Monthly Archives: August 2013

Do ‘Story Physics’ work in Fantasy?

An interview with A-list sci-fi and (now) fantasy author Kay Kenyon.

Kay’s new novel — her first fantasy after a string of highly successful science fiction titles — is just out.  It’s called A Thousand Perfect Things, I’ve read it, it’s stellar.

This interview puts Kay Kenyon on the firing line for her claim that she always uses the principals of story architecture and story physics for engineering a story. This can be risky, because in execution most authors adapt this stuff to an extent that they are no longer recognizable.  After reading the story, however, I think what she has to share on this topic is of value.

So we’re going to take her brand new historical fantasy and deconstruct it without giving away too much of the plot.

How can we do this? Veeeery carefully.

Larry: I read an advance copy of the book, and I loved it. One thing I’ve gotta say–apropos of this post topic–the plot is really out there.

Kay: It is. The story treats with magical terrorism, love, mutiny, Victorian repression, the British Raj, silver tigers, kraken, ancient ghosts, a bridge across the ocean and palace intrigues in the court of a rana.

Larry: So boil down the concept. Pitch us.

Kay: What if a young Victorian woman, denied access to the halls of science, decides to use forbidden magic to make her mark–and to do so must cross a great oceanic bridge to an altered India of magic, thereby taking on the Raj, a mutiny and the impossible quest for perfection?

Larry: Complicated, and very compelling. With all that complexity, the story might have come apart at the seams (scenes?) if you didn’t nail it structurally. Did it hold together during the drafting process?  Notice any difference in applying the principles in fantasy versus your sci-fi wheelhouse?

Kay: Story structure is needed as much in fantasy as in any genre. Plot milestones keep a fantasist on target.

Larry: I definitely saw story engineering at work in A Thousand Perfect Things. For example, Plot Point 1. I’ll let you tell it: Where is the point where the hero’s quest (in this case, Tori Harding’s) is defined–in context to an antagonist force?

Kay. On pages 48-53.

Larry: A little early, perhaps?

Kay: Agreed. But I’m pleased with the work that scene did. It was also the inciting incident. The regiment is going to the land of magic, and Tori–previously beaten down and hopeless–sees a fortuitous chance to insert herself in the enterprise. She crosses over a bridge to the magical world determined to own the magic properties of a certain object.

We know what she has to gain or lose: her desperate desire to thwart her enemies and be recognized in her scientific field. She will seek a mysterious source of power that will break open the closed ranks of male scientific culture. If caught, she knows she’ll be hauled back home. But really, death awaits. . . as we’ve seen from the antagonist by this point.

Larry: That was a critical scene… the approach to the bridge, with it’s bizarre properties, the regiment setting out. But your best use of the major plot points, I believe, was the midpoint.

Kay: I think so, too. This was on page 157-164, a sequence of scenes that reveals the missing piece of information hidden by a conspiracy. Tori has been a wanderer in Part II, responding haphazardly to opposition. At the midpoint, higher stakes are revealed, and she becomes a warrior in pursuit of her quest. She must become a fighter, because she’s now pursued by a calamity.

Larry: So in your 300 page book, you are spot-on in the delivery of a scene that shifts the context of the conflict. And it’s a doosey.

Kay: The midpoint scene reveals a context that the reader has known. The reader watches Tori as a wanderer, saying wake up, wake up! Now she does, because of new, horrifying information.

Larry: I’d really like to tell what happened, but…

Kay: I’d have to kill you.

Larry: Well, it would be too late, but let’s move on to Plot Point II. That was a scene that I can imagine being a trailer in a movie.

Kay: Me too, let us hope! Any inside contacts?

OK, so on page 207, at 67% into the story, we hit Plot Point II. A a few beats early of the 75% ideal. In this scene Tori has a life-altering experience. Major spoiler here, so all I can say is Plot Point II changes her forever. It’s a major reversal.

Larry: The next few scenes unravel that new information and give it meaning, so this plot point is more spread out than others. But the job is accomplished. I’m starting to be a believer. You’re using these milestones, even amid the magic.

Kay: Hand-waving and winging it never works. Not even in fantasy. I planned for Tori to receive the last piece of the puzzle at this point. Everything in the novel drives toward this scene.

Larry: But you flipped things. Sometimes what the hero thinks they wanted isn’t it. That’s tricky stuff. But the plot still pursues the same thing, only now it’s in a totally different context. Meanwhile, the stakes build even higher.

Kay: Even though I flipped the goal, I still have to show that what the hero now wants is worth all the build up. Tori becomes a a true hero/martyr in pursuit of her goal, even though an altered goal, one intertwined with her original quest.

Larry: And now for the final act. Where does Part 4 begin?

Kay: When the heroine knows the thing that she has to sacrifice, and has changed enough, conquered inner demons enough, to do it. She marches into the hands of her enemies. But she has a secret strength. It may save her, but she can’t count on it.

Larry: The ending was tricky, though. It was a time of war, and though it had been building, did we lose sight of what we were after?

Kay: The ending is complex. Tori makes a fateful choice that reflects the resolution of her inner conflicts. It plays out against a tidal wave of events that has been approaching throughout the book. Although Tori does become a minor player in this disaster, she is the driving force in her own transformation. And she enters the larger fray a mythical figure. Guns are trained upon her on the beach. . .

Larry: Stop there, no spoilers allowed.

Kay: I worked to give the final pages an emotional punch. Tori has one last thing to decide. It happens on the last page. I think the reader will feel it viscerally. I hope satisfied.

Larry: I appreciate you sharing your journey with us, and providing a real-life example of what happens when a proven pro like yourself proactively applies story architecture to an already potent story landscape.

One of the best ways to learn these principles is to see it applied.  Which makes A Thousand Perfect Things a clinic for writers, as well as a deliriously rewarding ride for readers.

*****

A Thousand Perfect Things is an epic tale of magic in a re-imagined England and India, when a Victorian woman takes on the scientific establishment, place intrigues, ghosts and a great mutiny–by marshaling the powers of magic. Now available in trade paper and to pre-order in eBook. Pub date: August 27. For a limited time, the eBook is offered at a special price of $3.99.

This is Kay Kenyon’s first fantasy after ten novels of science fiction.

Twitter: @KayKenyon, Facebook: Kay Kenyon, Author or her website: www.kaykenyon.com/novels

 

*****

This is Kay Kenyon’s first fantasy after ten novels of science fiction. Connect with her on TwitterFaceBook or her website

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How to Create Layers of Thematically Pertinent Conflict

A Guest Post by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland), author of “Structuring Your Novel”

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How many times have you heard that conflict is story?

This truism powers all of fiction for the simple reason that conflict creates plot. Your protagonist wants something. Someone prevents him from immediately gaining that thing. Conflict ensues, and a story is born.

On the surface, conflict is a ridiculously easy concept. Have one character punch another. Or yell at him. Or even just give him the silent treatment. Easy-peasy, right? And to some extent, that’s true. As long as you have an antagonistic force that is preventing your protagonist from getting his grubby little mitts on his overall story goal (and the individual scene goals in between—both of which I discuss in way more detail in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story), then you have enough conflict to drive your plot.

But if you want to take your story to the next level, then you’re going to want to not just generate a simple round of one-on-one conflict. You’re going to want to take it to the next level. You’re going to want to layer the conflict among multiple characters.

Selecting your story’s antagonists

How do you know which characters should be your story’s antagonists? To begin with, let’s just stop and clarify that an antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy. An antagonist is anyone (or thing) preventing your character from getting what he wants. A scene’s antagonist could be the nice little old lady your protagonist has to take time to help across the street before he can go catch the escaping bank robbers. The story’s overall antagonist could be the character’s mother, who wants him to go to college instead of hiking around the world.

So when we start talking about people who are opposing your protagonist and creating conflict, we’re not necessarily talking about super-villains with squirrely henchmen. What we’re talking about is a person who has a legitimate reason to oppose your protagonist’s wishes—and who has the muscle to be a formidable threat. It isn’t enough for a character to disagree with your protagonist; he has to have the ability to block your protagonist’s best moves.

Once you’ve got your main antagonist in the bag, you’re then going to want to identify at least two minor opponents. These folks probably won’t have quite as much muscle as the main antagonist, but they will also oppose your protagonist on some level. And they’re going to be just as tenacious and annoying in holding him back from getting what he wants. For example, if your main antagonist is a mafia don, then your minor antagonists might be your protagonist’s family members or co-workers. They may not even have a direct connection to your protagonist at all, but rather just a vested interest in preventing his goal of bringing the don to justice.

Creating contrast and pertinence in each instance of conflict

Now that you’ve identified a handful of important antagonists, your next step will be answering the following questions:

  • How will these characters stand between your protagonist and what he wants?

This is always the most important question to ask yourself about any potential opponent. If a character isn’t standing in your protagonist’s way, then he’s not an antagonist.

  • How will these characters attack your protagonist’s weakness in different ways?

Each of these antagonists needs to oppose your protagonist in a different way. In short, Henchman #1 and Henchman #2, who are only in the story to carry out the bidding of the Evil Mastermind, do not qualify as antagonists in their own right. You’re looking for characters who are going to attack your protagonist from different directions. His fight with the main antagonist will be head-on; the minor antagonists will come at him from the sides. 

  • How do the opponents’ motives and values differ from your protagonist’s—and from each other’s?

Here’s where the whole exercise suddenly gets deep. Your protagonist’s values—and how they evolve over the course of the story—are what create the framework for your story’s theme. If your protagonist is going after that mafia don out of vengeance, but learns to appreciate justice over the course of the story, your theme will probably center around the moral ramifications of revenge.

But a character’s value system can’t exist in a vacuum. What he believes—and how he acts upon those beliefs—only matters insofar as his beliefs are opposed (and thereby tested) by the other characters’ value systems. In the plot, your antagonists’ chief purpose is to prevent your character from reaching his goal. But in the theme, your antagonists serve to challenge your protagonist’s motive for wanting that goal.

On the basic level of one-on-one conflict, you’ll be presenting a relatively black and white perspective of your theme. The protagonist has one idea, and the main antagonist has another. But when you deepen your conflicts, you have the opportunity to also deepen your theme by giving each antagonist a different motive and value system.

Layering your conflicts

Finally, once you’ve identified your story’s antagonists—and once you’ve figured out how and why they will each oppose your protagonist in a different way—you now get to have the fun of taking it one step further. Instead of merely presenting conflict between your protagonist and his antagonists, why not see if you can create a little organic conflict between each of the antagonists as well?

Script doctor John Truby calls this “four-corner opposition.”

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In his words, this approach “allows you to create a story of potentially epic scope and yet keep its essential organic unity.” You’ll have created endless possibilities for conflict without endangering the thematic purity of your story’s focus.

*****

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

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