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A Better Introduction

So I had the first character bible post all written up and ready to go when I realized it was going to be absolutely pointless without some sort of foundation for the story.  What’s the point of knowing about all these characters if you don’t even know where they are or why?  With that in mind, here is a better introduction to the story.

Once upon a time there was a barely habitable planet that the space government decided to use as a prison.  This planet was so cold, it was basically only possible to support life near the equator.  The space government called this prison planet Burg.

Burg

This wouldn’t be just any prison though.  It would be a rehabilitation center for citizens who had turned to committing some “lesser” crimes, such as theft or tax evasion.  Instead of cells, the prisoners were placed in houses.   Every day, they were allowed to go outside for supervised outdoors time. They were allowed to interact with their fellow prisoners, so long as said interactions were friendly and peaceful.

Housing 1

Instead of cell blocks, they had sectors.  The sectors were divided up based on species, so that record keeping for each planet that made use of the prison would be neat and easy.  There were nine planets in total that used this particular prison system.  They were spread out over four solar systems.  The nine alien species found on Burg were (and still are):

Goliaths – Giant, heavy people with stone skin.

Samaki – Amphibious race from a mostly water-covered planet.  Can survive on land for short periods of time.  Have gills.  (Their sector has specially designed houses that are like sad Sea World aquariums.

Creech – Humanoid race with feathers for hair and giant bird wings that they can use to fly.

Bortol – Vaguely canine species with animal snouts that make speech impossible.  Fortunately this species has the ability to communicate telepathically.  Highly developed sense of smell and hearing.

Rizzarian – Lizard-like species with tough scales that coat the body, and hair-like tentacles that grow from the top of their heads.

Delliakite – Somewhat feline species with pure black skin, spindly legs, and knees that bend backwards.  Giant, lidless eyes and small noses and mouths.  Large, semi-feline ears.  Can teleport short distances.

Lepthian – Shape-shifting, amorphous, see-through species.  Can heal minor wounds almost instantly due to fluid bodies.

Human – They look and act like humans from Earth, so they’re called human.  But honestly I’m not trying to imply that Earth exists in this universe.  It’s just there’s already a word for human, so why muddle the issue?

Aodik – Compact, humanoid species with dark hair and purplish skin.  Because they are shorter and not very strong, they often develop technology to do their work for them.

Sectors

Instead of prison guards, the prisoners answered to Enforcers, who kept the peace by patrolling the streets and keeping an eye on things from their encampments between sectors.

Enforcer

Instead of a warden, Burg had an Overseer.  It was this person’s job to keep the Enforcers in line, give out orders, head up certain committees and hearings, and interact with the government outside Burg.  The Overseer’s word was always final in any matter.  But don’t worry, the power definitely didn’t go to any of the Overseers heads.

Overseer

Note: I haven’t decided what species I want to make the Overseer yet, so for now he’s just Evil Space Elvis.

Mandatory re-education programs were conducted on a daily basis in each sector, to help show the prisoners the error of their ways.  Once prisoners had served out their sentence, they were evaluated by a committee and (usually) sent back to their home world to rejoin society.

A second infraction got them sent back to Burg for a slightly more permanent stay.  Unless they moved up from minor to major crime, in which case they went through the more traditional prison systems on their own planets.

Burg’s system worked out well.  Until one day, a war started.  Like they do.  Men and women from the military came to Burg and offered prisoners a chance to wipe the slate clean if they simply fought for their government.

Space Army.jpg

Many prisoners chose to fight.  Others chose to stay.

Years passed, and the war was lost, giving way to a new regime.  Shortly after that, all communications and travel to and from Burg were cut off.

More time passed.  Burg ceased to be a prison or a rehabilitation center or whatever you want to call it.  The new government had no idea it existed, and had no use for an old rehabilitation planet anyway.  Enforcers and prisoners alike were suddenly stuck on this world, with no way of escaping or communicating with their loved ones at home.  Yet, rather than band together, the old dynamic was ruthlessly, well… enforced.

Hundreds of years went by, and Burg became something new.  The prisoners started families.  The Overseer and Enforcers created a government of their own.  Soon only the ancestors of the prisoners, the original Overseer, and the Enforcers remained on the planet.  Yet the descendants of the prisoners were still treated like criminals, despite having committed no crimes.

Resistance groups cropped up within the sectors, attempting to take back their liberty from the unnecessarily cruel Enforcers and Overseer.

None have yet succeeded…

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The Beauty of Terrible Stories (Part 2)

I guarantee this post isn’t going to make much sense if you don’t read Part 1 (previous post).  So do that.

Also, before we move on to the joys of Supermarket Mania 2, I want to share a TED Talk with you.  It’s one you may have seen, but as it pertains to creativity and education, I feel it is my duty to pass on the message to those who haven’t.  This guy is funny and has an enjoyable accent.  Watch it, please.

Okay so Supermarket Mania 2, by G5 Entertainment (available as an iPhone app, which makes waiting rooms 12% more tolerable).  I’m only going to recommend the sequel, as the first game is a bit buggy.  Don’t worry about missing any of the drama, though!  That’s what this blog post is for!

The plot of Supermarket Mania (the first): A young woman named Nikki goes to work for an obviously evil man named Torg at his obviously evil supermarket.  Because we all know how evil those supermarkets can get.  Torg’s supermarket serves as a training ground for Nikki and her new friend, Wendy, before they are fired (and replaced with EVIL robot workers).  Wendy’s one and only personality trait is that she likes to eat.  She’s not overweight, mind you.  She just likes to eat.  Pretty much everything she says garners a response of, “But Wendy, you just ate!” or, “Wendy, you cow, stop thinking about food.”

Supermarket 3

Anyway, Wendy and Nikki find an old man who wants nothing more than to start his own grocery store that is full of love and wholesomely bland foods.  They do so.  This somehow puts the Evil supermarket out of business.  White people cheer all around.  (There are no people of color in this game.)

The plot of Supermarket Mania 2: Nikki is still running bland supermarkets!  Through her love and compassion (because that’s what people are really looking for in a supermarket) she succeeded in drumming up a loyal clientele.  There’s Old Lady, Regular Type Lady, Mom, Teenager, Girl with Scooter, Yuppie (I swear that’s what they call him), Thief (She doesn’t actually like this guy), and Celebrity.  They all come and go, and everything seems great for Nikki and her ever-growing list of White pals.  Except Torg is still evil!  And he is bent on getting his revenge by doing stupid things like causing traffic jams outside the store and painting the word “SALE” on the window.  Spoiler alert: None of these plans succeed.

But the best scheme by far is that Torg will stroll into the market, wearing a trench coat and a fedora, and use a giant, wooden mallet to break Nikki’s various machines.  It is worth mentioning here that Nikki has a security guard in her employ.  Mr. Blowfist… or Barefist… or Bareknuckle.  Something vaguely obscene.  His job is usually to stop Thief from thieving (Swiper no swiping?), but he’s never around when Torg comes by with his mallet of doom.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist taking a screenshot for this one.  Because sometimes you can hire someone to help you with your various tasks, and those employees will do nothing to stop a man in a trench coat from smashing the juice squeezing machine.  They will watch him do it with a smile on their face.  Look:

Supermarket 1

Do you see it?  Do you see what’s happening here?  Let me help, just in case you’re lost:

Okay, so now you get it.  I suppose Nikki doesn’t pay the woman in the orange dress to stop people from sabotaging the machinery.  Hell, Nikki doesn’t really pay her at all.  She purchased her for $1,200.  One-time fee.  I imagine Orange Dress would politely ask Torg not to crush the machinery if only she were allowed a paycheck or a union-mandated break.

That’s all I’ve got!  We’re going to move on to a more serious subject next time.  Fair warning.

 

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A Simple Little Flow Chart

I was thinking a lot recently about cliches and how hard it is to avoid them.  Romantic cliches are particularly tricky.  In order to illustrate this, I decided to create a nice, little flow chart that explores some (but not all) of the common romantic plot lines that can be found in books and movies.

You’re gonna want to click on that image to make it bigger, obviously.  Don’t worry — it’ll open in a new tab.  You should also be able to click on it once it’s open in a new tab to zoom it in even more.  I think you’ll be happier with it then.  Have fun!

Boy-Meets-Girl-Flowchart

Please note the disclaimer in red in the lower left corner.  I just couldn’t cover everything.  This process was exhausting enough as it was.  Hell, the computerized version wasn’t even my first draft.  I did it all on paper first.

See?

I threw my ruler on there for a size reference.  I had no banana for scale.  (Very few people are going to get that reference, I fear)

I threw my ruler on there for a size reference. I had no banana for scale. (Very few people are going to get that reference, I fear)

But the reason I did this was to show you that avoiding cliches is hard, and you shouldn’t be expected to do it perfectly.  That’s why I talk about taking a cliche and making it your own.  At this point there aren’t many more options.  You’ll note I didn’t really have examples for the “They’re both gay” storyline.  That could use some exploring.  And, of course, my own novels — Hellbound, Grotesque, and The Dreamcatchers — can be found in there.  Because I am not above these cliches at all.  I just try to make them as fresh as possible.  You will also note that many titles appeared multiple times.  That just serves to further illustrate how complicated something as seemingly simple as a relationship between two people can get.  It might also help you to develop some ideas for your own characters and stories, I hope.  Try exploring multiple story arcs at once, or turning a cliche on its head.

Also I did not include the following story line for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Boy and Girl Meet —-> They do not develop a relationship —-> They never see each other again

In a story, if you bring up two people meeting, it has to be relevant somehow.  So….yeah.

I want to talk a little bit about the art of criticism next, so that’ll be coming up.

Ta ta for now!

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Real Life Stories

Hey all!  I’ve had this post written for a while.  I was planning on drawing a comic for it, but moving is hard.  So here, have a post.  I’ll resume with the comics on the next one.

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction.  This may not always be the case, but I do believe that real life can be a fountain of inspiration for creative writing.  I’ve talked before about drawing on real life to accentuate your writing, so today I want to just tell you a couple of true stories.

The first happened at an IHOP.  I was there with a friend of mine and it was pretty empty.  There was an older gentleman sitting at a booth on the other side of the restaurant.  He appeared to be a regular there, because the waitress asked if he would like his “usual.”  I remember him asking her for coffee, and telling her that he was waiting for someone.  She agreed to come back later when his friend had arrived.

A few minutes later, sure enough, another old man walked into the restaurant and went over to the booth.  The two men greeted each other with a fist bump.

This is a true story.  Seeing this made my day.

Another story happened in the market.  I was browsing one of the aisles for something I needed, when a mother, her two children, and an older woman – my guess was the grandmother – came into view.  The two children were a boy and a girl.  The boy had one of those mini, child-sized shopping carts, which I never understood.  I really do want to know who looked at a child and said, “You know what this needs?  A miniature battering ram on wheels.”

Anyway, the mother was chastising her son for pestering his sister.  As she passed behind me, her son said sullenly, “I don’t love you.”  To which the mother replied, “That’s fine.”  This, in my opinion, is the proper response when a child says something like that.  But then the grandmother pulled him aside and began telling him off: “Who bought you that toy?  You go and apologize right now!”  This, I felt, defeated the purpose of the mother’s neutral reaction to her son’s outburst.

Anyway, the thing I want to draw your attention to is that the son said, “I don’t love you,” and not, “I hate you.”  I found this very interesting because the instance of a child saying, “I hate you,” is very well-known.  I’ve seen it happen on TV shows and everything like that, but I never considered that a child might express the exact same sentiment with different wording.  This is what separates the fictional scenarios on television from real life.  Not that a child would never say, “I hate you,” just that it is not the only possibility.

Speaking of children…

I was very young.  Maybe five?  Six?  I was with my mother in a Joann’s Fabrics, and I was wearing a little blue dress with a picture of Simba (young, not grown up) from The Lion King on it.  We were standing at a desk, possibly while my mom got some fabric cut, when another little girl saw my dress and ran at me screaming, “Mama look at that girl’s dress!”  She then proceeded to grab my dress in both hands and pull it out to look at it.  Her mother stood by helplessly while I shoved the girl’s hands off of me and said “Stop it.”  She just picked up my dress again, so I pushed her hands away once more.  This time it worked and she ran back to her mother.

Real life does funny things.  Got an interesting story?  Tell me in the comments.

Word of the Day: Accentuate (v) – to give emphasis or prominence to.

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Chekhov’s Gun

Well, by the time I post this, it will be the 24th.  And you know what that means!  (Hint: I’m not referring to Christmas)

That’s right!  It’s my birthday!  I’ve turned twenty-one!  Yaaay!  Happy birthday to me!

I will say merry Christmas, too.  And happy Chanukah to my fellow Jews!  But this post is not about the holidays, or my really inconveniently timed birthday.  No, I’ve actually got more literary things to say, and as you may have gleaned from the title of this post, it is about Chekhov’s gun.

Anton Chekhov wrote lots of stuff like short stories and plays and things.  If you haven’t heard of him, you should probably look him up.  He’s relevant to this post because of this thing he once said about writing plays.  Quoth the Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.  Otherwise don’t put it there.”  I remember a different variation, which I guess he never said, but I like to tell it like this: If you put a shotgun on the mantle in the first act, it better have gone off by Act III.  I don’t know where I got the shotgun from if he was talking about a pistol.  I guess it just sounds more purposeful or something.

Anyway, this quote pertains to more than just plays.  It can apply to movies and books, too.  Since we’re more interested in the latter, I’m going to focus on that one.  This concept is all about the world you create.  The thing about writing books, movies, and plays is that, unlike in real life, you get to choose each and every person, place, and thing that shows up in the story.  So, by that logic, if you’re going to choose to put it there, it has to have a purpose.  Otherwise why would you put it there in the first place?  It could just as easily have been left out.  That’s the shotgun/pistol/grenade launcher on the mantle.  If you put it there, use it.

Earlier in this blog, I offered a couple literary exercises.  I would like to add this one: Write a story that contains a “Chekhov’s gun,” so to speak.  Put in some seemingly innocuous object towards the beginning that ends up being really important or relevant at the end.  The point is to make its relevance a surprise (though it doesn’t always have to be).  Then have other people read it and ask them if they predicted what that “gun” was going to be used for.  Obviously for this exercise to work, you can’t tell people ahead of time what you’re doing.

The reason I’m talking about this is…no, scratch that.  There are two reasons I’m talking about this.  One: I get so many of my ideas by accident through this Chekhov’s gun method.  I don’t even try to do it.  I just mention something in passing and then realize later that it would fit perfectly into the plot for such and such reason.  And soon after that, I realize that it’s a good thing I thought of a point for that thing, otherwise I would have had to take it out.  And the reason for that is that readers/audiences know, at some base level, all about Chekhov’s gun.  If they see something or hear something get mentioned, they are likely going to expect to see it come up again.  So if it doesn’t ever come back, that might leave the writer open to criticism.  For an example of one of the times this situation has snuck up on me in my writing…I once had two characters talk about Character Two’s older brother having a job interview.  It was really just to make them seem more human by having them converse about everyday things, but later the job interview became a plot point.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.  Now for an example of the failure to bring something back.  Unfortunately, this means I have to admit to seeing Real Steel.  You know…Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots the Movie?  With Hugh Jackman?  Yeah, I was bored that day.  Anyway, (no spoilers here, not that you care) the kid finds a robot and at some point realizes that the robot “understands” him.  As in it’s sentient.  And that just…doesn’t go anywhere.  I kept waiting for it to be relevant somehow and it never really came back.  The robot was just a robot…that punched other robots.  So that was bad.  Not that the movie was very good to begin with, but still.

The second reason I brought up Chekhov’s gun is this: I think it works in reverse, too.  In this case it would be, “If at the end of the book your character fires a shotgun, the gun better have been mentioned at least once before.”  I came to this conclusion a few days ago when I was writing Grotesque.  I’m almost at the end of it now, and I realized I was missing some key element that would tie everything together.  But it was a really little thing, not something I cared very much about.  I just needed an ingredient.  Literally.  I needed an ingredient for a magical potion.  And I came up with some leaves and decided to bring them up and be like “Look!  These are the leaves! The ones that we had but now he has them and we need them back and oh God he can’t be allowed to use them because that would spell disaster for us!”  (You get extra brownie points if you were able to follow that)  But then I realized I was doing a lot of exposition to explain these leaves and it was so close to the end of the book that it didn’t feel right.  It felt like I was throwing them in at the last second, and they started to get more significant than I’d originally intended them to be.  Which meant that I had to go back through the book and mention them earlier, do the exposition earlier, so that my readers wouldn’t feel like I just threw this thing at them out of nowhere.  As in, “This exists now!  I am the author and I say it exists so it does!  Just go with it, man.”  And that’s how I came to understand the reverse of Chekhov’s Gun.  This post has gone on way too long and there haven’t even been any cartoons to break up the wordiness.  I am sorry for that.  I feel like I want to talk more about this, but I’ll save it for another post.  Until then, enjoy your holidays!  And to anyone else out there who shares my Christmas Eve Birthday, Happy Birthday to you!

Word of the Day: Chekhovian (adj) – of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Anton Chekhov or his writings, especially as they are evocative of a mood of introspection and frustration.

P.S. I just realized that the leaves thing is doubly relevant to this post.  Yes, it was the reverse of Chekhov’s gun, but there was also this point earlier in the story when I had someone mention that they were going to try to find some edible plants, and then he never found any or brought up his search or anything.  Which is an example of mentioning something and then failing to bring it up again.  So then I decided to fix that problem by going back and adding the super special leaves in to that scene, thus killing two birds with one stone, and it worked out perfectly which is so amazing because I never even predicted it would happen that way.  I mean, I didn’t even know those leaves existed until long after I’d written that scene.  It’s cool how writing works, huh?  Ok, good-bye for real this time.

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