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Tag Archives: On Speculative Fiction

Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part III

The Return of EWKASWLFLOTR: Three for the Elves, and One Rule To Rule Them All
writtern by Ian McHugh, on behald of the CSFG Hivemind

The final chapter of the epic crap-talking journey that began with The Fellowship of EWKASWLFLOTR and continued with The EWKASWLFLOTR Towers! 

XV: The Unfeasibly Large Everything Rule

This is one for the movies. The Fellowship of the Ring was a fantastic movie. It cherrypicked the best parts of the first (and second) book (ie, the bits that weren’t Tom Fucking Bombadil) and put them on screen in a way that delivered solid character development, escalating tension, threat and stakes and some holyshitwow visual spectacle. The escape from Moria was dizzyingly, ridiculously, hyperbolically epic. It worked because it was fresh and because the movie built up to that spectacular sequence. Jackson took time to earn it. And there was enough separation between that and the other impossibly over-the-top moment where the Fellowship pass the Argonath, the gigantic statues that mark the ancient boundary of Gondor. There’s a pause to savour the epic wowness of the Argonath, and then the movie reverts to human scale again for the climax.

Those moments work in FOTR because they’re allowed to be special. As with the discussion of ceaseless action in Rule XIII, that discipline goes right out the window in the sequels. Those movies, most especially ROTK, are so chock full of unfeasibly large elephants and unfeasibly steep slopes and stairs and unfeasibly tall castles and unfeasibly phallic towers and unfeasibly large rocks being flung from catapults and unfeasibly big EVERYTHING that it just becomes white noise. None of it is special because it’s all so overwhelming.

It’s possible to have too much awesome. Less is more. Read more →

Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part II

The EWKASWLFLOTR Towers: Five* Rules for the Dwarf Lords
written by Ian McHugh, on behalf of the CSFG Hive Mind

The eagerly anticipated sequel to The Fellowship of EWKASWLFLOTR!

* yes, yes, but the other two were eaten by dragons

X: The Precious Rule

So, the Nazgul are pretty scary – at least until the aforementioned Incident With The River. Orcs and trolls and uruk-hai and the Balrog make for pretty decent monsters. Monsters though, rather than villains. Sauron is a flaming eye on a stick. So, who’s the best villain in LOTR? Well, who’s left? Saruman, Grima Wormtongue, Denethor and Gollum.

What’s interesting is that they all have something in common: they’re all fallen. Except perhaps for Grima, they were all obviously once greater and better than they are. There’s a tragedy behind their nastiness that rounds them out and gives them a level of sympathy. But who’s the best?

Grima and Denethor are decent secondary characters, but only that. Saruman is awesome because he is now and forever Christopher Lee, the only nonagenarian who is in real life more metal than a wizard stabbing a giant flaming demon to death with a magic sword while falling through the heart of a mountain.

But our pick for the best villain in LOTR is Gollum. Because he’s the most relatable. He grows and changes, he has the chance of redemption and almost grabs it, but his flaws bring about his tragedy. More than that, the wreckage of a person that his Precious has left behind illuminates the struggles of Frodo and Bilbo and Boromir and all the other characters to overcome the Ring’s temptation. Gollum is the sneaking, strangling, living example of what the Ring will do to them.

He’s a person. Which isn’t to say that flat characters can’t make good villains – think Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigur in No Country For Old Men. Chigur works for the same reason that the Nazgul work in FOTR before the River Incident: they have charisma – or, at least, presence – and they can come and get you.

Gollum works because he could be you.

(You if, y’know, you stumbled across some demonic bling, murdered your best mate and spent a hundred and fifty years living under a mountain, throttling goblins and biting fish to death.)

XI: The Horses Are Scarier Than Dragons Rule

No, really. Think about it: a horse is an animal that’s big enough to accidentally or on purpose squish you or kick you to death, and yet it’s scared of plastic bags, small terriers and the humorously-shaped rock in its paddock that was there yesterday. If you’re anywhere near the stupid bastard when it flips out because a dandelion clock blew in its face, you’re fucked. Horses are scary because they’re six times bigger and ten times stronger than you and as dumb as a sack of rabbits. Sometimes evil vindictive rabbits. Dragons, on the other hand, are figments of your imagination.

In FOTR, the Nazgul’s horses also have those random bleedy bits and sticky-out bent nails that are widely recognised as signifying demonic possession and/or minds like sack of rabbits. Scary as all shit, right? But once the Nazgul are mounted on dragons… Myeh. And it’s not just because they got their arses kicked by Liv Tyler and a splash of water, or because their new mounts are (in the books) poorly described non-entities with wings or (in the movies) generic CGI yawn scuse me bat-lizards.

It’s because they’re further away. Once the Nazgul are up in the air, all you have to do to get away from them is roll under a shrub. When they’re on horseback, they’re right there on the road behind you, sniffing down your neck.

Horses are scarier than dragons because they’re closer.

XII: The Too Fond Of The Halflings’ Weed Rule

Gandalf is way more fun when he’s Gandalf the Grey than when he’s Gandalf the White. Why? Because Gandalf the Grey is incompetent. Not useless – he can still kick a Balrog’s flaming arse, after all – but not altogether on top of things, either. He forgets the way through Moria. It takes him sixty or seventy years to twig that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring. He’s just muddling along, hoping for the best, and the bad guys are generally a couple of steps ahead of him.

Why? Because Gandalf is a total pothead – waaaaaaay too fond of the halfling’s weed. He’s like the wizard version of that deeply, deeply blissed-out fiftyish guy you saw on the train the other day, with the wild beard and the bare feet and the guitar with a hot pink sticker on the back that reads “Barbie is a Slut”. Pothead. And he’s kind of endearing because of it.

Then when he comes back as Gandalf the White, suddenly he’s full of purpose, fully cognisant and he’s read all the way to the end of book three. And he’s boring.

It’s the heroes’ flaws that make them great, and make them great characters.

XIII: The What The Fuck Are These Wargs Doing Here Rule

What the actual fuck were warg riders doing in The Two Towers movie? Other than providing misguided fan service and creating transparently confected drama? Nothing.

Ceaseless, gratuitous action is boring. And it’s not like the books of TTT and ROTK are lacking in action, or don’t provide plenty of opportunities to deliver action to the screen. There’s no need to add any more. It becomes white noise. Non-stop action is storytellers taking the wrong lessons from the great action movies of the 1980s – like Die Hard, The Terminator, Aliens and Predator. Those movies worked because the action was awesome and because they slowed down enough to let you get to know the characters. Even Michael Bay knew that when he made the Bad Boys movies. He just forgot by the time he got to Transformers. The same thing seems to have happened to Jackson between FOTR and TTT.

And character is what could have happened in place of that battle with the warg riders in the TTT movie. Expanding and deepening characters and their relationships. Unless you’re making kung fu movies or pornos, action is a just a tool to further the plot and develop characters. If it takes over, at the expense of character, then you’re relying solely on spectacle and basic sensory gratification to interest your audience. You leave yourself having to michaelbay the shit out of your audience because you haven’t given them enough reason to care about the outcome of your story.

XIII(a) Supplementary: The Extended Edition Rule

And if you are going to do the character development, don’t just fucking put it in the Extended Edition. Put it in the cinematic release and leave all the action porn for the collector nerds.

XIV: The Ten Thousand Orcs Rule

This one’s pretty straightforward. As soon as someone shows up with an army of orcs, as in every battle of LOTR, you know there’s going to be a bloodbath and, moreover, a bloodbath with plenty of guilt-free comic violence.  Orcs are ugly, clumsy, stupid and inherently vile. They’re unfeeling monsters that it’s impossible to admire or empathise with. They exist to be butchered without qualm – joyously and carefree. Imagine Legolas and Gimli’s kill-counting competition if the enemies were human. In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there’s a tail plane from a WWII German night fighter marked with silhouettes of Allied bombers, one for each bomber it shot down. There’s dozens. Seven to ten men per plane. It strikes awe, looking at it and thinking of that, but it’s not awesome. It makes you want to cry.

Orcs take the guilt and horror out of epic slaughter. Even the word ‘orc’ means ‘cannonfodder’ in Tolkien’s elvish language (note: fact possibly made up for rhetorical effect). Zombies and Stormtroopers work on the same principle. If the enemy is dehumanised – faceless or monstrous – you can do whatever you like to them and make it fun. It’s hard to completely dehumanise humans, even when they Don’t Look Like Us. To fully complete the process, the bad guys need to be soulless monsters or robots, or at least have a convincing appearance of soulless monsters or robots – like orcs and Stormtroopers.

If you want to include a guilt-free bloodbath in your story, cast some orcs.

Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned From Avatar

Guest post by Mik Bennett

Which is weird, because I first saw it because of somebody I met at writing group. What was I doing at writing group if I hadn’t learned anything about writing yet?

Much as I love Avatar – and I do; I drove all the way to Dallas to pick up my copy of the DVDs (and I live in Australia!) – there’s more than one way you can learn from an example. For instance, you can learn not to make the same mistakes. I’ll start with a couple of things they got wrong, though I can’t really blame them for the first:

Read more →

Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned From Star Wars

Guest post by the CSFG Hive Mind (written by Ian McHugh)

Star Wars being the endless font of storytelling wisdom and etceteras that it is, and after some lively discussion at our monthly CSFG members’ meeting, Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned From Star Wars has spawned a not-very-long-awaited sequel.

Here’s our next ten everythings: Read more →

Fantastic Verses

by Tim Roberts (at thegreencastle.wordpress.com)

While I was having fun browsing various dealer tables and stalls at Worldcon in Chicago last year (Chicon7), I discovered some fine and intriguing collections  of poems among all the anthologies, novels and books about Speculative Fiction. I ended up buying four different collection of poems: two solo collections and two anthologies. I’ll give a brief overview of each book and, for the first three, a short note about the respective poets. The anthology has its own list of biographical notes and there are too many individual poets to reasonably cover in this post. Each book title will also show publisher/s and year of first or publication of  most recent/current edition.

Robot: poetry by Jason Christie

The Animal Bridegroom, by Sandra Kasturi

Ancient Tales, Grand Deaths and Past Livesa collection of speculative verse by Colleen Anderson

The Stars As Seen from this Particular Angle of Night: an anthology of speculative verse, edited by Sandra Kasturi

Read more…

The Attraction of Dystopian Fiction

by Ross Hamilton (article in A Writer Goes On A Journey)

The function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it. – Frank Herbert

Dystopian fiction and why do we like it? An interesting question – but perhaps we should start by first asking what it actually is.

]The word utopia comes from classical Greek but it was Sir Thomas Moore’s use of it in the sixteenth century to describe his fictional island that had a perfect social system in its social interactions, law and politics, which gave us the utopian concept as we understand it today. There have been attempts to create various societies which were to be their own Utopia but with, shall we say, mixed success. But reading stories about something that is ‘perfect’ in every sense would be pretty darned boring. Who wants to read about someone arising from bed to another simply perfect morning, eating the perfect breakfast, having the perfect journey to their perfect employment in the continued journey of their perfect existence that is accompanying everyone else’s perfect existence etc etc. Ho hum, yawwwwn.

So what would be the flip-side of utopia? Rather than being a visionary social order where everyone is happy and everything is ideal for all, the dystopian society is loosely one that is arguably the opposite of utopia. It will have at least some aspect of its existence that is anti-utopian. As such, it can provide great opportunities for authors to explore all matter of ‘what if’ in story-telling, providing a wealth of material for readers. Read more…

Lazy writing and the survival of the human race

by Leife Shallcross

Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

I was having a discussion with some writerly friends a while ago about female leads in spec fic films. The conversation was started by an article that was arguing for a female protagonist in the next Star Wars movie, to be made by Disney some time soon. It was pretty interesting, and had some good points.

Naturally, though, this broadened out to a discussion of the nature of female characters in spec fic films generally. Are there enough of them? Are there enough leads? And are they genuinely well-rounded, complex human beings?

I’ll put myself out there and say I’m in the camp that thinks the answer to those questions is no.

[read more]

Some things our members are up to

Chris Andrews has posted his Next Big Thing thing.

Ross Hamilton has started putting his published stories up on Smashwords to read for free, beginning with the story “Triumph of the Scientific Mind”.

Simon Petrie has passed on news from two of the publishing projects he’s involved in. Peggy Bright Books now have their titles available for purchase through Amazon. Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine have a 33.333333% discount on 4-issue e-subscriptions ($12AUD, instead of the usual $18AUD) until 31 January 2013.

To mark the passage of yet an(other) underwhelming pretend apocalypse, Ian McHugh has published a write-up of a talk he did at the Conflux 8 convention on making use of historical apocalypses when writing fictional ones.