Commentary: Showing instead of Telling Magic

CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary.


As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a big fan of showing instead of telling. When writing from a first-person perspective, I think this makes the most sense: Alex knows what he knows, and he wouldn’t mentally explain it to himself unless he really needs to concentrate on it. So the reader learns about the setting through his observations, actions, and dialogue. What does Alex think is important? How does he treat other people? What does he remember and what is he making up as he goes along? The reader is in the same boat.

However, this can present a problem in speculative fiction when I as the author introduce elements that are fantastic or impossible to the reader, but are mundane to the characters. This is most obvious with CASH, which pulls triple duty as an in-world economic mainstay, a crucial plot element, and a central symbol for the narrative. But CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary. This is similar to how a novel set in contemporary times would likely not explain how cellphones or the internet work. In science fiction, this is sometimes known as the Heinlein method. While some sci-fi authors will explain in great detail the minutia of their imagined worlds, Robert Heinlein simply wrote “the door dilated.”

Another example: my friend Ted Tinker’s ongoing novel Akayama DanJay features “hallucinogenic bugs” that the characters smoke. The crickets are grown like plants, which is completely normal for his world. Tinker doesn’t write as much as a paragraph talking about the worldwide bug-smoking culture; instead, he shows how the characters participate in it, with bits of direct expository information woven throughout the narrative where it is appropriate.

Thus, after downing their CASH drinks, Alex and Charlie telekinetically spin coins in the air, and neither of them have second thoughts about it. So the reader learns that CASH bestows supernatural abilities on those who imbibe it, and that use of these abilities is neither magical nor mysterious. We also saw in the previous chapter that there are different varieties of CASH, presumably bestowing different abilities. Furthermore, we learn in this same chapter that Alex’s lightning is NOT a function of CASH use — Charlie and others see it as extraordinary, potentially linked to Alex’s visions.

I will say here that although I have included “magic” in the title of this commentary and the linked chapter, CASH is not magic. The “science” behind it is fictional, obviously, but it is merely advanced biotechnology that would be “indistinguishable from magic” to us.

Commentary: The Structure of Time

“I’m happy to inform you that we have now established the structure of the story, and things should be much clearer from here on.”

Curious reader, if you’re still hanging in there with me, I’m happy to inform you that we have now established the structure of the story, and things should be much clearer from here on.

In case you haven’t figured it out by chapter headings and in-text references, the structure of Angelfools is inspired by tarot cards. For those of you less familiar with the archaic divination device, a reader’s digest explanation: Tarot cards come in a deck of 78, featuring 56 Minor Arcana in four suits (rods, cups, swords and coins) and 22 Major Arcana numbered from 0 to 21. The cards typically feature archetypical characters and rich symbolism that make them well-suited (haha) to fortune-telling. Personally, I’m more interested in the story that the cards tell.

My story is an expansion of a long poem I wrote a few years ago that dramatized the so-called “Fool’s Journey” of the tarot deck. It was more linear in structure, moving from Key 0 to 21 in order and telling a story through the symbolism of the cards inspired by the “Legacy of the Divine” deck designed by Ciro Marchetti. But then as I was thinking about this story, I had a different idea: why not shuffle the deck?

Fear not; I haven’t shuffled the entire story beyond recognition. A writer may rearrange time completely, as Kurt Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse Five, but I think a reader benefits from at least some linearity. I think my protagonist will, in any case.

So this is how the story will flow. We have now seen three timelines. In the first (and chronologically the last), Alex finds himself in the ruined city of Fortuna in the aftermath of a mysterious catastrophe. In the middle, Alex is the leader of Fortuna after a successful revolution. And in the last (and chronologically first), Alex is a callow youth working to set the future on its proper track by fomenting civil unrest. The timelines will correspond (roughly) to the numbered Major Arcana: XV-XXI, VIII-XIV, and I-VII.

Why did I choose this structure? Why not just tell the story in chronological order like a normal person? Well, I’m telling three different and interrelated stories. Each of them has their own separate rising actions, plot twists, climaxes and resolutions. They parallel each other with corresponding sets of characters and incidences. Plus, I think it’s more interesting this way. I’ve read a few stories where characters have prophetic dreams and then try to act on those dreams, and you probably have as well. Instead, Alex has a prophetic experience.

More on this later. For now, Viva la Revolution!

Commentary: Meet the Motley Crew

“We run into a snag: where’s the Chick?”

Until now I’ve been rather slow with introducing you to characters. Abel Carter showed up in the first proper chapter and Valeria appeared a couple of chapters later. Now I’ve dropped another three on you — Calla Heffer, Charlie Sterling, and Virgus Ricimer, as well as a more detailed setting than “some desert city.” Why all of these characters at once?

One of the common ways of organizing groups of characters in fiction is the Five-Man Band. The archetypical set up looks like this: Leader, Lancer, Big Guy, Smart Guy, and the Chick. It’s a fairly reliable structure with some nice character stereotypes that go along with each role, but the real fun comes in playing with the reader’s expectations.

At first glance, it may be easy for you as the reader to place the five characters in this scene into their archetypical roles. Alex is of course the Leader, Valeria is the Lancer (Alex’s right hand, a bit of a foil, and backs him up no matter what), Charlie is the Big Guy (straightforward & argumentative), and Calla is the Smart Gal. And then we run into a snag: where’s the Chick? The Chick, according to TV Tropes, is the heart of the team, the glue that holds them together and mediates their tensions. The Chick doesn’t necessarily have to be female, though the character often is. In this case, however, Ricimer fills the last slot in the team, but he’s almost an anti-Chick. He agitates tension, and seems all too willing to get into conflicts with the other characters. At the moment, I haven’t given you anything on his motivations (or really anything about the Consuls), but Ricimer in particular doesn’t seem like a team player. He’s more of the Sixth Ranger archetype, the late-coming outsider who presents a different, contrasting philosophy to the Leader.

This is a team with a crucial member missing. They’ve gone extra before they get their basics down. There will be consequences.

On a different note, I’ve been using “FLASH” to indicate Alex’s shifts, accompanied by bright light in the story. Hopefully you’ve realized by now that these are shifts in time. If you haven’t, it’s a sign that I need to go back and edit to make it more obvious. It may be a bit of a cliche to use a literary “lens flare” for this mechanic, but for me it fits with Alex’s established connection with electricity and lightning, which has classically been a symbol for radical change. More to come on this.

Commentary: Hooray for Exposition

“Exposition in a story can be tedious.”

Exposition in a story can be tedious. On one hand, the reader needs to know important facts about the world that the story takes place in, especially important in a science-fiction story like Angelfools. But on the other hand, huge paragraphs of background description — info dumps — are often the most boring segments of a story. How does one circumvent this?

Different writers take different approaches. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Mars among many other excellent sci-fi works, unashamedly drops info dumps into his novels, and to hell with readers’ criticism. Frank Herbert of Dune renown has a glossary of terms in the beginning of the book that the reader can reference if something is mentioned in text (the Butlerian Jihad, for example), that all the characters know about but the reader doesn’t. Many authors take the “show-don’t-tell” approach, letting the world come into focus as the characters interact with their environment.

Others supplement their descriptions with “found text,” a strategy that appeals to me for a few reasons. First, it provides the writer practice in writing different voices, always good exercise for a storyteller. Second, it can offer a contrasting perspective on the world, which creates ambiguity about the truth of the situation. Third, found texts can weave additional stories into the larger story that can supplement and elaborate on the theme. Take the landmark video game BioShock, helmed by Ken Levine: though the audio logs scattered throughout the game are completely unnecessary to move the main plot forward, they provide a lot of meat to the story, as well as horror and in-world philosophy. The story of Diane McClintock parallels the player’s, but this character is never actually seen or encountered. Instead, her experiences are a counterpoint to the player’s own.

I always knew that I wanted Angelfools to have found texts as a component. At this point in the writing process, however, I’m not ready to compose them. I want to focus on the core story before getting into side plots too much, and I need to see how my characters evolve as I write them. So for now, a key tool in providing the reader exposition is being left in the toolbox. However, I can’t leave the reader — or Alex, for that matter — completely in the dark, as I’ve done for three installments so far.

So I give you an info dump, in the form of a literal info dump offered to the main character. I’m also lampshading this device by having Alex get bored with it before he can digest the material. This also presents a new and important character trait: Alex’s impatience. He is the newly appointed leader of a complex and conflicted city-state, with an uneasy populace and testy neighbors. But though the task is important, he doesn’t give it the necessary attention. This will — and must — come back around.

In contrast, say hello to Valeria, who put the unappreciated info dump together. She knows more of what’s going on with Alex, and unlike Abel, she’s willing to share her knowledge. More on her next chapter.

Commentary: Traits of the Medium

Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do. 

Writing violent action is difficult. Part of that is just a characteristic of writing: the dramatic and exciting action sequences that we love to see on the big screen don’t translate well to the written page. Fight scenes, driving scenes, and the like are visual and auditory in nature, and therefore don’t come across well to a reader as they would to a viewer.

So what am I to do? The story as I’m writing it has a fair amount of action in it. How can I write action in a way that can be exciting to the reader? Well, I can take cues from people that already do. How do my favorite writers compose their action scenes?

In many cases, they don’t write the action per se. Describing the blow by blow can get tedious, the opposite of what you want in an action scene. Instead, it seems that my favorite authors focus on what the medium is good at: details, internal reactions, and talking about something that goes beyond the concrete events. Take a look at a graphic novel and see how much writing goes into the average fight scene. Characters may have extended conversations while trading punches, or give mental monologues on the larger context. It’s rare that I come across drawn panels that are “silent;” Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a good counterexample.

Or take one of my favorite television writers, Bryan Fuller. His show Hannibal (one of my all-time favorites) features quite a lot of violence, much of it rather brutal. But unlike other shows about similar subjects, Fuller takes his time with the scenes. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead or Grimm, where battles may take up to two minutes of punch after punch, Hannibal fight scenes over in seconds, much like how a fight would go in real life. The difference is that Fuller lingers over the fight, focusing on characters’ faces as they grapple in both physical and mental realms. In this way, the battle becomes an effective opportunity for character development, and maybe even larger themes of violence and trauma. Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do.

I’m no Bryan Fuller (yet), but I will take this lesson, that violence and action in a story should be deliberate, purposeful, and a character can’t get away with being violent and expect to be unaffected, even if they are physically unharmed.

Commentary: The Stranger that the Author Hasn’t Met

“While I know the broad strokes of his motivations, I have yet to learn about the nuances.”

If you’re reading this, then we’ve both met someone new today.

I’ve been thinking about this story for the better part of four years, and in that time I’ve come up with a wide cast of characters, both main and supporting. But as I was doing one last look over my notes on greater story structure, I realized that I was missing a character. Namely, the character of Abel Carter. No spoilers in giving away his last name; it’s just a placeholder anyways, as is normal for early drafts.

Specifically, Abel has existed in the story for some time, but not in the form or place that I’m now using him. The original version of this portion of Angelfools had Alex waking up alone in the rubble, and spending much of the what follows alone with his own thoughts. While that may be easier to write, it isn’t very interesting. What’s more: I wasn’t doing that with other parts of the story that you’ll read soon. In my first layout of the story arc, Alex doesn’t have contact with other people for a bit, and yet he manages by himself. But I think that in this early stage, with both the reader and the protagonist largely ignorant as to what is happening, it’s important to have someone act as an anchor.

Abel is that anchor — for the moment. He knows more about the catastrophic situation than Alex does, and he knows Alex as well. But because Alex doesn’t know Abel yet, they can develop a relationship that is both independent and dependent on previous interactions, which Alex and the reader get to discover as time goes on.

From a different perspective, Abel and I the author get to discover a new relationship as well. Abel is a bit of an experiment. Of all my characters, the fact that he is the youngest of my brainchildren means that he is the least developed in my mind. I know less about his speech patterns and habits. And while I know the broad strokes of his motivations, I have yet to learn about the nuances.

So this journey that we take together, you the reader and Ben the writer, is at least partly a journey into the unknown. Although I can guide you through much of Fortune’s Coast and the story of Angelfools, there are some parts that will grow organically as I write. This is one of them. I’m excited to get to know Abel Carter, and I hope you are as well.

Commentary: Now You Know Everything

What’s the point of reading a whole novel if you know everything on the first page?

Think about the openings to your favorite novels. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is the classic, with its “best of times” “worst of times” passage. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has another great one, with a Dick and Jane primer passage that disintegrates into madness: “hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhitewithareddoor….” Other media do this also; who can forget “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away,” or “Space: the final frontier”?

One of my English teachers once told me that a truly great story will tell you everything that the story is about within the first page, or even in the first paragraph. Parsing the opening of a work of literature can reveal all the important themes, many significant symbols, and sometimes even key character relationships.

So what, then, is the point of reading a whole novel if the first page tells you everything? Then again, the first page doesn’t tell you everything. It’s more like a teaser than a spoiler. Does the first passage of the novel show you something that you like? Does this sound like a story and a writing style that you’ll enjoy? The trick is to tell the reader everything while keeping almost everything a secret. One of my favorite novels, The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer, starts at the end of the story. The fun is finding out how a greeting-card writer ended up trapped on a zeppelin with the frozen body of a brilliant inventor and the disembodied voice of his insane daughter. Now you want to read it, right?

This is a lesson that I’ve tried to enact here in Angelfools. If you’ve only read the prologue, I would imagine that you’re very confused. I’ve given you the name of our protagonist, a very bizarre scene of him falling to an imminent death, and pretty much nothing else story-wise. But I’ve tried to weave in some important images and themes that will recur throughout. Nonlinear time is key to the plot structure of Angelfools, and I want to make that clear to the reader right at the beginning. Maybe I can even introduce some camaraderie between Alex and the reader, as he is clearly as confused about his situation as the audience is, if not more so. Unlike comparable novel openings where we don’t start at the beginning of the story, Alex doesn’t know how he got to this point(s) in time. We get to experience the journey along with him.

Astute readers will also figure out my primary inspiration for this story, and perhaps will know a bit more about where we’re going as a result.

Side note: this story is based on a long poem that I wrote about four years ago, and I’ve preserved the images here that I used in the opening of that poem. One of these images was the “blossom of cream in coffee,” which inspired the sketch that accompanies the prologue.