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FFC #60 - Up and back down - what has happened?

Posted November 12th, 2020 at 01:48 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend
TGRF's Fan Fiction Chronicles - Entry #60

A few days ago, I was visited by a desire to scrutinize my fan fiction folders. Not being one to deny what was so clearly an invitation to find something wrong with my writing, I obliged.

On my computer, under the massive 'Heroscape' folder, there is a fan fiction folder. Within this ancient and vast collection are various subfolders, one for each fan fiction I have written - or have tried to write. There are a lot of them. But, as I had suspected, there was a pattern.

One of the first folders was dedicated to my first forray into the wonderful world of writing, the original Valhalla Reborn. I wrote chapter to chapter, with no plan or goal in mind.

The next folder is for The Quest for Valhalla, where I first tried my hand at plotting and planning in advance (which in this instance meant jotting down a ton of events and battles with unchanging characters). Sequels quickly followed, with folders for The Final Battleground, Last Battle of the Valkyrie, and a rebooted Valhalla Reborn.

But what then? My ideas for sequels had run out.

Or had they?

Dilmir rose to the occassion, the idea spawned from a random character I created on the spur of the moment for LBV. Now I really got down to development for real. Dilmir the elf had real internal struggles, definite change, and a clear sequence of events which formed the plot. Sequels followed, with The Curse of Feylund and The Final Flame. My writing was progressing, and it seemed as though nothing could stop my journey to becoming a best-selling author.

But what then? I had exhausted the characters of LBV by now, surely.

Apparently not. Drifting in from the foggy halls of my unformed imagination, came a character we had seen in approximately two chapters in LBV, an orc, who became the central character of Ragnak. I was back in business.

But for the first time, there was a problem. Something was wrong. Ragnak wasn't coming together like I expected it to. I had a solid plan, I knew what I wanted the story to be, but something was missing. What was it?

The middle. I was missing the middle.

I knew the beginning. And I definitely knew the ending. I knew how I wanted Ragnak the orc to change. But... how to do it? How do you change someone from thinking one thing, to thinking the opposite?

Stumped, I settled for what was undoubtedly the wrong approach: throw a ton of repetitive evidence at Ragnak, and then cap it off with plain dialogue telling him what to think. Presto! Character change!

I knew something was wrong. I had never struggled with writing like that before. It wasn't that I didn't know how to change characters. I had done it with Dilmir, hadn't I?

Well, no, not really. None of the characters really changed in Dilmir. Their circumstances changed, and their actions changed as a result, but who they were internally never really changed.

But Ragnak worked. At least well enough. Yes, I knew the middle chapters were literally clones of each other. But it had worked in the end. Sort of.

Then I descended into a haze of inspiration as something I can only describe as other-worldly writing power descended upon me, and I proceeded to pump out The River that was Red. Character stakes. Plots. Pure emotion forced into word-form. I still don't really know how it all happened.

But again, looking back, that problem with character change persisted. The main character had a very strong internal conflict, and she definitely changed by the end of the story. But how did she change? In one scene. In one moment at the end. She just decided to change.

That's not how character arcs work, is it? Of course, I knew nothing of character arcs then, and went on my merry way...

But now things took a dark turn. From what seemed (and still does) to be the epitome of my success, I turned to Apocalypse: Valhalla's Darkest Hour. Full disclosure: I made sure the title started with an 'A' so that it would be top on the alphabetical list of fan fiction in the index. The rest of the fiction followed that despicably hollow desire.

AV did not have character change. What it had were characters who had already decided on their courses of action, and only had to deceive their fellows long enough for them to carry them out. Two characters did this. The rest were along for the ride, and did not change in the slightest. And given that the main character essentially turned into the villain half way through, the fiction could have been a lot better.

By this time I knew something was wrong. My writing had turned downhill. I must save it! I turned to the old standby - LBV - and desperately tried to pull off another backstory for one of the characters.

For the first time, a story fell through. A complete lack of character or plot contributed to a failure anyone but myself could have predicted. The story about Vervalsing on Icaria was shelved.

Ah, but what about Dan, the main character of LBV? I had long ago promised a sequel with him back on Isadora. There was a story just waiting to be written!

I failed. Three times. I don't even remember why, but these early attempts at Dan's Tale never made it past the development. I kept running into issues where I was unable to show what I wanted to. Something was wrong, but what?

Finally admitting that Dan was not getting out of his cell any time soon, I shelved him and turned to a completely random idea, determined to make something work. I knew I had a problem, and I was determined to try out new methods in writing to try and fix it (without knowing what it was - great plan, I know). I somehow produced A Chance of Success. It was... well not a failure, but it was kind of just there. All I learned from it was that I actually didn't know what a twist was, or how to write one (this shortcoming was later rectified).

At this point I had written only two things since my success with Red: something mediocre and something... maybe not bad, but definitely on that side of the scale. I started to panic. What was wrong? Why was my writing going downhill?

Disregarding the signs that I had a major problem with my writing, I kept saying that I was nearing the point where I would start writing novels. That wasn't true; I just didn't know it then.

Two years after my last dubious fiction, I finally arrived with a story I could be proud of: Horizon in Sight. I was back, all doubts were silenced, and I was on my way to masterful writing!

For about one month. HiS had problems galore. Parts of it worked, and I think certainly kept it from wholesale failing, and even achieved the impossible in some places, but other parts were just... bad. At least in my eyes. But it did open my eyes to what I needed to learn about writing, and launched me into a new era of discovery.

An era where I floundered about in absolute confusion, apparently.

Character arcs? The 3-act structure? Character change? Stakes? What were these demons which I suddenly could not defeat?

And now something truly worrying began to happen: I began to become unable to write. Very, VERY slowly, the ability I had assumed I would always have was sapped from me like air from a punctured balloon. I floundered, losing altitude the whole time, trying despearately to learn the basics I should have learned in the beginning.

Slowly, things fell into place. I patched up my understanding of stakes (at least until I'm disproven in that again). I learned about character arcs and the 3-act structure from the masters. But there was one thing which still haunted my writing like a shadow unwilling to leave in the light of dawn: character change.

How, HOW does one change a character? I knew how to change a character in one line, certainly. But how do you spread a change out across an entire story? And if you can get the change into a line, should you even spread it out at all? Did that mean my character changes were only superficial at best? Confused thoughts chased panicked ones, and I spiraled ever lower to the ground of absolute defeat.

The strange thing was that HiS, for all of its flaws, had clear character change. Real character change. The main character changed several aspects of who he was throughout the course of the story. I didn't use any magical formula, I just asked myself how I could cause this change to come about. And thus the subplots were formed.

But I couldn't seem to replicate that. Now, when I asked myself how a character changed, one of two things happened: I stared at my screen with a blank mind, or the answer was obvious, and took one line to accomplish. How could I ever create a lengthy story like this?

How had I written such things as Dilmir? That had worked. That had a plot I had developed from literally nowhere. What about Red? Why couldn't I do what I had already done? Had learning about structure and character arcs somehow robbed me of my ability to craft a story?


These questions remain with me. After HiS, I still find myself largely incapable of causing steady, slow character change. I find myself incapable of crafting a satisfactory middle to the story. I know the beginning, where things are introduced, characters and conflicts set up, and the hero set upon his journey. And I know the ending, where all hope seems lost, the hero rallies, and the final battle ensues. But the middle is, and has always been, a blank.

And the worst part? There seems to be no help. Every story is different. While the beginning and ending come down to basic elements shared by all stories, the middle does not. The only advice is that the middle is the part where 'tensions rise, characters develop, and complications appear'. And that doesn't help me at all. Those are generalizations. I need the specifics. But no one can tell that to me, because the middle is unique to your own story, unique to the character and the challenges he must overcome. No one can tell you how to write that.

The trouble is... neither can I.

I have written Dilmir, a story pulled straight from my imagination with no structure, but still a perfectly working plot and characters. And I have written Red, a story with true characters and emotions. And I have written Horizon in Sight, a story with flaws, but also with a clearly-constructed plot and character changes. But now... I seem incapable of any of it.

Why? I cannot say. It seems that in my haste to learn how to write, I have somehow destroyed my ability to craft a story at all.


For those of you unable to detect the hidden note of near-panic in the above, this is a plea for help to any who might have an inkling of how to create the middle of a story reliably. I've asked for help before... I need it again.
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TheAverageFan's Avatar
"He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." -Gandalf

The best thing I've ever written was also the first thing I ever wrote. It's complete nonsense, but it's still the best thing in my library. It had fantastic theming in a completely incidental way, while a later story I wrote specifically focusing on theming suffered significantly in other areas. There is something to be said for the charms of effortless writing—telling a story for the sake of telling one as opposed to trying to perfect a craft.

Similarly they say that learning the writing mechanics of comedy will make you a humorless person once you discover the methods and structure. Overanalyzing the skeleton of the story mechanics may take away from the magic and discovery of storytelling itself. It is possible you've lost the joy of writing by turning it from something that's fun to a science project. It's like tearing open a drum to see what makes it bang.

Perhaps the best thing to do is just to forget about perfecting the craft and just wait for inspiration to strike. Whatever story hits you that just needs to be told might not have a great middle chapter or an excellent character arc—at least not intentionally—but I assure you it will still be a great story.

~TAF, who's just been writing what he wants to write for himself as of late
Posted November 13th, 2020 at 09:28 PM by TheAverageFan TheAverageFan is offline
The Grim Reaper's Friend's Avatar
Originally Posted by TheAverageFan
Whatever story hits you that just needs to be told
I haven't felt that way about any story since I wrote Red. Does that mean I should have given up writing long ago?

Posted November 14th, 2020 at 09:00 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend The Grim Reaper's Friend is offline
TheAverageFan's Avatar
No of course not. But in the same vein you can't really force yourself to write high quality work (at least I've never been able to—anything I force myself to write (most often because of deadlines) sucks). However that does mean you might have to sit on certain ideas until they really click.

I've got tons of stories on the constant back burner just waiting for me to get back into them. One of them was something I hadn't touched in 5+ years that I picked up again recently. My mind was on it, I was thinking about it, and things just clicked so I started writing it again. It's not really the one I should be focusing on at the moment, but if I force myself to write the other when I'm not really into it, it's gonna suck. And I don't want it to suck. I'd sooner it remain unfinished than suck.

This isn't the most efficient way to write professionally, but it's how I've been doing it. Intaking new media and letting my imagination wander helps as well, I think. That can sometimes fill in the missing pieces of something that's just not entirely 100% there yet.

Posted November 14th, 2020 at 10:08 PM by TheAverageFan TheAverageFan is offline
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