Comp Titles

IMG_2223Comp titles: Agents love them; writers agonize about them. Comp titles are one of the most consistently misused aspects of querying, and it’s no wonder so many authors would rather dispense with them entirely. But a good comp title is a great selling point for any book. It’s well worth learning how to choose an effective comp title to use in a query.

In this post, I aggregated 12 blog posts from industry professionals (list is after the cut) and noted what advice they mentioned most often.

Don’t use extreme bestsellers as comps: 7
The most common advice was not to use extremely popular books as comp titles. Authors constantly claim their book will be the next Harry Potter, but doing so only demonstrates two things: That you’re not realistic about your goals and that you probably haven’t read very widely.

Comps should be recent: 6
This was the second most common advice. Using really old comp titles, like The Lord of the Rings, is not helpful because it doesn’t demonstrate that there’s a market for your book today. (This is true even if the book still sells well today, because it doesn’t doesn’t show that there’s a market for a new book  Agents listed cutoffs anywhere from 3-20 years, but the more recent, the better.

Comps demonstrate the market for a book: 4
The most common misconception about comp titles is that their purpose is to demonstrate what your book is like. It isn’t. Their purpose is to demonstrate that there’s a market for your book: That there are readers who bought similar books and will probably buy your book, too. That’s why it’s so important that comps be the same genre and age category, and above all, recent.

Don’t use overly obscure books: 4
The flip side of not using overly popular books is not to use overly unpopular books. A comp title is no use if the agent hasn’t read it, and if the comp title didn’t sell well, it’s not a good way to demonstrate that your book will. On which note, you also shouldn’t usually comp self-published books, since you’re trying to show that your book can compete in the world of traditional publishing.

Comps should be in the same genre and age category: 4
I lumped these two together, as did most agents who mentioned them. This is self-explanatory: If your book is kidlit, the comps should be kidlit. If it’s fantasy, the comps should be fantasy. Don’t use a book from another genre even if it’s really similar thematically or otherwise.

Comps are important: 3
Three people specifically mentioned that it’s important to include comps. However, one person specifically mentioned that you don’t need to include comps (see below). But no one said that they hate comps and never consider them.

Comps should be in the same format: 3
This is getting into the more technical publisher side of things, rather than the agent side, but if you plan to release a print book, don’t comp an ebook. If you want a hardcover run, don’t comp a trade paperback. Also, your comp titles should be, you know, books.

Comps should be from the same publishing season: 2
I’d never heard of this, but two different people mentioned that comps should be released at the same time of year as you plan to release your book. Again, this is mainly publisher stuff.

Finally, the following tips were each mentioned once. These are individual opinions and may not be representative of the industry as a whole.

-Comps should share your book’s themes
-Don’t use more than two comps
-Comps are not essential
-Movies and TV shows make good comps
-Tone is more important than plot
-You should be able to explain why the titles are comparable
-Comps demonstrate that you read your own genre

Conclusions
Two types of advice stood out as the most common. First, comp titles should be in the right range of popularity: Modest enough to be realistic, but popular enough to demonstrate your book’s potential. (My suggestion: Use titles that are very popular within your narrow genre or subgenre. For instance, I use some of the most popular YA historicals. They aren’t mega-blockbusters, but any agent or editor with the skill set to take on my book will know them.)

Second, comp titles should share as many technical features with your book as possible: Genre, age category, format, publishing season, and of course a recent release date. Conversely, few people mentioned more subjective elements like plot and themes. I conclude that finding reasonably popular comp titles that closely match your book in these respects, even if the plot or general feel of the book is very different, is a much better strategy than using more loosely-related books, even if they capture the subjective feel of your book very well.

The sources I used are after the cut.

Read the rest of this entry

The Secret

img002It was the days shortly before the Lord of the Rings movies were released and my sister and I were patiently trying to coax our mother into the world of Tolkien by means of the beautiful BBC radio dramatization. Mainly, of course, this was self-serving. Our mother required a constant stream of chatter to amuse her while she drove us to school, and if we were unobliging, she’d force us to listen to NPR, so the epic 26-episode series provided a full thirteen hours of sound we actually wanted to listen to. We knew she wouldn’t go for it, and she didn’t. Somewhere in the middle of The Return of the King, she announced, “All these names mean nothing to me! ‘Aragorn met Saruman at Minas Tirith:’ It’s just gibberish!”

I privately thought that, if I absolutely couldn’t get my mind around something, I wouldn’t announce it with so much pride.

img002 (3)It was the days shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies had been released and New Line was trying, unsuccessfully, to recapture that success with The Golden Compass. My father was a little more amenable than my mother had been to The Lord of the Rings, but he kept calling the Gyptians “Egyptians,” with no apparent awareness that this was a mistake. I was in college by then, and beginning to notice a pattern.

I had been aware of adults’ disdain for fantasy, and indeed for anything creative, for a long time. The more “official” the adults in question, the more marked it was. It showed up in schoolwork: No room for dragons between A Separate Peace and The Old Man and the Sea. It showed up in the ubiquitous persuasive essays (as a contrarian twelve-year-old, I delivered a persuasive speech against persuasive speeches, based on the iron-clad thesis that no one wants to listen to them) and in the ostensibly “creative writing” assignments that were just anecdotes about our own lives. I wracked my brain for anything that had happened to a middle-class suburban good girl that was worth telling. I learned to recycle assignments, not out of duplicity, but for the sake of sheer survival. A decade later, creative writing is my job and persuasive writing is only a hobby. Draw your own conclusions.

img002 (2)In art class, my portfolios overflowed with extracurricular doodles and drawings of mythical creatures, drawn in the spare moments between the still lifes, contour drawings, and abstracts that made up the actual curriculum. I knew that real artists either drew from life or they drew abstracts. They didn’t draw from their imagination, and they certainly didn’t draw illustrations of fantasy stories they made up themselves. I was lucky enough not to have many authority figures outright condemn my creativity, but there was always that quiet, firm pressure to move in a different direction.

As a kid, I unquestioningly accepted that the kinds of books and art I was pushed toward by school curriculum, by reading lists, by museums, by the dreary Newbery award, were superior to the kinds I chose on my own. I could read The Lord of the Rings if I liked, but it would be better to read some nice realistic fiction. Why would the critics like it so much if it weren’t better?

img002 (4)I was wrong. I’ll tell you a secret: Critics, teachers, and other “serious” people don’t dislike fantasy and other forms of imaginative self-expression because they’re bad. They dislike these things because they don’t get them.

My mother didn’t dismiss The Lord of the Rings on the grounds that it was sophomoric wish-fulfillment; she dismissed it because she couldn’t keep track of all the names and places, and it was easier to write the whole work off as nonsense than to accept that it was maybe written for people sharper than her. My father substituted the name of a real group of people for the name of a pretend group of people because he couldn’t make sense of them unless he related them to something he was already familiar with. And so it goes. Scratch a snobbish fantasy-hating critic and you’ll find someone who is hopelessly out of their depth and desperately doesn’t want to admit it.

img003What about those autobiographical “creative-writing” assignments? There’s a whole class of people who simply can’t comprehend writing about something other than themselves. For them, writing a story they didn’t directly experience is a challenge, one that didn’t really happen is an impossibility, and one that not only didn’t but couldn’t happen is not even to be dwelt upon. That English teacher kept assigning us essays about ourselves because he literally couldn’t think of any other possible topic.

Bird ManThe same bias shows up in art. One of my beginning drawing books described drawing from imagination as “difficult, but exciting.” But if I began doodling a curvy line, it would sprout wings, legs, and a monstrous face. Drawing from imagination is not, ipso facto, difficult; that author was just bad at it. (Conversely, I find it difficult to draw abstract geometric patterns without turning them into something representational. Fantasy is not a superior or more advanced art form; all art forms require skill sets that some people have and others don’t.)

So the next time someone tells you that serious writers and artists don’t waste their talents on fantasy, remember: What they really mean is that they just don’t get it.

Maz Kanata

(The following post is based on this Twitter discussion. It contains minor spoilers.)

Maz-Kanata-Star-WarsFor such a major release, the reception of The Force Awakens has a surprising lack of contention. There are parts we all agreed were great (Finn, Rey, Poe, BB-8, General Organa, basically the whole movie) and parts we all agreed were weak (the derivative parts of the plot, Captain Phasma’s squandered role). But the only major point of contention I’ve seen is over the character Maz Kanata, a CG alien played by Lupita Nyong’o. In the interest of not setting myself up as the arbiter of women of color, I won’t draw a conclusion, but merely present the sides of the discussion.

Maz shows up in the middle of the film to dispense wisdom and give the protagonists Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. Her character bears more than a hint of Magical Negro, which is one criticism she’s received, but I’m most interested in the discussion surrounding the casting of Nyong’o as a CG character.

Now, partly people were just disappointed not to see Nyong’o onscreen because she’s awesome, a grievance I totally understand, but the bigger issue is the feeling that the filmmakers deliberately hid her behind CGI because they didn’t want to put a black woman onscreen. And when you look at the whole franchise, a lot of evidence points that way. For one thing, she’s the only woman of color to appear in a Star Wars film…ever, meaning that out of seven films, a woman of color has still never appeared in the flesh.

Then there’s the franchise’s history of using voice actors of color but not letting them appear onscreen. The original trilogy uses James Earl Jones to contribute the momentous voice of Darth Vader, but when his helmet comes off, he’s played by a white guy. Clearly Star Wars has no compunctions about shortchanging people of color.

But there’s another side to the conversation. Special-effects characters (that is, characters created using mocap, puppets, and other techniques instead of being played by onscreen actors) also have a long history of being dominated by white men. Nowadays Andy Serkis plays everyone. Back in the practical-effects era, representation was even worse. The puppets of the original trilogy came from Jim Henson’s workshop, where the puppeteers were virtually all male. A nasty feedback loop formed where the lack of female puppeteers lead to a dearth of female characters, which led to a lack of roles for female puppeteers. It’s still standard practice for men to voice the few female puppets. Puppeteers of color weren’t common either.

So puppetry and its descendant, mocap, are another field desperately in need of greater diversity. Nearly all the special-effects characters in Star Wars, from Yoda to Sebulba, are coded and voiced male. (I don’t know how many were voiced by actors of color, but I’d be interested in finding out.) Since race and gender aren’t key parts of these characters’ identities, it’s easy for white male creators to default to giving them to white male actors and puppeteers. So Nyong’o’s role as Maz is its own kind of breakthrough; I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the first woman of color to perform a special-effects character in a Star Wars film.

Of course that’s little consolation to people who want to actually see her. As the lone woman of color in an entire film franchise, Nyong’o can’t singlehandedly correct every imbalance. Hopefully we’ll see more women of color in the upcoming films, both onscreen and off.

King’s Quest Retrospective: V-VII

It’s always pleasing when a technological advance lines up neatly with a decade, and sure enough, computer games took a huge step forward in 1990. The latter three King’s Quest games feature 256-color raster graphics, point-and-click interfaces, and CD releases with full voice acting. But a game is more than its technical achievements. Were they any good? Let’s have a look at King’s Quest V-VII. You can read my take on King’s Quest I-IV here.

King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder

maxresdefaultKing Graham is back in the lead role in this installment. With its major technical advances, King’s Quest V made a big splash. Unfortunately, it didn’t take advantage of the expanded storytelling opportunities allowed by the new medium. It has the simplest story since the first two games. Did we really need a 10-minute intro to tell us “An evil wizard made the castle disappear and you need to get it back?”

King’s Quest V has lots of potential, but rarely lives up to it. You can talk to animals, but most of the animals in the game (the cat, the dog, the ox) won’t say anything to you, not even a throwaway joke. Cedric the cute-annoying owl follows you around for the whole game, but for the vast majority of it, he doesn’t say or do anything useful, either. And until the end, the magic wand only comes into play in occasional copy-protection events.

kq5_cedric_introThe threadbare parts of the franchise are starting to show at this point. King’s Quest V takes place in Serenia, ostensibly a different place than Daventry, but they both look like generic medieval Europe. There’s a big, empty desert area with that will have even the most dedicated players looking up a walkthrough. And while voice acting was a great novelty at the time, this voice acting, unfortunately, was all done by Sierra employees (listen for Roberta Williams herself, voicing the rat and the harpies).

The game finally hits its stride in the last act, when you get to the evil wizard’s castle. There are some clever puzzles, including a bizarre machine that recharges the magic wand, culminating in an easy but highly entertaining boss fight that I won’t spoil for you.

kq5_machineKing’s Quest V isn’t a bad game by any means; it’s perfectly entertaining and fondly remembered. It’s just a rather ordinary game that doesn’t measure up to the level of excellence set by the best installments in the series.

King’s Quest VI: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder

maxresdefaultWe can’t talk about King’s Quest VI without mentioning another juggernaut of 90’s family entertainment: Disney. 1992 was the height of the Disney Renaissance and the release year of Disney’s Aladdin. In that same year, Sierra released a game with an Arabian Nights-inspired setting including a genie and an evil vizier who wants to marry the princess. If you’re ready for a shameless knockoff, you’re in for a surprise: King’s Quest VI is the most creative and original game in the entire series.

CORRECTPrince Alexander (Gwydion got a name change) heads to the land of the Green Isles to find Princess Cassima, introduced in the previous game. But when he gets there, he finds the princess locked up and the islands on the brink of war. He must defeat the vizier and his genie sidekick in order to free the princess and restore peace to the Green Isles.

The fact that it takes more than a sentence to summarize the plot shows how substantial the game is compared to its predecessors. It’s a search for a princess, like King’s Quest II, but instead of overcoming a series of arbitrary obstacles to find a generic princess, Alexander already knows the princess (okay, he’s met her once, but that counts as backstory in adventure-game terms), and he must learn about the islands’ history and culture in order to figure out what happened and how to fix it. The characters are drawn with care, so that even roles like the obstructive castle guards have plausible motivations.

kq6_2_20The rest of King’s Quest VI demonstrates the same care. The puzzles are clever and unusual, including a Hole in the Wall that allows you to look into adjacent rooms and an entire fabulous plotline that involves going to the underworld. There are multiple solutions to several puzzles, leading to a wide range of possible variant endings. The writing is tight and lively (don’t miss the shelf in the pawn shop stocked with plot items from previous games). There are real voice actors this time, thankfully. The scenery is lush and visually interesting, ranging from the whimsical Isle of Wonders to the gruesome underworld. For once, a game that takes place in a different country actually looks like a whole different place.

kq6_gateThe flaws are few. Death by falling is still way too easy, and there are some 3D cutscenes that haven’t aged well. Cassima is a pretty egregious damsel, though King’s Quest II and III were both worse offenders. King’s Quest VI is the best game in the series by a solid margin. If you’re new to the King’s Quest franchise and wondering where to jump in, this is the place.

King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride

kq7ss2Oh boy, this is a contentious one. King’s Quest VII embraced the Disney princess trend with open arms, from its cartoony graphics to the intro featuring an actual I Want song. Fans were not pleased at the drastic departure from the series’ established tone and aesthetic. Some of the other King’s Quest games are lackluster, but this is the only one with an actual hatedom. But let’s look past that and consider it on its own merits. It was advertised as a “heartwarmingly humorous cinematic adventure.” How well does it succeed?

It’s a mixed bag. Let’s look at the positives first. It’s refreshing to see female characters back in the lead role, and the neglected Queen Valanice finally gets some well-deserved screen time. And it’s a mother-daughter story, vanishingly rare not just in games, but in all media. The scenery is cartoony, but detailed and distinctive. In particular, Valanice’s opening scene is great: it takes place in a desert resembling the American southwest, a setting rarely seen outside post-apocalyptic games, and it includes some very interesting puzzles. And throughout the game, there’s a lot of fun humor. Who doesn’t like the mockingbird?

King’s Quest VII found an interesting way to incorporate 3D: When you examine objects, instead of a written description, you get a 3D view that you can rotate to reveal hidden details. This function is underutilized, but it’s a clever idea. I think accusations that the interface is too simplistic are unfounded.

Alas, there are some serious downsides. The lighter aesthetic leads to some tonal dissonance; it can feel like misplaced priorities to be on trial for moon theft in Falderal when the world is in imminent danger of being wiped out by a volcano.

37345_5And then there’s the plot. The evil sorceress Malicia tried to take over Etheria except Oberon and Titania stopped her, and now she’s kidnapped Edgar from King’s Quest IV, who turns out to be the son of Oberon and Titania, and she turned him into the troll king and mind controlled him so he could take the place of the real troll king, who she imprisoned, so he can use the trolls’ volcano to blow up Etheria, but while she was kidnapping him he grabbed Rosella and accidentally turned her into a troll too and took her with him and Valanice goes after her but ends up in the desert instead, and Edgar wants to marry Rosella but she doesn’t realize it’s him, so she has to turn herself back into a human and find Valanice and free the real troll king so he can stop the volcano from erupting and turn Edgar back and free him from mind control and find out what happened to Oberon and Titania and defeat Malicia.

And how many different families torn apart by magic do you end up reuniting?

ss_278055a864c6c5633308ebe4c8d5359587eb7abe.1920x1080Even taken for what it is, King’s Quest VII is a deeply uneven experience. Whether you enjoy it or not mainly depends on your personal preferences.

The King’s Quest series isn’t just a bit of nostalgia for 90s kids. They’re well-designed, high-quality games that still offer a rewarding gameplay experience for anyone willing to step back and give them a try. Here’s to hoping that the new series sparks a renewed interest in the franchise so that the legacy of Roberta Williams will live on.

King’s Quest Retrospective: I-IV

In honor of the new King’s Quest series now being painfully slowly rolled out, let’s take a retrospective look at one of the most seminal computer game series of the 90s: King’s Quest.

King’s Quest was the brain child of Roberta Williams, one of the three great computer game auteurs. It was a series of eight medieval-themed graphics adventure games starring the archer-hatted King Graham and his family. Released between 1983 and 1994, this series was an important touchstone still fondly remembered by kids of that era.

The series can be divided into two parts: The 80s games (I-IV), which featured 16-color graphics and a parser interface, and the 90s games (V-VII), which featured 256 colors and a point-and-click interface. (I won’t be addressing King’s Quest VIII, which I feel differs too much to be really considered part of the series.) Let’s jump right in with King’s Quest I.

King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown

hqdefaultThe king is dying, and Sir Graham must find three treasures to prove himself worthy of taking the throne. The story was simple, but the game was revolutionary. Bursting into a world of text-only games and static graphics, King’s Quest allowed you to actually watch Graham moving around and exploring a lush, expansive world. (Fun fact: To save memory, the first four King’s Quest games use vector graphics instead of raster. The visuals become incredibly impressive when you imagine the time it took to encode them that way.)

Unfortunately, the graphics and animation that wowed players in 1983 are almost unplayable now. Many of us of a certain age are fond of old graphics, but there’s old and there’s old. King’s Quest’s 16-color 200×160 vectors are so basic that it’s sometimes hard to tell what you’re looking at. The big open-format map that wraps on all sides (is Daventry a torus?) impressed contemporary players, for whom simply wandering around a map and looking at things were new experiences, but nowadays it feels poorly designed because many of the screens don’t feature any gameplay elements at all. Plus, let’s face it, both Daventry and Sir Graham are generic as hell.

KQ1 - Dragon's LairModern players often complain about the parser, which requires players to type commands in order to control Graham. It was such an impediment that fans released free remakes of all four games with point-and-click interfaces (I didn’t like the remakes and won’t be addressing them). Coupled with the rudimentary graphics, the parser can be a frustrating experience when you find yourself trying to examine that blob of yellow pixels, but it has its advantages. Using commands like “jump” and “dive,” it requires players to think more carefully about their choices and take a more lateral approach than the “use this on that” mindset of point-and-click adventures. Still, I don’t fault anyone who finds the parser an insurmountable obstacle.

dosbox-2013-01-19-13-42-47-50King’s Quest I introduced a beloved protagonist and introduced many standards of the franchise, like the incorporation of fairy tales, and of adventure games as a whole. If you can get past its limitations, it’s well worth checking out for a student of computer game history.

King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

360638-kq2Next!

Just kidding. But honestly, there isn’t much to say about this one. Graham is king now, though he still wears his adventuring hat, and he’s off to find himself a bride.

Some of the awkward parts of King’s Quest I have been improved—there are no more big sections of map that don’t do anything—and, generally, the graphics-adventure format seemed to be hitting its stride, but like the first game, the graphics and gameplay that earned high praise at the time offer very little to the modern player. The story and characters are rudimentary and not very memorable. The puzzles are challenging, but also don’t stand out. There’s a visually striking (for the time) bit where you pass through a magic door into a bizarre-looking world with blue ground and purple water, but the princess you find there is disappointingly normal.

imagesAll in all, this is one for completists only.

King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human

40In terms of story and gameplay, King’s Quest III is a huge leap forward. King Graham’s son, Gwydion, has been kidnapped by an evil wizard. In order to escape, he must steal the wizard’s wand and cast various spells, eventually—and delightfully—turning the wizard into a cat.

It’s a great concept. How well it succeeds, though, is a matter of opinion. The wizard appears and disappears at regular intervals and he’ll kill you if he catches you in the act, so you need to take the wand, leave the castle, run around looking for spell components, rush back to the castle, put the wand back, and hide all the spell components under your bed before he returns, and that’s not counting the time spent figuring out that that’s what you need to do.372581-kq3_pc_11

As a result, the ratio of actual exploring and puzzle-solving to walking to and from the castle and hiding things is rather low, and instead of the other games’ leisurely atmosphere of exploration, this game’s first act constantly feels in a hurry.

Once you transform the wizard, the plot switches to the journey home and becomes more conventional. The puzzles, which use the spells you learned earlier, are fun and creative, and some of the spells you cast are pretty awesome.

kq3shot2All in all, I have mixed feelings about King’s Quest III. The mechanics can be frustrating, but it’s innovative and features the most interesting and unique mechanics in the whole series. By all means, give it a try.

King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

3206796a0db7a6af6e4b72248644ee68This is by far the most well-remembered of the first four games, and for one thing: It’s the one about a girl. Targeting a computer game at girls was an innovation at the time and no doubt contributed to its success, but how does it hold up otherwise?

It’s fantastic.

While King’s Quest III began to focus on plot, in King’s Quest IV, plot is king. King Graham is sick and Rosella must fetch the fruit that can save him, along the way saving the life of a good fairy and defeating an evil one. “Can a computer game make you cry?” asked the advertisements. There’s a 10-minute intro animation, and the subsequent game features, for the first time, complex characters who aren’t all simple archetypes. Interestingly, Rosella spends most of the game forced to do quests for the villain.

54 Bring her the UnicornThough it would be quickly overshadowed by King’s Quest V, the technical achievements of King’s Quest IV match its storytelling. It features higher resolution, mouse support, a better parser, and sound card support, and it makes great use of all of them. In particular, scary parts like the haunted mansion evoke a genuinely creepy atmosphere. It also features a real-time element: Day eventually turns to night, and certain quests must be completed before then.

585967-king-s-quest-iv-the-perils-of-rosella-dos-screenshot-another

The weaknesses of King’s Quest IV are mostly present in the other games as well, but become noticeable here because of the game’s overall high quality: Staircases where you can easily fall and die, items that break if you use them one too many times, and generally being overly punishing.

This is the game that’s worth mastering the parser for. As to whether it will make you cry…well, that depends on whether you manage to save King Graham.

But King’s Quest IV barely hinted at the massive changes that would overhaul computer games in the 90s. Next time, I’ll look at the franchise’s second generation: King’s Quest V-VII.


*The other two being, of course, Brian Fargo and Sid Meiers.

The Storytelling of Back to the Future

08-back-to-the-future-time.w750.h560.2xWell, Back to the Future Day is over. From now on, Back to the Future is officially a historical film. Instead of bemoaning the passage of time, let’s take a moment take a moment to appreciate what makes this movie so classic. Because aside from being funny and wildly entertaining, Back to the Future is well written and tightly plotted, rare virtues in Hollywood or out*.

Setups and Payoffs

This movie is all about setup and payoff. The first act, especially the scene with the McFly family at the dinner table, is stuffed with detail about the characters, their pasts, and the history of the town, all of which will become pertinent to the plot in the second act. But the exposition is never forced. It always flows naturally out of the characters’ actions. For instance, Marty needs to acquire the flyer about the clock tower, but simply being handed the flyer isn’t enough; he would have no reason to keep it. Solution: Jennifer writes her number on the flyer. The additional detail that she’s at her grandma’s house explains why her boyfriend doesn’t already have her number. This kind of precision continues throughout the movie.

Practically every joke has a setup and a payoff, too. This joke structure is great for a time-travel story, since it gives a sense of repetition. And every time Marty’s parents do something that he did earlier (or vice versa) it underlines the main theme of the movie: Marty learning to understand his parents and discovering how much he has in common with them.

tumblr_n125z6JlX61r7rib5o3_500But all those setups require a long first act, which could easily lose interest (notice how the movie drags whenever the jokeless Jennifer is onscreen). So the structure of the jokes varies. Most have the setup first, followed by the joke. But sometimes, like when Marty blows out the speaker, the joke comes first and a callback comes later. And better still, whenever possible, the setup and payoff are both jokes.

And isn’t it great that the movie allows Marty to be the butt of jokes instead of relegating him to the role of good-looking straight man?

Overlapping Goals

Back to the Future has three main sets of stakes: Marty must return to the future, he must hook up his parents, and he must warn Doc about his death. (More on the latter below.) Notice the order in which the stakes are established. Marty’s initial goal is to get back to his own time, but before he can find Doc and figure out a plan, he’s already met his parents and accidentally changed their future.

michael-j-fox-back-to-the-future-screenshotThis strengthens the story for two reasons. First, since Marty meets his parents before Doc warns him about changing the future, it comes across as an understandable mistake rather than a stupid blunder, maintaining him as a sympathetic character. Second, the overlapping order of the goals ensures that there’s never any downtime where the characters don’t have anything to do. Marty and Doc must wait a week for lightning to strike the clock tower, but Marty spends the entire time trying to deal with his parents. Meanwhile, the knowledge that Doc will be killed back in 1985 is an undercurrent throughout the film.

Compare this to an alternate plot structure: Marty goes back in time, finds Doc immediately, learns that he can’t return until Saturday, spends some time bumming around 1955, and then accidentally changes his parents’ future. While this tells essentially the same story, it’s a much weaker plot because it leaves gaps during which Marty has no active goal. The plot as written is tightly paced and keeps the viewer engaged.

Warning Doc

Marty’s attempt to prevent Doc’s death is the film’s only non-comedic stakes, and it requires careful handling. If Marty doesn’t put enough effort into warning Doc, their relationship will seem cursory and insincere. On the other hand, if the film focuses too much on Doc’s death, it will lose its comedic value. Marty’s letter allows him to think he’s succeeded in warning Doc so that problem can take the back burner during the second act. Then, in the third act, he makes every possible effort to tell Doc until it becomes physically impossible, which makes his concern feel very authentic.

Do_not_open_until_1985And thank God someone in a time travel movie finally thought of using the time machine to give themselves more time.

The Climax

It’s the climax so great they put it in all three movies. The basic climax required by the plot would have been exciting enough: Marty must hit the wire at the exact time lightning strikes while going exactly 88 miles per hour. But they just keep piling on more beats: The wire gets unplugged and Doc must climb out onto the clock tower to plug it back in, then it’s too short to reach, then the Delorean won’t start, then the wire gets unplugged again, each beat increasing the tension.

Not only does this create an exciting, high-stakes climax, it’s also an incredibly fun climax. Action comedy is difficult. Jokes tend to undermine tension, so most movies set aside the humor during their action scenes. But Back to the Future seamlessly weaves them together, using the humor to build the stakes and vice versa. Action comedy this effective wouldn’t return until Guardians of the Galaxy.

fGood plotting is invisible: While plot holes immediately jump out at the viewer, a well-constructed story moves through its beats without drawing attention to itself, leaving the viewer’s attention where it should be: On the characters, the action, and the jokes. Back to the Future is full of great jokes and memorable moments, but it’s the care taken with the writing and plotting that really elevates it and makes it a classic.


*In this post, I’m only discussing the first film. The sequels, while entertaining, aren’t nearly as tightly written.

Back to the Future is the property of Universal.

Tinkering With: Jurassic World

The principle of tinkering with something isn’t to rag on something bad, but to look at something that might have been good but missed the mark, or that we wanted to like but didn’t, and to see how it could have been improved while staying true to the basic premise. With that in mind, let’s have a look at Jurassic World.

The Framing

Jurassic World opens on the wrong foot by spending unnecessary time establishing the family that doesn’t serve to make the characters any more sympathetic or strongly defined. Zach has a girlfriend who is never mentioned again, Gray confusingly doesn’t seem eager to leave on the trip he’s supposed to be excited about, and their mother is an irritating sanctimommy who mostly exists to cry and berate Claire. (Berating Claire is a major theme in this movie.)

The solution is to cut the parents entirely and start the movie with the boys on the ferry. The crow opening shot can stay, since there’s no reason that can’t take place on the ferry. Showing Gray excited and Zach bored is all we need to establish their characterization, and the line “Where’s Aunt Claire?” is sufficient to explain their relationship to her. Removing the parents also eliminates the odd scene where Gray abruptly starts crying about his parents getting a divorce, another plot thread which will never be mentioned again.

The Casting

I love Chris Pratt as much as the next Parks and Recreation fan, but he’s all wrong for this movie. It’s extremely difficult to imagine him as ex-military, and the romance between him and Bryce Dallas Howard is a strong contender for a Razzie.

Keeping his character as written, he needs to be played by someone who can both be a take-command ass-kicker and a lovable teddy bear, like Channing Tatum or…Channing Tatum. A corny casting choice, possibly, but appropriate for a movie franchise that places fun first. Alternately, if we drop the romance (probably a good idea), Owen can become an older Harrison Ford type with a more world-weary, seen-everything attitude.

To shake things up further, make Owen a woman. She could either remain as written or be an older character; either way she’d be more interesting than the existing Owen.

Claire

By far the biggest problem with Jurassic World is Claire. High heels and the fact that she’s repeatedly berated for not liking kids aren’t the real problem: The movie doesn’t respect her, and we can’t invest in a movie that doesn’t respect its own protagonists.

The first possible solution is simply to make her actually good at something. Claire’s ability to run the park is informed; we never actually see her demonstrating competence. She ought to immediately take charge when things go wrong and to competently handle damage control. Or maybe she’s a high-charisma people person whose employees really like her.

But I prefer the opposite tack: Make it her first day on the job. She’s a young career woman with all the right qualifications but no experience who immediately finds herself out of her depth when everything goes sideways. This would immediately turn her into a sympathetic character and it would make a lot of her existing actions more comprehensible, like not meeting her nephews (maybe she’s so harried that she forgot they were coming that day) and the bit where she messes around with her blouse to show that she’s ready to go.

Claire also lacks a character arc that fits into the action of the story. She gets to surmount her inability to care about the dinosaurs by crying a single glistening tear (all the women in this movie both cry and scream), but it’s a scene that doesn’t advance the plot. Her moment luring the T. Rex at the end is cool, but has nothing to do with her character arc. Properly the two ought to be connected: Maybe she’s afraid of the T. Rex and her big character arc is overcoming that fear. Or, if her main arc is learning to empathize with the dinosaurs, then the climax should hinge on that; maybe she ends up needing to communicate with the velociraptors, for instance.

The Plot

The plot of Jurassic World is full of holes. The military wanted a small-sized killing machine, but for some reason they built a giant one. When the Indominus Rex doesn’t show up on the thermal scanners, they immediately go into the enclosure instead of just calling control to ask where it is. And someone apparently found a prehistoric mosquito that had bitten a mosasaurus.

But you know what? None of that really matters. Fury Road is also full of dubious plot elements (if there are fuel shortages, why does everyone drive giant cars everywhere?), but nobody cares because the whole experience is so immersive and enjoyable. The trouble with Jurassic World is that we aren’t invested, so we get distracted and notice all the plot holes.

Jurassic World was full of glimpses of the really entertaining movie it might have been, but it was killed by the lack of likable characters with strong arcs we could invest in. A few minor changes could have allowed us to get our fix of rampaging dinosaurs in the context of a much stronger movie.

Those Wacky Nazis

Our attitude toward Nazis is changing, and not for the better.

Ever since World War II, Nazis have occupied a unique niche as the West’s universal standard for evil*. Even during the Cold War, Communists never quite had the requisite degree of absolute soulless villainy: Lucas didn’t model the Star Wars villains’ outfits on the Red Army, for instance, and Indiana Jones wouldn’t go up against Communists until 2008.

waitingforvader-47b5a0bToday, Nazis are still treated as the embodiment of absolute evil. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it is Lucas and the rest of the media, not them, who has become the primary voice influencing how we understand them. Most people today, especially young people, do not know any Holocaust survivors personally. But we’ve all seen countless movies with Nazi villains, many of them in sci-fi or other settings strongly divorced from historical reality.

Skull_toasts

The influence this change has on our culture is subtle. After all, when Nazis show up in movies, they’re the villains almost without exception. But there’s a difference between a movie villain, however evil, and a real-life mass murderer who killed millions of actual people. There’s a growing attitude that views Nazis as evil, but evil like Darth Vader. And it’s acceptable to like and even admire and emulate a movie villain (for instance, through cosplay).

Darth-Vader-and-Darth-Vader-Jr-CosplaySince movie villains harm no one in real life, they’re in a sense more of an aesthetic choice or a statement of one’s attitude, an attitude which some people, often a lot of people, identify with. The villain is often a movie’s most memorable character. Villains are clever, they’re stylish, they don’t play by the rules, and they always have a plan. It’s easy to see why this style, divorced from any actual misdeeds, can be appealing, as in Tom Hiddleston’s Jaguar ads.

This villainy-as-aesthetic attitude, I think, accounts for the resurgence of overt Nazi imagery and language on the internet in communities like GamerGate, which has a mascot who is—you guessed it—a literal Nazi. And also an anime schoolgirl. (No, for you sweet summer children who have never heard of GamerGate, I am not making any of that up.) They see themselves as movie villains and therefore identify with Nazis, who have been presented to them as movie villains all their lives.

10446208_325457630980277_6533266109160739346_oNazis as movie villains also account for the otherwise-inexplicable Case of the Nazi Romance Novel For Such a Time. Casting a real-life concentration camp commandant as not only redeemable but romantically desirable would be both impossible and obviously reprehensible. But how about a movie Nazi? Kate Breslin isn’t writing a romance about a real Nazi and a real Jew; she’s writing the equivalent of a fanfic about Princess Leia and General Tarkin. And Aric’s redemption at the end is not forgiveness for killing thousands of real people, but redemption in the sense of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Anyway, that strikes me as both the most plausible and the most generous interpretation. The fact that GamerGate came to the defense of For Such a Time brings the story full circle.

leia-vader-tarkinThis shift in cultural attitudes is not harmless. This abstraction of Nazis from real to fictional both provides cover for real-life white supremacist movements and blunts our reaction to the actual historical atrocities**. As a fiction writer, it’s difficult to figure out the most constructive reaction. It’s a Catch-22: Any depiction of Nazis in fiction, however careful, inherently reinforces the problem, but ignoring them clearly doesn’t help, either.

So for now, I’ll simply urge everyone to remember that, however many movies they appear in, the Nazis were real people who committed real atrocities, and this is something we can’t afford to forget.


*I’m curious about who, if anyone, occupied this niche before World War II. None of the players in World War I had the necessary nefariousness, nor did earlier conquerors like Napoleon, who always had a streak of the admirable, even from his enemies’ perspective.

**Coupled with the extremely high profile of the Holocaust relative to other historical atrocities, there’s an even more insidious possible consequence: The abstraction of genocide itself into a quasi-fictional concept. According to the media, only Nazis commit genocide, and Nazis are movie villains; therefore, genocide could pass from a real, recurrent, and critically important problem into the same sort of threat as a villain taking over the world. After all, when was the last time you read a book or watched a movie about, say, the Hutus and Tutsis?

Title comes from the TVTropes page about Nazis, another good example of diluting them into a stock type defined by their appearance and mannerisms. Star Wars is the property of Disney. Red Skull is…also the property of Disney. Darth Vader cosplay found here (Darth Vader is, of course, the property of Disney). GamerGate Nazi mascot found on Reddit, obviously. For Such a Time is the property of Kate Breslin and not, thankfully, the property of Disney.

Worldbuilding, Part II

Last time I talked about good worldbuilding: What it is and, more importantly, what it isn’t. Today I’m going to expand on my third point: Worldbuilding that doesn’t actually make it into the story.

Have you ever read a book where the world feels vague and spare, only to discover that the author had actually put a huge amount of work and detail into constructing that world? If you’re like me, you might feel the need to walk back your opinion of the book because the world really was well-developed, you just didn’t know it. But you shouldn’t. A book should be judged by—surprise!—the actual content of the book, not by whatever the author thought of but didn’t include. A world that’s complex and well-developed, but the reader doesn’t know it, is in fact indistinguishable from a world that isn’t complex and well-developed.

As an example, I’ll use the only person I can fairly pick on: Myself. Here’s another detail from my first novel, the same one that included Continent Not-Appearing-In-This-Book.

Heraldry

The “late” period was after the last book in the series.

I’m sure my 18-year-old self found the expansion of acceptable color combinations in Kalandaz heraldry incredibly fascinating, but I’m equally sure that my readers, if I’d had any, would not have agreed. More to the point, how much of this do you think actually made it into the story? Essentially nothing, of course.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t bothered to work out much in the way of climate, customs, class structure, architecture, clothing, cuisine, how people spend their free time, or just about anything else that the characters were likely to encounter during the story. The actual story felt like any other generic Tolkienesque fantasy world. So I’d managed to simultaneously put a lot of work into worldbuilding and give the readers the impression that I’d put no work into it.

As a writer, the way to avoid this is to simply be honest with yourself about whether you’re developing details that really affect the story or whether you’re just noodling about for fun. Since heraldry was my hobby at the time, it’s pretty obvious in my case. Aimless noodling is perfectly allowable, but don’t entertain the illusion that it makes your book better.

Aimless noodling

Aimless noodling

The other aspect is that some types of worldbuilding tend to affect the story more directly than others. Unless I wrote a book about actual heralds, my heraldry system would never have been more than an occasional bit of window dressing. There are certain types of worldbuilding—history, geography, languages, various logistical details—that authors love but that just tend not to affect the actual characters and their lives that much. Compare that to, for instance, food. Everyone interacts with food on a daily basis and it’s a great way to flesh out the world. Something as simple as a bowl of apples on a table versus a bowl of dates versus a bowl of mangoes immediately speaks volumes about the setting.

The above example suggests a corollary rule: The more unusual the setting, the more fleshed out it will feel. A reader might not even notice the bowl of apples, for instance, but the bowl of mangoes would jump out. In fantasy, no matter how much work you put into worldbuilding, if your world is just like medieval Europe, it will seem like you put almost no effort in. Conversely, if you put the exact same amount of effort into a setting based on prehistoric Polynesia, it will feel much more developed because nearly every detail will be something readers haven’t seen before.

Happily for everyone involved (ie, me and me), my epic Kalandaz trilogy (80,000 words total) never saw the light of day, and I’ve moved on to an era of, hopefully, more sensible worldbuilding. So far, it hasn’t involved heraldry.

What Defines Good Worldbuilding

Let’s talk about worldbuilding.

Tessa legos

It has come to my attention that my definition of good worldbuilding is drastically different—and far more demanding—than most people’s. So here I present my view for your consideration. In my view, worldbuilding is far more than simply making stuff up; it is a delicate process tied up with the other aspects of the story, and there are far more ways to do it wrong than right.

Let’s start out by defining what good worldbuilding isn’t.

Good worldbuilding isn’t a vehicle for the plot.

When writing speculative fiction, it’s extremely tempting to worldbuild your way out of plot problems. Need a character to find out a secret? Give them telepathy. Want a witness to something that happened a long time ago? Make them immortal. And so on. But worlds created this way don’t feel like real, holistic places that might actually exist. They feel like places that exist only to help the main character advance the plot, because that’s exactly what they are. And the more you do this, the cheaper the story feels, as the answer to every “Why don’t they do this?” question becomes “Because there’s something in the world that specifically prevents that.”

Good worldbuilding needs to be free to develop in whatever direction feels the most realistic without being shackled to the plot. It’s fine to begin a story by saying “I want these characters to shoot lightning at each other from a mountaintop in the third act, so I’ll give them electricity powers,” but then you need to fully explore the implications of people having those powers. Do all the appliances in a room turn on when they walk in, like they were a human Tesla coil? Is electricity free because people generate it? How does that affect the economy? And so on. If consistent, believable worldbuilding ends up making the original plot idea unfeasible, you need to be willing to change the plot, rather than kludging more and more implausible details into the world until the plot works.

Curiously, genre comedies are often more successful at this type of worldbuilding than dramas; driven more by jokes than plot, they’re free to explore a premise in whatever silly direction it takes them, like giving a supervillain a time share lair where they keep getting phone calls for other supervillains.

"So I lose the security deposit. It's worth it!"

“So I lose the security deposit. It’s worth it!”

Good worldbuilding isn’t a massive amount of fluff.

I define “fluff” as small, nonessential detail. For instance, if your character lives in the capital city of the nation, the name of the city and the fact that it’s the capital are essential information. But if they walk through the city square and you describe the various types of people and/or creatures they see, that’s fluff. It helps us understand the world better, but you could still tell the story perfectly well without it.

ModalNodes_play_Chalmuns

Fluff in the Mos Eisley cantina

“Nonessential” doesn’t mean that it should be cut; fluff is often the most fun and memorable parts of the story. But in terms of worldbuilding, it’s the icing on the cake. You still need a delicious cake underneath it. You can’t just serve your readers a bowl of icing and expect them to be satisfied.

Or could you?

Or can you?

Moreover, while creating fluff is fun, the more of it you include, the more likely you are to introduce something that creates an inconsistency or plot hole. Even if they only appear in one scene, these details exist all the time within your world and influence it, and it’s your increasingly-complex job to make sure they make sense with all the other details. If they don’t, your readers will spot it. For instance, Tolkien’s giant eagles immediately raised the question “Why don’t they just fly the eagles to Mount Doom?”, the fluff detail that launched a thousand online arguments.

Good worldbuilding isn’t excessive information beyond the limits of the story.

Here I’m talking, not about fluff, but about the bigger stuff: Countries and their locations, geographical features, social structure, magic systems, and other features that aren’t just window dressing.

When you brainstorm this kind of stuff, you inevitably come up with some amount of information that doesn’t make it into the story. Maybe you had to cut that scene; maybe it just never came up. That’s fine. In fact, it’s a sign that you’ve put a lot of work into the worldbuilding. But at the end of the day, the quality of your book is based on what’s actually in your book. If you know your world’s crop-rotation schedules or the names of the past 500 kings, that doesn’t make your book the slightest bit better unless those somehow make it into the story in a meaningful way.

My first completed novel included an entire continent, complete with cultures and politics, that not only was never visited by the characters in the story, but never had been visited by anyone in their entire civilization. It was a complete waste of time. If your entire story takes place in one village, that’s all you need. There’s more on this point in my followup post.

Map

Good worldbuilding isn’t internal consistency.

Internal consistency is a requirement for any story, regardless of genre. If the bank is across the street from the library in chapter three, the bank had better be across from the library in chapter twenty. But while consistency is necessary to good worldbuilding, it is not sufficient. No one recommends a book to their friends because of the accuracy of its bank locations. Indeed, if the world is compelling enough, readers are willing to forgive quite a lot of inconsistency.

At this point it may seem like I’ve ruled out everything. Good worldbuilding isn’t based on the amount or kind of detail or even on keeping your ideas straight. So what is good worldbuilding? It’s surprisingly simple.

Good worldbuilding is when the story could not take place anywhere else.

Good worldbuilding is so intimately intertwined with the characters, plot, and themes of the story that it can’t be extracted. The characters in such a story are products of their environment; they could not have existed in any other world, and if they did, they’d be completely different people. The plot is dependent on the nature of the world (and, depending on the story, the world may be dependent on the resolution of the plot). And what we see of the world serves to underline the themes of the story.

A basic test is: Could your story be moved to a different setting (say, Middle-Earth or Westeros, or even the present-day world if it doesn’t already take place there) without having to completely overhaul everything? If so, your worldbuilding is almost certainly too simplistic. As an example, imagine trying to transplant Star Wars into another universe—the Dune universe, for instance. You could dispense with rancors and tauntauns easily enough, but in order to tell a coherent story, you’d have to import not only Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but the entire concept of the Force, the Jedi, the Sith, and the Empire; essentially the entire universe. It’s just not feasible.

This principle isn’t limited to speculative fiction, by the way. Good contemporaries are also imbued with a strong sense of place. For instance, No Place to Fall by Jaye Robin Brown has a distinctive Appalachian small-town setting that informs the characters and the story. You couldn’t possibly tell the same story in, say, New York City.

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This is a stringent standard to hold yourself to, and most readers won’t care. But it’s worth it to create a world that isn’t just a big pile of details or a way to make the plot work, but a realistic and holistic place that truly brings your story to life.


LEGO image and map are mine. Frosting image is from Wikimedia Commons. No Place to Fall is property of Jaye Robin Brown. Kim Possible and Star Wars are property of Disney, but what isn’t these days.

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