going and seeking out help to free them from a hanging, or fighting off the deep space pirates to protect them. Anything that shows they care enough to put the other person’s needs and safety before their own.

Good love is selfless, and grand acts of selflessness make dramatic love stories. Drama is good for stories, and selfless love is good for love stories.

However, be sure not to portray a flawless couple. Perfect couples don’t make for good romance in stories. No one would be able to relate, and you need conflict to make a story. But as long as you work into your story the idea of them growing and changing together, and include selfless acts and sacrifices they make for each other, you’ll have a couple that readers will want to root for.

 

How to Design Magic Systems

Souldancer of FIre
When two magic systems love each other, sometimes they hug.

A speculative element is what sets the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror apart from literary fiction. There’s no element more speculative than magic, and it’s become a common term of art to speak of an SFF universe’s “magic system”. By reader request, here is my philosophy of magic in genre fiction–with advice on how to handle magic in your secondary world.

Changing depictions of magic in SFF

Historically, there have been two general approaches to depicting magic in speculative fiction.

  1. The old-school way: Magic is mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.
  2. The new-school way: Magic works like a technology that we can systematize.
The first way can be seen in works as late as Tolkien and going back to the Matter of Britain and before. Tales like these make little if any effort to explain where magic comes from–other than perhaps hinting at divine (sacramentality; not magic) or infernal origins. Nor do they define any explicit limits on what magic can and can’t do.
Wizards in these stories are almost never central protagonists. Instead they pop into the narrative at key times to aid and advise the main protagonist before exiting the stage for lengthy intervals. Think of Gandalf and Merlin, and you’ll get the idea.
In terms of story mechanics, the reason why wizards like Gandalf and Merlin don’t protag much  is due to the needs of dramatic tension. A well-made story should elicit suspense in the reader over how conflicts will be resolved. Being on the edge of your seat wondering how the hero will get out of this one is the main ingredient for good pacing.
The difficulty with old-school wizards in lead roles is that there’s no inherent reason why they can’t just magic themselves around obstacles. Sure, you can set limits on a wizard’s magic to set up situations he can’t just cast his way out of, but you’ve got to establish those limitations early on to avoid cheating the reader.
And if you do set limits on what magic can accomplish, guess what? You just systematized it a little.
That’s why Tolkien’s wizards are kind of old and new-school hybrids. Gandalf is a superhuman spirit, but he’s explicitly forbidden from drawing upon his angelic power. Instead he’s got to work with the skills available to his human form. That’s a pretty big limitation!
New-school, aka Sandersonian magic
No, Brandon Sanderson didn’t invent contemporary SFF magic. But he is the most prominent advocate for new-school, systematized magic, so I’m sticking with the “Sandersonian” description.
A better candidate for the father of new-school magic is the venerable Jack Vance (though yes, others did it before him, but again, he’s more popular).
If you’ve ever played D&D, you know how Vanceian magic systems work. Magic spells are 5th dimensional formulae of such complexity that a human mind can only hold a limited number of spells per day, and when the knowledge is actualized, i.e. a spell is cast, it’s totally purged from the caster’s mind. If a Vanceian wizard wants to cast that spell again, he has to memorize it all over again.
The upshot of this system is that it allowed Vance to use his transient amnesiac wizards as protagonists while maintaining dramatic tension. A Vanceian wizard can still use magic to escape from sticky situations–but not if he’s used all of his daily spells or memorized the wrong ones.
Categories of Magic
I like to put the various types of magic systems into a few broad categories.
Actual Magic: the original meaning of the term “magic”, using preternatural powers to achieve natural ends. In its archetypal form, magic means asking demons to do stuff for you with their superhuman powers. Old-school authors usually meant this when they wrote about magic.
Technology: this can be anything from Clarke’s sufficiently advanced tech to methods of turning invisible or making things go boom that are otherwise indistinguishable from actual magic. The key difference is that the users aren’t petitioning demons but manipulating “forces”.
Here;’s the tech vs. magic litmus test: if your characters are channeling and shaping created or emergent energies, they’re dealing with an esoteric technology; not real magic.
The vast majority of “magic systems” these days are actually cosmic force-driven technologies. The Force and Sanderson’s allomancy are examples of technology-style magic systems.
Superpowers: this category is rather nebulous and tends to overlap with technology-based magic systems. I distinguish between the two as follows: technological magic is a skill that can be learned. Superpowers are abilities beyond the natural powers proper to humans which are intrinsic to a character.
Super strength, invulnerability, psychic mind-powers, super intelligence, unaided flight, eye lasers, etc.–all are commonly recognized as superpowers. But like I said, sometimes this category overlaps with technological magic systems, such as Star Wars characters who are born with Force-sensitivity (an innate superpower) that lets them learn Jedi skills (a technology).
Designing your own magic system
To design an original magic system for your book, ask yourself these questions:
  • How do I want the presence of magic to affect my story’s mood and tone?
  • Will there be magic user-protagonists?
  • Is my cosmology purely material, or are there beings that transcend the natural?
  • In my world, is magic the result of a pact with preternatural entities, a skill which harnesses natural forces that anyone can learn, or innate to certain characters?
The answers to these questions, in light of the info we already covered above, should give you a basic starting point for setting up your own magic system–if you want a system at all.
It’s also perfectly fine to have multiple magic systems. The Soul Cycle series features all three categories of magic, because I’m greedy that way.
Priests and Teth disciples deal with gods and demons.
Factors learn how to draw on cosmic prana energy to fashion Workings.
Nexists are born with the power to directly affect the world by will alone.
And because clearly delineating these systems would be too simple, there’s considerable overlap between all of them.
Here’s the takeaway: in magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader. Dramatic tension is a key ingredient of fun, so if you’re going to put magic users in lead roles, make sure to give them obstacles they can’t just magic their way out of. And if you’re going to limit their magic, make sure you clearly lay out what magic can and can’t do as early as possible.
I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. See these principles in action in my award-winning Soul Cycle.
thesoulcycle1

And the Soul Cycle tie-in short story “Elegy for the Locust”, available in the new best selling anthology Forbidden Thoughts!

forbiddenthoughts

New Around These Parts

Hello! Hola! Hey! And all other greeting that start with the letter H.

This is just a quick post to introduce myself. I am a new blogger for Superversive Sci Fi, however I am not a total stranger. I have a short story Here and a short article Here, that were both graciously shared by Mrs Wright. But now I have my own little space here, so howdy and how do ya do!

A little about me. I am a young whipper-snapper of 18 and the third oldest of six kids. I live on a farm, and I enjoy riding and loving on my mustang that I have trained since she was a filly. I am a ballerina and dance both in classes, as well as spontaneously wherever there is good music. I do a lot of other things, like work in a deli, knit, draw, read, teach ballet, teach a Sunday school class, stare at the stars….. but most relevant, I write.

I’ve had a love for stories for as long as I can remember. Reading came slow to me, but I was blessed to live in a household where we were constantly having stories read aloud. This not only helped me nurture a deep love for stories, but was instrumental in developing my imagination to really see and live in the world of the story.

This is either a blessing or a curse, depending how you look at it. Having an overactive imagination and uncontrollable desire to write stories has doomed me to a life of arguing with imaginary people. But at least it’s a life full of wonder!

I had been trying to write since before I could read or spell – which I wasn’t able to do until I was ten – but it wasn’t until six years ago that I finally got a story going. Then in the past four years, I’ve gotten serious about writing. As of right now I don’t have anything big published – only the stories on my blog and one that will be in the Sci Phi Journal. However, I have a lot written and many projects in the works.

Anyway, that’s the end of ‘My Rambly and Casual Introduction Post’. More from me later this week.

Take care y’all!

Fandom Is Dead. Long Live Fandom!

the medium is the message

If you change the medium, you change the message.

Philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan argued persuasively that advances in media, regardless of content, can incite dramatic, culture-wide effects.

A best selling print book can reach millions of people, but turn that book into a hit movie, and you increase its sphere of influence by orders of magnitude. Consider The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.

Or, for a meta-example, In the Mouth of Madness.

Now throw in digital technologies–the power to instantly connect with anyone or everyone, everywhere. The effect is compounded exponentially.
A media paradigm shift is playing out in SF fandom.


Dragon Con

Getting back to McLuhan, saying that he was ahead of his time would be an understatement. In fact, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call his work prophetic. Let’s put it this way: the dude predicted the internet in 1962.

McLuhan noted that print technology caused a massive societal shift away from the more tribal, logic-focused outlook of the Middle Ages to a more individualistic, rhetorical worldview. He expected the web to swing the pendulum back toward tribalism.

Let’s take a look at SF fandom through the lens of McLuhan’s “medium as message” theory.

In the early days, science fiction enthusiasts:

A. Got their fix almost exclusively through the printed word in the form of novels and short stories circulated in magazines.

B. Were a pretty nonconformist, iconoclastic bunch. As Andy Duncan recently said on the passing of the great David Hartwell:

Even in the mid-20th century, David continued, science fiction was a haven for gay and bi and trans people, for people in open marriages or triads or even more complex domestic scenarios, for people with physical and mental disabilities, for shameless exhibitionists and unapologetic recluses, for anarchists and socialists and Birchers and libertarians and Weathermen and CIA operatives, for cosplayers and gamers and creative anachronists and people who crafted wholly spurious biographies for themselves that were accepted and therefore became sort of true, for channelers and Scientologists and orthodox Jews and pre-Vatican II Catholics and Mormons and New Agers and heretics and atheists and freethinkers, for Ph.D.’s and autodidacts, for writers of COBOL and speakers of Esperanto, for Forteans and CSICOPs, for astronomers and astrologers, for psychics and physicists, for basically anyone who was smart and passionate and willing to pitch in somewhere— though talent certainly helped, and curiosity, and a zeal for argument, and a sense of humor.

C. Subsisted as a relatively small subculture within larger Western society.

It’s often been remarked how sci-fi fandom burst out of the basements, niche bookstores, and cramped con suites of its birth to win new legions of adherents with the 1977 release of Star Wars.

For some fans, the gaming world is where it’s at. They are gamers to the core, not precisely readers per se, nor perhaps even watchers of television and movies. But even among gamers, there are traditionalists (tabletop, pencil-and-paper players, writers, and developers) and there are video gamers. Their two circles can and often do overlap. But among younger players especially, the circle for video games is going to be very large, in comparison to the circle for tabletop.

–Brad R. Torgersen

Most commenters usually emphasize this event’s unprecedented effect on C, take A largely for granted, and so gloss over–or misattribute–the causal relationship between the change in the primary medium of SF consumption and B.

Brad is an outlier in his astute recognition that newer media (movies, TV, video games, etc.) contributed to the disruption of old fandom. But he focuses more on what kinds of SF contemporary fans prefer than how they prefer to experience it.

The point I want to make (with the diagram) is that, in 21st century fandom, there aren’t any touchstone movies, books, or other properties which every fan, writer, or editor can rely on being known to every other fan, writer, or editor. There is no longer a central nexus for fandom.

My explanation for the conflicts that have shaken fandom of late differs slightly from Brad’s. I agree that relative innovations like movies and TV, and recent developments like video games (which are all reasons why there is no universal canon of SF touchstones), lie at the root of the turmoil.

But I don’t think that fandom is tearing itself apart. Instead, what we’re seeing is various sub-tribes of SF fans vying against each other to establish the identity of an emerging, consolidated fandom.

Brad gives a good description of this phenomenon: “It’s at the super-cons that one can again get a vague sense of wholeness: all fans of all things merging together for a weekend of intersectionality across innumerable interests.”

That, my friends, is the shape of the future. But what will be the content of its character? What sort of men will these post-fans be? Or will the Amazon servers and mega-convention halls of tomorrow be populated entirely by omnisexual, non-binary otherkin?
Fandom will become more communal, but what sort of community will it be?

Star Trek: The Apple

Watching a movie requires less personal effort than reading print. Even eBooks engage readers’ senses and though processes differently than print books do.

Audiences watching the same movie share a much more uniform experience than readers of the same book. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars knows what Luke Skywalker looks like, but no two Neuromancer readers have exactly the same mental image of Case.

The film industry dwarfs print publishing. As more people come to SF through movies, their shared experience will restore fandom’s sense of community. What the values and customs of this community will be remains undetermined.

The outcome is being decided right now, by self-appointed makers and high priests of culture. If we would have a say in the destiny of fandom, we must wield the new technological tools at our disposal. And we must establish a presence in film.

Currently, I am at best a lowly squire in the battle royale for fandom’s soul. Who are the warring tribes, and who are the chieftains that champion their visions?

We’ll meet them next time.

How to Handle Character Agency in Your Writing

fork in the road

Continuing my loose series on advice for aspiring authors, it’s time to address a subject that will leave hardcore outliners scratching their heads, but will have organic/discovery writers nodding in commiseration.

That subject is character agency. Or, as frustrated writers lament: “What should I do if my characters want to take actions that will sabotage my plot?”

Again, pure outliner-architects will be totally baffled by this question. “Your characters are just extensions of your own will,” they’ll say. “How can they ‘want’ anything that you don’t want?”

This misunderstanding stems from the technical differences between authors who construct meticulous outlines before they even start writing, and authors who just dive in and let the story unfold as the spirit moves them.

Hardline architects won’t be confronted with a branching plot thread due to character agency, because the characters already had their say (and were probably vetoed) during the outline phase.

But for discovery writers, having their characters hijack the story can be a substantial roadblock. Hopefully I can offer some advice to help writers avoid this problem–or if it’s too late for prevention, help them solve it.

Character-author conflict

Full disclosure: I’m predominantly an outliner, though I do discovery write about 40 percent of a given project. It’s a high enough ratio that intransigent characters make themselves a problem from time to time.

The source of the problem

At least in my case, characters tend to get uppity when I’ve gotten myself into a nice groove writing an interesting character. I’m pretty deep inside the character’s head to the point that I’m essentially role-playing his thought process and writing it down in real time.

Then, perhaps long after the fact, I’ll think “Wait. This guy is mucking about here when the action is supposed to be happening way over there!”

What happened? Chances are I haven’t developed the character’s motivations well enough. If he’s in a story about X, but he’d rather do Y, I probably haven’t given him a compelling reason to do X.

Alternate (disturbing) theory: some characters are more real than they seem.

I’m gonna take a pretty weird detour here, but a model derives its worth from its explanatory power, so follow me on this one.

By definition, fictional characters don’t exist. But can fictionality admit of degrees?

Tolkien coined the term sub-creation to describe the creative efforts of humans in imitation of God’s sovereign creating power. He even illustrated the concept in the Silmarillion.

The story goes that Aule tried to create his own race, but they could only move or think when he focused his thought on them. The same can be said of authors and the characters in their books.

If Aule’s story ended there, it would make a fine parable on hubris. But since it’s from Tolkien, this tale has a metaphysical twist. Eru confronts Aule about making a race of mindless homunculi. Aule points out that he was just imitating his Father–the highest form of flattery. Eru grants Aule’s creations autonomous existence, and BAM! Dwarves.

Tolkien, being a learned Catholic, knew that his story had a venerable precedent. In Genesis 2:19, Adam gives names to every creature, and God backs him up. This, by the way, is a form of prophecy. Prophets don’t always make pronouncements dictated to them by God. Often, the prophet gives an oracle and God ratifies it.

Is it possible that a fictitious character could be made real through divine action?

I hope not. If my characters came to life, they’d track me down and murder me. That’s if they decided to let me off easy.

We can get even weirder with this. The brother of a friend once solemnly assured me that, due to multiverse theory, every fictional character is real, and authors are just reporting the adventures of people living in parallel universes. James Bond, Dracula, Wolverine–they’re all out there somewhere.

I nodded and smiled politely while thinking that he was totally off his nut. I still do, but since becoming a writer I’ve had cause to wonder about that long ago conversation more than once.

It’s a logically inescapable fact that fictional characters are just mental constructs assembled from an author’s personal experience, literary influences, and hang-ups. Hell, most of them are thinly veiled versions of the writer’s coworkers and friends.

That’s what I firmly believe–until a character springs fully formed out of my head with a complete background, personality, and appearance all in place. They even tell me their names. It’s far less like creating something and more like meeting someone. This has happened multiple times, with zero mental effort on my part.

Is it just my unconscious mind? Probably, but that raises the equally odd question of how there can be a part of my consciousness that I’m unconscious of.

What are characters–really, and where do they come from? I’m prepared to admit that I don’t know.

It’s really not important, since we can make the little bastards do what we want, anyway. Here’s how.

Getting your characters back in line

Are you halfway into a manuscript, only to find yourself facing a character revolt?

Don’t despair. It’s happened to me, and I’ve found a number of effective solutions.

Retrace your steps.

Is your plot spiraling out of control, or branching off on weird tangents that have stalled your main plot? Simply read back to the last point where the story was still on track. Identify where the narrative started to diverge from the intended plot. It’s probably because a major player did something that was in character but conflicted with your plan for the story.

Examine character motivations.

Take a close look at the rebellious character’s choices. Are they really in line with his personality and background as established in the story thus far?

If not, all you need to do is change his decision to reflect his true motivations, which should be compatible with the overall story. If they’re not, however…

Harmonize the character’s motivations with the story.

If you want to tell the tale of an underdog resistance group fighting against an oppressive aristocracy, a main character who comes from a noble family, is devoted to tradition, and stands to reap the greatest benefit if the current regime stays in power probably shouldn’t be expected to shake up the status quo–not without grave intervening reasons.

In cases where a character’s motivations are throwing a wrench in the plot, go back and rework the character so he’ll be more willing to cooperate.

Change the story.

Say you’ve tried to make an unruly character’s motivations fit the story, but it just isn’t working out, Perhaps you’re telling the wrong story.

If changing the character would make him less interesting, and the path he’s leading you down is more entertaining than the original story, go ahead and follow his lead.

Brute force

If the character is acting contrary to his established motivations–or even if he’s not, but having him act out of character would be more entertaining (no one’s behavior is 100 percent consistent), go ahead and make him take the path that’s more fun. You’re the writer. It’s OK to veto your characters’ choices as a last resort.

These are the solutions that have helped me slap my characters back into line. But again, I’m an outliner. If any self-professed discovery writers have other effective approaches, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

I also practice what I preach:

Why Authors Need to Be Readers: Books that Informed Star Wars

McQuarrie Star Wars concept art
Star Wars concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The best way to prepare for a writing career, besides writing every day, is reading at least as often. The importance of broad and deep reading for good writing strikes me as so self-evident that it baffles me whenever I ask aspiring authors how much they read, only to hear that they don’t.

At this point, I could deliver an essay on the rich lessons of the great books, the necessity of developing a keen eye for characterization, pacing, and dialogue; or stocking your literary toolbox with tricks learned from other authors.

Instead, I’ll point to the best example of how properly managed literary influences produced a masterpiece far greater than the sum of its parts: the original Star Wars trilogy.

Books the Influenced Star Wars

The Star Wars galaxy didn’t just pop fully formed into George Lucas’ head one day. Prior to creating his magnum opus, he’d spent decades devouring a catalog of works containing everything from Homer to Jack Kirby; from Shakespeare to Frank Herbert. This eclectic reading list informed Lucas’ ideas and provided a solid foundation to build his space opera world on.

Here’s a partial list of books that cinema scholars and Lucas himself cite as influences on Star Wars.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series: starting as a series of short stories published between 1942 and 1950, Foundation features a Galactic Empire very similar to the one depicted in the original Star Wars trilogy. There are even characters named Han and Bail.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: besides Obi-Wan Kenobi filling much the same role in A New Hope that Gandalf did in The Fellowship of the Ring, early drafts of Star Wars had an even closer resemblance to Tolkien’s beloved tales. At one point, Lucas toyed with the idea of casting dwarfs as his main characters.

Arthurian Legend: there are many parallels between Luke Skywalker and King Arthur. Both Obi-Wan and Yoda resemble Merlin in several respects. Anakin Skywalker shares much in common with Uther Pendragon.

Frank Herbert’s Dune: the most frequently used setting in Star Wars is a desert planet. There are multiple mentions of spice, and many Jedi powers are similar to Bene Gesserit techniques. Herbert himself pointed out 37 direct Dune references in Star Wars.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World: the original run of Kirby’s New Gods stories was published by DC Comics from 1970-1973. A major theme of the Fourth World comics is a hero destined to defeat an evil tyrant who turns out to be said hero’s father. Roy Thomas, then an editor at Marvel, allegedly pointed out similarities between Kirby’s series and an early Star Wars synopsis during a 1972 dinner with Lucas.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces: Lucas’ appreciation for folklorist Joseph Campbell’s seminal book is well known. Campbell’s treatments of monomyth and the Hero’s Journey are baked into the themes and plot structure of Star Wars.

Gone with the Wind: seriously. Watch The Empire Strikes Back and pay attention to Han and Leia’s dialogue. H/t Tom Simon.

These are just a few of the literary influences on Star Wars. The message is clear. If you hope to create a beloved cultural touchstone some day–or even produce minimally competent fiction–you need to start reading everything you can get your hands on.

How to Flesh out Your Novel with Three-Act Structure

 

Three-act structure
Graph by Wendell Wellman

Final editing proceeds nicely on Souldancer. As I’ve mentioned before, Soul Cycle vol. II will focus more on romantic themes than Nethereal did, without watering down the horror. In fact, my editor’s first comment on the manuscript was how consistently eerie SD is.

Since I’m trying a rather ambitious interweaving of the first and second books’ plot lines (in a way I’ve never seen done before), editing this project has required me to develop some new tools. I previously discussed character building exercises. Recently I put together a writing exercise meant to help manage plots for maximum dramatic impact.

Three-Act Structure

If you’ve taken a Western lit class or studied screenwriting, you’re almost certainly aware of three-act structure. In case you need a refresher, three-act structure is a way of organizing a story’s plot into–just like the name suggests–three acts. Each act is defined by the information related to the audience and the level of dramatic tension. The transitions between acts are marked by specific events, e.g. the inciting incident, turning points, etc.

I should point out that three-act structure is best thought of as a descriptive tool; not a plot-building formula. Here’s an overview of each act, where it starts, what happens in it, and when it ends.

Act I
Start: the beginning of the story

  • Main characters introduced
  • Character relationships explained
  • Setting described
  • Inciting incident that calls the main character to action (raises the Dramatic Question which must be answered in Act III)
End: the First Turning Point
Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with a prologue (so I’m kind of cheating, but this movie is the gold standard for screenplays) that establishes the year, plus Indy and Belloq’s characters and their relationship. In Act I proper, Marcus and Marion get the same treatment. The Army Intelligence agents issue Indy’s Call to Action. The First Turning Point occurs when Marion’s bar burns down after the fight with Toht’s men, and she joins up with Indy. Dramatic Question: will Indy and Marion beat the Nazis to the Ark?
Act II
Start: after the First Turning Point
  • The main character struggles to deal with the problem introduced by the First Turning Point.
  • He initially fails to meet the challenges posed by the main antagonist.
  • As a result, the Dramatic Tension constantly rises.
  • The main character seeks out new skills and tools that he requires to succeed (i.e. starts a Character Arc), usually with the help of a mentor and other allies.
  • Complications lead to almost total disaster, leaving the main character at the Second Turning Point, a.k.a. the Low Point.
End: the Low Point
Example: Raiders again. Despite coming close several times, Indy fails to smuggle the Ark away from the Nazis. In conversation with Belloq, he confronts his rather unsavory true nature and must decide whether to continue his descent and become like his enemy, or to persevere and redeem himself. He rallies with Sallah’s help. The literal low point finds Indy and Marion trapped in a viper pit as the Nazis make off with the Ark.
Act III
Start: after the Second Turning Point
  • Having attained greater mastery and a deeper sense of self from his trial by fire, the main character sets out again for the final confrontation with the antagonist.
  • The Dramatic Tension rises steeply to the Climax–the point of greatest tension.
  • The Resolution answers the Dramatic Question posed in Act I. The question will be answered in the affirmative, closing with the main character attaining his goal and newfound self-awareness.
  • Unless the story is a tragedy, in which case the question is answered in the negative. Though the main character does not get what he wants, often he will still attain deeper self-knowledge that imparts a valuable lesson about the hubris that caused his downfall.
End: the End
Example: Indiana Jones offers an excellent example of how you can play around with this model. From a classical standpoint, Raiders of the Lost Ark is technically a tragedy, since the main character ultimately proves unequal to his opposition and doesn’t get what he wants. Instead, the climax is resolved by a (well set up) deus ex machina. (Actually, it could be argued that Belloq, despite his role as the main antagonist, is actually the movie’s hero for taking out the Nazis and himself.)
Though Indy doesn’t achieve his original goal, he does gain self-knowledge in the best tragic style. Primarily, he learns due respect for holy things and a healthy fear of powers beyond his understanding (the fact that this character arc is maintained through the third film is one mark of this series’ greatness).
Putting Three-Act Structure to Work for Your Novel
Now that we understand three-act structure, how can we use it to our authorial advantage? For Souldancer, I looked at the flow of dramatic tension and each main character’s development arc. Using this information I pinpointed where the inciting incidents, turning points, complications, and subplot resolutions are. In this way, I discovered that the book is neatly divisible into seven intertwining three-act plot lines.
Incidentally, that means we can describe the overarching plot of Souldancer in a single seven-point model. But that’s a topic for another time.
So OK, diagramming my book in a series of three-act models sounds like an obsessive-compulsive English nerd’s cry for help. And perhaps it is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get some practical use out of it. Here’s how.
Having identified where each part of every three-act subplot begins and ends, I listed each character who has an arc in those scenes. Then I wrote down the following information for each one:
  1. The dramatic question raised by that character’s inciting incident
  2. What kind of skills/self discovery the character needs to achieve his goal (phrased as an if/then statement)
  3. How the dramatic question is answered, along with the reason for the outcome and the consequences for the character.
Here’s an example from the book’s prologue, which you can read at the end of Nethereal, or right here. It’s only a few pages long, but it contains a full three-act plot.
1. Kairos
Almeth: I. Can he correct his failures? II. If he can wake Zadok, Almeth will learn if he’s a savior or a destroyer. III. [Redacted to prevent spoilers]
There you go. It’s pretty easy once you figure out where your acts are. The finished chart has been a godsend for my editing process. Now I know exactly where to turn the tension up, which conflicts and motivations to emphasize, and where to give more detailed exposition. It’s like transcribing my novel into sheet music that shows me the timing changes and where the high notes are. As the author I’ve got an intuitive grasp of the plot, but charting it out like this helps me see how it’s delivered to readers who don’t know the whole story.