Things writers can learn from Skyrim

Video games aren’t known for their high quality storytelling. They tend to be derivative and clichéd and trope-embracing. You want to give people something familiar to work with as they jump in to play, and while you’ve got to have both story and backstory, you don’t want any of it to be particularly hard to figure out. Nobody wants to spend more of their gaming time trying to work out who Jon Snow’s mother is than actually killing stuff. Or, in the case of me and Skyrim, decorating their house, because I really only kill stuff in support of my search for a really good vase to put between the shelves in my library. Stop judging me!

But plot and characters aside, setting is where video games like Skyrim shine. Forget that it’s a story about killing dragons by scolding them really loud. That world feels real. And yeah, because graphics. But also because a lot of effort has been put into making you feel like your story isn’t even most of what’s going on in that world, let alone all there is to it.

Very few of the NPC’s in that game are nameless. They have more specific and personal things to say than “Death to all who oppose us!” when you click them. (Not that I object to “Death to all who oppose us!” I always answer my door with either that or “The reckoning is at hand!”) They have histories and petty arguments with their neighbors and quests of their own to deal with.

Same goes for every town and city. They’re not just sets you’re passing through so you can sell all the junk you’ve picked up. (Or, you know, stolen. From corpses.) They’ve got politics and threats and complicated histories. Okay, and sometimes also vampires, which annoy me as a story element, but I’m not saying the game is perfect either.

The point is, Skyrim always feels like a place that was living before you came along, is continuing to live all around you as you go through your storyline, and will keep right on living after you leave. And I wish I saw this done more often, and better, in novels. I don’t mean high fantasy – people who write high fantasy pretty much know they’ve got to create a whole world – I mean everything. Horror. Romance. Thrillers. I wish the authors of stories about accountants drinking coffee set them in meticulously constructed worlds.

Not that it’s easy. It can be very hard to toe the line between providing enough detail to make the reader feel like they’re there, and boring the stuffing out of them by spending two paragraphs describing a chair. And every reader has a different threshold. But I love reading about what they ate at the Hogwarts Halloween feast and Joffrey’s wedding feast. I love all the bits of history Tolkien scatters around. I love Derry and Castle Rock and the way Stephen King takes the time to flesh out even the most minor character, and I love everything Jasper Fforde does, ever. I love Tom Bombadil. There, I said it.

The common thread there is that I don’t want to read your book, I want to fall in. And nothing kills immersion like shrinking your world down to the size of your story.

Redrum

While trying to choose an idea to start developing with this year’s NaNo it occurred to me that horror, from a planning perspective, is backwards. A lot of people who write non-horrible stuff start with a hero, or a situation involving a character who will become the hero, and go from there. But with horror you really need to start with the monster.

Putting the sleepy in Sleepy Hollow

Spoiler content: Sleepy Hollow

So did you watch Sleepy Hollow? Yay for Clancy Brown! Boo for chopping off his head in the first ten minutes!

As a fan of all things horror, supernatural, and fantasy, I really want to love this show. I want more of this kind of thing on TV. But there just wasn’t a lot to love here. Frankly, it was kind of, well, boring.

This is a show that is trying to do too much, and none of it in a particularly interesting way. Come on, the apocalypse? Why is that necessary? The Headless Horseman has plenty of potential on his own. Stretching it into a struggle for life as we know it is just trying too hard. “Wait, you don’t find our villain compelling and terrifying on his own merits? Okay then, he’s DEATH INCARNATE! How do you like him NOW?”

And then you add in all the usual pilot awkwardness: the exposition is clumsily delivered, the chemistry between the actors hasn’t come together completely, the story in general just doesn’t feel cohesive yet. That stuff is all fixable, at least, but there was nothing about this first episode that got me excited for another one.

There were some bright spots () and good lines. My favorites:
“Back up. You’re offended?”(hee)
“But that building is also a Starbucks.” (hee)
“Put your hands on your…”  (hee)

But see the problem there? The highlights of a supernatural show should not be funny. Sure, there should be some light to balance out the dark. But this show had nothing really dark to balance. There wasn’t a single moment that was actually scary. I recall one that was mildly creepy. One. Mildly. This will not do.

I’m going to give Sleepy Hollow a couple more weeks, because a lot of disappointing pilots go on to be good shows. But I’m concerned that we’ve got another The Following on our hands: a good idea poorly executed. Please, Sleepy Hollow guys, prove me wrong. I’ll happily admit it if you do. I want to be on your side.

NaNoWriMo: the planning that isn’t plotting

It’s T-minus-45 to NaNoWriMo. The debate between plotters and pantsers will be raging, as it does every year, in forums and blogs across the writerverse. People will be vehemently defending the merits of outlining in advance/discovering their novel as they write it, and in many cases judging the other side, even going so far as to declare how “real writers” do it.

I think a lot of time is wasted on this argument that could otherwise be spent on important pre-NaNo activities like shopping for the best price on Fun Size Baby Ruths. The way I see it, you’re probably going to fall naturally into one category or the other, and letting your brain work how it works is more important than how someone else wants to tell you to do it, or how your favorite writer happens to do it. So just figure out which one you are, and be that.

But plotter or pantser, NaNo requires a lot of preparation that has nothing to do with the actual content of your story. There are two reasons you don’t write at this pace year-round. The first is that it’s only suited to first drafts, and if all you ever wrote were first drafts you wouldn’t be getting very far. The second is: you don’t have time.

Well, you don’t have time in November either. That’s why you need to spend time beforehand setting up as many things as you can to run on auto-pilot. Things like:

Soundtrack
You’re going to need a playlist that can, among other things, energize you when you realize how much your novel sucks and don’t see the point in typing another word of it. How big a job this is depends on how much you think your novel will suck, but it never hurts to be on the safe side and get your music in place ahead of time. I like to have theme songs for all my characters, and a theme song for the story itself, and then some theme songs that are just for snacks.

Speaking of snacks
Stocking up on candy and caffeine is of course the top priority, but it can’t be the only one. Some of us have families depending on us for their survival, and all of us have ourselves depending on us for our survival. Take it from someone who’s been there: if week 2 finds you weeping softly in a junk-food-and-takeout-induced stupor, unable to focus enough even to remember your protagonist’s name, or your dog’s name, or your own name, this is bad for your word count. Somewhere along the line you’ll want to mix in something healthy and home-cooked. Something with vegetables.

I use a nifty app called MealBoard to plan my meals in advance and then generate shopping lists for me on the fly. When November 1 hits, I know what’s for dinner all 30 days, I’ve bought as many ingredients ahead as freshness will allow for, and I can get the rest each week with a list generated in the grocery store parking lot, solving plot problems as I walk up and down the aisles rather than thinking about what I need.

Also, NaNoWriMo is just one of the many experiences that can be improved by a slow cooker. Cooking Light has a great list of slow cooker recipes that I go back to again and again. But if even reading a recipe is too time-consuming, that’s fine too. Just throw in a slab of meat and whatever vegetables are in your fridge, add a cup or two of liquid (wine, beer, cider, and stock are all your friends here), shake in whatever spices strike your fancy, and there you are. You can do all that while your morning tea is steeping, and that’s the last time you have to think about your dinner until you’re actually eating it.

Household maintenance
This one is easy: clean really, really well right before Halloween. Then adjust your definition of “clean” for 30 days. If you’ve got a family member or roommate who objects to the new standard, be sure they know where the vacuum is kept.

Oh and by the way, it’s holiday season
If you’re American, maybe you’ll be hosting Thanksgiving dinner or traveling for the holiday. If you celebrate Christmas, maybe you’ll type your last word only to look up and discover, with much panic, that it’s only 3 weeks away. Plan, book, and buy what you can in October.

And speaking of holidays, Halloween is an important one for NaNo. Have more candy than trick-or-treaters. Apply leftovers to noveling.

So get moving, people. November, much like winter, is coming.

The shark’s still got it

sharks are scaryI recently saw Jaws for the first time in many years. Maybe for the first time from beginning to end since the 70’s. Do you remember Jaws when it first came out? It was terrifying. I was young when I saw it in the theater, and I never thought it was safe to go back in the water; to this day my toes have to be able to touch bottom. Nonetheless I assumed it would be almost laughably unscary now. Special effects have come a long way. That shark was bound to look like papier-mâché, right?

Wrong. Or kind of, but it doesn’t matter. This is the storytelling genius of Spielberg, a man who was young and relatively inexperienced when he directed Jaws, and who you don’t typically think of as a horror guy in any case. He gets what all too many horror writers and filmmakers fail to, even after making careers of it: startling does not equal scary. Gross also does not equal scary. It’s easy enough to make somebody jump or cringe. But that’s not the same as making them sprint from the light switch to their bed later that night, for fear of what might be reaching for them in the dark.

Jaws doesn’t depend on special effects or cheap tricks for its scares. It doesn’t even depend on the shark. He remains unseen until halfway through the film, and even then the tension is immediately lifted by one of the best one-liners in movie history. (To give credit where it’s due, Roy Scheider improvised that line.) Jaws is not without blood and gore, but it earns its scares honestly, by building suspense – thank you, John Williams – and tapping our most fundamental fears. What can be scarier than vulnerable naked limbs, dangling down into the black unknown?

Nothing is what. The shark when he’s actually biting poor Quint in half isn’t nearly so scary as the shark when he’s merely lurking, unseen, in the dark. And that head that comes lolling out of the half-eaten boat can’t even begin to compete. It’s a classic startle moment that makes you jump and squeal for sure, but it’s not going to be with you forty years down the road, making you think twice before swimming out too far. A thrill is temporary. A scare is something else. A scare stays.

Horrifying images are great. Thrills and chills and blood, all great. These things can be terrifying when they’ve been given substance by good storytelling. But you can’t just throw them out there and expect them to stand on their own. There has to be more to it than a jump and a retch.

Fall is for fantasy

51io0QNtvmL._SX260_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_Maybe because the Renaissance Festival comes to my region in the fall, or because the weather gets cooler and it’s a great time to curl up with a book, or just because of Halloween and haunted houses and witches. Whatever combination of these factors makes it so, this is a time of swords and sorcery and castles and stuff.

And not just books either. All sorts of things, including food. Back when more of my family played WoW together, we’d have Azeroth themed nights in which our adventures were preceded by some Westfall stew (because fall is also for stew) and homemade cherry pie. Come to think of it, why hasn’t anyone written a Warcraft cookbook? Or have they and I just don’t know about it? We need one of these.

And then sometimes we do a Harry Potter thing at Halloween, with pumpkin pasties and cauldron cakes and so forth. Harry Potter is great for the sweets. Not much in the way of stew though.

For this year, I just ordered A Feast of Ice and Fire. I’m thinking: October. Crisp air, crunchy leaves. And lemon cakes. Then more lemon cakes. I haven’t got much farther in my planning than that. Because when you think of Westerosi food, lemon cakes is the first thing, right? Come on. THEY’RE HER FAVORITE. Fiery Dornish peppers comes a close second though. I’d actually like to see some stats on how often these phrases are mentioned.

According to the description, one of the clever things about this cookbook is that it includes both medieval and modern versions of many recipes, and suggested substitutions for those things you just don’t tend to stock in a normal kitchen in the real world. I kind of wish there’d been something like that when I was making those gooey spider cakes.

More on A Feast of Ice and Fire when I’ve actually made one.