How to Strengthen Your Story (With Dueling Genres)

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Story is about conflict.

Conflict is about competing interests or desires.

How do you get competing interests between characters?

It’s deceptively simple. You simply have to get characters to think that their story is different from everyone else. And then you have it that way.

Here’s an example for all you audio drama fans out there. I’m a huge fan of Alice Isn’t Dead (and currently loving the heck out of the novel written by Joseph Fink). This podcast is a great example of two genres competing for dominance.

On one side is our narrator, a lone trucker searching the empty highways of America for her missing wife Alice. For her, it’s a romance trying to stay alive in the wilderness. On the other side is the Thistle Man and other walking nightmares, who appear normal from a distance and monstrous up close and feed off poor travelers at rest stops and small towns across the nation. As you can see (or, since it’s a podcast, hear), we’ve got a protagonist who wants romance and an antagonist who wants horror.

This clash of needs, simple on paper, creates a powerful 3-season story.

Or take a story like Romeo and Juliet. The tragedy lies in the competing needs of the young lovers and their families. Romeo and Juliet want to be in love together, be it in life or in death. Their families want to win their ancient grudge match, which turns every interaction into something akin to a street fight or a political drama. If not for the family feud, there’d be only an awkward teenage romance for our couple. Instead, unable to escape their turmoil (and perhaps making poor decisions because of the extreme war), the two end up dead by play’s end and their families bitterly reconciling after the fact.

There’s always more than one story at work. Luke Skywalker thinks he’s on an epic quest to overthrow an empire and honor his Jedi legacy; Darth Vader thinks he’s a broken-hearted warrior restoring order to a galaxy that’s falling apart. Captain Kirk is out to regain his command and reconnect with his former lover and his son on a distant outpost; Khan Noonien Singh mourns his fallen wife and crew, and he seeks revenge on the captain who marooned him.

Depending on who wins the story determines the overall genre for the story. Gatsby loses his love interest and dies in a swimming pool, so that makes this a tragedy. Portia gets Antonio and Bassanio out of trouble with the law, so that makes their tale a comedy. It’s a question of clashing ideals, clashing desires, and clashing methods for success. It’s what makes every conflict so real in the great stories.

On a final note, I’ve found that this is actually a great way to build loglines as a writer. Loglines are those one-to-two-sentence elevator pitches, ones that usually start with “In a world where…” But in this case, it’s about telling your audience what kind of genres (or competiting interests) they’re in for.

Let’s look at a story like Hamlet. Consider this logline for the play:

When a ghost informs him of his father’s murder, a brooding prince must wrestle with how to avenge his father’s killer—his own uncle and the new king of Denmark.

What does this logline tell us about the story? First, that it is a revenge play. Second, that it has supernatural elements (i.e., the father’s ghost). And thirdly, that the antagonist is both Hamlet’s blood relative and a usurper to the throne. Again, remember that Hamlet and Claudius’s desires are from different genres. For Hamlet, this is a revenge plot, but a tragic one because it’s unfolding within his own royal family. For Claudius, this is a political drama in the vein of House of Cards, where he accrued power through lies and murder, and he fears his nephew’s interference in the new regime.

So, learn to change things around. Look for antagonists to be more than just cardboard cutouts or walking excuses for the hero to run into trouble. Tell us their story, even if we never see things from their perspective. And then, once you know what the hero’s goal is as well, you’ve defined both your contributing genres, your core conflict, and set up the ground for a (hopefully) great-selling pitch.


Writing for the “Oooh” Moment in Stories

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It’s hard to know some days when a story’s worth telling. You wake up, and for a split second, you have fragments of a dream that make you go, “Ooh, yeah!” So you jump on your notebook, or on your computer, and you start trying to build off those first few impressions. Several notes and a half-started draft later, you soon discover that, you know, maybe this isn’t all that big an idea anymore. I mean, isn’t the plot just cribbing off a big-ticket franchise like Star Wars or Romeo and Juliet? Haven’t we already seen this before?

There really is nothing new under the sun. Even Will Shakespeare knew this. He borrowed just as much from the legends and royal histories of his day, turning them into dramas and comedies we still obsess over and perform year after year. But he didn’t just give his audience that same legend they all read about, but “This time, it’s set in Florence!” He gave them something deeper than a mere retelling.

I’ve been trying to capture that element of writing for over three years now.

I call it the “Oooh” Moment.

What it is, essentially, is when you’re trying to develop a story idea and you find something that makes you excited. Because, ideally, if you’re excited about this idea, then your audience will be excited, too.

The “Oooh” Moment comes in a variety of ways. It can come before you’re started a single draft, or it could come in the middle of Chapter Thirteen, or it could happen right at the start of Draft No. 19. But when it happens, as a writer, you know when it happens and what it looks like.

Here are a few real-life “Oooh” Moments that I’ve experienced on different stories:

I like this plot, but the protagonist isn’t all that exciting. Oooh, wait, but what if we follow things from the love interest’s POV? Make it her story…!

“Hmm, good romance here, but this villain’s weak. Where’s the tension? What’s their end of the story? It’s almost like… oooh, wait that’s it! It’s Iago and Othello! Oh, yeah, and then that would make her Desdemona and him Michael Cassio…!

“So we’ve got these story prompts now. Okay, has to take place on a boat… there’s a tape recorder, running for an elected office, political drama… oooh! What if the boat belongs to a candidate on a mad expedition? Ok, and the tape recorder is how our narrator–the campaign manager–gives us the story! I gotta start writing now…”

If you’ve written enough fiction, long or short, you’ve probably run into these moments a number of times. You suddenly get this vision of What Could Be, and it gets you inspired to keep going. I know that some of these stories have worked once I found the “Oooh” Moment. That same excitement showed in my work, and when I gave it to my audience, they were just as hooked.

Of course, the hard part is knowing when you’ve stumbled onto such a moment. Be patient, though. It’s hard work, but if you find that kernel of energy in a story, then grab hold of it and hold it up for your audience, too.

So, what’s been your example of an “Oooh” Moment in a story? When did it happen? How far did you run with it? Share your experience in the comments below.

Seriously, What Even Is Magical Realism?

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Spend enough time in literary circles or delving into Latin American history, and you’ll come across a term that’s been bandied about for decades: magical realism.

I could just link you to the Wikipedia page and be done with it, but that’s lazy even for me. And recently, after debating with a friend about the 2017 movie The Shape of Water, and what Guillermo del Toro wants to achieve with his surreal cinema, I thought I’d take a shot at trying to define and defend this genre myself.

To wit, magical realism is a literary genre where magical elements are dropped into a realistic world. It’s a style of storytelling that first emerged in the German Expressionist movement. In 1925, art critic Franz Roh coined the term “Magischer Realismus” to try and capture its ethos. And when you look at classic works like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you begin to see where Roh was coming from. His term would then emigrate to Latin America, becoming “realismo mágico” within the same decade.

At a time when colonial cultures, modern conflicts, and indigenous revivalism were boiling together, writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier were finding a new way to tell stories using old myths and legends. Carpentier tackled Cuban politics with stories that spoke to bizarre yet plausible antics, while García Márquez addressed political violence and familial conflicts through stories where tornadoes wiped out whole towns and some children were born with pig’s tails. Most critics at the time only saw such novels as fantastic tales, but they missed the underlying reality, let alone the critique of modern-day issues.

In the last few years, I’ve become more attuned to my Latino identity. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about an artistic ethos that I dubbed “Latinofuturism.” I still enjoy the article, but if I had to write it again, I’d go back and add “magical realism” to the list of things under that cultural umbrella. Being looser with the boundaries between the mundane and the fantastic is something that I hope new readers will be eager for.

As a writer, I know I’m interested to see new kind of stories. In fact, I wrote one.

A couple of years back, I wrote a short story that I posted on this site under the name “The Foghorn Man.” It was born out of a failed draft of a monster story that I’d tried to write months before, about an eyeless monster that belched ammonia and stalked its victims in the dead of night in a small town. But, you know, I was never satisfied with the premise. I had this whole idea about a sheriff torn between his duty to the town’s prosperity and the horror of this man-shaped creature that made it all possible (because of the ammonia and its value to the local auto industry, a sentiment that probably made way more sense in my head at the time). But try as I might, I couldn’t get the conflict right.

And then, it hit me. What if the monster isn’t the threat? What if it’s the guy trying to expose the monster?

Maybe the scientist Kevin Lemarque is morally in the right, but in the story, he’s a tragic antagonist to Deputy Sheriff Nate Rogers. His “meddling” puts the town of Odyssey at risk. And that Foghorn Man… well, he don’t mean much harm, right? Not in Nate’s eyes anyway. So Nate has to break off his relationship with Kevin for the good of the town. It’s a poignant conflict, and I knew it as soon as I began writing it all down.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “The hell does this have to do with genre?” Well, it’s because of the monster’s role. On its own, a shuffling, gray-skinned beast of a man with no eyes is pretty creepy. But I needed to really sell the horror of it. So I made the sheriff’s deputy—and the whole town, by extension—its accomplice. They knew the Foghorn Man was horrifying, but because they were doing well, they figured they’d go along with his ravenous, unspoken needs.

That’s the magical realism element. We can wrap our minds around a monster invading our ordinary world, but a known monster whose crimes go unmentioned? That’s harder to confront. And in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, as we face the monstrous behaviors of the accused and the once-silent suffering of their victims, we find ourselves grappling with similar questions. How did we not see this before? When are some behaviors “too far” and others “not that bad”?

From the perspective of Kevin Lemarque, and from the POV of women and men hurt by abusers in the halls of power, those who stand up to defend their idols must seem as nauseating as Nate Rogers standing beside a bellowing nightmare figure.

I hope that this analysis provides some idea of where I’m going where. I’m all for traditional boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, and realism. But given the changing tides of our world, and given how many new voices are fighting to be heard against traditional narratives, there’s a lot to be said for the value of magical realism and its place in our libraries, our classrooms, and our minds.

Why I Write In Neo-Noir

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I adore Star Wars and other science fiction and fantasy tales, but that’s not what my inner writer enjoys.

My inner writer likes light and shadows.

He likes big cities and jazz.

He likes alternative rock soundtracks set over lonely highways.

He likes running from cafés in broad daylight and confrontations on the bad side of town at a quarter to midnight.

He likes troubled heroes ready to get back into action and panicked damsels who’ve made morally questionable choices.

He likes individuals fighting corrupt organizations, and he likes the tired heroine getting trapped with the psychopath.

He deals with anxiety, paranoia, isolation, having to go on the run, and digging through layers to find the truth.

He’s a film noir fanboy with a neo-noir flair.

On that note, I’d like to offer a quick and dirty list of films and TV shows that I think fall square into the neo-noir mix, with one or two genre overlaps. Some of these stories have stuck with me for a long time, and in many ways, they’re a big influence on why I write what I do.

Blade Runner (1982). Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Hampton Francher and David Peoples.

Oldboy (2003). Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Hwang Jo-yoon, Lim Joon-hyeong, and Park Chan-wook.

Collateral (2004). Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Stuart Beattie.

No Country for Old Men (2007). Directed and adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Jessica Jones Season 1 (2015). Created by Melissa Rosenberg. Based on the comic series by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos.

Altered Carbon (2018). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan.

If you have any additions or other recommendations about neo-noir media, please feel free to leave it in the comments below.

A Closed and Common Orbit and the Clash of Identities

Copyright © 2017 by Becky Chambers

As I said in a previous review, I’m interested in how we’re changing the tone of science fiction with newer works. The spirit of camaraderie and cautious optimism in Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet really sold me on the merits of the story, as well as the fictional future that Chambers outlined. Even with energy consumption issues, ongoing wars, and multispecies politics, there’s still a chance for people to come together and find new familial bonds in the depths of space.

In the sequel (spoiler alert incoming), A Closed and Common Orbit, we follow a similar route, but with a tighter focus. The AI known as Lovelace, replacing the original personality of the ship computer on the Wayfarer, has since moved on for greener pastures with the crew’s mutual friends Pepper and Blue.

With a body kit that gives her an organic, almost genuine human appearance, Lovelace quickly adopts a new persona and life on Port Coriol as the modder girl Sidra. But Sidra’s exploration of organic culture comes with a price, as she struggles with built-in protocols and coding that could expose her not-so-legal existence. Compare all that with a series of flashbacks, detailing how a young Jane became the modder girl Pepper through escape, surviving the wilds, and fixing old tech with a friendly AI named Owl, and we begin to see how two women’s lives are shaped through a rough journey of self-discovery and persistent repairs to the tech they need to live.

It’d be easy to say that Pepper’s flashbacks form the more compelling side of this book. After all, she escapes a dystopian life as a slave with a number, and she faces off with wild dogs and a near-dead starship in a junkpile for years on end. But there’s a lot to be said for Sidra’s journey, too. Even as she uses her new body to befriend an Aeluon tattoo artist, and try new food and drinks, our AI protagonist is still fighting an inner and outer battle. She’s terrified of the chance that outsiders will recognize and report her as an illegal entity; she’s also battling all her code, which tells her that being inside a starship is natural and being in a body isn’t. It’s dysmorphia on a new and unexplored level.

I also appreciated how much this story fills in more of the background on the Galactic Commons and how spaceflight had advanced. We learn a little more about the rise of the Harmagian species, the entry of humans into the GC, the status and rights (or lack thereof) for AI, and what sets apart the culture and history of Aeluons. Every culture and race feels authentic, with a sense that they’ve lived as they have for centuries, even with tech innovations and meeting new species. Seeing a Laru’s reaction to things like humans crying (or “leaking”) or the way Aeluons perform their mating rituals in the open definitely adds to the flavor of the setting. And for Jane and Sidra, our main characters, it’s a chaotic and colorful world they’re entering for the first time in their respective eras.

I do respect that, on some level, new readers or people unfamiliar with some of science fiction’s ups and downs might have trouble with Sidra’s storyline. Even with all the cool things she gets to experience, hearing her talk about rewriting code and analyzing her digital pathways can seem a touch overwhelming. It certainly helped me while I was reading that I have some small knowledge of HTML, Python, and JavaScript. Rest assured, though, that you won’t be sitting there reading endless pages of technobabble from an engineer’s POV. This is a novel that gives you a little bump into the world of lab-engineered people trying to figure out their place in life.

While Closed and Common Orbit didn’t have the same wide array of plot points and conflicts as Small, Angry Planet did, I do think it’s a worthy follow-up to the first book. Even if it isn’t a perfect standalone piece, the story has a quiet but meaningful weight in how it approaches identity issues and personal growth. So long as you’re cool with petbots and aliens smoking redreed (and why wouldn’t you be?), you’ll find a good time in these pages.

A Closed and Common Orbit is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.