Friday, November 8, 2013

Writing Remnants: Style Epiphany

Many of you reading this are probably wondering why it has taken me so long to post anything.  Well, let me tell you... I've been blogging plenty.  Or at least I've been working on many different posts, but haven't finished them.  They all have good concepts mind; my problem is that I want them all to really mean something.  Words are so important, after all, and I want my words to make an impact... not to just float around in cyber space where a few people might read them in their spare time but won't really glean anything from them.  So I've been polishing these posts, refining them, working them over as a jeweler might cut and polish a precious stone to bring out its shine and perfection.

But tonight, I was struck with something so profound to my writings that I simply had to share it.

Recently I have immersed myself in two separate books -- one, a how-to book on writing titled "Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-This-World Novels and short stories" and joint-written by Orson Scott Card, Phillip Athans, and Jay Lake (and the editors of Writers Digest), and the other is "Ender's Game" written by Orson Scott Card.

Now, the entire first part of the writing how-to book was written by Orson Scott Card and I found myself absolutely devouring his advise.  One thing that stuck the most had to do with the different types of stories, or what he called "The MICE Quotient".  To Paraphrase Mr. Card's explanation, there are four major elements which are present in every story: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.  However, while all of these elements may be present in a story, usually one dominates over the others.

With this in mind, I started looking through my stories and trying to decide which category they fell under.  I found that most of my stories tend to fall under the "Event" category, with strong undercurrents of "Character" in them.  The "Event" story, something is wrong with the fabric of the universe or something is out of order; basically, the whole story is based around this event that needs to or does happen.  As is said in the book [Chapter 3, page 82]:

"This can include the appearance of a monster (Beowulf), the "unnatural" murder of a king by his brother (Hamlet) or a guest by his host (Macbeth), the breaking of an oath (Havelock the Dane), the conquest of a Christian land by the infidel (King Horn), the birth of a child portent who some believe ought to have been born (Dune), or the reappearance of a powerful ancient adversary who is thought to be long dead (The Lord of the Rings).   

Mr. Card goes on to say that almost ALL fantasy and a lot of science fiction tends to use the event story structure.  A lot of my stories (though not all of them) tend to revolve around the last option of the above quote... usually there is some powerful adversary that arrives and must be defeated somehow.  The structure itself might be predictable, of course, but my hope is that I put a fresh twist on the story that no one else has seen before (of that, we have yet to be sure).

But see, there is this.  Like I said earlier, while almost all of my stories tend to fall into the "Event" category, all of them have strong undercurrents of "Character" in them.  As Mr. Card says, the character story is a story about the transformation of a characters role in the communities that matter most to him.  He goes on to say that the structure of a Character Story is as simple as any of the others, with the story beginning at the moment when the MC becomes so unhappy, impatient, or angry in his present role that he begins the process of change, and the story ends when the character either settles into a new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not).  He also says that the character's attempt to change doesn't have to be a conscious decision, but instead an inadvertent move or an instinctive seizing of opportunity.

Now, when I was reading through Mr. Card's explanation of the MICE Quotient, I found myself not only comparing all of my stories with his four categories of story, but also comparing different stories I've read and am reading to see in which category they fall in.  One of the books I've been reading (and only just finished, actually... it was excellent... ) was Orson Scott Card's own "Ender's Game".  I've been wanting to read the book for a long time, long before I ever learned it was going to be a movie, though I will admit that that was a motivation to get the book read as quickly as possible.  And here is something I discovered about Mr. Card's book that was extremely interesting to me specifically because of reading the other writing how-to book: "Ender's Game" is almost entirely a character story.

Of course, other readers could have read Ender's story without ever reading "Writing fantasy and Science Fiction", and they probably easily could have told me this.  But for me, having read Mr. Card's explanation of that type of story really made me analyze the characters in the book, and not just the characters alone, but also Mr. Card's choices for his characters.  I found myself thinking things like, "Who was Ender before, who was he really?  What did he become?  Why?  What drove him there?", but then I would also find myself asking other questions simultaneously along the lines of, "Why did Mr. Card chose that particular situation?  What did the character gain from it?  What did he loose?  How was this instance used to foreshadow events later on in the book?  How did this event reflect on an earlier even in the book?  How did Mr. Card connect these two events, and how did he make it effect his main character, and the characters around his main character?"

Yes, this type of analyzing is very much a writing thing.  It is very probable that not many readers who are not writers would ever try to analyze the choices of another writer in order to get an idea of how the whole story fit together and why... and they certainly wouldn't do so in their free-time for pleasure.    Literature classes try to do something similar to this, and they pick apart works by Shakespeare and other literary geniuses in the hopes that some of the kids will somehow find the information useful, but the truth is that half the kids in those classes don't understand what they are doing or why they have to do it. Most of the time you will notice it is those students who have some deep internal connection with words and writing that understand those classes best.  And these are the students that will take the most away with them.

What sets my books apart from "Ender's Game" is this:

"Ender's Game" is all about this little boy who is ultimately trained to become the best battle tactition, strategist, and commander the world has ever seen... and he is trained to become this through a series of high-tech games.  To Ender, the games are many things... they are a way of life, they are training, they are school... and yes, they are also just games -- something he is good at, a puzzle, something to figure out, and sometimes fun.  From the beginning of the book to the very end, we watch and sees and Ender sees, and feel as he feels.  There is, of course, an event that the book is leading up to (the ultimate defeat of the alien buggers who had attacked Earth years and years before and had been driven off) but that is not the true point of the story.  The true purpose of this book is not to see how the buggers are defeated.   The true purpose of this book is to watch Ender evolve from a little boy of 6 first entering into battle school, into a much more mature boy of 11 who becomes the greatest Star Fleet Commander of all time... and how Ender deals with it.  This book is all about its character.  If it were all about its event, it would be an entirely different story.

Taking this into account though, sometimes I wonder if my books aren't actually Character stories after all.  Can a story be both a character story and an event story in equal parts?  I don't know.  I think about "Song of the Daystar" and "Eldrei" and "The Cinder Beast" and all the other books that I have started or plan to start, and I have to wonder, because without their events, these books have no story at all... none.  I feel like Ender's Game could have had a different event and the story of Ender would have been similar because of how that book's whole purpose was its character.  I don't feel like that with my books.  Without there own events -- their exact events -- don't think my stories would not exist, or else they would be completely and totally changed.

And yet...

And yet it's hard for me to call my stories simply "Event Stories" when I know how extremely, EXTREMELY important their specific characters with their characters' specific traits, personalities, and evolutions are to them.  I have a thing for characters... especially well developed and evolving ones.  I want my characters and my events to work hand in hand so thoroughly that the story cannot be itself if one element is given precedence over the other.

But is this even possible?  I want to say it is, but as I start looking back through my library of read books, I begin to wonder...  They are all pretty easily categorized as one or the other.

Tolkien's LOTR is an Event story.
The Inheritance Series is an Event story.
Ender's Game is obviously a Character story.
Graceling is a Character story, as is its sequel, Fire.
The Blood of Kings books revolve strictly around an Event... the characters are extremely important to that event but they are not the main story in and of themselves.
Failstate is a character story from beginning to end.
The Wingfeather Saga is an event story.
So is the Auralia strand.
And "The Book of Names" and all its sequels

The list goes on and on.

Actually, there is one book that I can't decide on.  I want to say that "A Cast of Stones" is a character story, but it's hard to tell.  The event is important, but wouldn't exist (at least not in the same way) without its main character, and likewise the main character wouldn't become who he is without the event.  There is not one without the other -- they are so closely tied, that they are almost, if not completely, one and the same.  This is the sort of thing I want to happen with "Song of the Daystar", and I have discovered that it is a difficult balance to create.

So, while analyzing my own books using the MICE Quotient, I have come to some interesting conclusions about my writing and myself as a writer:

1) Yes I am definitely an event writer, but that doesn't always define my stories.  I like to take an event and use it in an attempt to develop my characters to such an extent that one cannot exist without the other.  Does that automatically make my stories event stories?  I really don't know... I guess that's ultimately up to the reader to decide.

2) This was not always the case. In earlier attempts at novels, a lot of my characters were flat and uninteresting, and the whole story revolved entirely around the event.  These first few stories were really not good... They will probably never see the light of day again, at least not without some EXTENSIVE revisions.  But then again, writing is a success by trial and error type of art... without doing, one cannot learn.

3) I would like to someday write several stories using each of the four elements in the MICE Quotient as the main element of a book.  Specifically, though, I would like to use the character element.  Whereas right now I use an event to develop my characters, I wonder what it would be like to take a character and use him or her to develop an event.

4) I am honestly quiet terrified and intimidated by the idea of #3.  I have several story ideas right now that I could attempt it with, but I'm not sure how to start.

I suppose I will have to stretch myself.  It's hard to grow if you are comfortable where you are.  I'm very comfortable right now with the way that I write stories, and so I don't explore the art nearly as much as I used to.  Perhaps its time to get uncomfortable again.  Perhaps its time to grow.  


Toby said...

Great thought's here!

I need to get my hands on this "Writing Fantasy and science fiction book".

Star-Dreamer said...

Toby, it is definitely a book worth looking into! :D

Emilyn J Clover said...

I think that if the character development feels more important than the events happening, then it's probably a character story.

But then again, events force the best and worst of our characters to come out. Circumstances force the characters to show their inner thoughts bare.

Anonymous said...

I think character driven stories are the key to finding a writer's unique voice and style.

Most events, if not actually all of them, have already been written about. But how characters see, think, and react to these events is what will be unique to every writer and the writer will inject their own unique feelings and viewpoint into how these events are recieved by their characters.

There are a lot of successful books out that are basically re-tellings of prior stories/premises/themes, but the characters and how they see, feel, and react, are what make the re-tellings different. Just my 2 cents on the subject of character stories. :)

Star-Dreamer said...

Writer4Christ and Anon: Exactly. The events of the story drive our characters to be the best they can be, but it is how the characters react to those events that really MAKE the story. ^_^

Anonymous said...

Yes, the characters' reactions make the story more interesting and also make the story more "character based" because the characters' reactions can shape how the story progresses.

One way to make the story more "character based" is to have the progress of the story dependent on the main character's transformation. The character must transform in some way such as physically or psychologically. Like, for example, if the protagonist transformed into a physical hero through training, or transformed psychologically into a hero by overcoming some emotional baggage or obstacles.

Like in "The Matrix" when Neo had to not only physically transform through training, he also had to psychologically transform by believing that he is "The One".

Here are links to a video series on YouTube that talks about a 7 point system for story structure. The 7 point system is actually "The Hero's Journey" and can be used for the main plot and each subplot as well.
Beginning on part 4 of the series at time 7:12, author Dan Wells shows how a subplot based on "character" is woven into the main "action" based plot of "The Matrix":

"Dan Wells on Story Structure, part 1 of 5"

"Dan Wells on Story Structure, part 2 of 5"

"Dan Wells on Story Structure, part 3 of 5"

"Dan Wells on Story Structure, part 4 of 5"

"Dan Wells on Story Structure, part 5 of 5"