Thursday, January 28, 2010

Newton's Law And Tension-Building

Have you had your daily dose of physics today?

No, really. I know there are some math-phobes and science-phobes out there. Take a deep breath. You can make it.

Newton's Third Law of Motion can be applied to the art of creating tension in your stories. His Third Law states that:
"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

When it comes to putting together a novel, short story, or other forms of prose, this law should be consistently applied throughout the unfolding plot. Tension is such an important factor to remember as you write. Without tension, the story of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz would just be the tale of a Kansas girl wandering aimlessly down a yellow brick road. Lord of the Rings would be a charming travel monologue.

However, too much tension can be just as detrimental. Lace every moment and every paragraph with tension, and both your characters--and your readers--will be nervous wrecks by the time you're done. Too much tension can also feel overly dramatic.

It is just as bad to start out with a large amount of tension, and then hit a sagging middle, and finally sputtering out completely by the end. It will leave a very nasty taste in a reader's mouth.

The best way to make sure your tension level is correct for the moment and scene, and to ensure that it is slowly building correctly toward a climatic end, apply Newton's Third Law.

Every action has a reaction, to summarize the law. If you introduce a particular fear in a character, ensure that the reaction to being faced with at some point is just as severe as her/his aversion to it. (And they should be faced with it, I might add. Though that's a topic for another post...)

If you have created an action that must be taken, ensure that the reaction to it matches up. Does your character detest, and even hate, the antagonist? Then the "pay-off" at the end, when one character defeats the other, should show a reaction to that hatred.

But, beware of being too dramatic. If you don't build in tension and "actions" that are wound throughout the story, your end "reaction" will fizzle.

Picture our space shuttle.

Little rockets + big shuttle = No liftoff
Big rockets + "small" shuttle = Explosive

Ensure that every action your characters take has a reaction within your narrative, that matches the original action in its intensity.

Some Examples:

Intensity by Dean Koontz [thriller/mainstream]
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg [science fiction]
Sword-Dancer series by Jennifer Roberson [fantasy]
The Taking by Dean Koontz [speculative fiction.]

(yes, I tributed him twice. The latter one is more subtle with the tension building. And the thriller is less subtle, for obvious reasons)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foreshadow: Too Light, Too Heavy

Though I personally do not care for the product advertised in the video above, it does serve as an excellent illustration to my blog post for today. There are many components to a good story. Most of these are obvious if you've read much at all. A sound plot, well-rounded characters, sprinkle some description and snappy dialogue, and it's highly likely you will at least be on your way to an interesting story.

One aspect, however, that I have found lacking in many stories that I've read on various writing sites, and even in some published books, is the proper use of foreshadow.

For one thing, it can be very easy to allow this aspect to fall to the wayside. Problems with continuity or characters are much more glaring and obvious, and thus easier to pick out--whether by your eyes or someone else.

Foreshadow is defined as: to show or indicate beforehand; prefigure:

In storytelling, this is where you slip in hints about future events, character reactions, pieces of the plot that are hidden from the reader as yet, and anything else that belongs mostly in the later parts of your story. In mystery, these are the clues that guide the reader toward the inevitable "the butler did it!" Or perhaps, the hints of a great "ring" or "heir" in fantasy that your hero (or heroine) simply must find. And so on throughout the genre.

The important thing to remember is our little video up top. Too light or too heavy. Foreshadow must never overpower the main plot. It should be a subtle, gentle niggling thought or ideal that pushes the reader and plot forward along the path you desire, but without beating them over the head with the obviousness of the path.

If you can think of a crossroads. Foreshadow should be a smudged sign, with an arrow pointing to a town without a name, and only a vague direction. When foreshadow becomes a brightly painted, light-bejeweled billboard...your readers will become bored, or even annoyed.

Too light, however, is just as bad. If your foreshadow sign is crooked, with arrows pointing in no particular direction at all, so covered with mud that not one letter can be deciphered, your readers will head nowhere fast. And likely reach a destination so unexpected, they'll be just as unhappy as the first.

Clues that are heavily hidden, prophecies couched in unfamiliar and severely vague terms, and stern fact listing of some technology that is then used in the plot several chapters later are all much too light foreshadowing. Readers will often feel cheated, lost, or simply confused. A confused reader is a lost reader. And that is never, ever good.

There are books that I have read, and reached the end furious at the surprise the author threw into the climax that seemed to have no connection or hint at all throughout the book/series. There is a problem when I must re-read the series, sometimes more than once, before I can catch the light hints and foreshadow.

Now, yes, some people may prefer it to be very light. Perhaps it is easy for them to solve plotlines, see the implied connections, and all the other sundered parts that belong to this, but I personally (and many of the readers that I've spoken to) do not.

If I reach the end, and I'm lost, it's highly likely I will not pick up any more books by that author, no matter the reviews. A tricked reader can hold a "grudge" for a long, long time. (I personally will not read anything written by particular authors simply because of the same matter)

The most important thing to remember about foreshadow is balance. Give the reader enough information that they know this particular fact, or this light hint, or suggestive facial expression/dialogue are important, but not the why. It strokes a reader's curiousity and encourages them to continue reading, if just to find out what happens next. Foreshadow can also create tension.

For an example, in one of my stories, a young lady is working as a servant, filling lords' baths in a palace. In the antagonist's POV, he is stalking this girl, and at the very end of his POV, he thinks: "Perhaps Lord Jabin should request a bath."

Did I directly state his course of action, what he'd do exactly to this girl? No. But the hint of it, the foreshadow of what should happen the next time Jabin and the girl have a scene together, spikes the tension. You may not know exactly how or what, but there's enough information to let you know that something bad is on its way, involving those two, and drives you to turn the page.

Balance, young padawan.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Rave: The Host Sparkles Better Than Twilight

Aye, I'm sure that the topic of this post will likely cause some Twihards or Twilighters to come stalking my house, with T-shirts and jewelry and keychains of Edward in all his sparkly goodness. That or send Jacob through my doggy door.

I do like to poke fun at the latest craze that this seems to be, though I admit, I have my own die-hard literary loves myself. (Don't say a word about Lord of the Rings. Or I swear, I am so sending Gollum to haunt your shower. You hear?)

Truthfully, though, I don't hate on Twilight per say. As Stephanie Meyers' "breakout" novel (in that, so far as my research goes, Twilight was her first book to be published) I can accept the errors and issues that I noticed in the series. (Yes, I've read them. Don't shoot me.)

The first novel by Jennifer Roberson-- Shape-Changer -- was in relatively rough shape, and...LOtR fanatic that I am, Return of the King appears to have been put together in a much stronger, more vibrant fashion than the Fellowship.

However, I am quickly learning that even if an author seems to have issues with that first book, sometimes they can surprise you later. Roberson is one of my favorite fantasy authors, even if I hated her first book.

Therefore, I actually enjoyed The Host, written by Stephanie Meyers. It was released on May 6, 2008, when the Twilight wildness was in full swing. Because of all the hype, I didn't dabble into the book (though its premise seemed interesting) precisely because of the nasty taste in my mouth left from Twilight. However, I finally read it not too long after.

Without spoilers, as best I can, the basic idea was a mixture of The Body-Snatchers and numerous stories of aliens trying to "better our world". The kicker is that, when the "host" becomes part of the new body, old memories and personality are supposed to go away. Which, in the case of the MC in the book, they don't.

This is very much a sci-fi romance, with a twist. With two personalities existing in one body, and risks of danger to both parties from multiple sides, the conflicts are bad enough. Add in that the host and the body are in love with two different men, however, and the love triangle plotline takes on a whole new twist.

Besides the twisting, turning control of situations and emotions, the characters were vibrant and very real to me, with the MC and her host both with strong, well-rounded personalities that I enjoyed being with. A nice, refreshing bit of air compared to the (sorry Twihards) whiny Bella.

Stephanie Meyers also proved her ability to write was certainly there when she chose a difficult style/voice to write in as well. It's hard enough to write in first person, plus dealing with two personalities in the same body, and still make dialogue and thoughts appear distinctive. But she went one step further. Taking into consideration the situation and type of lifestyle that the host had experienced, the entire book is written in first person, present tense.

That is outstanding. It made the book really....sparkle. (yeah, yeah. I couldn't resist) It kept the feelings and emotions immediate, and suggested at all times that we were mostly in an alien mindset. In my humble opinion, she carried off this difficult style extremely well. I ceased to notice the present tense after a while, and never noticed the lack of knowing exactly what the other characters were thinking or feeling. (something that usually bothers me in first person books)

The plot itself twists and turns on itself, throwing in tension where necessary, and heart-warming or tear-wrenching moments in the next. As a whole, this is one book I'd give four stars to easily. But not five.

Though the book gets points for difficulty, interesting plot, surprising end, and other good things that make the book an excellent read, there are small spots that don't quite work. One is the mention of a "secret" from the host, seemingly out of the blue after several chapters. The others are milder--reactions that didn't quite jive, a "just happens" with the Seeker near the end of the book--but as a whole, the book was good enough that I was very well pleased. Enough to buy the hardback version.

My hope is that, now that the Twilight series of books have all been written, and the movies are off to a flying start, that Stephanie Meyers turns to more books like The Host, or at least far away from the vampire area. This is one author I'll keep my eye on for a while.

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Year's Resolution

Admittedly, I don't often bother with New Year Resolutions. When I make goals like that as part of the "new me", I often fail or forget about the plans, or find that the goal really wasn't worth as much as it seemed in the glow of 1am on New Year's Eve, after four bowls of choco-chunk ice cream and sleep deprivation. (As those of you with...ah...interesting memories of New Year's Eve events you would like to forget can probably attest)

However, this resolution is a little more viable. My goal is to post something at least once a week on my blog, about topics that interest me. Be prepared for book rants/raves, updates regarding my works in progress (or lack thereof) and some discussion on more "writerly topics".

Look for new posts on Wednesday, sans this week of course.