Thursday, November 15, 2012

Raising expectations vs. becoming ridiculous

Continued from this post. So I need to write a series of kick-ass magical duels for Disciple, Part VI.

I'd like to do something more nuanced than: Blast! BLAST! BIGGER BLAST! DESTROY EVERYTHING ... it's not easy. Defining a character's ability to kick ass always runs the danger of not impressing anybody. Therefore, the temptation is to go straight over the top -- but that will create its own challenges the next time you need a magical duel. How is this one more dangerous/exciting than the last one? Constant one-upmanship is its own problem.

Sure, Kenshin, you can do that with just a sword...
Which you will see if you watch enough anime. Case in point: the Ruruoni Kenshin TV series (which involved no magic.) After a ridiculously long and ever-one-upping series of katana duels with the enemy's pack of cronies, Kenshin was having to conjure miniature black holes through force of will and swordsmanship in order to create any sort of wow factor. It was falling pretty flat at that point, though.

Conventional wisdom is that tension must always increase as we approach the climax, and that subsequent stories (or scenes) must have higher stakes than the previous. We've all seen this happen: first the characters have to defeat a particular bad guy, then an organization of them, then an evil deity, then we have to save the entire universe and then... You've got to take a step back, at some point -- or pass the story to new characters.

But let's get back to kicking ass; so you want that emotional satisfaction of the good guys winning. You want all of your characters' hard work and sacrifice to pay of in a suitably -- within the parameters set by your world-building -- spectacular way. And maybe you need more than one of these scenes.

Raising the stakes works, up to a point. Survival is always a good goal. Saving loved ones. Working with handicaps. I need to keep realism in sight, though. I brought this up a while back -- don't stack the deck against your characters so badly that their success becomes implausible. Relying on luck or reinforcements arriving in the nick of time isn't as satisfying for the reader as a character overcoming personal fears, limitations, what-have-you, to succeed.

And yes, I'm having to fight the urge to make these a cakewalk for my characters. Maybe it seems like I'm tough on them, but I've got my squishy side too. So I'm thinking of these duels as graphs charting increasing power, increasing complications, and increasing risk. That's three dimensions, already.

I tend to think of stories as being a walk through a three-dimensional web, anyway, so that fits right in.

What examples of stories losing touch with realistic conflicts come to your mind?


E.J. Wesley said...

Excellent points. I felt the 3rd Hunger Games book lost some of its magic for that very reason (strayed too far into the 'giant war, big explosions' thing). The intimacy from the first two just wasn't there for me.

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I don't like the Michael Bay approach to storytelling. I love the tension you create in your book. Almost done with it and will review it soon :)

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