Posts Tagged ‘plotting’

Language Barriers in Speculative Fiction

Hey hey, so apparently I was going to write this post two years ago, got as far as “WOO” and never went back to it. Good job on focusing, me.

Language barriers are something common that you find in science fiction and fantasy stories. It makes sense, especially if you’ve got cultures that have never met before, and it can make for interesting conflict if characters can’t understand each other. Especially when dealing with alien races, you can even make up new ways of communication that may be impossible for other species to learn.

On the other hand, sometimes you need characters to be able to communicate, even if you’ve set things up so they shouldn’t be able to because of whatever reason.

Let’s go over some of the most common ways to get around language barriers. And feel free to let me know your favorite and least favorite examples of overcoming barriers and what worked (or didn’t) in the comments.

Common Language

The idea here is that there’s a common language that different species all learn so they can communicate with each other, even if they have their own language otherwise. This is your “Galactic Standard,” as it were. Of course, for this to work, your various species need to similar enough that it makes sense that they’d all be able to make the same linguistic sounds, etc.

One Person Understands

This is where you have a character that speaks its own language which is incomprehensible to the reader/viewer, but luckily there’s that one other character who knows that language and can translate or have one-sided conversations that essentially get the meaning across. Han Solo with Chewbacca, for example, or Rocket with Groot.

Universal Translator

These are magic devices that automatically translate any language it comes in contact with, as long as said language has been encountered before (to add some leeway for when you want a plot that hinges on miscommunication). A lot of the time, these can also pick up new languages after a few minutes of listening. A LOT of science fiction uses this idea, though you do occasionally come across the fantasy equivalent (such as a spell of understanding).


Maybe characters can’t understand each other, but hey, using telepathy can help even the most disparate of species communicate! (Assuming, of course, that their patterns of thought are at all similar.) This mode can often rely a lot on visuals and emotions rather than words.

Immersion/Building Understanding Over Time

For a more realistic approach, if your cultures aren’t meeting for the first time, you can assume they have had interactions for a while and might have started to pick up each other’s language. (Some people show this through some characters/species speaking with an odd grammar, though be aware this can get tedious to read.) Alternately, people can pick up languages through immersion, which is where you’re immersed in another language for a long period of time. This forces you to learn the language through everyday interactions, and also helps you learn how to convey ideas when you don’t have the vocabulary yet.

Of course, both of these methods require time, and if you need two characters to be able to interact to stop the universe from imploding in the next week, well.

Do you have a method I’ve left out, Squiders? Examples, good or bad? Thoughts on storytelling that relies on disparate characters being able to understand each other?

What is Conflict?

We talked about conflict on Tuesday at Storycraft, and I put together an info sheet on the topic, which I thought you guys might like to see. It’s pretty basic–conflict is a wide and varied monstrosity, and you could really talk about it forever. Aside from this info sheet, we also talked about the main basis of a good conflict, which I’ll stick after the info sheet, and also about ways to add suspense to your conflict.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is what stands between your protagonist and their goals. It can be internal, external, relationship-based, etc.

How often should your story have conflict?

All the time. Allllll the tiiiiime.

That seems stressful.

It’s not, not really. The issue is that when people hear “conflict,” they think gunfights. Car chases. Explosions, jumping out of windows, planets being torn apart. Those aren’t really conflict, and you don’t need to have something like that happening that often.

So, if those things aren’t conflict, what is conflict?

Conflict is really two different things—there’s “story” conflict, or the conflict(s) that drive the plot/subplots, and there’s “scene” conflict, or the conflict happening in any particular scene. Often the scene conflict is based on the story conflict.

Elaborate, please.

All right, let’s say your main plot “conflict” is that your main character’s brother has been kidnapped by demons, and she’s trying to get him back. That’s your story conflict, your main plot. Every story needs a main plot, of course. Scene-level conflict for above plot might be your main character getting lost in the woods, or confronting a demon only to find it’s not the right kind, or losing the trail.

Above you mentioned internal, external, relationship-based, etc.?

There’s different types of conflict, and it’s good to mix them up so your story has variety. But let’s go over the basic ones. The most common ones are internal, external, and inter-relational.

Internal conflict is all thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In elementary school, you probably learned about Man vs. Himself. This is essentially the same thing. Something in your character’s personality or thoughts or beliefs is holding them back from their goal. This can be them not believing they’re worth love, or having a set belief that all what-have-yous are evil and yet needing to go to one for help, or not believing that they’re capable of what needs to be done.

External conflict is conflict coming from a source other than your main character. In elementary school, this was Man vs. Man and Man vs. Nature (though, if we’re going to be perfectly honest, Man vs. Nature is more of a combination of internal/external conflict). This is your explosions, your bad guys, your robot sharks, etc. These are physical, external forces working against your protagonist.

Inter-relational conflict is conflict that happens directly between two (or more) people. The partners that are having trouble working the case and need to put aside their differences to catch the bad guy. The married couple whose marriage has gone south and are trying to save it.

There are more types, or, rather, there are combinations of these types. Random internet searches give me Man vs. Fate, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Supernatural, and Man vs. Technology.

Some excellent writing advice that I once got is that you need all three types (external, internal, inter-relational) to have a story that keeps people interested.

Why can’t I just have explosions?

Let’s say we have Fred, walking down the street. Suddenly, a car that was parked across the street squeals out of its spot, turns, and comes after him. The windows roll down, and the men in sunglasses inside raise their guns and start shooting at poor Fred.

Exciting! But—why is this happening? What did Fred do to deserve this treatment? There’s no story here, just action, and without story, people won’t stay engaged, no matter how many things you blow up. This is part of the reason why the Transformers movies suck.

Okay, so how does conflict work when writing?

Well, you’ve got your main plot. Each scene needs some conflict that relates directly to the main plot, or to a major subplot. You can’t just have random things happen that don’t tie into the rest of the story just because they’re exciting. Things have to make sense and advance the story, one way or another.

What’s conflict resolution?

You’re getting ahead.

I am?

Before there’s resolution, everything story or subplot level conflict has a climax.

What’s a climax?

The climax of a conflict is the point where the stakes are the highest, where things are most intense. Where the protagonist needs to put everything they’ve learned, every new skill and new knowledge they’ve encountered on their journey, into play to fight their way to victory. Without a climax, your story has been for nothing.

How do I know what my climax is?

It depends on the promises you made to your reader, and on your main conflict. If you’ve set up a Big Bad, they’ll need to be fought. If your main character has been fighting some internal demon, those demons will need to be overcome. You can’t leave your main conflict dangling. Even if you’re doing a series, and you have an overarcing plot that goes on to the next book, you will have to have a book-specific conflict to wrap up.

Okay, now resolution.

Resolution means two things, actually. You have “conflict resolution”—i.e., how do you solve your conflict? And you have a plot step known as “resolution,” which is everything that happens after the conclusion of your climax. We’ll take about the latter first.

The resolution part of the plot is what happens after the climax. It’s normally pretty short, just a quick look at the results of the climax, at how life has returned to normal (or not), at the rewards the hero has earned.

And conflict resolution?

That’s such a broad topic. Different conflicts have different ways to solve them, and even the same type of conflict can be solved different ways, depending on your story, setting, etc. The important thing is that everything needed to solve the problem MUST be introduced before the climax, and that the resolution must make sense in a logical, rational sense.

So, what makes good conflict? Good conflict must be based on something your character cares about–their personal values. Searching for a lost brother has more weight if family means everything to your main character, for example. Alternately, if you base conflict on something against the character’s value–fighting against their better judgment–that can also be interesting.

Any more thoughts on conflict, Squiders?

Pantsing vs. Plotting

Sometimes, Squiders, it’s good to go back to the basics. I would divide the writing process into the following steps:

  1. Outlining
  2. Writing
  3. Revising
  4. Editing
  5. Submission and/or Publication

Would you agree with that?

The first step of that is (arguably) outlining. It’s said that writers fall into two categories, plotters (people who plan a story before writing) and pantsers (people who write by the seat of their pants without an idea where the story is going).

I would argue that we all plot, at least a little bit. Even a pantser typically doesn’t go into a story without having an idea of length, main character, and premise. I mean, I’m sure people have, but I’m not sure they got very far.

Perhaps that’s a point for discussion another time. Does planning things out make it easier to finish a story? My experience says yes, but that’s only one bullet point.

So, I would argue that we all fall somewhere on a sliding scale between true pantser (no planning whatsoever) and true plotter (detailed, several thousand-word outlines, character sheets for all major and minor characters, world map, etc.).

People on the pantser side of the scale like to jump into a story with a minimum amount of planning and see where the story gets them. They can add in whatever cool new thing catches their attention because they don’t have to stick to an outline.

People on the plotter side, in general, have an idea where they’re going. This makes it easier to stick with a story and not get stuck. Plotting also helps you remember things, especially if you’re prone to forgetting your latest great plot epiphany or character motivation.

I think people kind of float back and forth along the scale throughout their careers. As for me, I started out close to true pantser, many years ago. My first novel, all I had going into it was a premise and a genre (murder mystery). It stands uncompleted at 29,000 words, and will probably never see the light of day again.

I’ve been drifting more toward plotter ever since. At first, I would pants the first half of a novel and then outline the rest so I could pick up the loose ends. My last few novels I’ve outlined the whole thing before I started using a fairly loose method that identifies key plot points (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.).

Oh my landsquid, this makes it so much easier. It doesn’t kill your creative wiggle room, and taking stories in chunks, knowing where you need to be at a certain point and what you’re working toward overall, makes it easier to get there without wallowing in unproductive middles.

Of course, that’s just my experience. What about you, Squiders? Are you a pantser or a plotter? How have your methods changed throughout your career?

The Power of Talking Through a Plot Problem

We all know that writing is a solitary process, one where a writer stereotypically locks themselves away somewhere and bangs on a typewriter (keyboard) until brilliance comes out. Your story usually is between you and your brain (and your muse, if you go in for such things).

That being said, I think a lot of us yearn from companionship. I think that’s one of the reasons NaNoWriMo has been so successful. We like other writers. We like to talk about our stories. We like to know that other people have had the same problems, and hear what they did to conquer them.

And that’s why, I think, when you have the right audience, talking through your problems can be hugely helpful. Sometimes you need to look at things another way and another point of view is the perfect solution.

I have a (largely defunct) LiveJournal that I have used over the years to post information about the high fantasy trilogy I have been working on forever. I think only 10 or so other people have had access to it. But even the act of writing information out like someone might read it has help me solve numerous worldbuilding problems, from my magic system, to languages, to number of sentient species. It’s also helped with plot problems, such as the relationship between the main characters and how things had to develop to reach the final showdown with the antagonists.

Of course, the best person to talk to is one that is relatively familiar with your story. These people are the best next to your own brain to understanding what you have and where you need to go, as well as what your end goals are.

So ideally you talk to someone who has read your story, or is at least somewhat familiar with it through small snippets and worldbuilding. Barring that, someone who is familiar with and regularly reads your genre can work as well, because it’s less conventions to have to explain.

Tonight, at my storycraft meeting, I’m running a plot problem clinic which should prove interesting. Everyone’s to bring a problem of some sort, which the rest of us will then try to help them through. However, I don’t believe anyone is familiar with anyone else’s story and don’t necessarily write the same subgenres (my writing group is specifically for scifi/fantasy/horror writers), so it will be interesting to see if this is any help.

But who knows? Maybe getting those other subgenres into the mix will help add unexpected depth to the answers.

Do you have a friend you go to when you have story problems? Is it the same person every time, or do you have a range based on the type of story/type of problem?

The Downside of Plotting (and a ROW80 check-in)

Well, Squiders, I’ve been working on the third book of a high fantasy trilogy recently (passed 50K this past week, hooray!). I’ve been working on this trilogy on and off for a lot longer than I like to own up to, and it’s very exciting to finally be working on the conclusion, and to finally get to write some scenes that I planned out forever years ago.

One thing that’s been planned forever is a certain character’s death. There’s plenty of reasons to kill this character off, in terms of characterization, plot, punching the readers right in the feels, etc.

And I’ve reached that point, that bullet point in the outline.

And it is not working.

I can’t quite figure out the scene in such a way to make it the poor guy eat it.

So I’m stuck in a bit of a dilemma. I could just let him live, but then I need to find another catalyst for a rather major plot point. I could kill him anyway, but I know that’ll feel forced, and since I hate “because the author says so” plot points, that’s not really a winning idea.

A third option would be to bring my big bad into the confrontation. That would definitely take care of the killing, but it would also make it so I have to re-plot the entire rest of the book.

The problem here is that I can’t tell what’s more important–killing this character? Keeping my big bad out of it for now? And I probably won’t be able to tell until I’m done with the book and can look at it objectively from an editing standpoint.

I keep telling myself that this is why God invented first drafts.

Doesn’t really help with the actual writing, though.

As for ROW80, we’re what, just about halfway? And I’m actually about a week ahead at the moment, which is brilliant, because I’m behind on some other things and because I have a booksigning on Saturday that I need to prepare for. (Anyone ever do a booksigning? I get a few minutes intro before hand and I have no idea what I should talk about.) Halfway on ROW80, halfway on the book–it’s all lovely.

(And, randomly, for those of you who are interested in my Doctor Who binge-watching, I finished Season 4 and the specials with Ten last weekend, and am now poised to dive into Eleven whenever I have free time/the inclination again.)