The Challenge Of The Grind

Grinding. Can’t count the number of times I’ve heard gamers complain about grinding, that moment when the game becomes more of a chore than a form of fun, trying to rack up more and more currency of whatever form the game requires so that you can trade it in for the shiny spaceship, armor, spell, plot-point, etc. that’s necessary to be awesome and go have FUN AGAIN!

But I’d actually like to challenge the notion that grinding is, of itself, a bad thing.

No, before you get out your machetes to sacrifice me to the gods of terrible game writing, hear me out. Grind is an inevitable part of gameplay. In fact, it’s pretty much the core meta-mechanic: Do these things according to the rules and you win. You just have to keep doing them. The problem isn’t grind: the problem is BAD grind. I submit that bad grind occurs when the players get the sense that they are having to repeat the same onerous task (whether too easy or too hard doesn’t matter) in order to get the same inadequate reward.

But good grind gives you the sense that the game is worth playing. That the universe is a challenge in itself. I will use two examples of this to prove my point: The 1990s Star Control II and the present incarnation of Elite: Dangerous.

Star Control II was a resource-gathering and exploration game. But in order to explore, you have to strengthen the capabilities of your flagship and its attendant fleet. And for this you need to mine planets. The genius of Star Control was its sheer magnitude and variety: literally thousands of brightly-colored planets, filled with millions of brightly-colored minerals. The more valuable minerals were mostly on the most dangerous planets to explore, presenting you with a cruel dilemma: do you take the chance of mining a dangerous planet for the rich rewards and losing your valuable shuttle altogether? Or do you content yourself poking about the safer, poorer planets, losing valuable time? I never heard anyone complain about the “grind” in SCII. And yet, all the elements of the grind were there. What saved it was the inherent tension, and the ability of the player to set his own pace.

Elite: Dangerous has a different sort of grind: the grind of the journey. You can fly to the center of the galaxy. It’s likely to take about a month of game time, but you can do it. And on the way you’re going to discover nebulae, planets, wrecked ships and more. It’s a grind: a never-ending series of jumps. But you can play the game without doing it. And there’s always something new to see. And you don’t get the reward of taking the long journey without, well, the work of taking the long journey. Which is, of course, the entirely appropriate price to pay.

How Not To Pace Your Fiction

So, as I mentioned earlier, last year I got to spend most of the fall semester teaching a group of high school students the basics of fiction writing. I want to talk about the story of a particular young lady I’m going to call BR. BR is a very talented young writer, far ahead of the curve for being a senior in high school, certainly one of the two best in the class. She decided to try her hand at high fantasy. She wrote a D&D-esque story about a young girl, the tribal chief’s daughter, who goes out to slay a bear for her rite of passage.

Firstly, I was very impressed by the consistency of character and the beautiful, clear prose she used. I truly wish I had been that good in high school.

But at the very beginning, I was convinced that I was about to read the story of a Mary Sue who easily annihilated every foe before her. It took me almost to the climax to realize that I was wrong about this, and it took me even longer to realize why I had been so misled. Because it wasn’t a flaw in the character. It was a flaw in the pacing.

Like many young writers, BR had decided to establish her character early on in the reader’s mind. But the way she did this was to have the protagonist’s father organize this huge send-off for her while everyone on the tribe cheered her on. This had two unfortunate effects that BR did not intend:
1) It exaggerated her protagonist’s virtues. And we couldn’t know this, because we had no way of knowing that her father was blinded by his own pride in her.
2) For about the first two pages, nothing happened except the cheering, so the story seemed very static.

BR had fallen into the trap of trying to describe her character and the setting all at once. She knew that she needed to show this rather than tell it, but she used so much dialogue that she ended up more or less “telling” anyway. Note that nothing in her technique was necessarily unrealistic. But the technique set us up with false (and bad)  expectations anyway. She killed the story in the mind of the reader. Just being realistic is never enough to establish your story. You have to do it so that it grabs the reader’s interests. On top of this, BR was so focused on her dialogue that she ignored other parts of the story. For example, before she leaves, the protagonist is blessed by an orc shaman. And as a result, I wondered throughout the story whether she was an orc (which she was not).

Now the way to fix this would have been to cut down the dialogue and have a respectful silence while, say, the orc shaman was blessing the protagonist. Then, BR could have used some quick description and the protag’s thoughts to contrast with the exaggerated praise being heaped upon her and to establish the makeup of the tribe. Then, the protagonist leaves,and we’re right into the action. Probably even better would have been to do the intro in flashback and to start the story “hot:” with her tracking or fighting, or running from the bear. This would have the effect of bringing the readers right into the story until they were interested enough to read through the intro.

It’s a very typical error to make, and one I made often myself. I hope BR keeps writing, as I have.

Less Is Not More, And Deconstruction Does Not Build.

Last week, my retro review on the film No Country For Old Men got a fair amount of commentary from people (for my blog, anyway), from people who liked the film. One friend of mine said that he found its deconstruction and defiance of tropes refreshing.

Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary (but I admit that it is) to say that anyone can like anything, for any reason. We all have films we “just like” no matter what, either because we think they’re objectively better than most people do, and can defend that on some level, or they just tickle our “cool” centers in all the right ways. And if No Country For Old Men is to your taste, then far be it from me to say you can’t or shouldn’t like it.

But I do challenge the defense of the film on the grounds that it defies conventions. Nothing is good or interesting JUST because it “defies” anything. A raw onion sundae would “defy” the tropes and conventions of dessert. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

For too long, critics and authors who would claim the avant-garde position have used the term “deconstruction” as a defense for works that ignore or leave out major elements of storytelling, and use it to praise them as somehow being wonderfully creative or bold. And I’m sorry, but it’s past time for someone to say that The Emperor Has No Clothes. And I find that analogy strictly accurate. The Emperor’s problem wasn’t that he said, “Hey, everyone, I’ve decided that nudity is the way to go!” No, the problem was that he insisted that everyone admire his “new clothes” and threatened to call them fools if they refused and spoke the truth.

In the same way, works like No Country For Old Men provides less than a traditional story and their writers and admirers insist that they are more. That they are somehow “more real” or “more authentic” than a “traditional narrative” because it lacks what that narrative provides: structure, conflict and resolution. It’s like Raw Food fanatics who don’t cook and insist that they are superior for refusing to. And those are all the marks of a fad, not of penetrating insight.

Now, does that mean that deconstruction is always bad? Of course not. Especially as a writing exercise, it can be very good, because it can point readers and writers to fresh understandings of how and why stories work. Just like tasting raw foods can help people become better cooks and appreciate a wider variety of tastes. But acknowledging and using that fact is very different from plopping some artistically-arranged crudité on someone’s plate and telling them it’s better or more “authentic” because it defies the tropes of cooking.

And yes, of course “traditional narratives” can get old, tired and overdone. But that doesn’t mean that they are automatically old, tired and overdone simply by adhering to conventions of structure, any more than cooking or clothing can become passe by applying heat to food or cloth to bodies. In fact, what is more likely is that the “challenges” to these structures will become passe even more quickly, because they are by definition less complex and more reliant on a single factor to please their audience: the “defiance” of convention. They have little or nothing else to recommend them.

And when these avant-garde, deconstructionist, “challenging” scripts are themselves, in the normal course of things, challenged, too many of their admirers defend them by essentially saying, “If you don’t like it, you’re just too stupid and unsophisticated.” That this is not even an argument, let alone a good one, should hardly need to be stated. And if it is to be contended that the man who can appreciate more tastes is more sophisticated than the man who can appreciate fewer, the limits should be obvious. Certainly, a man who can only eat chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese is no better than a five year-old child. A man who can appreciate lobster, caviar, and balut is likely a passable gourmand. But a man who can appreciate eating wood-shavings and moldy tomatoes is at least flirting with insanity.

Finally, I reject the contention that deconstruction or defiance is necessary to engage with the full range of human experience. Certainly, there is value in pessimistic themes, such as memento mori, or the idea that fate will work against the righteous and support the evildoer. But as I pointed out previously, that was being done as long ago as Oedipus Rex and arguably, Gilgamesh. In fact, Llewellyn Moss’s character in No Country For Old Men bears some resemblance to Gilgamesh: a “hero” who essentially wants to steal happiness and yet finds out that he can’t because fate will not allow it. Therefore it is disingenuous — and in fact objectively false — to argue that the expressions of such themes are somehow objectively “new and refreshing.” In fact, it is just another well-known trope with “the gods” and “fate” filed off and replaced by labels saying “chaos” and “real life.” It is, as I said, Satanas ex machina, with the writers taking the side of the villains rather than the heroes.

Furthermore, were we to hold the sequence of events laid out in No Country For Old Men up to a mirror, with the heroes in the place of the villains, with Chigurh running stupidly after Moss but being thwarted at every turn by the power of the hero’s… well, purity and righteousness (since the only explanation we ever get as to how Chigurh can vanish in the middle of gunfights, and appear noiselessly behind ex-special-forces officers is that he’s a relentless psychopath), the story you’d get would be somewhere between the fantasies concocted by my 9-year old (in which the Rebel Alliance has 5 Death Stars and destroys the Empire with contemptuous ease) and bad anime, where the heroes laugh/sneer at the bad guys while kicking their ass. And people would justly say, that it is puerile and simplistic. But somehow, when nihilism and brutality are held up as the bestowers of supremacy, rather than faith and chivalry, we are to believe it is thoughtful and sophisticated.

And this is simply wrongheaded. It is false sophistication, similar to the college student who sneers at his middle-school brother for slurping down strawberry soda while extolling black coffee and chugging Budweiser. It’s saying, “Look how grown-up I am!” It says more about the critic than it does about the film when what is NOT there, (character motivation, backstory, plot structure) is held up as a virtue. It’s not a virtue. It’s actually less. And it can be a very well-acted/directed “less,” (which I will stipulate that No Country For Old Men is) just as bad anime or science-fiction can LOOK awesome. And of course, it’s possible for that to be more enjoyable. There’s LOTS of “traditional narrative” films worse than No Country For Old Men, just as I’ve had lots of “apple pies” that have tasted worse than a really good raw apple. But a true judgment will be found in comparing the best of both.

 

 

 

Retro Review: No Country For Old Men… Or Anyone Else.

Spoilers Be Here, for anyone who still wants to see it.

So, having nothing better to do while I wrapped presents, I decided to fill in the gaps in my filmography and watch NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN on Netflix, having heard that it was good from… well, lots of places.

Tell me, when did Tommy Lee Jones let people convince him that it was intellectual to appear in movies where nihilism got substituted for plot? For that matter, when did Americans get convinced of that? And can we all finally agree that it’s basically the professorially approved version of the neckbeards who go around thinking that reading Ayn Rand makes them edgy?

This movie is basically The Hunted with two more characters, and a less-satisfying ending, which up until this point I would not have believed possible. But no, we’re not supposed to be disappointed with the ending, in which the supposed protagonist gets killed off-screen by random Mexican drug-lords, the villain walks away from a random car crash, and Tommy Lee Jones literally never sees either of them. No, we’re supposed to admire, as one critic tells us, how “The Neo-Western which builds on recognizable Western imagery to reach a very different conclusion and worldview. ” One in which “We’re left with a frightening interplay of the arbitrary and the inevitable, in which we must fear both moral punishment and the total lack of moral order , yet can’t trust in either,” because Moss the thief protagonist is killed, the sadistic villain Chigurh gets away, and the sheriff never comes close to saving or catching anyone.

We’re supposed to believe that this symbolizes the triumph of chaos and nihilism, and that Chigurh’s ending — that Chigurh himself, symbolized by his coin toss — is a sort of avatar of merciless fate. Which is absolute and total bullshit for any constructed story as a claim. Because there is no structure here. There is no overwhelming weakness of the protagonists that leads to their downfall, nor any strength to the villain that ensures his triumph. The only chaos that is generated is that which the Coen brothers generate themselves. Which is, of course, as all bad writers know, MUCH easier than writing characters. Characters have to have consistent motivations, skillsets, ethics, etc. But Fate can do anything, at any time. Can’t question it; it’s Fate! This is not innovative writing nor is it new. It is a mere funhouse reflection of the old, a Satanas ex machina in which the forces of evil obey the writers’ command to turn everything to shit.

In so doing, the film recapitulates the old saw that gets trotted out in every shitty graduate English Studies department in the world when you dare oppose the orthodoxy of nihilism and the Miserific Vision of the senseless, the brutal, the chaotic world: “It is questioning the idea of meaning.” I remember asking, when I was still in one of those programs myself, “Well, do I get to question the utility of that question?” My professor just looked at me and said, “No.”

And that is why films like NO COUNTRY are symbolic, not of some transcendent truth about the triumph of chaos, but of the infantilization of studies of Literature. You’re just not allowed to question the question. Essentially, the writers of such films get to put their fingers in their ears and scream “I asked first!” and pout at you for not playing their game. But it isn’t a game. It’s not that interesting, because the outcome has been predetermined from the start. It’s Oedipus Rex with the basic goodness and nobility of Oedipus subtracted from it. Instead of a man who wanted to be a hero brought low by the machinations of the gods, we have a low opportunist smacked down by fate and a sadistic hit man elevated because reasons. This isn’t a reexamination, much less an insight, into old themes, it is their parody and degradation. It is, as Chesterton said, “the thought that kills thought.” And as Roger Ebert said of another film, “It is like the story of a man falling off a cliff. There is no possible action but that he continue to fall, and no possible outcome but that he hit the ground and die.” The only difference in this film is that we are made to think that there might be a different outcome for most of it. In other words, NO COUNTRY was a bait-and-switch that robs not only old men of their country, but the rest of us of two hours of our lives.

And the sons-of-bitches who committed it ought to be made to give it back.

 

Writing Roundup 2018: The Bad, The Good, and The Beautiful

Well, for the last blog entry of the year, it’s time for 2018’s Writing Roundup. I’ll start with the bad news.

2018 was my worst year for short story sales since 2014. I was only able to sell two stories to new markets, though I am proud of both sales. “Iron Out Of Vulcan,” about a strange apocalypse that spared only the disabled, appeared in the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and “In The Republic Of The Blind,” a military Space Opera originally written for (of all things) an anthology on Space Marine Midwives (which as far as I know never launched) sold to Amazing Stories. Of course, it is always nice to crack a new pro magazine market, so that is the silver lining.

However, 2018 was also my best year for actually writing, possibly in my life. The first part of the year was taken up by receiving my very first novel contract, which takes a bit of the sting out of the aforementioned short fiction sales slump, from Digital Fiction Pub, for a 53,000-word middle-grade science-fiction adventure on the moon with the tentative title of The Girl Who Wasn’t There. This should be released in 2019.
The next major project that I tackled was the rewriting (at the request of a Publisher-Who-Cannot-Be-Named) of a manuscript I had previously submitted, tentatively titled Beneath The Verdant Tide.
And finally, I finished the draft of the full novel-length version of A Doctor To Dragons, which is tentatively titled All Things Huge and Hideous. I hope to have this released in early 2019, but if you want an early look, the chapters are being released each month to my Patreon backers.

My first novel manuscript took me five years to finish. This year I knocked out two while revising a third, so I’d say that this represents a major leap forward in my production, including the discovery of the fact that I am indeed capable of writing a novel LESS than 125,000 words in length.

All in all, a good year, and I can’t wait for the next one. I hope all my readers feel the same. May the New Year bring you all the best.

Scott Huggins

Dear Stabby: Alone In The Crowd

Dear Stabby,

Thus far, the New Unreality Method has been serving me splendidly. My patient’s priorities register nothing as important that ranks higher on the reality register than her time in the state school, while her free time is entirely taken up by a digital “feed”, which she mainly uses in crafting a persona which is a nervous wreck, proud of it, and has been trained to regard any suggestion of improvement as tantamount to a boot upon her face. She is socially reliant on a fractious and treacherous “support network” of other digital denizens of this kind. She is stone ignorant of the Enemy, regarding Him as a bogey conjured by those who simply will not accept her inner beauty (with a theoretical but largely illusory extension to the beauty of everyone else.) It is, in fact, going so well that I have caught myself in complacency. Please apprise me as to any likely pitfalls or counterattacks.

Yours conspiratorially,

What Can Possibly Go Wrong?

Dear What,

You have clearly made excellent use of your opportunities and have your patient right where you want her. So much so that I almost suspect you of using this letter as an opportunity to advance yourself. The condition you have your patient in is exactly what we would like: a human who trumpets her own flaws as virtues, for the purpose of pleasing people she neither truly knows nor cares for. You plainly have her convinced that the sources of all her unhappiness are external, while the source of what happiness she has (or should have) is internal. This is a great triumph. Because as long as she is focused on the shortcomings of her acquaintances, or the World in general, she is rendered powerless by two main factors: Firstly, she is concerned with something that is mostly fiction. Oh, not that her acquaintances, or the World, do not have shortcomings. We have been hard at work seeing that they do! But her perception of what those shortcomings are all come from the narrow, parochial perspective that must be any human’s view of another. Secondly, that while she can do a great deal to change herself, she can do almost nothing to change others, still less the World.

But the major thing that concerns me in your letter is that you mention no relationships outside of the digital world. No family. If you simply forgot, that is very careless, and a blind spot you had better attend to before the Enemy does. Or, perhaps you have succeeded in isolating her from romantic love or strong friendships in favor of addiction to the digital world. This would be a positive step: we want the Humans to be frightened and alone, and you may think that the loneliness you have achieved makes your patient safe from harmful doctrine and addicted to pseudo-relationships. But there is one great flaw in this that is sometimes overlooked: the patient knows that she is lonely.

If she knows she is lonely, then she will tend to latch on to any real relationship that is offered.  Such as acquaintances inviting her to social gatherings or clubs disconnected with the digital world, or even (Our Father Below forbid) a church! The Enemy is adept at using tactics of this kind, and your patient does not appear to have any attachments that would prevent her from following any person who offered her true Friendship.

Now you might be tempted to make your patient a shut-in. A Paranoid, believing that any person not part of her digital circle is de facto an enemy. But this is harder than it appears, and if it collapses it tends to collapse utterly. Far more reliable is the temptation to Sex.

Sex is a wonderful substitute for relationships and very reliable. In the first place, very few humans are at all hard to tempt into sexual activity, and we have been hard at work making it even easier. I suspect, in fact, that you have laid the groundwork already, and that you will find that her digital circle will be entirely supportive of any and all sexual activity you can induce her to perform. We have taught the humans that, like fragility, sexual promiscuity is to be celebrated as a virtue: that it is bold, heroic, and defiant, rather than being an activity that practically all multicellular animals perform without a thought.

Of course, besides the fact that fornication is a sin (and we have practically eliminated both those words from their vocabularies except as jokes) it has excellent value for you as a means of ensnaring the patient. Firstly, while we have tried to downplay this factor as much as we can, sex ties people together, and female humans particularly focus on the relational aspect. If you play your cards right, you may get your patient to believe that sex is a relationship by itself. But even if you do not, you will be able to tie her to a partner, or better, a series of partners, with whom she will always be seeking fulfillment and never finding it. And the overwhelming advantage to this is that she will stop recognizing  she is lonely. How could she be, with another human always around to leech from, to fight against, and to hate for not valuing her as she longs to be valued? Even as unlikely a place as their own memes have recognized this and put it very well: “The worst thing is not to be lonely, but to be around people that make you feel alone.”

But you must never let her suspect the truth of this. Tie her into romantic and sexual relationships that she cannot find the strength to walk away from, and that can never fulfill her. The mere fact of having a partner whose feelings and schedule interfere with her own will make a true Friendship difficult, and an altered schedule a struggle. And if you have your patient as well in hand as your letter suggests, you should find it easy to guide her toward partners as shallow and empty as she is. Who will also demand that she fulfill them in the same impossible manner that she expects them to fulfill her. Look up the term codependent. Even better would be to make her a mother, and to tie her to children. Those whirling vortices of time and attention will make her unable to focus on anything — especially anything as ephemeral and unimportant as her own soul — for years. And, of course, they are likely, with such a mother, to grow up exactly like her. Hell does still need food, you know.

Sincerely,

Stabby

Dear Stabby: The Awful Beginning

By Stabigail Van Burnin

With, as always, apologies to C.S. Lewis and Screwtape.

Dear Stabby: Through no fault of my own, I have been assigned to one of the worst patients in the world: a young man who has been raised in a Christian household and who has kept up an interest in matters of faith and theology. He’s most of the way through high school and already advanced in the Enemy’s service beyond most adults. Where do I even start in the face of such a terrible beginning?

–Roasted

Dear Roasted,

First of all, no one wants to hear your whining about how unfair the situation is. Either you were assigned to this patient by random chance, or you weren’t paying sufficient attention to your superiors to influence them better in your favor. The first is just bad luck, the second is incompetence, and either way, no one cares.

The first thing to determine is whether your youth is really as advanced as you believe. Is he truly devoted to the Enemy, or is he merely loud about matters that he truly does not understand? Is he comfortable with the world in which he finds himself? When he is with friends who are not Christian, does he challenge them? Or even hold himself apart from them and refuse to agree with their worldliness? Or does he throw himself in with them wholeheartedly, pretending to be one of them, before going back to his family and his church, where he throws himself just as much into praising his God?

If it is the latter, then you truly have nothing to worry about: the wretched creature is merely imitating his surroundings, and once he goes off to college (I presume you ARE, at least, trying to get him into their colleges, the transformation of which is our resounding triumph of this century in that nation.) he will quickly fall away from any church and into your lap like the ripe — and dead — fruit that he is.

If, on the other hand, he complains that he is alone, and that he cannot find anyone with whom he can be honest: that he feels like a stranger in this world and longs for fellow-workers with whom he can share burdens and confide, then you will have a harder road, because you have a man who has actually begun to realize that loyalty to his God and to his own soul has a cost. This can, however, be fought on two levels.

The first and best is that of simple despair. Draw his attention toward the right kind of people: friends that hate all he stands for and yet are “nice to him,” or even better, “fun.” Draw his attention to how easily happy they appear and how they outnumber the people like him in this world we control. Never let him find like-minded people: if he runs into them, draw his attention to every defect of their characters (humans always have plenty), while downplaying those of the friends you want him to have. This way, when the crisis of faith comes (and it always comes, the Enemy foolishly allows them), he will have no support. In fact, his “friends” may even demand he abandon his faith in exchange for their support.

However, if this were going to work, you would probably already be seeing signs of it. Assuming you are not, then he is more tough-minded, your situation is worse. You have a young man who is already used to losing friends and being called a crank and a bigot for simply not agreeing with everything the popular people say. Therefore he knows that it is survivable. So the best thing in that case, as Undersecretary Screwtape once suggested, is to harp on his conscience and suggest that since he is being persecuted, he might as well dedicate himself to extremes of devotion that will turn him into one. Let him rail against all he comes in contact with. Never let him feel he has “done enough.” NEVER let him remember that the Enemy holds simple endurance to be a primary virtue; that, in the words of Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Although it’s unlikely he’s ever heard of Milton; we’ve got that fellow out of most of their schools. In so doing, you will, at the very least, make his beliefs extremely unattractive to all he may come in contact with, and you may be able to drive him into a cult.

But whatever the course of action, you must work on his emotions and the dread that every human has of loneliness. Do not let him notice the extremes of loneliness that so many followers of Christ went through. Let him believe that if he were really pleasing the Enemy, he would feel better. The Enemy wants the humans to discover the facts of the world and His spiritual principles, to base their actions on those facts and principles, and allow the results of their actions to shape their emotions. We, of course, want to invert this: for them to found their actions upon their emotions, and to choose or declare facts and principles based upon those. Since such “facts and principles” are as watery and formless as the emotions upon which they are based, they are thus open to every manipulation we can devise. We are aided in this by the fact that all human children naturally begin life in this way, and most of them on some level long to return to it.

Stabby

Are you a demon who has a question for Dear Stabby? Contact it at this link and submit your question!

 

 

Fallen Horseshoes To Appear In Anthology!

I’m very happy to say that I got confirmation that one of my earliest published stories, “Fallen Horseshoes” which concerns a blacksmith with a haunted forge, will be reprinted in an anthology this coming year. Details will follow, but for now, I’m going to link to the sample snippet and be happy that this story will appear somewhere other than the back issue of a not-very-well-known magazine.

Handwavio Obviosum: Harry Potter and the Woman Behind The Curtain

Read The Goblet Of Fire to my kids earlier this year, and it struck me that the Triwizard Tournament about which the story revolves is really a great example of an author wanting very desperately to have her cake and eat it, too. If Rowling has a strength as an author, it’s her ability to write characters we fall in love with and hate (because they’re all of us and the kids we went to school with) and her ability to pace her stories to keep us reading.

But she never was a gamer, and she doesn’t understand games. This should have been obvious with her creation of Quidditch, a game that exists for no other purpose but to catapult Harry alone to stardom, by placing him in the position on a team to always, 100% of the time, win (or rarely, lose) the game for his House.¹ And there are no other sports (seriously, when have you ever been to a school where there is ONE sport?) and they never play other schools (which is kind of odd, because there are WORLD CUPS in Quidditch, aren’t there?)

This was never more obvious than the Triwizard Tournament. Granted, Rowling has a serious problem, here: just making Harry the Hogwarts champion by random draw would be a coincidence of the first water, and unbelievable. Of course, she could have had Moody/Crouch make certain of that by using some previously-unknown spell to make him the real champion, but it would have been a dead giveaway since it is indeed only logical that junior and senior (6th and 7th year) students will be the most capable of doing ANY task in a high school. Plus, of course, it loses the entire reason that Cedric can be killed and for Harry to be hated throughout the book.

So Rowling comes up with the whole fourth champion trick. Which serves every purpose except making any actual sense. Consider: the solutions that everyone but Dumbledore arrives at are quite sensible: 1) Don’t let Harry Compete, and 2) Give the other schools additional champions.
When these solutions are proposed, there is a lot of handwaving about some sort of “magical contract” that demands Harry compete, so that we do not pay attention to the woman behind the curtain who does not want the plot to go that way, dammit! But never a word is said about how it will be enforced. The Goblet, having chosen the champions, has no further role to play in the tournament.² There was no reason that Dumbledore could not have agreed to the quite reasonable solution of having Harry operate under impossible constraints (e.g. Giving Harry only one minute to accomplish each challenge). Or, since all the events but the final were judged, and the judges were under no constraints to judge fairly, by simply instructing the judges to give Harry zeroes no matter how he performed.  In fact, it’s kind of out of character that Maxime and Karkaroff don’t do that.
But even so, who does this magical contract punish if it’s not carried out? Hogwarts? How? Harry? Apparently not, because Harry drags his feet over the Second Task and goes into it completely unprepared, and the Tournament makes no move to punish him for his procrastination. This of course would have been the easiest way for Harry to avoid the opprobrium of his fellow students: just refuse to succeed.

So what can we learn from this? I suggest a few basic lessons: Firstly, don’t make things you have no interest in (like sport and games) central to your conflict. Secondly, if you create something like a “magical contract” it needs to have an enforcement clause. Real things have real consequences. Finally, handwaving to make people stop asking questions rarely works well.

¹This would have been easy enough to fix, by the way, and still let Harry do his thing. The obvious solution would have been to make the Snitch catchable by every player on the team and then make Harry a Chaser who was just really good at finding Snitches.

²This also would have worked as a partial fix. If the Goblet itself had magically spawned the challenges, this would have actually made sense. It would not have continued the tournament until Harry passed (or failed) his challenge, and additional challengers would have had no challenge to fight.

 

A Modest Proposal: The Bombadil Scale of Sidequests

A friend recently asked in a open forum what the proper size of a sidequest in a novel should be. We all know sidequests: those are the moments in which the characters pause in the middle of their Main Quest to do Something Else. What the Something Else may be has a huge (but not the only) effect on its proper size. This got me thinking, and I would like to propose the following system of measurement:

The SI unit of measure for a sidequest is the bombadil. One bombadil is the amount of gratuitous sidequest necessary to make 50% of readers give up on their first readthrough. No sidequest should ever measure more than 0.05 bombadils, though famous authors may push it to 0.1 bombadil.

The amount of prose necessary to comprise a bombadil is variable, and depends on the general tediousness of the sidequest, the characters involved in the sidequest, how much they grow in the sidequest, and how it affects the progress of the Main Quest. Of course, it also depends on the raw length of the sidequest, but that is not as important as you might think. A truly gifted writer can make the sidequest just as important as the Main Quest.

So let’s look at the archetypal case. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, our heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, all get ensorcelled by an evil tree and freed by Tom Bombadil, a mysterious humanoid who takes them home to his just-as-strange wife for dinner. Bombadil later frees them from an evil barrow-wight and arms them with the treasure it was guarding. Breaking it down we have:

T = general Tediousness: Very High. The characters eat and sleep and listen to childish lyric poetry (10), slightly offset by them getting into two spots of serious and interesting trouble (-2): 8
S = characters exclusive to the Sidequest: 2 (lowest value for this variable is 1)
M = characters on the Main Quest: 4
g = growth of the characters because of the sidequest: Significant, but small. Frodo shows that he is capable of thinking, fighting and securing a temporary victory at need: 4
D = What it Diverts from: Walking to the nearest town. This is difficult, because on the one hand, diverting us from something that should be skipped right over adds tedium, but diverting us in the middle of something absolutely critical to the main plotline is worse, so this defies an easy, linear scale. Allow negative numbers on this one, with zero being the value at which the plot is progressing at a steady, unhurried, pace: Just walking along: -2
Finally, we introduce 4 as a constant, because all great equations have constants, and because a sidequest is only about a quarter as interesting as the main quest at best, a fact writers should ALWAYS remember, regardless of how clever they find themselves.

This gives us the following equation:

TSD²/4Mg = Qs (Sidequest value in bombadils)

And plugging in our values, we get:

8*2*2²/4*4*4 = 1 bombadil.

Initially, I had been going to factor in the sidequest’s ultimate importance to the story, whch would have made the score lower because one of the hobbit’s weapons, acquired on this sidequest, ultimately helps to destroy the Lord of the Nazgul. But the point is that we do not know that, and therefore it has no effect on whether or not the reader gets bored to death and puts the book down.

So, for some examples:

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke’s training sequence on Dagobah: Qs = 0.05 bombadil
T = 5 (cool Jedi powers and a fight with ghost-Vader, offset by boring platitudes on Planet Swamp).
S = 1
D = 0.5 (an increasingly-tense hunt for the Falcon, but Luke has to have a storyline of his own)
M = 1 (no, Artoo doesn’t count)
g = 6 (Luke becomes at least half a Jedi, but undisciplined.

The Eye Of The World: Perrin and Egwene’s sojourn with Elyas: Qs = 0.25 bombadils
T = 4 (It’s Jordan’s incredibly-detailed prose, but the whole thing with the wolves is awesome)
S = 1 (Elyas)
D = 1 (It’s about on pace with everything else)
M = 2 (Perrin and Egwene)
g = 8 (This sidequest basically starts Perrin’s character arc as a badass)

Moby Dick: The chapter on whales: Qs = 36 bombadils 
T = 9. A lecture on whales. In the middle of a novel. Only not a 10 because whales are inherently cool.
S = 1
D = -2 (for being Moby Dick. They’re sailing.)
M = 1 (Ishmael)
g = 1 (he learns about whales)

It: That one scene near the end as the kids escape the recently-defeated It. Yeah. THAT one: Qs = 96 bombadils
T = (the exact number defies description, but the Ick factor makes me conservatively estimate it, on a scale of 1 to 10 at) 27.
S = 1
D = 5 (seriously, the book was OVER).
M = 7
g = 1 (in a really disgusting way)

Note that when main characters are uninvolved in the sidequest, you are approaching infinite bombadils, and should just stop.

So, there you have it, a completely objective and indisputable method for solving the worth of various sidequests. You’re welcome.