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.

 

The Lesson Behind The Lesson: Stakes and the Ending.

Everyone should be a teacher at some point in their lives. I don’t mean, of course, that everyone should be a paid teacher in a public school. There are far too many hoops to jump through for that. But in teaching your subject matter, you sometimes discover new truths about it. You’re forced to, when you have to explain your choices to people who haven’t yet developed the unconscious competence that you’ve absorbed through years of trial and error.

This semester, I got to teach about 33 high-school seniors the basics of short story writing. Among other things, I did expose them to a whole list of handy “don’ts.” Don’t switch viewpoints if you can avoid it. Don’t write in both past and present tense at the same time. Don’t end your story with “And then they woke up and it had all been a dream.”

Of course, these being high-schoolers, I got ignored a lot. Having taught high school for years, I am well aware of their tendency to do whatever is easiest, besides the permanent streak of “you can’t make me care” that is natural to the age. But I didn’t expect to get so much apparent pushback on that last one. I had stories that ended when the main character woke up. I had stories that ended when the main character got dragged away to an insane asylum. Or back to their cell because they were already in an insane asylum. Or won what turned out to be a game.

And I realized then that this wasn’t pushback at all: this was the desperation of people who didn’t know what to do to end their stories, and hadn’t seen the common thread that was so obvious to me. Many of my readers will have figured it out already, but for those who aren’t to where they can do that yet (and we all pass through that stage), I’ll spell it out: the problem with all of these endings is that they destroy the actual story.

How do they destroy it? Well it helps, perhaps, to think of a story as a game. A game played for stakes. When you read a story, the characters’ lives, fortunes, their sacred honor, even their souls may be at stake. If it’s at stake, that means they can be lost. When the events of the story are revealed to be a dream, a hallucination, or a game, then that means none of it was ever really at stake in the first place. It’s like discovering that the players around the poker table, wagering thousands of dollars, were in fact playing with Monopoly money.

So I had to break that down for them, and it was interesting to watch the lights go on. And there are even ways around these endings that can make them meaningful. A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge waking up, but you never doubt that his soul was really at stake and that the Ghosts were real. Shutter Island does indeed end with Leo DiCaprio’s character being dragged off to the insane asylum, but it works because he did have a moment of understanding in which he could have chosen the hard road back up to sanity, rather than embracing his delusions. In Larry Niven’s and Steven Barnes’s Dream Park, the game matters because a) the characters are well-defined enough that the game has real-world meaning to them, besides being entangled with an actual murder. The problem with these endings, most of the time, is that the writer confuses emotion with stakes.

We’ve all been really scared by a bad dream. The fear is real. And certainly, the plight of someone suffering through insanity (or even mental illness) is heart-wrenching. But watching someone be scared by a bad dream, or someone be insane, or someone be thrilled by a game is not interesting. That’s like watching an injured athlete sit on the sidelines. It may be very sad that he is there, but it’s not going to change for the whole game. He has no role to play in it, and he will be lucky to get two sentences said about him for thirty seconds of screen time.

You can tell a meaningful story only if the dream, the insanity, or the game have real meaning in the characters’ real lives. Anything less, and the readers have no reasons to care

 

 

Release Day: Iron Out Of Vulcan!

Today, my story “Iron Out Of Vulcan” releases in the anthology Battling In All Her Finery from Mad Scientist Journal! Accompanied by twenty other tales of awesome warrior women (and who doesn’t like those), it is a tale of post-alien conquest apocalyptic survival. Short version, of you liked Furiosa, you’ll love Scout.

And just for your enjoyment: an excerpt:
I rode between two drum-fed National Guard .50 caliber machine guns mounted in a plexiglass ball-turret, mounted on the back of a microbus shell welded over the bed of the six-wheel Ford F550. Again, I peered through the iron crosshairs at the black speck in the distance.

Definitely a motorcycle.

“We have a friend,” I called through to the cabin. “Watch for IEDs.”

“Oh, sure; I’m on it,” Mina deadpanned. But she signed to Eric, which was good enough. Paul moved forward, too. It was a standard trick. Make your target watch you, and they might miss your roadside bombs. Best way to take us out, unless they had spike-strips.

“Who is it, Scout?” asked Mina. “Not Them, I take it?”

“She’d be swearing more,” Eric grunted.

“I don’t know,” I said. Not Them. A gang out of Chicago or Dallas, maybe. The remnant of a Mexican drug cartel, perhaps. The bandidos had tried taking Criptown from us last summer. Cost us a lot of good Crips and ammo we couldn’t spare.

Some thought we shouldn’t call the place ‘Criptown.’ Worried it might scare potential recruits off because of the old gang name. As if any of them had got out of the cities before the nukes hit.

I looked back at the cycle. We could only hope that cycle-boy’s friends would decide Vulcans weren’t worth the carnage.

I looked at the empty road ahead. Somewhere out there, a radio had called for us. Was it a trap? Some Vulcans had disappeared. Maybe this cyclist’s friends had set us up. Or maybe someone else had. Or maybe – just maybe – the signal was genuine. It was a chance we would have to take, if we could find them.

We needed people desperate enough to live free.

Return To Amazing Stories!

I just realized that I never followed up on the post from June about my story about Space Marine Midwives (In Space).

It has been sold to Amazing Stories, and will appear in the next issue releasing mid-November. I was in the second-to-last issue of Amazing Stories when it folded in 2000, so I find the symmetry especially pleasing to find myself in the second issue of its next incarnation.

The story that will appear is called “In The Republic Of The Blind,” and is a twist on H.G. Wells’s better-known work set on a long-forgotten colony where the formerly disabled preserve their own cultures.

You Can Always Get What You Want… But First You Have To Figure Out What You Need. OR: Yes, You Can Have Your Space Fighters Dogfighting In Space.

One of the things that truly sucks about Fans of Anything is that they all have their ideas about what constitutes “Anything.” It’s not a soluble problem: without passion, you don’t have fans at all, and with passionate love of what they like comes equally passionate hatred for what they don’t like.

Science-fiction fans, especially the book-reading ones (yes, there are non-book reading ones… sort of… shudder) really love to bag on movies for getting space combat “wrong.” Just to take some examples not at random: 1) you would not be able to see beam weapons in space. 2) Human reflexes would be almost useless in space combat because computers would fight so much faster. 3) Weapons would strike from so far away that enemy ships would be invisible to the eye, and 4) Therefore dogfighting starfighters are stupid.

And let’s admit one thing right off. If you’re writing super-hard SF, and restricting yourself to tech we can build today or are planning to build tomorrow (see Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall for an epic space-battle scene of that type) then you’re pretty much right on all counts.

But the problem is that the same things are said of works that utilize gravity drives, hyperspace, force shields and any number of other things that move the fiction completely into the Space Opera subgenre. To which I reply: are you KIDDING me?

Look, folks, you can’t have hard science-fiction and space opera at the same time. You can sure as hell enjoy both: I do. But if you’re going to complain about spacecraft maneuvering like airplanes and ships hitting each other from visible ranges, then let’s be honest and complain about EVERYTHING. Let’s have no warp drives, no magic shields, no acceleration compensator fields, no antigravs, nothing.

And for cripes’ sake let’s not pretend that space opera is worse LITERATURE. One of the finest works of SF Literature in history is Dune. The novel that decided that guns would be obsolete because of personal body shields that would bring back a form of feudalism, and as a side note wiped out computers because of a religious war. Or we could look at The Left Hand Of Darkness that posits a branch of humanity that have evolved a sexual mechanism that hasn’t been seen in any known species more advanced than… what? Frogs?

No, if you want to make your Space Opera work, then make it work. Just don’t be stupid about it. I can outline a way to make manual starfighter combat plausible right now. It involves a lot of handwavium, but it’s not hard.

Imagine for a moment that humanity has developed the (what could I call it?) the Yamamoto Field. The Field’s generator can be carried by a fighter-sized craft. The Field has the following qualities:

1) It’s impenetrable to E-M radiation except for visible light. Any other form of radiation is absorbed or passes through is refracted around it. Its radius when activated is at least a half-mile.

2) The Field also prevents computers and other delicate electronics from functioning inside it. It scrambles their circuits. Only simple mechanical calculation devices can aid the human pilots.

3) The Field deflects incoming objects directly proportional to their velocity and inversely proportional to their mass.

So, now I have a Field that’s going to protect our fighters from targeting computers, guided missiles, and high-velocity mass-drivers. It provides no protection from lasers, but you’re going to have to fire those pretty much with the Mark I Eyeball assisted with passive lenses. Since the Field can also be mounted on capital ships, they will have much the same problems. Granted, nuclear weapons might be brought in to solve those problems, but larger Fields might nullify that threat.

Now, it’s possible that I overlooked something in the design of the Yamamoto Field. It’s possible that one of my commenters will gleefully point it out to me. But I trust the point is made: a piece of tech COULD be plausibly designed to bring back WWII Fighters In Space. You might not like that story. You might not want to read that story. Which is fine; there are poor lost souls out there who don’t like Dune.

But it doesn’t mean it can’t be a good story.

 

 

 

 

How Not To Worldbuild: Ep. I, The Phantom Mess.

So, I realize it’s a little late to bash on Star Wars, Ep. I, The Phantom Menace, but I have a good excuse; I have three children. So upon discovering that the prequels existed, which they did by the subtle and clever ability of knowing how to count things in a sequence, they asked me if I would please, please PLEASE check out the prequels from the library so they could watch it despite my wife’s and my strong moral position of not having such filth in our house.

These are the struggles facing those of us who dare to parent responsibly and with discipline.

But yes, I caved.

And I am proud that one of the first questions my son asked was pretty much: “So what’s a blockade, and how come the Trade Federation can just do that?”

Which of course, was one of the questions that Lucas should have asked himself before penning this godsawful mess. See, in the opening crawl, we are told that the whole mess with Naboo stemmed from the taxation of “outlying trade routes” being “in dispute.” Which led to the Trade Federation imposing a supposedly “perfectly legal” blockade of Naboo because…

Because why? Because it was Freak-Out Friday? We know that Naboo and the Trade Federation are both member states of this Galactic Republic. I mean, ignoring the fact that a blockade is pretty much always an act of war, and ignoring the fact that I can’t even THINK of a historical precedent for a polity that would legally allow one member state to straight-up blockade another member state, what possible advantage does this confer to the Trade Federation? Senator Palpatine later says that the “taxation” of the trade routes issue began in the Galactic Senate, but never says who was taxing what, or why, or how the Trade Federation blockading Naboo makes sense as a retaliatory measure.

As a side note, I think the only thing that makes remote sense is that somehow, Naboo refused to pay the taxes, and the Trade Federation retaliated with a blockade. And when Chancellor Velorum sent the Jedi to negotiate, Sidious ordered their deaths and the subsequent invasion of Naboo to prolong the crisis. Of course, this is pretty funny when you realize that the whole thing relies on the Senate being just fine with ignoring the invasion of Naboo, AND YET ready to remove the Chancellor for IGNORING the invasion of Naboo, AND THEN replacing him with the Senator from Naboo, who will not ignore the invasion of Naboo.

Now, I suppose one can always say that that’s a hell of a lot of backstory that’s not very interesting, but that ignores the fact that the original Star Wars painted a completely logical picture of the Imperial Government with just a few sentences in passing:

“Holding her is dangerous. If word leaks out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.”

“Send a distress signal. Then inform the Senate that all aboard were killed.”

And later…

“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.”

“That’s impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”

“The regional governors will now have direct control… fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

In five sentences, we have a complete and coherent picture: The Emperor is consolidating control over the relatively-new Galactic Empire, and using the equivalent of nuclear weapons to do it. He and Vader are keeping the inflammatory arrest of a Senator for treason quiet until the Emperor can dissolve the Senate, and the Death Star is ready to back the power play. All of this is reasonable, and it takes maybe three minutes of dialogue. That’s excellent worldbuilding.

Twenty years later, in its place, we have far more dialogue that gets us exactly nowhere. It’s like he just didn’t care.

Where Stories Come From: When The Fleet Comes

I think it’s safe to say that the most popular story I’ve written is “When The Fleet Comes” (which you can buy at the link to the right for only $1.00). It was for months the best-selling short story for Digital Fiction Corporation, and for all I know, still is.

“Where do you get your ideas” is a classic question to writers that has become a cliche, and most of us respond with something like “where don’t you get ideas,” because seriously, they’re everywhere. Contrary to many assumptions, writers never run out of ideas. They just run out of ways to execute them properly, which is a lot harder. But this one, I remember.

So many of my ideas for writing stories seem to come from me being tired of reading the same old plots again. The core of the story — that the Earth is destroyed — is a very old one, going back arguably to religious prophecy. But those stories always seem to end in one of two ways: humanity escapes to a new world and/or achieves revenge on its destroyers, and starting anew as masters of their own fates (When Worlds Collide, Titan, A.E.) or it’s entirely a memento mori tale (On The Beach, I Am Legend).

And yet history is replete with the stories of people whose tribes were almost wiped out, leaving them with no home to go to, no new frontier within their reach. The Native Americans, the Tibetans, the South Vietnamese, and too many others to count were left with the choice to live under an alien dictatorship, or to flee into exile and live with aliens. And they had to go on, and build new lives in cultures that would never be theirs, and preserve parts of themselves to pass on to their children, knowing that it would never be more than parts.

There was no one moment that inspired me to write the story. I just wondered how people from my own heritage might deal with the loss of their entire social and cultural framework. And so I considered Sean, the orphan adopted into alien culture, never really considering “his” people to be his. And I considered Amanda and her father, George, trying to, in their own way, continue the human race on an alien world, and finding their own, flawed answers to the question, what is important? What do we remember? What do we do to survive? What makes us… us? They do it by turning inward, but also by accepting a grim necessity. And I also considered Sean’s alien wife, Ajna, and her well-meaning naivete that hurts him, but nevertheless holds a degree of insight into his pain.

In any case, it seems to have spoken to more people than anything else I’ve ever written, and I think this is one of the things I really value in the SF I choose to read: the challenging of the dichotomies that are so often presented. The cry, “Victory or Death” echoes down through the ages and is a popular theme, but what happens when the first is out of your reach and the second seems unthinkable? If you are one of those who read the story and enjoyed it, I can only say, thank you for showing me that I am not alone in considering these things.

Reverse Poison: Writing Advice

Chemical weapons are funny things. I remember doing research on them back in high school, and reading about what were called “medical countermeasures.” This meant, basically, that you would take someone who had been exposed to a nerve agent that, say, depressed neurotransmitters, and you would give them a shot of something that would overproduce them. Of course, you really had to be careful with this, because taking the antidote by itself would kill you just as surely as the chemical agent was. Essentially, you poisoned the body in the opposite way it had been poisoned, and that let you go on living. But the body had to have been poisoned that way in the first place.

Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird reminded me of this, especially when, late in the book, she gave the advice that when one is suffering writer’s block, one must “resign as the controller of one’s fate.”

Now, the problem with that advice is that by itself, it is exactly the kind of advice that I-As-A-Beginning-Writer did not need to hear. It sounds like, “Hey, don’t worry about being blocked. Go off and fill yourself with the universe and come back when you are Inspired And Ready To Write.” And by itself, that advice is the Death Of All Writing. Because that feeling is rare and far between, and the only way I have ever found of summoning it with any chance of success is to write when I do NOT feel it.

Now, taken in context with the rest of the book, it’s pretty clear that what Anne means is more along the lines of, “You can’t summon brilliant writing on demand, so you have to abandon that hope and resign yourself to writing what feels like shit for awhile, even if it’s only a little of it, until you push through and it feels good again.” In that context, the advice is extremely valuable, and leads to good results. The problem is that the quote is so., well, quotable that you run the risk of finding it in isolation — or worse, understanding it in isolation — and poisoning yourself by taking the antidote to a problem you haven’t been privileged to have yet.

Wait for the problem of being a disciplined writer first. Then the advice to resign control of the forward motion makes sense.

Science-Fiction Dont’s: A Micropost

Hi, readers!

I know it’s William Shakespeare’s Dune Monday, but I’m a little behind, so I have to leave you with this observation:

One of the worst things a science-fiction writer can do is to introduce an amazing technology or alien ability, and then do nothing with it.

I was reminded of this when watching Attack of the Clones with my kids. Zam Wessel is chased down by Obi-Wan and Anakin, and under stress begins to revert to her true shape. Anakin recognizes that she is a Changeling.

And then, she utterly fails to change her face, attempting to sneak up on Obi-Wan disguised as the same attractive woman she was when they started chasing her. The whole thing goes nowhere, and we’re left with a terrible sense of disappointment. Never do that to your readers. It’s like going to a banquet and finding out that the delicious dessert in the center of the table is a frosted cardboard prop.

So, the reason I’m behind is that I’ve spent the last month (and a VERY intense last WEEK) revising a 620-page novel and have just sent it to a publisher. I’m done writing today.