Jun 19, 2015

But I Just Want to Write About my Pet Rock: Here's the Missing Ingredient in Your Story

Do you know what contrast is? If somebody asked you point blank, would you have a ready answer?

Now ask yourself: Do I know what contrast is for?

Tilikum Crossing Flooded with Light
by John Magnet Bell
view it on an awesome t-shirt || view it on a cool tote bag

We think we know these things. Your intuition tells you when contrast is missing, but it doesn't always tell you how to fix it. Before we start looking for answers to the questions above, though, let's posit a workable definition of the noun "contrast."

Dictionary.reference.com defines contrast variously as "a striking exhibition of unlikeness" and "opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element's properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness."

Merriam-Webster suggests "to be different especially in a way that is very obvious."

While the Free Dictionary offers "distinction or emphasis of difference by comparison of opposite or dissimilar things, qualities, etc."

Let's fish out some keywords, shall we?


So, with those keywords in mind, let us say that contrast is the expression of ideas (forms or content) that are unlike one another and may be opposed or juxtaposed with different emphases in order to create a perceptual dynamic.

Take a look at the picture below.

Hard to make out anything, right? I deliberately fudged the color and shape contrast.

This is in fact one of my photographic collages, Mr. Glitch, 4: Broken Hopes.

By using color accents within a limited palette, I draw your attention to specific parts of the picture. I do the same with values of light and dark. By making that apple larger than any apple could ever be, I create a contrast in your mind between the possible and the absurd. Contrast, be it about shape or color, creates dynamics.

Yeah, OK, I hear you ask, but how does any of this apply to writing?

Well, Have you ever watched the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino? Right from the start, Serpico wants to be a good cop, wants to be on the up and up. He faces opposition and resistance all the time. Even his girlfriend wants him to get with the program. Nobody wants to be his partner because he won't take bribes. He won't participate in protection rackets. He won't bend just because everybody else has. That's a strong contrast right there: Somebody who steps into a world of shit because "This is how we do things" is just not good enough, and keeps running into the fragile excuses that the corrupt make for themselves.[1]

Contrast in Serpico is achieved through character.  Serpico is emphatically not like the people around him. He is more driven, more persistent, more demanding of himself and others.

A still from Serpico.

Or, take Game of Thrones (the TV show; I can't discuss the books, as I haven't read them). I begin to feel that there are basically two categories of human being in GoT — thugs and victims, exploiters and the exploited, consummate liars and gullible people[2]. Nothing in the middle. It's not the most subtle gradation and all but the most prominent characters become something of a blur. Then you have your super-thugs, which aren't even human: White Walkers with their zombie army, plus a rampaging dragon. It makes for poor watching after a while.

Still from Game of Thrones: White Walker portrayed by Ross Mullan. Via interview on The Verge.

Yet Game of Thrones does have contrasting features, otherwise people would just stop watching. It achieves this, among other things, through color schemes. Up north, by the Wall, the color scheme is almost black and white. The Wildlings dress in practically colorless animal furs. The men of the Watch wear black, black and more black. Rare concessions to color include people's hair and the sickly blue of omnipresent snow, echoed by the abyssal eyes of the White Walkers. Down in King's Landing, devotees of the Faith Militant signal their asceticism by dressing all alike in crude robes of black wool, in stark contrast to the red and gold, the silk and velvet and the floral chasings of court dress. And then, you know, there's the somewhat unfortunate case of the white, ash-blonde Daenerys leading, "saving" and "emancipating" her legions of black/brown people.

However, a story cannot live on visuals alone.

So how can you tell that contrast is lacking in your writing?

ψ If all your characters move, think and talk alike, you don't have separate characters.

ψ When you can't define your characters' motivations (seriously, everybody wants something) they will just schlep along, unchanging and uninteresting. They will exit the stage as they entered: aimlessly. Considering the psychology of a character, if the end and the beginning are interchangeable, then that character is not protagonist material. Supporting cast, maybe. And even then...

ψ When each place in the setting looks the same as every other place, and does nothing but provide your characters with locales to stand in or move through, you don't have separate locations. It's all one big, monochrome blot.

ψ If chapter two doesn't add change and relevance, you don't have contrast. Just continuity. You don't have emphasis, what you have is repetition.

[1] Also the basic narrative premise for Lieutenant Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One. To a lesser degree in Batman Begins.
[2] In case you're wondering, to me both Daenerys and Brienne of Tarth lie closer to thug than victim on the thug-victim spectrum. Nobody is an exemplar of moral conduct in Game of Thrones, and that's one of the show's failings — its worldview is not wide enough to shunt cynicism aside for a couple of minutes. The constant message in GoT is that 99% of human beings want nothing but power over their fellows, and those foolish enough to want something else must adapt or die. You'd think someone in that endless cast of characters would develop beyond refined hypocrisy, for crying out loud. 

Jun 12, 2015

Snippets from the Sketchbook, 1 - Can Your Average Lizard Grow a Beard?

Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. - David Lynch

If you have been following this blog for a while -- or follow me on Google Plus or Twitter -- you know that I create visual art.

However, I don't usually share anything from my sketchbooks. Today, that changes. You see, the more I deepen my interest in the visual arts, the more parallels I find between drafting a story and sketching.

They're both about play. About fun. About creating characters and worlds.

Characters like Spider Sheep.

There's no wrong way to come up with ideas. And if there's one thing we need, all of us writers, bloggers, draftsmen, photographers and jewelers, I would call that thing sanctuary: a place where we can brainstorm until the heart and the page overflow.

A place where wrong ideas are right. A place of quiet openness where the strangest notions become clear and necessary. David Lynch compares this kind of brainstorming to fishing in deep, deep waters.

Larry, the Hipster Lizard

Doodling is like a duck call to the unconscious, where all those precious figments sit in Tumtum trees grooming their feathers (or fins?), waiting for a chance to break through the looking glass and serve you. Our job as artists is to bring wonder into the world. To make possible the things that shouldn't be. When Fritz Leiber introduced his tall and proud barbarian, Fafhrd, he let readers know that Fafhrd lived in a world where furry snakes existed -- yes, furry snakes. The cold north was so cold that snakes grew fur. We all know that's silly, but does it matter? No. Let us enjoy the silliness. Let us take silliness seriously.

Sketchbooks and text files are my fishing grounds. They are my orchard and labyrinth. I can invite you in, show you my flowers made of glass and smoke, my seven-legged frogs... and if you part from my company with more ideas, so much the better.

Steven, the Mackerel

And finally, will your average lizard grow a beard? Yes, one day it will. But to do so, it needs to cross the threshold of imagination.

Bearded dragon via

Post-scriptum: I came up with Spider Sheep, Larry and Steven in the space of an hour or less, just happily doodling away with a calligraphy pen. Love the line thickness variation you can get with those.

Jun 10, 2015

Five Things You Need to Know About Writing a Novel

There are five things you need to know before you start writing a novel. If you don't know these five things, you will probably crash and burn.

Forgive the hyperbole. I know you're not an airplane. Or a boat. The worst thing that can happen is, you won't finish what you started.
So, here are five things you really need to know.

Sunset at Bom Jesus do Monte, Portugal
by John Magnet Bell
view larger on Tumblr

1. Much like design, writing a novel is 1% inspiration and 99% iteration. 

Think of the text as a block of stone and of yourself as a sculptor. Except you have to create the block of stone before you can chisel away and "reveal the statue hidden within it."

You have one advantage over sculptors, though — if you make a mistake, you can create more "stone" to work with.

Here's a tip: Go watch some drawing/painting videos and tutorials on YouTube. Notice how artists begin with rough shapes and define the final composition step by step, never worrying about 'getting it right' all the time. They know they can go back and erase things or correct shapes at any time. You have the same freedom.

Let me point you to a couple of my favorites --

Mural Joe: How to Paint Water on a Beach

Design Cinema, Episode 41: Alien Spaceships 

2. You will love and hate what you've written. 

This is normal. You see the scaffolding around your words, the reader doesn't. You look at your characters and you see puppets on strings, but a reader will come to your puppet show and forget about the strings.

You can always find things to improve and polish, but the reader enters your work through the front door, not the catacombs of your mind, and will not dwell on every imperfection, or every mistake you think you made. I promise.

3. Write the kind of book you would like to read. 

Passion and persistence fuel the best tales ever written. If you write for the market instead of writing for yourself, you're doing it wrong. First, because the market changes on you like a werewolf made of rainbows. Second, because writing to sell is the province of copywriters.

You can be professional, unique, original, and come up with a salable manuscript at the same time: these things aren't mutually exclusive.

Ravens, Clouded Sky
Big Pink in downtown Portland, OR. View larger on Tumblr.

4. World-building is more useful in games than in books.

The nature of games cannot allow the game world to stay undefined. A game world needs boundaries and the player needs to know where to go and what to do.

You will not, I repeat, will not be able to present the entirety of your fantasy world in a single novel. And what's more, readers don't want that. They want to see a story unfold and root for the characters as they peel away mysteries and look for solutions.

The world of a novel is allowed to remain porous and vague. Yes, it is useful to know the geography of the world you created, its proverbs and foods and religions, but allow yourself a modest number of unknowns. Come up with enough information to tell the story and let some questions go without answers.

Dark Chocolate, Cherries and Neon
by John Magnet Bell
looks good on a t-shirt

5. When in doubt, add adventure.

Let's say we have a protagonist called Sam.

Sam goes to a Bell Witch concert and takes a liking to the bassist. So far, that's unremarkable. But... maybe he's taken, so Sam has to deal with her conscience and decide what kind of woman she wants to be. Would she steal someone's boyfriend?

Sam is researching her genealogy and finds out her great-grandmother was an expert archer and her great-grandfather conducted séances in the family home. Interesting, but how does any of this affect Sam's life? Give Sam a problem she can't walk away from. Maybe the ghosts of her grandparents take up residence in her apartment and demand that Sam uncover a big family secret — they won't go away until she does. When Sam crashes at a friend's apartment for a bit of relief, the ghosts follow her there and keep her awake all night. They even torment Sam's friend. Or her grandfather takes over her boyfriend's body and needs to be cast out.

Regarding drama and adventure, the best piece of advice I ever read comes from James N. Frey. The things readers hate in their lives, like stress, heartbreak, danger, conflict, he says, those are the things they will love in your book.

See you soon.