“Story-telling and writing fiction are very different skills,” the professor said.
I immediately wanted to disagree with him. But then I thought about that dictation software I purchased and rarely used. For somewhere around $70 I had a top-of-the-line program ready to turn my speech into text. In the end, it turned hard drive storage into wasted space.
Telling a captivating story out loud is not the same as writing a page-turner novel. I’ve written some decent stuff over the years, and I’ve told some decent stories to my friends. But you can’t transcribe the latter and automatically have a great piece of prose ready for readers.
So I decided to listen and accept that maybe Dr. Guthridge knew what he was talking about.
(His awards and successes could have sufficed.)
Last week, a local college with offices on-base provided a free two-hour workshop: How to Write a Short Story.
Dr. Guthridge provided a formulaic method for plotting and outlining short stories–one that presumably works pretty well with full-length novels.
For sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, start with your cool idea. Maybe it’s a magic system, a piece of technology, or a creepy monster. Honestly, you can also come up with cool ideas for mainstream fiction–you just need an interesting fact or two upon which to base the story.
Brainstorm a protagonist and a problem that protagonist might have, based on the cool idea or historical inspiration. The protag should have an inner, emotional problem that needs to be resolved… insecurity, hatred, fear, anger. Something they’ve tried to keep at bay, but it clearly affects everything about them.
The outer problem is the conflict that forces the protag to deal with their inner emotional baggage. It’s the issue that pulls all of that junk to the surface to be confronted.
Brainstorm a few false solutions. These don’t have to be super intellectual and creative; in fact, we often distract ourselves and delay coming up with useful ideas by looking for the most creative, least expected attempted solution. These solutions are intended to fail, so it’s fine–maybe even preferred–if they’re the “obvious” answers to the outer problem. Unstable magic energy is creating a disturbance? Great… send in a magician to collect or contain it. A piece of technology isn’t functioning, and threatens innocent lives? Pull the plug… it’s a no-brainer.
Also brainstorm easy ways that these failed and false solutions will make things worse. Skynet starts a global thermonuclear war when the military tries to pull the plug. Noble men go mad with lust for power when they try to use the Ring of Power as a weapon against Sauron. Bullets don’t stop Jason Voorhes, they just make him chase you.
The final solution is where brainstorming and creativity come into play. This has to be unexpected. (Readers will be unsatisfied if they guessed the ending from the beginning.) This has to be unique and intelligent. (Readers will be frustrated if the answer is something obvious and simple like pulling the plug.) And this solution has to not only solve the outer problem but also resolve the protag’s internal conflict–because that’s really what the story is about.
Since “everyone is a unique snowflake,” the creative person in me hates the idea that good fiction usually has some clear structure we should mechanically duplicate. Where’s the freedom of expression? Where’s the special quality that sets apart one writer’s fiction from another’s?
But this sort of construct works really well as a framework upon which we build and decorate a house.
It reminds me of James Scott Bell’s LOCK concept:
Every story has a relatable and interesting Lead. The lead character must have an achievable and important Objective. There must be considerable and meaningful Conflict preventing the lead from easily achieving the objective. And the reader expects a Knockout ending that wraps it all up in an exciting way.
The fact is, the meat of telling a good story or writing good fiction hasn’t changed much over the centuries and millenia of recorded human history. These are the tales that speak to us and capture our imaginations over and over again.
Even if it feels formulaic, why fix what isn’t broke?
What do you think? Is this too simplistic a view? Is there more to the story (pun intended)? Let me know in a comment.
Work is doing its best to get in the way of my NaNoWriMo effort, but so far I have been successful.
If you’re not aware, the goal of National Novel Writing Month is to create a 50,000 word (or more) novel within the 30 days of November. The site for the event encourages the mathematically reasonable daily word goal of 1,667 words, because if you do that every day, you will in fact hit 50K.
Of course, that assumes you never have a bad day, or take a day off. Thanksgiving? You will write. 15 hour work day? You still have to write.
It’s fairly unrealistic (or I make lots of excuses).
So my peers and I discussed aiming for an average of 2000 words per day, because this gives a little bit of buffer for those bad days when life says NO to your writing plan.
I’m happy to report that I’ve passed 8000 words after four days’ effort.
Maybe I’ll save up enough time that I can play around in the new World of Warcraft expansion when it hits on the 13th. Maybe I’ll even have enough time to enjoy Thanksgiving with the family. (“Go away! Writing! Turkey was supposed to make you all sleepy!”)
I’ll get a snippet or three posted here in the near future. For now, I left off in the middle of a scene…
This marks 300 posts on this blog, so here’s a bit of a celebration:
Last night after work, I spent my entire evening working on an art project.
Like many writers, I have a world in my head, full of people that seem (to me) to take on a life of their own. Voices that want to be heard, dreams that want to be fulfilled, destinies awaiting their moment to shape history. It only happens when fingers go to keyboard and words become sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters.
And so many other distractions vie for those moments I want to spend tapping keys, documenting the history of other worlds and their people.
It’s easy to get off focus.
My teenage daughter never seems to have that problem with what she loves. “Can I watch Merlin? What about watching Merlin, can I do that now? How about we watch an episode of Merlin together? Here’s this picture of Morgana I drew. She’s in Merlin. You should watch it.”
She has become the dreaded Rabid Fangirl, who speaks in Meme and consumes all things Hiddleston, Sherlock, Divergent, Potter, Fault in Our Stars, Cumberbatch, and Capaldi.
(ok, maybe not ALL things Capaldi – the “definitive Malcolm Tucker” on YouTube is a 14-minute art exhibition of what my Scottish friend called being “sweary.”)
I looked at some of what the fans produce, the stories they tell that go beyond the bounds of the “canon” the authors actually write. Characters take on an enduring quality in the hearts of these fans, who come up with some quite touching and poignant wordplay and imagery to capture the power of relationships between fictitious people.
Elsa reaching over to touch her fingers to the sleeping Anna’s wrist, only content once she feels a pulse proving a heart is still beating.
George Weasley, who lost his twin Fred at Hogwarts, coloring his hair in some outlandish manner, then whispering, “It’s because every time I looked in the mirror, I kept seeing him…”
Scenes from Freeman and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, with grieving John being given medicine to help his nightmares since Sherlock’s demise. And he answers that the reason he won’t take the medicine is because the nightmares are the only time he can see the face of his friend.
It struck me that I should “fangirl” as much about my own characters as my daughter does about these others. If I don’t care about my characters so much that they take on a life of their own, why should a reader? If I don’t believe it is worth reading, why should anyone else?
I decided to do some “fanboy” art of my own, focused on the central relationship of the novel I’m writing.
Lyllithe is the adopted daughter of the Eldest in the Abbey, the friar who runs the village church. Lyllithe is being groomed to fill a role as a servant of the Light, but the lure of a shadowy form of magic has drawn her away from her father’s intended path. And Josephine is a Soulforged, a warrior imbued with divine power, capable of searching out evil, delivering swift justice, and defeating creatures of darkness.
Lyllithe is darkness; Josephine is light. In many ways, through a number of growing conflicts, they’ll clash and debate. But the bond of loyalty and love may prove stronger than their differences.
Here’s the as-yet-uncolored “Sisters” image.
Happy 300th post, me.
But thanks go to you, my readers. Thanks for the views along the way, and for sharing this blogging journey with me.
This post is already longer than I intended. But I’ve included an excerpt of Chapter 10 that captures a bit of Josephine and Lyllithe’s relationship:
Lyllithe sat in her favorite tree perch near the Woodwall but far from the gate. Fresh air blew through the tree, rustling leaves and rocking her branch. Wet soot covered her pale arms and stained her shirt. I stink of smoke and sweat. And I don’t even care.
Even obscured by the ash, her Gracemark glowed enough to cast a hue over her. She studied its shape, tracing it with a finger.
So do I lose you now? Does it hurt to become Scarred?
Words resounded in her mind like punches in the stomach. Light-veiled. Once-devoted. Cut off. She felt like crying but ran out of tears an hour ago.
Lyllithe of Northridge. Who did that name belong to? What sort of woman had no family name, no ties, no bonds, no Order?
The Gracemark’s glow tugged at her attention. And why do I still have this thing? Can I be Marked and declared Light-veiled at the same time?
An old question from her studies came to mind. “How far must one turn away from their Aspect in order to become Scarred?” Seems like the answer depended on whichever Devoted was teaching at the time.
I still believe. More than ever, I believe in the Light. Lyllithe looked up to the stars, half praying, half persuading herself. I believe it has the power to change the world. And I believe we can’t keep that to ourselves.
She looked back at the town. Lanterns in homes lit windows with an inviting glow. Yes, the Light can draw those in darkness to itself. But we also bring lanterns with us to shine in places where no light reaches.
She contemplated her arguments with Marten about the Order over the years. Or at least we should.
Another gust stung Lyllithe’s nose with her own odor. She considered heading home, and paused.
Do I still have a home?
Lyllithe glanced about, using her innate connection to the elements. With each rush of wind, poofy tangles of aera fluttered past. She Bound a large mass and twisted it into aqua, Loosing it before any discomfort.
Refocused water pattered on the tree leaves like fresh rain. The drops swept away the soot, ash and sweat. Though the water had no scent, Lyllithe breathed deep and sighed with contentment.
At least I have this.
Master Hachi’s words from the night of the Calling echoed in Lyllithe’s mind. I said I am not an Arcanist, and he answered ‘not yet.’
Perhaps the Hall is my best option now.
She sat in silence and watched puffs of aera float on the winds. In that distant corner of her awareness, she felt the other-ness once again.
Lyllithe explored the sensation. I can’t focus on it directly, or I lose ‘sight’ of it. But I can look at where it’s not, to guess at where it is.
Elements flowed and swirled all around her–terros in the ground and even the tree, aera on the breeze, aqua dripping off leaves and soaking the earth below where Lyllithe Refocused earlier. Even weak glimmers of lux streamed through the moonlit night.
No flagros around, but after the fires in town, I’m alright with that.
Lyllithe sat in awe of the sensation. I’m connected to everything. Energy everywhere, stirring and shifting in rhythms and patterns, a tapestry of life.
The picture of fabric hanging beyond sight over the visible world sparked an idea. Lyllithe reached out figurative fingers and drew the curtain of reality wide.
There you are.
Her grip on the visible world lurched and her insides churned as if an Arcanist tried to twist her lunch into acid.
I won’t come too close, she told the stagnant mass, backing away in her mind. I just want to watch you for a while.
Despite all that happened earlier, Lyllithe found a place of peace near the unknown power. She leaned back against the tree trunk and clasped her hands in her lap.
And she smiled.
* * * * *
“Should’ve known,” Josephine muttered. She started across the field, heading for Lyllithe’s tree.
What do I say to her? A smart fighter knew both her strengths and weaknesses. Compassion’s not really my thing.
A Glimpse of sorts came unbidden. Josephine shivered, but dismissed the thought. Of course something feels wrong. She just got kicked out of her family and her Order.
Josephine grinned. Maybe I’m not as bad at empathy as I thought.
“Lyl? Want to talk?”
Josephine took out her hammer and rapped the tree twice. “You awake?”
Up in the branches, hidden in the darkness, someone gasped like waking from slumber.
“Yeah, it’s me. Come down, let’s chat.”
Josephine talked while Lyllithe picked her way through the branches. “I’m leaving Northridge tomorrow. Yesterday, before the bandits attacked, I spoke with Master Falsted. He wants to hire on a Soulforged for his caravans. Too many lost to Deviols lately,” she said, then added, “and other dangers out beyond the Wall.”
Lyllithe dropped to the ground. “So this is goodbye?”
“Actually quite the opposite.” Josephine smiled. “There’s a job he wants done first.”
Lyllithe shrugged. “And?”
“And I thought you could be really useful.” Josephine sat down in the damp grass, and Lyllithe followed suit. “I saw what you did in town, Lyl.”
“I had to do something,” Lyllithe said. She bowed her head and the white points of her ears poked up through her drooping black hair. “It was all my fault.”
Lyllithe shot Josephine a glare. “Thanks.”
“You can’t change that. But you were awesome back there, putting out fires, putting down bandits. It was like we really had an Arcanist in our town.”
“So,” Josephine said, “come with me.”
Lyllithe looked away.
“What do you have here? I heard what your dad said, Lyl. Everyone heard. There’s nothing left for you in Northridge, a life of isolation as ‘the Ghostskin.’ Come with me.”
Lyllithe turned red eyes back to face Josephine. “And what will I be then?”
Josephine clasped a hand on Lyllithe’s shoulder. “My friend.” She pulled Lyllithe into a tight embrace. “My sister.”
They sat in silence until a streak of orange kissed the horizon.
Lyllithe giggled. “When do we leave, little sister?”
“What?” Josephine sputtered. “I’m clearly the big sister here.”
“I’ve been Marked for years! You only got yours last Markday.”
Lyllithe shook her head. “Nuh-uh, that doesn’t matter.” She held up her hand. “I win, ’cause I’ve got two.”
Josephine shifted to a crouch. “I win ’cause I can pound you!” She pounced, tackling Lyllithe, who screamed in delighted terror.
After a few minutes of wrestling with no clear victor, they lay in the long grass panting, staring up at the sky.
“Yup.” Josephine gave her a solemn nod. “So it’s perfect.”
Lyllithe let out a long breath and gazed at the sunrise.
Josephine watched and smiled. Good to see you laugh, my friend. She rose to her feet and extended Lyllithe a hand.
“Joram’s associates should be arriving before noon. We’re to set out tonight, so we should head back and get ready.”
“You still haven’t told me what this job we’re on is about.”
“You’ll like it,” Josephine said. They started back toward the village, which seemed far too peaceful given the night’s events. “Kal is running a huge organization across the Bordermarches. Those men who attacked us are connected to other bandits and highwaymen who steal Joram’s goods and take hostages of his workers. They took a few last week, on the road to Aulivar.”
One of my least favorite terms used of late among writers is “pantser.”
When I was about 9 or 10, there was an annoying girl at the local swimming pool who – in the middle of a crowd of swimmers – would pull down my swim trunks while I was swimming in the deep end. “Pantser” sounds like a middle school term for such a person.
But it’s meant to capture one side of a debate about writing. “Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you outline the main points of your story before you write a scene, or do you start writing by the seat of your pants and see where it leads?”
Planning is like following directions off Google Maps. The key steps along the journey are listed, and it’s on the writer to fill in the details in between. Pantsing, to me, feels like “I know my destination is over there and I’ll get there somehow” or even “I’m going for a drive today, and I don’t care where I end up.”
Both have their merits, weaknesses, and uses. For me, outlining is the most successful method for two reasons:
First, as soon as I realize there’s a problem, I can pause my effort, brainstorm a solution, and get back on track. Going back to Google Maps, if I miss a step or take a wrong turn, I can stop and course-correct to prevent wasted effort. I don’t have to finish a full manuscript before addressing glaring errors or issues. The minute I see the “Wrong Way” sign on the side of the road, I can stop and turn around.
Second, laying out key decisions, actions, and events well in advance, which makes foreshadowing possible. I know how the external and internal conflicts are going to be resolved. As a result I can build toward a more dramatic climax in the story. I don’t have to be surprised with my characters when suddenly we reach the final battle.
The first drawback to those key qualities are a lack of spontaneity or creativity in the writing process. If suddenly an idea strikes me in writing scene A, I may not be able to include it, because of how it will impact scene B leading to scene C. At best, I would have to make some changes to the outline to incorporate this change. Pantsers get the liberty of doing whatever they want and fixing issues later.
The second drawback is that once the story is “told” in my head, it feels “written” to me. I already know how it’s all going to play out. As a result, I can lose motivation for the tedium of putting all those ideas down on paper (or word processor screen).
Still, the benefits outweigh the potential trouble. What I don’t want to do is find myself several thousand words into a story only to discover glaring flaws in the basic premise.
To me, that takes away the fun and joy, like getting lost on the way to the party, or getting pantsed in the swimming pool.
What’s your favorite method to organize your writing efforts? Are you a planner or pantser, and why do you like that approach? Maybe there’s an aspect to either side that I’m not considering. Let me know in a comment.
Some of my favorite sci-fi stories involve time travel.
Back to the Future was a fun and silly adventure when I was younger. The first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I remember clearly involved an alternate timeline created by a starship accidentally traveling through time. Later, movies like 12 Monkeys and Terminator 1 & 2 echoed elements of some of the classics I read in high school English, like Oedipus. We also read the short story that captures the meaning of the term “Butterfly Effect.”
These all posed questions like, “If you know the future, can you change it?” Or “If you can travel to the past, could you affect the present?”
Though it can be fun to wonder and read stories that give possible answers, we may never know. Time travel seems impossible.
Even so, it’s something I look for when critiquing a piece of writing.
By that I mean I look for changes between past and present tense.
One of the fundamental decisions a writer makes is selecting the tense of the piece. Will this be written in present tense – actions as they happen – or past tense – actions completed?
Which one chooses doesn’t matter so much. (I mean, yes, of course there are debates that could go on about what tense is best for which genre, for which POV, for which type of story, and so on.)
What matters is consistency. The tense cannot change mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-article, mid-chapter, mid-novel. Writers can give us glimpses into other times through their creativity and skill, but they must not make us travel through time through failure to maintain the verb tense of their piece.
Consider this example:
I looked across the room and my eyes met hers. She walks over to my table and introduces herself. “Hey there,” she said. “My name’s Amanda.” Her lips part into a sultry smile and she winks at me.
Pick a tense and stick with it. All past tense completed, or all present tense as it happens.
Most often, I’ve seen first person POV writing use the present tense.
I turn to him and level the gun at his face. “You can’t take her,” I say, “unless you go through me.” The hammer clicks back. His look tells me he doesn’t think I’ll do it. Then he lunges.
I close my eyes and pull the trigger.
The idea here is that, like life, we see what’s happening as the POV character does. We react to emotions and events because we’re in the passenger seat right next to them as this roller-coaster plot careens down the tracks. It can make for interesting action, though first person POV comes with its own set of challenges.
Certainly a first person work could tell the story in the past tense. A personal account of an experience as an example in a self-help article is an instance of this kind of writing. It’s the friend sitting over tea saying, “Have I told you what happened to me twenty years ago? Well, I struggled with self-loathing for years, and it got to the point that I considered…”
I’m personally not a fan of a novel or fiction story written in first person past tense unless done exceptionally well. I don’t like the idea that the character in the book is recounting to me the way things happened in his or her story. (For one, that’s almost always a good spoiler clue this character survived whatever conflict the story contains.) I’m not saying it’s impossible, just less common.
For third person works, most often I see verbs in past tense, actions completed, events written as though they already happened long ago.
She turned to him and leveled the gun at his face. “You can’t take her,” she said, “unless you go through me.” The hammer clicked back and she noted the sneer in his smile. He doesn’t think I’ll do it.
He lunged at her.
She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
Even though all these actions are written like they happened in the past and the conflict is already resolved, our brains process the story like it’s happening now because we don’t know what happens — er, what happened next.
So what might seem like a boring, conflict-already-settled choice actually creates a dynamic tension in the reader. It’s just like how no one watches a movie thinking, “Well, this story has already been filmed completely. The ending is set. All these events already happened.”
Third person present tense is also an option not commonly seen, but possible to pull off with great skill.
She says to him, “We aren’t meant to be together.” So he grabs her arm, demands her affection one more time, and counts off all the reasons she ‘owes’ him.
She slaps him across the face so hard his nose starts bleeding. The other women in the room spontaneously cheer and give her a standing ovation as she stalks off.
To me this has the feel of a guy at the bar telling a wild tale. “You wouldn’t believe what I just saw happen.” I’m not a fan.
Past tense is generally preferred in 3rd person.
But sometimes a sentence may start with a past tense completed verb then show an ongoing action: “She thrust the spear at the bandit, yelling a formation command to her troops.” Even in that case, it’s clear that the action happened in the past, and another action was happening at the same time. It’s a way of depicting what’s going on in the “present” moment of the past tense story.
I’ve heard both sides of debate that such a formation is wrong or acceptable. I personally use it. And I don’t care one way or the other.
The only thing I’m looking for as far as verb tense is concerned is consistency. I’ll borrow a David Tennant Doctor Who quote here:
The Doctor: People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.
No, it’s not. Not in good writing. Broken verb tense creates a mess even the Doctor cannot fix.
I can’t count how many times I’ve looked at my watch or the clock in the middle of the night and justified reading the next chapter of a good book. What is it that sucks me in, holding me captive to the storyline?
Or how about the books I pick up at the store? I flip through the first few pages to check them out. What moves me from “Hmm, interesting” to a purchase?
The powerful concept that manages both these experiences is the Hook. And since most of us hope to do more with our writing than file it away in a desk drawer or folder on the computer’s drive, the hook is something I look for when I critique other writing.
A piece should start with a hook. “Why should I read this thing? Why should I care? Get my attention.” I say that, because that’s what an editor is going to be wondering. So if a fiction scene starts off with a long peaceful account of John and Mary’s mundane dinner conversation, or a description of the magnificent table and the sweetness of Grandma Myrtle’s special meatloaf recipe, no one cares.
Ok, the writer obviously cares, and maybe the critique group cares, because we’re friends helping each other out. So I might read that thing.
When daughter Sarah bursts into the dinner screaming “Help! Timmy’s bleeding all over the place. The neighbor’s dog did it!” – well, now it has my attention.
A hook creates questions that demand answers.
How bad is Timmy bleeding?
Was it his fault?
What’s the deal with the neighbor’s dog?
Do these families get along?
Better yet, consider the difference between “It was the neighbor’s dog” and “It was the neighbor’s dog again.” One added word tells some interesting backstory right at the start, creating more questions.
Conflict arises. Curiosity follows.
So the hook belongs as close to the beginning as possible. Depending on the length of a piece, it might go right at the start. A personal story would begin with Sarah’s outburst, then describe the disruption to a peaceful dinner as John and Mary scramble to Timmy’s aid.
The principle is still true even if the subject is nonfiction. A nonfiction article might pose a question or make a statement about the importance of the subject–better yet, suggest what life would be like if things were different. “Were it not for the heroic actions of the 82nd Airborne leading up to Normandy, D-Day might have been the greatest Allied loss of World War II.”
What did the 82nd do?
How did they impact the success of the Normandy invasion?
What might have happened if the Allies failed at Normandy?
Hooks are all about creating and keeping reader interest from the start. The work has to stand out in a heap of other submissions, blog posts, and manuscripts in someone’s inbox. So I look for something that grabs my attention near the beginning. Because if I’m not that interested when I’m reading something for a friend, no one will pay attention when it’s merely a matter of impersonal business.
In my post on “endings” I mentioned chapters in a novel needing some resolution to the scene they present. Sometimes a break from the urgency of events in the story might be nice, so there are certainly places where a calm ending is appropriate.
However, chapters should rarely end with a sense of satisfaction that lets a reader put in a bookmark for later. When dealing with longer works, a hook usually belongs at the end, in addition to the resolution of that scene.
The hook serves the same function here: it creates questions that have to be answered. But in this case, the answer is in the next chapter, and the reader dutifully turns the page, ignoring the clock.
When the hero develops an unspecified plan to defeat the villain, or when a third mysterious party arrives in the middle of a pitched battle, that’s a hook. When a character makes a decision to interfere in an upcoming event, or someone receives tragic news that makes them scream or clutch at the letter, that creates questions. The hero leaps into the fray even though he knows he cannot possibly win the battle. The heroine torn between two mutually exclusive choices realizes which one means the most to her, and moves into action to save that part of her life, at the cost of the other.
These questions have to remain largely unanswered at the end of a chapter, to create a demand for “What’s going to happen next?”
If I’m critiquing a chapter of someone’s project, if I don’t feel that drive, then I’ve identified a potential problem they’ll want to address before their work gets to the hands of an editor.
Otherwise what happens next is potentially a rejection slip.
What happens next on this A to Z? I’ll describe looking for writing that creates and maintains intensity. The first page and the last page matter, but so do the pages in the middle.
There’s a story of a man watching a kid finding starfish trapped and doomed to die on the beach. One by one, the kid tosses them into the waves, saving their lives. “Kid, what are you doing?” the man asks. “There’s miles of beach, with hundreds, maybe thousands of starfish. You can’t save them all, so what does it even matter?”
The kid picks up another starfish, tosses it into the water, and says, “It mattered to that one.”
When General Welsh became the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force, an official letter went out to the troops: the typical “Proud to serve, excited about the future” letter new leaders always write. This one seemed particularly chipper and upbeat in tone. I looked at it with suspicion. “We’ll see.”
Then a friend posted a video of General Welsh speaking to the Air Force Academy. His message was simple: “Everyone has a story.” He walked through several scenes of various Air Force members’ lives, taking time to paint them as the heroes worthy of attention. Deeds of valor were proclaimed, followed by ‘mundane’ details about each individual.
General Welsh turned to the soon-to-be Officers and declared, “Everyone you lead has their own story, and you better get to know it.”
It burned a bit. My friend is a former subordinate against whom I committed a glaring faux pas. It was a simple question: Are you working on your degree? I should have known before our first performance feedback session. The information was available but I failed to prepare and showed I didn’t know him as well as I ought.
But that’s not the worst part.
The next feedback session, I asked the same question again.
He hasn’t let me live it down. Rightly so. That’s a chapter in his story I should have known.
I’d like to think I’m getting better at looking past my smartphone-induced ego-bubble.
I’m in the drive-through at Sonic when I run into Jack. He looks too old to be slinging burgers and blending up shakes. “Whataya think about that snow they’re forecasting?” I don’t know. I just want my wife’s sweet tea. But I have a choice to make: ignore him, because who’s this guy anyway, just some fry cook. Or look past myself for a minute and take an interest in someone else.
One day I show up in uniform. He notes my aircrew wings. “Well those look important! Do ya fly ’em and break ’em, or catch ’em and fix ’em?” Turns out he wanted to be a Air Force flyer once. Jack even scored 95 on the ASVAB–no easy feat.
“I wanted to play football through college and skip the Academy,” he tells me while I wait for a sandwich for my kids. “Had a plan to join the Air Force, become a Navigator, maybe fly for 25 years, then go to work as a meteorologist. Yeah, I went to Michigan State to play. Broke my neck in freshman year and spent two years in recovery. None of the services were willing to touch me when they saw that stack of medical records!”
Here’s a guy who’s just as willing to go put his life on the line for his country as I ever was, a guy who takes pride in his work even if it’s passing burgers and shakes out a drive-through window. Everyone has a story.
There’s Mike at Midas. I show up for a quick look under the hood since the minivan is running rough. I find a perfect gentleman in a car repair garage. Mike goes out of his way to make sure my wife and I are comfortable. He engages in small talk, gets us water and coffee, and carefully updates us on the expected wait time.
We go to pay the bill, and I tell him our address. Turns out almost 20 years ago, he lived down the street from my house on base. He’s retired enlisted Air Force; he served twenty-plus years. And he’s taking time to thank me instead of the other way around. I suppose he could’ve been “just a grease monkey” I ignored so I could get back to mindless Facebook browsing. But everyone has a story.
On a couple of recent visits to my wife’s favorite restaurant, we had the same waitress, Jessica. She doesn’t just serve food or wait tables, she connects with customers.
“Looking at the Carmelicious? Oh man, for a week or so I had to go on strike and stop getting Carmelicious every day. They’re that good.”
“Which muffin would you like? Oh, those are good. I have to be careful when I bring those home. My puppy sees the bag and as soon as my back is turned, she steals it.”
“No whipped cream for your coffee? But that’s the best part!”
Jessica could bring food out and fake a smile, then collect her check and tip. She could be just a waitress, easily ignored. But instead she shares her stories with us.
And that speaks to me. Because, to her, we could be just customers, one more table to deal with in the way of punching the clock and going home. But she chooses to treat us differently. Maybe she thinks we have a story worth hearing.
People all around us have experiences similar enough that we could connect, different enough that we might be surprised.
Hearing a story takes humility – we have to think less of ourselves so we think enough of the other to give them attention. When we know or perceive ourselves to be above the other party in whatever social ladder or pecking order, research shows we decrease our focused attention. Daniel Goldberg’s recent book, Focus, has a great chapter explaining how this social mechanism works. It’s our cultural tendency to express empathy and compassion only when it might benefit us, and to withhold it when we see someone as beneath us.
Sure, we live in a teeming swarm of bodies, each one with their own stories, hopes and dreams. We often encounter those who can do little for us, those we might easily ignore or look down on. After all, we’re busy people with important lives.
The cynic in me shouts, “Give me a break. Look at all those people. You can’t possibly have meaningful interaction with all of them. What good is it to try? It doesn’t matter.”
The little kid in me reaches out to connect to someone else and answers, “It mattered to that one.”
If I try to structure my blog posts at all, then Saturday is when I post a “Storyline.” Usually it’s a piece of creative writing or something related to the books bouncing around in my head.
Today, I’m going to share a bit of my story. It’s late, but it’s still Saturday. And I’ve backed off from rigidly following that daily structure in these posts. And it’s my blog so I DO WHAT I WANT!
Specifically, I’m thinking about the upcoming surgery I have scheduled on March 5th, and the recovery process that will follow. And I ask myself if this is really necessary.
For almost twenty years now, I’ve noticed occasional stiffness and pain in my ankle after high-impact activities. It was usually a short ache or a feeling like the joint locked in place and simply needed a good pop. I’d pop the ankle and massage the joint, and move on with my day.
About 2000, I realized it was gradually but steadily getting worse. I soon learned that some of my favorite sports were out of the question. No basketball, no racquetball, no volleyball… I had to quit doing anything that called for pivoting the ankle or making fast movements and changes of direction. I was never very good at any of those sports, so it didn’t feel like a big loss.
Not long after that, the Air Force revamped the fitness program, pushing for more running. Squadron fitness sessions followed suit, and I spent two or three days a week pounding pavement around Kadena. The next day following the run would be full of stiffness, constant aching, and sharp stabbing pains. My ankles would sometimes give out, and I’d stumble. Or the pain would be such that I would slowly work my way down the stairs, eliciting comments and questions from my coworkers.
Imagine you’re walking along and someone raps your ankle with a hammer – not hard enough to break anything or make you fall over, but enough to grab your complete attention for a minute or two until the pain subsides. That’s how it feels most days after I run.
I tried checking with the military doctors, but they were convinced I was not stretching enough. Or I weighed more than I should, and the problem was just the excess weight. They taught me exercises to mitigate the effects of plantar fasciitis, and they suggested diet programs. But the answers boiled down to “Live with it.”
So I did.
I’m not the doctor. I don’t have the medical degree on the wall. I assume they know what they’re talking about.
This went on for a few more years, until the day that I had to crawl around my house rather than put weight on my feet after a simple walk through the Commissary for a grocery shopping trip. My wife got me to re-attack with the doctors, and this time, I got a referral to a podiatrist who ran a CAT scan.
He pulled me into the office and pointed out several noticeable problems with my foot and ankle structure. Then he called attention to the various shadows in the ankle bones, and explained, “That’s advanced degenerative arthritis. It’s much worse than it should be for someone your age.”
Way to make me feel old.
The good news was the doctor had a plan.
The bad news was, so did the Air Force. It took nine months to align dates so that I could get surgery, but I finally got it. We had to work around military education, mission needs, a new office, and squadron deployments. The plan was to get the right foot fixed, then give me time to recover and return to flying duties. After a few months back on flight status, we would get the left knocked out.
I had surgery on my right foot in 2010. The surgeon went in through the right side and carved off some excess bone which was pushing other parts of the ankle out of place. Then he stuck a titanium screw up through my heel to fuse together two of the bones in my ankle.
The recovery process took about five months. By then, increased demands on the squadron got in the way of the original plan. First I needed to fly local sorties, then I was sent on a deployment. By the time I returned, it was time to start preparing to move to a new duty location. I did not want to try to move my family of six across the world while on crutches wearing a cast. Needless to say, the left ankle never got done.
Sadly, the bones didn’t fuse like they were supposed to, so now instead of fixing the left ankle, we get to revisit the right and try to do it “right” (Ha ha). The doc has to take out the old screw, graft in some bone, and put in a new screw. Second time’s the charm, or so we hope. We’re going to help the odds a bit with an infusion of vitamin D and an ultrasonic device meant to stimulate bone growth and recovery.
I know this is going to be a long and difficult process. I have to watch my diet while in a cast, because I will not be able to exercise or be anywhere near as active as I am now. I have to throw myself into physical therapy and personal exercise as soon as that cast comes off, because I will have my next fitness test coming due.
I need a sweet action-movie montage where the hero gets into shape for the big battle against the forces of evil (or the fitness testing cell). I have a story to write in the next few months, but not with words. It’ll be with sets of push-ups and planks, hours of spinning on a cycle or elliptical, weeks of tracking every calorie consumed or burned, every pound gained or lost. It’ll also be dealing with the looks or unspoken judgments of those who don’t know all the details – accepting that some people will assume instead of ask, condemn instead of encourage.
I know I can write this story, because I did it three years ago.
But I’m not looking forward to it.
Stories resonate so well because everyone has one of their own. There’s a drama going on in every life that you and I may not be privy to. It’s easy to jump to a conclusion, but just like any good book, if you do that, you miss the most important details.
The movie montage seems so nice because it shortens all the hours of suck into a few minutes of hard work, set to a driving beat. Of course, life has no such short-cuts, and achievements do not come so easily.
I know I’m not the only one who has a similar story of long, hard work to recover from injury or achieve a difficult goal. What kept you going when it would have been easy to quit? What did you find inspired you to push harder, work longer, and succeed?
This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.
Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.
“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”
The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.
Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.
It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.
No, we get into the stories.
Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?
We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.
We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.
You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.
Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.
Giving up some of the structure of the game you’re playing can sometimes make for more interest in the story you’re telling.
So we finally got a gaming table set up in our living room (a sweet hexagon table we picked up for cheap… reminds me of BattleTech), and the entertainment center next to the table is filled with all things D&D.
Time to put it all to use!
For my birthday, among other things, we decided to finally sit down as a family and play some D&D for the first time since our move. I had some new Eevil Paizo products, and I wanted to try them out! I whipped up some generic notes to form a very rough (and thus flexible) plotline, got character sheets and minis and map packs ready, and laid out sets of dice.
We got started, but we’re not the traditional table-top RPG group. I’m dealing with a 12-year-old and an 11-year-old, who both pretty much “get it.” My wife is also playing, but our 1-year-old is requiring attention RIGHT NOW. And then I’ve got a 6-year-old who wants to play but also starts thinking about Angry Birds any time there’s a second of silence in the game. So… how to cater to the needs of this group?
It has been a while since we played. I mention terms like “Perception” and then have to explain where on the character sheet to find the skill. We talk about powers and attacks, but they’re not remembering what all they can do. We go over generic descriptions of the characters they’ve chosen, and what sort of decisions they might make.
I figure, start with action rather than with non-combat role-playing, or else the 6-year-old is done. Sure enough, he’s pretty well into the combat, even if he needs coaching on how his character can participate. “You can shoot your crossbow at that rat, or you can run over, pull out your sword, and slash at it.” His first attack goes well, but the second misses. He seems kind of overwhelmed, and his character gets stung by a scorpion. I try to put it in terms he understands. “Remember when you were crying today because your sister hit you SO hard? That’s what this felt like for Clayface. He got stung in the shoulder just like you got hit. He could take maybe another three or four hits like that before he gets knocked out.”
So he’s mad at that scorpion, and still kind of unsure about what to do. Then my wife uses her warlord to give my son a free attack. Basically, the warlord opens up, vulnerable to attack, drawing the attention of some enemy… then one of the warlord’s allies gets to use that distraction to his or her advantage, making a free attack. Justin rolls his attack…
…and gets a 20.
I use the GameMastery Crit Hits deck (and the Crit Fumble deck) for additional description and excitement. I have seen exactly zero players complain about the fun of finding out what specifically their crits accomplished, and sometimes the random cards fit the story in ways far better than I could come up with on my own. So my son’s rogue, Clayface slashes at the scorpion, doing only modest damage, but permanently blinding the poor creature. Now he’s completely excited.
Still, this fight is taking a long time, and the kids are barely familiar with their characters and the rules. They get the idea that “you say what you want to do, you roll a d20, add some number off the sheet, and then figure out if that’s enough to succeed.” It hits me… do we all really care that the AC for a Giant Centipede is 16? Does it really matter that they have a Mandible attack that is +6 to the roll, with a chance for 1d8+4 damage on hit? No, none of that matters. What matters is, do they get the feeling they can contribute in a meaningful way?
Very quickly, we’re doing guesstimated math. If a number is readily available, I’ll use it. (My wife’s warlord’s AC is 17, for example). If not, I have a good guess in my head. Maybe I’m not doing the monsters justice, or maybe they’re slightly more powerful than they should be.
So what! We’re playing this for the kids, not just for me. They’re completely satisfied with this system.
We finish the fight and it has gone longer than I planned (1 year old distractions!). For whatever reason, in my haste, I never bothered to think of the party capturing the last evil creature for questioning. They ask a bunch of generic questions, and decide to use the goblin as a bargaining chip for when they meet the rest of the goblins that might be attacking the town the heroes came from. (Little do they know that the goblins have no loyalty at all and won’t care… but that will be for next time.)
By now, it’s 9 PM, and it’s time for bed for the kidlets. But I learned something important in this short gaming session: as long as your group is fine with it, you can speed things up significantly by reducing the strictness of the rules. I didn’t have exact breakouts for every monster’s stats or make the kids do all the math required to play by the rules. We just got the story and the fight going, and kept it moving fast enough to keep them interested.
You roll a 5 when you make your attack? You miss. You roll a 16? You hit. Figure somewhere about 11-12 as the cutoff and then just go with it. Is it a tough monster with thicker armor or swifter reflexes? Maybe 13 or 14 is the cutoff for that one.
The attack does 9 damage? Ok, then this level 1 or level 2 monster is probably bloodied now. Do you really need to make sure that Dire Rat #2 gets its full 12 HP worth of actions before getting bloodied? No, not really, not for this particular group.
Your group dynamics are going to tell you very quickly if you can get away with this sort of thing. I’ve often had at least one player in the group who wants the specific numbers. “Wait a minute, I rolled a 13 last time with a +6 to attack, and I hit… she rolled a 14 with a +3 to attack and missed… so this thing’s AC must be about 18…”
That player is probably not going to be satisfied with this option. I’d suggest being honest and up-front with your players about it. Ask if it will bother them if you try to speed combat and skill challenges along in this manner. It may take some of the pain and concentration away from strict dice math, and focus the concentration of your players on the story developing in the game.