Narrative Transport. The official Michael Pryor website.
  • Writing
  • June7th

    Indiana: THERE’S A BIG SNAKE IN THE PLANE, JOCK!
    Jock: Oh, that’s just my pet snake Reggie!
    Indiana: I HATE SNAKES, JOCK! I HATE ‘EM!
    Jock: Come on! Show a little backbone, will ya!

    In the classic movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, after Indiana Jones’s death-defying encounters after he loots the golden idol, dodges poison darts, avoids the giant rolling stone ball, flees from angry locals and a nasty rival archaeologist, this exchange in the plane that provides his escape is welcome bit of comic relief. Indiana Jones, afraid of snakes? After all those heroics he’s upset at a harmless python giving him a cuddle? He has a weakness after all! How human!

    Yes, it’s comic relief and it’s perfect timing after the breathlessness of the helter-skelter opening but it’s also a magnificent example of a very useful writing tool, that of Foreshadowing.

    Foreshadowing is the art of dropping in something early in a story that turns out to be important later. Done well, it’s immensely satisfying for the reader/viewer, especially the ones who’ve been paying close attention and can feel rewarded for their efforts. And if they haven’t, it’s an ‘Oh, yeah!’ moment as the connection clicks. It’s a useful technique, and one well worth adding to your Writer’s Toolbox.

    In Raiders of the Lost Ark the rewarding moment comes much, much later, when Indy and Salah have found the Well of Souls, the keeping place of the Ark of the Covenant. Once they uncover the way into the Well, Salah is puzzled by the way the floor far below is moving. Indy tosses in a burning torch and glumly says, ‘Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?’

    Imagine if those lines were said without the earlier scene. Having to wade among deadly snakes is no picnic, but because it’s been established that Indy has a particular fear of snakes the ante has been upped. He has to face a special, personal, challenging – possibly disabling – fear and so the scene has even more tension than it would otherwise have had.

    Indy could have peered into the Well of Souls and simply said. ‘I have a lifelong fear of snakes, Salah’ which would have served, but the cleverness of the foreshadowing technique is much more subtle, much more artful, much more adroit.

    We see foreshadowing all the time in books, TV and movies, but it’s often heavy-handed. For no obvious reason, the camera lingers on that piece of jewellery, basically announcing that it’s going to be stolen later, and at the same time the soundtrack rises to draw your attention to it. A big neon sign – invisible to the characters but clear to the audience – may as well be blaring ‘Pay Attention to This!’

    How does Raiders of the Lost Ark avoid this ham-fisted approach? The secret is that Indy’s fear of snakes is revealed in a scene that has its own integrity in the context of the narrative. There’s a reasonable rationale for him to state this fear in the context of the scene – he’s discovered a big snake crawling into his lap! At first, it looks like it’s another trap/challenge/danger he has to overcome in order to escape with his life, on top of the aforementioned crushing stone balls, poison darts, spiders, bottomless pits and so on, but that’s turned on its head by the revelation that it’s a pet and we laugh – and we remember.

    Foreshadowing is a useful and potentially impressive writing technique, but like all writing tools it can be implemented well or it can be implemented poorly.

    When the object/person/situation is first introduced to your narrative, give it a rationale in the context of the scene, a reason for it to appear above and beyond ‘It’s going to be important later on’. This way, the reader is likely to accept it as integral part of that moment in the story and not see it as an obvious ploy, shoehorned in just so it can play a part later in the story. When it does appear again, the reader will be both surprised and delighted.

  • July24th

    When you think about it, we writers spend an awful lot of time trying to make our stories convincing. On one level we want to convince you that our stories are worth reading and, even better, worth spending good money on or worth borrowing from a library.

    Professional convincers

    But it’s more than that. When we’re writing, we’re hard at work trying to convince you that our characters are credible, that our plots are compelling, that our settings have the sort of verisimilitude that lets you step easily into the events we’re unfolding in front of you. Of course, this whole business of convincing can be even more challenging for we writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where we have to work extra hard to convince you to go along with a whole world that is often vastly different from our here and now.

    The techniques we use so that our stories are convincing are legion, but I’d like to point out one that is extremely useful and often overlooked both by novice writers and those who are experienced. I call it the Reaction Shot, borrowing from the world of cinema.

    We’ve all seen the moment in the movie when something dramatic happens – the bridge blows up, the train crashes, someone delivers a heartbreaking speech. And every director worth her salt then cuts away when this moment ends to those who are nearby, for their reactions. It can be entirely visual – facial expressions, movements of various sorts, gestures – or it could be verbal – screams, cheers, noises of affirmation or denial. The reaction underlines the dramatic event but it also emphasises that the event is real, because of course a dramatic event would inspire responses from those nearby, whether they’re bystanders or intimately involved.

    shocked crowd

    When we’re writing, too often we forget this important moment. We get bound up in the events, the happenings, the moments of drama – emotional or action – and after these heightened moments we forget to pause, draw breath, and dwell just a little on the reactions of those involved. Show these reactions, let the reader experience them, and the dramatic moment is emphasised, made more meaningful, and more convincing.

    Think cinematically and make sure you include Reaction Shots after your wonderful moments of drama. Your writing will be more convincing and far better off if you do.

  • June30th

    One crafty technique that should be part of every writer’s toolbox is using foibles, quirks and mannerisms in your characterisation. You should do this for two very good reasons:

    1. They individualise your characters. All humans have foibles, quirks and mannerisms. They’re the minor and unconscious ways we do things, from the way we walk to the way we talk to the way we eat our food. Allocate a handful of these to each of your characters in incidental description, and instantly they’re more realistic, more human, more convincing.
    2. They can create a Moment of Recognition™. As a writer, we’re all aiming to engage our readers. One of the most subtle – but most powerful – methods is when a reader recognises something in one of your characters that is like someone they’ve seen, or like someone they know or – best of all – just like themselves. Dropping in well detailed foibles, quirks and mannerisms is a useful way of providing opportunities for those Moments of Recognition™ that help your reader develop a deep and enduring engagement with your story.

    For example, consider someone who cannot finish drinking something without adding a satisfied ‘Ahh!’. We all know, or have seen someone like that. If your character – major or minor – displays this foible/quirk/mannerism, it instantly individualises them (because this character is the only one in your story who displays this FQM) and creates a potential Moment of Recognition™. Achievement unlocked.

    As a writer, you should practise observing people, noticing these tiny aspects of our behaviour, then collect them and roll them out to make your characters more realistic, more individual and, with luck, create that wonderful moment of recognition hook for your readers.

  • August3rd

    I keep a compendium of sentences that I like both for inspiration and for the sheer pleasure of reading them again and again. What gets a sentence onto my list? A number of reasons. A neat turn of phrase. An unusual construction. An arresting use of punctuation. A thousand other things.

    Here are a few Fantasy and Science Fiction favourites I’ve gathered over the years, and I’ve glossed them with the reasons for their inclusion on my list.

     

    ‘On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colours.’ Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld.

    This is the opening of the book and it’s Jack Vance in full baroque mode. Sly, spiky, complex and mannered in an utterly distinctive way. Nice use of the colon, too, for which he gets extra marks.

     

    ‘Bright bloomed the morning, and debts were settled beneath it.’ Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light.

    Almost the opposite of the Vance example, Zelazny goes the economical route in this chapter opener. I love the way he plays with word order (‘Bright bloomed the morning’ instead of the more customary ‘The morning bloomed bright’) and then he crushes the clichéd description of daybreak with a hammer blow. The way the sentence finishes is so far from where it started that it takes your breath away.

     

    ‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.’ Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness.

    Never use a strong, unusual word like ‘profound’ twice close together! And certainly never in the same sentence! Except if you’re in serene control like Ursula le Guin was with this one. It’s almost musing (‘after all’) and is profound in its own right.

     

    ‘Atop that, yet more crisp-cut stone towering higher and higher as if men competed with the gods who had thrown up the great rock the whole edifice stood upon.’ Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion.

    Lovely scene setting. Bujold takes her time with this sentence, a lesson for all writers. She doesn’t hurry, and brings it home with a simile that not only a winner, but by its mention of gods it hints at mysteries, vistas and back story that efficiently adds texture to the narrative.

     

    ‘Driving east on the Santa Monica Freeway in the pre-dawn darkness, the moon long since set and the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles standing up off to his left like the smouldering posts of some god’s burned-down house, Crane had been seized with the idea of just staying eastbound on the Pomona Freeway, and all the way out past Ontario and Mira Loma to where it joined with the 15 in one of those weird, semi-desert suburbs with names like Norco and Loma Linda, and then straight on up to Las Vegas.’ Tim Powers, the Last Call.

    How can you make a description of a humdrum world resonate with otherness? This is how. Pop in a disconcerting simile (‘like the smouldering posts of some god’s burned-down house’), use strong verbs (‘had been seized’) and then the world becomes ominous, uncanny, even threatening.

     

    ‘Readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.’ Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

    This is a sentence built around rhythm, using repetition for an effect bordering on the sonorous. Three is the magic number, and using a word three times is like casting a spell.

     

    ‘Heidi’s room looked like the aftermath of a not-very-successful airplane bombing.’ William Gibson, Zero History.

    Sometimes you just nail a metaphor. I can imagine that after writing that one, WG sat back with a small smile on his face.

     

    ‘Joe felt the familiar exultation, the epinephrine flame that burned away doubt and confusion and left only a pure, clear, colourless vapor of rage.’ Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

    Rhythm again. Hear the drumbeats of ‘pure, clear, colourless vapor of rage’? Hammer blows building, echoing Joe’s boiling fury. Add to that the startling image of rage as ‘the epinephrine flame’ and we have a sentence to savour again and again.

     

    ‘True peace required the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict.’ N.K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon.

    A neat antithesis, a sentence balanced around the comma which gives it a neat impetus. We read the first part and we know that something is coming either to turn this around or to emphasise it. Clean, cadenced, punchy.

     

    A well-crafted sentence is a thing of beauty, and something all writers strive for. Some succeed.

  • December9th

    Some time ago, I was in a room of thirty or so YA writers, editors and other industry people when one writer declared, ‘I know you’ll all agree with me that what makes a good book is a chance for us all to have a massive cry.’ She was rewarded with enthusiastic acclamation and high fives all around – except for me. I was sitting there gobsmacked. Not just by the statement, but by the total and uncritical acceptance of it.

    I understand the pleasure that comes from emotional release like that. So did the Ancient Greeks, and they called it ‘catharsis’. Somewhere along the way, though, the serious nobs forgot that Aristotle et al fully understood that catharsis can come from tragedy or comedy. The purging, the emotional release that comes in those moments of heightened feeling can come from an uproarious laugh as much as it can come from weeping.

    The trouble is, there appears to be a false equation in the ranks of book people. That is, serious subject matter = a text to be taken seriously = a valuable and worthwhile text.

    I call bullshit on that.

    The converse, and generally accepted view, is that books that inspire laughter are lightweight, trivial, not to be taken seriously – therefore not valued. The accepted view appears to be that there’s nothing to be learned from laughter and lifting of spirits and that books that explore defeat and disaster are more worthy than books that end with triumph.

    This stance is standard in literature circles, and YA literature isn’t free of it.

    Bart Simpson once said ‘Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.’ Too easy, in other words. Want to try something difficult? Try writing something that makes readers laugh, that lifts them up, that gets them seeing that the world isn’t thoroughly black, crushing and defeated. If it’s a choice of outlooks between the nihilistic and defeatist Rick Sanchez and the effervescent optimism of Joy from Inside Out, I know which one I’d choose.

    ‘But the world isn’t like that!’ I hear you say. ‘The world is full of despair and crime and horror and so books that reflect that are more true!’ Again, I call bullshit on that. The world is not full of darkness. Darkness is there, but so is hope, love, laughter, mistaken identities, puns, and triumph. An unrelieved rollout of texts that solely concentrate on the darker side of life is a fundamentally dishonest representation of life because, let’s face it, typical everyday lives are far more likely to contain laughter than death.

    So what’s going on here? Why are books full of darkness and despair anointed as more worthy than those that are full of comedy and wit? Why is there a view that ‘resolutions that provide uplift do not necessarily reflect the complexities of life’? It’s simply a matter of siding with convention, I suspect – and, perhaps, a lack of knowledge and understanding of the alternative. For instance, I defy anyone not to see the labyrinthine complexities of life explored, uproariously, in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, with its pointed and insightful commentary on bureaucracy, greed, family relationships, technology and human frailty. Gut-busting, erudite, poignant, eye-opening, dazzling and trenchant all at the same time, it’s an examination of the human condition that leaves you with a smile on your face instead of being crushed.

    Which is apparently not a good thing.

    Perhaps there’s some sort of snobbery at the bottom of it (bottom – heh). Is comedy seen as coarse and common, while other aspects of humanity such as suffering and misery are loftier? Of course comedy has fart jokes, but it can be so much more than that – even if a well timed fart joke is a side splitter.

    I implore you, don’t neglect funny books. I maintain that the best of them are just as important, just as valuable and just as insightful as the best of other books, the ones more traditionally deemed as worthy.

    And, of course, ‘worthy’ ends up as being a synonym for ‘acceptable to study’.

    Some advice here, though. Please, don’t do the reluctant and half-hearted thing and tentatively step into comedy via earnest dark comedies, those already awarded the status of ‘nearly suitable for inclusion in a serious person’s reading list’. Most of them are dire and unlikely to get you laughing out loud. They’re often dealing with a serious subject and using ham-fisted comedy to make a point.

    Spare me.

    Instead, go for something without pretensions. Look for books that are genuinely trying to make you laugh, the wild, the off-beat, the outré and the bizarre. The skill involved in writing this is extraordinary, and the craft is thoroughly worth analysing and appreciating. It could be outright farce, it could be black comedy, it could be satire, it could be parody, it could be romantic comedy, whatever. Look at the writer’s technique in creating the moments of laughter, and you’ll find it’s as rewarding as looking at any downward character spiral.

    Explore the great comic characters, too. What makes them so memorable – and it’s not always because they’re fools or that they’re a clown that cries. Look at Bertie Wooster, look at Harry Flashman, look at Mia Thermopolis. Why do they make us laugh so much? Why are they so memorable? Why do they get us returning to re-read their exploits again and again, even if we know every punchline?

    And, above all, look at Terry Pratchett. Profound, humane, moving and very, very funny. He makes you laugh, and we need more laughter in this world, after all, not more crying.

    Addendum

    Look, I know and accept that a book can make us cry and make us laugh. That’s not the point of my essay above, so let’s not get into that topic right now, okay? Another time, maybe.

  • September13th

    • Don’t place your Forest of Terror right next door to your Mountains of Doom alongside your Chasm of Eternal Fear. You can have too much of a good thing.
    • Remember: rivers flow from the mountains to the sea, not the other way around. Tempting though it may be to have water running uphill, the laws of hydrodynamics are fairly well understood and if broken, will have unfortunate consequences for urban sewerage and waste water disposal.
    • Weather happens.
    • Never try to have a capital of the Evil Empire of Doom without a Z, K or X in the name. It just doesn’t work.
    • The Web of Life is really tricky in fantasyland. Dragons as your top-level predator play hell with the food chain.
    • Never put anything interesting in the middle of your fantasyland. If your map goes to two pages, you can lose important stuff in the gutter …
    • Cities are where they are for three reasons: protection, trade routes and ‘lost in the mists of time’, which is always handy.
  • February16th

    music notes small

    I like listening to and reading about other writers. I find the process of writing fascinating, and I find the multitude of different approaches empowering. There is no single magical formula for writing. There are a million ways to do it and to do it well.

    Take the business of music while writing. I’ve asked many writers about their aural habits while writing, and the responses are truly varied. Some insist on absolute silence. Some will allow birdsong and other natural noises but nothing else. Some fill the room with heavy metal mayhem until the dust shakes down from the ceiling.

    Me? I can have music, but I prefer it to be music without words. Words, even sung words, can intrude too much, especially if I’m writing dialogue. So instrumental music is fine, classical music can be good, but my favourite is movie music. Film scores can be sensational for nudging the right mood along. Vangelis’s ‘Bladerunner’ soundtrack is excellent if I’m in a futuristic world. ‘Lord of the Rings’ is perfect if I’m doing a battle scene. Erich Korngold’s score for ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ or the Indiana Jones march are terrific for those ‘let’s go adventuring’ moments, while if I’m after epic grandeur, I love Maurice Jarre’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Spooky, creepy moments? Try Bernard Hermann’s ‘Vertigo’ or (if you’re up to it) ‘Psycho’. Romance? I love Max Steiner’s lushness. ‘Casablanca’ is an all time favourite, but when I find I’m thinking of Ingrid Bergman instead of what I’m meant to be writing, I know I need to change the playlist.

     

  • September19th

    fantasyland5

    If you’ve ever looked at our world with discontent, unhappiness or a feeling of ‘I could do better than that!’ then fantasy writing is for you. In a lifetime of reading Fantasy and half a lifetime writing it, I’ve compiled a number of hints, tips and techniques for novice world-builders. And since I’m not loathe to offer advice, here’s a pick of the best of them.

    • Don’t place your Forest of Terror right next door to your Mountains of Doom alongside your Chasm of Eternal Fear. You can have too much of a good thing.
    • Remember: rivers flow from the mountains to the sea, not the other way around. Tempting though it may be to have water running uphill, the laws of hydrodynamics are fairly well understood and if broken, will have unfortunate consequences for urban sewerage and waste water disposal.
    • Weather happens.
    • Never try to have a capital of the Evil Empire of Doom without a Z, K or X in the name. It just doesn’t work.
    • The Web of Life is really tricky in imaginary worlds. Dragons as your top-level predator play hell with the food chain.
    • Never put anything interesting in the middle of your imaginary world. If your map goes to two pages, you can lose really interesting things in the gutter.
    • Cities are where they are for three reasons: protection, trade routes and ‘lost in the mists of time’. Always handy.
    • ‘Wetlands’ is a more congenial name for ‘swamp’.
    • There’s no reason why the north has to be cold and the south hot. Such an approach is Northern Hemisphere-centric.
    • Remember: you have to stop map-making sometime and start writing.
  • August13th

     

    One of the other hats I wear is as co-publisher of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In a recent editorial, I wanted to let the writers out there know what we’re looking for. It turned into a statement of principles, the criteria by which we select stories for inclusion.

    Here it is again, for your interest.

    At Aurealis, we want to see:

    1. Good writing. By this, we mean more than a simple facility with written English. Even though this is important, it should be a given, a basic expectation of any submission. Rather, we enjoy apposite language, sentences with flexibility and rhythm, dialogue that is alive with character and intonation, complexity of construction and stark simplicity used in the right times and places.
    2. This is hard to define, and has much to do with Point 1, above. Your story should sound individual and alive through its narrative point of view.
    3. Your main character should be engaging. That’s it in a nutshell. Of course, there are a million different ways to make your main character engaging. You just have to choose the right one and implement it deftly.
    4. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your central premise needs to be wildly new, although this is desirable. A fresh take on a well-established concept is good. Quirky, idiosyncratic characters are also useful in upping your originality quotient.
    5. Be economical with your story.
    6. Quick movement into the heart of the story. We are a short story journal, which means you don’t have unlimited space to work with. This can be a challenge in Fantasy and SF, where world-building and background detail is important, but do your best. Don’t linger too long in the set-up. You’ll lose us.
    7. Hard SF. We don’t get enough of these sort of stories.
    8. Humour – but it has to be really
    9. Think about your characters. Are you making unwarranted assumptions about dominant cultures? Are you overlooking possibilities?
    10. The X Factor. It could be freshness, it could be the unexpected, it could be something shocking, it could be something that makes us grin or wince or sit up straight after the first paragraph. We can’t tell you what the X factor is, exactly, but we know it when we see it. Including it is a good thing.
  • July1st

    jfk

    I’ve nominated a bunch of top Alternative History books here. But how does one go about writing in this challenging, but alluring, sub-genre?

    Alternative Histories are where the writer changes something in our past and imagines what difference it would make t0 the now divergent timeline. For example, because of the gold rush, Australia in the 1880s was the richest country in the world. But the gold ran out. What if it didn’t? What if today Australia was the richest, most powerful country in the world, dominating politically, economically, technologically, and in the media? What sort of a world would it be?

    It’s like dropping a stone into a pond and watching the ripples spread. With Alternative  Histories, the longer ago the event was, the further the ripples spread and the more impact they have. Imagine, for instance, if Cleopatra’s navy had defeated the Romans at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC? We could be living in a world where Egypt is the superpower! What would living in an Egyptian world be like?

    A good Alternative  History looks at the implications of a historical change, but without sacrificing narrative and character. In fact, the changed circumstances can provide a fertile ground for exploring such aspects of story. How would a person behave in a world where the Reformation and Enlightenment didn’t happen, and where religious conformity is paramount? What would be the large-scale, society wide differences? What would be the more intimate, personal differences? In such, narrative grows.

    Here are a few scenarios for you to play around with. What would today’s world be like if these changes had happened?

    1. The east coast of Australia isn’t settled by the British. It’s settled/invaded by the French. Or Chinese. Or a variety of settlers/invaders.
    2. Early in European settlement, a treaty was signed with the indigenous people.
    3. A major Australian political or social figure was assassinated.
    4. Massive Saudi sized oilfields are discovered in Central Australia.
    5. Rabbits weren’t liberated near Geelong in 1859.

    Have fun!

    Bonus: here are a few more top notch Alternative History books. Click on the covers for Wikipedia descriptions.

    Wikipedia descriptions here: The Peshawar Lancers, Romanitas, Without Warning.
    Bonus bonus: Alternative History or Alternate History? Both abound out there in netland, but I’ve gone with Alternative as, strictly, Alternate is used to describe two things taking turn about. Alternative History suggests more than two options, which I like.