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Author: Nick Mac

the Art of the Slow Burn

Article length: xxxx words (preview xxx/wds)

I’ve been on hiatus for a while. (When I’m not writing about helping other folks write better, I always feel this knot of guilt in the pit of my stomach. Like when I don’t pay enough attention to one of my dogs for a few days.)

Anywho, for the first time in all the years this site has been online, I’m posting a little head’s up to the next upcoming article.

I’m going to break down Slow Burn fiction.

And give y’all the tools to write something that actually works, instead of just boring people to death.

Interestingly, even for folks who don’t splash around much in the ‘slow burn‘ pool, it’ll be worth checking in… because the mechanics that make a slow burn successful, can help in any narrative whenever the focus drifts off the main focal point.

Ahhh, but I’m getting ahead of myself here–hey, at least my stomach already feels better 😉

Won’t be up right away, but sometime in the near future, this page will pop up with the full article.

Stay tuned.

 

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Worldbuilding

Article length: 9,131 words (preview 2264/wds)

So you’re starting a story, probably Sci-fi or Fantasy and you want to absolutely crush your worldbuilding, ideas pour out of you like a broken faucet…

OR, you’re starting a new Sci-fi/Fantasy story and maybe, you’re not so sure how much worldbuilding you need to do…

OR, you’re starting a real-world, modern day story, NOT Sci-fi/Fantasy and you know you don’t have to do any worldbuilding whatsoever…. right?

There’s some awful rough advice out there when it comes to worldbuilding in fiction. Either it’s laughably vague, “Hey man, just think of what it’s like to live in your world and write that,” or, it goes the other way, delivering a step-by-step guide to building a world from the ground up. I don’t know if those folks are just trying to sell books and classes or what?

Just implying you have to do that; sending fledgling writers on an odyssey of the minutiae.

~ Ooof ~

Let me tell you before we even begin–If you’re looking for step-by-step details on how to build your world: first let’s make an economy, next let’s develop your world’s politics, then we’ll capture your world’s unique weather, lol, Jesus…

You won’t find any of that direction here.

In my own work, I would never want someone else to dictate the specific details I need to incorporate in my worldbuilding. I want personal ownership of the details I populate my world with. Details that come from a place of personal experience and emotional attachment, framed within the unique context of my own story.

Using some other guy’s suggested details is simply going to create uninspired, derivative work and quite possibly distract you and the readers from the important elements of your story.

While I’m not going to give you specific details you must include in your worldbuilding, I AM going to show you, an actual, practical approach to worldbuilding. With my method you don’t pull your worldbuilding details out of your arse (or somebody else’s arse), YOU deliberately choose them because your narrative calls for it.

I’m going to teach you how to use your own story fundamentals to define your world, while at the same time, use your worldbuilding to further shape your story. A self-perpetuating cycle that creates a stronger story the longer you work with it, ultimately leading you to a flawless blend of story and setting.

Is your glass mostly full when it comes to worldbuilding, grasshopper?

Well, it’s time for a palate cleanser, give me that glass… gulp, gulp, gulp.

~~ Shit, that wasn’t Tequila. You actually had water in your glass? Shesh, noobs. ~~

Is Worldbuilding Necessary?

You’re probably thinking, or have been taught (especially in Sci-fi and Fantasy), absolutely…

Wellllll…

First, let’s clear the air when it comes to worldbuilding.

Every story has some level of worldbuilding built into the cake. It‘s just the nature of fiction, even if you’re not consciously trying to define it. You can’t really make a story without some sort of world invovled.

We’re gonna ignore the auto worldbuilding done by creative brain for the sake of this article.

Next, is a lighter approach to worldbuilding. You acknowledge it, maybe throw together some notes or even a couple of pages, but that’s about it. Ain’t no story that can’t get a boost of polish from this approach.

My double negatives say that’s a good thing to do. Though you may not choose to seriously tackle worldbuilding, just getting clarity on the elements, recognizing and defining them helps shape a narrative. If you don’t want to seriously unpack worldbuilding, this light approach will give your story a little shot of Vitamin B.

Next, is a serious approach to worldbuilding. Prioritizing it, if you will. Deliberately, planning and plotting to fully connect the worldbuilding to the narrative and vice versa… but NOT writing up a 500 page grimoire.

If your worldbuilding is important, this is where you want to live.

Lastly, is the epic, deep dive approach to worldbuilding. This is pool most newer writers line up to splash around in. This is the approach where you actually write up that 500 page grimoire. The mantra is usually something like, “Franchise, Franchise, Franchise! Games, comics, movies, animes! This world is gonna be so big and awesome, we’re gonna do it all!”

Because I see so many newer writers fall into this epic worldbuilding trap, this last one is where I want to start off.

Look, you want to spend three years of your life:

  • Detailing out all the political parties in the Galactic Federation.
  • Breaking down the seasons on each of the twenty-four main planets.
  • Drawing up schematics to every single primary firearm, making up fictional physics and power sources.
  • Creating a cooking guide of the top two-hundred dishes as noted by intergalactic Yelp.
  • Establishing complete languages so super nerds can scream at each other at conventions and nobody knows what the hell they’re saying…

If that’s your thing, if that’s your passion in writing… Go for it!

I mean seriously, in writing you gotta do what you love, so if you love getting lost in those details, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But be forewarned…

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

Ok, not really, I’m just being dramatic to make a point…

but if you’re considering deep diving an epic effort to worldbuild your latest story, something to rival the complexity and depth of the Star Trek universe, or Star Wars, Dune, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, whoever… realize, you might be putting the cart before the horse.

There are some serious drawbacks to the epic level worldbuilding of some of your favorite IPs (IPs that most of the time, developed their full scope of worldbuilding over many installements and years, mind you).

So, let me do what no other worldbuilding writing article will do and first try to convince you, not to do the epic, deep dive.

Seriously, there is a BIG problem with deep diving your world building.

In fact, the bigger you build your world, the bigger the problem becomes.

Once you have your 300 page Encylopedia Arrakis… are you really going to remember even half of it?

It may sound simple, obvious, and stupid… but believe me, it’s 100% true.

Because make no mistake, defining the world, then forgetting exactly what you defined and where you defined it, is a sure fire way to make a complete and total mess of things. Forgetting the details you’ve laid out pretty much guarantees inconsistencies, contradictions, and other logical breaks in the work.

But wait, there’s more!

When you create your epic masterpiece of worldbuilding there’s another person who needs to know every single bit of it… just as well as you do (or in a lot of cases, better).

Your editor!

And let me tell you something… Where you might shell out $3000 for an edit on your Max Payne sequel novel.

There ain’t no way, no editor is charging that same amount when they have to FIRST read your 300 page Encylopedia Arrakis, THEN cross-reference every damn worldbuilding detail between it and your manuscript. (I know, cause I’ve had to do this myself. Thank God I love Sci-fi and Fantasy.)

So long $3k, hello $6k or more.

And where an editor will just outright charge more for such complex scripts the fact of the matter is that heavy-worldbuilding scripts almost always have more rounds of edits.

That’s just the nature of the beast.

And you might have guessed it, I’m not even done yet delivering the bad news, lad.

Despite your 300 page Encylopedia Arrakis, you’re not going to cover everything. You’re still going to have gaps, holes, and things you never thought of (which of course, “fans” will be more than happy to point out after you publish).

Reality is just too complex. Maybe infinitely complex. And fiction, no matter how hard you crack it;

Fiction implies reality, it isn’t and never will be, reality.

Did someone in the back just yell quick example?

You’ve got flying cars in your world. Cool.

Hey, you even broke down they’re powered by a Mister Fusion and Flux Capacitor. Man you love them details!

But ummm, where does the Flux Capacitor come from? I mean, did you remember to note down that it uses a rare metal mined only in one part of Africa?

What about the fact that that metal is mined exclusively by slave labor?

Did you record the conflicts and embargoes between Africa and other nations surrounding this metal production?

What about the fraudulent banking sectors that sprung up around this metal and its socio-political pressures?

I could go on and on and on.

The more questions you answer… the more questions pop up. Like Tribbles in a grain bin.

Obviously, when you sit down to worldbuild, you’re not actually expecting to “build it all,” but that leaves a few glaring problems.

First, how do you even know when to stop going down this never-ending rabbit hole? Second, when you do stop, wherever that is, it’s like painting this absolutely beautiful classical painting, only you suddenly stop and the rest of the extremely large canvas sits totally blank.

You hope that you, or the readers get so distracted with the main body of the painting their attention never wanders over to the unfinished part… but there it is, big and empty.

Third, the more complex you make your world, the more you build, ultimately, the more restrictions you put on your narrative and the easier it is to paint yourself into a corner. For example, let’s say you worldbuild a culture that is split between two races that hate each other and there’s a strong economic divide. When you visit this world to create a story, you might want to create a story that has NOTHING TO DO with racism and economic classes, but you baked these elements into your world. You’ll have to really work extra hard to make sure these thematic elements don’t overshadow your real Master Theme.

Take into consideration the catch-22, the more you do “build it,” the uglier those original two points I already mentioned get, the whole epic deep dive gets really sticky, really quick!

Alright, I’m gonna hit with one last anti-epic worldbuilding point and it’s a purely practical one.

You ain’t gonna like this one at all

You spend three years (or three months, whatever) putting together your epic worldbuilding story… you publish, pump it till the lever breaks, and in the end your story goes nowhere. Frank talk y’all, a lot of writing is failure and rejection. So building out some crazy epic worlds, at least when you’re a relatively unknown writer, there’s a good chance that could happen.

You just did a ton of extra work for nothing. Like I said, putting the cart before the horse.

I’m not trying to come off anti-epic world building, or even really persuade you from doing it, if you really wan to. What I’m trying to make perfectly clear is that:

The validity of your world doesn’t rely on the scope of your details. It relies on how well the details are developed and how well they’re connected to the narrative.

 

Size Doesn’t Matter?

Recognizing reality has endless moving parts, which we can’t possibly capture in their entirety.

And on the other side of it, when writing a modern day cop thriller, one might expect to do minimal or no worldbuilding at all (mostly, we’ll talk about real-world worldbuilding later)…

It seems logical that size doesn’t actually matter.

That the real benefit of worldbuilding lives in some sort of hazey gray area of just enough details, but not too much. If only there was some way us writer’s could guide ourselves through this grey area without getting sucked into a deep dive black hole.

I know you smart cookies already see where I’m going here.

A worldbuilding truth, it’s not about trying to get all the details… but getting only the details you actually need.

And there in lies the worldbuilder’s rub, how do you know what you actually need?

Now, I know a lot of folks like to lurk Story To Script’s articles, sucking up the free article preview sections and not reading the full articles. I get it, money’s too tight to mention, but y’all are missing out.

Anyway, let me get right to the mind blaster when it comes to Worldbuilding for all you “free peepers”… Where most online writing sources are gonna throw whatever hints and tips to build your world, to set your story…

Hold on tight, because we’re about to get unconventional up in this mo’fo.

Write your story first, then go back and build your world.

Holy time-saving-tips, Batman.

Wait. What. How? Who?

That can’t be right… right?

Alright, alright, everybody calm the heck down.

Did you even hit that music link above? Grab a drink, chill. It’s gonna be, OK.

You know I got you.

YES, I’m gonna give you some tips and direction into worldbuilding, things you can even implement before you have your story. But the mind blaster I just dropped will help you get your perspective right, if you take it to heart.

Story is king, baby… Not the world where the story lives. If you’ve ever developed a story where the worldbuilding is paramount to the story, you’re in trouble.

Remeber, worldbuilding serves the story, not the other way around.

Worldbuilding ultimately flows from concept, theme, and characters (maybe, kinda, sorta characters, will explain later). When you have these three in aces, they will tell you what you actually need in your worldbuilding and in turn, when to stop worldbuilding.

 

Can You Really Write Your Story Before Worldbuilding?

 

100%

But keep in mind, if worldbuilding is something you want to showcase predominantly in your story, you will need to go back and do a heavier edit round, specifically addressing worldbuilding.

If you know you’re working on a story that will heavily showcase or make use of worldbuilding, I suggest implementing the suggestions of this article at the very start and developing the worldbuilding before or at least alongside the story. Not that this method will deliver better results, but simply that it will be most time efficient.

However, if you’re not the kind of personality that enjoys all the worldbuilding minutiae. A perfectly acceptable compromise is to go ahead and build out your story outline without doing any worldbuilding at all. (Relying only on the auto worldbuilding you hold in the front of your brain as you write that I briefly mentioned at the beginning.)

Building out an outline first allows you to get the core story out faster than if you worry about all the worldbuilding details upfront. Hitting your completed outline with worldbuilding details after the fact will also save a lot of time compared to a full edit pass on a completed story–while at the same time giving you all the core story material to work with and enhance.

I wrote the entire 28 page Robotkids manga outline, which takes place in a unique sci-fi universe, in the latter approach, without any specific worldbuilding. The outline is available here on Story to Script, if you haven’t read through it yet.

The Robot Kids outline mentions classic manga mech combat, clan-based military cultures, fantastical forest environments (something out of a Ghibli movie), wasteland environments, and a clear socio-economical divide. These were worldbuilding elements I kept in the top of my head as I fleshed out the outline, but more importantly, they were worldbuilding elements that just had to be in the story. I didn’t need special thought in how they worked or why they were there, because they are just integral to the environment of the story.

Now, with Robot Kids, there is a lot of flavor in its setting. I didn’t write that story, specifically to be a worldbuilding showcase, but If I were ever to take the story from outline to full script, I’d definitely want to go back and really work out some of that flavor. I know it could add quite a bit.

Let’s back it up a little and slow things down.

Worldbuilding is one of the many “writer things,” that everybody knows intuitively what it is, but few ever bother to really deep dive what is and why.

So let’s take a few minutes and get clarity on exactly what we’re talking about before we go any further.

What is Worldbuilding Anyway?

// Hey, I've told you why you need to slow your roll when it comes to epic worldbuilding. We still have some discussion of what worldbuilding really is and it's true purpose in narrative, before I get to the three list approach that will completely change the way you go about worldbuilding. 

With the three lists in hand you won't get bogged down in worldbuilding details, you'll produce exactly the details the story needs, in turn creating a tighter story with a plausible, credible, believable, and far more engaging world. 

After you've got your details, I'm gonna hit you with a few approaches to successfully implement them, including how to leverage worldbuilding's secret super power! Fun times. //
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How to write a THRILLER – Mac’s Real Insights and Tips

Article length: 10,135 words (preview 2535/wds)

UPDATE:: 10-01-23 ::
Happy October, folks. As promised, for the non-members here, I’ve compiled all the genre writing articles into a PDF. It’s available for download right here, right now.
::: :::

Most sources on the internet sum up the Thriller genre something like…

“Stories that elicit strong feelings of excitement, in essence, thrilling the audience.”

(Funny, isn’t that what they say about the Action genre?)

Sure they mention tension, suspense and other elements, but the focus of the definition always lands on excitement and thrills.

For the average Joe, this may be adequate, but if you’re intent on writing successful Thriller fiction, such a simplistic definition isn’t helpful. In fact, it could even be harmful, misdirecting you from the first fundamental pillar of the genre.

Let me hit you with a little secret;

Thrillers are really Horror stories for folks who don’t like Horror.

While Thrillers generally make greater use of the emotional wheel throughout their narratives, ultimately, like horror fiction, Thrillers are all about FEAR (we’ll unpack this in one second).

Interestingly, Thrillers rarely stand on their own as a genre work.

If you look at the top Thrillers of all time, those pieces of fiction ALL cross over into other genres, whether it’s a Crime Thriller, Horror Thriller, Action Thriller, or even more, like the Action/Crime/Mystery/Sci-fi/Thriller, Minority Report.

Phew, that was a mouthful.

It’s extremely rare to find a top piece of Thriller fiction that moves into no other genre pool.

The reason for this is pretty simple; most thrillers are complex narratives with significant depth. Especially when it comes to the main character and MAF. At their essence they pull from the intensity of Action, the fear of Horror, and the engagement of Drama.

By their very nature it’s difficult NOT to cross genres.

The purpose of this article is to focus in on what makes the thriller a thriller.

I’m going to cover the three core pillars of Thriller fiction as well as another ten or so elements of significant importance. Every thriller needs the three pillars to be considered a thriller. The more you implement the other elements, the closer you’ll get to reaching your maximum story potential.

In breaking down the Thriller, I’ll showcase examples that cross various thriller genre boundaries. At the conclusion of this article, you’ll completely comprehend the core substance of Thriller fiction.

It’s worth noting here, that Thriller fiction is one of the only genres commonly referred to by two other names:

Suspense and Mystery.

Wait, what?

Clearly, Thrillers, Suspense, and Mystery are different genres.

I mean for fuck’s sake, grouping Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Jaws together…. Really?

Obviously these two works of fiction are about as different as different can be.

Aren’t they?

Wellllllll… yes and no.

Reality is, Thriller, Mystery, and Suspense fiction all utilize and play with the same core mechanics (to their own degrees and ends).

While Mystery definitely shares the bed with Thriller and Suspense, I argue it has enough specific points in execution, that it breaks away from the Thriller (and suspense) and earns it’s own classification… at least enough so for this article.

So let’s throw that baby right out the window with the bath water and focus on the other two.

When it comes to Thriller and Suspense in defining material… the two should not be viewed as equivalents, BUT instead as opposite ends of the same sliding scale.

  • If you have faster pacing with more action oriented narrative, you’re in Thriller territory.
  • Where you have slower pacing with more dramatic oriented narrative, you’re in Suspense territory (or Mystery, or even Psychological Thriller territory for the record).

There’s another key pillar element in defining this scale, the most important of the three, but I’m not going to lead off with that fella. We’ll save him for later… for our second cup of coffee.

Truth is, Thrillers make a few big moves and if you want to nail the genre, you need to know them all.

Alright lads, roll up those sleeves.

Break out that new set of colored pens and pad.

* If you haven’t read my article on Horror, you’d probably do well to read that one first. I guess you don’t need to understand horror to write a solid Thriller, but seeing as the two are so closely tied together, if nothing else just the ability to compare and contrast with the material covered in the horror article will help give complete context.

 

FEAR. The first Pillar.

If you remember, we define Horror as the “Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.”

For the Thriller, the fear is grounded in reality and is thus, not unimaginable. And therefore defined as;

Expectation of a worst case scenario. 

In horror, you introduce Fear that the reader doesn’t know. Most folks haven’t been to Hell, had to fight a legion of undead, or outwit a blood sucking vampire lord.

Horror is driven by the imagination’s ability to create completely new terror.

Thrillers are driven by the imagination’s ability to explore a predefined area to its outer most ends.

Without the unimaginable element… without the unknown… we can hone in and say the fear driving the Thriller is not terror, but instead, HIGH ANXIETY from a known and expected threat.

In Jaws we’ve got three guys in a boat, a big shark, and the ocean. The shark isn’t growing legs and chasing them onto land. The chief isn’t pulling out a jetpack and flying to safety. The stage is quite limited… but our imaginations aren’t… and readers get to stew in all the practical possibilities.

Are they going to drown… or get eaten?

Will they die horribly slow, or quickly in a single chomp?

Will they take the shark with them?

Will anyone possibly come to the rescue?

The stage has been set… but our imaginations are still incredibly powerful and effective. Even when the fear is imaginable, the levels of High Anxiety stress we can manifest on ourselves is impressive.

Fear of an imaginable worst case scenario while different, can be just as potent as Horror based fear. In some cases, for some folks, it might even be more so.

These are the folks who laugh at Freddy Krueger or Pumpkinhead, but get goosebumps at the thought of a serial killer next door.

In some sense, despite being grounded in reality, Fear of a worst case scenario is more liberating than the Fear driving horror.

In horror, to reach “unimaginable” territory, most of the time you’re working with just a few primal fears. You often have to sort of “stretch” working with those fears to get more specific.

For example,  it would be challenging, if nothing else, to create a horror fiction based solely on one’s fear of “relationships.”

< It’s easy to incorporate a relationship fear or relationship theme of some sort into horror, BUT, basing the whole narrative around it… not so much. >

Thrillers have much more flexibility in this regard.

The Thriller’s realm encompasses the human condition in its entirety. They focus on the psychological by nature.

It would be far easier to write a thriller based primarily on one’s fear of relationships, heck a bunch come to mind: The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Sleeping with the Enemy, Single White Female

The fears one can work with as the engine to a thriller are anything within the human condition.

Fear of failure. Fear of being exposed as a fraud. Fear of being Abandoned. Fear of personal intimacy. Fear of judgement.

If we turn back to Jaws for a moment, besides the obvious (primal horror) fear of being eaten alive by a monster shark, there’s a very distinct High Anxiety fear of being helpless. (Humans lose most of their capability when forced to try not to die in deep water.) How many times in Jaws does Chief Brody struggle with his fear of the water, not the shark itself? Answer: Quite a few.

The real-world worst case scenarios readers can imagine through the lens of these fears are quite effective.

And quite relatable, instantly giving credibility to the narrative.

We’re going to discuss Worst Imaginable Case Scenarios and the Underlying Fear Anxiety a bit more later… for now, just recognize the fears that generate the Anxiety of the narrative are key, especially the main one your hero carries around.

 

Here comes the second major pillar of Thriller fiction.

Top off the coffee, we’re going to sit with this one for a bit.

 

It’s All about the MAF. (Not the bass or the treble.)

Where in horror, the MAF (Main Antagonistic Force—villain for the most part) is almost always Super Normal, in Thrillers, the MAF is almost always…

normal.

However, this doesn’t slow down the MAF at all, in fact…

One of the elements that makes Thriller so alluring is the dominant role of the MAF. Thriller fiction borrows this from the Action genre and further expands on it.

Of course in all fiction, you need a capable, active MAF… but perhaps nowhere else but in the Thriller does the MAF get to practically take over the show.

I haven’t timed it myself, but google tells me Darth Vader appears only 8 minutes in the original Star Wars run time, 121 minutes. (Star Wars, not classified as a Thriller…)

Contrast that to Hans Gruber, in the Action Thriller, Die Hard, who clocks in at 18 and a half minutes of the 127 minute runtime. Or Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs, who comes in and 17 and a half minutes of the 118 minute Crime Thriller.

Ok look, I didn’t breakdown villain screen time in a million movies and I wasn’t trying to cherry pick villains here,  but hopefully the above examples point to a pattern;

the MAF drives the action.

Where a story can be plot driven, or character driven, the Thriller for all intents and purposes, puts forward the MAF driven story.

You may be thinking, “Hey, wait a second, 18 minutes out of 127 isn’t taking over the show!”
(Shit, now I have to watch Die Hard again and jot down the total run time of any scene with Hansy or his boys. I will do this and report back here when I have a free 3 hours.)

UPDATE: OK, I went back and logged ALL of Die Hard’s MAF driven scenes. It clocks in at a total of 37 minutes! That’s 30% of the movie and my calculations were on the conservative side.

Anyway, the screen time itself isn’t the point…

In every serial killer crime Thriller story, if the killer isn’t killing… where’s the story?

In Die Hard, if Hans isn’t robbing the vault, if he’s not shooting the corporate president, wiring the building with explosives, manipulating the FBI… where’s the story?

Nowhere… if the story is a Thriller.

// Sidenote: If you highlight the MAF without actually having the MAF do anything. You’re moving the Thriller intro psychological thriller or drama territory.

But be warned, if your MAF does not drive the action AND you don’t double down on tension (discussed later), your story is completely leaving thriller territory… and will likely be DOA in whatever genre label it wears.

Sadly, so many wannabe thrillers drop the ball big time here.

Example:
I can’t even remember the movie I watched recently, but some guy was in a country house and he kept seeing visions of a ghost. The ghost didn’t do shit. It just appeared and growled. The protagonist started taking all these actions to try and figure out what was going on.

Ultimately nothing happened. The movie tried to rely on jump scares and a complicated, ineffective backstory. It tried to make the hero the driving force of the Thriller.

BIG MISTAKE.

The movie was totally boring and a waste of time. //

After you read this article, you’ll spot “thriller” fiction where the MAF doesn’t drive the story a mile away. These will be the movies and books you walk away from after 20 minutes.

To develop solid thriller fiction, push the active MAF as hard as you can. The more the MAF oozes conflict, jeopardy, and narrative drive, the more engaging the story. 

This point can not be stressed enough.

 

MAF PINCH POINTS

If you love writing villains, you probably have an affinity for Thriller fiction (and maybe before this article, weren’t really sure why).

In most fiction, you work in what’s commonly referred to as Pinch Points.

Moments, usually driven by the MAF, outside of the protagonists perception, that inject narrative drive and  raise the stakes. A typical narrative only requires a couple of these.

Again, we can see in Star Wars, Vader only had 8 minutes and at least some of that time was fighting with the protagonist. So Vader’s Pinch Point moments were quite limited.

We don’t need Vader’s backstory to understand his role in the adventure unfolding before us. We don’t need to know the why’s or how’s when he appears in a pinch point. Big dude with electronic voice who force chokes underlings who fuck up—check.

This is acceptable in the adventure movie and in most fiction. In fact, it’s necessary in most fiction where limited time and space are better served supporting some other elements of genre.

But the Thriller isn’t most fiction…

Thriller fiction opens the way for a far greater number of pinch points, approves greater development of the MAF in general, and even goes as far as to showcase the MAF in a split narrative fashion (giving the MAF their own separate parallel running story).

Don’t lose your narrative drive when handing over the show to your MAF… If you pursue highlighting your MAF, make sure all that narrative content is relative to the active story…

but that said, in Thriller fiction you get the green light to explore the why’s and how’s of the villain. USE THE MAF to take advantage of and foreshadow the other elements we’re discussing in this article.

This type of layering of the MAF makes the Thriller.

// Side note: It’s interesting to see in Star Wars how although Vader got such little screen time, he was so thoroughly developed throughout the rest of the movies. Think how your impression of the original Star Wars would have changed, had you been shown all the aspects of Vader’s character arc (particularly the negative side of his arc)? //

 

HYPER CAPABLE.

Allow an impotent character to steal the show and you’re sunk.

MAFs in Thriller fiction are always hyper capable.

In horror we said the MAFs were “Far more powerful and capable than the hero, making their defeat a clear and exceptional accomplishment for the hero.”

This rule holds TRUE for the thriller as well

The difference here, as we’ve already mentioned, is that the thriller MAF is normal, not a super normal monster. A lot of writers struggle here, because they don’t push their MAF into the hyper capable realm and instead leave them in a merely capable realm.

They make the mistake of thinking a well executed capable MAF is “good enough” to carry the narrative.

Imagine Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal was just an average criminal, with an average intellect. The entire narrative falls apart.

Or Luc Besson’s Professional, where Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield isn’t a psychotic, drug addicted, DEA agent with his own crew and a lot of pull on the police force, but instead a run of the mill beat cop. Again the narrative unravels.

Frank talk here y’all, in the real world you rarely have the time to detail out all the characters as extensively as you’d like.

For the MAF in thriller it pays to make sure you at least have his major flaw and hyper capabilities. You will need these.

// Hey we're only halfway through with the MAF--nevermind Thriller Fiction's biggest narrative pillar! We've got 75% of the article left!  If you're working on a Thriller story you absolutely want to crush, sign up to get the rest of the article. Trust me, it only gets better from here. //
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Anti-Fiction and Negative Theme Counterbalance

Article length: 2707 words (preview 580/wds)

All genuine story relies on a Master Theme… that is, a message from the author. A statement, theory, idea, or argument the author puts forth as truth.

As a general rule of thumb, adults don’t like being talked down to. They don’t like to be spoken to as if a child.

Speaking to someone as if they were a five year old means expression reduced to its simplest form;

  1. Directly on the nose, lacking all subtext.
  2. Reduced to a dichotomy of right and wrong, with nothing in-between.
  3. Most significantly, not allowing them to come to their own conclusion, but instead, forcing them to accept your own.

This is the essence of delivering a Master Theme with a heavy hand and guarantees alienating and disengaginung your readers.

Quick example:
In my cyberpunk novel “Crashing Eden,” I used a theme “Is the use of technology a right or a privilege?”

If I had come out and simply had one of the characters say, “Everybody knows, technology is a right, not a privilege,” or vice-versa, this would have been a clear showcase of #1.

If my Master Theme has actually been, “The use of technology is a privilege, not a right,” and I proceeded to showcase instance after instance where I enforce this view and only this view, I would have created a clear and distinct dichotomy. My view is correct and anything contrary I do not show, so it’s either wrong, or simply doesn’t exist. A clear and distinct showcase of #2.

Notice, I used a question as my Master Theme. A question immediately sets you up for success by giving you two sides of an argument to explore, bypassing from the very start, the fundamental mistake of a heavy handed theme; the single viewpoint.

Remember the back cover of Storycraft for Comics;

  • Honesty.
  • Objectivity.
  • Passion.

The professional writer must cultivate these three in abundance.

In this case we hone in on, Objectivity…

The most effective method of delivering a message in fiction is by offering more than one side of an argument; by presenting your argument through subtext and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion.

The better the job you do at making the argument believable from all sides, the more impact your own conclusion carries. In turn, without objectivity to see a contrary side to your message, as a writer, you and your message are lost.

Keep in mind, all Master Themes of fiction are not fact.

  • Your Master Theme isn’t; H2O is the molecular make up of water.
  • Your Master Theme isn’t; there are 200-216 bones in the human body.
  • Your Master Theme isn’t; there are four seasons in a year.

While your message of fiction, may indeed ring true to most, or even be true for all intents and purposes… ultimately, a Master Theme is a writer’s opinion.

Simply telling your readers your opinion is correct, demands validation without earning it from your readers.

  • You have to SHOW readers why your opinion is correct (through the achievements of a character over the course of a narrative).
  • You have to PROVE to readers why your opinion is correct, by comparing and contrasting it to alternate views.

Simply asserting your opinion as fact is a sure-fire way to come across oppressive and dismissive to the reader.

Now that we understand what a heavy-handed approach to delivering Master Theme looks like, let us go further into a commonly related pitfall, the negative message… and the solution of counterbalance through objective writing to reach the most people possible with ANY message we wish to convey.

Positive Messages Form Stronger Narratives

When delivering message through your work, it's all about respecting your readers. We've still got a ways to go, I'm gonna break down why positive messages are required, objective counterbalance; making room for people to decide on their own, and where repetition fits in. Hit the full access page and come join the party pal!
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Creating Complex Characters

Article length: 3600 words (preview 1000/wds)

The most forgettable people you meet in the real world are people without any real prominent character.

Usually quieter folks, with nothing physically remarkable about them or their manner. (The senses open the door, substance gets you to enter and stick around.)

Folks who have no outward expression of passion. Folks who simply go along with the crowd and thus blend in with the crowd.

I spent a lot of time in my life going to parties, art openings, and other social gatherings where I had totally nothing in common with the folks at these events… folks all from the same clique. Jocks at the sports bar, trust fund kids at the wall street house parties, wana be culture snobs at the art openings… scores of people all cut from the same mold.

While these people in the real world most certainly had at least some level of complexity to them, in a brief passing at a party, such complexity is rarely revealed.

This is how much of  Fiction works.

Many characters never get the page time to reveal any real complexity.

These one dimensional characters find their effectiveness in exaggerated characterization, schticks, their context in the narrative (action guys fighting, detectives detecting, etc.), or otherwise rely on a trope to fill a narratively fast and superficial role.

Sometimes, one dimensional characters even get a pass as the protagonist!

But when you need to write an important character like the protagonist, with particular depth and complexity, how exactly do you do it?

If your mind immediately jumps to the Character Arc, good for you. I like the way you’re thinking, bub.

The Character Arc certainly adds depth and color to a character. It’s a topic I’ve touched on many times in length elsewhere… but here’s the thing, character arc’s don’t create complexity by themselves. Character arcs create engagement and most importantly, carry the purpose of the narrative through realization of the Master Theme.

Fundamentally, Character Arcs push characters toward complexity.

They get them out of the realm of being one dimensional, moving toward well-rounded and multi-faceted, but complexity is not achieved until something very specific enters the equation.

I could tell you about my days working special effects for movies and television, I could tell you about my coffee shop in brooklyn, or the custom hive I built for my bees this year. I have a lot of layers, a lot of different facets… but I hate to tell you, none of that makes me a complex person.

In fact, despite a well-rounded colorful life so far, and being a multifaceted character, I deliberately take a note from Lynyrd Skynyrd, and try to be a Simple Man.

Ok, you’re not a member of the site and are about to bail.

Well, before you go, here’s the free take away. The meat and potatoes of this article. Write this on your board above your computer.

Complex characters are ALWAYS highly conflicted characters.

Seven simple words, but the execution is far from simple.

And this is why Character Arcs alone don’t create complex characters.

A character can overcome a flaw and come to a new way of seeing the world (the basis of the character arc), without a high level of internal conflict.

There’s a ton to unpack here.

Now might be a good time for non-members to hit the membership page and join the rest us as we dig into this topic essential to higher level writing.

Let’s get to it.

Character Nature

When we speak of complexity of character, what we’re really talking about is the nature of that character.

At a fundamental level, we express the nature of a character by what we reveal about them (what the reader knows about them), Discovery… and how they act, Behavior.

Discovery is the actual moment the reader learns of a facet to the character they didn’t know existed.

This latter part is important.

Discovery of a character is ALWAYS something already established in the character outside of the reader’s perception. This is the character’s emotional/psychological baggage, their history before the story started, etc.

These discoveries have high narrative relevance because they create the context (or expectations) for the character’s behavior.

The hero samurai is killing everyone left and right. Killing is a bad thing, but can be justified. The reader is left uncertain, until the discovery that all the guys the hero is killing, murdered his family.

The discovery, gives context (and justification–or not) to the behavior.

Of course, a discovery may not be a direct as the example above.

None the less, every discovery, is a clue to the reader that helps them establish context and expectations. Every discovery helps the reader attempt to create order of the narrative unfolding before them.

It’s worth noting here, if the reader discover something about the character AT THE SAME TIME, the character discovers it, this discovery does not give context or expectations. Instead, it moves right into the second way we define a character’s nature, by their behavior.

Behavior are the actions a character takes, or the way they conduct themselves.

More specifically in fiction, character behaviors are the results of reader expectations. Behavior tracks ON or OFF expectations, reinforcing them, or creating uncertainty.

Back to our example, the hero samurai is killing everyone because his family was slaughtered. We see that the character has no qualms about breaking the law and no moral hesitation when it comes to avenging his family. Now the reader expects that the hero will do anything to kill the men responsible. The discovery and behavior come together to create reader expectations.

If the hero samurai reaches the boss responsible for giving the order to kill his family, and then compassionately spares the man’s life… this would certainly be a subversion of the reader’s expectations.

Discovery and Behavior are cumulative, building upon each other as the narrative unfolds.

The more a behavior is enforced, the more it is expected.

Newer writers sometimes have trouble keeping character discovery and behavior consistent, or more accurately, deliberate, through a narrative. When character discovery and behavior contradict, without significant narrative support and purpose, a character rings false in a story.

 

Before we continue, let’s define the four basic complexity types of characters.

The four basic types of characters, characters' true faces, inner awareness, secondary goals, and the difficulty of choice. I cover it all in the remainder of the article, so what are you waiting for, Sunshine? Go check out the full access page and let's get writing.
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Rated M for Mature

Article length: 4849 words (preview 1200/wds)

If you’re reading this article you grew up in culture of movie and games and likely have an intimate familiarity with their associated rating systems. For quick reference;

G: General audiences – All ages admitted. // E: Everybody.

PG: Parental guidance suggested – Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned – Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. // T: Teen. 13 and up.

R: Restricted – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. // M: Mature. 17 and up.

NC-17: Adults Only – No one 17 and under admitted. // AO: Adults only. 18 and up. (

(Interesting tidbit, NC-17 replaced the “X” rating, which was basically commandeered by the porn industry back in the day. Because certain movies were not pornographic, but clearly adult in nature, NC-17 was born.)

Anyways, these ratings of course are based on the nature of the content, affected by these particulars;

G/E – No profanity. Minimal non-consequential violence. No drug use content-no smoking characters. No nudity. No sex.

PG – Light profanity. No sexually-derived words. Mild violence. No drug use content. Brief nudity. Sexual content permitted as long as it passes other restrictions for rating; primarily appears as innuendo. Crude humor.

PG-13 – Slightly greater profanity than PG. Extremely limited use of expletives like “fuck.” Intense violence permitted, but not extreme or realistic; limited amounts of blood. Mild drug use content. Greater than brief nudity. Sexual content permitted as long as it passes other restrictions for rating. Crude humor.

R – Full profanity. Intense, extreme or realistic violence including ample blood, gore, mutilation, and depictions of death. Graphic drug use content. Strong sexually oriented or graphic nudity.

NC-17 – Represents the extreme end of content in all aspects without being pornographic in nature.

But from a writing perspective, it pays to ask, do these content elements alone define the maturity of a work?

Of course, since you’re here reading this article, the answer is a resounding, NO!

Before we take a look at what really defines the maturity of a story… and why it matters, let’s first define maturity;

MATURE – adjective

* fully developed
* having reached an advanced stage of mental or emotional development characteristic of an adult:.
* (of thought or planning) careful and thorough.

Fully (or carefully and thoroughly) developed.
An advanced stage (characteristic of adulthood).

The essence of maturity points to complexity and depth.

Always write for yourself first.

However, as a professional writer, you need to recognize your audience/demographic.

In turn, you must have the honesty and objectivity, to realize if you’re actually writing for that audience/demographic. And of course, you can’t make that assessment if you don’t know what the parameters are in the first place!

Quick clarification…

Maturity Demographics

When we speak of maturity of fiction, we’ve got immature on the one end of the scale and mature at the opposite end. That maturity can be assessed in the nature of the writing itself, AND in the person(s) processing that information (the readers or audience).

Primarily when we speak of an immature audience, we’re talking about kids.

But we could also be discussing an audience and type of entertainment fiction that is pure escapism… where people just want to turn off their brains and enjoy the entertainment strictly at face value without having to expend any effort in comprehending or “figuring it out.”

Well written immature fiction is no less difficult to write than well written mature fiction… in fact, if you have any experience writing comedy, you probably already know, well written immature fiction can be exceedingly difficult.

 

Content

Obviously, the elements of content defined by all the descriptors in the rating systems are the low-hanging fruit of fiction maturity.

Clearly if your content has extreme violence, rape, drug use etc, those are all things immature people don’t really understand. These elements also have potential to traumatize or corrupt a developing mind.

Most would argue these elements are simply not appropriate for immature readers.

But “content” is a broad sweeping term. So let’s breakdown some of the specific narrative devices that live in the content and see if we can’t pinpoint some ways to recognize and control the maturity  of our writing;

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Character Dynamics

Article length: 2500 words (preview 600/wds)

The adept writer understands character and character arcs (that’s you dummy).

In a single hero story, this is pretty straight forward, but in the multiple main character, or ensemble cast story, a more advanced aspect arises, often overlooked or misunderstood. I speak of Character Dynamics.

Not to be misunderstood with writing “dynamic (multi-faceted, active, engaging) characters”… but rather the the force and relationship between characters that stimulates narrative development, or more specifically, change between them.

Of course Character Dynamics exists between all characters, whenever one character interacts with one another… but where minor characters are concerned the dynamic is important but momentary… with multiple main character stories: buddy stories, team stories, larger ensemble pieces, Character Dynamics become a recurring pattern and a primary consideration in driving the narrative.

Character Dynamics are ultimately about conflict.

From the Writer’s Guide to Comics; “Conflict is opposition. It can appear in the form of opposing ideas, arguments, or actions.”

You most certainly already know this… but this is only HALF the equation.

Character Dynamics are also about the harmony when conflict is resolved. “Harmony is agreement. It can appear in the form of similar or identical ideas, arguments and actions.”

Here is the rule you know instinctively, but never realized it until right now.

Unearned harmony is the antithesis of good story.

All harmony must burn through the crucible of conflict and confrontation. Only then can it be earned. In its most effective form, this reward of Harmony comes through connection to the Master Theme of the story, teaching/expressing through change, but at the very least, satiating through change.

Riggs is a loose cannon who wants to rush in headlong and fight the bad guys.
Murtaugh is more reserved and wants to fight the bad guys cautiously, by the book.

This is opposition.

Riggs learning he’s got to calm down because he’s putting people at risk.
And Murtaugh learning he’s got to take more risks or else he’s helping the bad guys get away.

This is the characters coming into harmony.

The two cops coming to this realization both around the understanding that “Partners do whatever it takes for each other.”

Would be expression of this harmony through the Master Theme (not the master theme of Lethal Weapon, I just threw that out there off the top of my head.)

The two cops coming to this realization, without the greater understanding of the Master Theme, wouldn’t be as effective, but it would still satisfy the reader with a distinct and deliberate change from conflict to harmony.

Got it?

Unearned Harmony is the reason why a perfect day story never resonates.

In the real world, sitting on your couch, winning at video games, watching some fun movies, eating great food that you prepare perfectly; this would all be a perfect day in life… but in fiction it would be horribly boring to read.

I’ll prove this technically in a moment.

Unearned Harmony also lies at the root of Mary Sue characters… but in this, I digress.

We’re talking Character Dynamics today and Character Dynamics are about establishing a relationship between characters that specifically drives the narrative. Now let’s get to three rules that will change the way you write… for the better.

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Character Arc Roadmap

Article length: 1245 words (preview 150/wds)

The Character Arc breakdown in Storycraft For Comics lays the foundation for solid character development (further supported by the Character Arc article here).

Recently working with a client with no writing background I found myself reworking the presentation of the Character Arc material, trying to make it as simple and straight forward as possible.

I felt the clarity of what I put together had a significantly value and present it below.

Assuming you’re not running a spectacle script; one of the things you hear me stress a lot is the importance of hitting your character flaws hard in the beginning of the story. Most writers shy away from painting their characters in a bad light, they only want to write their characters from the ideal position of their completed arc. Hold tight to the following;

Your character is not the impression he makes when the reader first starts to read the story. Your character is the COMPLETE IMPRESSION he makes over the entire story.

Empathy is not broken when we see a flawed character.

Further, understand that the impact of a character (arc) is not felt in a single moment, it is a cumulative experience, felt across a spectrum of time. This means;

The more you can incorporate and stress the beginning flawed part of the arc earlier on, the more room there is for development across the breadth of the story, and in turn the more engaging and effective the arc will be.

I’m not going to explain all the elements here, as Storycraft already touches on a bunch of them, but I’ll drop explanation where needed.

Practically speaking; grab all the underlined, headline elements from the breakdown below, and paste them into an empty doc and you’ve got the perfect advanced starting point to build your characters from. Heck, if somebody asks maybe I’ll add a word doc download to the article.

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Mastering Dialogue part 2

Article length: 1600 words (no preview)

The rest of the dialogue article. Because it’s a continuation and jumps right into the remaining tips, there’s no public preview on this one;

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Master Theme Reference

This is going to be a very short reference article for folks to see first-hand some of the Master Themes I’ve personally run in my writing over the years.

Master Theme is so absolutely critical to solid scripting and crafting genuine story, I’ve discussed it at length on the free site. I talk to it all the time here on S2S and in my writing books, but the crux of it can be found here;

One Theme to Rule Them All

More on Master Theme

Master Theme, Secondary Themes and Character Arcs

If you do nothing else as a writer, integrate a Master Theme. It is the foundation everything else builds upon.

Folks constantly over complicate the concept of the Master Theme; Master Theme is simply, your specific message to the reader.

Ok, on to the ones I’ve used over the years.

Oh, one more thing, just like illustrators often have their trademark styles, writers often write to similar Master Themes–well at least in their own work–when you freelance and work for other folks, you often have to write to the message they want to convey.

Anyway, while it’s great to be versatile, there’s nothing wrong with keeping to a wheelhouse. It’s almost like specializing in a genre.

If themes of political corruption float your boat, write about it!

If Master Themes of primal revenge fiction turn you on, do it!

Write your passion.

The unique details of every story give the story completely new life, despite how many times you’ve used the same or similar, Master Theme before. In fact, I think it’s pretty neat to see wildly different stories, from the same writer, running the same Master Theme… especially if they’re totally different genres.

Anyway, here’s my list;

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