Tuesday, March 25, 2014

16 Plot Holes and Idiot Balls

Disclaimer: The point of this post is not to trash "Destiny of the Wulf". It is to serve as an example of plot holes in general. A number of readers disagree with me and that's okay.

TvTropes defines "Plot Hole" as "gaps in a story where things happen without a logical reason". They can be deliberate or accidental but in both cases they can damage the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. These sorts of things include events that don't follow a logical cause-and-effect transition path, characters whose motives and actions don't make sense for their own characterization and worlds that don't work according to their own internal logic. If a work seeks to be taken seriously but has numerous plot holes than it will be mocked instead.

Tvtropes defines "Idiot Ball" as "A moment where a character's stupidity fuels an episode, or a small plot line."
It is a bout of temporary stupidity that is enforced upon a character by their writer so that the writer can direct the plot in the way they want.  This trope is so commonly used and appears in so many ways that it has a long list of subtropes; from poor communication to forgetting about inconvenient superpowers to sudden relationship conflicts.

Idiot Balls are one of the things I look for when I review a book. I can't stand them because they damage the integrity of the book; the event is unnatural and so the events it spawns are unnatural and as a result I can't take them seriously. Characterization also suffers it sets back development and turns them into plot props instead of true characters. If I don't see one of these, the worst I'll score your book is a C-.

This post will focus on last book I reviewed: Destiny of the Wulf by Harrison Davies. (You can read that review here) and the categories I will use are 1.) Bad Leadership, 2.) Because Destiny Says So. 3.) Bad Security and 4.) General idiocy.

WARNING! This list will cover the book from start to finish. If you don't want spoilers, do not read. I repeat. Cover-to-Cover spoilers await you further down this post.




Bad Security
1. The boys have this splendid destiny and yet they're raised in a small village without more protection than their parents. The Brotherhood knows how important these two are before they're born and their father is a high ranking member, yet he leaves the safety of the temple for this fishing village. There are many ways the boys could have died as a result of this decision. Then the Brotherhood would be without their pair of saviors before the story starts.
2. The Brotherhood's security is lacking. It relies on scary tactics and a single chasm that is enchanted to carry allies across but not enemies. There are no patrols or anything to monitor the chasm. For a bastion of good, there is surprisingly little stopping an invasion. This means it is easy for Draken to start one.
3. Draken is banned for life from the Brotherhood Temple and even after the boys insist he come with them (itself an idiot ball considering their relationship from previous chapters) he has a single person guarding him. This person pays little attention to him and is easily killed.
4. Merein, the former Curator, says there is no need for anyone to visit the Scroll of Life. Yet she shows Connin because she thinks he would find it interesting. This means disabling all the security measures to keep Death away for a moment's wonder. She admits that there is no way to stop Death if he ever got this far. This is like exposing one's heart to a dagger because it would be interesting.
5. Death possesses Connin. It's not explained how he does this (itself a plot hole) but what I'm focusing on here is that no step taken to make sure it doesn't happen again. This guy is one of the two leaders of the Brotherhood and one of the two saviors, yet the bad guy jumping into his mind doesn't worry anyone after the event.

Bad Leadership
6. The boys' village gets into famine trouble because beavers made a damn in their river. This by itself is a problem because couldn't they have located the problem earlier or found something else to eat?
7. As a result of the famine, the village makes a trade deal with an orc community to get by, and they don't keep up their end of the deal. This village believes the orcs to be savages and they lost men in the negations and yet they don't keep up their end of the bargain. This leads to an attack that kills most of the place, including the boy's parents and almost themselves.
8. General  Jericho, decides to take a unnecessary risk because he's retiring soon and he wants a little extra glory. His home and way of life are on the line.  It is unsurprising that he is captured as a result.


Because Destiny Said So


9. The boys are chosen for two of the three highest positions in the Brotherhood: Curator and General. There is no reason for this other than Because Destiny Says So. The current curator has been doing a great job so far so why doesn't she continue while the boys do their save the world thing.
10. If Destiny is going to say they have these roles then how about some battle plans or information on the locations of the Macguffins?
11. The Brotherhood at large believes that the boys' father left the Brotherhood to marry their mother. It later said that this is not the case but then why make that claim? It makes them antagonistic to the boys because of the Sins Of Our Fathers.


General Plot holes
12. After their parents are killed, the boys are raised by their evil uncle. He was a leader in a civil war that tried to take over the Brotherhood with dark magic. The other guy was thrown into a volcano but he was just banished. This is the guy that raised the two saviors. You'd think their parents would have a better role model waiting in the wing.
13. Because of their upbringing away from the Brotherhood, the boys dislike talk of destiny, detest the gods, lack training, and are thus unbelieving and uncooperative when they met the Brotherhood. If they were so destined to work for the gods then why don't their parents raise them this way? They tell the boys nothing when they were alive yet insist on it after they become Spirit Advisors.
14. The guide  to the Brotherhood Temple (Trenobin)  has one of the Swords of Cerathil (the ones mentioned in the blurb) and says that the others are lost and makes it sound like it's no big deal. "Sadly" isn't the word I'd use to describe something that would put the survival of the world in jeopardy.
15. Later on, Draken declares his intent to find the swords and says he needs the boys  to help him do this. Trenobin acts like this is some terrible evil and declares that he's going to stop Draken. This is precisely what the boys need to do; find the swords. I can only assume that Trenobin was misinformed about what the swords are which is itself a plot hole because he's one that's supposed to use it for the world-saving-thing in five years.
16. The only thing worse is how Connin "defeats" Death. These two together come straight out of Harry Potter.  It is not explained how submitting to Death allows one to expel Death from one's body. You'd think Death would be aware of something like that.


This book has some good world building, an interesting culture for the Brotherhood, and the makings of a great Order vs Chaos style struggle between the Brotherhood and its thus far nameless adversary.  The boys themselves have this Brains and Brawns dynamic that worked well during a battle sequence. The problem are all these plotholes. They turn me off of future books in this series.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Answering Review Request "Destiny of the Wuf"

Harrison Davies asked me to read his fantasy novel "Destiny of the Wulf". It's about two brothers, Coinin and Marrok, and how they are chosen by destiny to save the world from the god of Death. I will examine plot, character and polish before assigning a grade.


PLOT

I have little good to say about the plot. There are so many plot holes, there's little left to speak well about. In the prologue alone, there are half a dozen idiot balls and because of this I could not take the plot seriously. I will post all of them in a separate post because they would take up too much room here.

I see nothing original in the plot but that by itself would not be a problem. I don't believe in 100 percent originality and I have written a number of blog posts to this effect: Originality is a Myth, Originality And Tradition and Inspirational Monday-TvTropes all talk about how 100 %originality is impossible so I don't hold that against anyone. My problem is when the tropes are used sloppily.  It was like checking things off on a list:
1. Farm Boys (fishing boys in this case)
2. Trained for a great purpose that they are told nothing of.
3. Doomed hometown
4. Parental Abandonment
5. Dark and Troubled Past
6. Great Destiny!
7. Secret Heritage
8. War Sequence where they play a pivotal role
9. Parents as Spirit Advisors.
10. Beautiful girls in the new exotic setting that (in one case) immediately falls for one of the brothers.

Few of these make any sense, as I will talk about in detail in a future post, and so they sound like the author is following a formula without thought for the integrity of the novel as a whole. At times they seem to have no purpose other than wish fulfillment.


Normally, I would use this area to talk about the things I disliked, but this time I will talk about the things I liked instead.
1. Generally speaking, battles/action are good. For instance, The War Sequence when the Brotherhood Temple is attacked is pretty cool. My favorite part of it is when Coinin possesses an enemy mountain troll and tricks the other trolls into attacking the enemy goblins.
2. Coinin's initiation into the Brotherhood and the swearing-in ritual for the Curator are also well thought out and interesting. I would liked to have seen more of that.
3. Marrok's rediscovery of his faith is a powerful moment. It has the feel and atmosphere of a Christian Confession and Reconciliation.

Finally, the ending.  The amazon blurb says "as the ultimate battle for survival begins..."  which is accurate. This book is just a beginning. There is no resolution. It is a goading cliffhanger. I despise these for reasons that are also best left for a future post.

CHARACTERS

When it comes to the book's cast I have a mixed opinion.

By the third act, the brothers were well developed but until then they are distinguished primarily by "the one with mind swap power and the one without".

Of Draken, the brother's uncle,  I have little reason to believe should be in this plot. The brothers do not like him as he was strict in their studies and fond of the lash. No one in the Brotherhood likes him because he did something worthy of exile. Going off these opinions and the brother's Great Destiny, he should have been excluded from this plot.  His lack of motive and his drifting in and out of focus makes him feel more like a plot device than a genuine character.

I liked how Merein developed into a motherly figure for Connin. It is a vivid and consistent thing with little touches to fill in the gaps and make it real. It also makes sense for her to be so because she is the previous Curator and thus Coinin's predecessor. However, my problem is that it happens too quickly and it is jarring considering their first meeting; it involved death threats.

Talina has a decent backstory (which is more than others can say at this point) but her role is confined to Satellite Love Interest and disappears after this role is fulfilled. She doesn't even get a mention in the final section, despite the fact that the nature of this section is something Marrok thought would be a sticking point for courting her earlier in the novel.

Mort is a Generic Doomsday Villain, but when the villain is the personification of Death, this is forgivable and even understandable. However, he only has two scenes. The main villain or his chief enforcer should have a bigger presence in a story like this.

POLISH

Nothing wrong in the way of spelling or grammar errors. The problem is in the pacing.

The pacing was funky. Normally in a fantasy novel there is this sense of escalation leading to the climax, the highest point, but that doesn't happen here. It feels confused. The climax was twenty or so pages before the end of the book. That section would have better served as the prologue for the next book instead of a lame cliffhanger.

The three scenes I mentioned earlier save this book from the worst grade.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Destiny of the Wulf" a D-

Click here for the next review request: "Elsbeth and the Call of the Castle Ghosties"

Click here for the previous Review Request: Dark Space 2: Invisible War

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Advantages and Disadvantages of Pantsing

By "pantsing" I do not mean the prank by which someone pulls down the pants of another in public in order to cause them public exposure shame. Instead I mean the abbreviation of the phrase "Writing by the seat of one's pants" which in other words has the meaning of "making it up as you go". As I rewrite Looming Shadow and consider how much time I need to do so, I reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of this writing style.

Ever since I started writing fanfiction back in Middle School I have been a "pantser". I didn't plan out the whole story in advance, and I certainly didn't plan out the individual arcs or scenes. I would write down ideas as I had them and keep a rough idea of the general arc of the story in mind as I wrote, but everything was subject to change as I wrote the story and the plot took shape. Even when I went to college and structured my class papers (thesis-general outline-specific outline etc) I continued writing my novel as it came to me.  (This was A Mage's Power but at the time it was called "Trickster Help Service".)  I wrote two sequels before publishing the first one. My intention was to go back to the first when the last was done and revise once I knew what I was doing with the plot.

Advantages of Pantsing

1. 90% of writing time was spent on genuine writing; not prewriting.
---As a full-time college student, I had precious little free time and so I did not want to squander it on something that I did not believe was progress. The end result was a novel whose first draft was completed within a year. I had nothing to compare this to but considering my rewrite took longer, I believe it is quick.

2. Natural Flow of Cause and Effect
---As I wrote A Mage's Power, I had only a vague idea of what would happen next. I would make something up; anything that was funny or gave me a chance for world building. Because I didn't force characters or events to happen I believe I avoided problems such as idiot balls.

3. Focus on Characters
I'll never forget what I learned from a speaker in a creative creating course; "Plot is nothing more than a character in trouble." Without a top-down plot, I had to understand my characters and what they would do with each step.  That lead me to get to know them better. The plot follows their traits instead of their traits following the plot.

The changes to the first draft of A Mage's Power were legion but on the whole they were superficial so I felt that my approach was justified. Now I am not sure.

I started revising Looming Shadow around this time last year. The first arc required few changes and the second more  and the third arc more still. It was like overturning a rock and finding all sorts of bugs and rust. Every arc required more rewriting. In places, I was chucking entire chapters out. Other stuff was moved around.  In short, I rebuilt it from the first floor up because I didn't have a plan.

Disadvantages of Pantsing

1. More Rewriting

---Looming Shadow had no plan. I had a premise but it ceased to be a driving point in a certain arc and sputtered out without a sense of resolution. Then something happened that blindsided me. Yes, the author himself didn't expect this twist. I couldn't carry on with my previous idea and so the rest was only tenuously tied together.  When I looked back on it, I realized how loose and unappealing it had become.  The only solution was to rewrite the story with a plan that could hold everything together. The end result is a novel that has taken twice as long to complete as its prequel and it's still not done yet.

2. Disorganized

---Pantsing is useful for getting ideas on paper and forging a trail. However, this trail lead through a dense forest whose leaves blocked out the sun. I had no idea where I was going and in many places the trail looked forced. There was no continuity or purpose; only a series of independent events happening to the same person.

3. Who's on First?

Characters drive Plot but how to know which and how many characters are involved with the plot? A single ingredient can radically alter the flavor of a dish and so can a single character send a plot down a drastically different path. What if such a character shows up at the end of the novel and you wonder why they didn't show up earlier? In reverse, what if such a character shows up early but you later decide it makes more sense for them to turn up later?


 It would have been nice to have a plan.

When I write Eric 3, the change will be even more dramatic and widespread. I have a second draft  95%  done, and I might have to chuck the whole thing out.  I hope it doesn't come to that.


For more posts about editing see ""BLAM and the Author's Knowledge"     and "Outlines-Character Action List"

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Three Varieties of Protagonists

As I travel the vast distances of Tvtropes, and examine various stories across the mediums, I find some archetypes that are meant to relate to the audience; be relatable to them and form a connection to them.  It relates to the power of the protagonist to inspire or comfort.

I don't buy into this "relatable/identifiable protagonist"; I can enjoy Big O's Roger Smith, Evangelion Shinji Ikari, Ranma 1/2's Ranma Saotome and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann's Kamina all the same.  However, I see that sort of thing on TvTropes and in reviews. One review in particular, one for my own A Mage's Power is the inspiration for this post and another one.

I've written about two of these types before, the Loser and the Champion, but that one was more my personal feelings on the matter. I hope to make this one more objective and informative.

The first type is The Champion. I see this type as a larger than life presence. Someone that is bursting with confidence and drive to achieve their goals, and their goals will be just as ambitious and lofty as their personality. They're likely to be loud but just as likely to more of a tranquil focus. The point is to create a dynamic personality that can both carry and drive a plot, who is also fun to cheer for.

Example: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagan: Kamina  is technically not the protagonist (a matter of heated debate in the fandom) but he is pretty close nonetheless. He is so popular that he has become a meme for badass masculinity; his sunglasses are photoshopped onto unrelated characters to make them more badass because in doing so they become more like him.

Th second type is The Loser. The protagonist has flaws upon flaws that make them fail at everything. I don't understand why anyone would do this. I see a few possibilities such as a Seinfeld style comedy or some philosophical drama about a guy whose life gets progressively worse, but these are limiting and would get old and confining quickly. Generally it's better to have a flawed protagonist than an outright loser.

Example: Shinji Ikai from Neon Genesis Evangelion. He's a whinny and weak willed and overall he's depressing to watch.  He would have died in the first episode if his mom didn't go berserk and tear the Third Angel apart on his behalf. A lot of his fanfiction involves him growing a spine in one way or another and some of the more popular (as I've seen on TvTropes and Fanfiction.net)  make him into an outright champion.

These two are a contrast of  "Wishing you were" vs "Glad you're not". Oddly enough, both shows have enjoyed tremendous popularity. In the middle of these two is the third kind.

The Everyman:
A nice person without distinguishing traits; no eccentrics, no major virtues, nor any outstanding vices. Their personal history is different and their story but they themselves are more cookie cuter. They exist to be "relatable" and this is supposed to work by appealing to the lowest common denominator and giving them traits that the target audience as a whole supposedly has.

I can't think of any use for this kind of character other than Audience Surrogate and so they will likely be a Supporting Protagonist or a Pinball Protagonist because they're too bland to carry the story on their own.

Naturally, there are more than just these three kinds of protagonists but I pointed them out to sketch a way stories geared toward a particular audience are viewed and made. The Protagonist is designed to appeal to and/or relate to this audience because the writer/publisher/etc believe that will increase sales/viewership/etc. This is not the case with me.

When I wrote A Mage's Power, I was more interested in the world that Eric would inhabit than Eric himself.  I put great thought into how the magic system worked, the gods and their purpose in this world,  justifying the existence of monsters and respawning like in RPGs, and the social/political culture of kingdom that Eric lives in. Eric himself received little attention in the pre-writing stage because he was less important. As a result, he became generic, and because my self-imposed "Zero to Hero" challenge, he was spineless and incompetent.

In other words, he became a hybrid of the Loser and Everyman. This lead to other reviews that said the plot lacked direction. Indeed, because Eric has no goal beyond getting by in the first book, he does not drive the plot and so indeed he gets involved in a number of different activities and not one of them commands the spotlight.

I came to this conclusion after receiving a certain review. It praised the supporting case but was critical of the protagonist. These supporting characters all had more thorough backstories than Eric starting off and developed more quickly during the drafts. It is only while rewriting the second book, Looming Shadow, that I feel I have truly gotten to know my protagonist.