Eliminating the saggy middle

Choosing a topic for this month’s blog was a difficult choice. During the month I finally managed to see the Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker and commenting on the unbelievable bizarre ending could easily fill at least one blog post on story design. But I don’t like to give negative reviews and there are more than enough from the Star Wars fanbase already. So I decided to focus of something a little different and much less high profile to illustrate some story design points.

salvationSalvation is a 26 episode (two season) sci-fi drama on Netflix, which I recently binge watched. The critics of Wrotten Tomatoes rated it only 44%. The audience score was higher at 88%. IMDB gave it 7/10. One critic described it as “40% romantic drama with 30% sci-fi, 30% political thriller and expect 5/10 from all three genres, you will not go crazy and may even enjoy the fast ride.”  I can understand the criticism. It is an almost comic-book plot line. But if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief and put up with a little melodrama, it is a rip-roaring ride. And as a writer it’s an object lesson in how to write tension and suspense.

The log line for the drama is innocent enough: “An MIT student and a tech superstar bring a low level Pentagon official a staggering discovery — that an asteroid is just six months away from colliding with Earth.”

Now, if you were developing a story from this premise for a novel, where would you go? There is clearly a protagonist Darius Tanzanites (an Elon Musk-like tech superstar) and his protege MIT student (Liam Cole), who discover the problem.  And then there is an obvious antagonist (the asteroid) but what next?

Well, the two have to convince those around the president of the problem and then devise a plan to deal with it. But in this case, the Secretary of Defence already knows about the problem, and they have a plan to deal with it. At his point I would most certainly struggle with the story. The first Act of the story is easy — introduce the characters and the problem they face. Act Three is also relatively easy — write the climax and resolution of the story. But what happens in the long Act 2? This is where most writers find the greatest difficulty. How do you stop the storyline sagging in the middle?

With this story premise I would struggle in the second act of a novel. But writing a 26 episode series would be a massive challenge. So what did the writers do to maintain the story tension?

The answer lies in a plethora of sub-plots (or perhaps more precisely parallel plots) and an array of new antagonists to frustrate the protagonist. So here is a list of some of the sub-plots the writer’s used to give you a clue.

First there are the romantic conflict sub plots.

  • Darius’s romantic interest is with Grace Barrows –the Pentagon  press secretary– who is also romantically involved with Harris Edwards (Assistant Secretary of Defence).
  • Liam’s romantic interest is with  Jillian Hays — a sci-fi writer later who is later employed by Darius. But he is also later involved with Alycia Vrettou (who works for the terrorist hackers organisation RE/SYS)
  • Grace ‘s daughter and Harris’s son.

There are some parental-child conflict sub plots

  • Harris and his son (who belongs to RE/SYS, a terrorist hacker group)
  • Grace and her daughter (Who belongs to Cope, a suicide cult).

But the most intriguing subplots are the political ones:

  • A coup to poison the the president President and replace her with the Vice President.
  • A plot by the coup group to destroy the USA’s enemies (Russia and China) by redirecting fragments of the astroid towards them using stolen Tanz Industries technology.
  • Another plot to shoot the President.
  • A Russian plot to steal Darius’s em drive to be used to move the Astroid off course.
  • A plot by terrorist hackers RE/SDYS to start a nuclear war and take over control of Russian nuclear missiles to threaten the USA.
  • A plot by Darius’ uncle to take over his company and Darius’s pet Salvation project.
  • A plot by a suicide cult called Cope to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • A plot by Darius/Grace to steal uranium from the US Government for his Salvation space ship backup plan (a rocket to take 160 people to survive the Earth’s demise).

We also have a long list of new antagonists to frustrate the storyline:

  • Malcolm Croft, Liam’s professor at MIT who is also a Russian agent.
  • Claire Rayburn, Senior Advisor to the White House Chief of Staff, who in cahoots with Vice President to poison the president.
  • Monroe Bennet — Vice President who leads a coup against the the incumbent president and later seeks to blow up the Supreme Court judges.
  • Nicholas Tanz — Darius’s uncle who plots to get Darius’s company and the Salvation rocket in cahoots with Bass Shepherd.
  • Bass Shepherd— the leader of a suicide cult, Cope, who plots to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • Dylan Edwards (Harris Edwards’ son) who  is involved with the terrorist group RE/SYS and while naive and well intentioned is prepared to destroy New York to get the US government to obey their demands.
  • Amanda Neel — an investigative reporter that concentrates on collusion between Tanz industries and the government withholding information.

And we have some characters that act as both helpers and antagonists at different time  as the plot enfolds. These I call changelings:

  • Alonzo Carter — a D.C . Police Officer who seeks revenge for his sister’s death (Claire Rayburn who is shot by Grace Barrows), but later turns good guy to help Grace.
  • Alycia Vrettou — Darius’s former protege that turned against him to work for a terrorist group RE/SYS, but who eventually helps Darius.
  • Jillian Hayes –Liam’s romantic interest that is caught into the Cope suicide cult, who steals the Rail Gun plans for the cult, but who eventually comes to her senses.
  • Liam Cole— who for a time he abandons Darius to work with RE/SYS to save the planet. But eventually realises that Darius is the only one that can save the world.

For those of you who haven’t seen the series the list of sub-plots and antagonists above must sound pretty crazy. The political aspects alone could have made a good thriller on their own. The sci-if in some respects were largely incidental. And of course there is a wonderful twist ending to the series, which I won’t reveal here.

So if you’re a writer like me that struggles in the long second act to keep the tension going, then the most interesting tool in your writer’s toolbox is to introduce new antagonists with their own sub plots to freshen up the story line. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. In many action adventure stories you have one ‘Big Bad’ villain character and maybe a henchman or two. Think Emperor Palpatine and Dark Vader. But if you look more closely at these stories there are other antagonists that frustrate and deflect the path of the hero’s journey. Not all antagonists are villainous and some are changelings. But they are needed in the storyline to complete the picture.

Tell me, do you suffer from saggy middles? And if so, would another antagonist help to complete your story?

Finding a story from chaos

collieOne of the tasks I have been putting off for some time is a limited re-edit of my debut novel, Collision. After its release in 2012, I noticed some irritating typos had crept into the final proof. Well, as you can see it’s taken me quite some time to get around to doing it. But now it’s done.

One of the great advantages of using Amazon and Kindle is that it is possible to re-upload the text files and make corrections like this. So for the past few days I been re-reading and re-editing my original work and uploaded the revision to Amazon today. The process has been illuminating for me in many ways.

Let me explain some of the background to my novel. I had written books before Collision, but they were all dry technical accounting texts, which I suspect no one reading this would ever want to read unless they suffered from insomnia. Writing fiction was going to be a huge challenge for me and I had no idea whether I could do it.

I had snippets of a story in my head. A man is jogging alone along a beach at night when a UFO flies over his head and crashes further up the beach. It was going to be  a love story. That’s about as much as I had of the story at the start of the project. Twenty months later I published the novel on Kindle. In between, I learnt a huge amount about the world of writing and story telling. And if I had known at the beginning what I know now, I would have probably gone about it in an entirely different way.

What struck me on re-reading the novel so many years later was just how good the storyline turned out. I did some limited planning at the start, but the final story was far more complex than I ever imagined at the outset. And it wasn’t something I could have planned in that level of detail. Instead, it emerged by itself out of constant rewrites, revisions and incremental changes. As a writer, I’m a planner/plotter at heart rather than a ‘pantser’. But like one famous general once said ‘no plan survives engagement with the enemy’. I plan, but if something doesn’t work, I replan. And so the Collision story is very much the product of a somewhat chaotic trial an error process of finding the story.

Since Collision I have written two further sci-fi novels: “Alien Hothouse” and “AndroDigm Park 2067”. Both these novels were the result of painstaking planning and certainly didn’t take as long to write as Collision. But neither has been as successful as Collision or attracted the same quality of reviews. Maybe this is partly because the stories are very different and attract different tastes. But I suspect it might be something else.

For a good story to emerge from a writing project you need to challenge it, revise it, test it until the story works. It’s a painful process of destruction and creation that isn’t easy. Writer’s are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ during the editing process. To be successful the killing has to get bloody. Maybe the reason Collision was good was because so many scenes were cut, or revised or replaced by new ones. And maybe it was because I wouldn’t publish until I was absolutely sure I had a story that worked emotionally.

I’m sure every writer is attached emotionally to their debut novel. If I wrote Collision again today I’m sure I could improve on the execution of the writing. But writing isn’t just about technique. Readers don’t have favourite writers based on how they construct their grammar. They relate to the emotional content of their writing. And that depends on how they connect to the main character and the emotional journey that character takes during the story.

If you are a writer, let me know whether you feel the same way about your debut novel. And if you’re still in the process of writing your first novel, let me know how well you really understood the story before starting.

 

AndroDigm Park 2067 – published!

3DIt’s a great feeling to publish a new novel — somewhere between nirvana and just plain relief that it’s finally out. AndroDigm Park 2067 is a project I started over two years ago. The title changed from that original title several times, but the story remains the same.

So let me explain the strange title. AndroDigm in my book is the name of the largest global cyber corporation. Its name is a fusion of the words ‘Android’ and ‘Paradigm’. There are many ways to define a paradigm, but the one I like is: “a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitute a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in the intellectual disciplines.” (The Free Dictionary by Forlex).

So the AndroDigm  corporation is all about changing the way society views and accepts android technology and, of course, making money.

AndroDigm Park 2067 is a work of fiction, but any writer writing about the future is entitled to make some assumptions as to where technology may possibly take us. Even in today’s technology human-looking androids have been developed that can mimic human behaviour and  artificial intelligence systems can easily outperform human analysis. A world where intelligent Androids are economically viable as replacements for human workers is not unthinkable.

How do you think human’s will react? In the early 19th Century, Luddite workers destroyed machinery in the cotton and woollen mills of England because they thought the machinery threatened their jobs. Might we find a similar reaction by humans in the 21st Century? The catalyst for my story is the murder of the AndroDigm CEO at a violent Action Against Androids demonstration and the story is all  about the investigation that follows.

Another aspect of this future world is the domination of the cyber and media companies and the growing number of super rich.  If technology can create intelligent human-looking androids, then perhaps it can also create a paradise park for the super rich to play where any fantasy creature is possible, including dragons.

Why 2067 in the title? Well it’s exactly a hundred years since the ‘Summer of Love’ (1967) when a hundred thousand hippies descended on San Francisco  professing love and peace.  Why wouldn’t any self-respecting government and the large corporate businesses not want to take advantage of the feel-good factor from such centenary celebrations?

So there you have the title and a snapshot of the story world for the novel. But stories are about people and you’ll find that the characters in the story are just like you and me with their own faults and prejudices. Technology might change but human behaviour will always remain the same. I could tell you a lot more about my characters and their story. But that would spoil your enjoyment. AndroDigm Park 2067 is now available at Amazon in both print and kindle formats and at other retailers in print format.

 

Story pacing

v1.bTsxMjQ5NjIzMTtqOzE3NjQ5OzEyMDA7MjY1Njs0MDk2One of my favourite sci-fi movies of all time is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. For those that haven’t seen this 1982 neo-noir movie, it’s set in a 2019 dystopian world where synthetic humans known as replicants are bioengineered by a powerful corporation to work on off world colonies.  Directed by Ridley Scott and loosely based on Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it tells the story of a Blade Runner, Rick Deckard  (played by Harrison Ford) who is assigned to hunt down and terminate a group of rogue replicants who have escaped and returned to Earth.  Although not a huge box office success, the movie achieved a cult status among sci-fi followers.

So when Blade Runner 2049 was released in 2017, I was keen to see if it lived up to the original. Unfortunately, like so many other follow-ups, I was disappointed. Though the critics seemed to love it for its cinematics and dystopian mood, the public didn’t share their view. It didn’t do well at the box office, and I can see why. It wasn’t the  fault of the actors, the cinematics, or the music score. It was just painfully slow. At two hours and 32 minutes it was 35 minutes longer than the original movie, but seemed to contain less action and less plot. Ridley Scott, who served as a producer on Villeneuve’s movie, said he would have cut half an hour. I tend to agree. The movie was like watching paint dry.

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the importance of story pacing. Any story-teller whether novelist of screenwriter needs to be aware of story pacing. There are times when the action in a story needs to accelerate with an adrenaline rush  and other times when the main character needs to become reflective and the audience can relax. The example in my previous bIog gave an example of a movie with perhaps too much action. But I never thought I would see and example of too little action and with such a long running time. The audience might not just relax, but fall asleep.

Would cutting the movie back to two hours have saved the movie? Possibly. Although for me the ending lacked a clear resolution or theme in the same way the original did. The original movie was all about what it means to be human. And in some respects the replicants were more human than the humans. Blade Runner 2049 captured the same dark mood as the original but lacked any theme.

There will always be a risk in trying to build a movie on the success of a previous cult movie. Hollywood loves franchises at the moment, which usually have high box office sales. It works for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean where the follow ups use the same core actors and the audience knows what to expect. But  is it really likely to work for a 35-year-old movie? What’s Hollywood going to try next: Casablanca 2?

Connecting your story’s hero/heroine

acHave you ever read a story or watched a movie that brought a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes? Yes, of course you have. Good stories create an emotional experience for their readers or audience. It’s the reason why we like them so much. But how do their writers do it? It’s all about connecting the hero/heroine to the reader or audience so that they are invested in the outcome of the story, hoping for their hero/heroine’s success and fearing for their failure.

The protagonist (or main character) doesn’t have to be heroic, but they often are. One of the dictionary definitions of a hero is of ‘a person admired or idealised for courage and outstanding achievements or noble qualities’. They don’t have to be perfect — far from it.  Many of them must overcome their initial shortcomings to reach their story objective. But in the process, they must display courage, tenacity and resourcefulness to endear them to the reader.

The late Blake Snyder likened a movie to going on a journey with a person (the protagonist) where the single most important element in drawing us into the story was liking the person we were going on the journey with. He even named his book on screenwriting “Save the cat” after the scene in which we meet the hero and he/she does something to make us like him/her.  Snyder gives the example of Lara Croft 2 as a movie that tanked because the audience failed to connect with the Lara Croft character. He described her as cold and humorless.

Snyder was right. Take a story that did well both as a book and a movie — The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is selfless, courageous and an underdog who volunteers to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games and face almost certain death. It’s hard not to empathise with the character, and punch the air when she wins against the odds. Take another great movie – Die Hard. A New York cop trying to patch his marriage up taking on a group of ruthless terrorists. Again it’s hard not to empathise with John McClain.

But does it always work out that way? I’m not sure it necessarily applies to some movies in the horror genre, where one-by-one the cast is killed by some unthinkable monster. Snyder describes this genre of movies as Monster in the House Movies. He describes them as having three components: an evil monster, a house (an enclosed space), and a sin where someone is guilty of bringing the monster into the house.

One of my favourite movies in this genre is Alien. Clearly, in this movie there was a kick-ass protagonist we could connect with — Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who emerged as the leader after the captain was killed by the alien. She was strong and resourceful:

  • She refuses to let the infected Kane onboard the ship, but is over-ruled by Ash.
  • She deciphers the signal determining it was a warning, not a distress signal.
  • Ripley confronts Ash (the android) and overcomes him with the help of Parker.
  • She initiates the self destruct sequence on the ship
  • She saves the ship’s cat – Jones (Blake Snyder would be proud!).
  • She finally overcomes the Alien by opening the airlock in the shuttle, shoots it with a grappling hook and fires the engines to blast the alien into space

Like so many Sci-fi fans, I loved the original movie and it’s sequel, Aliens. But after the success of the first two movies, the Alien franchise seemed to lose direction. Recently, I watched the Alien Covenant movie. I was particularly looking forward to it because it was directed by Ridley Scott, the same director as the original iconic Alien movie.

So did Alien Covenant connect with a protagonist  and capture the essence of the original movie? The critics liked it;  the fan-base was split. In my view, the problem was the audience didn’t connect with the protagonist in the same way as the original and the plot was dependent on the unbelievable stupid behaviour of the Covenant’s crew.

In Alien Covenant,  the protagonist that emerges in the later stages of the movie is Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston), the widow of the ship’s captain. But for most of the movie her role is overshadowed by Oran, the acting captain, until he is tricked by the David the mad android into believing looking into an alien egg was safe. (Why the captain should believe the android after witnessing his crew members death by an alien and the android’s reaction to the killer is totally unfathomable as are a number of his decisions.)

Comparison is sometime made between Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston) and Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in Alien. Both take over when the captain is killed. But Ripley in the original Alien film was a much stronger and resourceful heroine throughout the movie. Watching Covenant for the second time it’s easier to see that the character of Daniels was developing throughout the movie, but not to the same degree as Ripley. Maybe this was intentional given the twist and negative ending to the movie. But the problem of not identifying  a strong protagonist early in the movie, means the audience is confused about which character to root for.

As a cinematic experience there is no doubt that Alien Covenant was well-directed and executed, and some of the CGI was simply amazing. But the whole plot relied on the crew of the Covenant making one unbelievable stupid mistake after another to play into the hands of David, the delusional android, who was driven insane by resentment for his mortal creator and a Norman-Bates-type obsession for the dead Elizabeth Shaw.

By all accounts, Alien Covenant was a box office success, and was probably never expected to out-shine the original Alien movie that started the franchise. And maybe that’s all that  matters to Hollywood. I’m sure it won’t stop the fan-base waiting patiently for the next Alien movie to be released.

Choosing Genre

Genre is not something I had really thought about until it came to the time for publishing my first novel on Amazon. Then I had to categorise the genre and sub-genre of my novel for Amazon’s classification purposes.

Of course, genre is important. It’s one of the first things that influence readers’ choice of books. In a physical bookshop it’s the category of shelves where the book will be displayed. On the internet it’s much the same, except it’s possible to use sub-classificaions and use key words to search for the type of book you want.

Genre offers a promise to the reader that the novel will abide by the expectations of the genre and it’s one of the first filters of readers’ choice. The other key influences of choice are the book cover and title, and the back cover marketing blurb. So if you want the right readers to find your book, it’s quite important to get the genre right.

But it’s not always easy to pigeon-hole a book by genre. For example, my first novel, Collision, has an underlying plot dependent on time travel — a classic sci-fi trope. And time travel is one of Amazon’s 19 sub-categies of Sci-Fi. So you may think it’s easy to catgorise and sub-categorise Collision as Sci-Fi/Time travel. But Collision also has a strong love story theme, and a thiller action plot where the protagonists are trying to escape the clutches of MI6 and the CIA. So Collision might be classified for genre as Romance/Time Travel or even Thriller/Techno.

This got me thinking about just how useful these broad genre categorisations are to readers. To many people, when they think of Sci-Fi they tend to think of strange new futuristic worlds, aliens, and space travel. Collision is a long way removed from those worlds, with most of the action taking place in the current world. It’s technically sci-fi, but not as we know it.

But Collision is not alone with this problem. There are many other examples of popular stories that cross genre. Defining genre by readers’ expectations is therefore quite difficult. Take Star Wars. Not many would disagree that this is from the Sci-Fi genre, but actually the story-line has much in common with fantasy quest stories. Only the swords and magic are replaced by light sabres and the force. Similarly, Alien is quite clearly a Sci-Fi movie, but it follows the typical ‘monster in the house’ story-line used in many horror movies. So the Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror genres can easily overlap, and they do.

Recently, I came across the term ‘Speculative Fiction’, an umbrella term to cover most of the ‘what if’ genres. It’s a term originally attributed to Heinlein for describing the nature of science fiction, but nowadays it’s used in a wider context to embrace not only science fiction and fantasy, but also the fantasy elements of some horror, mystery and history stories. What distinguishes Speculative Fiction from Literary Fiction is that the worlds, people, or technology are different in some important aspect from the real world.

Not everyone likes the term, and some would argue that Science Fiction & Fantasy caption used in most book stores is broad enough to cover most aspects of Speculative Fiction. But for me, the broader caption of Speculative Fiction captures all the types of stories I like to read, and the types of stories I aspire to write. It’s for that reason I have adopted the term in the recent update of my website banner. I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious.

What is science fiction?

Recently, we (the family) were hunting through our DvD/Blu-ray movie collection for one of my favourite sci movies of all time: Blade Runner. Eventually, after going through our collection several times, we found it. But I knew after all the effort of searching that it was time to put our collection into some kind of genre order. After some debate we agreed on the categories: sci fi, fantasy, horror, action/adventure, chick flick, comedy etc. The only problem was that we couldn’t agree on what movies fell into which genre.

My view was that if the plot line crucially depends on some speculative view of the future or some speculative scientific breakthrough then it’s sci fi. ‘Back to the Future’ – time travel – therefore sci fi. “No” was the response I got; “it’s family comedy”. ‘Terminator’ – time travel- therefore sci fi. “No”, was the response I got, “It’s an Action/Adventure movie”. Frankenstein – medical science – sci fi. ‘No’ was the response again; “it’s a’Horror’ movie”. Well, maybe they’re right on that one.

My family’s view was that sci fi is ‘space travel and that weird dystopian stuff’. My view was sci fi covers a much wider range of speculative fiction than just space opera and dystopian futures. Of course, sci fi stories often include elements from other genres: action stories, horror stories, love stories, military stories and even fantasy. What makes sci fi so much fun is that these different types of stories can be told against the backdrop of a speculative new world. It might be a world a thousand years in the future, with aliens, androids, teleportation and mind control. Or it could be something that could happen tomorrow; first contact with another world, or some awesome scientific break-though in artificial intelligence.

The problem is that it’s quite difficult to define the boundaries of science fiction. One of the best definitions of science fiction is Heinlen’s. He defined science fiction as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of scientific method”. But even Heinlen’s definition is not sufficiently wide to capture all the sub-genres of sci fi today. The following is a list from Wikopedia:

  • Hard SF
  • Soft and social SF
  • Cyberpunk
  • Time travel
  • Alternate history
  • Military SF
  • Superhuman
  • Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic
  • Space opera
  • Space Western
  • Anthropological
  • Biopunk
  • Comic
  • Feminist
  • Steampunk

Even this list doesn’t seem to cover everything such as romantic sci fi.  So perhaps, it’s just too difficult to try to define the sci fi genre.

Oh, by the way, we decided to put our movies in alphabetical order by leading actor. It seemed the easiest solution. At lease all the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sci Fi’s will be together.