Tag Archives: Tomb Raider

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Hello Internet,

Today I’ll be combining two of my favourite things – the art of storytelling and Tomb Raider – by discussing Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix’s Rise of The Tomb Raider. This will hopefully be the first in a whole series of story discussions spanning the Tomb Raider franchise.

This being a writing blog, this discussion will be split into two parts that focus upon story and characterisation. I’ll barely, if at all, mention graphics or performance; there are plenty of skilled reviewers out there who can and do dissect these mechanics with far more expertise than I. Seek them out and pay due homage to their greatness.

This discussion, naturally, will involve my own personal opinions about what worked and what didn’t. For everything that I praise or dislike, I’ll make sure to explain my reasoning; this is meant to be a rational discussion, not a platform for trolling. Oh, and I won’t be including any DLC content, including Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch (for the simple reason that I haven’t got round to playing it yet).

So, let’s get started. Needless to say…

Spoiler warning banner

Part 1: Story

If you have watched the first three Indiana Jones movies, in particular The Last Crusade, then barring names and terminology, you already know the plot of Rise of The Tomb Raider. No really, I’m serious; this isn’t being catty towards the writers or exaggerating. Before I fully illustrate how these stories are virtually identical, let’s take a brief look at the plot overview.

Plot overview

Note that this overview follows the chronological, rather than gameplay, order of events.

After the trauma of Yamatai, Lara has spent a year buried in her father’s, Lord Richard Croft’s, research into ‘The Divine Source’ – a mystical artefact said to grant the power of immortality. She has become obsessed by the supernatural events she witnessed on Yamatai, especially the Sun Queen’s aborted soul-transfer ritual, and is determined to make sense of what she saw by any means necessary. Lara is convinced that by pursuing her father’s quest for the Divine Source she will understand the nature of the soul. She also hopes that her expedition will simultaneously vindicate her father’s theories, thus restoring his professional reputation, and that the Divine Source, if it exists, will help to eradicate death, suffering, and grief from the world – forever.

Lara and Jonah 01

“No pressure then, Lara…”

Lara’s research leads her to Syria, in search of The Prophet’s Tomb and more information on the whereabouts of the Divine Source. The Prophet was said to be an immortal being who lived in the Middle East during the time of the Byzantine Empire. However, the tomb turns out to be empty. Not only that, a rival group of mysterious soldiers from the organisation known only as Trinity turns up. After a brief confrontation with the soldiers’ leader, Lara manages to escape both Trinity’s agents and the collapsing tomb. Upon leaving, her attention is drawn to a symbol carved into the rock at her feet (don’t you just love life’s little coincidences?). She recognises the symbol from her father’s research, and returns to the Croft family manor to investigate the matter further.

At the manor, Jonah arrives to find Lara increasingly excited by the symbol she discovered in Syria. She shows him the same symbol in an old book about the legend of Kitezh (pronounced kit-tesh), a city said to have vanished under a lake in Siberia many hundreds of years ago. Jonah is sceptical and worried that she is falling into the same obsessive trap that claimed her father. However, Lara is attacked by a lone gunman, who steals the book and flees the manor grounds. With proof that Trinity is willing to kill for the knowledge contained in the book, Jonah agrees that Lara must be on to something, and agrees to go with her.

Lara and Jonah travel to the remote mountains of Siberia, where they become separated by an avalanche. Lara encounters the local wildlife and more of Trinity’s agents in the vicinity of an old Soviet gulag and mining facility. Lara is also confronted by a woman dressed in archaic armour – one of the valley’s natives – who demands that she leave the valley at once. Lara is eventually captured and taken prisoner by Konstantin, the leader of the Trinity incursion and the man she oh-so nearly buried under rubble in The Prophet’s Tomb. Ana, the woman who was in a relationship with Richard Croft after his wife (Lara’s mother), died, is also apparently a prisoner in the gulag. When Konstantin threatens her as a means of extracting information from Lara, Ana is revealed as a traitor working for Trinity. It is also shown that Ana is Konstantin’s sister. It transpires that Ana is dying of a wasting but unnamed disease, and Konstantin is desperate to locate the Divine Source – both to heal Ana, and to gain god-like powers with which to conquer the world. Well, there’s no faulting his ambition…

Lara manages to escape the gulag with the help of a mysterious prisoner – one of the natives of the valley, named Jacob. After making their way through the Soviets’ abandoned mine workings, they emerge into a green valley where the natives – the Remnant – make their home. The Remnant live a simple life amid the ruins that lie on the outskirts of the once-great city of Kitezh. The woman who threatened Lara earlier turns out to be called Sofia, and is Jacob’s daughter. She leads the villagers’ preparations for Trinity’s inevitable assault, and Lara does her best to assist them in the hope that, by gaining the villagers’ trust, they will tell her more about the lost city of Kitezh and the Divine Source.

Lara proves her mettle in battle when Trinity’s troops assault the village, and Jacob tells her the Divine Source, inside Kitezh, can only be found by following a map called the Atlas. The Atlas is protected and hidden deep beneath the ruined cathedral, within the Acropolis near the village where the Remnant are now taking shelter. Lara retrieves the Atlas, despite Trinity’s attempts to intervene, and she takes it up to Jacob and Jonah who are waiting in the ruined Observatory, at the top of the valley overlooking the village.

Lara deciphers the Atlas’ directions and learns that Kitezh, instead of sinking beneath the nearby lake, was actually buried beneath the glacier on the opposite side of the valley. Just then, Trinity’s troops attack the Observatory in a helicopter. They badly injure Jacob and take Jonah – carrying the Atlas – as prisoner.

Lara manages to rescue a badly-injured Jonah, but is too late to prevent Konstantin and Ana from also deciphering the Atlas. Lara returns to Jacob to discover that he has miraculously healed from his injuries. Even as she watches, Jacob heals Jonah’s wounds, saving his life. She correctly surmises that Jacob is the Immortal Prophet. Jacob tells her that he has tried to protect his loyal followers for years by keeping them ignorant of his identity, and by making sure that they all guard the secret of the Divine Source against outsiders. Jacob confesses that he used the Divine Source – a powerful but not actually divine artefact – to make his army invincible, but that the power corrupted them and slowly turned them into inhuman monsters. When the Mongol hordes attacked Kitezh, hoping to seize the Divine Source’s power, these Deathless Ones, as they became known, deliberately brought the glacier down upon the city, killing thousands of invaders and innocents alike.

Lara convinces him to show her the path into Kitezh by pointing out that Trinity will not stop until it has the Divine Source. She descends into the lost city, battling her way through the ranks of Deathless Ones, until she reaches the Chamber of Souls. Konstantin and his troops attack, but Lara overcomes them and leaves Konstantin for dead. Lara finds Ana inside, clutching the Divine Source as the Deathless Ones advance upon her. Lara has realised the awesome power of the Divine Source is too great and dangerous for anyone to possess, and tries to talk Ana into leaving with her. Jacob appears, echoing Lara’s warning. However, Ana shoots Jacob and the Deathless Ones until she runs out of ammunition. Desperate, Ana uncovers the Divine Source from its wrappings and absorbs its power. Overcome, she falls and Lara smashes the artefact. The Deathless Ones disintegrate, and a grateful Jacob crumbles into dust.

Back out on the glacier, Lara turns on Ana and demands to know what she meant at the end when she said, ‘another Croft doesn’t have to die for this’. Ana pleads hat she loved Richard Croft, and didn’t kill him despite Trinity ordering his execution. However, before Lara can learn more, a hidden sniper kills Ana but mysteriously leaves Lara unharmed.

Back at Croft manor, Lara muses that Trinity is still out there, and still trying to uncover ancient sources of power. She decides to move on from trying to vindicate her father’s theories and reputation. Instead, she will make discoveries and seek out hidden secrets – for herself.

Rise unpredictable

Rise of The Last Crusade?

Okay, so that’s the basic plot out of the way. Let’s just compare some of the individual story elements with Indiana Jones to demonstrate the similarities:

  • Mysterious, quasi-religious organisation manipulating things behind the scenes, and which is capable of providing seemingly endless soldiers and resources to send against the protagonist?
    – Nazis (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Last Crusade), Thuggee cult (Temple of Doom)
    – Trinity
  • MacGuffin that grants eternal life?
    – Holy Grail (Last Crusade)
    – Divine Source
  • Protagonist is only after the MacGuffin in the first place because of their father’s own previous research/obsession with it?
    – Indiana Jones / Dr. Jones Sr. / the Holy Grail (Last Crusade)
    – Lara Croft / Lord Richard Croft / the Divine Source
  • Ancient people sworn to defend the MacGuffin from outsiders?
    – Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword (Last Crusade)
    – The Remnant
  • Blond antagonist starts out friendly, turns out to be a traitor, and also attempts to reconcile with the protagonist at the last minute?
    – Elsa Schneider (Last Crusade)
    – Ana
  • Blond antagonist was in a relationship with the protagonist’s father, but only to further the search for the MacGuffin?
    – Elsa Schneider (Last Crusade)
    – Ana
  • MacGuffin ends up destroyed or lost due to protagonist’s own choices?
    – Holy Grail (Last Crusade)
    – Divine Source
  • An assistant to the protagonist turns out to be an immortal?
    – Grail Knight (Last Crusade)
    – Jacob/The Immortal Prophet
  • Friend to the protagonist is captured and has important information stolen from them, only to be later rescued by the protagonist?
    – Dr. Marcus with the journal (Last Crusade)
    – Jonah with the Atlas
  • Friend of the protagonist is mortally wounded, but is later healed by a supernatural power?
    – Dr. Jones Sr. (Last Crusade)
    – Jonah
  • At the climax, the protagonist must look away from the revealed artefact in order to remain safe from its power?
    – Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
    – Divine Source

And these were just the plot points and tropes it borrowed from Indiana Jones.

Now let me be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Indiana Jones movies (except for the last one, which we will pretend never happened). However, the parallels between these stories (especially The Last Crusade) and Rise are too many to be mere coincidence. Yes, Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones are both action-adventures featuring intrepid archaeologists. If you’re a fan of one franchise, then chances are you’ll also enjoy the other. But it is perfectly possible to write a story that does not reuse so many recognisable elements from its sibling  franchise. If there are one or two elements in common, then fair enough – it’s possible to do this entirely by accident when you’re dealing with the same genre. But we’re talking practically the entire plot. Rise of the Tomb Raider felt like a wasted opportunity, full of writing that never strayed far from very well-established clichés. It was this recycling of existing story elements that gave me a deep sense of disappointment when I got to the end, because there was nothing to the plot that I hadn’t seen coming from a mile away.

And that was the theme I picked up all of the way through. There was no real sense of excitement or anticipation to the story because none of the plot ‘twists’ came as any surprise whatsoever. For example, the way we were introduced to Jacob, the mysterious prisoner, Chekhov’s Rifle-style, and his ‘miraculous’ escape from the Soviet mines, was just too obvious. We knew that he was an extremely important figure amongst the Remnant, and he demonstrated above-average resilience that was, at times, downright superhuman (plus, from the moment we saw that The Prophet’s Tomb was empty, we knew the guy was bound to turn up sooner or later). Similarly, Ana’s treacherous nature was evident from the moment we first met her, when she tried to dissuade Lara from heading to Syria and used her love for Richard Croft to justify her feelings. Real friends – or villains who are better at acting – would have shown support and sympathy, rather than try to dissuade the hero from their course. It’s also a Tomb Raider cliché for blond characters to always turn out to be bad guys – just ask Sophia Leigh, Karel, Mad Tony, Natla and Amanda to name but a few.

KonstantinAnaAtlas

Blond villains – causing mayhem for Tomb Raiders since 1996 AD

 

Trinity – so secret even their clothes don’t have name tags

The main plot of Rise of the Tomb Raider was nothing we haven’t seen before, but there were a few moments when the game hinted at other story directions that could have provided more fruitful, unpredictable routes. A lot of these moments were located on the fringes of the main plot, and revolved around the organisation known only as Trinity. For example, we kept finding personal journals, addressed to an unnamed somebody, from a mysterious operative who was having second thoughts about his role in the organisation. He had apparently decided that he had enlisted with a bunch of frothing lunatics (duh…), and wanted to escape, despite his paranoia that Trinity was playing an elaborate and sadistic game merely to test his loyalty. That was intriguing. I wanted to know who he was, why he enlisted, and what happened to him. In a classic ‘what if…?’ scenario, it would have been a far more interesting twist if the prisoner whom Lara helped to escape from the gulag turned out to be this operative (possibly awaiting execution for his defection?), and the Immortal Prophet was, instead, actually working undercover within Trinity to bring it down from the inside. Heck, Trinity’s elite soldiers’ penchant for balaclavas and face-shields would have made it easy for Jacob to wander around unnoticed!

Trinity may, in time, turn out to be a very fertile device for future stories. But I can’t help feel, again, that this is recycling a very well-established trope rather than breaking new and unpredictable ground. James Bond has Spectre. Indiana Jones has the Nazis. Inspector Gadget had M.A.D. Lara Croft has Trinity (and, in the movies, the Illuminati). Never let it be said that secret organisations aren’t dedicated in their quest to save pop culture heroes from boredom.

As an aside, did anyone else think that the mysterious ‘voice of Trinity’ that was heard giving orders to Konstantin, and later over the sniper’s radio, sounded a lot like Supreme Leader Snoke from Star Wars: The Force Awakens? This character certainly fulfils exactly the same mysterious-unseen-villain-pulling-strings-behind-the-scenes cliché as the deformed holographic figure from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Even their voices are similar. Is it the ultimate aim to have a Tomb Raider-Star Wars crossover? The mind boggles…

 

Prophet motives and optional tombs

There are a number of plot points that bothered me about Rise of the Tomb Raider. The most glaring example is a three-step process revolving around Jacob “The Immortal” Prophet, and goes something like this: If I had been in Jacob’s position and wanted to keep the Divine Source a secret, I would have:

1) not created an Atlas showing its location,

2) not hidden the Atlas in the same damn valley as the Divine Source,

3) destroyed the Atlas, if it existed, and the Divine Source myself – a long, long time ago (hey, I’m immortal – I can take on the Deathless Ones without breaking a sweat).

However, if we follow these three points to their logical conclusion, then Lara would not have had a great deal to do in Rise of the Tomb Raider apart from admire the scenery and hunt some deer.

Another niggling disappointment in Rise of the Tomb Raider was that all of the tombs bar one were still optional. Yeah, yeah, I know; the tombs were bigger, better, and more beautiful than last time.  They were still too easy, but were an undeniable joy to behold in terms of sheer visual appeal (and this is pretty much my opinion of the whole game). However, apart from The Prophet’s Tomb in Syria (which we couldn’t go back to if we missed anything, dammit), none of the tombs formed an integral, narrative-driven part of the story. It would make the game a little less interesting and a little more challenging if we missed them out, but we could choose to skip them and still get to the end of the game.

Is there any way to tackle this double problem – i.e. Jacob’s odd reluctance to personally destroy the Divine Source AND the lack of integral tombs – apart from having the whole game set in interconnecting crypts? Here’s one ‘what if…?’ that might have worked:

Let’s take Jacob’s Atlas-Divine Source dilemma and say that the Atlas was split up, with each piece being buried with a trusted follower of the Immortal Prophet. This would have made it more difficult for outsiders to find the Atlas, and given the Remnant time to detect the intruders and mount a proper defence. The game already named several people who played major roles in Kitezh’s history (e.g. Aurora the Physician); on a side note, I found it annoying and tedious for the game to flash up ‘there’s a hidden tomb nearby!’ while I was casually wandering around, so removing that prompt would be a great improvement. It would have been much more interesting to make hunting for these tombs an integral part of the story; we even encounter a member of the Remnant who is willing to trade us gold coins for secret knowledge from inside these tombs! It’s a mechanic and storytelling device that almost works, but could still use some tweaking in order to really exploit the raiding aspect of Tomb Raider. The split-up Atlas idea, although it’s yet another cliché in itself, would have been a valid way to blend an integral purpose to the game’s tombs, and fix a flawed point of logic to the Atlas’ very existence.

 

Mind your language, Lara!

On a different note, it also bugged me – a lot – that the Remnant all spoke perfect English (or whatever language version of the game you happened to buy). We’re talking about people in a lost Siberian valley, whose most recent connection to the outside world came in the 1970s with the Soviet invasion. Until then, they probably spoke Greek, or Russian, or Mongolian – heck, maybe a unique variant incorporating all three! – but certainly not English. It really threw me when Sofia showed up and threatened, in flawless English, to shoot Lara if she ever saw her again. Until that moment, the landscape, level design, and collectibles had all done a great job of fixing my location firmly in the wilderness. As soon as Sofia started talking, the illusion was shattered. Colour me pedantic, but details like this really do make a difference to immersion.

However, there is an obvious and interesting ‘what if…?’ opportunity here to solve this problem, and this would have been to expand Lara’s new language-acquisition skills to the spoken word, not just the written one. How cool would it have been to enter the valley with only a shaky grasp of the Remnant’s language? Lara would have initially only been able to speak to a select few people, and/or in a limited fashion, until her language skills improved with practise. This could have functioned exactly the same way as we had been using on monoliths and carvings up to that point. The more people Lara spoke to, the more quests and missions she could accomplish, the better her understanding would become and the more quests and missions would be made available. That extra layer of realism would have given the Remnant a greater sense of identity, and the sense that we were actually exploring and getting to know a unique culture. As it stands, the Remnant in Rise look and sound more like live-action role-players acting their parts than a distinct people, and that’s a great shame.

Also, I had to check that I had actually loaded the correct game when Lara entered the lost city of Kitezh. The point where she sneaks in past the Deathless Ones is identical – right down to the scary metallic bellowing and bells tolling – to the scene where Lara sneaks past the Stormguards in the monastery in Tomb Raider 2013. I’m not just saying the scene is reminiscent – it’s a direct copy – and I’m not the only one to have spotted this comparison. This was yet another opportunity for tension and inventiveness that ended up sacrificed in favour of the easier ‘well, it worked last time’ option.

 

Part 2: Characterisation

Lara Croft

Lara herself has grown up quite a bit since Yamatai. Her earlier reluctance to enter the fray has all but burned away but, to be fair, her moral qualms about inflicting mayhem and death had already evaporated within about five seconds of her very first kill in Tomb Raider 2013. I’m not the only one to wonder about Lara’s astonishingly rapid acceptance of murder back on Yamatai, in which she essentially makes the transition from ethical devastation to ‘Yes! Run, you bastards!’ within a single encounter. Er, you go, girl…?

Lara certainly feels more comfortable and competent within the wild and dangerous environments of Rise. She has made the transition from dangerous prey to deadly predator quite well. Almost too well, it seems. For example, we get to see how deeply she is obsessed about her goals when both Ana and Jonah, respectively, try to dissuade her from embarking on adventures to Syria and Siberia. But is this single obsession, on its own, sufficient to explain her cool, casual approach to gunning down Trinity’s agents whenever they get in her way? Perhaps another ‘what if…?’ moment would have been for her to learn early-on that Trinity had played a key part in her father’s ‘suicide’. It was a powerful moment in Rise when we learned that Richard Croft had apparently taken his own life, consumed by the pressure of humiliation and professional disgrace. However, I think Lara would have had a much stronger basis for taking up his mantle if she had suspected foul play from the start. If she had had any doubts about her father’s death, if there was even a hint that he had actually been murdered because of his research, then Lara’s obsessive drive for answers would carry a lot more weight and believability. This would have given her the extra impetus of revenge, or the need to seek the truth about her father’s death, to fuel her tornado-like approach to Trinity’s soldiers that we witnessed in Rise.

Here’s why I think this is important. In Tomb Raider 2013, Lara tells us that she didn’t believe her father’s theories – that she in fact shared the popular belief that he was a little crazy. Why, then, did she become so proficient in archaeology, or go to such lengths to prove the existence of Yamatai? If she had really held a mental picture of her father as an unstable, obsessive eccentric, then it follows that she would have tried to distance herself from archaeology, rather than delve further into it. She wouldn’t have joined the Endurance crew as a junior archaeologist, and certainly wouldn’t have fought to change the ship’s course in order to prove her theory.

Another side to Lara that didn’t appear in the game was her potential PTSD from the events on Yamatai. This was strongly hinted at in the game’s announcement trailer, and my initial thoughts upon seeing this were, ‘oh great, they’re going to have Lara battling her inner demons at the same time she’s battling the elements and bad guys!’ There was a potential goldmine of emotional, moralistic, and intellectual storytelling to be mined from this. For example, we see Lara’s reaction when she suspects that somebody has been in her apartment and going through her research – and the paranoid way she almost swings an ice-axe into Ana’s head. However, in the next few moments, all of that tension evaporates, never to be seen again, in the wake of Lara’s preoccupation with Syria. She is once again consumed by the need to visit a certain place in order to vindicate her father’s theories; let potential Trinity cat-burglars be damned. The paranoia and other PTSD side-effects are forgotten for the rest of the game.

The Dark Horse comics may have explored the topic of Lara’s PTSD (I haven’t read them), but it seemed criminal to not even hint about the topic in Rise. In fact, it’s almost as though Yamatai never happened. Even the supposedly crippling loss of her father-figure replacement, Roth, never gets a mention – not even indirectly, for example with a brief shot of his photograph on her desk. This felt like yet another wasted opportunity to give the characters more believable emotional depth and motivation. Simply obsessing about a single goal does not make for a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, and Rise Lara – despite being an improvement over Lara from Yamatai – was still thinking and acting in two dimensions about just two subjects: Namely, vindicate father’s theories, and stop Trinity. She went from ‘the Divine Source will eradicate death and suffering’ in Croft manor to ‘humans need death and suffering to be human’ in the Chamber of Souls without any solid epiphany moments to explain when and why she changed her mind. This realisation probably hit home when she encountered the Deathless Ones in Kitezh, and saw that Jacob’s warning about the corrupting power of the Divine Source was true, but she must have made that critical realisation in total silence. This is doubly odd when we tally up the number of times the game decided to have her state the blindingly obvious instead (see my earlier blog entry “We need to talk about Lara…”).

 

Ana and Konstantin

Let’s consider these characters as two sides of the same antagonist coin. In my opinion, not enough attention was paid to the relationship between Ana and Konstantin. Yes, they had numerous cutscenes together, and we found several personal journals scattered all over the place, but these always boiled down to the same basic exchange (i.e. ‘Trinity can’t be trusted’, ‘just have faith’, ‘I’m dying’, and ‘this is our destiny’). At one point we learned that Ana faked Konstantin’s stigmata (and HOW exactly did she get away with this??), but if you happened to have missed picking up that particular journal, it made absolutely no sense when Lara yelled the truth at Konstantin in their final encounter. We were left wondering why did Ana do this? The implication is that she wanted her brother to believe he had a higher purpose, and this is all fine and dandy. It’s also entirely probable that the two of them were either born into or indoctrinated into Trinity at a young age, and that’s cool from the cultish angle we have been getting from Trinity. However, neither of these things explain how or why giving Konstantin stigmata would help turn him into the eyeball-popping villain we encountered in Rise.

Ana vs Lara

Another weak point to Ana’s character is that there was no genuine emotional connection between Lara and Ana prior to their crucial interrogation cutscene. It’s a cardinal rule that if you’re going to have a character turn traitor towards another later on, you need to really shine a spotlight on the closeness between them so that the betrayal has sufficient emotional impact. In the apartment cutscene, Lara treated Ana more like a casual schoolfriend than the mother-substitute she was supposed to be, and conversely, Ana never really showed any affection towards Lara. Ana’s deception would have had far more of a kick to it if, for example, the two had embraced in the apartment, or if Ana had shown concern and sympathy towards Lara’s emotional need for answers, rather than just tell her that going to Syria was madness. The moment Ana tried to talk Lara out of going to Syria, rather than reluctantly agree that she needed to find closure, was the moment I knew Ana was a bad guy – and it completely killed the suspense and emotional connection.

Taken together, Ana and Konstantin felt full of unused potential. Ana’s manipulative side could have taken on a much more sinister aspect if her acting skills had convinced us that she and Lara really cared about each other. Konstantin, in contrast, was a thug: a devout, resourceful, dangerous, and powerful thug, but still a thug. He was a weapon to be aimed at Trinity’s enemies or goals; any internal turmoil he might have suffered was held in check by straightforward, blind faith. It was for this reason that I really liked the moments when he showed his concern for Ana; they gave a hint that, underneath all that bravado and conviction, he was vulnerable and conflicted. I’d have liked to have seen more of Ana and Konstantin as children, to see the aftermath of Konstantin waking with blood pouring from his hands, and get a taste of the Trinity-led environment these two grew up in. It could be rightly argued that these kinds of details can be awkward to implement in-game, but it’s not impossible. After all, we were treated to multiple moments from Lara’s past via the magic of the ‘blow-to-the-head’ flashback trope. Showing us in this way would have, in my opinion, been far more enlightening than having multiple journal entries lying around to simply tell us.

 

Jonah

Don’t get me wrong: I think Jonah is a lovely character. He was my favourite from 2013 Tomb Raider because he was tough, competent, and had an inkling that the island wasn’t natural even when the others were boisterously denying everything. You’ve also got to hand it to someone who can make sure the hero is properly fed in the midst of a crisis.

That said, the story did not require him, especially from the avalanche in Siberia onwards. For example, when Trinity’s soldiers attacked the Observatory to get the Atlas, and ergo claim the location of the Divine Source, there was no need to capture Jonah; he had no information that the Atlas itself could not provide. Might, then, Konstantin have intended to draw Lara into a trap and interrogate her for information? This theory doesn’t hold water because he had already done that in the interrogation-reveal scene with Ana, when it was proved that Lara did not know anything of further value. There was ergo no reason whatsoever for Jonah to be captured. Jonah did not provide Lara with any new information about the Divine Source, Kitezh, the Atlas, or Trinity’s ground troops, therefore he brought nothing important plot-wise to the story by reappearing in the Remnant’s valley when he did. There was nothing unique about Jonah’s character that meant he had to be the person who was mortally wounded by Konstantin, only to be miraculously saved by Jacob. Heck, if it comes to that, Sofia, or any of the Remnant – even Lara herself! – could have been the one who was wounded and then saved, and Lara’s revelation/realisation about Jacob’s true identity would have followed exactly the same course.

It was good to have Jonah appear in Croft manor to provide the voice of reason to Lara’s obsession. A good person would point out when their friend starts to stray into dangerous territory, physically or mentally, even if it was just to warn them and show concern for their wellbeing. I’ll even buy that Jonah’s change of mind was justified, and that having him accompany Lara to Siberia was justified. However, there are two problems with having him accompany Lara to Siberia; the first is that Jonah has essentially exhausted any useful purpose by the time the avalanche occurs, and second, Lara herself says that ‘she needs to do this alone’ when they get separated. If this was Lara’s thought process, then surely she would have set out alone from the very start!

Without a valid reason to advance the plot, Jonah had no place in the story and should have been left out. Sorry, Jonah.

Jonah and Lara Croft manor

“What do you mean ‘I hate grilled fish’?!”

However, let’s have another ‘what if…?’ moment and consider how much more poignant and valid it would have been for Lara to reunite with Jonah, not in the Remnant valley, but after she had escaped Kitezh. Lara would be practically bursting with secrets and knowledge, but she would have to have known that to open up to Jonah would expose him to Trinity’s attention (not to mention the sticky subject of Ana’s murdered body out on the glacier). These situations would have created delicious internal and external character conflicts between (and within) Lara and Jonah – and conflict is what drives stories onwards. This would have crafted a more reserved, more reclusive Lara Croft who plays things closer to the chest and who assumes an air of mystery and terrible knowledge. It would also have turned Jonah into a suspicious, deeply concerned character who would either distance himself from Lara and warn others to stay out of her way, or stubbornly stick with her until she finally explained herself. Thanks, Jonah – we knew you would come in useful!

 

Summary

For me, Rise of the Tomb Raider was a definite improvement over the previous game, certainly in terms of refined gameplay and gorgeous visuals. There were plenty of ‘oh, my…’ moments when we entered a new area for the first time. Lara herself has gained an edge that was missing in the previous game, and is the better for it. The mythology and the gradual way the story unfolds through journals and locations is well realised and makes for a very entertaining experience. However, I felt that the plot and dialogue persistently chose cliché over innovation, and ignored many opportunities to strengthen or explain characters’ motives more clearly. I’m relieved that truly annoying and/or superfluous characters like Sam were ditched, but was disappointed that new characters like Ana and Konstantin were too transparent to be really compelling. For the franchise to really blossom in future incarnations, Lara needs to connect with what made her character so attractive in her earliest years. She already has the necessary field skills (and then some), but to really be worthy of the title ‘Tomb Raider’, she will also need to rediscover her dry wit, guile, and a passion for what her great-uncle, Indiana Jones, dubbed ‘fortune and glory’. A return of the twin pistols and more challenging puzzles would also be very welcome.

 

Image credits:

Lara and Jonah in Siberia: http://tombraider.wikia.com/wiki/Jonah_Maiava

Ana and Konstantin: http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Ana_%28Rise_of_the_Tomb_Raider%29

Jonah and Lara at Croft manor: http://gamesided.com/2015/11/16/exclusive-interview-earl-baylon-jonah-maiava-rise-of-the-tomb-raider/2/

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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider 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

Image credits:

http://bit.ly/1Ofwdxc

http://bit.ly/1mfFn1O

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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:

http://bit.ly/1Jll1tz

http://bit.ly/1Ogq85C

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 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:

http://bit.ly/1Obg9IV

http://bit.ly/1NyREcg

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!

References
Chekhov’s Gun

Special thanks to Inna Vjuzhanina (http://inna-vjuzhanina.deviantart.com/), for her advice on the renders!

Image credits:

http://bit.ly/1lRRaDF

http://bit.ly/1LGlgis

 

Next time – Part 5: Creating Action

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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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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 3: Hooking Your Reader

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

  • What makes a good hook and why it is important
  • How to decide where to begin your story
  • Why your endings are just as important as the beginnings

What is a ‘hook’?

The first thing a person usually does when they browse the bookshelves (or a kindle library) and spot a book they think looks interesting, is to pick it up and read the blurb or the first few lines. Unless they have purposefully and specifically set out to buy or borrow that particular title, they will normally decide within the first couple of sentences whether they are going to read the rest of the story. Not the first few pages – sentences.

Your opening lines are therefore of singular importance. You want and need those first impressions to be “I’m falling in love, all over again!” and not “I hate tombs!” if your readers are going to expend their precious time and energy reading all the way to the end.

This first impression is often called the hook because it literally ‘hooks’ the reader and draws them into turning the next page. The first thing most novice writers do when writing their stories is start off with something like:

It was a beautiful sunny day, with clouds like wisps of cotton wool. Birdsong and the sound of running water from a nearby stream filled the air. All was still and peaceful. Lara felt happy and contented.”

Lara sleeping 01

From this example, our wannabe writer of Tomb Raider fan-fiction seems to have become confused and stared writing a yoga meditation exercise instead. While the actual words aren’t bad per say, as the introduction to a story they’re lulling us to sleep instead of hooking our attention! It’s pure description, with nothing actually happening and no questions being raised to pique our interest. A good hook is designed to grab your readers’ attention and make them interested enough to keep on reading. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s asking a lot of people to expect them to read through an entire story. The situation becomes nigh-on impossible if you begin your stories with too much tedious, dull description. The answer is to identify the story’s hook and put it right at the beginning. You can always fill in explanations later. It’s your job to grab your readers’ attention right from the start!

So what makes a good hook? Beginning your stories in the middle of death-defying action scenes certainly puts us right in the middle of the excitement. However, this approach can get very predictable and stale. A subtler and more effective way of creating a hook is to make the reader ask questions. For example, these are the opening sentences from my novelisation of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness:

A creature dreamed fitfully, tossing and mumbling in its sleep. Perhaps it had slept since the world began, and the dreams were all that remained of its memories. Perhaps it died long ago. If asked, it would not be able to say. It would blink and stare and wail, gnashing its rotting teeth, cursing and snarling. It was man-shaped beneath its bindings, but no one in their right mind would class the creature as human. Not any more.

The reader is instantly drawn into asking questions: What is this ‘creature’, and why is sleeping? Why is its sleep so disturbed? Why is it ‘bound’, and why is it unable or unwilling to speak? The ‘not any more’ and the remark about memories suggests that it has been in this state for a period of time – but how long? These sentences don’t just describe what the creature looks like, but what it is doing and would potentially do. Actions, not just a static description, give us a better sense that this creature is unstable and possibly dangerous. There is a sense of menace and of dark, disturbing mystery that instantly tells the reader what kind of story this is going to be (we can probably agree that it’s not going to feature fluffy bunny rabbits or twinkly unicorns).

Here are some more examples of story openings. Spot which ones make you ask questions, and which ones are purely descriptive:

  • “It was a cold morning and Lara was at home at Croft Manor.”
  • “The man leaned closer and whispered, “If you accept, we’ll make sure you’re paid double.””
  • ”Lara was happy as she walked through the jungle, wearing her customary aqua tank top and brown shorts.”
  • “The engines coughed, jolting Lara awake as the intercom buzzed, “Uh… Miss Croft? We have a… ah, slight problem…””

Choosing where to start – narrative versus plot

You might think that digging straight into the writing would be at the top of your ‘to-do’ list after you’ve finished outlining your plot. After all, you know what your story is about – don’t you? Unfortunately for anyone in a rush, there is still a lot of thinking and planning to complete before you can dive headlong into writing your prose.

As we mentioned in the last tutorial, your plot is just the summary of your story, written as a linear sequence of events linked by cause and effect. Your narrative, however, is the plan of how you will unfold and present the story to the reader from a narrator or narrators’ viewpoint. You need to spend some time planning your narrative after you’ve sketched out your basic plot. Your narrative is what will ultimately decide the beginning, middle, and end of your story.

Suppose we wanted to write a classic Tomb Raider story in which Lara sets out to find a lost artefact, is beset by obstacles and enemies, and finally returns home with her prize. The plot is fairly predictable, so you might choose to present your narrative with an opening like this:

The silver-topped cane thumped every other step as Lara approached the cabinet, wincing only slightly. Her reflection in the golden talisman broke into a tight, satisfied smile.

Clearly, this is taking place after Lara has retrieved an artefact (and by the sounds of it she’s gone through quite a lot of punishment to get it!). This opening shows Lara doing something, and invites the reader to ask questions about the situation – the two golden rules of story openings. However, it also shows that the narrative is going to have a retrospective style; it will show the reader what has happened, rather than what is happening, with the end result – a triumphant Lara admiring her prize – as the opening scene. It’s difficult to generate tension on Lara’s behalf with this approach (after all, we know in advance that Lara survives whatever ordeals get thrown at her!). But having a narrative that loops back on itself – and even pops back and forth from Lara telling the story to Lara living the story – can be fun to write and interesting to read. This is just one example of how the narrative can differ from the plot. It also shows us why it is important to plan your narrative before you even write the first line. It’s up to you to decide where and how to begin your story, but make sure your hook is right at the start and is juicy enough to whet your reader’s appetite for more.

Part 3 - hooks

Sometimes writers like to have a prologue ahead of the story’s opening chapter. A prologue is simply an introductory scene that comes before the first chapter. It can be a convenient way for your narrative to build tension, set the tone of the story before the action starts, or foreshadow future events. However, some writers find that these get in the way and spoil the story’s momentum. Simply put, it’s up to you and your story whether you include one or not.

Beginnings and endings

So far this tutorial has been concerning itself with identifying the hook and putting it in the opening sentences or paragraphs. But the endings of scenes, chapters, and complete stories are just as important. The ending of a scene or chapter needs to do two things: 1) it must, to some extent, resolve what has happened in that scene or chapter, and 2) it must make the reader want to continue reading to find out what happens next. There is also the option of having an epilogue, which can sometimes provide the closure that the actual climax of your story might not manage on its own.

Cliff-hangers are the classic example (or cliché) of how to hook the reader with an ending. Our hero finds themselves in a situation that seems impossible to resolve or escape. Cliff-hangers are commonly action-orientated, but they can also be subtle. Good ending hooks, like their opening counterparts, also make the reader ask questions. Compare the opening and closing lines from these two chapters (again taken from my novel Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness):

Opening line: “There were a hundred reasons why I didn’t want to come to Paris.
Questions:

  • Who is the narrator?
  • Why didn’t they want to come to Paris?
  • They obviously are in Paris at this moment (hence the use of ’come’ instead of ‘go’), so what has driven them to overcome their inhibitions?
  • Where was the narrator before, i.e. where have they travelled from to get to Paris?

Closing line: “ There was nothing I could do but run.”
Questions:

  • Where did the narrator run to?
  • Will the narrator reach their destination?

Opening line: “The woman hurried, ten minutes late for her meeting.
Questions:

  • Who is this woman?
  • Where is this meeting taking place?
  • Why is she late?
  • Why is she hurrying?

Closing line: “She could only smile, and nod, and pray her secret remained hidden.”
Questions:

  • Why can she only smile and nod?
  • What is her secret?
  • Why is she praying that her secret stays hidden?
  • Who is she keeping this secret from?

Your endings should always leave your characters with unfinished business. If Lara has managed to retrieve the Golden Sceptre of Quetzalcoatl in one scene, she should still have to face the dangerous escape in the next. Last-minute clues to salvation are juicy alternatives to cliff-hangers, but don’t be tempted to reveal too much at the ending; save the explanations and answers for the next chapter!

Lara and the Ankh 01

Key points for Hooking your Reader:

  • You must hook your reader from the very first sentence.
  • Effective hooks make the reader ask questions.
  • The narrative will usually dictate where your story starts, rather than the plot
  • Endings can often serve as hooks for the next chapter or scene.

Image credits:

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Next time – Part 4: Developing Description

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 3: Hooking Your Reader by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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