While it may sound strange to say, there is a whole part of our culture who enjoy watching bad movies. I should know: I’m one of them. Heck, I even go so far as to make it a social activity. Bad movie nights are a regular event in my household. So, the obvious question is: Why do I (and many others) do it?
It’s funny to think that I’ve been blogging for years but, in all that time, I’ve never once sat down and wrote out why I’m doing this. I mean, if you’re here then you can probably guess the first reason: I like to write. I don’t know of a single author that doesn’t. And – surprise, surprise – even I don’t want to scribble down notes about fantastical worlds all the time, so blogging provides a refreshing alternative.
But it’s more than that. Blogging is a very public form of record keeping. If I just wanted to record private thoughts, I’d stick to my diary (which I update very infrequently these days). Instead, I publicly share thoughts, opinions, and stories with family, friends, and strangers.
Well – it’s definitely not because I think I have anything truly special to say. My opinions, even my controversial ones, are far from unique. And I’m far from the most eloquent person on the planet – but I guess that’s part of it.
I was taught that writers had to do two things: read and write. I work very hard to keep up with both of these demands. Blogging serves to satisfy the latter requirement. Novel writing is fun but tiring. Since I write in fantasy, I always have to be careful to keep my worlds straight. The last thing I want to do is defy history or leave a logic gap that doesn’t make sense with my characters.
It’s intense, and it’s a long process. The Dreamcatchers took years from its first scribbles to final publication, and Monsters Among Us and The Night Terrors still have a ways to go before they’re ready to be read. I don’t believe I’m the first author to be occasionally demoralized by the sheer scope of it all.
Writing a blog allows me to keep strengthening my “muscles” while enjoying a rapid success. I spend an hour instead of a year and immediately get the satisfying reward of publicly publishing something.
It’s helps me to feel a sense of accomplishment in that long period between publications. And it lets me feel a little better about myself during those weeks when I don’t make the progress I would like. Blog writing is like doing leg stretches when you’re supposed to be training for a marathon. It’s not the most productive thing I could be doing, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Working on Critical Thinking
A lot of the blogs I write are opinion posts, and there’s a reason for this. I have found that writing down an opinion greatly helps me get my thoughts in order. Almost everyone can say whether they liked something or not – it’s an emotional reaction we have. I’ve found, however, that fewer people can articulate their exact reasons. For a lot of people – including some of my friends – something is either “awesome” or “terrible” and that’s about it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Honestly, sometimes I envy it. I doubt they’ve ever woken up at 3 AM and then stayed awake because they couldn’t stop thinking about how bad Alien: Covenant was (such a waste of potential!!). What I do definitely feels obsessive on at least one level.
But it’s helpful. When I watch a movie, read a book, or play a game – I always try to think about the storytelling structure. More than that, I usually try to identify what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I would do to improve. I’ve found this exercise helpful when it comes to my own writing.
Blog writing is the final reinforcement. It’s like when I went to college – I’d remember the general idea of something if I just listened to the professor but, if I really wanted to memorize specifics, writing it down made it clearer.
I know art is subjective, but I try to write as objectively as possible (most of the time) to improve my critical thinking skills. Time will tell how helpful it is.
Charting Personal Growth
I am human. I will never claim otherwise. This means that I am a flawed individual. I make mistakes, do dumb things, write dumb articles – I’m far from perfect. If I were to list every blog post that I have had second thoughts about, this article would be either a short novella or a long short story.
That said, I find an advantage to recording my thoughts at the time. I feel that some people today have wrong expectations – they demand perfection from themselves and everyone else all the time. I don’t believe this should be our goal as a species. While it’s important to always try to do the right thing, it is just as important (in my view) to be constantly learning.
I have learned so much since I started writing this blog. I hope that I have been growing in a positive way that will make me a more mature, compassionate, and well-rounded individual. I’m not sure – but I’m doing my best. Going forward, I plan to write more explicitly about my growth and about how I’m still dealing with some of the more complex issues in today’s society.
I mean, all this is great but I still haven’t answered my main question: Why a public blog? Why do I put all this out there for the judgment of other people?
It’s who I am. I’m a writer – my job is to entertain and enlighten. Hopefully, at the end of my life, I will be able to look back and say I did both of these things. That or got filthy rich and made a real life Jurassic Park…one of the two.
Author William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” While some writers (like George R. R. Martin) may take this literally, I personally doubt that Mr. Faulkner meant to imply that you should send all your heroes to an early grave. No, he more likely meant that writers should not be afraid to abandon ideas, even their favorite ones.
When I write, I have many ideas that I personally love but make for bad storytelling. A lot of them involve my protagonists. Mainly, I don’t like to see my main characters get hurt. Well, a little hurt maybe – but not devastatingly crushed. While I’m sure my protagonists appreciate this – as much as any imaginary person can – it can make for a boring story.
In my last blog post, I talked about the unlikely hero character archetype. This person is always the last the reader expects to see saving the day. David defeats the giant Goliath with his wits and a well-placed stone. Well, imagine David didn’t fight a giant. What if he instead fought a middle-sized, slightly overweight man named Gerald? Suddenly the victory isn’t so fantastic.
This gets to the heart of today’s writing lesson: While you maybe shouldn’t kill all your darlings, don’t be afraid to beat them (emotionally or physically) to a bloody pulp.
Raising the stakes
Beating up your protagonist raises the stakes. David is fighting a man – not just any man, a giant – not just any giant – a warrior – not just any warrior, an undefeated warrior, someone everyone else is absolutely terrified of. At every increase of Goliath, David’s struggle seems more hopeless. However, it is making the reader that much more invested in the story. Beating an unbeaten warrior giant sounds a lot more interesting than getting the best of middle-aged Gerald.
Let me use a more personal example:
Throughout my blog you’re going to see a lot of criticism of my own writing, well let me begin with The Dreamcatchers. While I am overall pleased with my first effort, I won’t pretend it is perfect. In Dreamcatchers, the main villain is a night terror named Incubus. He’s a dangerous dude.
As a reader, you know this because he badly injures the protagonist early on, poisoning and nearly crippling him. In addition, he wins the next two encounters that he and the protagonist have. This sets up a final confrontation where it is unlikely that the protagonist (Vakarian) will win on his own.
While all this is great, part of me wished I had Incubus win more. One of the difficult aspects of The Dreamcatchers is that we never see the “real” world. Our main human character, Tony, is always asleep. Therefore it is difficult to see how Incubus is really threatening him – outside of disrupting his sleep patterns. I attempted to combat this problem by including a prologue where we see another human character suffer direct, substantial complications from a night terror attack.
Was it enough to raise the stakes? I’m not sure. I hope so. It is one of the issues I hope to address more in The Night Terrors.
Since my main human character was a child – and the book is young adult – part of me wanted to shield him from a life-and-death struggle, but this is not conducive to great writing. Look at the Harry Potter series: Aimed at (and starring) children, these books feature death, maiming, and a whole lot of broken limbs. I remember always feeling like Harry and his friends were in real danger – and that is what made their victories all the more incredible and satisfying.
To put it in simple terms: Your characters can’t get up if they don’t fall. While a stagger is less painful, it is also less interesting to read about.
Establishing a strong threat
Your protagonist isn’t the only one who benefits from a bruising plot line. One of the chief problems I see with villains today is that many of them are not very threatening. The conflict, especially in a lot of children’s entertainment, is often in stalemate – with the heroes achieving many more victories than the villains.
A huge example of this is the original Transformers cartoon. It opens with a grim situation: The war is practically over and the Autobots have all but lost. Their home planet – Cybertron – lies in the hands of the Decepticons. Megatron has more people, resources, and strategic locations. Despite this, he loses every single episode.
Suddenly Megatron doesn’t seem threatening. He’s cool – yes – but competent? He keeps a second-in-command who literally betrays him every third episode. Megatron is a victim of bad writing. He is never winning the situation because the heroes aren’t having any real challenges.
In contrast, the Megatron in Beast Wars wins every major struggle up to the end. This is made more impressive by the fact that he doesn’t have the resources of his predecessor, nor the manpower.
If you want to write a strong villain, they have to win at least 66% of the time. Not only does this make them a serious threat, it also makes it that much more satisfying when the hero prevails.
Producing a satisfying climax
A lot of this ties into plot structure. Here is the classic plot outline:
As you can see, everything builds to the climax. The higher that point is, the more satisfying it will feel to the reader. Everything in a story is functionally in service to the climax. All of the hero’s trials and failures make that final moment – that point of either victory or defeat – all the more meaningful.
If you haven’t truly endangered your protagonist in some way then expect this moment to hit without its full impact. If you’ve written a story about a relationship for instance, but we never doubt that it will end, then the moment of salvation will come off as less of a “YES!” and more of a “Oh yeah, makes sense…”
Again, in order to pick themselves up, the protagonist must fall, albeit not always literally.