The SolAARium: Discuss the craft of writing - Alphabetical Index in the 1st Post

Lord Durham

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The SolAARium will remain open for now. Please post only topics that refer to the fundamental rules of the thread. That is, discussing the craft of writing as it pertains to AARs and associate subjects.

Please, no posts on 'what should I do with my country next' and similar material. That's what feedback on your AAR thread is for.

All spam posts will be deleted.
 
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I sorta have well this burning question that has been eating away at me for some time. Do you view your works as AARs, or are they something more, like novels or historical scenerios played out through a charade as a game? Sort of a real work in AAR clothing. Also, does this affect the style and writing of your pieces? Any thoughts as to whether this affects the craft or writing?
 

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Well I most certainly consider my work more of story telling than actual AARing, and have no problems with not using the real game happenings.. that is esp. true in my HoI AAR..

However in my EU2 one I strive to use at least the overall actions in the story.. what armies are raised, defeated, winning, what provnces taken and so on.. mind you I am still on the first generation of rulers, so I may not continue doing that :D

V
 

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The answer to your question depends on "when" you are asking it.

If the year is 2001-2002, I'm just writing an AAR to "dress up" a cool game I played or illustrate gameplay styles and methods. That's how I started with it, and indeed I think many of us from way back then got our start in that direction. My AARs in this vien included such works as Icy Star Acendent (A modded EU1 game, where the Kalmar Union rampaged across Europe and enslaved Scandinavia), Waxing Moon Over Iberia (A Portugese AAR for EU1), and Grandfather's notes on Rulership (Burgundy EU2, lots of warmongering to illustrate some early problems with the original EU2 prior to patch 1.02).

In February 2002, I started the lengthy and ongoing Noble Lives. Phase 1 of Noble Lives involved using game events and data to inspire storytelling. The key of Phase 1 was to force myself to write about certain events, whether or not they made sense in the EU universe and whether I liked them or not. This was good writing exercise and a lot of fun. It was also still primarily game focused, with a complex (at least, at the time I thought it was complex) story wrapped around it.

Phase 1 ended right before Isabella joined the story. Phase 2 was a shift to emphasizing story elements. Specifically, with Isabella, I set out to do significant character developement with one person, using my foreknowledge of events in the game to foreshadow and shape the character in question. It was also a way to force myself to write about something that is very difficult: women. Yes, writing a story with a character of the opposite gender as the protagonist was something I decided I needed some work on.

The unanticipated success of Isabella showed me that there was a great future in focusing on story rather than gameplay. Phase 2 was ended with Isabella's death and the assumption of the throne by Juan. Phase 3 began with attempts at experiments with different styles of writing and different types of characters. Utilizing stuff I was learning in school, I started using plots and writing techniques in a variety of ways to see what I could accomplish and what would actually work in this mode of writing. At this point, the game has taken a complete backseat to the writing. I skip what I don't want to write about, and will spend months writing about something minor. For example, the colonization of Louga, a simple colony becoming a city, took months to write, but there was nothing special about it all. Just colonists being sent, and the status upgrading to a full city. There was not even a native revolt or COT forming. On the other hand, I skipped minor wars, diplomatic flare ups, and missionaries converting the heathen populace.

Phase 3 is still ongoing. In fact, I can't really go back since the notes for my game are gone. I am writing a story based on just my memory of the game now. (The implications of this I'll leave to anyone who wants to comment on them.) My future plans, once the current story is completed, are to take one more stab at doing something unusual, then see whether I want to keep writing Noble Lives, or declare it officially closed.

One thing I thought about doing long ago, but I no longer worry about, is whether or not I could rewrite parts of Noble Lives and turn it into a novel. I've decided that Noble Lives, for me, serves a more important purpose. It is my practice for writing; it is also my sounding board for criticism. If I ever do decide to write a novel, I won't use Noble Lives (or probably anything else I'll write here); rather, I will use my practice here to write something good on the "outside" of the forum.

One thing I always keep in mind is that the average citizen of these boards is better educated than ones you might find elsewhere. They also have a wide variety of backgrounds. This gives you an interesting cross-section of potential audiences to write for, and they are often clever enough to catch on to smart things you do in your writing. If you don't believe me, go back and look at pages 17-30 of Noble Lives. The discussions demonstrate the value of criticism here (even if we are just writing AARs).
 

Lord Durham

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Based on my recent short story and the less than desireable (read: Hatchet) job written by an on-line reviewer, I have asked the venerable Secret Master to run point on a series of discussions which I'll leave to his imagination and guidance.

However, I have a couple of items I wish to include, at his discretion.

1) What is the difference between a critiquer and a reviewer?

2) What constitutes a review. Are there established guidelines to follow?

3) What moral and ethical boundries should reviewers follow (if any?)

4) At what point does a reviewer cross the line so it becomes personal?


Please note that I review books over at Swordandsorcery.org , and I have my own set of standards. These may differ from criteria posted here. I state this only because I'm not here to judge or influence, but to gather differing opinions.

For background, please read 'The Catacombs of Dharwataqan' if you wish. The link to the reviewer's website (Tangent Online) and other sundry comments can be found in the thread titled Published: Second Story.

If we can generate decent buzz and feedback, it will be a solid step toward intitiating other endeavours for AARland.
 

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A robed figure in Orthodox garb and with a pendant symbolizing a large pyramid with an eye in it steps into the SolAARium. While LD is busy speaking, the figure produces a broom from the folds of his robe and begins to tidy up the place a bit. Within minutes, the cobwebs are gone and the lights are working. Satisfied that conspiracies may continue unhindered within the walls of the SolAARium, he puts the broom away and sits in the comfy chair which has awaited him.

It seems LD beat me to the punch; however, that’s just fine, since he’s the one who gets to be under scrutiny for the next discussion or so. :)


The discussion I would like to propose involves two different things. First, I would like all of us to address LDs questions regarding reviews. Now, we’ve actually done reviews of ourselves here on this forum according to our own standards (many moons ago) so this is not something completely foreign to our own experience. Answer his questions with all due consideration, but I would ask that you read the stories in question and read the review in question. Otherwise, you can't tell LD what a naughty writer he's been for using twleve Deus Ex Machinas in a single story and suggest improvements.

I would also like to say that you should feel free agree with the review on any point. I’m sure it won’t hurt LD’s feelings, especially if you can give a good solid reason why. I would like this to remain as objective as possible and not just be a round of “Bah! She don’t know what she’s talking about” with no productive comments.

Second, I will add my own set of questions which are closely related to this discussion, even if they don’t appear to be so at first. When answering my set of questions, I would ask that you separate them from your answers to LD’s questions (if possible; if you find your answers inexorably intertwined, then that’s fine, but you will have told me a useful tidbit of information in so doing).

1) What type of story first comes to mind when you hear something described as “fantasy”? (Note: I’m not looking for an author here. I’m talking plot devices, setting types, and character archetypes.)

2) What sorts of RPGs and RPG elements come to mind when you think of fantasy?

3) Do you think that fantasy and science fiction are overlapping genres?

4) Magic: Deus Ex Machina, McGuffin, or boring?

Well, have at it, folks. And remember, the Secret Master is recording everything so as to report to his superiors :) .
 

Sir Humphrey

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In responce to LD in being objective and so far impartial:
1) Most likely a critiquer has set out to make bad a piece, no matter what the content. A reviewer on tht other hand can make an informed judgement upon the piece and review it according to their standards (which could go either way).

2) It depends of you are working for a group (ie a magazine, online site) that have certain aspects that will appeal/repel certain interest groups that the Mag or site ios trying to aim for. Or for certain aspects not to be to stressed upon or to hevaily relied upon for judgement.

3) None. Review the work for what it is according to a)your reactions and position, experiences etc of it and any elements from Question 2.

4) No point. A reviewer, if so established as one (see question 1) can take the review as far as he/she likes in expressing her opinions about the piece. If they feel neccessary to rip through it like a puppy at a paper bag, then in most cases there is some substance to it, having said that, its natural for some people to have different reactions to others, I myself have read and heard vastly different opinions about the same thing from different sources, and all had sound reasoning.
 

stnylan

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Answering LD's questions first, here are my thoughts

1) What is the difference between a critiquer and a reviewer?
Unlike Sir Humphrey I do not think a critiquer has anything particularly to do with their reaction to a work. In my mind a critique is really an examination of the work. A review is more an opinion on a work. However, the division is blurred so reviews will include bits of critique (the review in question fits this category in my mind - it is essentially a rant with a few specious pieces of evidence thrown in). Likewise critiques are going to be in some parts reviews, the critiquer will be biased negatively or favourably towards either the whole of the work concerned, or more likely to various aspects of it. Personally I think critiquers should be as open and honest about these biases as possible, on the basis objectivity is a load of codswallop.

2) What constitutes a review. Are there established guidelines to follow?
I guess the short answer is no. However, saying that I think decent reviewers probably do have a checklist of some sort. The reason I say that is comparing some of the AAR reviews I did for the Gazette, when I was following a format, and some little reviews I did on my blog when I didn't. From the perspective of the person who wrote it, I found my Gazette reviews to be far better pieces of work than my blog reviews.

3) What moral and ethical boundries should reviewers follow (if any?)
As I already intimated in response to question 1), be honest about where you are coming from on the work/aspect of work that you are addressing. Also, remember that ultimately the review is just a personal opinion. Others may well disagree. Tastes differ. One man's meat is another man's poison. Within that, say nothing that you would not be happy to hear about your own writing. If you do really dislike something, that's fine.

From a purely practical point of view most hatchet jobs just make the hatcheter look like a first class prat.

4) At what point does a reviewer cross the line so it becomes personal?
When people start questioning someone's general intelligence, character, lineage, legitimacy, and so on.
 

stnylan

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Now, I was going to reply to the guy in the funny robes, but as I was writing I ran into a problem that is causing me a good deal of thought. That question is:

What is the difference between a fantasy story, and a story that is fantastical?
 

Director

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Hmmm. When in doubt, go to the dictionary. (Sets aside Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Devil's Dictionary, the Improbable Bestiary, the Index to the Index of the Encyclopedia Galactica and the 'Necronomicon for Dummies'. Congratulates himself again for being listed in all of them. Puts them back and turns to Google).

Review - an essay or article that gives a critical evaluation; a variety show with topical sketches and songs and dancing and comedians (I know where I fit in this...); a summary that repeats the substance of a longer discussion; appraise critically

Critique - an essay or article that gives a critical evaluation; a serious examination and judgment of something; appraise critically

Definitions extracted from die.net dictionary


The definitions are close enough for us to say the terms are essentially interchangeable. Yet I note that under critique it says a serious examination and judgement, and I'll take my cue from that.

A review is a means to aquaint potential readers with something that may or may not be of interest to them. The reviewer does not have to be disinterested but does have an obligation to make his/her preferences known. The emphasis should be on describing elements that might be of interest or serve as a warning flag.

Example: "This is a piece that lovers of sword-and-sorcery fiction would probably enjoy. Personally that genre does not appeal to me but the piece is well-written. Some adult content for violence."

Here in the forum I think we have always tried to review AARs in the sense of bringing worthy material to the attention of readers who may not have known of it. We have avoided the critique in the sense of a serious discussion of the author's ability and/or choices.

For me, a critique is more what I would expect from a writing teacher or an editor, a (possibly painful) highlighting of perceived weaknesses in grammar, style, verbosity, character development, plot and other technical areas. A critique only becomes personal if it is intended (or taken) that way, but because a critique must contain criticism where a review need not, a critique is more likely to sting.

Example: "This is another in a long series of similar pieces by Author X, who does not seem to realize that space opera died with EE 'Doc' Smith and the laws of physics are not optional. The plot devices are hackneyed, the characters are little more cardboard cut-outs and the dialog lifted from Japanese Anime. Bad Japanese Anime. In short, typical of this author." No doubt that this is personal!


Fantasy is any fictional construct that does not depend on the laws of physics and scientific facts as we know them. That's my definition, now lets look up the formal reference.

Fantasy: imagination unrestricted by reality; something many people believe that is false.

Fantastical: existing in fancy only; ludicrously odd

Fantasy and science fiction can overlap; faster-than-light drives for example are fantasy unless they can be grounded in science. But they do not have to overlap; you can divide all of fiction into fantasy and science fiction since the latter is supposed to be based on physics and reality as we know it. In practice, science fiction authors are usually allowed some extrapolation or even a whopper or two ('Beam me up, Scotty!') as long as he/she doesn't descend into utter bafflegab ('Whizzle the frammistat, man! We can cross-connect the nano-collectors to the solar tap with our quark psionic powers!')

I find the usual treatments of magic somewhat boring, frankly. Rick Cook's 'Wizardry' series is good, as are Randall Garrett's 'Lord Darcy' stories. Magic and science could imaginably co-exist (Modesitt's 'Recluse' novels). I am always more interested in how people cope with their problems and use their tools than from what those particular tools are made. All-powerful mages get rapidly tiresome, as does the genius inventor who always has a deus ex machina up his sleeve.

Generally I have a sour reaction to commercial fantasy. Too little imagination, too much repetition, too many sequels. Take one part contrived Tolkienesque quest, add orcs, magicians, and lots of dragons. Garnish with elves or faeries in season. Pour over a mighty-thewed barbarian warrior in a loincloth and sword, drop in a princess with a metallic double-D bra and let stew...

Good fantasy is GOOD in the sense that good WRITING is good. Bad science fiction is just as cliched and wretched, I think. But it is almost impossible to publish a fantasy novel unless you rip off Tolkien, dote on dragons or slum with vampires. (Hmmm. Blood-sucking Dragons of Middling Earth... that'll sell for sure! Count Dracula the Dragon-Lord in the Quest for Styron's Ring... that's a winner. I'm on to something here! Maybe Sham Spade, Vampire: A Dragon-Hunter in Elfland! Wow! Gonad the Dragon-Riding Barbarian Meets Aragorn the Lich-King! Hmmmm. Not unless I can sell it as a script; maybe it would go as the 'undiscovered' fourth installment of LotR?) It is equally almost impossible to get a science-fiction novel accepted by a publisher unless you have a movie tie-in and write down - far, far down - to the readers.

My hyperbole aside, there is nothing wrong with using basic story elements and simple, tried-and-true plots. Coz1 and I were talking about this the other day in reference to his 'Into the West' (which is the first and only alternate-history Western I know of). Simple premise, basic plot with some nice trimming, familiar elements and settings. But it works because the characters are well drawn, the scenes are visual, the writing is good and the situation is compelling.

Good writing works - I'd read Asimov if he rewrote the phone book (he did once, I swear). Mediocre writing needs bells and whistles (are you listening Ann Rice and Dan Brown?); bad writing just copies and desecrates.
 
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Storey

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1) What is the difference between a critiquer and a reviewer?

Not having the impressive array of dictionaries that Director has I will have to create my own definition. To start with the lines between the two are indeed blurred. A reviewer is writing primarily for the potential audience for the story not the author. He/she gives the reader an idea about what the story is about gives an opinion on the quality for the writing and an over all opinion on if it is worth reading, etc. A critiquer is writing primarily for the author. How to improve the story’s mechanics, grammar, spelling, out of place word selection, plot line, believability of the characters etc. The readers can also learn about the story from a critique and if they want to read it but it is really aimed at the author

2) What constitutes a review. Are there established guidelines to follow?

A review is an opinion. That's right just an opinion. It may be an intelligent opinion or not but it is still a review. The only guildlines for a review is that it must inform the reader about the topic in question.

3) What moral and ethical boundries should reviewers follow (if any?)

Honesty. Honesty to the audience about your motives and opinions.


4) At what point does a reviewer cross the line so it becomes personal?

Whenever you cannot be objective.

For example this guy LD wrote a novel and I can't stand the ass because he wouldn't by me a beer last night at the tavern. So I reviewed his book and noticed a tiny discrepancy in the plot and wrote. "There are so many gapping holes in LD's story that I could drive an eighteen-wheeler through it without scrapping the mud flaps." Now the reader wouldn't know but that would be a personal attack. That's why I don't just rely on one review of a book. But if I ‘honestly’ believed that an airhead blond bimbo who’s been sniffing too many bottles of fingernail polish could come up with a better ending to a murder mystery I’d say so and it wouldn’t be personal. See the difference? :D

Joe
 

Rensslaer

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stnylan said:
What is the difference between a fantasy story, and a story that is fantastical?

Good to be running into you, again, Stnylan!

Going in a completely different direction from Director (i.e. completely undirected!?), I submit...

Isn't any story that isn't true a fantasy story, or sorts? Whereas a story may be fantasy (i.e. make believe) but not fantastical (i.e. it retains some elements of reality and the real world).

Rensslaer
 

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Well, if you want to split hairs, any story that isn't true is 'fiction', not fantasy. The Sherlock Holmes stories (the Canon) are fiction. Despite Conan Doyle's noted credulity and passion for the supernatural, there is nothing fantastic about the Great Detective.
 

stnylan

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When I first thought about the "what is fantasy?" question it was very simple: magic. I suppose in some respects that's a very simple one word that basically covers the same ground as Director's dictionary definition. I can't think of a single novel widely classed as fantasy where there is not some magic, be it in the form of wizards/druids/shamans et al or in the form of various magical creatures or races such as elves, dwarfs, trolls, unicorns, centaurs, and the like. Sometimes this is more blatant, and sometimes it is deep background. In some cases it might well be classed as science disguised for the benefit of the natives. The whole aspect of alternative worlds and so on to some degree then becomes moot.

The whole fantasy/fantastical aspect came out when I started to consider plots. When you think about fantasy plots tend to be fantastical. When freed of the constraints of the real world the author can get away with murder, so long as they stay within the constraints of the new reality they have chosen. Truth is stranger than fiction, but in history there is a scarcity of farmhands saving the world through undiscovered martial/magical skills. No such scarcity exists in fantasy.

This business about fanstical plots is, I think, the first place where fantasy as science-fiction overlap. Science fiction also exists within realities different from our own, whether it be "hard" sci-fi or not. The second place, relating more to "softer" sci-fis, is in magic. After all, psi-powers are just magic by another name. The most common difference, though I have seen this breached a number of ways, is that sci-fi usually takes place in some kind of futuristic tech whereas fantasy seems to like a hodgepodge of eras, a Homeric to modern-day Pic'n'Mix.

As for the wider question of magic it all depends on the setting the author has chosen. If magic is used consistent with that setting it becomes "natural". If not and it sticks out like a sore thumb then it's a DEM at best, and boring at worst.

As for RPG, at the core of every role-playing game I was ever a part of either as a player of referee was a story. Indeed, the best ones were where a story was more evident and not simply a series of unconnected adventures. RPGs though are strongly related to fantasy/sci-fi, and how can they not be? Many after all are designed for very specific settings, and many of the elements of RPG are either lifted directly from the setting being immediately portrayed, or for games that do not relate to any particular famous setting they are naturally inspired by similar ones. Certainly there is a lot of basic ‘hack n slash’ roleplaying, but equally there is an awful lots of dull writing too. Roleplaying at its best can be inspirational and informing, just like a good book. But since at the core of any RPG adventure/campaign is a story it is, in my opinion, essentially no different from reading a book. So really, for me, the question is slightly odd because it seems to supposes a difference between RPG and writing I do not see.
 

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Danger! Verbosity Alert! Set all phasers to “deflate text.” Cast your “read arcane silliness” spells. And if you have cybernetic enhancements, get your wet drives and Times Square Plus ready to inferface.


First, let me reply to LD.

1) I will go with Storey and Director on this one. They are basically the same; however, in common usage, one thinks of a review as intended for an audience, while a critique is only intended for the author. In most other respects, they will contain the same sorts of information.

2) The only universal guideline to follow with a review is that the reviewer attempt to be objective; however, reviews are not written in a vacuum. They are written for specific audiences and under the guiding hand of whatever the publisher wants. A reviewer writing a review of Book X for the Huntsville Times may have radically different guidelines than Tangent Online. As such, it is incumbent upon the reviewer to imply or explicitly state what those guidelines are (not necessarily in the article, but somewhere readily accessible). This ensures that you know what you’re getting into with a particular review. This also allows authors to discount reviews that don’t matter to them. For example, an author could get a story reviewed by both Maxim magazine and by the Oprah Book Club. Well, Maxim’s reviewer might like the story, but Oprah might hate it. They might both have good arguments, but if the author is generally anti-Oprah, then the author probably doesn’t care that the average Oprah devotee won’t like the story.

3) Ethics? Moral Boundaries? A Secret Master craves not these… :)

Seriously, there are few ethics questions when it comes to reviews. The most important is that honesty be maintained. This doesn’t just mean being honest about ones opinion. It may also be as important as not misquoting/making up anything about the piece, or doing something similar with regards to the author. Such behavior is inappropriate, but I would be surprised to see it occur in any reputable publication. A secondary consideration would be that the reviewer refrain from engaging in logically fallacious reasoning in the review. Personal attacks (for the sake of being personal) are particularly inappropriate, as are attempts to grade a story by intentionally using the wrong criteria. (It is, however, reasonable to make personal attacks after having concluded that the work in question is terrible. It is also rather mean, but not fallacious.)

4) I hate to say it, but since literature, like all art, involves human interaction at a deeply personal level, almost any review of said literature is bound to be personal; as such, your question is stupid and lowbrow and I refuse to answer it…

However, now that I have deliberately misconstrued what you have said LD, I’ll go one to discuss what makes something personal.

What I just wrote could be an example of something malicious if I really know what LD is talking about in his question. By misconstruing it, and then making LD seem like a simpleton, and by publishing it, I am making indirect personal attacks on his character. What makes a review, or elements of review, personal? It becomes personal when the focus shifts from the story to the author. Period. Any good reviewer is going to spend 99% of the time talking about the piece, not the author. Note that being personal works both ways. You can make personal attacks, or you can make personal atta-boys. Both work against the legitimacy of a review. (i.e. if Oprah reviewed LD’s story, and spent an hour discussing what a great guy he is, then she is not doing a good review of the story because she is too personal in her review)

In response to Director:

Good fantasy is GOOD in the sense that good WRITING is good. Bad science fiction is just as cliched and wretched, I think….
Good writing works - I'd read Asimov if he rewrote the phone book

I agree completely, although I’d want Asimov to flesh out the story arc of the phonebook a bit before publishing. :)

You bring up a point that is often forgotten, whether around here or elsewhere. In most cases, a setting only gives us a flavor for the writing, not the quality of it. You can sit three authors down to write three fantasy novels (or science fiction, or AARs about Burgundy) and the quality will not be determined by the setting. It will be determined by each author’s ability to write well. Now, this is not to say that any author can write any kind of fiction well. Some folks are better suited to writing a particular brand of fiction than others. I hesitate to think of how badly Tolkien would write, say, a William Gibson cyberpunk epic. Does this make Tolkien a bad author? Nope. It just means that’s not his style. For a homework exercise, try imagining the greatest authors of history writing each other’s works. (i.e. Milton writing Bleak House or Shakespeare writing The Divine Comedy)

In response to stnylan:

What is the difference between a fantasy story, and a story that is fantastical?

Aha! You took the bait. And I agree with a lot you have to say about plots and whatnot.

One thing that I subscribe to in my analysis of fiction is that a story is a fantasy by virtue of its structure, not its setting.

A setting can be Fantastical, but the structure of a story can only be a Fantasy. Let me explain.

Setting is, of course, nothing more than the reality inhabited by your characters. The setting/reality might include dragons, cyborgs, bitchy mother-in-laws, Super Wal-Mart, a virtual reality Net, sorceresses, steam powered robots, sexy vampires, or even polytheistic gods walking among mortals. Some of these elements of setting are commonly found in Fantasy stories, but, with the exception of mother-in-laws and Super Wal-Mart, they are all fantastic elements. That is, they are outside the actual reality we inhabit. Yet, the mere presence of dragons, sorceresses, and polytheistic gods walking among mortals does not constitute a Fantasy story. They could, for example, be a part of a Homerian epic or a Greek tragedy. In fact, dragons, sorceresses, and polytheistic gods can be found in either the Illiad, the Odyssey, or the play Medea, none of which are fantasy stories. As such, we may say that these elements of setting are fantastical.

A fantasy, on the other hand, requires a certain plot structure. You should have a morally upright protagonist who is heroic, who comes from modest or lower means, who is dragged unwittingly into earth shattering events that shape the fate of the larger world. The protagonist might have a mentor who is both wise and powerful; yet the mentor, for whatever reason, cannot shape the events of the world like the protagonist. A rite of passage must be undertaken and completed, which equips/prepares the protagonist for the epic struggle. The antagonist must be moderately or completely evil, and his/her/its plans must include evil to be inflicted upon a large scale. The villain must also have some sort of invulnerability or superpower that makes him/her/it difficult to destroy. Through either strength or guile, the protagonist defeats various henchmen, allied evils, or third-party evils, and faces down the antagonist. With strength or guile, the protagonist either personally dispatches the antagonist or, in some cases, renders him/her/it vulnerable to the predations of others. After a final, large scale, battle, victory is had by the protagonist and his friends. The protagonist is rewarded with gold, jewels, enlightenment, land, magic powers, or whatever else is appropriate in scale. The protagonist then lives happily ever after, until the next time he must do battle with evil.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It’s the plot structure to The Hobbit, LOtR, and Star Wars (just to name a precious few). I know, I know, some of you might be thinking “But Star Wars isn’t a fantasy. It’s science fiction/space opera.” Hmm, let’s put George Lucas to the test, then, and see if he scores high on the “fantasy story” criterion.

Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope

It is a dark time for the Rebellion… yada, yada, yada.

Our protagonist is Luke Skywalker. He is a simple farmer on some backwater planet. He can expect very little or anything exciting to happen in his life until two droids show up. Thanks to their interference, Luke is forced onto the path of the hero. The evil Darth Vader has his family killed, in addition to killing a lot of people in scenes prior to this, setting him up as the antagonist. With the aid of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke sets out to save the galaxy. A premature encounter with the Death Star causes him to lose his mentor, but he grows up and becomes stronger as a result. Luke makes contact with the Rebel Alliance and they hatch a scheme to destroy the invulnerable Death Star. If they do not, the Death Star will be used to kill billions of people. Because Luke managed to save the droids, he has given the Alliance the keys to defeating the Death Star. In a frenzied battle in space, Luke draws upon his mentor’s teachings to destroy the Death Star and defeat the evil Darth Vader. After doing so, Luke is a bona fide hero and he earns prestige and status as his reward. He lives happily ever after, until the sequel comes out.


Perhaps it doesn’t get a perfect score, but it scores very high, and never once did I mention light sabers or The Force. Neither of these elements make Star Wars a high fantasy story (though they are fun). It’s all in the structure.

Now, for maximum fun, let’s try the reverse. I’m going to radically change the setting for The Hobbit, and let’s see if it still makes the grade. I will remove all the fantastical elements from it and make it as mundane as possible.

The Hobbit: A high fantasy tale

Bilbo Baggins is a short, chubby suburbanite living in the suburbs of Hobbiton. He lives a quiet life, working in a cubicle by day and eating extravagant meals at night. One day, he meets up with the mysterious Mr. Gandalf. Mr. Gandalf wears a black suit, with a black tie and white shirt. He wears black sunglasses, and seems to know quite a bit about Bilbo. He has no visible means of support, yet he is known to wander around the city, often stopping in the suburb of Hobbiton. Mr. Gandalf asks for Bilbo’s help. It seems a group of indigenous people, known as Dwarves, are trying to retake their ancestral homeland, known in their native tongue as “The Lonely Mountain”. The problem is that the notorious crime lord Smaug “The Dragon” uses their land to manufacture and deal drugs. They need his help, since the citizens of Hobbiton are well known for being crafty, witty, and sneaky (though not malicious). Bilbo refuses to help at first, but when Mr. Gandalf invites the Dwarves over to Bilbo’s house anyway, Bilbo gets carried along a wonderful adventure.

Along the road to The Lonely Mountain, Bilbo and the Dwarves visit Elrond and other rich tycoons in the Rivendel section of town. They must also pass through the street gang infested, burned out tenements known as the Misty Mountains, where the Goblin gang almost kills them. Bilbo, through “Hobbit Trickery,” also manages to steal a camouflage sneak suit, that makes him virtually invisible, from the notorious crack head Gollum. At various times during the adventure, Mr. Gandalf appears to lend aid or advice, yet he always goes his own way shortly thereafter (probably on errands for his nameless government agency). Upon arriving at The Lonely Mountain, Bilbo sneaks into the headquarters of “The Dragon” and sees all of his ill-gotten possessions. Smaug has a high tech security system, which allows him to detect Bilbo’s presence, though not see him. Bilbo engages the crime lord in a dialog, and the vanity of Smaug is such that he inadvertently reveals the weak spot in his personal body armor, which heretofore has made him immune to assassination. Bilbo reveals this information to the Dwarves, but Smaug has become angry and is going on a killing spree in and around his neighborhood. The local beat cop Bard, acting on Bilbo’s information, shoots Smaug through the weak spot in his body armor, ending his reign of terror.

All is not over, though, because with the death of the crime lord, other unsavory groups such as the Goblins and the Orcs want to take over the turf. A gangland style war ensues, which ultimately results in the defeat of the Orcs and Goblins. Bilbo takes his share of the crime lord’s wealth and retires back to Hobbiton to write a best selling novel…

That is, until the darker aspects of the sneak suit become evident in his psychology and physiology, resulting in a new story involving Bilbo’s nephew and the fight of the Free World against Communism.


It’s still a fantasy story, but the magic, elves, and dragons are replaced by greedy drug lords, rich tycoons, and high tech items that would almost be believable.


Stnylan, you said something else that I wanted to comment on:

So really, for me, the question is slightly odd because it seems to supposes a difference between RPG and writing I do not see.

I would agree with you; however, many do not. Case in point: the reviewer of LD’s story drew a comparison between LD’s story and D&D. It was an unfavorable comparison, meant to disparage his writing. Yet, I could not help but think “Gee, all of the best RPGs are based on genres of literature.” D&D is supposed to allow you to role play stories along the lines of high fantasy. Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse are storytelling games based on romantic vampire fiction and tribal legends, respectively. Cyberpunk 2020 let’s you role play Bruce Sterling or William Gibson types of stories.

Personally, I have no idea if LD even knows what an RPG is, much less having played D&D specifically. (I suspect he has some RPG experience, but what kind is open to speculation.) Yet, if such elements are present in his writing, we shouldn’t ask whether or not it feels like D&D. We should instead ask if such elements work for the story in question.


Whew, that was a long rant. And I even cut some stuff out. Feel free to review, I mean critique, any part of this. :)
 

stnylan

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Mmm, interesting SM. You seem to be saying, and please correct if I have misunderstood, that you do not consider stories in alternative settings that do not follow a dominant quest-type plot to be truly fantasy. I naturally recognise that the quest-plot is the stereotypical plot in fantasy literature, but there are others. How would you class stories in a fantastical setting - magic, dragons, elves, and so on - that bear a closer relation to a war stories? That is not a trick question, since I would consider those stories to be equally part of the fantasy genre as the question stories. The same would be true of novels more concentrated on intrigue. Certainly that is the way they are stacked on the shelf. Is there a dearth of accepted terminology to accurately describe the various sorts of stories?

I have to say those, in relation to your list of themes in the plot, I think the bit about moderate/lower means to be only a tendency. There are quite a few quest-type novels where the protagonist is very much a noble.
 

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stnylan said:
Mmm, interesting SM. You seem to be saying, and please correct if I have misunderstood, that you do not consider stories in alternative settings that do not follow a dominant quest-type plot to be truly fantasy.

That is correct. This is something on which I differ with the way we typically categorize books on the shelf.

...recognise that the quest-plot is the stereotypical plot in fantasy literature, but there are others. How would you class stories in a fantastical setting - magic, dragons, elves, and so on - that bear a closer relation to a war stories? That is not a trick question, since I would consider those stories to be equally part of the fantasy genre as the question stories.

I'd consider them war stories. Depending on some stylistic elements, they could be historically formatted war stories (i.e. they are almost written like a History Channel documentary, except there's all these fantastic elements) or they may be more like the classic epic, sans the poetry (i.e. the Illiad and whatnot).

The same would be true of novels more concentrated on intrigue. Certainly that is the way they are stacked on the shelf. Is there a dearth of accepted terminology to accurately describe the various sorts of stories?

There is quite a bit of terminology to describe such things; however, I don't like much of it. :)

To clarify, my rant was postulating my own way of looking at fantasy (one which I think is supported by enough scholars to indicate that I'm not a quack). Most Barnes & Noble folks would categorize anything with wizards as fantasy. I think they are wrong, as I have attmepted to illustrate.

Before I rant a bit further, I would like to point out that the bigger a story is (that is, the wider in scope it is, the more subplots it has, etc.), the greater chance of it being more than one kind of story. The Lord of the Rings is an example of both a fantasy story and a war story. The fantasy elements involve Frodo's quest to destroy the ring, while Aragorn and company's story is all about a war. The fact that the war includes Orcs and Eagles and Nazgul is far less important than the fact that it is a war in a similar scope to World War II (i.e. the war consumes most of the known world. See the appendix in Return of the King and read about what happened elsewhere in Middle Earth while the war was being fought against Sauron).

What this means is that you may often have several different types of stories coexisting with one another. It gets even more interesting when you have a framed narrative, and suddenly a story that seems like one thing turns out to be another. This is what makes the greatest writers truly great: they can weave such things together in creative and brilliant ways.

Now, on to the rant...

The situation we have with genre is that it most of the time we categorize by setting. This is how you get all the novels with elves and dragons in the same part of the bookstore; this makes it easier to sell books since most people in America think in terms of setting first, plot second, and character third. I, however, categorize them by their plot structure first, character second, and setting last. Why? Because a romantic comedy is a romantic comedy, no matter whether it is set in Seattle or Rivendell. Both will cause me to yawn and scratch in various crude ways and be generally uninterested in the book (or movie, or play, or whatever else it is). The fact that 99% of romantic comedies do not include fantastic elements does not change the fact that you get one every once in awhile, or you get a romantic comedy subplot in a story that is otherwise a Tolkien rip-off.

Let me give an example of a writer who is consistently miscategorized: Terry Pratchett. Despite the presence of elves, dwarves, witches, wizards, castles, magic, wands, mind control, gods of various types, vampires, flying broomsticks, an anthropomoriphic Death, a horse that can teleport to anywhere in time or space, magic weapons, a talking raven, thieves guilds, ghosts, and martial arts experts who can bend time with but a thought, Pratchett is not writing fantasy. His writing most closely resembles lampoon, parody, and satire. The fact that his setting includes this rather impossible laundry list of fantasy elements is what enables him to write his side-splitting humor. What's even more interesting is that he is often satirizing us, not the fantasy writers from whom he is borrowing. His parodies are also sometimes parodies of either classic fairy tales (Witches Abroad) or writers such as Shakespeare (Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies).

And yet, he is to be found on the fantasy aisle at the bookstore. This is a shrewd marketing move on either his part or his publisher, because someone used to reading self-help books and Oprah specials would be put off by the fantastical elements in his writing (their loss, I might add), as opposed to someone who's read the lastest sword and sorcery novel.

As another example, Harry Potter has been classified as fantasy as well. Yet, you'll find the plot is much closer to a combination of the epic with the English Boarding School types of novels from the 19th century. Let's face it, an English boarding school with witches, wizards, and magic wands is more or less still a boarding school (albiet a bit more exciting).

I have to say those, in relation to your list of themes in the plot, I think the bit about moderate/lower means to be only a tendency. There are quite a few quest-type novels where the protagonist is very much a noble.


Most of the things I mentioned can be interchanged to make things a bit different. As you mentioned, the protagonist could be high born. Or the great evil might not be a faceless evil and instead be something a bit more personal and multi-faceted. Sometimes the actual quest is exchanged from something a bit more immediate (i.e. "they" are coming to kill the protagonist for unknown, at the beginning at least, reasons). The key, as those early 20th century scholars whom I'm borrowing from would point out, is that you have a basic structure for a story with room to wiggle. Put another way, the archetypes are there, with stories being graded against them. Sometimes the story is nearly perfectly in tune with the archetype, other times it swaps one story element for another.

What's even more interesting is that story archetypes tend to cross cultural and temporal boundaries.
 

Storey

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Just curious SM have you, or for that matter anyone else out there, read
"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr.?
Although it was written in 1918 it's still one of the best how to books on the mechanics of writing.

Joe
 

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Strunk & White's (I think) 'Elements of Style' is a great handbook for writers.


I agree that you can define fantasy as a type of plot if you wish. It just doesn't seem a useful definition to me, so I suspect I have gone off the rails of logic (not my first trip to this location) and missed your point.

If you boil it all down far enough, aren't almost all - dare I say 'all' - plots concerned with a quest of some sort? (For a thought-provoking piece from Robert Silverberg, look here.)

As best I can see, your definition of fantasy would fit a large number of works that I don't consider to be fantasy at all and omit a large number that I do. if you accept Silverberg's idea that all plots are variations of a single theme, then are all works fantasy or are none?

I must place myself in the camp that defines fantasy by the ingredients used, not the shape of the cake-pan you pour them into. (Drat, now I'm getting hungry.) I just don't see how a story set in contemporary suburban Ohio, for example, with mundane characters and conventional plants, animals, houses, automobiles and so forth could be considered a fantasy regardless of the plot. If you label it fantasy I expect to encounter some trace of something outside the normal, something not really explicable by science-as-we-think-we-know-it.


I agree that the bigger the work, the more likely it is to contain many different types of story. This richness of texture is one reason why authors seem drawn to longer works. Not only do you have more room for character development and epic events but you can stack plots and interweave storylines (and types). Richness isn't always better, but who doesn't like an occasional piece of fudge? (Drat, now I am hungry.)

I'm going for a snack to go with this food-for-thought. :)
 

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Storey said:
Just curious ... or for that matter anyone else out there, read
"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr.?

I keep meaning to pick it up. I've heard so many good things about it.

Storey, you also mentioned another book once in my AAR: Webster's Guide to Writing or something like that?

All: What books or guides have you found especially useful in learning the craft of writing? Personally I'd point to 'On Writing' by Stephen King, which is part autobiography and part crash course in how a productive writer performs and what challenges they face. There was another book called 'If You Want to Write' written by a writing teacher in the 1930s which focused on practicing every chance you get and concentrating on saying what's 'in your heart' - polishing can come later. (Actually she suggested polishing and editing was somewhat optional and potentially even stifling, but it's obviously important.)
 
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