What is a Wordsmith, Anyway?

Rii the Wordsmith. I always thought it had a nice ring to it. But what is a wordsmith, anyway?

A smith, dictionary defined, is one who works with metals. A blacksmith would be the guy who makes stuff out of iron and steel and whatnot. And then there’s the goldsmith, who works in gold, usually artful sorts of things. There’s not really such a thing as a leathersmith, or a silksmith, or a plasticsmith. I suppose, if you play Kingdom of Loathing, there’s meatsmithing, but otherwise that’s nonsense. Smithing seems limited to metal.

So why wordsmith?

Words aren’t so different from ore and metal bars. Language can be raw, or it can be refined. One could argue that language is more useful when it’s refined, since it can better express what is desired. Certainly, language is far prettier when refined. And words are weapons, or tools, or protection, or glamor. Words cut as well as any sword. Words can defend against such attacks as plate mail defends against the sword. Words build up others, build up nations, inspire others to action, and destroy.

Language is malleable. The meanings of words are, too, as words are bent into puns and double entendres.

And language is a craft.

Picking just the right word to complete a sentence is like picking just the right jewel to affix into the gold piece, the necklace or crown or earring. Such skill takes knowledge and an eye for beauty…or maybe an ear, in the case of words.

Why wordsmith? Because when I write, I pound out words into sentences. When I polish up, I grind off unneeded words that fly away like little metal shavings. When I put in the finishing touches, I take care with my word choice.  And when I’m done, I’m exhausted.

My first draft, and even my second draft, may not be perfect in prose. But then, if a smith were to provide his own ore, the first step would be to procure said ore, unrefined and ugly. That’s the first draft. The second step would be to refine the ore – but a gold bar is not a beautiful work of art; it’s still, in effect, a raw resource. That’s the second draft. Subsequent drafts, those are the art: pulling the gold into wire, shaping the wire, melding the wire into something of beauty, setting in gems…wordsmithing is an editing skill, primarily.

So what is a Wordsmith? Perhaps not one from whom words flow perfectly on the first try…but by the finished copy, there are no words out of place.

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Viva la Revolution!

Hey minions!

A member of my writing group shared this article with us: 10 Lessons from Real Life Revolutions that Fictional Dystopias Ignore. It was a pretty good read, so I’d thought I’d share it, especially since that’s the genre of the day.

That said, I wanted to add my own two bits: one, remember to brush up on The Human Predicament before you write about an overhaul of the government.

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“I’m talking about an overhaul of the system. Putting the power in…different hands.”

If you’re too lazy to do so, lemmie sum up for you: the more things change, the more they stay the same. You kick out one corrupt government, and another one moves in. You remember The Hunger Games? You know how Pres. Snow was an evil douchebag and he was totally corrupt? And for those of you who read the books, you know how wannabe Pres. Coin was equally corrupt and honestly just as much a douchebag in a different way? Yeah. You kill Snow, you get Coin. Or you shoot Coin and trample Snow and hope your world is slightly less craptastic, whatever. Either way you see in history that it’s only a matter of time before we rinse, wash, and repeat. I guess that’s just how humans are.

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Though killing both evil presidential candidates is not always an option.

You also gotta remember – and this always bears repeating so I’m saying it even though it’s #9 on the link I posted – that just killing a figurehead isn’t going to do the trick. You think you kill the evil overlord and it’s over? He had, what, an entire evil empire? You think that just goes away when you kill the top guy? Hah.

Not that slaying the evil overlord isn’t a fancy way to end a book, but don’t leave off like everything is better when it’s not.

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Even if you did fight Emperor Ghestal – the guy falling off the cliff – you’d STILL have Kefka. But he did the job for you.

Finally, if you’re only writing a dystopia because they’re the soup de jour…you miiight want to look up what experts have to say about writing a soup de jour book in the middle of its popularity – usually, at least what I’ve heard, it’s “don’t” because it’ll be out of chic by the time you get it to market, so just a heads-up there. You can look to the vampire fad as an example. My own personal belief is that if you’re doing it because it’s Your Book, the One You Want to Write, then hey, write it. Vampire sci-fi dystopia that will be out of style tomorrow but is your passion – well, it’s gonna have your soul in it, right? So it’s still worth writing. But I also am not the person to take marketing advice from (what I said at the beginning of the paragraph is parroted from other people, not my personal advice) so y’know, maybe if you write something with all your love and passion, it’ll be turned away for being out of style…but it’s still my belief that you should write what you love to write, what’s in your heart trying to burst out. And maybe if you take the time to write a dystopia well with all these bits that always get ignored, you’ll stick out enough it won’t matter that there’s a million other dystopias out there, or if they’re even still the genre of the day.

A note – October is also Inktober – it’s like NaNo, where you ink a picture every day. I’m more a writer than an artist (though I can draw fairly well) so it’s something I’d normally ignore…but there’s a comic about mental illnesses that I keep thinking about and thinking about and feeling like I should really actually draw it. This means that I’m not planning on writing posts in October. I’ll see if Tyler can post some, but I’m going to put all my focus into making this comic.

Thanks for your support. Good luck bringing down the castle!

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A Toddler Is Not A Villain: Tyrants

A toddler is not a villain, even if they are a tyrant.

But just like babies, a toddler suffers from lack of development. It’s a little different; my kid is starting to know right from wrong, even with our communication barriers. She gets into trouble and does things she knows she’s not supposed to do – but sometimes, I tell her not to do something and I don’t think she understands I mean to never, ever do it, like stand in the bottom kitchen drawer to get at things on the kitchen counter.

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Or anything that has drawers for that matter.

And of course there are tantrums. I gotta say I have it pretty good since my kid doesn’t throw them super often and actually not for particularly long…but she’s also not quite two yet, and I am starting to see an increase in frequency, so I guess we’ll see. The thing about tantrums is that they’re not really so much an action of evil or anything as an unbridled expression of big emotions.

When my kid is “naughty” – does something we both know she knows she’s not supposed to – I understand that she is just starting to learn about actions and consequences, cause and effect. She’s not supposed to Do The Thing, but why, what does that mean? This is new. She gets a pass, morally, for misbehaving – she’s not a villain when she does something she knows is wrong because her motivation for doing it anyway neglects a full understanding of “wrong” and “consequences” and is driven by curiosity. That’s an innocent intention, not an evil one, even if it can have evil results.

When my kid throws a tantrum, she doesn’t know any better how to express her emotions. But even when an adult throws a tantrum, it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s just unrefined behavior. It’s unpleasant, but not the makings of a villain. Heck, even I have drama queen tantrums sometimes. I’ll bet you know people who do that too.

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Or have seen them on TV.

But the tyrant thing…My whole life is often centered on that kid. I’m like her servant, her handmaid – well, you’ve heard all the things a mom does a million times I’m sure. I don’t get to stay as late as I’d like because I have to go home and put the kid to bed. I have a tough time enjoying flow in writing because my kid interrupts me. She needs me to feed her RIGHT NOW. To change her RIGHT THIS SECOND. To hold her RIGHT NOW. To read her this book, get her X thing, go with her to X place, go on a walk, call grandma! Right now. If I don’t, she’ll cry. (Maybe. She’s a good kid.) Sure, I can say, “Tough break, kid!” and I often do, but she’s a tyrant who still often runs my life.

And tyrants are always evil, right?

But…my kid is just almost two. An almost two year old can only do so much to take care of herself – sure, she can find food sometimes, if I didn’t put the bag of cheerios out of reach, but she’s got nothing on hygiene or much in basic survival skills – she thinks a knife is a fun toy and doesn’t really know how to not get hit by a car. She’s a tyrant because she has to be to get enough attention to survive.

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Never leave the bag of cheerios in her reach.

It’s not even an age thing. When you’re a caretaker, it’s a hard job, and the people who depend on you react differently to being dependent. Someone who had major surgery might be a tyrant, or any other kind of patient, or the infirm and elderly or disabled. Sometimes they might not mean to be, or they might be reacting to how much they hate being dependent or another factor.

And that brings up an interesting point – how evil is someone who should know better but doesn’t?  How evil is someone who is mostly a product of their upbringing? And at what point does a tyrant become evil?

That last question – that’s a good one to ask, since there are things we hold as synonymous with evil, that aren’t actually, and we really need to stop viewing it that way if for no other reason than, as artists, it gives us more range with which to work. If you assume a tyrant is always evil, you have made a Villain Box. Saying tyranny is always bad is a moral judgement, not an objective fact. It’s not necessarily a bad call – it’s one I’d generally agree with – but parsing the two allows you diversity. Likewise, is a tyrant always an evil person? I think the answer depends on how strongly correlated evil acts and motive of all sorts are to you. If it’s not black and white, then the answer could be no.

I don’t watch Game of Thrones* but I hear that this kid

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behaves an awful lot like a tyrannical little toddler. Buuut I also hear that he’s one of the most hated villains. If he behaves like a toddler and my kid behaves like a toddler, but only one of the two tyrants is really a villain…

Yeah. Motivation counts for a lot. The more you develop, the more you ought to know, the more complex your motivation becomes. When you know better, you’re supposed to do better. Sometimes what “do better” means is confusing, and that’s how you get the gray tyrants. But it’s just more to say that evil acts alone do not a villain make.

* Please don’t try to convince me I’d like it. I wouldn’t. Why?

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Let’s just say reasons.

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Gonna Be So Pop-ular

Hey, Readers. This is Tyler again. Sorry for the delayed post. I volunteered to write the post so Rii could focus on more important writing stuff (like her WIP). I then proceeded to flounder at finding a topic and failed to deliver the post in time for it to go out on Monday like it’s supposed to.

I failed my overlord. In most stories, this would mean my head wouldn’t remain connected to the rest of my body for long. It’s a trope that we see over and over again, so often as to be a bit cliche. And I get why it exists. The overlord is soooooo evil that they don’t care about the lives of their minions, and even the slightest failure must be punished swiftly brutally to scare the troops into perfection.

Really, this is a symptom of a larger villain trope. More often than not, villains are social outcasts. They’re angry loners who scare away anyone and everyone that might want to get close. They don’t understand the power of friendship, etc, etc, mind-numbing etc. They are often completely unequipped to interact with others outside of intimidation and threats. And all too often the only exceptions to this are calculated exceptions.

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Exhibit A

These sorts of villains can play the social game. They can play it to perfection, molding people like clay between their fingers. They can schmooze with the rich people and inspire the masses. They can turn aside their bitterest enemies with just the right words and smiles. But make no mistake: it is just a game to them. Get them alone and they feel the same way as any other villain does. People are beneath them. People are tools to be used when useful and discarded as soon as they are no longer necessary. Lex Luthor has as much disdain for, well pretty much everybody, as Voldemort has for Muggles. He’s just better at hiding it.

A rare treat indeed is the villain who actually cares about people. This villain goes to parties not to (or at least not exclusively to) advance some scheme of theirs, but because they genuinely like to hang out with others in a social setting. This villain gives their minions a raise because they want them to have better lives. People flock to this villain because they genuinely care and work to improve their lives. This is the villain that people cheer, that makes people question if the heroes stopping their scheme can even really be called heroes. Isn’t that villain much more terrifying than the one who flips out and kills his minions at the drop of the hat?

If it seems hard for you to wrap your head around someone who can simultaneously be so genuinely nice and caring and also the most evil person on the block, remember that people come in almost every flavor under the sun. Villains are people too. Many villains hide behind the “making the world better” mantra, but they really are only using it to justify the desire they already had to rule. But what if your villain does genuinely undertake what they are doing because they want to make the world a better place and don’t see any other way.

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Notice he doesn’t say, “I need to rule the world…boy it sure is a mess! Yeah, that’s a good angle. People can get behind that!”

Tropes are tropes for a reason. But maybe you can try to make a villain who really is a good person outside of their villainy and see what kind of story they have to tell. I bet you’d be pleasantly surprised.

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Neuter Your Story

Hello all – today’s post is late because it was labor day. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway I have another writing exercise for you born out of a mistake I made. There was a contest on a website that included writing. I thought about just drawing something because I’m a big scardy-cat when it comes to entering a writing contest (I’ve entered scores of art contests so it doesn’t even bother me when I don’t win now, I just depend on the fact that I won’t and am pleasantly surprised when I somehow get 3rd place) but on recognizing that I’m a big scardy-cat, I decided it was time to push myself to do something scary with writing. I mean if I can’t even enter a stupid contest with a stupid story I whipped up for it, how can I ever get myself to query? (Because they’re somehow totally different in my head, that’s how.)

So I look at the story requirements. They’re pretty open – 5,000 words on the theme of an  adventure set in the website’s world. I come up with the idea to write a story about kids playing a pretend adventure in the park and become attached to it, especially as it’s adorable and fun to write slipping in and out of reality fluidly, with gems like a character about to “fall off a cliff” and one of the others yells they’ll save her, pause, realize she never came up with a character name, wait for her to calmly make one up, and then proceed to “save” her. It was cute and fun to write and I was so proud of myself when I managed to stay well below the 5k word limit. I was only like 3.8k or something.

I finish, I send it to Tyler and to my mom to proofread, they both like it and give me some suggestions, I implement what I wanna, and go to submit it…

only to realize that it’s a 5,000 CHARACTER limit, not word.

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Really, I should have realized that for this circumstance, 5k words would have been insanely high. I even had thought, “Wow, 5k is generous…” on seeing the limit.

It’s only a few days before the deadline. I mean granted it’d only been like two weeks when they announced the contest but still. I panic. Should I just come up with a new story? But I feel less than confident to come up with an idea I liked as much, and writing the original short story had already been like pulling teeth for me. No. I’m in love with this cute kid idea.

So I abridge it. I have to axe so many of my favorite parts. I have to axe a whole character, the one who pauses the game of make-believe to make up a name, and also retcons things about her character when they become inconvenient. I have to axe the zombie kid literally losing her arm when she pretends it was bitten off by a monster (Yes, I don’t like zombies, but they’re a legit race in the website’s world, and I was trying to be diverse. Also they’re pretty different from “undead” the way I hate them) and I have to cut out half the locations they visit. No matter how hard I try to re-write it, the whole story is clipped. It would probably be anyway, even if I wrote a different story. It’s insanely difficult for me to write something THAT short when I’ve just figured out short stories.

You know what the real kicker is? All the submissions for all the categories come in and writing has like fifty million submissions and art had like, I don’t know, two dozen or something. And I DID have a pretty cool art idea that I’m fairly certain I could have pulled off.

Anyway I spent a couple days angsting about having to neuter my story and then I let it go. Participating had been an exercise in forcing me out of my comfort zone and practicing writing something short; I hadn’t expected to win, even if I really hoped I might. But it wound up being something more than those two things.

I had to do an exercise in cutting straight to the marrow of the story. Through the meat and fat and straight to the bone and then past that too. I had to find the barest functional elements of what I wanted to tell. I had to kill so, so many darlings. I thought I’d mostly mastered killing my darlings but this was difficult for me, so apparently, there are still other kinds of darlings with which I struggle.

I can honestly say I think the first story I wrote was better. I mean, the whole point of my meat analogy is that the meat is the part you want to keep. When you have a skeleton, you have to put some meat on it. Skeleton’s just an outline. (Then what’s the marrow? errr…)

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But it did get me to see what parts of the story I really cared about, what characters were really necessary. The work was reminiscent of my long labors on procuring the perfect elevator pitch for my WIP. How do you boil a whole book down into a sentence or two?

I also struggle with my novels with a scene that drags. There are many reasons a scene will drag – in my case, it’s often just because I’m long-winded and/or became bored writing the scene but wasn’t sure how to stop writing it. An exercise in neutering it would help me, I think, either just fix it in the first place or figure out what the actually important parts are and just write those.

I suppose proper outlining beforehand would work just as well if not better for saving time. But some of us suck at that, or can’t figure out how to go from a careful outline to the concise, efficient version of the scene or chapter. And for said person (like me), this allows me to do it backwards and hopefully the anatomy lesson (I should let this metaphor die but it’s too late now) will help me just outline better next time.

If nothing else, I think practice in writing a scene and then writing a scene more concisely is a worthwhile practice.

P.S. Don’t worry too much about me seeing as how Tyler’s been writing a lot of guest posts lately – it just means I’m working on my WIP and stupid things like these.

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I Wear the Black Hat

Hi, Readers. Tyler here again.

I recently read a book called I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman. In the book, Klosterman examines what it means to be a villain, or more specifically, how do we as society decide who will go down in history as a villain. It was a very entertaining and thought provoking read, and if you wouldn’t mind the language I would definitely recommend reading it.

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The central premise of the book is that “the villain is the person who knows the most, but cares the least.” He makes a very good argument for this, and for the most part I agree with him. But I would add one caveat to the end of his definition: the villain is the person who knows the most, but cares the least about what society says they should care about.

Take Voldemort from Harry Potter. With the (possible) exception of Albus Dumbledore, no one in the series knows more about magic than Tom Riddle. From horcruxes to hallows to dueling skills (the one actual duel we really see him fight is against Dumbledore, who is only really able to stall for time even though he is using the unbeatable Elder Wand) to all of the many curses and magical traps that protect his horcruxes, Voldemort has shown that he knows what he’s doing when magic is involved. He also knows a great deal about people and how to manipulate them into following him. And he does care the least… about what society says he should care about.

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Like unrealistic standards of beauty. You rock that lack of nose.

He doesn’t hesitate to kill people. He has no problems with wantonly using magic to oppress those less powerful than himself. He has no concept of love or friendship. He just doesn’t care.

Except that he does. He cares immensely. He cares about power. He cares about immortality. He cares more about those things than most people care about anything. But he is the villain because he doesn’t care about what society says he should.

Let’s look at another example: Kayaba Akihiko from Sword Art Online. He is a genius. He single-handedly designed the Full Dive technology that made games like Sword Art possible. He was so integral to the design of SAO that he knew the game inside and out, so well that Kirito realizes he can’t use sword skills to beat him because he designed the sword skills. Of all the people in Aincrad, he definitely knows the most. And he cares the least about the lives of others. Even the murderers in Laughing Coffin can’t hold a candle to Kayaba’s death count. He is a mass murderer who was responsible for the death of 4000, and to the end he feels no remorse about that. He just doesn’t care. But he does care deeply about Aincrad and VR worlds in general. Everything he does shows that. Everything he does is because of that.

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Awesome plot twists are always cooler when people die over them.

For the most part, villains don’t do what they do because they’re evil.
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No matter what Flash thinks

They have a reason for what they do. And it has to be something they care about deeply or else they wouldn’t go to the trouble. Being a villain is, for the most part, a hard, thankless job. So they have to be the kind of people who care the most about what they hold dear, while simultaneously not caring about the things society says they should.

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Vying with Readers’ Imaginations

Hello, readers. It’s Tyler (Rii’s husband; I’ve done enough of these guest posts that I figure I might as well start using my own name) again.

A few months ago I was reading a post where the author was explaining what disappointed them about the Star Wars prequels. What set this post apart for me from the myriad other diatribes against the prequels was one specific point that the author made that I had never heard before. He pointed to the scene from A New Hope where Obiwan takes Luke to his home and gives him Anakin’s lightsaber. It is here that we get the first (and if I remember correctly only) refernce to the Clone Wars in the original trilogy. The thing is, the name is essentially all we get. We are told that there was a conflict called the Clone Wars in which Anakin fought, and that’s about it. And since there was next to no detail given about this conflict, the author of the article had filled in the details with his imagination as a child. Knowing that Anakin was a Jedi Knight, he envisioned a war of Jedi clones. Just take a moment and imagine that. Entire battlefields of Jedi fighting with lightsabers and the force.

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This, but TWO ENTIRE ARMIES.

That is a mental image that is so awesome it borders on undeniable.

Instead we got this:

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The author of the article was understandably let down.

The thing is, when I read this person’s account of the disappointment that the clones were not Jedi and that they were fighting droids (instead of more Jedi), I thought about how we got the war that we actually got in the prequels. Of course the Sith (who were behind the creation of the clone army) wouldn’t want their clones to be force users. Their modus operandi is to try to get rid of all force users beyond the two Sith. A Jedi army would be completely antithetical to what they were trying to do. However, making clones of a Mandalorian, the go to Jedi killers, that makes sense. The clone army makes perfect sense in the context of the story that was being told.

All that reasoning, however, does precisely nothing to mitigate my disappointment that the Clone War was not a war between armies of Jedi clones now that the idea’s been presented to me. I want to see that story told, and will now add its absence to the list of things that will always disappoint me about the prequels. And this is after the fact. I can only imagine how much stronger my disappointment would be if I already had this headcanon of the Clone Wars for years before the new movies came out.

And this is perhaps the central problem of doing prequels. Your audience will have filled in the information they don’t have with something that is so awesome to them that it is nigh impossible for you to top it. That’s why I don’t think fans would actually appreciate the Marauders book/movie that they keep asking for. As fans of Harry Potter, we have envisioned what Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs were like at school, and anything that J.K. Rowling writes about that time period is bound to produce dissonance with that vision to the point of disappointment. To be clear, I’m not saying that I don’t think that fans could enjoy it, but I am saying that they would not enjoy it as much as they think they would. Because their headcanons  would be contradicted and nobody likes to be told they are wrong about something that is so important to them.
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There’s SO MUCH fan art and fan theory about the Marauders; a movie couldn’t encompass it all, even the parts that do all fit together. (This piece is found at atalienart.tumblr.com)

This really is an extension of what Stephen King talks about in On Writing. He says (and this is certainly an oversimplification) that the unseen monster is always scarier than the monster that you show the reader, because the reader will fill in a more personalized terror that will seem worse than whatever you end up showing them. To put it in terms of what I’m saying here, as soon as you prompt the audience to fill in something you haven’t shown them, you make it very hard to live up to what they expect.

So what do you do if you want to write a prequel? What do you do if you want to leave out information to be revealed later? I have two suggestions.

There is another Harry Potter prequel that is being released soon: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I personally think that this movie will be much better received than a Mauraders movie would be, for the simple reason that I don’t think a single reader has ever wondered about the adventures of Newt Scamander. It’s something we hadn’t thought about before the movies were announced, so we don’t have any preconceived headcanon in jeopardy. We’re free to enjoy this entirely new story. So if you really want to write a prequel maybe you can try to pick something that fans won’t have thought about but that would make an interesting story. Pick a Newt Scamander.

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My second suggestion is to leave LOTS of careful breadcrumbs. The more carefully hidden clues you give the audience, the softer the blow when they are told they’re wrong. Part of the problem with the Clone Wars example is that we had no information about it. There was nothing we could point to after the fact and say “Oh, I see how they told me before hand that this is what it was. I just missed this information in my original analysis.” Not only does this make it easier to accept something besides what we have always thought, but it gives the original work a lot more lasting appeal. Going back through the whole Mistborn trilogy after finishing The Hero of Ages gives the books a whole new feel as you can see all the evidence that seems inconsequential except in hindsight. So leave as many cleverly hidden breadcrumbs as you can. Of course, this obviously only works if you had the prequels envisioned beforehand.

In the end, vying with the audience’s imagination is all about the balancing act.
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Recurring Villain: Death – Psyche!

Deciding to kill off a recurring villain is a pretty big decision. After all, they might well have been a major part of the story and a device you use to spur the plot onward.

I have just one request of you if you’re going to kill a recurring villain: don’t bring them back.

Seriously.

Someone who keeps showing up, completely ignoring things like death, are easy to take for granted – that’s a bit of the challenge of writing a recurring villain. But it also cheapens death. And it makes it increasingly difficult to take death and the villain seriously.

It’s already a bad enough trope that if you don’t see the death, it didn’t happen.

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“I presume they died in the elly-vator!”*

Combine that with the trope of “these guys always show up” and just of course the recurring villain is immortal. And that makes them that much more of a joke.

I mean, sure, there are totally ways that you could have an immortal recurring villain. Maybe it’s a scary robot or something and it defies all the tropes and it would be weird if the thing didn’t recover from death. But hey, if you’re an experienced writer, you know when and how to break the rules. That said, let me challenge you with a rule and you’ll procure all sorts of cool “exception” ideas, so it’s never a bad idea to put up good boundaries before you try to pass them.

*I love this scene though because CLU is like, “You presume?” and for once, for once, the villain didn’t say, “Oh, they fell to their deaths? Okay. No need to double check or anything.”

I guess what I’m saying is take your recurring villains seriously unless there’s a very good reason not to (like you’re writing a comedy) and take character death seriously. Maybe if you want to bring a character back, killing them or pretending to wasn’t the right move. Or maybe you just need to re-structure the death so that it’s all the more shocking that they came back because it’s conceivable that they could, just not necessarily probable. And not in the same old, didn’t see it, didn’t happen way, perhaps?

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Sacrificing Beauty

Hello, readers. Rii’s husband here again. Today I want to talk a little bit about Frozen. Specifically, I want to talk about one song in particular: Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

If you need a refresher, here’s the clip. Pay attention starting around 2:21.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-zXT5bIBM0

There’s a lot of things that disappointed me about Frozen, but even when I first watched and especially now when I’m looking back, this song really bothers me. It bothers me because there is so much wasted potential. This song could have been a gorgeous moment but it was ruined by a desire to make sure it was pretty. Let me explain.

Put yourself in Anna’s shoes. Here is a girl who used to be best friends with her sister until one day, out of nowhere, she cloisters herself inside her room and never plays with you any more. This alone would be heartbreaking. In essence, Anna lost her sister that day. Then she loses her parents at sea. This leaves her effectively devoid of family, as she lost Elsa a long time ago. She has lost everyone she knows and loves. And if you listen to the words sung, she is desperately pleading for her sister to come back to her, to give her someone to hold onto, to regain even a tiny bit of the family that has twice now been riven from her cruelly and without any explanation or reason given. That is the story her words paint.

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Rii is interrupting this moment to make a joke: huh huh he said “cloister”*

That is not, however, the story her voice paints. Sure there is a bit of sadness there, but for a girl bereft of her entire family, it doesn’t even come close to appropriate. It totally jerked me out of the story. They were so concerned with making sure the song sounded pretty that they missed the opportunity for the real emotion that could have made it gorgeous.
Imagine if Anna’s voice had cracked during that segment of the song. Imagine if her tears and sobbing had interrupted the cadence, putting her off rhythm ever so slightly. Imagine if it had actually been sung as if from a girl who was now entirely alone and had no idea what to do or where to turn. The amount of ethos that could have been packed into even just the first line of “I know you’re in there…” is overwhelming. It brings me to tears every time I think about it. This one simple change, sacrificing the beauty of the song for real emotion could have made me connect with Anna in a real human way. It would have made the moment breathtaking. Instead, I got a pretty song that pulled me out of the narrative and a moment that would be entirely forgettable if it didn’t make me so upset with its wasted potential.

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I can’t just let it go. What? You can’t do a Frozen post without making a Frozen joke.

This is advice that is much easier to apply to film than to writing, but I think it can carry over there as well. A lot of inexperienced writers (myself included) are so wrapped up in ensuring eloquent prose that we completely ruin the feeling of the scene. Sometimes something really does just need to be described as large instead of titanic. Sometimes we do need short, choppy, terse sentences. Sometimes we need to use the same word over and over and over again.

Consider how your word choice, sentence structure, and pacing affect the emotions of a scene. And remember that sometimes you have to sacrifice beautiful writing for gorgeous scenes and stories.
*See I went ahead and interrupted my husband’s post to make a pokemon joke (if you don’t get it, that pokemon is called a cloyster) and it was totally inappropriate. If this had been a post about anything else other than inappropriate timing, I wouldn’t have done it. Really – the thing about sacrificing beauty is it’s another mention of kill your darlings. Kill them to make the narrative better. The song and its prettiness is a Disney darling because Disney songs are known for…well, being Disney songs! It’s a darling. They should have killed it for the narrative.
Also imo don’t use the same word over and over again unless in dialog or you’re absolutely positive you know what you’re doing.
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A Tantabus

Here’s a short but important consideration today. It starts with some My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic spoilers: in Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?, there’s a nightmare monster from Princess Luna’s dreams called the Tantabus. It looks a little like a blob from her mane, and it escapes her dreams to the Mane Six, and then into every pony in Ponyville, with the threat of escaping into the real world. At the end of the episode, Luna reveals that she created the Tantabus to torment her dreams with memories of when she was Nightmare Moon, to remind her how she’s actually a totally awful person who never deserves to be happy ever because she hurt ponies in the past. The Tantabus is defeated when Twilight Sparkle and her friends are able to convince Luna that no seriously, she’s not Nightmare Moon anymore, she’s the awesome good pony Luna, and everyone forgave her and can’t she trust them and forgive herself? On forgiving herself, the Tantabus is destroyed.

Nightmare Moon was the first big villain of My Little Pony, who appeared in the first two episodes. Following her rainbow-induced defeat, she was able to pull a heel-face-turn to become one of my favorite characters Princess Luna.

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But she still has guilt. So much so that she creates a literal tormentor to makes sure she never forgets that she was once evil and never, ever deserves to be free of her past ergo never ever deserves to be happy.

Going through a redemption process is difficult because of guilt and the lack of forgiveness in others. My own analysis on that last one is that it’s fair to expect people you hurt won’t trust you for a while once you say you change, but that people who withhold forgiveness as a form of punishment are now doing a wrongful act themselves and also grossly misunderstand how forgiveness works.

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I mean you can forgive people and still cut them out of your life. I have. I choose not to be angry about what they did to me or hold it against them or really think about it anymore. I also choose not to give them the opportunity to hurt me again.

It’s easy to think people never really change, but they do. Just not usually in a dramatic swoop. And that’s the interesting part of a redemption arc, changing in a way people don’t normally change, in dealing with the fallout.

Guilt is a difficult thing to deal with, though. Guilt is defeated with forgiving yourself. And the tough thing is that a lot of the time it feels like you don’t have permission to forgive yourself. Like, if the people around you are still angry, how can you be okay with what you did? And as for whether or not you are allowed to forgive yourself before everyone else has forgiven you, I think depends on how the individual defines forgiving themselves – I think so long as they decide not to identify with the act(s) anymore, and not to hold it against themselves because they’ll do better, that’s an integral part of the redemption arc. Because Nightmare Moon lived on in Princess Luna, as Princess Luna kept Nightmare Moon alive through her guilt. Like, kind of literally. And that’s ridiculous. That means the Bad Guy is never really gone. And maybe the Bad Guy is just tormenting the reformed character, but that’s still awful that the Bad Guy is allowed to live in any capacity. So a critical part of full redemption is killing the Tantabus – in whatever form it may take for the character who is trying to find redemption.

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Teaching the Reader the Magic Arts

Hello again, dear readers. This is Rii’s husband, coming back once again to cover for her after a sudden increase in writing work to talk about one of my favorite subject: magic systems. Specifically, I want to talk about how to have a magic system that is revealed gradually over the course of a whole series.

One of the best known examples of this is Harry Potter, and I think it’s a pretty great example for pros and possible cons of revealing a magic system over time. So let’s jump right in.

One of the big pros of revealing a complex magic system over a long period of time is that often that makes the most sense for the story. In Harry Potter, Harry and company are students at a school specifically designed to teach magic. It would be pretty jarring if we were told absolutely everything about magic right off the bat. No one wants that much of an info dump at the outset of a series, and there would be almost no way to do it with at least some “as you know, bob”-ing. By revealing magic along the way as Harry learns about it, we are made to feel as if we are right there with him, just another student at Hogwarts.

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Though thankfully not actually right there with Harry during his angsty, shouty phase…

 It did wonders for immersion in the story, and at least for the most part it all felt natural.

Another pro of this method is that it tends to leave the reader with a sense of wonder and mystery. Whether you are using a soft “because magic” magic system or a hard pseudoscientific magic system, magic is supposed to be fantastical and a little beyond our comprehension. That’s what makes it magic. And that sense of wonder can keep the reader coming back, hungry for more, glued to the stories. And that is always a good thing for you as a storyteller.

So what are the cons of drawing the magic system out over several books as opposed to having it well established by the end of the first installment?

For starters, you have to make sure that it makes sense for the characters to not know about magic, and this can be deceptively hard. Harry Potter’s route of following students at a school for magic worked well, but well, it worked so well that a lot of other people did it and for many readers its a little cliche and… well, it’s hard to live up to HP’s standard. But it can be equally hard to come up with other plausible reasons why your characters don’t know something important about magic.

This brings us to another potential pitfall. It can be hard to balance the difference in knowledge between reader and characters. It can be frustrating for readers to know something that the characters don’t that could really help the characters out of whatever tight spot they’re in. This sort of dramatic irony is not inherently bad, but I feel like with magic systems in particular it is painful, especially if used repeatedly. The opposite end of the spectrum can be just as bad. If the characters have knowledge that the readers don’t, then the readers can become lost with what is going on, wondering why the characters make the decision they make. Or worse, the reader can look back and wonder why the characters didn’t use a particular bit of knowledge much earlier. Harry Potter is a huge offender here. It is understandable that the children don’t know about certain spells and potions, but the adults have no excuse. To take one example, the whole imprisonment of Sirius Black should never have happened. There are so many ways that he should have been exonerated. Veritaserum, priori incantatum, occlumency, the list goes on and on. Heck, they could even use a time turner and invisibility spell combo to go back and watch the whole incident for themselves. Black should have never been tried, let alone convicted and sent to Azkaban. There is never a good reason given why they so thoroughly dropped the ball on this one, and it could have changed the whole series. Harry could have been a (relatively) well adjusted boy who grew up with a loving god-father instead of his abusive relatives. He could have known about magic all along. Who knows how much better he might have been at defense against the dark arts and any number of other subjects if his first idea that magic existed hadn’t had to wait until he was 11?

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Because at least when Gandalf neglected his friends, he still left them in the hands of nice, competent people, and when he lied to them, it was just to steal all the exp, not get the Hobbits killed.

So it is usually best to have your characters learn at about the same rate as your reader, which can be a tough balancing act, especially since it has to be tailored to each individual story. If you want an example of how this can be done well, I would recommend the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson (I would recommend it anyway, because it is awesome). There are good reasons given for why there are unknowns about the magic systems and the pacing of revealing that extra knowledge is spot on. Seriously. Read Mistborn if you haven’t already.

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Although really, the second arc of the series is my absolute favorite more than the first three…and though I’d recommend reading all of them, you CAN skip the first arc.

Anyway, the key thing to remember here is to think about the larger implications of your decisions when it comes to magic systems. They can mean the difference between a great story and one that falls flat.

Oh, and make sure that if nothing else YOU know all there is to know about your magic system. It wouldn’t do to paint yourself into a plot hole or retcon corner, as can be said of Harry Potter. And with that, I bid you adieu. Happy writing, and may your magic systems be as awesome as you are!
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