Last month, I went to Europe. Since our group was large, we stayed in large hotels, which— correctly guessing the average metabolism of a group of a hundred teenagers— kindly supplied each room with a snack, a granola bar. More specifically, a Corny bar.
Never have I seen such an apt description. The bar was a standard chocolate granola bar in every way. The wrapper showed the name in big, curly letters, over a picture of the granola bar itself, which in turn partially covered a couple heads of grain and a chunk of chocolate. Corny? Why, yes, and not just because it included corn.
Occasionally, as a writer, I look at something I wrote and find that it is completely, utterly, corny. The main character is a Chosen One orphan who lives as a farmer/blacksmith in the backwoods of a medieval country with grotesque and snarling beasts that ravage things (who doesn’t believe in magic but sort of believes in the legend of the Dark Lord from whom all ravaging beasts were born); and the plot is just the Hero’s Journey expanded to fit a sassy but lovable rogue (also an orphan) picked up in the first city the hero comes to. This, my friends, is nothing new— and yet, occasionally I find myself writing something like that.
This used to be my greatest pet peeve in reading and writing: originality. With the world so stuffed full of fiction already, can there actually be anything original? My goal as a young writer was to find that thing. But it’s difficult to break out of conventional genre and define something new all by yourself. It’s difficult to be completely original. In fact, almost no one is original— they just know how to work with corniness. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on September 14, 2014
I decided a couple days ago to write a post about humor, especially workshopping it. I decided that to figure that question out, I’d watch some Firefly, because it’s one of the funniest TV shows I’ve encountered without ever detracting from the plot. Funny thing I realized, though, after watching about seven episodes: it’s much easier to keep watching than to write a post about how it works.
I said a couple weeks ago that humor can be learned, and practiced. I wouldn’t have said that if I hadn’t believed it to be true. Humor is a tool like anything else, and to learn humor requires the same process as anything else: experience. I can’t tell you how to make a joke, nor can I dissect humor and tell you what makes it tick. All I can do is tell you how to make your humor better— how to practice it.
The first thing to realize, I think, is what jokes communicate. Jokes are, primarily, funny— there’s no getting around that— but they also occur at the expense of someone or something. It’s your job as a writer to figure out what that is. If a joke is in the wrong place, it means it’s happening at the expense of something you don’t want belittled. If it’s in the right place, the humor occurs at no one’s expense, or purposefully detracts from a certain character’s standing, or lends to the mood in that way. Howard Tayler, cartoonist, has to keep a drama running as he makes a joke every day. He’s said several times that he can’t make a joke about things that are happening— that would be at the expense of the plot, which would destroy suspension of disbelief. Since he needs that, he can’t destroy it with a joke. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on September 7, 2014
A couple days ago, an idea came to me at about midnight. Forty-five minutes later, I had nine hundred nearly-illegible words covering two sheets of paper, making up one of the most fun short stories I’ve written. I’m really glad I forced myself to sit up and write instead of sleeping the idea away. I hope you enjoy the story.
“Fifteen minutes, Lex.” I pressed the button to call the elevator and the doors slid open. “Keep your mouth shut for fifteen minutes, until we take off. Then you can say what you want.”
“I understand,” Lex said. “You’ve told me this before.”
“But you haven’t listened yet.”
“I’ve just…” Lex grinned in anticipation. “I’ve never seen one in their true form.”
“You’ve waited this long— you can wait fifteen minutes more. Just until we’re in the air.” I punched the button for the roof.
“Yeah, fine,” said Lex. “I’ll keep it under control. Just get us in the air quick.”
This was the fifth time Lex had promised, and it was beginning to annoy me. Lex was a scientist— an enthusiastic one— with an odd fascination with humans. He could talk about them all day. According to him… well, it was best not to know what he thought.
The elevator slid open. Currently disguised inside and out as a helicopter, our ship sat bulbous and squat on the flat roof. Standing a good distance away from its strangely thin blades, Marise stood at near attention in her heels and form-fitting skirt. From the way she clutched at her handbag, and the glances she gave toward the helicopter, she was nervous. Great, I thought. She won’t last a minute before Lex gets through to her. With luck, the anxiety would be for helicopters, or heights, or all her human invulnerabilities. Let it be anything but fear of strange men asking weird questions. Lex’s “interest of science” tone of voice was bad enough without anxiety. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on September 3, 2014
In Gifts of Rith, my current editing work in progress, I have a villain. This villain lives up to every expectation of a villain— he fights against the main character, is hugely powerful, and wants to destroy lots of people the main character cares about. He makes mischief for much of the book, blocking the main character at every turn and fulfilling expectations as to villainous behavior. Then, at the end, (spoiler alert) he dies. As villains do.
Unfortunately, his death hit the wrong chord. Instead of feeling powerful and satisfying, this villain’s death felt… jarring. Several eyebrows were lowered in confusion, including my own. Instead of satisfaction, the readers felt slight disgust at how cruel the main character was for killing this guy. The scene as a whole felt— dare I say it?— unnecessary.
You don’t need me to tell you that that reaction was exactly the opposite of what I planned. I wanted a dramatic fanfare, a slow-motion shot of the hero straightening up, victorious over the body of his nemesis. I wanted a good villain death— is that too much to ask?
If the villain’s death didn’t mean anything to the main character… well, yes. It is too much to ask. What was the problem? I needed to make things personal. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on August 31, 2014
Many difficulties come standard in the task of writing child protagonists. To a certain point, a person is a person no matter how small, but there are subtle differences in younger characters. Their behavior can be slightly different from that of an adult— less logical at times, or not quite sure of morals yet. Their physical limitations, of course, must differ. A ten-year-old boy cannot take the same amount of knocks on the head as the adult hero of an epic fantasy (there is considerable debate on whether the hero himself can take that many hits realistically, but the point remains). Most importantly, however, there is a child’s place in society to consider.
Any middle grade fantasy will grind to a halt when the child’s parents decide she can’t cross the street without permission.
But books about children have been around for centuries, from the Brothers Grimm to C.S. Lewis. Many people have solved this problem for their stories, many different ways. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on August 24, 2014
A romance is never just about the romance.
Whether subplot or main plot, a romance plot line is not about the love itself. It’s about the process of falling in love. Now, as we know well from Disney, that process can take place within the space of a single song. Unfortunately, that’s a three-minute character arc. Romance introduced— romance over with. Everyone is bored, let’s get back to the explosions.
That’s why romance is never just about the romance. Romance can be a really quick thing, but we need it to take longer. We need it to cover hundreds of pages, ramping up conflict and tension between characters as they near the climax. If we introduce and finish the romance quickly, it’s ineffective, not worth including. Either that, or really good for a joke.
If left to itself, a romantic plot line would resolve itself in less than three minutes, with song, dance, and birdies chirping. That’s why you can’t leave it to itself. You have to figure out a way to slow it down, while making it feel like it can’t possibly go any faster. You have to create romantic tension.
Romantic tension is what allows a romance plot to slow down and yet remain engaging. The reader knows two people ought to get together, but something is keeping them apart— even though it’s hardly life or death, that much tension can keep the reader reading in this style of plot. How to create romantic tension? One word: obstacles. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on August 21, 2014
Over the past week, I’ve pondered many things, but none of them long enough— or originally enough— for them to merit entire posts. Because I’m too lazy to expand them, here are a series of partial posts that will hopefully all make sense on their own. Feel free to comment on one, comment on all three, or bring up something completely different. They are yours to expound upon or ignore as you will. I hope you get something out of each.
Humor is important, as I’ve said many times. In fact, this last week, I used humor as a tool more than I ever have. I made more people like me in that week than in months in other places. Correctly placed, it is a tool. Incorrectly placed, it destroys just about everything you work to build. But I’ve posted on that before, so I’ll let that lie.
Brandon Sanderson believes humor can be cultivated into the tool I mentioned, every time you need it. Many others believe humor is spontaneous, a gift for those lucky enough to have an edge. More and more, I’m finding Sanderson’s opinion correct. He’s not a funny fellow, all by himself and spontaneous. But when you give him the time, he writes killingly funny quips. He’s admitted to purposefully raising his humor level in books, especially Warbreaker. While he isn’t quick on his feet as, say, Howard Tayler, he knows the system of humor and uses it as a tool.
Moral of the story: humor is a tool, not something you’re born with. Practice it, perfect it, and use it. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on August 18, 2014