Monday, August 19, 2019

I Create the Epic Final Fight

In my last post, I talked about creating the epic confrontation between the main character/s and the bad guy/s.  Here’s two I did.    

In an unpublished novel, I had a hero who must face a were-dragon. This was the climatic fight between the two characters, winner take everything. The hero, who wants to die because his life will be a living hell, must survive for the sake of the woman he loves because her life is at stake as well.  So, I’ve got physical and emotional stakes.

I wanted him to face his weakness and fear of living as well as his own tendency to care more about himself than anyone else.

Since this is the climax of the novel, I wanted the fight to extend over several chapters, and I didn't want it to be boring and repetitive.

First, I thought about the weapons of a dragon — claws, teeth, fire, size, and wings. Considering a dragon's many weapons and ways to fight, I realized that I could divide the fight into three acts.

The first act is ground-fought and involves fire. The dragon will also use his human intelligence and voice as an emotional weapon.

The hero is tentative in his skill, and he's distanced himself from fights before so his weapon is a lance. He has a magical shield and armor which will help against the flame, but he can't survive the flame for long, and the dragon is creating a conflagration with the vegetation. The hero's uncertainty is also used against him by the dragon with his taunts until the hero acknowledges his feelings for his magic-using lover, and this allows her to bring magical rain to save him.

In the second act, the dragon has lost his fire because of the heavy downpour which has soaked the terrain as well as dousing his internal flame so he takes flight, and the two battle.

I thought about real-world flying warfare and the different ways a dragon can use his weapons in flight. I decided that the dragon would strafe the hero by using his claws to attack, and his wind in flight would be so strong the hero could barely stand to face it. The dragon would also use his weight to knock the hero down. 

After the initial fighting where the dragon uses these methods of attack, he manages to get the hero's shield which he's used against the claws and proceeds to shred him at each pass and exhaust him because of the heavy wind created by his wings. Barely staying on his feet because of exhaustion and blood loss, the hero finally retaliates by using the lance like a spear and throws it into the dragon's underbelly.

In the third act, the dragon can no longer fly because of damaged wings from the lance so he and the hero are forced to face each other in close quarters with no retreat. The hero uses a sword.

The hero now knows his own heart and has discovered his courage. He will no longer give up the fight. The dragon has discovered that he can die in this fight, and he's afraid for the first time, but he's forced to stay because the two are locked in a mythic pattern which neither can escape.

Since the battle is in close quarters, I thought about the dragon's different weapons, and the hero's battle plan. The hero must get close enough to stab into the dragon's heart, but the dragon uses his long neck, his size, and his speed to stay safe. The hero finally uses a distraction to shift the dragon's attention and stabs him.  The dragon dies.

So, the hero has won against the dragon and his own weaknesses to save the heroine and himself because of his love and courage.  An epic fight with a happy ending attached.  

Despite all the fighting, this final meeting between the hero and the dragon is more about what is inside the hero.  He fights on despite a stronger opponent as both keep running out of options, and the hero is forced to go beyond his abilities to win.  He proves he is a true hero inside and out as he faces his ultimate fear.  

And, yes, a dang dragon is one heck of a bad guy for an epic confrontation, but I’ve used a dilapidated warehouse full of old hay with the kidnapped heroine drugged, and the hero with one gun against half a dozen professional killers.  I did some thinking about what was there— birds to spook to misdirect the goons, sodden hay to shove off a loft on top of one, a hay hook suitable for gutting a bad guy, and common debris like soft drink bottles that the groggy heroine can toss to confuse the bad guys.  So, an interesting and frightening fight to the possible death in the real world.   

NOTE:  The heroines were never damsels in distress with the brave hero saving them.  Both had an equal part in the conclusion.  To simplify the explanation, I focused on the hero.  I hate wimpy heroines.  

Monday, August 12, 2019

Defeating the Bad Guy

In a novel I read recently, the heroine faces a human villain and a major supernatural villain.  She spends the novel avoiding being killed by the human villain’s minions while the supernatural villain lurks in the background waiting to destroy the world.  

Toward the end of the novel, the surviving minions show up for a final showdown with the heroine and her supporters.  A huge battle ensues, and the heroine is trapped.  The human villain reveals himself, and he’s killed within a few paragraphs by one of the heroine’s friends in an offhand manner.  That’s it.

The heroine had a longer scene with a sales clerk selling her a magical weapon than the final confrontation with the human villain, and she didn’t even take a shot at the bad guy.  He’s killed by a secondary character.

Meanwhile, the supernatural villain, a god no less, who has been the lurking big bad for the whole series, finally decides to show up to kill the heroine then wipe out life on Earth.  

He rates half a chapter, most of it a chase scene, before he’s killed in a mildly clever manner.  

If you have a villain, you have to give him a major confrontation with the main character, and it has to be long enough to give the reader a sense of anticipation, a sense of fear that the bad guy may win, and an awareness the hero is worthy of being the hero by having him fight with everything he has and then some to defeat this monster.  

Think of some of the great confrontations in the movies.  Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader.  Jake Sully and the Na’vi against the human forces and the Marine commander in AVATAR.  Thanos against the Avengers which took two dang movies for the epic confrontations.  The sheriff’s gun fight with the outlaws in HIGH NOON.  All involved struggles against the bad guy’s forces then a final confrontation between the main character and the bad guy.  All involved enough screen time to make that final confrontation epic.  

Make your own final confrontation epic.

NOTE:  Even if your novel doesn’t involve violence and the main antagonist is your character’s bitchy, controlling mother, you still need that final confrontation—that moment when the main character stands her own ground and says, “I’m not your little girl anymore.  I’m my own woman,”  and walks away to live her own life. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Problem with Avoiding Genre Formula

One of the pluses mentioned by authors who self-publish is that the author isn’t trapped by the formula insisted upon by the big publishers.  

Unfortunately, many don’t realize that this formula is more related to what the reader wants than what the publisher demands.

I’ve been reading a bunch of self-published books, and I’m seeing this problem with surprising frequency.

For example, I started a paranormal cozy mystery series.  The heroine sees ghosts and solves their murders so they can rest in peace.  A cozy mystery tends to be laid back with an amateur sleuth who uses nosiness and intelligence to figure out the murder.  Violence and the gross elements (the dead body, blood, etc.) are usually off page until the very end when the amateur sleuth faces the killer but prevails.  

In one book in this series, the amateur sleuth is heading to a Western ghost town which is now a restored tourist destination.  She falls asleep and dreams about a ghost taking her to the local town where she meets the sheriff and discovers that a little girl and her family have disappeared, probably trapped in a mine or lost in the desert, and the little girl is in deadly danger.

After the amateur sleuth wakes up, she arrives in town and discovers her dream was accurate.  The hotel is exactly as she dreamed, and the sheriff is the person she dreamed about.  People know the family she dreamed about were there, but no one realizes that the family is in trouble.  

At this point, you’d expect the amateur sleuth to tell the sheriff about the little girl in danger and to do everything in her power to find her.  She does not.  Instead, she acts like this is her standard cozy mystery and begins a very slow and casual investigation while enjoying her vacation. 

Later, she meets the owner of the hotel who knew the family had expressed interest in exploring dangerous mines in search of treasure.  The hotel owner finally realizes the family may be in trouble but won’t tell the sheriff.  The amateur sleuth then gives her three days to tell the sheriff or she will.  All this while the young family may be trapped in a gold mine or the desert without food or water.  

I was screaming at the main character at this point as well as the writer who took a suspense plot and inserted it into a cozy then failed to follow through with the changes.  Needless to say, I haven’t bought any of her other books.  

Another novel with a weird mix of amateur sleuth and suspense had the amateur sleuth trying to solve a crime while the police and FBI were attacking it from another angle so its plot resembled a regular deck of cards with a UNO deck shuffled in.  The frustrating mix not only destroyed whatever tension and mystery existed by giving away too much information, but it alienated readers who prefer suspense or amateur sleuth mysteries.  

My recent favorite disaster is a series about a new private investigator who is accidentally dubbed a paranormal investigator.  He doesn’t believe in the paranormal, but he’s more than willing to take clients to prove the answer isn’t paranormal at all. The author has branded this series urban fantasy despite having no magic/paranormal elements.  This is essentially like selling someone an Oreo milkshake that doesn’t have any Oreos in it, and the author then make fun of the reader for enjoying Oreos.  So, readers who enjoy vanilla shakes won’t buy it, readers who want the Oreos won’t buy the next.  

Romances with other elements like a mystery or the paranormal often lose sight of the romance and let the other genre drive the plot.  Part of this problem is poor branding or a misunderstanding of what a romance is.  

If you want to break the rules of a genre, you must understand them first as well as the audience’s expectations and then, very carefully, make your changes so that they make sense within the genre or genres.  Then you must brand the book as the correct genre or genre cross-mix so you find the right readers for your book.  

Those rules about formula are there for a very good reason.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Squeezing the Last Drop Out of a Premise

NOTE:  In honor of this week's series finale of iZombie, (You will be missed Liv and friends!), here’s a reprint of an article I wrote after the first season.

I am not a big fan of zombies because massive bands of stupid, shambling dead bodies, exploding brains, decapitations, and all-you-can-eat humans are boring in more than very small doses.  I like my bad guys to have brains, not eat them.  

I made an exception, though, after I watched a few trailers for iZOMBIE which seemed to be a paranormal mystery like TRU CALLING and PUSHING DAISIES.  I’m glad I did.

The premise is that a mixture of two designer drugs created the first zombies.  As long as the zombie has brains to eat, he remains human in intelligence, etc., and he can pass as a human although his hair and skin turn white.  Too much adrenaline brings out the red eyes and the rage but most can control it.  The zombie can turn others into a zombie with a scratch or bite.  

The heroine is Doctor Liv Moore, a medical resident, who is turned at a party gone really bad by drug designer, dealer, and zombie Blaine DeBeers.  Realizing she must totally change her life, she breaks her engagement because she fears infecting her fiancĂ©, pulls away from her close family, and starts working as a forensic coroner for the police department to get easy access to brains and to avoid turning her patients into zombies.  

She discovers that she gains the memories, personality traits, and skills of the dead person from his brain so she convinces a police detective that she is psychic and helps him solve murders.  Each week is a new case.  Humor, a bit of romance, and an ongoing arc about Blaine’s evil schemes fill out the series.

Liv’s absorption of other personalities and lives adds humor as well as commentary on her own struggle with her changed life as a zombie.  

NOTE: If you think you’d like to watch the series, stop now because SPOILERS. 

The series would have been interesting enough with just the murder-of-the-week format, but the creators put some serious thought into the possibilities of the premise and really added a bunch of interesting worldbuilding.  Blaine, the drug dealer and entrepreneur, turns rich people and people who will protect him and his business into zombies then makes them pay premium prices for the brains he supplies, and they can’t get elsewhere.  His zombie protectors include several people high in the police department and rich and powerful politicians.  

He starts his own high-end butcher shop as a front for his brain harvesting and even offers zombie haute cuisine.  His minions get most of the brains from the homeless and runaway kids, and he’s found ways to hide the bodies so very few are suspicious.  

Now that the rich have figured out that they can gain new experiences and sensations from others’ brains, he’s started finding people like astronauts to murder to fit those interests.
The point of this analysis is that a simple worldbuilding premise can be so much more if you really think about it, your characters’ personalities, and the possibilities and changes that one element, like zombies, can make to the real world.  

If you do, you can move beyond a one-cool-idea plot to a much richer experience and world for your reader.

YET ANOTHER NOTE:  The complete series is also a perfect example of how to keep changing things up and building your world through a series to keep it fresh.  Every season upped the character and worldbuilding game until what should prove to be an explosive yet happy ending.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

How to Create Suspense

QUESTION:  How do I create suspense in a scene? The rest of the novel?

The simplest answer is that a suspense scene involves danger to the main characters. That's a "will the hero survive?" physical danger. Or "Will the main character escape emotional turmoil and unhappiness?" emotional danger.

A successful suspense scene must also draw the reader in by using the senses. The words must be vivid, the reader should experience what the character is experiencing, and, if using multiple viewpoints, we should be in the head of the character who has the most to lose in the scene. 

Suspense is more complex than that, though, in novel-length.

First the writer must keep offering questions to the reader who keeps reading to find out the answers, and as the reader finds the answers, the author offers more questions to keep the reader reading.

A question can be a simple "what happens next?" or "why is this character doing this?" All the questions and their answers are the clues that the reader gets to understand the novel and the characters.

Think of these questions and answers as bread crumbs leading the reader bird through each scene and through the novel. Part of the suspense in each scene comes in finding out the answer to some of the questions the author poses.

Suspense won't work if the reader doesn't care about the person in danger so part of creating suspense is making the reader care about that character. In my romantic suspense, GUARDIAN ANGEL, if my hero had been a jerk instead of a charming, decent man, most readers wouldn't care if he survived to the end of the novel, and they certainly wouldn't think him worthy of Desta, the brave and kind heroine.

The character must also have a worthwhile goal so that the reader wants the character to succeed.

If the main character wants to find the treasure so he can live a lavish lifestyle, the reader may root for him if the search for the treasure is interesting enough, but if he wants the treasure to ransom his beloved wife and children before they face torture and death, the reader will be as anxious as the character is that he succeed. Each suspenseful scene will be a hurdle or threat to his reaching his final goal, and failure is unthinkable.

If the reader cares for both the character and his goal, your story have even stronger suspense than just an exciting plot.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Using Music in Your Fiction

Music is extremely powerful, evoking intense emotion, history, memory, and physical movement in a way that fiction and most other types of communication cannot.  Many writers used that emotional and historical element by mentioning music titles and song lyrics as a short hand for those emotions.  
But here’s the problem.  Music has copyright protectors who are beyond zealots.  Copyright fair use and proper attribution which are both perfectly legal don’t matter to them, and they, usually ASCAP, will go after a writer for even the slightest mention.  They have the lawyers and the money so they win almost every time.  
If an author does go through ASCAP, the band’s legal people, or a brand like Disney to license a few lines, the costs are ridiculous.  An acquaintance tried, and using two lines of a lyric from an obscure band would have cost her more than she’d make for the life of the book.  
So, what’s a writer to do?  Some write their own song lyrics.  Others work very carefully around the ridiculous copyright landmines.
Here, in two scenes from my unpublished novel, THE LAUGHING GOD’S KISS, which involved a hero with a fondness for music. Cautiously treading around those copyright landmines, I use a song title, a few words of the lyrics, or some careful editing to evoke those emotions.  They also reflect emotional moments for two people who are already falling in love but refuse to admit it, even to themselves.  

Storm bent over his guitar and started  "Yesterday."  
Gazing around at all the rapt faces in the living room, Victoria realized this was a virgin audience for the song.  These isolated people had never even heard of the Beatles.  
Storm sang, his voice catching with melancholy at the loss of a great and true love.  His face, for the first time, was vulnerable and open with emotion.
Victoria's heart twisted with his pain as she wondered whom he'd loved so much and why he'd lost her. 
Across the pasture, a familiar baritone voice sang softly.  Victoria caught the words "corn" and "elephant's eye."  Intrigued, she moved closer.
His back to her, Storm brushed briskly on the black gelding as he sang.  The black's ears were cocked back to hear him.  His other three horses watched him, their ears forward.  None of them had a rope or line on, each held by his voice and presence.
Equally entranced, Victoria sat down in the shade of a nearby tree. 
Storm sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" with the feeling and skill worthy of Broadway, his black velvet voice soaring.   
As his voice faded at the end of the song, the horses began to fidget.
Storm began "If I Loved You.“
Victoria closed her eyes to savor the music.  The song was about love unadmitted yet so tenderly expressed.  It had moved her when she'd seen Carousel
If a voice could make love to a woman, then Storm Morgan had that voice.  Victoria let the song take her where it would.


    No, I’m not saying copyright is wrong, or you should ignore it.  Those who have followed me for years know that I’m a strong proponent of copyright, I write informative articles about it, and I’ve fought piracy for many years.  However, ASCAP and friends are using their money and clout to stop even fair use which is not okay.  As usual this disclaimer, I’m not a lawyer and can’t offer legal advice.  My examples are how I would avoid being sued by ASCAP.  You must decide for yourself whether to risk a lawsuit or nastygram from some lawyers.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Life Anchors

My sister and I chatted recently about time, and how it seems to slip away so dang fast.  The days and weeks move so rapidly that a month has passed before we blink.  Many of us don’t have anchors to tie us to this minute, let along this day, but others have a secret weapon.  Hers, right now, is a puppy who requires lots of attention and has milestones as she grows into an adult.  Children are incredible anchors to the here and now.  Serious illness is a less happy anchor in the now.
The past and memories have anchors, too.  We use the death of loved ones, graduations, and world tragedies to anchor us to the past.  Did this event happen before or after my mom died?  How long after?
Emotions are anchors in time.  We know exactly where we were and what we felt when the Twin Towers went down with a clarity we don’t have for birthdays or other moments.  When a true love leaves, we remember that pain forever.  
What does this have to do with writing?  Simple.  Characters need anchors, too.  Emotions, memories, and time should anchor a character in the moment of a scene.  If the character’s viewpoint is floating about without an anchor, then the scene fails for the reader.  
Even if that character does have a moment of interspection or memories, the reader should know, first, that she’s standing at her back window and staring at the sunset.  
Important plot points anchor the past but propel the character forward. Because the lover leaves, the character must choose a new direction because the old direction is gone.
Think to yourself before you write a scene, what are the anchors?  If you do, you’ll rarely fail to anchor your reader in your story.