Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Not to Write with Starcraft Ghost: Nova

Hey y'all.  So I promised that there would be a going-over of Starcraft Ghost: Nova to explain the problems with the writing.  This is not to pick on author Keith DeCandido -- quite frankly Will C. Dietz deserves it more -- but to demonstrate that there are lots of characteristics amateur writers have in common.  Sure, no new writer has all possible errors, but there are several errors that are common among writers when they haven't reached the true honing of their craft.

DeCandido's mistakes are what I call "honest" -- he has an unpretentious understanding of writing that other authors I've read don't have.  He knows about tension and emotion, and those things can cover a lot of flaws in writing.  After all, the manga Hollow Fields has writing and plot errors like you would not believe, but its charm and concept make it a very entertaining read that I recommend highly.

However, while DeCandido had several good ideas and knows how to make plot cause tension, his clumsy narrative prevents readers from really enjoying his story.  Though I am quite willing to believe Blizzard tripped him up in some way, at least by cancelling the game his book was meant to promote.  I'm also willing to believe they stunted his creativity in some way because he was using their plot and referencing their characters.  It happens.

And just in case you haven't read my plot summary of Starcraft Ghost: Nova, the link is here (

Quick reminder of the plot:  November Terra is the daughter of a wealthy Confederate  family on Tarsonis, and when her family is killed by rebels, her psychic powers go into full swing and destroy those responsible.  She is trapped in the Gutter, the low-life part of town, where drug lord Fagin uses her to control his territory.  Meanwhile, Malcolm Kelerchian, a ghost wrangler for the Confederacy, is on the hunt to find her and force her to join the ghost projects.  Nova must not only survive, but somehow find a way to destroy the man who ordered the deaths of her family.

Shall we get on with it?

------ Don't describe emotions or actions that are so obvious that everyone knows what they are.

What I meant by this is, when something sad happens to your character, don't say, "she felt sad". Instead, write something like, "she cried mascara stains into her pillow" or "she shook, refusing to believe what had just happened" or some other way of describing the way your character expresses her sadness.  Describe the action rather than the emotion, unless that emotion is extremely complex, or is an emotion contrary to how most people would feel about a situation.  Everyone knows what being sad is like, so unless there's something distinct about your character's sadness, don't go into it.

Same thing with obvious actions.  I once read a Mega Man fanfiction where Dr. Light described to Mega Man how to drink.  Yeah.  DeCandido wasn't that bad, though. Fanfiction...well, it's not always the greatest thing in the world.

------ Dammit Jim, you're a writer, not a doctor.

Lemme quote part of the book here.  Note that there are two things wrong with it.

Nova stumbled to her feet.  Her first attempt to stand up straight failed, and she almost fell to the pavement again, but she managed to keep her balance, thrusting her arms out to steady herself.  Then, finally, she stood up straight.

There's a principle about writing one should always keep in mind: the longer it takes you to describe something, the slower time appears to be going in the reader's mind.  This isn't always a bad thing, but you should pay attention to when you're doing it.  Whenever you're in an action scene, don't write anything in excruciating detail unless, I don't know, it's a suspenseful moment and you're describing the bomb a guy has to defuse, or a plane someone has to learn to fly in two minutes.

Also, this is the exact wrong way to describe an action.  This kind of error is the exact thing I see in newbie writers, both on fanfiction net and real life.  What's wrong with it?  Well, you're bored reading it, aren't you?  It's describing not only action, but obvious action.  And it's doing it with the exact precision of a doctor explaining a diagnosis, or a scientist watching a specimen from behind a pane of glass.  A reader could skip this paragraph and lose nothing by doing so.

Nobody wants that kind of detail when they're reading fiction, because it doesn't tell us anything.  It turns out that Nova just shocked a couple of would-be attackers with her psychic powers, and this is her coping with the results.  Uh huh.  There's no reference to her emotions, subsequent physical sensations, or any specific reason why she can't just stand up after a psi attack.  And doesn't the first sentence already imply that she got up?

Instead:  When writing about a person, keep in mind what they're experiencing.  You're in the character's head, not watching them from behind glass.  Tell a story through what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.  Also, keep in mind that when your character has a different ability from those who are normal, you have to show how this ability affects the character when it is used.

In short, what does the psychic power do to her?  Does Nova's head hurt?  Does she have an electrical taste in her mouth?  How long do the effects last?  All of these issues are things that a normal person doesn't experience, so they should be used to color the narrative.

------ Don't repeat ideas more than once if you can help it.

This tends to happen when only one or a few characters find out something, and then the other characters need or want to know, forcing the author to give the reader the same information twice just to keep everyone in the story on the same page.

The repeated information here is at the beginning, when Constantino is told about a terrorist attack on one of his businesses.  His business assistant tells him the information, and then he tells his mistress, and then he tells his wife, Bella.  All without adding worthwhile extra context that would make the retelling interesting.

Instead: Reveal important information when all necessary characters can hear it, or skip over the retelling.  It can be skipped with some kind of "then he told her what happened" or by ending a chapter and implying that the characters re-hashed the details among themselves while another part of the story is going on.  Or retell the information with a clever pun, or have the person conveying the information lie or accidentally imply inaccurate connotations.  Do anything besides say the same thing twice.

------- Don't waste your conflict.

Constantino also mentions to his mistress that he plans to send Nova away to safety.  In what could have been a good plot twist, Nova discusses with her brother Zeb the possibility of being sent away, but for reeducation.  This is immediately undercut by mentioning it and resolving the misunderstanding during the argument with his wife.  So it ends up being a repeat of information, which actually could have been solved simply by having Constantino not bring up sending Nova away until he's arguing with Bella.  The misunderstanding could there have plot potential.

And all of this ends up coming to nothing because Constantino dies before he can do anything relevant in the matter of his destroyed factory, and because Nova never actually gets off Tarsonis.  Yeah.

Instead:  Any time you're writing a scene and you realize that it's just a bunch of talking heads conveying necessary but boring information, put a conflict in there.  Maybe a minor argument, or a backstory issue cropping up, or a small problem that foreshadows later conflict.  Do this particularly when two of your characters don't like each other.  Constantino and Bella's marriage is apparently one full of conflict, and that could have been shown by having the misunderstanding take the readers by surprise.

- Don't give characters names that can't be read smoothly.

Agent X41822N, the code assigned to Nova, is not a name.  I look at that and see a blur, and so would anyone assigned to work with her.  They'd simply call her by her real name.  Imagine someone is reading this story out loud.  It's no fun to say a collection of random letters and digits, and probably most readers just glaze over the numbers.  And while we're at it, this same principle counts with fantasy names.  No, Lord Xythaniarynix or crap like that.

Instead: Read each of any made up names or codes out loud.  If it's not easy to say, don't write it. Made up names are possible to sound natural (ex: pfifltrigg is pronounced FIH-ful-trig), but when it comes to codes, avoid lots of numbers.  Call your person something cool and simple that describes who they are. Think thinks like Rawhide, Stone, or Confederate 7.  In Nova's case, it would have been better if she was called November throughout the story, and "Nova" is the name given to her by the ghost projects.

- Extending letters in a story ("Noooooooo!") is a true sign of a novice.

It's just not professional.  If you have to extend letters to get people to feel what the character is saying, then the rest of your narrative has failed to do so.  And DeCandido does it a lot.  There's a "Nooooooooooooooo!", at least two "Aaaaaaaaaaah!", and a "Bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah!" And that's the exact number of "hahs."  Sure, a couple of bwah-hahs would have been okay.  Aaaah is acceptable a time or two. Any more or longer than that, and you're going with gimmicks.

Listen, peeps.  Gimmicky writing is for children drawing their own storybooks in crayon.  Or novice fanfiction writers who for some reason think that all Protoss speech should be italicized (Note: DeCandido isn't guilty of that).  That stuff is not fun to read, and is distracting from the narrative.

Does gimmick ever work?  Sure, depending on what you're writing.  Actually, DeCandido is pretty much forced to use a gimmick when he's writing how Nova hears everyone's thoughts.  It's interesting.  Here's a sample.

Nova closed her (Need some hab!) eyes and force herself to focus, (nice curve.) to not think about (I'm hungry.) the thoughts (Hope Mom remembers.) that were pounding into (Almost there.) her mind.

You've noticed by reading this that it's sort of annoying.  When reading, a person likes to be sort of hypnotized, in the sense that while they read they like to forget that they're reading and just see the story in their minds.  They don't want odd writing to trip up their ability to get what's going on.  Now, this gimmick works because there's no way around it (or maybe he could have made it one sentence at a time from each source), and because he doesn't do it much.

Instead: Avoid gimmick like the plague.  Sure, there's times when gimmick can't be avoided, and replacing a "g" with an apostrophe in "-ing" words is acceptable redneck accenting, but every time you know you can avoid gimmick, do it.  If you feel the need to go "aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" then slap yourself and write instead something like "her screams shook the walls" or "his cry stabbed at her heart" or any colorful metaphor you can think of to show the fear one associates with "aaaaaaaaah!" without actually writing out "aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

------ If you name your characters after something, don't reference that thing directly.

So the crime lord in this book is named Fagin, and if you've read Dickens, you know that he's a character in Oliver Twist that runs a crime ring.  I haven't read Oliver Twist in a long time, so I forgot about it.  That is, until the book tells the reader this.  Twice.  Leaving aside the whole idea of how many books from Earth would have survived the trip to the K Sector, it's almost never good to say what your references are.

Thing is, references are always an inside joke -- they refer to a thing, and only the people who remember that thing get it.  Not only does a good reference remind the reader of something nice, but it makes them think that the author is cool or clever.  By stating where the name Fagin comes from, DeCandido is destroying the joke.  He's also making himself look uncreative, as naming a crime lord after another crime lord isn't exactly the most original thing in the world.  Had he given Fagin an original name or named him after something nice, the idea would be more interesting.

Instead: References aren't really that great.  They tend to be cheap humor, especially when they reference things that everyone knows.  Sure, they're more interesting if you reference something that is from a classic or older book, but the only references I like are half-obscure things that refer to something close to the writer's heart.  Sort of like the Immanuel Kant references in Commander Keen. Do I like Immanuel Kant?  Not particularly, but that's beside the point.  Kant is someone that means something to the creator of the Commander Keen game, and I like reading/playing something that helps me get to know the writer.

Or, you could, y'know, just write an original creative story with no references.  Seriously, references destroyed both the King's Quest and Space Quest series.

------ Avoid preaching.

There's a time and a place for preaching in stories.  If you're writing a Star Trek episode, it's expected to happen from time to time.  Maybe you're writing an allegorical story.  But if you're writing a fanfiction, stick to the material and let themes arise naturally from your work.

On page 81, DeCandido's Fagin goes on about how the death penalty doesn't really deter people from crime.  Not only is not necessarily true, but there's no way for Fagin to know one way or another.  He can't possibly have seen any statistics.

It's also really out of place in the Starcraft universe.  Starcraft is dystopian, meaning that the authority figures in this game aren't likely to worry about deterrents. They'll either get revenge, manipulate, lecture, or execute simply because someone pissed them off.  Not a one of them is concerned with deterring crime because none of them are concerned with building a peaceful society.  They just care about power.

For that matter, why is a crime lord going on about deterrents?  Why does he care?  He's not trying to be lord of the Gutter.  Also, explaining oneself to lackeys doesn't make you intimidating.  Keeping your motivations hidden makes them uncertain and afraid to disobey.

Besides all of that, nobody likes being talked down to.  Just blurting out an opinion in a fluff story meant to encourage someone to play a game makes someone look obnoxious.  I dunno, maybe if capital punishment came into the story at some point (Nova testifying in a court against Fagin?), then it wouldn't be entirely pointless.

Instead:  Either the story should be allegorical, the message of the story told only through themes, or both sides of an argument are shown.  Or else make the story the kind of thing that pokes at people politically, like I think Terry Pratchett does.  Basically, it boils down to knowing your story.  Know what level your story is on -- light fluff, action fluff, allegorical, serious, sarcastic, or whatever other kind you have in mind.  How do you want your audience to feel?  If you want them happy or caught up in emotional drama, politics is generally not the way to go.  Especially when it has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

------ "Has", "wasn't", and "had been" are not your friends.

Two-Bit wasn't as bright as Poppo, and couldn't see past the fact that a teenaged curve knocked him on his [butt] without even touching him.  He got to his feet and charged again.

Fagin was the type to reward loyalty, and because Tyrus had been a good soldier, Fagin had made sure that the customer in question died very slowly and very painfully, but that didn't bring Tyrus's sister back.  It was the only thing that ever made the big man get emotional...

Mal took a seat in Killainy's guest chair.  Her chair was made of very rare, very expensive leather.  The guest chairs were rickety wood that felt like theyd'd collapse under you at any minute and, Mal knew, would do the watusi on his spine if it sat in it for more than ten minutes.  

Oh yes, the problem that causes more problems: using past tense indicators way too often.  Keep in mind, folks, that when writing you should endeavor to use as much present tense as possible.  Why? Because it's the cause of passive voice, destroys an action scene, and brings your story into backstory territory.

In the first example (yes, I censored it, bite me), there's an extremely obvious form of telling instead of showing.  Is Two-Bit stupid?  Okay, then show him reacting with his own words and actions.  Have him exclaim some sort of insult about women and then attempt to attack her with a specific action -- say, hitting him with the butt of his rifle.  Or anything equally specific.  Since this is an action scene, the narrative needs to feel fast-paced and not be dragged back by telling the reader what this guy's flaw is.

Yeesh, the double whammy.  While you're going to have to say "was" from time to time, avoid saying "had been" unless one of your characters is speaking.  Characters can use all the past tense grammar they want, because they're not writers.  Look, if you have to convey information that happened in the past, does it have to be done like this?  Don't tell us Fagin rewards loyalty, show it.  Actually, since the anti-psychic device he wears makes him go crazy-go-bonker nuts, showing him rewarding a good servant would be the perfect way to create contrast between his old persona and his new, messed up one.

I'm sorry, is the author really giving a backstory to a chair?  Really?  If the chair isn't important, then don't mention it.  Or else just mention how uncomfortable Mal feels in it.  Maybe have him trying not to wobble in a chair with one of its support feet missing.  It could be too straight, and it hurts Mal's back. As is, there's no indication of what's giving Mal's spine a "watusi" as is.

Okay, what the fudge does that even mean?  Oh,

Uh.  Huh.

"A racial group in Rwanda and Burundi."

....I'm pretty sure DeCandido wasn't trying to be racist, so let's check out the next definition.

"As the name of a popular dance, attested from 1964."

Hm.  Given as I haven't heard of this dance before, I kinda doubt people 500 years from now will remember it either.  Yeah, be careful making up words.  Awkwardness is not your friend.

In any case, it's pretty clear why newer writers might write in too much past tense.  It comes from history books, school books, or just anything nonfiction in general.  Past tense works there, because, well, all the stuff they're talking about happens in the past.  Your story, however, should take place in the "present" -- your story should be happening as though your reader is watching everything happen right in front of him.  Writing in past tense is like a footnote -- it distracts you from the main body of work and you have to reorient yourself after reading it.

Not that "was" is always bad.  It works in the context of, "it was a sunny day" or "it was a long time since he'd seen her" or something like that.  Those set up a scene, so they're not distracting.

Instead:  Read more fiction books so that you don't get stuck in past tense in your brain.  It happens, and just because it happens doesn't mean you suck.  It's very fixable.  Just read through your work when you're done and make sure that if you have a "was" or a "had been", it's really necessary.  It's okay for your characters, but not always for you.

------ Don't waste time on characters with no relevance.  And don't waste characters.

Every character has a purpose.  Perhaps he's the main character, leading the way into the story.  Or she's the supporting character, there to help.  Or maybe he's an extra, only there to fill out a role needed for one scene or add flavor to what might otherwise be boring.  Or maybe he's a redshirt, and he's written into the existence that he may be killed off.

Of all the base ideas in storytelling, this is the one DeCandido really messes up.  His primary problems are all narrative, and usually his ideas in concept are quite good.  This part, however, needed some rethought.  He didn't appear to understand that every character used is there to serve a function in the narrative.  You can't just throw people into a story and expect it to make sense or be entertaining.  Yet here very few of the characters are used to their full potential.  Some characters appear too much, but without significance, while much more important characters are ignored or left vague to the point of being incomprehensible.

In this regard, Fagin and Nova are fine.  They get more or less enough time to show who they are. Then you have characters like Zeb Terra, who aren't fleshed out at all.  Esmerelda Ndoci, Mal's partner, doesn't get a chance to be fleshed out either, and that makes her choice to blow up Fagin's building at the end look really, really stupid.  No one who works with Mal gets developed at all.

In that case, who then gets developed?  Every random bystander.  No really.  Nova passes by a bodega and the reader gets to hear about mentally underdeveloped Benjy, who is a guy just trying to work and stay out of drug life.  Now, if this were a thing that only happened when Nova was going somewhere, it would be fine because it would be a sign of her telepathy.  Unfortunately, whether she is there or not, characters who would only be extras end up having their backstories told for some reason.

The biggest character in this sense is Kehl, a druggie woman who gives up all she has for her drugs. DeCandido gives Kehl her own side plot, which has just about nothing to do with anyone else.  Sure, she meets both Nova and Mal briefly, but she has little influence on either of them.  Her subplot ends when she gets a job with Fagin.  Then Fagin dies, and then Tarsonis gets overrun with Zerg.  Clearly, Kehl is dead, and her entire plotline is wasted.  Unless she was infested and supposed to return as a Zerg in Starcraft: Ghost.

Malcolm Kelerchian, the guy sent out to capture Nova, isn't expanded on at all.  I once thought he was an insignificant character given way too much time and not enough time doing anything interesting. However, I did a bit of research, and it turns out he would have been important if Starcraft: Ghost had actually come out.  Oh.  Well, then the character should have spent his time doing something other than running around and nagging his superiors, because I totally didn't get his significance.  He's dull as dishwater.

The worst offender in this regard is Markus Ralian, Fagin's right hand man.  Who hates him.  Markus has lived a tragic life with parents unable to support him, and his sister dying.  This guy sort of befriends Nova, in the sense that he seems to feel a bit bad for her when Fagin forces her to kill his enemies.  Nova encourages him to kill Fagin, but Markus is apparently doubtful about that.

Markus' story could have worked.  It was interesting enough, but then it turns out that he doesn't kill Fagin.  Not even when Fagin loses it.  Nova mind-controls his body into shooting him, taking away Markus' motivation.  And then Markus is killed when idiot Ndoci blows up the building.  He thus ends up never making a significant choice to alter his own life, and when he's a major character, that's a huge problem.  Had he taken some choice to perhaps protect Nova, or attempt to take over Fagin's enterprises, or maybe escape, then he would be worth reading about.  As it is, he might as well be an extra.

Instead: Be sure of the significance of your characters.  Let minor characters be minor, and avoid interrupting the narrative with long stretches of backstory for every new person.  Remember that more detail means more significance, so give the detail to the ones you want to emphasize.

Alright, that's enough.  We've gone over the major writing errors, and more than that is unnecessary. Just to clarify, I'm not picking on DeCandido because of him specifically.  How Not to Write is going to be a continuing series on this blog, and I'll find other people to pick on.  Heh, I already have another Starcraft author in mind.  I haven't read her book yet, but we'll find out if she can do better than the guys at official fanfiction.

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