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Novel Essentials; Threat

A good novel has three main elements; characters, a plot, and an over-arching threat. Much as structure is distinct from plot so too is threat distinct from conflict, but you need it all to create a really good novel.

Well, you need all four to create a publishable novel.

If you wish to write unstructured, meandering, rosy porridge on the daily you’re at perfect liberty to do so, but you may have a hard time selling it.

 

Conflict Vs Threat

The difference is subtle, but important.

Conflict can best be described as the tension caused by someone or something opposing your character. When your character wishes to win a race they are in conflict with their opponents, the people around them who doubt them, and perhaps their own body if they are less than fit.

Threat is either the consequence of failure, or the danger that spurred them on. For example, the threat might be looming heart disease which pushes your character to get healthy, or it might be the forfeit for a bet they have made regarding the race.

 

Whatever the threat is in your novel it needs to be sufficiently significant to push your character onwards in the story.

 

Types of Threat

There are a few broad “types” of threat you can employ to urge your character out of their door and into the plot. The most common are;

Physical; the threat of physical damage or even death is perhaps the most common type of threat you will find, especially in horror, action, and thriller stories. It doesn’t have to apply solely to the main character, either; threat can be levied on those close to the main character in order to push them. This is a form of emotional threat. Physical threat could be, but is not limited to;

  • death
  • injury
  • torture
  • rape (this is also a form of emotional, social, and psychological threat)
  • mutilation (the loss of limbs etc as a form of punishment or assault)

 

Emotional;

Emotional threat or jeopardy is perhaps more subtle, and is most commonly a secondary threat. When someone close to the main character is in danger, or is targeted as a way to influence them the protagonist often suffers under emotional threat, for example fear that the death of that person will be their fault. It can also, of course, be a primary threat in certain situations, such as;

  • Emotional Blackmail; if a character attempts to push the main character into doing something for them (“if you really loved me you would…”)
  • Guilt, real or perceived; the main character being forced to be responsible for another persons fate (think some of the more horrifying puzzles in the SAW series)
  • Loss; if the character does/doesn’t do something they face losing their partner/spouse/family/friends

 

Psychological

Perhaps most common in literary novels, and in narratives which focus on mental health, but almost always a secondary threat when present in other stories. The main character faces psychological threat often due to their lifestyle choices, past traumas, and the attitudes of their support network, but can also face such threat due to being in conflict with a manipulative and/or abusive person. In Rose Madder the main character faces psychological, emotional, and physical threat from her abusive husband with whom she is often in direct and indirect conflict. Psychological threat can be;

  • Loss of reality; pressure forces the character to become delusional, and to face the prospect of losing their grip on reality  altogether (this is most often paired with other threats such as the loss of family, emotional, and sectioning/incarceration, societal)
  • Deterioration of mental health and wellbeing; speaks for itself.
  • Lasting trauma; anxiety, PTSD,  night-terrors etc
  • Suicide; an indirect result of the results of trauma and applied threat.

 

Societal;

This is a kind of threat which puts the main characters position in the world in danger by putting their status, livelihood, or reputation at risk. This is a versatile form of threat which isn’t used as much as it should be (in my opinion); so many of us are invested in how we are seen by those around us that this can be a real motivator. Good examples of societal threat are;

  • Release of proof of an affair
  • Uncovering of a taboo habit or appetite
  • Broadcasting of a secret
  • Informing the police/ public of a covered up crime

The beauty of societal threat is that the consequences can range from small to life-changing, but the issues at hand can have more importance to certain people.

 

Complex and Unusual Threats

Ideally you need to think about layering the threats your character faces, much as you will include multiple small conflicts, to beef up your story.

In Taken , for example, the physical threat is to the protagonists daughter only at first. The threat then extends to the main character. Of course, his daughter also faces emotional, psychological, and societal threat; she is being trafficked for the puprpose of sexual exploitation. For the main character this is a kind of emotional threat; he won’t be able to live with the distress, guilt, and trauma of failing his daughter because he knows what kind of life she will have.

In The Historian the characters face a mixture of physical and psychological threat; they simultaneously fear for their lives and sanity as they come to terms with the idea that Dracula still walks the earth. They also, however, face spiritual threat as they fear for their own (and each others) immortal soul.

 

Spiritual, financial, and identity based threats

These threats are less commonly seen as the main factor, but you can see them laced through many narratives as tertiary or secondary threats.

Spiritual threat is most commonly seen in old school monster horrors; the character fears losing their virtue, their soul, and/or their faith. Loss of faith as a spiritual threat, however, can be seen in certain stories about the harshest moments in life. Consider The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes where Molly, the main characters mother, wrestles to balance her faith with the ever-looming death of her terminally ill daughter.

Financial threat is almost always accompanied with other forms, e.g. the character faces defaulting on their debts and therefore losing their house, comfort and safety to face the dangers of homelessness.

Identity based threat is perhaps the most subtle and difficult to apply, but also one of the most potent forms given today’s society. We care about how we are viewed, and can understand the horror of coming to face something that contradicts who we think we are. This can apply to the main character and those around them. For example, in To Kill A Mockinbird Atticus faces physical and societal repurcussions for his actions, but pushes ahead because to not defend his client to the best of his ability is to become a person he does not see himself to be. A person he does not want to be; Atticus see’s himself as a rational, fair, upstanding man who upholds the law, and so he must act the way he does or he faces the threat of not being the man he thinks he is.

 

In Go Set a Watchman Scout, now grown up, realises that her father is less than perfect; he holds some of the racial prejudices which were so common in his day. He is not fully the man she thought he was because although he defended Tom successfully it becomes clear to her that it was because of his staunch belief that the legal system should be fair and without prejudice, not because it was a statement against racism. This is a threat to her identity, too, because she has built her own liberal, progressive, and anti-racist views on the foundation laid by her fathers defence of Tom.

 

 

Resolving and Dissolving Threat

Threat should be resolved or at least mitigated by the end of your novel, either because it has been removed due to a job well done (e.g. when Jack Sparrow was pardoned at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean) or because it has been dissolved, destroyed, or forcibly removed by the main character and their allies (e.g. the death of President Snow and President Coin at the end of Mockingjay).

Or, you can carry the threat on, as is so common at the end of horror films, by implying that someone else is next or that the antagonist has a successor (think the end of Kick-Ass where a once trusted friend becomes an enemy). In the case of certain threats there may be no way to fully resolve the situation, especially if they were applied fully or partially. At this point it’s about showing how your character can/will cope. Severed limbs will not likely grow back, and if they are replaced the trauma (mental, emotional) remains. Likewise for mentally ill characters there is no definitive end, but a reprieve and a new strategy to manage and cope with the reality of the novels aftermath.

 

Get your characters moving with a real and frightening threat, and whatever you do – Keep Writing!

Image source; http://xyuenx.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/looming-spm.html
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Can mindfulness be applied to writing?

Mindfulness is the hot thing right now; it’s being talked about, summed up, and debated in all corners of society, and so it’s reasonable to ask whether or not mindfulness can be applied to writing. Well, the obvious answer is of course it can! How is another matter.

 

If you’re one of those still in the dark there are plenty of resources which will help you to get a grip on it. At it’s heart, however, mindfulness is about self-awareness; being aware of our thoughts, feelings, and  our bodies, and recognising how these things affect our behaviour, moods, and even mental well-being (you can use mindfulness to control anxiety, for example.

 

For writers the effects of anxiety, depression, and emotional exhaustion are just as, perhaps more, disastrous as for those in more “mainstream” employment, but while mindfulness can help you with all this I’d argue it can help with things like lack of focus, writers block, proofreading, and even serial abandonment of writing projects. Here’s how;

1) It helps you to remain present

Mindfulness is largely about being present, being in the moment, and choosing to be that way. No-one is 100% focused, but when we are mindful we can steer our trains of thought into productive directions. It’s not about ignoring the tangents your brain takes you on (these can be key when you’re writing), but rather about learning when to abandon them. Much like with meditation you should not aim for “nothingness” when you practice mindfulness in writing (in this case, nothing but your goal rather than blankness), but instead be aware of when and how you stray. Follow the train of thought to the end, if its useful, but be aware of where it’s leading you; if it becomes entirely unrelated or of no use remove yourself and refocus on your writing.

2) It can help you circumvent writers block

Old school gamers will get me here; remember when your console used to overheat after a full day of playing, and suddenly it wouldn’t do anything and you were worried it would never ever work again….

That’s writers block, but the overload happens in your brain.

Mindfulness can help you to combat this in a few ways. Firstly, if you practice mindfulness you will learn to recognise when you need a break; take breaks, it is allowed. Secondly, when you choose to be fully in the moment you can remove yourself from the fear of underproduction (or non production) because very often it is this fear which creates the block. Thirdly, you can also use this to distance yourself from internal judgement.

“Waiting for the muse” is one of those things that stems from consistent judgement of unfinished work; not everything you commit to paper must be gold, and you’re not actually, you know, committed to it. Mindfulness can help you to de-clutter your brain; when you’re aware of your thought processes and the ideas floating around you it’s easier to order them efficiently.

3) It makes you a better editor and proofreader

Mark Twain famously and aptly said that when you think you are reading “proof” you are really reading your own mind; we fill in what we thought we wrote, or what we intended to write with out minds when we proofread our own work. This is why mindfulness is so key to efficient proofreading and editing.

Proofreading is a complex, draining, and time consuming process which requires you to be focused at all times. Now, there are many tips and tricks as to how you can make it easier (I’ve written one blog post about that myself), but at the heart of it all is being mindful. You need to realise when you’re getting fed up and skimming, skipping, or filling in from your mind, and when you catch yourself you need to either re-focus or tale a break.

Editing, too, is intensive, and practising mindfulness is useful here in many of the same ways it is when proofreading, but additionally it can help you to recognise sections in need of cutting or editing. Focusing on how each section makes you feel, and how it engages you will make you a better editor. Are you tempted to skip because you’re tired, or because it’s poorly written?

 

Mindfulness exercises for writers; 

The Flush; this is a really simple exercise that I call the “flush” because it’s literally designed to wash out all of the detritus first thing in the morning/when you first sit down to write. This is simple; sit down with a notepad and a pen or pencil ( there are plenty of claims regarding writing by hand, but I say this just because it works your hand and wrist muscles, and eases the eyes into focusing before hitting the harsh light if a screen).

Now, whatever has been rattling in your brain, whether its a scene, some dialogue, or just a word, write it down and let that lead you. It might be nonsense, of course, but follow the train of thought to its natural end point. Et Voila! The Flush.

The Clapback; if you get completely derailed by negative thoughts or doubts, as we all do at some point, get yourself a fresh document or piece of paper and jot down positive responses to the worries/fears/criticisms you’re plagued by. This will let you exorcise them, and might even make you feel better.

Block-Be-Gone; when writers block makes a scene impossible to finish close your eyes, take three deep breaths (cliche, I know) in through the nose and out through the mouth s l o w l y… and root yourself in the scene. Write your own reactions as the characters, or the description as you see it in your mind as best you can; it might not be “Just Right”, but it’ll act as a placeholder until you have something better to replace it with. This lets you move on without skipping.

The Duracell Bunny; another block-buster (not in the Hollywood sense, obviously) is what I call the “duracell bunny”. Pick the part of your scene that most interests you and write from that point, perspective, or about that thing as fast as you can, ignoring spelling, grammar, and sense, for two minutes. Let your excitement carry you, and you’ll be surprised how much can change in 120 seconds!

 

 

 

Image source; https://www.anxiety.org/mindfulness-meditation-how-it-works-anxiety-depression

Three Mistakes That Will Kill Your Novel at Outset

Beginnings are tough for me, and for many writers, and I firmly believe that you’re either a beginning or end kind of writer; people always excel at one above the other. So for all you other “Can’t-get-it-started” writers out there I’ve got three pieces of advice. Three mistakes that I’ve made over, and over, and over before putting them to paper (or page) here so that you can learn from my hard experience. These three things are almost guaranteed to murder the potential of any novel before your reader gets through the front door!

 

One; Leading with Backstory

We’ve all made this mistake; there’s some nugget of the past that we are adamant the reader absolutely has to know in order to understand the protagonist, and therefore the story…

Well, actually, they don’t usually.

If you’re tempted to lead with backstory ask yourself this one, very important, question; is this information/event directly related to the story that is about to follow? If not, no matter how interesting it may be, drop it. If you want to keep a story progressing (and constant progression is one of the things which singles out truly gripping stories) tell the reader only what they need to know at any given time!

 

Two; Purple Prose

Excessive description is a silver bullet when it comes to killing a novel; effective novel description should enhance the readers experience of the story without overtaking it. If you begin with description make sure that this is paired with a character in motion; if the setting is really key make sure that you’re also beginning the story as you introduce the setting.

Description should always, always be incidental, attached directly to the progression of the story, and applied with caution; if you allow your descriptions to overpower the action and story you’re already on a path of steady decline.

 

Three;  Lack of Threat

Threat is an essential in every novel; good fiction revolves around a person or people who face a problem, a situation, or an event which threatens their world as they know it in some way. To paraphrase a well-worn statement; get your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. Introduce your story with threat; this can be a disturbance to their usual routine, for example a police officer at the doo a la The Rose Petal Beach, or a blow to their psychological state, think that single drop of blood in Rose Madder. It doesn’t have to be brutal or overly dramatic, but it must shift the paradigm of the characters life in a way which requires their input/action or you’re starting from a sedentary point. All novels should begin with need, desire, or danger, e.g. something that poses a threat to the usual working of their lives.

 

This advice won’t see you through every stage of your novel, but it’ll get you through the first chapters and that’s a damn good start!

Image Source; http://pearlsofpromiseministries.com/why-does-god-allow-roadblocks/

 

 

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Mythic Progression; Heroic Progress and the Doorways.

The “Mythic Structure” or “Mythic Progression” is a writing tool which hold an unusual position; almost everyone who writes, reads, or enjoys films and movies will know exactly what it is, but without any awareness of what it actually is. Does that make sense? No, not really right?

 

The Mythic Structure is also known as the “hero’s journey” (are those lightbulbs I hear clicking on?) which you are probably very aware of. This is a trope, a tool, a cliché, and a plot device, of course, all at once, but it is without a doubt also one of the most effective and beginner friendly plot structures to use. If you are ever in doubt about a genre novels progression I can assure you that the Mythic Progression can help you to iron out the kinks and circumvent the problems that might be causing a blockage in the creative process.

 

The Structure of the Hero’s Journey

James Scott Bell talks at length about the “mythic structure” in Plot and Structure, but to summarise it can be broken down into a series of hooks, pulls, and cut-offs (which Bell calls “doorways”). The simplest form of this structure consists of three acts and two doors, cut offs, or points of no return. This creates, or should create, and imperative for continuation and development; this is something that I hear/see time and time again as a problem.

It is so common for people to falter because, whether they realise it or not, their character has no reason to persist, or for agents to lose interest in a book because there seems to be no purpose behind the progression.

The structure should go as such;

Mythic Structure

This repeats as necessary until a final resolution can be reached between the characters/MC and the antagonist (more about writing antagonists here). A doorway cannot simply be a choice, however; they represent something that forcibly thrusts the protagonist forward in the progression. They make change, development, and continuation necessary.

For example;

When Rosie Daniels/ McClendon first leaves her abusive husband during the opening chapters of Rose Madder she makes the choice because of the sudden realisation that one day he will kill her (followed by the second, more horrible, realisation that he might not). This is the hook, the pull; when she walks out of the door she can always walk back in. Nothing has really changed yet.

The point of no return, the first doorway, (though some people may disagree with me here) comes when she uses the bank card she took from the mantel. At this point there is no going home because at some point he will find out she took the money, question why, and undoubtedly figure out why she took it. Then he would kill her.

Once Rosie withdraws the money from that ATM a door slams shut behind her; she has locked herself into the progression from battered wife to free woman, with all the dangers that entails.

 

The Purpose of the Doorways

The doorways, as has been previously stated, lock a character into a certain path; they make progression possible, and for the writer this is enough of a reason to keep them in use, but for the reader they have a different purpose.

To the reader they are key in the maintenance of plausibility and, where necessary, the suspension of disbelief which all story-telling requires to a degree. If Rosie had not been so certain that her husband would kill her she never would have left, but if she had not withdrawn the money using her husbands card she undoubtedly would have succumbed to fear and turned around.

As readers we understand that someone so frightened, so tremendously damaged and yet so unbelievably sheltered, could quite easily be scared away from the hard road that leads to freedom. We need to understand that the road behind her has been cut off, just as much as Rosie, as a character, needed to be forced to keep going even though it was for her own good.

 

What constitutes a Doorway?

Doorway | Booknvolume
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The “Doorways” of the Mythic Progression must be three things above all else; they must be defined, they must be one way, and they must have an element of need about their presence.

In short, the character should be aware of the finality of their choice/action, one of the consequences should be an inability to back out/down, and there should be a sufficiently severe level of Threat or serious consequences attached to not proceeding.

If your character can walk away from the whole thing and go on as normal then they have not crossed a threshold or passed through a Doorway.

Examples of a Doorway are;

  • Bilbo Baggins signing a contract with the Dwarves of Erebor; he is compelled to sign by Gandalf the Grey and by hid own curiosity. He simply could not bear to miss out on the adventure. He would never be able to live
  • Michael Corleons shooting of Sollozzo and McCluskey; he does so, in a way, to protect himself, his friends, and his family, but he can never go straight again. Life as he knew it is over.
  • When John McClane throws the fire alarm in Die Hard he does so to alert the authorities to a situation, but locks himself into a battle with terrorists; they now know he is loose in the building, and so he can no longer slip quietly away.

 

Compulsion and Coercion

Your characters can either be compelled or coerced into passing through a doorway; sometimes the driving force is also a part of the threshold itself; when Bryan Mills hears the abduction of his Daughter in Taken this event compels him to try to save her through sentiment, moral duty, and through his love for her, but also forms a point of no return. Mills could never live with himself if he did not try to save her, there is no going back even before he puts the phone down. This is an example of coercion and compulsion rolled together to make a forced progression, but not all cases are so cut and dried.

Compulsion to cross through occurs in a non-threatening, or largely internal manner. Character are compelled to cross a doorway by friends, family, or by their own morals, by a sense of duty, by a desire to rectify a situation or help, and even by reckless courage.

Coercion occurs when a largely outside, and generally threatening, force pressures a character to cross over. For example, the villain or antagonist may threated to reveal damaging information, to harm a loved one, to commit an atrocity if the MC does not go on as instructed.

 

The important thing is to make sure that the reader can empathise with and understand the characters actions/motivations. The bigger the change, the more significant the Doorway, the more intense the compelling or coercive reasoning for crossing over. This is how a good writer builds tension and maintains reader interest; its a fine line to walk, but ultimately results in an interesting read.

 

 

 

Image Source; http://fabledlands.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/fantasy-hero-called-ned.html

Readers Don’t Want Profound

They want honest and genuine and interesting; too many aspiring writers hold back and clip their creative wings out of a desire to be profound, meaningful, and intelligent. Here’s the dirty little secret that few people will let you in on; its not often that anyone who means to write Literature gets anywhere. Readers can smell a try-hard like a shark smells blood in the water.

If you want to reach your readers you need to being doing these five things;

  1. Write what excites you; if your subject doesn’t grab you by the short and curlies why should anyone else be overly interested. You may not want to read your own book after dozens of re-writes and editing sessions, but you should be passionate about it whilst you’re writing. Passion carries over, passion grabs peoples attention, and most importantly passion stimulates creativity.
  2. Don’t go with your gut; when it comes to idea formulation you should rethink and question yourself again and again and again. Our first instincts may be powerful, but they often result in formulaic, clichéd, or well-worn plot structures.
  3. Be authentic; say what you mean in simple terms. Purple prose has its place, but avoid it where you can. If you’re using a word for the sake of it ask yourself if there’s a simpler word that would work just as well. Long, convoluted words will alienate many readers; don’t thumb your nose at them.
  4. Leave the Sledgehammer at home; we all have messages we want to get across, things we think people need to hear, but if you have to hammer the point home you’re writing at a sub-par level. Trust in the intelligence of your readers, and trust in your writing skills; your job is not to hammer your point of view into their skull, but to weave an elegant argument by displaying the message in the form of an effective and interesting story.
  5. You’re never too good for criticism; you don’t have to take every suggestion on board, but you should always be open to hearing constructive criticism. Be open, be interested, and be critical; defensiveness, pride, and arrogance are pitfalls to avoid no matter your career path or passion.

 

Keep writing, Mini-Merries – you can do this!#

 

Image source; https://eccentriceclectic.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/damages-caused-by-pretentious-artists/

 

Picking up the Pieces; returning to an abandoned book

If ever a writer you know claims to have finished every idea they ever started they’re either a fucking unicorn, or a liar. Books fall by the wayside, they stop short, and they become neglected.

I firmly believe that this is because there are some ideas and plots that come to us before we are fully equipped to write them, and that’s why I never throw away an idea, concept, or scene.

But how do you begin picking up the threads of a story you dropped long ago?

 

Re-read

The most obvious first step is to re-read any notes, scraps, and scenes you have along with refreshing your memory as to what the plot was supposed to be when you last worked on the piece. Keep an open mind about it all, of course, but do think about how you could improve what you already have to work with.

 

Re-think

Ask yourself what the main characters want, what they fear, what pushes them on, and what the consequences of failure would be. Break your plot into acts and ask yourself if the main characters have a reason to keep moving on. They must either be drawn or pushed through the story by temptation or fear, and the growth you require from them should be a natural development when the story is considered.

Think about the components and structure of your story at this point;

Novel Essentials; Threat

Non-Linear Narratives

 

Re-immersion

Take the time to get the feel for your concept again; what did you listen to, eat, watch, wear when you last work on this project? What was your aesthetic, in short? When picking up an old project we need to get back in touch with the passion and drive we had for it, and that can be the hardest thing to do. Getting back in touch with your world and your characters, however, is all important. Some things for your consideration when returning to an old story;

Getting to know your characters

Strong Female Characters

What Makes a Great Antagonist

Frightening Villains

What is an Anti-hero?

Writing Anti-Hero’s Well

Making Your World Come Alive

 

Temperature Check 

Get back into the swing of it by writing a few fun scenes, no pressure, which let you dip slowly back into the story. Come at this “temperature check” with an open mind; have fun with it and don’t set the expectation that it will make the final cut. Think of this as writerly stretching; a warm up, if you will. Once you feel nice and elastic you can start to pick up the threads of the novel you left behind.

 

The Push

If you’re prone to sudden and dramatic demotivation this is key; don’t worry about getting it right straight away, just get it written. Finish your first draft before you do anything else, once you have a complete version to work with you can think about proofreading and rewriting, but not before!

 

Don’t give up on your derelict debut – you can always pick up where you left off.

 

Image Source; http://www.habitants.org/the_urban_way/housing_one_billion_people/work_in_progress

Wasteland Survival Guide; 10 Key Factors to consider.

So, you’re elbow deep in a post-apocalyptic novel and it’s suddenly hit you; how is your character surviving? How would anyone survive? What is it you should be showing the reader to maintain a level of plausibility?

Well, it depends on the world you’ve built, of course, but there are 10 thing you, or you character, should be thinking about whilst they move around the wilds and wastes of your imagination;

  1. Shelter; where is your character staying? Are they nomadic? If so how do they build shelters on the go? Remember, if a shelter lets in wind or rain your characters health will suffer, and if they sleep on damp ground they could get infections, sores, or even find their skin begins to rot. Shelters should be as close to water-proof as possible, they should keep out the wind, and keep in heat if possible. Lean-to’s, tents, and abandoned buildings are all viable options.
  2. Fire; if it safe to have a fire? Will it attract unwanted attention? Fire can be used to purify water, cook food, dry clothes, and provide warmth, but it can also be dangerous depending upon the situation. Are there alternatives? Any generators or torches which can be used to give the heat or light that fire does?
  3. Water; do they have a set source of safe drinking water? If they’re nomadic do they know how to find a purify it? If they cannot boil water to purify it are they able to purify it with one or two drops of bleach per liter (quart) of clear water? How do they transport it?
  4. Food; are they scavenging for old world foods, or do they hunt? Do they know which plants and roots etc are safe to eat? Is it a mixture of all three? In a wasteland situation where there are cities around it may be possible t live entirely from scavenged remains for a while, but in rural areas, and of course eventually in all cases, hunting the wildlife and returning to agriculture will be necessary. How far along this scale are they?
  5. Curing and Preservation; an extension, perhaps, but deserving of its own category. When your character travels or prepares for the winter how do they keep their food stocks fresh and edible? Certain methods of curing will be more viable depending upon where they reside. In a world with no electricity freezing will only be possible in the coldest climates, but curing, brining, pickling, and smoking are all viable options.
  6. Terrain; what is the landscape around them like? What special tools and skills might they need in order to get around the way they need to? Snow, mountainous regions, swampy lands, and urban centres all require a different approach.
  7. Travel; do vehicles still work, or have they gone back to horses and animal drawn carriages? Do most people travel on foot? What about the rails laid down for trains, are they utilised? Travel will be one of the most dangerous endeavours for any apocalypse survivor, so you need to think about how they manage the dangers.
  8. Weapons and apparel; is weaponry an absolute must? If they don’t live in post-apocalypse American ( I Know right? Who would have thought it was possible) they’re probably not going to have access to military grade weapons and body armour; how do they improvise? If they do have guns, how are the maintaining them and finding ammunition?
  9. Medicine; are there any medical stores left? And what about people with medical knowledge, are they still around, do they still have the right tools, and are they passing knowledge along? When this runs dry do they revert to old folk medicines, and if so how are they finding the information? Think about how libraries may have fared in the fall.
  10. Radiation; nuclear fallout is a common theme in post-apocalyptic literature, and if its a theme in yours you need to think about how it effects your world and your characters. Do they have a way to avoid or mitigate it, or is it making them ill? Is it causing mutations? Alternatively, is there a way the world can end without nuclear detonation? Be creative.

 

 

Image Source; https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/crowdstar-launches-post-apocalyptic-hardcore-strategy-game-on-facebook/

Lone Wolves and Raider Slaves; The Clichés that Kill the Apocalypse.

There’s no such thing as a hard and fast rule when it comes to writing, but much like the hated adverb they should be used sparingly for maximum effect. I’ll give the standard disclaimer when I say that the clichés I single out in particular here chosen because of my personal opinions; it’s very much the truth that anything can be done/written well if you have the right amount of imagination.

 

But.

But, oh baby Jesus but, there are some post-apocalyptic clichés and tropes that grind my gears to nothingness.

 

Raiders, and Bikers, and Slaves – Oh My!

If I’ve seen one story about an ex-raider slave who was brutally and sexually abused, exploited, and beaten on a daily basis until they (usually a young, beautiful she I might add) escape or are rescued. If the ex-slave is the main character they will generally escape, and will be hard, cold, callous, suspicious, and fiercely independent (basically a personification of the “Strong Female Character”, or if they are male the “Lone Wolf”). If they are a supporting character they will usually be, lets be honest, a female love interest who remains damaged, fearful, sensitive until the hero “fixes” them.

The concept of a blasted wasteland which, despite being stripped of all goodness and resource, has a thriving population of bike and land rover mounted raiders is a common one. Very often it makes little sense when it’s deployed; if you intend to create such a world ask yourself how they maintain their machinery, how they feed what constitutes as a veritable army, and how they continue to find ammunition (if they’re using guns).

Now, I’ve read some stories based on this premise which are harrowing, haunting, and genuinely well-written, but the truth is they had to work harder for my attention than their counterparts. This is the nature of the Cliché or Trope; they will often mean that your story has to work harder with many people, but they’re not a hamartia per say.

You only need to consider Mad Max: Fury Road to see that it can be done.

 

Drab, and Dreary, and hopeless

The lack of colour and optimism in the post-apocalyptic genre may be understandable, but it’s also boring as all hell.

Lets go back to the raider slave; this individual has seen the worst that the remnants of humanity have to offer, and so it makes sense that they may be bitter, hurt, angry, and cold. The ordinary person would be, but readers need to believe your characters are extraordinary if they are to become invested.

Take the path less travelled by and allow your character the courage to not be bullet-proof. Consider Offred in The Handmaids Tale; she is tough, intelligent, and resilient, but she is also vulnerable, hopeful, and idealistic. She is undoubtedly human, and she grieved for her daughter, her husband, and her friends as well as rebelling, in her own small ways, against a situation that is socially and culturally apocalyptic. The Handmaids Tale may be dystopic more than post-apocalyptic, but writers of this latter genre could learn much from it.

 

The Girl Who Saves the World!

We all know this one.

There is a teenage girl – she is special (and generally white) – and more than one person is in love with her – and she must save the world whilst choosing between them!Divergent, The Hunger Games, and numerous Cassandra Clare novels embody this, and they’ve done it quite well. But the market is close to saturation.
Consider the girl who doesn’t save the world, I urge you, because she can be just as important as her super-heroic counterparts. Consider Daisy in How I Live Now; she doesn’t save the world, but she survives its end, and she saves the people she loves. This is enough because this is a very human concept. Subvert these tropes and twist them into something new for good effect.

 

Scorched Earth and Bleached Bones

Why is Every. Single. Post-Apocalyptic. Wasteland. Hot?

Deserts can be tundra, or simply cold. The term desert refers to a barren land, not a hot one, and so the logic follows that your wasteland could be swampy and stagnant, frozen and brutal, watery and treacherous. Be creative.

Enough of the painted scavvers in blistering heat fighting for water. What about gangs of fishermen fighting over the last scraps of dry land? Or First Nation peoples trying to reclaim lands in the frozen Yukon?

 

The Apocalypse needn’t be hot, depressing, and overwhelmingly white-straight-male; these clichés and tropes might have their uses, but the genre is reaching its limit. The saturation point is near, my friends, it’s time to stop them before they kill the end of the world!

 

 

 

Image Source; http://www.justpushstart.com/2015/08/mad-max-pc-requirements-revealed/

Apocalypse, Post-Apocalypse, and Societal decay; Writing the End of the World.

Apocalypse has been a recurring theme in literature for hundreds of years, but today the genre (and it is it’s own genre) is more closely scrutinised; people want to believe they too could survive the situation, and they want to at least believe that what you’re character does would work in real life.

Call it the modern climate, the political situation, or the degeneration of society as we know it, but readers today are less giving when it comes to suspension of belief in the post-apocalyptic genre.

 

With that in mind, here are the main things you, or your character, should be thinking about at various stages of the end of the world as we know it (Cue R.E.M).

 

D-Day, E-Day, and the falling bombs;

When your character is living through the literal end of the world there are a few things you need to consider if your readers are to believe you;

  1. Are they within the “danger zone”; are they in the immediate vicinity of falling bombs, boots on the ground invaders, or other negative side-effects of whatever world ending disaster you’ve thought up? If they are how will they survive? Do they have shelter? Some kind of privilege, e.g. are they “important” enough to be evacuated? Or is it luck (readers will accept this now and then, but much like the adverbs it should be avoided at most points).
  2. What skills do they have; are they ex-military? an athlete? trained in self-defence, weaponry, or even less common skills like hacking, lockpicking, and/or battlefield medicine? What is it that they have which makes them particularly qualified to survive the immediate events and aftermath?
  3. Do they have local knowledge? It would be much easier for a local to survive on their own turf even if they were less qualified or skilled because they know where all the resources and/or hiding places might be found.
  4. Their moral position; will their morals help or hinder them? Or will they be discarded?

When you write an apocalypse in progress, for lack of a better phrase you need to focus on action; it should be breathless, messy, and it should make your reader afraid. As a writer you need to walk the fine line between presenting a character capable enough to be interesting and plausibly survive whilst being vulnerable enough to make your characters fear for them.

 

Chaos, desertion, and dereliction;

It’s most common to see this intermediary stage in literature. Metro 2033 (Dmitry Glukhovsky) does this particularly well; this is the stage after the happening, so to speak, but before a more widespread recovery and in some universes the apocalypse stalls here with small settlements and vast swathes of lawless Badlands. Things to think about when you throw your characters in here;

  1. Are there local settlements? If so are they friendly, or at least neutral? Can your character trade with them? Do they live within one of them? How advanced are they? Does your character have access to even rudimentary medicine?
  2. Is there an economic system in place and where do they sit in the scale? Is  it a bullets as money situation a la Mad Max, or are we talking bottlecaps and like for like trade? Have people begun to make things again or are they still scavenging?
  3. What is your characters mission? Are they looking to rebuild their world, or do they have an agenda all their own? This will really change how they interact with their world, and have an effect on how they approach each situation.
  4. Do they have shelter? Exposure will kill long before starvation, dehydration, or illness, and if environment is also toxic in some way or another somewhere to take shelter from the elements becomes even more important.
  5. How do their skills help them get by in this world, and what knowledge do they have that sets them apart? Perhaps more importantly what is it that allows them to fit in?

 

 

Light at the end of the tunnel, or endless night?

If you’re writing hundreds of years after the Event (whatever it might have been) you’re getting into less travelled territories; are you going for a hopeful and brave new world, or are you looking at a steady decay of the world and the inevitable dissolution of society (think The Road, by Cormac McCarthy)? When you do this you are, in fact, in danger of straying into literary territories. Consider these factors;

  1. How your character, once again, fits into and distinguishes themselves from the world around them. How recognisable are they, all things considered, to a person living in todays world? Do they represent something fearful or hopeful?
  2. Do they have shelter and resources? How scarce are they? Are people creating, raiding, scavenging? Just how harsh is this world, and how do they deal with it?
  3. What toll has being born into and raised within this world had on them? What’s the average life expectancy? Are they old for their society, or very young to be on such an adventure?
  4. Is there a society at all?
  5. What is their goal within this world? Do they want to fight against the tide of decay, or do they revel in the freedom it provides? Are they lonely, or do they fear other people?

 

Your character has to be very much of the world you envision unless you explain plausibly why they are not; whether they were in cryo sleep or they fell through some kind of portal, your readers only need your reasoning to follow logically from your premise and the set up of your world. What kills a good post-apocalyptic novel, for me anyway, is finding a character who, without explanation, has no ties, no cultural similarities, and no sympathy with the world they were supposedly born into. A novel can be a statement, but first it must be a story… and stories need to grip, inform, and nurture the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

Image Source; https://www.nubimagazine.com/doomsday-clock/