Plot Forcing: Two Variations

A plot point within a story may be said to be forced if a given development occurred because of a sudden change which had no precedent within the tale.

One common form of plot forcing is sporadic, selective stupidity, the condition whereby a normally competent (or brilliant) character suddenly losses all wit so that said character may be bested (this is especially common with villains as can be ascertained from a cursory review of the rogues gallery of the James Bond series) either for character or plot development (or both). For a specific example, consider the absurdist climax of the Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whereat the film’s primary antagonist, a ruthless galactic warlord named Ronan, is bested because he is distracted for a unbelievably protracted period of time by the protagonist’s ridiculous dancing (this, I assume, was supposed to be funny). The scene made no sense as there was no precedent for such a intelligent and unhesitating character as Ronan to be utterly stunned by nothing more than exaggerated gesticulations, especially for such a long period of time, as such, the plot advancement (Ronan’s defeat) is ‘forced’ (for attempted comedic effect). This is a case where the intended effect of a given scene (comedy) stands in contrast to both the preceding plot development (impending genocide; high drama) and the propensity of the central character (Ronan; a heedless fanatic ill-inclined to distraction).

Another form of plot forcing (and to my knowledge the most common) is precedentless character enhancement, wherein a character encounters a situation where they are hopelessly outmatched but prevail due to no other reason than their own uniqueness, a uniqueness not previously demonstrated or even known to the character in question, which only manifests when a plotline needs to be advanced. This particular kind of plot forcing is characteristic of ‘chosen one’ narratives (such as: Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, The Wheel of Time, Supernatural and many others) wherein the ‘fate of the world’ (or some variant on the theme) rests solely upon the shoulders of the protagonist whose uniqueness and pivitol role in world events is generally explained via prophecy. Chosen one characters are typically young (I cannot recall any chosen one stories wherein the prophecized hero was elderly) and seemingly inadequate for the task, yet, despite the chosen one’s complete lack of skills they invariably triumph over the chaotic force or forces which threaten their world due to providential selection (selected by a diety or fate, etc). There are so many critiques of this particular trope that little needs to be said about why it should be avoided, so I shall name only one particular and perhaps seemingly counterintuitive problem it engenders: character limitation. In placing the providential/fated selection of a character as the primary driver of the plot (and most, if not all, the arcs within it) there is something of a hardcap which is placed upon character development; firstly, in that there is no reason at the outset for a chosen one protagonist to develop at all because they are already pre-equipped to deal with every challenge that besets them; a example of this can be observed in the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens wherein the protagonist, Rey, defeats the antagonist, Ren, in a duel, despite the fact she had never fought in such a fashion before and he had trained since his youth for martial conflict. She wins not because she is more talented, but because she’s ‘chosen,’ thus, she has to win, otherwise she’d have died and the story would be over and so again, the plot is ‘forced.’

A perceptive writer can see the problem immediately, there is no character building required, which will oft incline the author to ‘quick fixes’ in the advancement of their plot and thus also inclines towards the monotone, the predictable, the grey and unthoughtful; to boring characterization and lazy scene development.

Forging The Mappa Mundi | Part 2

(continued from part 1)


In part one we covered the rudiments of establishing placefulness in fiction through spatial notation. In this installment we will be expanding upon our previous endeavour by focusing our attention on geographical clarity through directional signifiers.

Cardinal Directions and Landmarks

When attempting to establish geographical clarity in creative writing, think of everything directionally first, as you would with a map. Establish the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) and everything else can be made to follow.

The most obvious and immediately useful directional signifiers are landmarks; buildings, mountains, forests, oceans and celestial bodies, such as the sun, etc. The larger the landmark the easier it will be (generally speaking) to refer to it across the duration of ones text. For example, in my novella, The Silence & The Howl (forthcoming), there is a gigantic coal breaker which sits north-east of the principal setting, a small rust-belt town. The structure is introduced in the first chapter, and as such, establishes both the cardinal directions as well as a point of reference that can be continuously utilized for spatial orientation; by simply describing where the coal breaker is in relation to a given character or object, one instantly knows where north and east are and spatio-temporal orientation is established, such that, if a character moves south, one at the very least understands this is away from the coal breaker and thus away from all those described areas surrounding it.

Fictive Mapmaking

To help better remember the geography of your story, maps are quite invaluable, particularly if the world rendered is quite large and well-traveled. Yet, despite the usefulness of maps to worldbuilding, it is not a very popular practice (next time you are at a bookstore, walking through the fiction section, flip through the front and back covers and first and last pages of works on display, almost none of them will have maps of the world within the story). One of the reasons I induce that the making of maps for fiction is not widespread is that it forces the author to venture into unfamiliar territory, outside of his or her principal skillsets, however, if one finds oneself lacking in the requisite abilities, one may always use Inkscape or a similar, free image rendering program wherein manual dexterity gives way to technical, numerical specification. Of course, if one is daunted by both hand-drawn cartographies AND digitally rendered maps, then one might do well to recruit the aid of a friend or colleague who is more graphically inclined. Remember, the principal purpose of making a map, at the first, is the same reason one takes notes of character bios, landmark descriptions and dialogue; that is to say, it is a spatial note, for the benefit of the author, primarily, and need not be designed for the final work.

 

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Excerpt of The Ebstorf Map; c. 1235.

Forging The Mappa Mundi | Part 1

Of the essentials of a story, characters, theme, style and setting, the latter is perhaps the most difficult for new or dilettante writers to manage. Take for example this first paragraph excerpt from the short story Family Gathering by Paul Beckman from Fictive Dream (a excellent site).

The laughers come first. They always arrive early and announce their early arrival to the hostess who isn’t ready yet for company. They think the hostess will laugh along with them but she won’t. She hasn’t finished cooking, dressing, or putting on makeup. She tells the laughers this and they respond with guffaws. Guffaws are infuriating to the hostess. Meanwhile the host has his first drink of many. The laughers are his wife’s family, not his, and drinking is how he tolerates them.

Though the prose is good, never once does one get a sense of place — one understands that ‘the laughers’ and ‘the hostess’ abide in a house, but we have no idea what the structure is like in anywise. We are not told whether the house is big, small, old new, black, white, brown or purple, classical, neoclassical, modern or experimental; nor do we know what rooms are where nor how they are laid out. All that we know is that some people arrived at a house. The rest of the text is similarly vague as pertains to spatiality. It should be noted that carto-spatial descriptions within a text are not intrinsically necessary; for example, in a poem, wherein the chief aim is to stir some specific passion or passions, one need not delve into particularities of geography; the same goes for something like a hallucinatory scene or dream sequence wherein reality is “off.” However, in a story, particularly in a longform story with a specific setting, it is absolutely pertinent to establish some kind of definitive geographic layout otherwise all movements will be rendered indecipherable.

Compare the previous paragraph to the flash composition The Crossing by Philip Scholz:

“Buenas tardes,” the guard said.

“Hello,” he replied, not ready to try his Spanish. Which greeting was the guard using?

“What is your business?” the guard asked.

“Vacation.” He had no intention to return.

“Your passport, please,” the guard said, holding out his hand.

He handed over the fake one, hoping his shaking hand wasn’t noticed. This was the test. He had to stay calm.

The guard reviewed the passport without a word. Finally, he flipped it closed.

“Welcome to Mexico.”

Exhaling, he took back the passport and kept driving, now a country away from the wife whose throat he’d slit.

Whilst this piece is far shorter, is establishes geography far more quickly and decisively and, most importantly, without going out of its way to do so, by which I mean, at no point in the text does the narrative flow stop for geographic descriptors, rather, they are woven into the narrative in such a way as to maintain it and drive it forward to its terminus. In the latter piece, the author accomplishes placeness through “passport” and “guard,” as well as “Welcome to Mexico” all without ever saying “airport” — which is a testament to the fact that the general cartospatial shape of things is all that is fundamentally needed (in conjunction with some slight induction and deduction from the reader) to establish the mappa mundi — the map of the world.

Navigating Between Its’, It’s & Its

Its’, It’s and Its are some of the most commonly used (and misused) three letter word-forms in English. To use them properly it should be understood that its’ is always incorrect to use, thus anytime you see you’re writing its’, substitute it for either “it’s” or “its” depending on what the sentence requires.

It’s and Its, however, are proper, provided the context it right. Before one can use them, however, one has to be clear on the simple, but counterintuitive, difference between both words, which are as follows:

It’s means “it is” and “it has.”

Its is a possessive form and denotes ownership; for example: “This place has lost its charm,” or, “Its going to be a good day.”

This can be confusing because possession is generally denoted via the form which it’s takes, that is to say, if instead of, “This place has lost its charm,” one were to write, “Kyle’s lost his charm,” an apostrophe would be used between “Kyle” and the “s” whereas with “its” no apostrophe is added. The reason for this is due to the fact that possessive pronouns are never written with an apostrophe because they already imply ownership (ie. it was his; the cake was hers; this house is ours; please keep it, its yours).

With all of this in mind, it should be easy to correct the its’-it’s-its confusion in one’s writing.

On Dialogic Consistency In Fiction

If, in your fiction writing, you can describe something in but a single word, sentence or paragraph, but choose instead to write in excess of the requisite amount for the task-to-hand, pause to consider precisely why. There are, sometimes, good reasons for writing in excess of the amount for the task-to-hand, but if due consideration of the reason(s) for the length of one’s writing is not paid, one places oneself in danger of waxing unduly wordy and this, in turn, can entail a whole host of additional problems (such as the inducement of bordem to the reader through repition, given that the more you describe a single, discrete thing, the more likely you are to repeat yourself and at a certain point this becomes superfluous; for instance, there are only so many ways to describe the roundness of a ball and, generally speaking, a limited need to do so).

One example of such a exception would be what I term dialogic consistency, by which I mean: writing in keeping with the verbal style of a particular character (such as a loquacious individual). The principal of dialogic consistency can best be described by an illustration; let us turn our attention to the cover image, which contains two figures, from left to right: a chic woman and a suave man, respectively. Let us call them Stacy and Sven and let us further flesh out the characters by attributing to Stacy a extremely loquacious, easily-distracted and gossipy turn and to Sven, let us attribute the faculties of precision and focus in combination with an extreme stoicism. In this example, when writing both of these characters in conversation, from the above descriptions alone, one would write Stacy in a far more wordy and talkative way (because Sven is by nature, reserved).

The best test of a writer’s dialogic consistency can be found in whether or not the reader can differentiate characters in conversation by their dialogue alone (without the writer telling the reader who is speaking, either directly or indirectly). Let us use Stacy and Sven to illustrate.

“Oh, hey, hey, come here – I almost forgot to tell you. Kelly is pregnant. I know right. Totally out of the blue. But Joey doesn’t know so… don’t tell him or anything. Ok?”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Ok, good, so anyways… Why do you look so glum?”

“I don’t like keeping secrets.”

Now from this brisk exchange alone, after some comparative study, we must determine whether or not the most average of readers would be able to pick out which speaker is Stacy and which is Sven. As you likely were able to tell, the first speaker is Stacy and the second is Sven; this process will, of course, be made easier on less discerning readers in a lengthier text where the speakers are referred to (at least once) before speaking, in some variation of the form: Stacy, whirled around around the corner, squealing with glee, “Oh, hey, hey… etc”.

Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Prt.5 [Coda]

Those that wish to shift any power structure will need to pervade not just in the military, the media and the legislation-complex but also in the arts.

– A Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Part. 4

In the previous installment of this series I briskly documented the strange case of the self-styled “Leftist Fight Club,” created by the organization, Knights of Socialism (no, really, that’s what they call themselves) of the University of Central Florida. The group was inspired by the film Fight Club which was, in turn, inspired by the fictional novel of the same name by freelance journalist and transgressive novelist, Chuck Palahniuk. I illustrated this organization due to how starkly it showed the way in which art can work as a model for human action (outside of a momentary shaping of consciousness – that is to say, that which moves well beyond merely evoking a, “Ah, that’s cool.”). But it is far from a isolated incident.

Art as a model for human action.  (continued)

Casting our attention back in time to the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte we can see the power of dynamic art to sway the minds and hearts of men by the numerous cartoons which were printed by the British to defame him after that once venerable sovereignty had set its sights upon the newly founded French Empire.

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The Plumb-Pudding In Danger, by James Gillray. The pictured-above is the most famous of the Napoleonic Cartoons & features the Emperor himself [right] seated across from British Prime Minister, William Pitt [left].
Such ridiculous caricatures upset the Emperor nearly as much as it amused its target demographics. In fact, the artwork so perturbed Napoleon (who as a master statesman knew well enough the import of “optics”) that he attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the British newspapers to suppress them which only further inflamed the pre-war tensions between the two countries and invariably contributed to Britain’s ultimate decision to topple the new, and seemingly ever-expanding, French regime. The British, however, were not the only one’s utilizing art to their political ends, for Napoleon himself commissioned numerous paintings of himself, typically highly romanticized, after each of his successful battles to the effect that every battle was garnished in a aura of sacrality. The most popular of these numerous portraits, Napoleon Crossing The Alps, is still endlessly reproduced today.

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Napoleon Crossing The Alps by Jacques-Louis David

But let us return to our central concern, writing, and flash forth to 1909, Paris.

Le Figuro has just published a most shocking text upon the front page of their magazine.

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“Housing with external lifts and connection systems to different street levels”, from La Città Nuova, by Futurist Architect, Antonio Sant’Elia

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.

The text, penned by the avante-garde Alexandrian-Italian poet, F.T. Marinetti,  venerate the arrival of the machinic age and establish, “-war as the world’s only hygiene-,” and “-scorn for woman-,” as well as a whole host of revolutionary political aspirations which were as negatory and violet as they were prescient and constructive. The document would go on to spawn the socio-political art movement known as Futurism (not to be confused with Futurology – someone who is interested in prospective technology, a term which, today, is often used interchangeably with what we shall call lowercase ‘futurism’). The Futurists in their near 40 year reign, lead by Marinetti, aided in the creation of Fascism, guided the rise of Mussolini, championed both World Wars (and fought in them), pioneered the arts with the creation of noise music and free word poetry and inspired three of the most well known modern art movements, Dada, Vorticism and Surrealism – all three of which, in turn, continue in their own subtle ways, to influence art to this very day.

The reason futurism was so successful is that, despite it’s chaotic veneer, it, rather uniquely, was expressly designed and consciously, methodically implemented into every sphere of life. There were futurist theories on war, aesthetics,  dance, music, politics (they advocated for women’s suffrage and sexual liberation for the express purpose of destabilizing society). They even had futurist cook books. But more than all of the ephermera, Futurism was a philosophy of life, wherein one strove ever to extend and glorify, not just one’s self, but the whole of the world even at the cost of its selfsame destruction. It was the endless, ceaseless, remorseless, ripping away of all that which was stultified and corrosive and hurling oneself at the world with, as Marinetti put it, “-ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.”

 

All this from a five page short-story/manifesto written by a relatively unknown, non-native-born poet.

Remember that when next you doubt the efficacy of your penmanship.

Lift up your heads!

Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl defiance to the stars!

-ending verse of the Futurist Manifesto