Creative ups and downs

Hello Internet,

Today I’m going to talk briefly about the daily struggle of writing – and creativity in general. Many of us will have made a New Year’s resolution to be more creative, and a large percentage will end up needlessly beating themselves up for not meeting that target. We know that art, writing, music, and other creative pursuits can bring us intense satisfaction and joy, but also angst and intolerable frustration. So what makes this nebulous thing called ‘creativity’ so special, and why must we fight to nurture and support it even when it seemingly dries up or lets us down?

I love to write. It gives my soul wings and connects me with people and ideas I would never otherwise encounter. The satisfaction of wrapping up a final draft is intense and addictive. But juggling this urge to explore, inform, and tell stories through words on top of everything else life throws at me sometimes makes me want to sit down in a corner and cry. There are occasions when all I want is to sit down and write, but trying to get the words to flow is like trying to squeeze water from a granite sponge. I also know for a fact that I’m not alone in feeling this disconsolation and urge to quit every now and then.

So how can we get through these down-times, and why – when we’re usually already our own worst critic – do we need to also be our own best friend? Whether you’re a cartoonist, sculptor, musician, or dancer, I hope you’ll find something here to encourage you back into doing what you love best.

One of those days

Life is wondrous. That we can even operate our bodies enough to breathe is a freaking miracle of biochemistry. Are you reading this right now? If so, congratulations! You are the product of uncounted billions of generations of successful predator evasions, chance fertilisations, and survival against the odds within an unbroken evolutionary chain that stretches back right to the very origin of life on planet Earth (I just know this is paraphrasing a famous figure, but I’ve no idea who – answers on a postcard, please). Give yourself a pat on the back, you wonderpuss, you.

However, life can also suck rancid moose wang (thank you, Jim Butcher). There are the tedious repetitions and annoyances that, like sand, can be easily brushed off if there’s only a little, but that can all too easily build up and scour your creativity away to the bone. Overdue bills. Eating plain noodles for the fourteenth time in a week because there’s nothing else left in the cupboard. Kids that need dropping off and picking up, then dropping off again. Endlessly applying for jobs that makes you feel like you’re throwing confetti into an endless, hungry abyss. Holding down three jobs just to afford travel to and from each one. Collapsing into bed at the end of each day, knowing that you need to get up in three hours’ time to catch a bus in time to start it all over again. Seeing a loved-one’s suffering get progressively worse as they wait for a consultation, then more tests, then further consultations, and still more tests, in a limbo-state that lasts for months, even years.

Then there are the random crises that everyone must deal with, sooner or later. A few words spoken over the phone at 3am can drop bombshells into lives and shatter them into sharp-edged rawness, bleeding all creativity dry in a moment as car keys are sought and hospital ward numbers are noted in shaky handwriting. Life is wondrous, but it can also be a fragile, terrifying mess where priorities can shift from ordering a takeaway to sitting outside an operating theatre in the space of a missed heartbeat.

From everyday frustrations to life-changing moments, creativity often seems like it’s at the bottom of our list of priorities. This can also become a negative feedback loop; the less time and energy we have to spend on creative pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to make the time and energy, and the harder it is to summon any motivation when we miraculously get the time and energy. So how do we combat this problem, and why is creativity so important?

The font of all creation

Creativity can be a fickle, unpredictable thing, but it is also one of our greatest assets as human beings. Author Julian May beautifully expressed its energy and mystery in her Galactic Milieu series in the context of psychic powers, but her observations are nevertheless applicable to ‘normal’ expressions of creativity such as art and music:

Diamond mask quote

May also notes that creative insights can strike seemingly at random – the ‘bolt from the blue’ that illuminates solutions – or can evolve over time if they are left undisturbed ‘to stew’. I agree with May in that there is a strong case for sometimes leaving creativity well alone in order to make it grow stronger; if your muse is running dry, it’s worth exercising other parts of the brain to let it recover. If your artistic side is flagging, read a book. If your writers’ block has grown too large, go for a walk or weed the garden. It’s almost as though our creativity is an engine that can run hot and blow a radiator if pushed too hard for too long. It’s good to jump out and walk every now and then, and come back when things have had a chance to cool down.

This is good practise for anyone who relies on a stable relationship with their muse, rather than just as a hobby. Writers, artists, animators, musicians – we all need to respect our creativity and treat it with the same care and attention that an Olympic athlete treats their body. I write, but I also take regular walks in the nature reserve at my local park, and practise Tai Chi Qigong. One of the stances in Tai Chi is called ‘Pearl in The Hand’, and invites us to reflect on and venerate our personal gifts (as part of a nice over-the-shoulder stretch). I think it’s too easy to dismiss the creative outlets we enjoy as ‘not a real job’ or not worthy of the same attention as doing the shopping or paying bills. But if you derive satisfaction from your creativity, and especially if you want to pursue one of its many expressions as a full-time career – if indeed, creativity is part of what defines you as a person – then we should be celebrating it as the very real, and very valuable, gift that it is.

The are many obstacles to gathering enough time and energy to devote to our creativity, but they are obstacles, not absolute barriers. Being as organised as possible with your materials and time is one of the ways we can start to take control. Having specific tasks and breaking them into manageable chunks, instead of having vague ambitions (e.g. ‘write more’), is another tried and tested method. It’s also important to learn to forgive and be kind to yourself; it’s never a good thing when your boss tries to ‘motivate’ you by making unreasonable demands or by bullying you with veiled threats and harassment, so avoid treating yourself like that. You and your creativity are important and worthy of respect, even if nobody else recognises that fact. Believe in yourself, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this just means wishing on a flaming ball of hydrogen gas thousands of light-years away is enough. You are your own motivational coach, who helps you learn from failure and mistakes, never belittles you, and celebrates every achievement.

So, if you’re having ‘one of those days’ and just want to quit, just remember this: your creativity is a precious part of who you are, but even this vital and powerful force needs a pep talk and ten minutes with its feet up now and then. Love yourself, respect your creativity, and don’t feel guilty about taking control of how you live with your muse.

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Creative ups and downs by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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We need to talk about Lara…

Hello Internet, and a happy new year!

It may not have escaped the attention of my readers that I’m a tad keen on Tomb Raider.  However, I increasingly believe that the franchise has wandered so far away from its roots that it might as well have strayed into an alternate universe. In today’s ramble, I want to share a few reasons why I believe the rebooted Lara Croft, and especially the overuse of in-game dialogue, has harmed her credibility as a tough, intelligent character. This troublesome problem can be applied equally to any game franchise or title you care to name – I’m simply using Tomb Raider as an illustration because it’s closest to my gaming heart.

Before the comments section spontaneously combusts with angry Crystal Dynamics fans, I want to douse everything in dry ice and state that I did enjoy certain aspects of the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot (I have yet to play Rise of the Tomb Raider, and until it hits a Steam sale and my PC gets a pep talk, it’s unlikely I will be playing it). The gameplay mechanics and visuals of Yamatai were fun, challenging, and made for great escapism. Half the battle in designing a video game is in nailing the player-environment interaction, and creating a world that makes you eager to explore around the next corner. Tomb Raider 2013 did that very well, and the ever-versatile bow has even become my second-best favourite doodad/weapon in the entire franchise. Laser-sight crossbow, eat your heart out.

However, the other half of designing a video game – the most critical half that forms the foundations upon which the entire structure is built – is its story and characters. And that, dear friends, is where Tomb Raider 2013 left me colder than yeti-flavoured ice cream.

Lara Croft – the 90s icon

First, some shameless nostalgia. I was eleven when Lara Croft made her debut in 1996. At the time, I didn’t own or come into contact with a console (a situation that continues to this day); my only knowledge of Lara Croft came second-hand from the world of advertising. In the late 90s, it sometimes felt as though Lara, with her trademark aqua tank top and pistols, was literally EVERYWHERE, from hoardings and magazine covers, to posters and pop bottles.

The marketing campaign behind this intended for this perfect, pixelated female to move a lot of merchandise and simultaneously make the world fall in love with her. And it worked. Where else at the time, apart from the top shelf of seedy newsagents, could so many people have access to such a sexed-up character who was willing to blow them kisses or pose in provocative bikinis? Lara Croft the marketing icon was an unprecedented success.

However, the advertisement vision of Lara Croft at the centre of this media feeding frenzy left me utterly indifferent. To me, she came across as empty-headed and shallow. Cutesy and eager-to-please. Provocative. Over-sexualised. Tedious.

Then, almost by chance, I ended up with a copy of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. What an eye-opener.

Almost from the moment Peter Connelly’s melancholic yet triumphant theme music swept through my headphones, I realised that my initial impression of Lara Croft had been, quite simply, dead wrong. By the time young Lara was kneeling to decipher the Iris inscription, I had fallen under the game’s spell. Lara Croft, I learned, was no dim-witted bimbo. If asked to pucker-up for a cutesy photograph, she’d more than likely end up force-feeding you your camera rather than strike a pose. Her true hallmarks turned out to be, not a respectable pair of *ahem* pistols, but dry wit, striking intelligence, and a backbone of steel.

To this day, it is Lara’s character that draws me to Tomb Raider. The puzzles and gorgeous environments are still admirable, but over time even the most challenging brain-teasers grow stale with repetition. However, classic Core Design-era Lara herself never loses her appeal. For a character who barely utters a word during gameplay, this is quite an achievement. How did Core Design – and other games from other developers – pull it off?

Lara’s attraction

For me, Lara’s appeal is not solely rooted in her personality, but in her motivation and backstory. In Lara’s original Core Design biography, her character had an intense sense of rebelliousness and adventure, as evidenced by her willingness to drop everything to stow away to a mysterious haunted island (Tomb Raider: Chronicles), or travel across Asia with a comparative stranger to glimpse archaeological wonders (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation). The original Lord Henshingly Croft and his practically-invisible wife indulged their daughter’s ‘hobby’ of adventuring only for as long as it suited them; when she left a Swiss Finishing School at the age of 21, she was almost immediately engaged to a suitable future husband, with the consensus amongst her family that this was how she should live the rest of her life. However, we all know how well that turned out. There is something powerfully intriguing about a character who not only survived a Himalayan plane crash alone and unaided, but who then returned and rejected the plans laid out for her in favour of forging her own destiny. Lara Croft experienced an awakening within herself and calmly accepted that if she had to turn against society’s expectations in order to pursue her passion, then that’s exactly what she would do.

This feature of the classic Core Design-era Lara often seems to be drowned out by discussions about the T-Rex encounter and Atlantean mutants in business suits; i.e. that Lara Croft was, first and foremost, a lone rebel. This Lara chose her own path and stuck to it, to the point where her family disowned her for being too outgoing and wilful. This incarnation of Lara didn’t need to save anybody, follow in anyone else’s footsteps, or validate a deceased relative’s unorthodox theories in order to undergo her own journey of self-discovery. She understood betrayal, sacrifice, and triumph all on her own terms. To quote the Prima guide for Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, “Lara lives the same way she prefers to work – alone”.

This independent character perfectly suited the style of Tomb Raider gameplay pre-Crystal Dynamics. These titles – from Tomb Raider in 1996, to Tomb Raider: Chronicles in 2000 – had minimal side characters, and a distinct lack of dialogue during gameplay. We could explore tombs, ruins, and cities with a sense of near-perfect isolation. This was a perfect reflection of how Lara herself preferred to go about her business.

Lara talk through

When it’s good to talk…

It’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on the odd one out in the Core Design-era in terms of story and dialogue: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. This game made much more extensive use of cutscenes, dialogue, and character exploration than had been used in previous titles. However, I don’t believe that the execution of these elements diminished or dumbed-down Lara’s character in the same way that the Crystal Dynamics’-era titles did for two reasons:

1) For the first time, Lara was joined by equally independent and wilful characters who had their own reasons for being included in the plot. Take Lara Croft out of the game entirely, and you still have a perfectly credible story about Kurtis Trent’s quest for vengeance against Eckhardt. Both our and Lara’s exploration of this hidden Cabal / Lux Veritatis underworld went hand-in-hand, and provided a natural excuse for her solitary character to grow and gain allies. In this way, Lara’s ‘chance’ meeting with Kurtis did not feel like a convenient addition of a superfluous, stereotypical sidekick, but a logical alliance that remained faithful to the characters’ underlying motivations and personalities. Well-crafted character interaction (via cutscenes and semi-scripted exchanges) was, in this instance, both valid and necessary in order for Lara to make sense of this tangled, ancient conflict.

2) Practically all of Lara’s dialogue was still delivered during cutscenes, or after she (we) had actioned a particular set-piece. Apart from a talk-through tutorial and occasional comments about strength upgrades, Lara’s in-game dialogue was kept to a minimum.

I could ramble on about other story elements of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness for much longer than is healthy, so let’s save that for another day and return to the main argument.

…And when silence is golden

Why, then, is it so important not to overuse in-game dialogue? After all, who doesn’t like the main character to comment about things in real-time? To today’s triple-A, QTE-laden games, the comparative silence of the classic Core Design-era games might seem unnatural, even boring. But as one who was introduced to Tomb Raider in 1999, today’s games – up to and including the latest incarnation of the franchise – seem like an endless stream of stating-the-blindingly-obvious purely for the sake of giving the voice actor something to do.

A talk-through tutorial from the character to the player might be helpful, but it serves no positive purpose later on if the protagonist automatically mutters clues to puzzles we would much rather figure out for ourselves. For example, if there’s a climbable wall ahead of us, it seems reasonable to us players that we should climb it. If there are enemies about, we can probably guess that making a lot of noise is a bad idea. The character of Lara Croft loses any credibility that she is intelligent or skillful in these situations if the game insists on having her tell us these things. It also destroys the illusion of isolation if Lara constantly breaks the fourth wall – on purpose or not – to tell the player what she’s thinking or feeling. Part of the classic Core Design-era Lara’s appeal was that she – and the game – credited us with the intelligence to work things out for ourselves. And, nine times out of ten, we did – rewarding us with intense satisfaction.

The future

So where does this leave the franchise? The newer games may look stupendous, but changes in gameplay style means that Lara herself has, for me at least, lost those traits that made her such an engaging character to begin with. An extremely vocal crowd of friends and foes now surrounds Lara, when in previous titles she purposefully chose to go it alone and keep most of her thoughts to herself. The overuse of in-game dialogue, especially when Lara is breaking the fourth wall, dumbs down her character rather than provide us with an enlightening window into her thoughts and feelings. Much more could be achieved with a well-placed ‘hmm’, than yet anotherI can do this’ line.

In conclusion, it’s my belief that the character of Lara Croft was always at her best when she was following her passion for her own reasons, regardless of what others thought of her. Additionally, the old advice to ‘show, don’t tell’ should be enough to illuminate Lara’s inner thoughts without her ever having to say a single word, thus preserving the very traits that made me fall in love with that feisty teenage explorer in Cambodia so many years ago.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts on in-game dialogue, Lara’s character, or any other subject in the comments below! (trolls can stay under their bridges).

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We need to talk about Lara… by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 8: Survival Skills for Writers (and Raiders!)

In this final tutorial of this series, we’ll be taking a brief look at some essential habits and advice that underpins all good fiction writing – whether it involves a certain death-defying archaeologist-adventuress or not.

1. Punctuation, spelling, and grammar matter.

Language is constantly evolving – it is not a static object with immutable rules. Everybody will have their own style of writing and communication, which is all to the good; language cannot evolve at all without diversity. But – and I cannot stress this enough – this is no excuse to be lazy or condescending to your readers. I’ve lost count of the stories which I started to read but gave up on because the writer was too bone-idle to use a dictionary (or even click that little button called ‘spell checker’). If they can’t be bothered to look after the fundamentals of writing, why should I get my hopes up about the rest of the story? Is this attitude snobbish? Perhaps it is, but I prefer to think of it as demanding a high standard of the crafts we practise and not simply settling for mediocrity. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar are the infrastructure of communication; they allow for wildly-different people to convey their thoughts to each other as smoothly and efficiently as possible. When mistakes occur, they will jolt your reader out of the narrative just as surely as if they’d been peacefully driving along a road and struck a pothole or blown a tyre. At best they will be able ignore it and continue with their journey, albeit in a state of heightened alertness that distracts them from enjoying the ride. At worst, they will decide not to risk further damage, turn around, and go home. You owe it to your readers to provide a comfortable journey. To ignore the basic rules of communication shows laziness, insults readers’ intelligence, and disrupts the flow of your story.

There are countless online resources available to help improve your communication skills – including dictionaries, thesauri, guides to grammar, and even proofreading and plagiarism-detection software. It is also worth your while to recruit a few trusted beta-readers who can go over your work with fresh eyes (be certain to thank them and proofread their works in return!). There really is no excuse not to get it right!

Sitting with book 01

2. Be an active, not passive, reader.

If there is one thing you can do to improve your own writing, it’s to read, read, and read some more. Try to sample every possible genre out there – science-fiction, romance, crime, thriller, horror, and fantasy to name but a few – because they all have something powerful to teach us as writers. This might mean that you end up with overflowing bookshelves and/or a season ticket at your local library, but these are really positive signs!

Literature enthusiasts love to take stories apart and analyse them from all angles. But you don’t have to have a degree in Shakespearian plays to recognise good writing from bad. Hopefully these tutorials will have given you a sense of how stories are put together; but even more importantly, they should have inspired you to always ask questions. That is the difference between active and passive reading. Passive readers enjoy being swept along by the narrative – they read purely for escapism. On the other hand, active readers will find themselves asking questions and analysing the text. It’s fine and dandy to pick up a new story and become totally immersed in the author’s creation, but if you are a writer you should also aim to be an active reader. Maybe read through the story several times – at first purely for curiosity and enjoyment, and then each time after that ask yourself how the author has tackled the same topics we have covered in these tutorials. For example, how did the author manage to hook the reader on the first page? Why was a certain character so engaging and vital to the story, even if they weren’t the main protagonist? How did the author tackle the balance between description and action? Was there anything that didn’t work – if so, why not?

If you can work out the answers to these questions, and expose yourself to as many styles of writing as possible, then you are equipping yourself with a vast toolkit and knowledge base upon which to build and improve your own storytelling skills.

For more discussion on this topic, see my previous blog entry: Reading for Writing.

3. Write drunk, edit sober.

This isn’t to be taken literally, but this quote (often misattributed to Earnest Hemingway) can be a useful guideline for how you approach your writing. If writing a story can be compared to making a pottery vase, then writing down your initial words is akin to gathering up lumps of clay and arranging them into the broad shape of the final vase. However, the real work comes afterwards in the editing process.

If you have a solid plan, then getting down your first draft should be a relatively easy process (emphasis on ‘relatively’!). Let your creativity flow. Don’t over-think or agonise too much about the quality of your prose at this stage. This is where ‘write drunk’ should more accurately be termed ‘write freely and without inhibitions’. You are piling on your clay – your raw material – in the approximate shape it needs to be to support itself.

Part 8 - spelling

When you are satisfied that your first draft has covered all of the bases it needs to, then you can begin to edit and refine it. This is the time to tune up and improve your dialogue; to trim away unnecessary waffle or fill in missing steps in your description; and to help breathe real life into your fictional world with specific, not vague, details.

It is entirely up to you how many revisions you make (though you do have to draw the line at some point, or you’ll never publish your work!) It’s good practise to leave your draft alone – at least for a couple of days – between revisions. This helps to clear your immediate memory of what you have written, which improves your sense of objectivity. ‘Edit sober’ could easily be switched to ‘edit without sentimentality or bias’. Never think that your words are set in stone; they are just as malleable as clay. If something doesn’t work, have no qualms about altering or removing it.

It’s also useful, if you have the facilities, to print out your draft on paper and go over it in another location. Take a red pen or highlighter so you can mark the bits that need alterations. It’s surprising how many more mistakes can be spotted on paper compared to on the computer monitor!

4. Find a time and a place to write – and WRITE!

You aren’t going to write a bestselling novel on the back of an envelope, in the kitchen during mealtimes, with young kids tugging at your elbow. Every writer needs to have some place, at some time, where they know they will be undisturbed. This can be insanely difficult, especially if you’re also juggling work, a social life, or other obligations. But if you don’t force yourself to sit down and write, all those stories that are locked up inside your imagination will stay that way forever!

If you live in a crowded house, try to make time for writing when everyone else has gone to bed, work, or school. Give yourself permission to metaphorically and literally close the door on the world, even if it’s only for half an hour every other day. Try to find one room, one corner, or one desk where you can keep your notes, computer, and other writing tools.

It should also be obvious that writers need the discipline to sit down and write regularly, otherwise their stories (or other works) will never see the light of day. Even if you only jot down your writing thoughts (e.g. observations and ideas) each day in your journal, make sure you set aside some time to your craft or it will wither and fade like any other skill. It doesn’t matter if what you write on that day is half a page of drivel. It’s still half a page that you can hold up as proof of your working attitude.

For more discussion on this topic, see my previous blog entry: A Writer’s Haven.

5. Observe everything – inspiration is everywhere!

Remember that description can be greatly enriched if you exploit strong sensory impressions – sensations, emotions, and situations we can all relate to. As writers, we should always walk with our minds and senses open to the world. Try to note down your observations and think about how you would convey them in your writing. This kind of constant mental practise will build muscles in your imagination and communication skills. Pretty soon, it will become difficult for you not to imagine how a conversation, a view, or an event would translate into the written word!

Inspiration is often labelled as flighty and random, but we all have certain things that are virtually guaranteed to help our imaginations take flight. Going for an early-morning walk, people-watching in a cafe or on public transport, and travelling to new places are all fuel for your muse. Many people – myself included – find that music and stimulating conversations are also potent sources of inspiration. Although we can find inspiration in strange and often random places, it’s always good to have a dependable muse that you can turn to again and again.

6. Tools for writers.

Writers are a diverse bunch, with many different ways of approaching their craft. Some prefer straightforward word processor software (e.g. Microsoft Word or Open Office Writer), while others stick to pencil and paper. The bottom line is to find what works for you. As a sample, here is what I consider my essential physical toolkit for writing:

  • Notepads and pens: spiral-bound, hardback pads (size A5 or A4), plus soft-grip pens work best for me.
  • Scapple: mind-mapping software from Literature and Latte. I’m a great fan of mind-maps (or spider diagrams, as they’re sometimes known). The trouble is, I often run out of space on my notepad and get frustrated with crossings-out and other editing mess. Scapple is a very simple but highly-intuitive mind-map creation program that never runs out of space and allows for infinite formatting and editing. Perfect!
  • Scrivener: there are word processors, and then there are document or project processors. Scrivener (also by Literature and Latte) makes writing and organising stories a doddle. Normally you’d have to scroll through endless pages (or manually create bookmarks) to get to particular scenes or chapters, and make liberal and clumsy use of copy&paste to organise a story – particularly novel-sized ones. Scrivener, however, is more like an infinite binder and index cards system and is astonishingly straightforward to use. You can write and  format as you would in a word processor, but you can also split your writing up into scenes, chapters, parts, or whatever strikes your fancy – and organise those components as easily as dragging and dropping. Another thing I really love about Scrivener is the ability to include other files – pictures, .pdfs, character or location guides, you name it – into your ‘research’ folder. Now you can have just one program open for all your research and reference material instead of five separate programs and multiple tabs. Bliss!
  • Online and hard-copies of a dictionary and thesaurus: simple but indispensable.
  • Coffee: this should go without saying!

7. Remember to have fun and learn from your own experiences

If writing just isn’t clicking with you, or causes you more angst than pleasure, then perhaps you could try a new writing style or an entirely different kind of creative outlet. There cannot be any illusions: writing is tough. There will be days when nothing seems to be working, and when you just want to throw your notes out of the window and quit. If that happens, turn off your word processor and go somewhere else or do something to recharge your batteries. Even the most disciplined writers will sometimes run out of juice for a while. That’s fine. But if your muse is repeatedly going off in a huff when you sit down to write, then perhaps it’s time to change your tactics or try something new. Why not try poetry, or script-writing for TV, film, or radio-plays?

Above all, it’s important to remember that nothing beats experience. There is no right or wrong way to write. Despite the advice in these tutorials, remember that it is only advice (except the bit about spelling and punctuation – Lara will kick your ass if you skip those). It may turn out to be completely wrong for you and what you want to write. The same goes for all guides on writing that have ever been published. But that’s okay. Do your research, absorb as much information and guidance from as many different sources as possible, but then go and find out how that applies to you and your work style. You’re in charge of your own writing, so find a method that works for you.

8. Live well, write well

Finally, just like Lara stuck in a remote and dangerous environment, you need to look after yourself properly in order to get the job done. Writing is great fun – and highly-addictive when the muse is in full-flow – but sitting still and typing in front of a computer monitor for hours on end isn’t going to be good for your health. You deserve and need to take care of your physical self. These habits apply to just about everyone who works at a computer, and include:

  • Eat well – keep healthy snacks around so your energy levels stay nice and stable. Concentrating uses up more energy than you think!
  • Stay hydrated with plenty to drink.
  • Get up and move your body at least once every hour.
  • Make sure your chair, desk, and computer are arranged so that your posture is upright but relaxed.
  • Invest in a wrist support or cushion for your mouse mat and keyboard (or use a rolled-up towel).
  • Remember the 20-20-20 rule: every twenty minutes, look away from the screen at something else twenty feet away, for twenty seconds – this helps to avoid eye strain.
  • Get plenty of good-quality sleep.
  • Stay in regular touch with friends and give yourself some time off to recharge your spirit (a visit to my local country park works wonders for me).
  • Try to keep your notes and workspace organised so you don’t waste time and generate stress hunting high and low for the equipment or information you need.

Now, Miss Croft. Grab your passport and twin pistols, lace up your boots and strap on your gloves. We can’t wait to come along on your next adventure!

Bike 03

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 8: Survival Skills for Writers (and Raiders!) by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 7: Crafting Characters (part 2)

In this tutorial, we’ll be looking at:

  • How to create empathy between your characters and readers
  • Why dialogue is important and how it can bring your characters to life
  • The pros and cons of first- and third-person point of view (PoV)

The importance of empathy

When you create your characters and follow them on their adventures, your readers must be able to empathise with them. Empathy is our ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position – to feel what they feel. It is a crucial skill not only for writers, but for psychologists, counsellors, and carers. Empathy is tied inextricably to our ability and willingness to care about others, and your fictional characters are no different than flesh-and-blood people in this regard. Your writing needs to show how your characters are feeling and thinking in order for your readers to empathise with them, and consequently for them to care about what happens to those characters during your story. If we don’t care about a character (or at least, develop an interest in them) then their goal in the story, and thus the story itself, becomes meaningless.

The primary way to create empathy with fictional characters is through strong sensory and emotional impressions that show, rather than tell. Show how your characters are feeling by the way their hands tremble as they pick up a phone (e.g. are they nervous? Afraid? Angry?), the way they break out in a sweat (e.g. are they terrified by a mysterious shadow deep in a tomb?), and their dialogue (e.g. “What was that?” she hissed). Showing, not telling, harkens back to our most fundamental psychology as social beings; we need to directly observe people and their reactions in order to communicate with and understand each other. This is the origin of the idiom, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, and the reason why live news showing us footage of a major event is much more provocative than a news reader simply telling us what has happened. Your writing is an even more powerful medium than film or television because you are not restricted to audio or visual stimulation – every sense is yours to engage with, and thus you can build an even richer empathic relationship between your characters and your reader.

Ocean 01

Character dialogue

A person’s mode of speech is just as individual and distinctive as their physical appearance (if not more so). It can reveal their level of education, their ethnic or cultural background, their age and gender, and many other subtle clues that all add up to a unique person. A lot can also be revealed by what your characters choose not to say! In the last tutorial, we discussed using an ‘interview’ method to find out more about our characters. When you do, be sure that you also imagine – in addition to how they look and behave – what they sound like.

Let’s take a look at some famous Tomb Raider characters and see how their dialogue can reflect their personalities:

  • “’Myth’ she calls it! A limited word, for a limited perspective. You were always such the scientist. You’re probably right at home with all these Tesla contraptions, aren’t you?”
    Amanda, Tomb Raider: Legend. Arrogant, condescending, disdainful, contemptuous.
  • “Well, this is my point. I feel you may be better qualified to examine its secrets. Unless you, perish the thought, expired in the fall… Perhaps if you lighten your load a little, it may lessen the impact. The stone you carry..?”
    Pierre, Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Long-winded, shrewd, deceitful, smug.
  • To the study, gentlemen, where we may pontificate over the day’s disheartening events.
    Winston, Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Gracious, weary, cultured, old-fashioned.

To be engaging and believable, dialogue must be consistent and appropriate for each character and their circumstances. For example, Lara Croft’s default mode of speaking is with a cultured British accent, and she makes the effort to be polite to everyone she encounters. This is entirely appropriate given her British upper-class background and high level of education. Her speech style helps to set her apart from all of the other characters. This is important because, generally speaking, we tend to introduce our characters’ physical appearance first and then rely on dialogue thereafter to tell who is who. It is imperative to try to keep a character’s dialogue consistent so that your reader can easily identify and differentiate between your characters.

Despite the importance of consistency, your characters are not going to speak or act the same way all the time. It is important to tailor dialogue so that it is appropriate to the circumstances and characters in question. Lara is hardly going to ask Zip for a cup of coffee in the same tone of voice as she uses towards Natla during a climactic battle! Bear in mind how your characters are feeling both in themselves and towards their audience at all times. Anger, fear, preoccupation, and irritation tend to make characters use shorter, sharper sentences (or, if it’s a really bad day, half-hearted grunts). However, a character who is feeling relaxed and contented will be more inclined to use longer sentences and more elaborate wording. Of course, the style of your characters’ dialogue also heavily depends on their underlying personality and the circumstances at the time!

Part 7 - understand

Let’s sum up the factors that are important to crafting a character’s dialogue:

  • Accent – does your character have a particular accent? If so, how can you represent that with your spelling, punctuation, word choice, and grammar? Make sure that you don’t get carried away with creating over-the-top alternative spellings or overuse apostrophes – your readers still need to clearly understand what your characters are saying!
  • Language – does your character speak more than one language? If so, are there any particular circumstances where they use that other language – e.g. to swear or mutter to themselves? Your character’s grasp of languages might also affect their use of syntax (the rules and patterns of words) and grammar.
  • Slang/vocabulary – how does your character use their language, e.g. do they speak perfect BBC English, or do they talk as though they were chatting online or through texting? Do they use specific terminology or slang words? How does their field(s) of expertise affect their choice of words?
  • Gender – men and women sound different due to the shape and sizes of their voice boxes. Women tend to have higher-pitched voices than men, but not always – some men have high, warbling voices, and some women possess low, deep voices.
  • Age – younger people tend to have higher-pitched voices than older people, who tend to have deeper and more mellow voices. However, advanced old age also gives voices a whispering softness that is difficult for younger people to emulate convincingly. Don’t forget that puberty also causes a gradual (female) or sudden (male) change in how our voices sound.
  • Health – does your character smoke, or have a respiratory infection? Both tend to make the voice sound huskier, raspy, and sometimes difficult to understand. Have they suffered an injury that is making them grit their teeth in pain, making them hiss or gasp their words? Are they fatigued, or under the influence of drink or drugs? All of these will affect how they speak.
  • Background – think about where your characters are from, where they grew up, what they do for work and fun, and who they associate with.
  • Circumstances – how, and under what circumstances, does your character alter their dialogue? Are they refined and bombastic in one setting, and quieter or cruder in another?

A final point about dialogue. When you write an exchange, remember the mantra stimulus and response. For everything your characters say, there needs to be a reason for them to say it. It sounds obvious – and it is. You need to include every single step in a conversation or exchange – including what your characters are physically doing – in order for their words to make sense and flow smoothly. This might result in a whole page of short sentences with hardly any description, but this is exactly what you should aim to achieve in a dialogue situation!

Choosing a point of view (PoV)

Finally, before we end this tutorial, let’s look at how you can fully integrate your characters and stories through point of view (PoV).

PoV is one of the first choices you will make when you embark on a new story. In most fiction, the two most common PoVs are first- and third-person. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks; some authors even choose to switch between first- and third-person between chapters.

In first-person, you are a character – usually the main character (the protagonist). Everything that happens must be experienced through their senses. For example:

I swallowed, forcing down annoyance. My fingers drummed on the table. “Is this going to take much longer, Zip?”
He gave a resigned sigh, without pausing the click-click-click of furious typing. “It’ll take as long as it takes, Lara.””

First-person can appear limiting at first, but it has two fantastic advantages for the writer.

  • It gives you unlimited access to your character’s thoughts and feelings.
  • Your character can still relay a lot of non-first-person information through their own observations, giving your world and story a sense of intimacy – as though the character is talking directly to the reader and confiding in them.

This excerpt from my novel Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness highlights the second point:

“Glad you came back to save me, stranger,” I said, not bothering to hide my sarcasm.
“Name’s Kurtis.” Amazingly, he offered his hand.  
“Lara,” I returned his smile and, accepting the handshake, slammed him against the far wall. “And this is business.”
He grunted but wisely held still – no doubt aware of the gun still levelled at his head – and stayed that way while I rummaged through his pockets.
“I owe you one,” he said, sounding sheepish.
“You owe me a Painting,” I snapped, trying to ignore the undeniable intimacy. The bronze disk dangling from his hip-strap was hurriedly tossed out of reach.

Alliance 01

This is written completely in first-person (Lara’s PoV), but we still get a sense of what Kurtis is thinking and feeling because our PoV character is showing us.

The downside to first-person is that you are essentially stuck with one character from beginning to end. It is possible to have more than one character’s first-person PoV in your story, but if you want to do it that way then you need 1) a damn good reason to switch characters, and 2) a clear separation so your readers don’t get confused about who they are following.

For example, in my novel Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, most of the story was from Lara’s first-person PoV because almost all of the plot unfolded from her perspective. However, I switched to Kurtis’ first-person PoV for those portions of the plot where he is separated from Lara (i.e. in the Sanatorium and the fight with Boaz). I also wanted to include some foreshadowing and semi-important backstory – e.g. Eckhardt’s escape from the Pit, and the Cabal’s meeting in Paris – that, sadly, neither Lara nor Kurtis actually witnessed first-hand. For those scenes, and those scenes alone, I chose to use third-person, which we’ll look at next.

Third-person PoV is one of the most common PoVs in modern literature. This PoV allows you follow one or – less commonly – several characters but from a distance. For example:

“Lara sneered, stepping easily over the trip wire. Once over the threshold, she could instantly sense she’d taken the correct hallway. Goosebumps raced across her skin and frost began to lime her clothing as the temperature plummeted with each step. She felt an icy knot form in her belly, but the fear was quickly pushed aside by familiar excitement. The Trident Stone had to be close by…”

We can still tell what your protagonist is feeling and thinking, but without the need to relay it as though they were speaking to us, e.g. “I said” or “I felt”.

Third-person is an extremely straightforward and user-friendly PoV, and one that most writers fall into without a second’s hesitation. But be careful: this PoV can make you forget that you, the author, have omnipotent powers of observation and knowledge. This god-like approach can destroy the carefully-arranged narrative by giving away things that your characters could not possibly know, when they could not possibly know them. You might know everything, but your writing still has to follow the unfolding narrative if your characters and your readers are going to enjoy finding out for themselves. It’s never a good sign when your reader can work out the plot ten steps ahead of the characters!

Just like for first-person PoV, if you choose to use third-person then it’s best to only follow events from only one character’s PoVs (i.e. your protagonist). However, you should feel free to switch between two or more characters if that is how to best unfold your story’s narrative.

Key points for Crafting Characters part 2:

  • Aim to build empathy between your characters and the reader.
  • Dialogue must be consistent and appropriate.
  • Your choice of PoV – and the character(s) you choose to follow – is critical to the unfolding of your narrative.

Image credits:

Next time – Part 8: Survival Skills for Writers (and Raiders!)

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 7: Crafting Characters (part 2) by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 6: Crafting Characters (part 1)

In this tutorial, we’ll be examining:

  • Why character backgrounds are important
  • How fictional characters differ from real people
  • Wimps and stereotypes – what they are and how to avoid them

What makes a memorable character?

So far, we’ve discussed how to engage your reader with your fictional world. We’ve seen how sensory description and careful choice of words can turn your stories into fully-immersive experiences for the imagination. Now it’s time to see how this guidance applies to your characters.

No matter which incarnation we are dealing with, Tomb Raider fans can usually identify what they admire most about the titular character of Lara Croft. From Toby Gard’s original 90’s Amazonian adventurer to Square Enix’s rebooted archaeology graduate, Lara Croft’s trademarks are intelligence, courageousness, inquisitiveness, and a determination to reach her goal no matter the cost.

Old meets new

However, these traits are only the tip of a very complicated iceberg. To really understand your characters, you need to get inside their heads. You need to unravel their motives and constantly ask the question: what would this character think, say, and do in this situation – and why? Even Lara doesn’t decide to travel halfway around the world, brave deadly traps, and confront gun-wielding mercenaries because of simple curiosity or boredom.

Put simply, memorable characters are those who have many layers (depth) and who have the chance to develop because the author is constantly throwing questions at them. A good way to get started is to imagine that you are interviewing your character: bombard them with open questions (what, why, where, when, who, how), and observe their responses. Be prepared for the unexpected! Some characters will be only too happy to chat and talk about themselves. However, you might find that the wrong question at the wrong character causes them to throw their coffee in your face and storm out of the interview. You might laugh at what your imagination can get up to when you let it play and experiment like this, but even if your face is dripping imaginary coffee, you’ll have learned valuable information about that character and their feelings on a particular topic!

Another important factor that governs your characters’ motivations is conflict. At its most basic level, conflict translates to Character A wants something – an object, information, a service, etc. – and Character B stands in their way. Your characters naturally need to have motivations and goals, but to make for a riveting story those motivations and goals must pit your characters into conflict with each other. In the Tomb Raider universe, the most common example of conflict by far occurs when Lara is in direct competition with another character to find an artefact; e.g. in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Lara and Powell both want to find both pieces of the Triangle of Light but for different reasons – Powell to use it for his own ends, and Lara to keep it away from him and the rest of the Illuminati. This conflict of interest pitches the characters against each other and makes for a strong driving force behind the story. Conflict doesn’t have to mean your characters are physically fighting each other; it does mean that your characters are constantly running into obstacles and setbacks (which includes other characters and their goals). Part of the reason why we consider Lara to be such a kick-ass character is that she faces many conflicts in the course of her adventures, and always (well, nearly always) manages to overcome them through her courage, resourcefulness, and ruthless determination.

Crafting a character’s background

Your characters’ actions are dictated by our old standby, cause and effect (or stimulus and response). When you sit down and create a new character, you need to be able to trace these stimuli and responses all the way back to their origins. We sometimes call this information backstory or character background. When you think about your character’s personality or what they have done in the past, you are essentially figuring out what stimuli they have experienced and how they have responded each time. Each set of actions and reactions adds another layer of depth and makes your characters more believable.

For example, in the original Core Design biography for Lara, we are told that her love of archaeology was first kindled when Professor Von Croy visited her school to give a lecture (stimulus). Lara later learned that he was planning a trip to Cambodia, and she begged to be allowed to accompany him (response). This adventure (stimulus) led to a life-long interest in archaeology, which culminated in dozens of different adventures (response), and so on ad infinitum.

Part 6 - memorable

This stimulus-response logic also applies over the long-, medium-, and short-term. For example, we could imagine a Tomb Raider story with the following backstory:

  • An aging professor has always longed for the chance to recover a certain artefact from their ancestors’ homelands (long-term motivation).
  • This professor learns from a colleague that the artefact was excavated in a recent dig, but has subsequently disappeared (medium-term motivation).
  • The next morning, the professor reads in the paper that Lara Croft, archaeologist-adventurer for hire, has just returned from her most recent adventure (short-term motivation).

These three stimuli, applied over the long-, medium-, and short-term in our story lead perfectly up to a logical effect – namely, the professor’s decision to contact Lara and ask for her help to recover the artefact. If Lara was randomly contacted by a random professor who just happened to want her to hunt down a random artefact, then it wouldn’t make logical sense – it wouldn’t be obeying the rule of cause and effect / stimulus and response. The stimuli and responses are like dominoes, each triggering the next in line. When they don’t line up and topple properly, your reader will at best get a sense of anti-climax or, at worse, think that you have cheated and simply made things up on a whim.

This harks back to the point in our previous discussion Part 1: Planning Your Adventure: Real life does not have to obey logic, but your fiction does in order for it to be believable.

Fictional characters versus real people

Stimulus-response also applies to the personalities of your fictional characters. A good writer might make them seem real, but fictional characters are actually very carefully-constructed caricatures. They are selective exaggerations of real people, not real people themselves.

Let’s go back to an earlier example – thieves breaking into Croft Manor in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – to illustrate how Lara Croft is different from a real person (note: if you happen to know any real people who would do the same as Lara in these situations, make sure your insurance is up to date):

  • Real people choose to beat insomnia with a mug of warm milk or sleeping pills. Lara Croft prefers bungee-ballet in the main hall. She’s more eccentric and outgoing than a real person.
  • Real people would call the police when their homes are attacked, and would probably get themselves injured or killed very quickly. Lara Croft takes on the mercenaries, armed with nothing more than some bungee cords and her wits. She’s more reckless, aggressive, and better-trained in combat than a real person.
  • Real people would find somewhere safe to hide until the authorities arrived. Lara Croft would much prefer to sneak into the garage, improvise weapons out of ordinary tools and a motorcycle, and beat the living daylights out of the intruders. She’s craftier and more determined than a real person.

Good characters versus wimps

The example of the Croft Manor invasion illustrates another very important point about creating fictional characters: it is the actions of characters that drive the plot, not the other way around.

Lara Croft is an engaging character because she makes decisions and doesn’t shy away from taking action. We love Lara for her daring and willingness to take control of her situation (no matter how dangerous or extreme). She is not a simple bystander to the story, but an active participant and driving force behind it. She also has hopes and dreams, fears and vulnerabilities. She has undergone many unique trials and dealt with them in her own way, growing and evolving so that her character matures and broadens in experience. Everything about her – from her physical appearance and speech to the way she walks – is instantly identifiable and unique.

Good characters like Lara don’t sit around waiting for things to happen to them, and when things do happen they don’t hang back, refusing to take part. The opposite to this kind of plot-driving, engaging character is the bane of both real and fictional worlds – the wimp.

Wimps are forever going ‘umm’ when asked a question. Wimps turn down the Call to Adventure over and over again. Wimps don’t say or do anything that improves – or impedes – the actions of other characters. In other words, wimps are about as stimulating and vital to your story as a shot of general anaesthetic. If any of the characters in your stories sound like they might be wimps, remove them or improve them as a matter of urgency!

A word of caution: in your efforts to avoid wimps, don’t fall into the scorpion-filled death trap of creating an army of bombastic, over-the-top characters to populate your stories! For example, a character who is quick to anger and breaks bottles with his teeth is not going to stand out if everyone else in your story is equally short-tempered and violent. When we talk about the need to exterminate wimpy characters on sight, we don’t mean that you should leave out characters who are cowardly or shy.

For example, in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider we have the character of Bryce, Lara’s technician. He’s clearly upset when mercenaries shoot machine guns through his camper van door (what sensible person wouldn’t be?!). However, instead of simply scurrying for cover and sobbing into a blanket, he screams in a high falsetto and gathers his wits enough to try and reactive S.I.M.O.N. This means that he’s unashamedly scared, but that he also overcomes his fear to try and come to Lara’s aid. Bryce might be a coward when it comes to violence, but this doesn’t make him a wimp. To really bring your fictional world to life, you need to create a balanced population of diverse characters who we can empathise with and grow to love (or hate!).

Stereotypes and how to avoid them

Stereotypes are another whirling blade-trap writers sometimes fall into when they create characters (and, sadly, they can even be found in the official Tomb Raider universe from time to time). These are the characters we’ve seen a hundred times before in a hundred different settings. For example, the loyal friend from school with an unrequited love for our hero/heroine; the old colleague who turns out to be the arch-villain; and the father-substitute who dies tragically saving the hero/heroine.

It can be very difficult to come up with completely fresh and original characters. However, it can also be fun. Play with people’s expectations. Experiment with different modes of speech, accents, and background. Research established tropes and clichés and think of ways of challenging them, for example by reversing genders or swapping nationalities. When we used ‘an aging professor’ in our earlier example, it’s likely that it conjured up an image of a distinguished gentleman wearing Oxford shoes, a tweed blazer, and smoking a pipe. However, what if I said that this professor was actually a woman of Indian extraction in her seventies, who wears a bright scarlet sari, likes listening to Black Sabbath and Louis Armstrong, and is confined to a wheelchair? The trick is to deviate from the pathway of what people expect and onto the road of what you want them to imagine. After all, Lara Croft herself was a challenge to the stereotypical hero-adventurer when she first appeared back in 1996, simply because she was female!

Key points for Crafting Characters part 1:

  • All characters need to have some kind of backstory. At the very least, they will need to have a long-, medium-, and short-term goal(s).
  • Stereotypes and wimps kill stories – avoid them!
  • Good characters drive the plot, not the other way around.

Image credits:

Next time – Part 7: Crafting Characters – part 2

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 6: Crafting Characters (part 1) by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 5: Creating Action

In today’s tutorial, we’ll be examining:

  • Why action needs to be justified in order to work as part of a larger story
  • How to build-up tension
  • Why you need to be aware of your writing’s pace

The golden rules of action

In the previous tutorial, we discussed how description, when used effectively, can inform and immerse the reader in your story. Action sequences, and their all-important build-ups, epitomise the need to keep tight control over your description.

There are three important points to remember in order to write effective action:

  1. Firstly, you have to justify any serious action set-pieces.
  2. Secondly, you need to build-up to those action set-pieces.
  3. Thirdly, ANY action-related description needs to be kept tight and waffle-free.

Scorpion attack

Let’s take a moment to define exactly what we mean by ‘action’. From a Tomb Raider perspective, it seems pretty easy to define! We usually think of explosions, chases, fights, and death-defying escapes. While it’s true that these are classic, Hollywood-inspired examples of what constitutes action, we can easily make a case that anything our characters do can be considered action of one kind or another. In other words, rather than exclusively focusing on daredevil stunts, you should be able to take and apply the guidance in this article to your writing whether your characters are fighting mercenaries or eating breakfast.

We have already discussed why you should be aware of your story’s pacing, and how to reflect this in your writing. In summary:

  • It is generally accepted that action involves moving too quickly to indulge in long and detailed descriptive paragraphs!
  • Strong engagement with the senses can provide immersive description without the need for lots of ‘passive’ description.
  • Less is more. Overloading on description slows the pace down, or can stop it completely.

We’ll examine how these guidelines apply to ‘classic’ action scenarios and set-pieces in a moment. Before that, let’s look at how we can apply them to a fairly ordinary scene:

“With a grunt, Lara tossed the now quiescent mobile phone across the table.
I haven’t got time for this, she thought. Her temples ached abominably. The chink of the jug against glass sounded unnaturally loud. The water was tepid and tasted of the library’s ever-present dust. Her hands were shaking, but she pushed the discomfort aside. Got to focus, girl!
Books and scrawled notes smothered every flat surface. Her pencil skittered and scratched across paper. Cross checking references. Scribbling amendments. Tick-tock went the antique casement clock.
Soft footfalls made her pause. She would have recognised Winston’s tread anywhere. The door opened and a waft of savoury air made her breathe deeply. Onions. Bacon. Beans. And, oh… hot buttered toast. Her stomach pinched spitefully, and she let out an involuntary groan.
“Dammit,” she hissed, lowering her pencil. “Playing dirty, are we?””

Here, there is no death-defying helicopter chase or angry Egyptian mummy to contend with. But we still get a sense that Lara is doing critical research. Its importance is portrayed by the way she’s obviously been working intensely for a long time – long enough for her water to be ‘tepid’ and taste stale. Her hands are shaking and she has a strong reaction to the smell of food, both of which suggest that she hasn’t taken a break. She turns off her phone and ‘tosses’ it across the table, as though she doesn’t care about it compared to her work. Instead of being calm and organised, her workspace is ‘smothered’ by books and notes are ‘scrawled’. Her pencil ‘skitters’, ‘scratches’, and ‘scribbles’, which imply that she’s furiously taking down information. The reference to a clock ticking reinforces the sense of time running short.

This paragraph uses quite short sentences and strong sensory impressions to build an emotional (empathic) picture, not simply a physical one. Details are kept to a minimum; we do not need to know the colours of the books, what Lara is wearing, or details of the room (at least not for this scene). Although this example text is short and has none of the car-chases and horrifying monsters that we expect from a Tomb Raider setting, it still gives us a sense of urgency and of doing things.

So how do we go about creating effective action set-pieces?

Part 5 - justified

Action set-pieces – a case study

Let’s take a step away from written prose for a moment to briefly examine an example from film. The first scene in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider demonstrates the three steps of effective action we mentioned at the start of this article.

It is justified because it provides a good introduction to Lara Croft’s character and some of her trademark abilities. Our first view is not of Lara with her guns blazing, but of her hanging from the ceiling – silent and watchful. We then get treated to shots of Lara prowling closer to her goal, ever-alert to her surroundings. Tomb – check. Shiny thing as our goal – check. Lara acting her usual sexy, bad-ass self – check. Yep, this is Tomb Raider through and through.

It builds up tension before unleashing the action. Little hints, for example the way Lara pauses as though listening, little tremors, musical cues, and falling dust, are the signs that something big is going to happen at any moment. These hints employ the same principle as Chekhov’s Gun; our attention is deliberately drawn to them because they all lead to something important.

The action is kept tight and avoids unnecessary ‘waffle’. When S.I.M.O.N finally bursts into view, the editor and director shorten each camera shot and switch the focus onto the only things that matter – Lara, her guns, the robot, a critical pillar, etc. – thus avoiding unnecessary ‘waffle’ shots of passing clouds or the glint of sunlight on windows.

Creating action in your writing

So that’s how the three rules of effective action work on film. Let’s look at how these apply to your stories.

Action needs to be justified in order to blend seamlessly into your story. If the artefact of Lara’s interest is guarded by a terrifying monster, then you have got a legitimate reason to include an exciting fight scene. However, if Lara is having a quiet conversation with a wheelchair-bound professor, it’s unlikely that this scene will involve them swinging from the ceiling à la bungee ballet-style and engaging in a sword fight. Granted, strange things can happen in the Tomb Raider universe, but your readers will still wonder what the heck is going on if they spot an action set-piece that serves no legitimate purpose. Ask yourself why Lara is driving her jeep at breakneck speeds down a mountain pass, or why skeletons are suddenly appearing to attack our heroine. If an action sequence is only there because you got bored and wanted a quick gunfight or monster to liven things up, you need to seriously rethink your plot!

Action set-pieces also depend on a build-up of some kind. The classic example is the final battle trope, whose build-up typically incorporates the whole story! However, there are plenty of other action set-pieces from the Tomb Raider universe. Here are some examples:

  • Lara’s battle with the centaurs in the Tomb of Tihocan (Tomb Raider (1996) and Tomb Raider: Anniversary)
    Build-up: entering the tomb, seeing the prominent statues (Chekhov’s gun); finding the empty sarcophagus; threatening lighting and ambient music.
  • Lara’s battle with and escape from Set (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation)
    Build-up: the slow descent into the moonlit cavern; the menacing ambient music; fitting each piece of Armour onto the statue; witnessing Horus’ spirit descending from the stars.
  • The Pagoda Battle from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life
    Build-up: Lara and Sheridan talking while they look outside the window, watchful and waiting for the exchange to take place.
  • Lara defeats the Serpent inside King Arthur’s Tomb (Tomb Raider: Legend)
    Build-up: entering King Arthur’s tomb; swimming across the underground lake; hearing monstrous groans in the distance; increasingly menacing ambient music.
  • Lara defeats Mathias (Tomb Raider (2013))
    Build-up: Lara and her surviving friends journey upriver; she warns them to stay and pick off anyone who tries to go after her; creeping past the ranks of Queen’s Guard to get to the ziggurat; seeing the ominous lighting and hearing screams coming from the top of the mountain.

Build-ups can be long or short, but they all aim to build tension that culminates in the explosive release of the main action sequence. You can have great fun dropping little clues and hints of what is to come. Dialogue, objects, locations, characters, and other descriptive tools can all help create a sense that something huge and important is about to take place. By the time you unleash a tyrannosaurus or throw us into plane crash, your reader should already be on the edge of their seat and itching to enjoy the fun!

Good hints need to be subtle. If Lara is stalking quietly through a seemingly-deserted tomb, then making her absently brush some dust off of her shoulder will make your reader – consciously or not – think that something else is in the chamber with her to have dislodged that dust. Don’t forget to engage all of the senses. A faint smell or barely-audible humming sound is enough to make your reader sit up and take notice because you have taken the trouble to describe it, Chekhov’s Gun-style.

Gothic doorway

In the last article we discussed the importance of pace in your description. This applies just as equally to creating effective action as it does in avoiding unnecessary descriptive waffle. In action settings, you must balance the need to talk your reader through each step (you don’t want them to wander off and get lost), against the need to keep the pace flowing briskly. This is a good place to remember our old friend, cause and effect (a.k.a stimulus and response). For every action, there needs to be some kind of reaction (though not necessarily equal and opposite!). Don’t just have a villain swing a punch and then stagger away with a bloody nose – you need to show that Lara ducked the punch and swung her foot around in a nose-breaking arc straight at her adversary’s face. Action sequences like this highlight the need for absolute clarity in your writing. If you have an effect but no cause, or a cause and no effect, then go back and restore what is missing.

Another factor governing pace in your writing is punctuation and sentence length. Try reading your work aloud, pausing at each comma and full-stop (period). In action especially, it’s important to make your words to flow as smoothly as possible, without too many bumps and pauses. It’s equally important to avoid weighing your reader down with long, unbroken passages of text. If you run out of breath before finishing a sentence, then that sentence probably needs restructuring or a comma!

Key points for Creating Action:

  • Action is concerned with all of your characters’ activities, not just Hollywood-style set-pieces.
  • Good action must be justified by the story.
  • Action set-pieces require a build-up.
  • Appreciate pace and use tight description to get the maximum impact from your action.

Image credits:

Next time – Part 6: Creating characters – part 1

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 5: Creating Action by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 4: Developing Description

In today’s tutorial, we’ll be examining:

  • Why less is more in description
  • Why it is important to be choosy about what you do and do not describe
  • How to fully immerse your reader in your fictional world
  • How to use description to slow down and speed up your story

Description is one of the most useful yet most often abused tools in writing. When used sparingly and for a specific purpose it can bring the story to life. But when it’s used too frequently and for no reason other than ‘it sounds good’, then it becomes meaningless waffle that bogs down your story.

Let’s take a closer look at four things that help craft good description:

  • Use it sparingly – less is more
  • Fulfil a specific purpose
  • Engagement with ALL of the senses
  • Awareness of pace

To illustrate these points, let’s look at an example of bad description.

Example paragraph:
Lara walked around the tomb. It was enormous and very old. The walls were purple marble, so dark it was nearly black, with brighter cartouches of jade-ish green covered in hieroglyphs painted in shades of ochre, gold, charcoal, scarlet, and lapis blue. The vaulted roof was supported by two hundred and twenty-seven pillars decorated with images of the Pharaoh, the Nile, and soldiers with chariots. Golden torches were spaced along the walls. Just then a massive monster came out of the shadows. It looked like a giant Sphinx with a big mane, a lion’s body, and huge white teeth. Lara shot it with her pistols until it died and then went into the next chamber.”

From this paragraph we know that Lara has entered a tomb, that it’s likely to be Egyptian, that it contains a Sphinx-like monster, and that Lara shoots this monster dead. However, the writing reads more like a shopping list instead of a piece of dramatic storytelling. It tells us what happens, true, but that’s it. There’s nothing else that immerses us in the narrative or stimulates our imagination. There’re no clues as to what is or is not important to the story. The only sense being engaged is sight, so it feels very one-dimensional. Let’s look at ways we can improve it!

1. With description, less is more.

Too much information – trying to describe everything – overloads the reader and suffocates the story. Instead, try to only describe certain details, i.e. the characteristics that set the subject of your description apart from everything else in the scene or story. For example, it is very taxing and annoying for a reader to try and remember every last detail about a jewelled artefact if you spend a whole page describing it down to the last faceted diamond. Be choosy and selective. Your reader will find your description easier to read and remember, but also more enjoyable because you are purposefully leaving some of the description to their own imagination. Remember: reading is an interactive experience between you and the reader. Invite the reader into your description with a few important and intriguing clues, but then allow them to explore and fill in the gaps in their own unique way.

Table 03

2. Use description to fulfil a specific purpose.

The legendary short-story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov, has many astute quotes on the subject of writing, but this one is perhaps most important to illustrating our second point:

Part 4 - Chekhov

From our example paragraph, it’s unclear what – if anything – is actually important to the plot. Is the jade-ish colour of the walls going to be a clue to a puzzle later on in the story? Or is the appearance of the Sphinx going to be pivotal to Lara’s escape? With so much description, any important stuff becomes lost in the waffle. As Chekhov says, if you take the time to introduce or describe something in your writing, then it must be for a specific reason. If there isn’t a reason for the description, then it shouldn’t be there. It’s just a waste of words.

You might be thinking that this will severely limit your descriptive potential. However, there are more valid reasons than purely plot-critical ones to include description in your stories.  For example, the dramatic principle known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’ has other, similar principles (i.e. excuses to describe things), and you will no doubt recognise these examples:

  • Red herrings: these describe something in the style of Chekhov’s gun, but lead nowhere – they’re deliberately put into the narrative to mislead the reader. These are especially popular in mysteries or thrillers.
  • Foreshadowing: hints – in dialogue, props, or actions – of events still to come.
  • Symbolism: the use of similes, metaphors, and other types of placement to enhance a character, prop, or action’s impact.

Another valid reason for using description lies in immersing the reader. Writers construct their stories purely from the written word, therefore words alone have the power to manipulate the imagination and emotions of the reader. Rich, unique, and immersive description can help you achieve this.

3. Engage with ALL of the senses and empathise with your reader.

To fully realise and accept a piece of fiction, it must fully embrace our imagination. We have already pointed out that the example paragraph felt flat because it only described what we could see. There are practically no limits to the sensations you can stimulate in your readers, but here are some examples:

  • Sights: colours, brightness, shadows, softness, harshness, patterns, symbols, writing, signs, body language, landscapes, skies, movement, stillness.
  • Sounds: loud, soft, noisy, harmonious, human speech, animal noises, machine noises, ambient sounds, invitational, warning, frightening, intriguing, sensual, annoying.
  • Textures: soft, furry, matted, damp, wet, drenched, dry, scratchy, itchy, hard, metallic, sticky, yielding, waxy, rough, smooth, glassy, silky.
  • Temperatures: warm, cool, clammy, cold, freezing, hot, burning.
  • Pains: discomfort, stabbing, aching, burning, sharp, thudding, hot, cold, itchy.
  • Motions/movement: swaying, rumbling, vibrating, quivering, shaking, up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards, rushing, falling, dizzy, turning, spinning, balancing.
  • Tastes: salty, meaty, sweet, sickly, sugary, bitter, rich, watery, acidic, melting, spicy, bland, sour, buttery, tangy.
  • Smells: fresh, stale, damp, dry, fruity, sterile, spicy, floral, woody, musky, citrus, refreshing, stinky, odorous, oily, rancid, inviting.
  • Emotions: angry, furious, irritable, snappish, embarrassed, amused, content, gleeful, hysterical, ecstatic, aroused, curious, flustered, confused, exhausted, disinterested, bored, eager, excited, nervous, scared, terrified, paralysed, numb, interested, flirtatious, giggly, determined, stubborn, humorous.
  • Hungers: peckish, craving, starving, famished, thirsty, parched.

So, the next time you have Lara carefully pick up an ancient artefact from its alcove, be sure to tell us how it feels unusually heavy, that it sends goosebumps rushing up Lara’s skin because of the sudden chill of metal against skin, that soft clanking noises hint at mechanisms hidden within its burnished golden shell, that its ruby eyes seem to flicker with inner fire, and that she feels a flush of triumph to have claimed it before anyone else. Oh, and that she’d sell her soul for a cup of tea. Raiding is thirsty work, you know!

Tea in the ruins 01

It is possible to describe things in vivid detail even during action sequences if you remember to engage all of the senses. For example:

Lara’s out-thrust hands shattered the water’s surface. Her palms scorched as though pressed against a scalding kettle. Icy darkness filled her nose, choking and absolute. She was blind and lost in cold so intense it was like a furnace against her bare skin. Tentacles like oily ropes clasped her wrists, ignoring her struggles. Torrents raged in her ears. Her screams were drowned in bubbles. Her legs kicked but her underwater captor held firm. Anger suddenly boiled in her gorge. She wouldn’t die. Not here. Not like this.”

There is specific mention of Lara being blinded and underwater, so the focus is moved to what she can feel and hear. We also choose descriptors, especially verbs, that reflect the sensations Lara is experiencing and the situation she is in: shattered, scorched, scalding, choking, clasped, raged, drowned, kicked, boiled, etc. If we had used floated, drifted, held, wriggled, or gasped instead, then this paragraph would give the reader a very different impression. We want the reader to appreciate Lara’s sense of panic and anger, and so we need to make the reader empathise with her feelings. One way to help build empathy is to pick out specific sensations that will trigger an instant and recognisable response. For example, the sensation of striking a surface so hard that it burns your palms ‘as though pressed against a scalding kettle’ is something that nearly everyone has done, albeit accidentally, at some point! This is why keeping a journal of your observations – from the colour of mists at dawn to the metallic, clean scent of fresh snow – can be a gold mine to your powers of description.

Being specific and customised to the setting or character in question, rather than vague and one-size-fits-all, will instantly lift your description and make it stand out in your reader’s mind. For example, a jungle doesn’t have to be hot when it could be sweltering; wine doesn’t have to be red when it could be crimson; and a character doesn’t have to settle for being angry when they could be raging. There is a wealth of vocabulary out there for you to exploit – so go and exploit it!

Part 4 - no limits

4. Have an awareness of pace.

Passive description is the opposite of action; it literally presses ‘pause’ on the story to show something to the reader, in greater or lesser detail. For example, if you’re writing from Lara’s point of view as she slowly and warily enters some ancient ruins for the first time, then you might want to indulge in a rich, detailed description of her surroundings. Conversely, if Lara is running from her life from a horde of skeletal tomb guardians, then it will seem awfully odd for you to spend paragraphs describing everything down to the intricate details of their bronze-enamelled armour. An awareness and appreciation of pace will help you decide the quantity, quality, and subjects of your description at any given time.

Another factor governing pace in your writing is punctuation and sentence length. Generally speaking, excessive punctuation (e.g. commas) and longer sentences slow the pace down, whereas shorter sentences and fewer punctuation marks speed it up. However, this is only a general observation; check for yourself how easily you can skim through a page of text and then judge how your reading pace was affected by the punctuation and the length of sentences. When you bear this in mind and adjust your writing style to suit the situation at hand, you can speed up or slow down the pace of your description – and the story in general – with greater confidence.

Those are the four golden rules of description. However, here are just a few more useful tips for using effective description in your stories:

  • Make use of similes and metaphors. These are essentially examples of symbolism (discussed earlier), but they also have specific forms. Similes occur in the forms: “the [something] was [something] as a [something]” OR “the [something] was like a [something]”. For example, “her eyes were as brown as hazelnuts” or “the air was like a cool caress”. Metaphors are similar to similes in that they use comparisons, but they don’t use ‘as’ or ‘like’. For example, “her eyes were flashing sapphires” or “the wind was a knife against her cheek”.
  • Keep your description appropriate. It would sound extremely silly to describe a priceless Grecian statue as ‘it looked just like that blonde chick in Game of Thrones.’’
  • Remember your research! The Mayans did not generally build their temples out of concrete breeze-blocks, and legends agree that dragons collected treasure, not trading cards. Unless you’re deliberately writing a parody or about an alternate reality then be authentic!
  • Don’t overload on adjectives – learn to love the verbs! Which is the more effective description: “Kurtis had dark, curly, gorgeous hair that made him even more handsome” OR “Kurtis grinned, flicking his unruly hair from his eyes as he leaned nonchalantly against the wall”?
  • Show – don’t tell. Don’t tell us that Lara is facing an evil villain, show us that he’s an evil villain by having him do evil and villainous things like whisper threatening dialogue, murder inept underlings, and plot to enslave the world. Don’t tell us that the escape car’s engine has failed, show us it has failed by having it make horrendous clanking noises and the exhaust fall off as soon as Lara turns the ignition key.

Key points for Developing Description:

  • Less is more. Be choosy about what, how, and why you describe things.
  • Fulfil a specific purpose. If it’s not helping your story or immersing your reader, get rid of it.
  • Engage with all of the senses and empathise with your reader.
  • Be aware of your story’s pace and adjust your description accordingly.
  • Show, don’t tell!

Chekhov’s Gun

Special thanks to Inna Vjuzhanina (, for her advice on the renders!

Image credits:


Next time – Part 5: Creating Action

Creative Commons Licence
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 4: Developing Description by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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