Unity of conflict and Sookie Stackhouse

October 10, 2012

I finished reading ‘From Dead to Worse’, the eighth book in the Charlaine Harris Southern Vampire Mysteries series today. I generally enjoy these books, and while I had fun with this one, I felt from a little after halfway that something seemed to be missing. Once I’d finished reading, I googled for reviews of the books, and was surprised that none of the most prominent hits mentioned something important, though a lot of the feedback reviews on Amazon and Goodreads touched on it. NOTE: Spoilers ahoy!

There’s no central unifying conflict to this book, and it muddles the plot considerably.

There’s lots of interesting conflict; possibly too much, as if Harris was tossing everything into the kitchen sink, or throwing it like spaghetti to a wall to see what stuck. There’s a hostile takeover, a werewolf war. Sookie discovers that she has a surprising great-grandfather, which isn’t an easy adjustment for either of them, and her brother Jason’s wedding to Crystal the were-Panther starts off a chain of events that lead to Sookie refusing all contact with Jason. And don’t get me started on the ups and downs of her love life in this one… 😉

But none of these conflicts are pervasive enough to serve as a spine to the plot. The Great-grandfather element is close, especially since it’s introduced near the start of the book and is last touched on close to the end, but Great-grandpa pops in and out too seldom for his influence to really be felt on large swathes of the book. And the last scene seems to be little more than a WTF teaser to queue up a new idea that Harris is toying with.

In contrast, I am now going to go through the previous seven books in the series and try to sum up their conflict in a single sentence:

Dead Until Dark: Sookie has to find a serial killer targeting ‘fang-banging’ vampire lovers… before she becomes the next victim.

Living Dead in Dallas: This is a bit complicated because of the ‘framing plot’ with the Maenad back in Bon Temps, but overall I’d say that the main plot is Sookie’s mission in Dallas to find the missing vampire, and who’s responsible.

Club Dead: There are two interlaced main plots here – Eric’s abduction in Mississippi and Sookie’s mission to rescue him is one. While there, she gets involved with the Jackson weres who try to kill her.

Dead to the World: Again, we’ve got a few interrelating plots – the mystery of what happened to Eric is probably the most significant one, which spawns off the subplot of amnesia Eric’s romance with Sookie. Less closely related is the subplot of Jason being missing as well.

Dead as a Doornail: Tying everything together here is the mystery plot of the sniper targeting shapeshifters. The pack leadership contests are a major subplot, and Sookie’s house getting burned down is really just a side note and red herring.

Definitely Dead: This one isn’t very neat, but I’d say the central conflict is between Sookie and Sophie-Anne, who appears as a major character in a novel for the first time and certainly looms large. There’s at least three layers to the relationship, in that Sookie is trying to impress Sophie-Anne to a certain extent, maintain her independence from the vampire Queen, and above all not get herself killed. Romance between Sookie and Quinn the were-tiger is the B plot.

All Together Dead: There’s a lot going on in Rhodes, but the mystery and the hints of a plot help to unify it together, and that conflict certainly brings the book to a big finish.

I’m glad that I picked up on that, and this series certainly serves as good lesson about what you can and can’t do with conflict. 🙂 Are there any other vampire fans among my followers? What do you think of conflict in these books – or what about your favorite series?

I can’t even be punctually insecure…

September 7, 2012

Or – I was so excited to tell you guys about Dragon*Con that I forgot about Insecure Writer’s Support Group until today. So sorry about that.

What I’ve been feeling most insecure about lately is storytelling and narrative. I feel that I’ve grown more capable in my use of language over the past year or two, and I’ve never doubted my creativity and imagination. But I’ve also learned that you need to have an instinct for putting together a plot in a way that it’s satisfying to other readers, and I’m despairing a bit of being able to do that, worried that every premise I come up with is cliche, or that every story structure I try to write is broken.

And yet – I keep writing, keep working on the craft, because it’s what I do, and because I know that incredible things can happen if you just keep at it. I’m not sure if I came up with anything actually usable in Camp Nanowrimo this year, but I certainly had fun. And I’m back on Block Revision for ‘Save the Children’ now – and I’m certainly learning good things there, with the HTRYN course.

Are you insecure or secure lately?

The story of my dream.

December 12, 2011

I had a dream last night that was really like a passage out of a pretty cool fantasy novel. I’m not sure if I can work out the rest – if you’d like to use this notion, that’s okay, but please let me know, alright?

So, I don’t know what the overall sides were, but let’s say in the dream I was on the Rebel alliance working against an Empire led by a crazy evil wizard, okay?

We’d managed to find a magical talisman that was part of the Evil Wizard’s big ritual for destroying the Alliance. I remember that the talisman was a green sphere, about the size of a tennis ball or an apple. But it was so powerful that it couldn’t be destroyed safely just by squashing it with a rock or anything like that, and if we tried to hide it away forever, the Wizard would eventually be able to track it down.

The only safe way to dispose of the talisman was to invoke it early, without the rest of the ritual. It was voice-controlled, with a key word of ‘invoke’, that had to be spoken within a range of about 100 yards – but voice-locked to the Wizard’s assistant Magician. So, we had to find some way to trick the Magician into saying the word ‘invoke’, somewhere that we could hide the talisman within range.

I was researching this for a lot of the dream, and came up with a plan. The Magician was getting married soon, and there was a spell that was sometimes cast by the bride and groom at weddings, to temporarily summon up the presence of dead family members to witness the exchange of vows. And the spell started with the words ‘I invoke…’

So, all we needed to do was find some way to talk to the Magician’s fiancee without getting caught, and convince her to include this spell in the plan for her wedding ceremony.

That’s all I remember from the dream, but I think that it’s pretty cool. Have you ever had story ideas in your dreams?

Tricky decisions and flawed stories

October 22, 2011

I’ve been looking over some of my stories, and reading critiques I’ve gotten for them, this week. And I’ve come to realize that at this point, I’ve got a fair few stories – three or four, I figure, where the following things are all true:

  • There’s good things going on in the story, that some readers like considerably.
  • There’s also plot or conceptual problems in the way that the story is written at this point.
  • Try as I might, I can’t figure out a way to resolve the fundamental problem or flaw, without starting again and writing a truly different story that would share only some of the same elements of character and plot.

So, in general – what do I do with these pieces of my work? Is it worthwhile to clean up the more superficial issues that I do know what to do with, (which usually still exist,) and try sending the story out to potential publishers? Or would I be better off just filing the entire mess, including the critiques, away against some future time when I’ve grown as a writer and might actually be able to (and interested enough to) fix the core problem?

And, if applicable, how do I ‘saviore faire la difference’? That is, know how to make the decision on a case by case basis.

Blog the Cat, Chapter 2 – Story Genres

January 22, 2011

Blog the Cat post index.

So, in Chapter 2 of Save the cat, “Give me the same thing… only different!” Blake Snyder talks about how to dance with cliche – you have to be in the vicinity of a cliche, because otherwise your script is probably so out there that most viewers won’t be able to relate to it at all, but not too close. He ties this back into the scenario of pitching your movie – that not only do you have to be able to explain what your movie idea is, but also what it’s most like – and that you have to be very familiar with other movies in your genre, so as to know what the specific cliches are and put your own spin on your story.

He then starts going into detail about his own working list of ten genres or categories, which aren’t organized along traditional lines, because a term like ‘Romantic Comedy’ or ‘Hard Science Fiction’ doesn’t explain anything about the storyline, which is a good point. To run down the story genres quickly, we have:

Monster in the house: Dangerous ‘monster’, (who could be a person,) and people trapped inside an enclosed ‘house’ with it. Lots of running and hiding, usually at least one of the people is morally responsible for the monster being there, and they die while others manage to escape at the end.

Read the rest of this entry »

Going down the Snowflake, part One.

October 11, 2010

I’ve been wanting to prepare a bit more than usual for starting my National Novel Writing Month piece this year, and a few days ago found an article for the Snowflake method and decided to try it.

The snowflake method is an approach for developing a book idea that starts with a very simple premise and then adding more detail to it – analogous to building a snowflake fractal by adding more triangles pointing out of each line in the earlier design. This idea appeals to my sensibilities as a computer programmer – it’s what’s known as top-down algorithm design in the software field, starting with a statement of the goal and then breaking it down into steps and substeps until each element is trivial to implement.

So, here are the first two layers of my snowflake design:

Step 1: (One-sentence summary)

A dead man, sent back to Earth to do the Angel’s work, falls in love with a living girl and runs away with her.

Step 2: (One paragraph summary, 5 sentences)

Richard is sent to Buffalo by Angels to stop a chemical explosion from going off at the University. In the process, he meets Jessie, and infatuated with each other, they decide to run away once the job is done. The head angel, James the Elder, tracks them down and tells Jessie that Richard has more missions to do, and that he can only stay on Earth by taking somebody else’s body. James switches to another body, a coma victim, and works another mission, unaware that Jessie ‘met’ the true owner of his first body, and likes him too. In the end, Richard has to figure out if he must leave Jessie, fight for her, or let her make her own choice.


Not perfect yet, but that gives me an idea of where it’s going. Step 3 is short character sketches, and it’s probably the point at which I won’t be including the full results here in the blog, but I’ll do my best to keep you all informed of how it’s going.

Taking serious criticism is a tough gig.

September 24, 2010

Possibly one of the hardest stages in any kind of artistic endeavour is having to open your work up to criticism.

I was invited, along with everybody else who was at the local Hamilton Writers meeting four weeks ago, to a new Hamilton Artists’ Writers Workshop. I was excited about giving it a try, and missed the first session owing to a confusion about the dates, but I was also nervous from the start about bringing something of my own to get critiqued by a group of unfamiliar writers.

I ended up bringing copies of a short story that I very much like, ‘The case of the Wizard’s Vice,’ a sort of Agatha Christie meets Harry Potter caper. Because there wasn’t an abundance of time, I only got to read the introduction and the denoument, skipping over the interviews in the middle, but the responses I got definitely had me thinking about the piece in a very different way, and had my head spinning for a little bit.

Significantly, most of the gathering seemed to agree that the choices I’d made to tell almost the entire story in dialog, and to avoid characterizing the Inspector/narrator more than absolutely necessary, were keeping them from relating to the characters or getting emotionally involved in the story. “Dialog fills in the plot,” somebody said. “Narration grounds you in the characters, and you have almost no narration here.”

There were a lot more notes, not all of which I’m going to review here, but… I think I’m not going to be able to start a fresh draft of the story immediately, which is probably good, I can give myself time to let it settle and ask a few writer friends what they think of the notes before immediately changing things. Still, I’m glad that I went and took a chance – it’s better to hear this sort of thing now than to keep thinking that the story is beautiful and flawless, and maybe start pushing hard to sell it without thinking of the ways that it could be made accessible to a different audience.

In other news, I have awarded the Versatile Blogger award to Merinda Brayfield, who’s also a long-time friend of mine from the #nanowrimo chat room. It’s nothing personal that I didn’t also give her the One Lovely Blog, but I felt that it didn’t entirely make sense to keep the two awards together the whole time, so unless I particularly want to award both of them to the same people, I’ll be picking just one or the other.

Developing a novel idea.

August 23, 2010

So – I was surprised by a plot bunny, or possibly a small pack of them, walking home from work last week. Well, I don’t walk all the way home – I walk about two and a half kilometers into downtown Burlington, and catch the Hamilton number eleven bus from there, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the idea.

And possibly I shouldn’t even call this bunny a ‘plot bunny’, though that’s the usual term in some of my writing circles, because the idea that I’ve got a the moment – well, there are a few plot elements, but mostly what I’ve got is the beginning of a sci-fi world setting, and a few character notions, and how an adventure for them begins, and the vaguest idea of where it might take them.

So, out of this – I’m not quite sure where go next to flesh the idea out before I start writing – though I’m sure I do want to put a bit more thought into it before I start. This is a part of the process that I’ve never really thought about in much detail before – I suppose I keep the notion on ‘the back burner’ of my head for a little while to see what develops next. It would be interesting to try to structure this into an outline in a more formal way, though, but I’m not sure where to start.

Do I start with the characters I already know about, interviewing them with questionnaires, and trying to figure out who else might be a person of interest in the story? Worldbuild like crazy? (Especially important since the idea involves several alternate Earths.) Try to segment the plot, breaking it up into beginning middle and end, or come up with a plot structure like the Beat sheet and fill in the blanks?

If you have any thoughts or especially useful links on this topic, please comment away! I’m exhausted just thinking about it all.

A plot hole big enough to fly a starship through – or not?

July 25, 2010

I know that I do it myself, (and hope that my critiquers catch most of them,) but occasionally I do come across plot holes in great books that really annoy me, especially if they’re glossed over with an explanation that just doesn’t hold water.

Spoilers for the book ‘The Rowan’ follow from here, by the way.

An example just popped up recently – I’m about halfway through ‘Damia’s Children’, from the excellent Talents series by Anne McCaffrey. It deals with the third generation of a family of remarkable psychics, with strong telekinetic and telepathic powers, and what happens when they get caught up in the middle of a three-species interstellar war. In this passage, Thian Raven-Lyon is stationed on a Fleet starship as representative of the psychic ‘Talents’, and he’s speaking with ‘Gravy’, a friendly nurse on the same ship, about the enemy threat.

“They seem to think that you’ll reach out with your Talent and somehow do what the Fleet ought to be doing.”

Thian laughed more heartily then. “Gravy, that’s not very likely. Not to mention impossible.”

“But you Talents did that at Deneb. Twice!”

“Talents, plural, Gravy. In fact every Talent available down to kids of ten and twelve. Not singular, me, with a dozen minor Talents to assist. There’s no way I could or would grab any glory.”

On the surface, this argument of Thian’s makes a lot of sense – one guy can’t do what a huge crowd could do to blast the enemy with psychic powers alone. They probably can’t build ships big enough to hold huge numbers of ‘Talents’, and if you put a few of the most powerful on Fleet starships, then you’re risking very valuable people in case something happens to the ship and they can’t all teleport themselves off in time.

However, what isn’t mentioned was that in the Deneb encounters that were references, (and which were high points in the plot of ‘The Rowan’, the first in the series,) fairly few of the Talents who were participating were physically present in the Deneb neighborhood. Huge numbers of Talents were able to combine their powers across vast interstellar distances and take part in the effort to save Deneb from the evil aliens.

So, that’s where I see the ‘glossing over’ part. Yes, Thian is the only strong Talent who’s physically with the Fleet task force. If needed, however, couldn’t he serve as the focus point for all of the Talents back home?

Part of the problem, of course, is that the rules of the psychic powers in a book like this are hard to explain comprehensively, especially if you’re going to have much room for telling an interesting story with the characters. But it still nags at me to have cases like these.

Thoughts? Am I making too much out of a tiny little thing? Do you have ‘favorite’ plot holes to bitch about? I’m all ears, people. (Well, not literally, I only have two, and actually my eyes are more useful when it comes to blog comments. But it’s a figure of speech.)

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