Thursday, February 28, 2013

What I Learned at LTUE 31

If your first question is, "What the heck is LTUE?", then maybe you need to start out at our group blog: That saves me from the redundancy of explaining it twice.

LTUE this year was fantastic. Even after four years of attending this conference, I'm still learning new things about writing, publishing, storytelling, sci-fi and fantasy in general, and networking. I got to chat with and learn from several of my writing mentors such as Tracy Hickman, David Wolverton/Farland, Eric James Stone, and Brad R. Torgersen. I met several new authors like, Dan Willis and Eric Swedin. And I got to hang out with my writing group friends and make new friends as well.

I attended some very interesting panels on things such as What You Need to Know About Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Space Travel without Warp Drive, and How to Write Humor without Slapstick. I intend to post articles in the coming weeks and months about each of the subjects I learned from at LTUE, but decided to start off by sharing what I learned from a panel called: Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned From The Matrix, by J. Scott Savage.

I love the Matrix. It's arguably one of the best science fiction stories of all time. Just the original, mind you. The sequels are arguably some of the worst sequels of all time. But the original story is brilliant. On this panel, Scott Savage broke down what makes this story so great, not by breaking down each scene or beat, but by looking at the structure of the tale and how it captures our hearts and minds.

The first thing that Scott talked about was starting your story with a conflict. Most new writers today don't follow this concept. They want to show their protagonist in everyday life to give us a sense of what's normal before the conflict arises, or they want to build up the world before they introduce their characters, or they want to give us a history lesson to "properly" frame the tale. This is inevitably boring for the reader. The author may find it fascinating because they spent so much time creating this world, but we, the readers, just don't care.
You start with conflict to draw the reader in. If your story isn't built to begin with your protagonist in conflict, then put someone else in conflict first. The Matrix starts with Trinity getting cornered by the police. There is a quick fight scene, a chase between Trinity and the Agents, and it ends with Agent Smith smashing the phone booth Trinity was just in with a dump truck, though she mysteriously escapes. This creates intrigue. This hooks the reader. And this all takes place before we ever meet Neo.

As mentioned above, you may have an encyclopedia of backstory and world history that you've developed for your story. Don't tell it all right up front. I know you may be anxious to get it out, but the more you can hold back from the reader, the more intrigue you will create. The best way to withhold this information is to keep your characters busy, keep them constantly moving forward so there is no time for them to sit back and study the situation. They have to learn on the fly and thus so will your readers.

Success and Failure cycles are very important to a story. The best way to make your protagonist's successes emotionally powerful, and therefore the story emotionally powerful, is to first make them fail. A lot. Over and over. The more they fail, the more we root for them. And it creates believability. Most people don't succeed the first time. If you're a writer, you already know what I'm talking about. And some people never succeed. Make the reader accept the possibility that the hero might fail. It keeps the reader on guard and makes your story unpredictable. 

Take every opportunity to increase the tension in your story. The more tense it can be, the better. Scott gave a list of six ways to ratchet up your tension:
  1. Isolation: Isolate your character physically, emotionally, or psychologically, so they feel alone in some way. At the end of The Matrix Neo gets cut off from everyone else when Agent Smith shoots the phone line just after Trinity escapes.
  2. Disorientation: Put your character in a situation they are not familiar with. Your character needs to discover the world around them. No one in the story is less familiar with the Matrix than Neo, even the little kids at the Oracle's place.
  3. Misdirection: Get the character to focus on something other than what is really going to happen. Ask yourself, What do I want the reader to see, and what do I want them to miss? The Oracle tells Neo he's not The One, so he (and we) don't think he is until Morpheus tells him the Oracle was telling him, "...exactly what [he] needed to hear."
  4. Bigger Obstacles: Give the character an impossible obstacle, then make it stronger, or increased in numbers. Neo is told that fighting one Agent is akin to suicide. Then at the end, he faces three.
  5. Time Limits: An artificial time limit can increase the tension greatly. This doesn't necessarily mean a ticking bomb. Neo has to get back to the Nebuchadnezzar before the Sentries tear it apart.
Finally, Scott pointed out something that in all my years of attending writing conferences, workshops, lectures, and writing groups, I’d never heard. And that is the idea of Tracking Your Characters’ Decisions. The best way to show what type of people your characters are is through the decisions they make. You can spend an entire story telling your readers that someone is good, or bad. But until they see that character decide to do something good, or something bad, it’s just words. 

Cora was a good person, in every way possible. She stood for justice and fought corruption wherever she found it. Thinking about this, she smiled as she cut the rope from which dangled the whimpering Senator Daye. As the senator plunged to his death, she knew she was doing the tax payers, even the world, a great favor.

See? I can tell you all I want that Cora is a good character. But her actions speak for her as she murders the good senator. Now this is a pretty simple example, but it also speaks to another point. Both your hero and your villain need to be anxiously engaged in a noble goal. Yes, even the villain, though what may seem like a noble goal to her, such as killing a corrupt politician, may still be viewed as evil by the hero and/or the reader.

If you haven’t seen The Matrix, and even if you have, go watch it. Watch for these elements throughout. Then watch some of your other favorite Hero’s Journey style stories such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and see if you can pick out these same elements. I guarantee you they’re there.

1 comment:

  1. I attended LTUE several years ago when Brandon Sanderson was the guest of honor, and Dan Wells also used the Matrix to describe his method of story plotting. It changed my life!

    That is just the first of 5 videos of his presentation. I was sitting like five rows back on the left. :)