Category Archives: Observations

Spinoffs And Gaidens

Creating good follow ups to a franchise can be an incredible challenge. As I covered before, the very act of making prequels and sequels is filled with pitfalls around the very idea of resolutions. A bad prequel or sequel can either prove to have no resolution or will derail the resolution of an entry that came before. But some prequels and sequels, often the most successful, are those which can stand solely on their own and find resolution from within. In fact, some of these prequels and sequels could be seen as spin-offs due to their detached nature. But, in actuality, these stories that exist between a prequel/sequel and a side-story tend to fall into something a little different than simply a spin-off, entering the domain of something the Japanese would refer to as a “gaiden”.

A word simply meaning “side story” or “tale” in Japanese, the gaiden is a supplementary anecdote or event to another work. Technically, by definition, all spin-offs are gaidens and all gaidens are spin-offs, but the differences lie mostly in the approach. In fact, the gaiden is so prevalent in Japanese culture that it’s responsible for bolstering several branches of their entertainment industry from “light novels” to “radio dramas” (which they amazingly still have over there). And, though you’ve likely never heard the term before, you’ll recognize most of the earmarks. In fact, when you become familiar with the approach to a “gaiden”, you start to realize something:

Most of the best spin-offs are gaidens… Continue reading Spinoffs And Gaidens

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What Most Rejections Really Mean

Rejection, it sucks. If you’re here, you’ve probably followed this link from somewhere on twitter or facebook where writers share tips, advice or pep-talks and, unfortunately, that probably means you know the fear of the rejection letter.

Though, hey, at least you’re not Jim Lee

It’s easy for us to think, because we got that letter, that it says something about the actual quality of our story. Even if it’s just the opinion of one person, that opinion is devastating because it holds the weight of someone who, at the very least, has control over your career for however long it may be in front of them. And, with an opinion of that weight, it’s hard not to take it personally. But there’s something that people need to understand about rejections, something that’s hard to grasp:

If you’re ready, they rarely have anything to do with you. Continue reading What Most Rejections Really Mean

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A Tale With No Villain

Learning how to write is built largely on the idea of formulas. You’ll find many students and early writers follow these formulas almost religiously and sometimes, despite their best efforts, they never quite escape them. Time and time again you’ll find stories out there which could best be described as “formulaic” and it’s never intended as a compliment. Unfortunately, breaking away from it can be challenging because rarely do lesson plans include a guide on how to break the mold they so carefully made for you.

One of the examples of this is the idea of how the cast should be constructed. With certain roles being absolutely necessary to the idea of a story to tell, such as a protagonist, it’s easy to understand why. You wouldn’t want to go telling a story that has no protagonist or main character of any sort, as there has to be someone for the audience to relate to. You also wouldn’t want that character to have no one to interact with, because then there’s nothing to provide some of the texture the story arc would so badly need. But often there’s a sense that all roles mentioned in a typical formula are 100% necessary outside of the protagonist even when that isn’t necessarily true.

For instance, not every story requires an antagonist… Continue reading A Tale With No Villain

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Prequels, Sequels, And Resolutions

We live in a world today where having a “franchise” is incredibly important for writers of every kind. Films are the most visible of this, especially in a post-Avengers world, but it’s also long been true of other forms as well. Writing a film that removes all possibility of a sequel or spin-off of some sort is generally a good way to get executives meddling in your work. Having a television series that couldn’t somehow generate a spin-off or be part of a “universe” is gradually becoming taboo. Comic books and video games are expected to be part of a long running series, sometimes to the detriment of both. And, even as an author of novels, someone who manages to land a book deal is signed for more than one book of the same series. In fact, one could argue that even if you only make stand alone projects, if they keep getting money – you are the franchise.

But that leads to the inevitable problem of prequels and sequels struggling to succeed. It’s well known that making a good sequel can be pretty difficult and making a good prequel is thought at times to be nearly impossible. More than once I’ve heard other writers and critics talk about how a good prequel is something that just can’t be done. And sequels, though recognized to be capable of being good, are generally approached with great caution. Yet, it’s impossible to ignore that some series of books and similar projects wouldn’t have been quite as good as a single stand-alone entry. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and many others just wouldn’t have been the same without multiple entries building their lore. Though, a word to some, this doesn’t mean you divide a stand alone book into multiple films.

Still, despite these successes, you would be much harder pressed to find a prequel that everyone can agree is somewhat good. In fact, I’ve had prolonged conversations with people who insisted that prequels not only fail but tend to ruin or cheapen the thing they were a prequel to. Frankly, with Star Wars showing us how much prequels can be utterly loathed, you couldn’t blame someone for that idea. And yet, many who hated the Star Wars prequels have had to admit that they were pretty fond of… a Star Wars prequel.

So the question comes, just what exactly divides good prequels and sequels from the bad? When the topic comes up people tend to have a laundry list of things that a prequel or sequel needs to be “good”. However, the items on those lists are usually things you need for any story to be good anyway. So why would it be that it’s easier to write a stand alone than it is to write good sequels and prequels, and just how did the ones that pulled it off manage to do so?

In my opinion, it boils down to one thing: resolutions. Continue reading Prequels, Sequels, And Resolutions

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Monday Musing: What Our Afterlives Say About Us

Recently I wrote about the potential drawbacks of immortality and, funny enough, I haven’t stopped thinking about mortality since. We’re the only animals on this planet that understand we’re here for a finite time. From the day we first learn what death is, we know on some level that it’ll eventually be our turn. When we’re young, it doesn’t quite occur to us day to day, but we still feel it on some level. And when we’re older – well some of us can’t stop thinking about it. The fear of death, in one way or another, shapes our very lives as we decide how we want to spend what little time we have here.

And a result of this, as I mentioned last week, is that the very idea of religion is often an attempt at finding a way out. Mythology has often dealt with the ideas of the natural world and explaining what’s around us. We have gods of thunder to explain why lightning streaks across the sky and the world rumbles like the clash of a mighty hammer. We tell stories of how all the world’s ills came from a box opened in a moment of curiosity or eating the wrong fruit. It’s in our nature to personify the forces of the world around us. But your religion, if you’re honest with yourself, is almost always about your mortality – a fact I forgot to mention when writing on how to go about treating the faith of fictional characters.

Many would say that your religion is what you believe in, but there are systems of belief out there which are fairly anti-religious. Others would say that a belief in a god of some sort is required, but there are forms of Buddhism with no gods to speak of. And, of course, some would say the rites and rituals are what make a religion and that you’re otherwise just spiritual – but once again I don’t quite agree. I’ve personally interacted with people who aren’t Wiccan but will still practice some of their rituals. To them, it’s simply a mythology, even if it’s a religion for someone else. And we’ve all known people who hold a religion but don’t stick to the traditions. In fact, many think that someone who does try to stick to all of their traditions zealously is not of sound mind.

So, while these religions may have all of those beliefs and rituals, the one thing holding them above simple mythology is that people believe in their version of the afterlife. And the funny thing is, because it’s so important to these belief systems, that afterlife says a lot about the people that believe in it.
Continue reading Monday Musing: What Our Afterlives Say About Us

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Immortality and the Mind

As human beings the one thing that is universal among all of us is that we will eventually die. Try as we might, you can’t avoid it. Modern medicine, technology, and society have allowed us to extend our lifetimes to twice as long as our ancestors, sometimes even longer, but we still have to face that one outcome in the hopefully distant future. Not that the fact we all owe a death doesn’t stop people from trying to get out of it. Hell, in ways we’ve built entire cultures around the desire to find a loophole.

When you really think about it, religions are based on this idea that we can somehow be eternal. Sure, there may be explanations for the world that create mythologies with a pantheon of gods or a single almighty deity, but the actual crux of a religion is that there is some part of us that is eternal and everlasting. If you do the right thing in the right religion you’ll go on as an eternal soul, or be reincarnated into a new life, or break free of the bounds of human mortality. It’s undeniable that we’ve gone a long way to follow stories of immortality – even inventing gunpowder.

So it should be no surprise to anyone that speculative fiction is full of possible ways out of it. Immortal beings have been a staple of fantasy for as long as “fantasy” has even existed. Methods of achieving a higher state of existence have been fairly common in fantasy and sci-fi for almost as long. And with modern medicine slowly creeping its way to resolving the biological aspect of aging, sci-fi still has new avenues to explore on the subject. Aliens, demons, gods and other entities walk through these stories timeless and unaging, a pinnacle of the dream that so many of us have and presenting to some a hope that maybe we could do the same someday – possibly before it’s our turn.

But then the question becomes: would we want it if we had it? Continue reading Immortality and the Mind

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Monday Musing: Beyond “Disbelief”

In today’s era it’s fairly well established that everyone understands the importance of a suspension of disbelief. Long ago it was a bit less likely that someone would be compelled to stop reading or watching a story in the middle because of their lack of belief. The reason for it is fairly simple: most fiction at one time was thought to reflect the real world and how it works. Even the most fantastic of stories from those eras was, in part, believed to be representative of the world as it was. The earliest plays to feature gods and monsters were telling stories from the religions of the era. Works like Dante’s Inferno were, at the very least, thought to be a theory into what the afterlife might actually have been. And Shakespeare, while pushing some boundaries and making up some shit as he went (particularly words), was generally writing about events that everyone believed could happen – witches included.

So it often gets overlooked that suspension of disbelief, in its current form, is really a fairly new concept in the grand scheme. Sure, there was always a need for the audience to believe irrational behaviors, but the scenarios were generally plausible. This really applied to almost everything, no matter how silly or believable it may sound to us in the modern day. Two families bitterly feuding with each other and tearing young lovers apart? Happens all the time. Zeus getting frisky with a village girl in the shape of a bull? According to the things people used to believe…apparently that happened all the time too. So what we have as “suspension of disbelief” today is not necessarily what they used to have in the days of yore.

And this is a problem for writers and even audiences because that means, at times, it’s hard to gauge just when suspension of disbelief is going to become an issue. It’s especially true in speculative fiction genres that push some limits because we often find that audiences will reject something even after they’ve accepted something far less mundane. We’ve all encountered a situation where someone will believe that a character can fly, but then seemingly become irrationally upset with how believable another element of the story happens to be. As you’ve likely heard before, “you believe that man has superpowers, but this is where you draw the line?”

As far as suspension of disbelief is concerned, you would think that the more ridiculous premise would be the part rejected, not the more mundane aspects. For a long time I couldn’t quite reconcile these concepts myself. But recently something clicked for me that hadn’t in the past as I came to realize that there was something other than suspension of disbelief at play here. Because it’s ostensibly part of the idea of “suspension of disbelief”, it often gets overlooked as being something of a distinct phenomenon. It’s the root cause of those weird moments where someone will believe in a talking dragon but not in a character’s actions.

I call it… Continue reading Monday Musing: Beyond “Disbelief”

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Mythology Monday: Trapping A Leprechaun

As spring time rolls around and certain holidays come to pass, a few questions inevitably start popping up. Our modern holidays, inspired long ago by more ancient traditions, don’t make a lot of sense to us in our modern frames of reference. For instance, the Easter Bunny references a spring hare that traveled with some old European deities. Coloring eggs for Easter is part of an old Norse tradition representing the dawn. And, as for St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a whole lot we don’t fully understand about these little bastards.

The Leprechaun as we know them today have been changed repeatedly over the course of centuries. Beginning as part of Irish folklore, they’ve since become entwined with Irish stereotypes and traditions that have long since lost meaning.  With even the origin of their name not being entirely clear, with some sources citing “little people” and others saying it was referring to their jobs as shoe cobblers, it makes sense they didn’t stay firm in all that time. Even the color they wear and the way they behave has been altered to suit contemporary mindsets over the ages. By this point, they’re essentially an inkblot test of how you feel about the Irish – for better or worse.

But one thing that hasn’t really changed much about Leprechauns over the ages is the fact that they are magical, lucky, and generally holders of great wealth. Some stories say this is due to their workaholic nature, acting in a miserly fashion and hoarding every coin they could possibly get. Others say that it’s due to their magical nature and ability to do things no human could. And some even say they found the treasures lost or buried by people and simply kept them. But all variations of this story generally have one unifying detail: If you can capture the little shits, they have to bargain their way free – potentially even giving you the location to their treasure (which is one of the few things they’re bound to tell the truth on).

Just one problem for you: they’re trickster spirits, and they’re not about to go down willingly. Continue reading Mythology Monday: Trapping A Leprechaun

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Peculiar Inspiration: Writers And Acting

As I’ve often said before, I tend to approach the world as a bit of a classroom. Everything you read, watch, take part in, or experience is something that can inspire your writing and make you a stronger storyteller. Your life experiences are easy enough to explain, they form the well you draw from to inform your characters and stories. What you read or watch is just as easy, giving you a look into the viewpoints of others and seeing what the rest of your genre might be like. But for some things it can be hard to quantify the benefits to writers. These I’ve come to call “peculiar inspirations”. “Peculiar inspirations” are things that seemed like common sense to me, only to later find out that they weren’t much common sense at all.

Years ago, while a friend was in school for screenwriting, I mentioned to her how I thought it would be a good idea if writing programs would have their students take an acting class as well. I’d taken two years of speech and drama myself in high school and another friend had a mandatory class as part of her animation program. And, while I can’t say how well it helps animators, I can say for a fact that my writing after that class made great advancements. In fact, while it may not make sense to everyone, that drama class actually worked as a turning point in my life. Though I’ve learned a lot since that day, that class turned out to be the time my writing started to resemble something “professional”. Of course I would suggest someone else do the same thing.

My friend’s reaction made it seem like I told her every writer should learn how to fly a plane.

Her argument, and arguments I’ve heard from others, is that writers and actors fill different roles and need to know different things. The two people fill very different roles within the industry and have to have very different skill-sets in order to be considered good at what they do. And this is entirely true, the skill-sets required to be a good actor are not exactly the same as the skill-sets required to be a good writer. But I never actually suggested that writers needed to be good actors, nor that an actor would be a good writer. Rather, what I suggested, and took a while to explain, is that in the process of trying to act, even for a bit, you learn something that is difficult for humans to grasp on a fundamental level: putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Continue reading Peculiar Inspiration: Writers And Acting

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World Building: Fictional Faiths

Building a world is more than just the broad strokes. Every bit of finer detail gives a new layer of depth to your work that makes it feel more like a real, breathing world for your audience. It’s not that you want to bog people down in these details, but it’s good to have them available for when you can pepper them in without getting in the way of your story.  And this is particularly true when you’re creating a world with more than just your run of the mill humans. If you’re including sentient creatures that don’t exist in our world, they need to feel like a real race.

A key aspect of making them feel real  is establishing a culture for these creatures. Maybe they have their own kinds of music, their own foods, their traditions and rituals. Each of these is the sort of thing you’d expect to learn about another group of people in passing and learning it in passing about fictional characters can totally make them feel less fictional.

But this leads into some weird questions when you come to matters like faith. Religion, while not absolutely necessary, is part of the human condition. Even when you don’t actually believe in it, you’re still in part defined by the fact that you don’t believe in the same things other people do. It’s almost impossible to get through life without it coming up at some point, so it would be just as impossible for your characters to go on forever without it coming up in their lives. Perhaps it’s not something addressed in a specific story, but it still shapes a world view.

And this is the sort of thing you see handled quite well in some of the better speculative fiction. Alien races inevitably have an alien religion and those beliefs end up influencing their actions even when it’s not at the forefront. Even in a retcon it comes to make sense of things that previously would have seemed one dimensional. Why do the Klingons have such a war-like nature? Because they believe that where you end up in the afterlife depends on how much you lived like their warrior prophet Kahless who is essentially the violent Klingon version of King Arthur elevated to a messiah figure.

He even left a shiny sword

However, when the creatures in question are a little closer to home, like in a fantasy setting, the idea of these religions often becomes something of an afterthought. Because they’re from Earth it’s assumed they believe in one of the common Earth-born religions even if that doesn’t entirely make sense. As a result we often have three approaches taken towards these creatures. The first is to simply assign them whatever is the most popular religion of their time and location, regardless of levels of interaction with humans. The second is to give them the faith prevalent in the mythology of their origin. And the third, when people want to buck this trend, is to apply what I prefer to call the “triangle philosophy” based on the adage, “if triangles had a god, he would have three sides”.

In the end, following these approaches without careful consideration can be half-assed because if you’ve followed this blog you’ll know sometimes those triangles might really be squares… Continue reading World Building: Fictional Faiths

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