Plausible Failure Modes

Last night I saw Interstellar, my first Hollywood movie since Viable Paradise. It allowed Kelly and I to try out our new Plot X-Ray Glasses.

One-sentence review: I thought the movie was okay; some great stuff, but also a lot of terrible stuff. But this post is not about Interstellar; the movie is just here to provide today’s example. (Minor spoilers ahead, however.)

What makes a threat feel real?

Early-ish in Interstellar, we have a scene where Mr. Sidekick tries for the first time to dock the launch vehicle with their mothership. The music swells and pounds… but if you ignore the emotional tug of the music and think about what’s happening, there is no tension here. You know the heroes cannot fail; what’s more, you know exactly how they will achieve their goal. What’s missing?

The missing element is a plausible failure mode. What happens if the astronauts fail to dock successfully? Then they never get on their spaceship and the movie ends. The story cannot progress unless the heroes succeed. Worse yet, there’s no tension* about how they will succeed. If something goes non-catastrophically wrong, the astronauts will pull back a couple of feet and try again; but that won’t happen in the movie, because it would make boring and repetitive viewing. While in-story the characters could fail (novice astronauts could crash and die), this is a movie about interstellar travel, with no backup ship or crew. Failure would end or derail the story. This is a challenge with no plausible failure mode.

Contrast with a later spaceflight challenge in Interstellar: their attempt to rescue the spinning and half-destroyed mothership. When that ship exploded, I thought, “I guess they need to get the heck away from the flying wreckage, and the movie’s next act will put them in Dr. Mann’s shoes of isolation and survival.” But instead we have an awesome spaceflight rescue scene! This scene (like most of the stuff on the ice planet) worked very well for me. We had a plausible failure mode, which made me legitimately curious how things would turn out. That curiosity greatly increased my interest in watching the scene unfold.

Moral of the story: a threat will be more believable, and thus more compelling, if it includes a plausible failure mode. Readers will be less afraid of a threat if they realize the writer cannot follow through.

If your threat risks ending or ruining the story, then the heroes cannot fail. If your reader/viewer is sufficiently engrossed that they aren’t thinking about the outcomes, you can get away with this. But if you really want to put the reader/viewer on the edge of their seat (proverbially or otherwise), give the threat a plausible failure mode.

 

 

*: This isn’t the only way to create tension, of course. For instance, inevitability can create tension. To stick to Interstellar examples, consider when Cooper and Dr. Mann** go out on the ice together. However, this generally requires inevitable failure/danger, not inevitable success.

**: While I really liked all the stuff with Dr. Mann, I have to say: they called him “Mann?” For the brilliant driven confident flawed self-preserving person who embodies the best and worst of humankind? Might as well have given him the first name Hugh.

Progress post-Paradise

Since Viable Paradise XVIII I have:

1) Revised my steampunk story “Machines in Motion” and submitted to Crossed Genres. This one I think is well worthy – the first two pages appeared at a reading at Viable Paradise and got a great response, and Victoria Sandbrook helped with the revised post-VP version. Of course now I feel like I left a niggling-but-hateful conceptual flaw, but (A) probably nobody else will notice, and (B) too late to change it!

2) Revised my fantasy story “The Grasp of the Waves” and submitted to Crossed Genres. I got Scott Lynch to critique this one at VP, and and got some good feedback from Shveta Thakrar too, but this perhaps needed more work than I could accomplish before its 10/31 deadline. I decided to give it a shot anyhow, because it’s a very good fit for that theme/deadline; CG is a rare market that allows 2 submissions at once.

3) Revised my fantasy story “Weights and Measures” and submitted to Strange Horizons. I got Elizabeth Bear to critique this one at VP, followed this week by a delightful #VP18edits Twitter swarm-critique of a single troublesome sentence. This story is *awesome* and I cannot wait for someplace to buy it so I can show it off! Hands-down my best work so far.

4) Submitted my science fiction VP-Thursday story “The Nursery” to my online critique group, and gotten feedback from two people. The major issues seem to be the ones I already know about. They are fixable, but it will take some major finesse and craft to resolve. Not sure I can accomplish them before the 11/16 deadline, what with traveling 12th-21st to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference. I will risk the wrath of the jellyfish and aim for the end of the November.

5) Not even touched my VP submission story. All those lovely notes are still sitting on the corner of my desk, wrapped in a ziploc bag. I did get a brilliant plot suggestion from a friend when I read it to my secret post-VP party, so I have some general ideas how to rebuild it. Probably not until December though.

6) Read all kinds of other wonderful post-VP wrap-ups. So nostalgic already! I need to live in a place with more SFF authors around. Twitter is an all-too-timesinky replacement. At least I’ll get to see a few classmates when I travel this month!

Viable Paradise summary

I have returned from Viable Paradise! I’m not going to try to describe it in detail, at least not anytime soon. I’m still in a stage of overwhelmedness (real word!), and I hardly know where to start. But in brief: I learned vast amounts of writing theory, practice, and tricks; I met two dozen fellow young authors, all of whom deserve to become the Next Big Thing; I got fantastic feedback on three of my pieces; I was fed and shepherded by the most wonderful staff imaginable; I learned and sung and hung out with masters of SFF; I received a very sweet gift from our predecessors; I drank lots of whiskey and all kinds of other troublesome beverages. I swore a most portentious oath, and also a least portentious oath. And, of course, I survived the Horror That Is Thursday.

Honestly, we more than survived the Horror. We mastered it, all twenty-four of us. And now we wield the dread power of the Lord of Jellyfish, Rider of the Steam Duck of the Apocalypse. Ia, ia.

I think KJ Kabza said it best when he tweeted, “They say workshop = transformative. Not sure that’s true, especially b/c I’m now a space brontosaurus that can see thru time.”

And now I have 30+ more people to miss. But oh, what I have gained in return! As the saying goes: it was a bittersweet tapestry of life itself.

Viable Paradise prep #3 – Reviews, Part Two

Continuing from last week’s post, here are more reviews from my Viable Paradise reading list!

Lovely writing, with lots of implied world-building in the city and history and theology surrounding the Wizards of Messaline. An enjoyable read, though very short. My only real problem came in the ending, when one of the three perspective characters (Emeraude) ends up being totally irrelevant to the resolution of the story.

I liked this a lot. Wonderful language and metaphor, and a cosmology with clear layers of myth and meaning beyond the explicit stuff. I found both of the main characters, Temur and Samarkar, very compelling and engaging. Temur may be the grandson of the Great Khagan, but the things he actually wants are very straightforward and ordinary, he’s only pushed into great deeds by enemies who expect him to be a rival. For Samarkar, the best thing about her is her challenges and weakness (in potency, not personality): she is a Wizard of Tsarepeth, yes, but being a weak one is so much more interesting than being a strong one. It gives us so much more to root for. And with the way the Wizards were set up, her initiation was fascinatingly tense: they can have successful careers without any magical talent, so when it’s time to find out if Samarkar has any talent, I felt like the story really could’ve gone in either direction (as opposed to a “heroes will succeed somehow” situation).

Again, though for different reasons, the ending left me a bit disappointed. Some of the plotlines end well (Edene’s epilogue is awesome), but there’ a big climactic battle that feels a bit random. Why did the villains attack there, inside a fortress containing hundreds of soldiers to back up the heroes? I’m not sure if it’s “stupid on demand” or “lucky break”, but both are a let-down from an otherwise great book.

At first I liked this; a very interesting and well-realized setting, and some good characters. But over time my interest really waned, and I had to force myself to not just set the book aside and skip the last quarter. The book felt too episodic to me, largely because of the main character’s uninteresting and late-breaking motive. When the main character’s adventures are driven by the motive “hates crimes”, I just don’t care that much about each new assignment he receives. There were little hints about a story arc resolving the mysteries of the setting, but unfortunately that ended up secondary to Kimble dismantling with the criminal organization of the week.


I am currently reading Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars, and have M.J. Locke’s Up Against It and Steven Brust’s The Book of Jhereg to go. Unlikely I’ll get through them all by VP, but that’s what airplanes are for!

Viable Paradise prep #2 – Reviews, Part One

Lately I’ve been trying to learn how to read a novel more critically, to really figure out what I liked or didn’t like about them. So this is an exercise for me, on top of whatever meager value it may have for my readers! It’s a little weird to do this when I’ll be meeting all these authors, but I figure I’ll be the target of plenty critiques of my own.

Books are listed in the order I read them. Minor spoilers only.

I definitely enjoyed reading this, but I’d say it was my least favorite of the three Gentleman Bastard books. The dialogue was still great, witty and funny, with the characters to back it. I know some people didn’t like Sabetha, but I had zero problems there. She came across to me as a character of hidden depths, of density: we only get the barest hints of her recent years, but those hints certainly sufficed for me. Some people didn’t like the ending, but I was… torn. It wasn’t entirely believable, given how easily he accomplishes things that ought to have been impossible; but it was propulsive and exciting and I loved reading it.

What I didn’t like was the main (present-day) plot. It had no tension and no stakes; nobody cared if Locke and Jean won or lost. They barely even cared themselves. Furthermore, there was no big interesting scheme, only a bunch of trivial back-and-forths between them and Sabetha. The actual election got only cursory attention most of the time (“Dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s, leave no bribe unbribed!”), aside from a clever but brief con at the end, which only made it clearer how unimportant the election was. The backstory plot from their younger years, which I didn’t like in Book 1, had all the fun tension missing from the election plot: there was danger, there was reward, there was a big con that took many tense scenes to pull off.

  • Sherwood Smith: Inda

This book helped me articulate one of the reasons why I usually don’t enjoy YA novels. The stakes were plenty high, but the motivations were all childish. The primary motivations of the princes and warrior-kings were things like old crushes, schoolyard jealousies. Affairs of state took back seat to these teenage-level personalities. There was also a distinct, literal “cleaned-up” nature to the society, which seemed to tie into the history/cosmology/plot for future books, but it wasn’t to my taste as a reader.

I had some more specific problems in the front half of the book. Tons of characters, each with a surname and a given name and a nickname. There were whole scenes that I simply could not follow because I could not tell who was who. (For example, I knew the nicknames of the main 6ish characters, but then a teacher rattled off 20 surnames and I had no idea which group contained which names-I-knew.) Those sorts of problems disappeared in the second half, though.

This story had a wonderful prologue: the MC gets a mission, which relies on the existence of her internal conflict, and hands her the external conflict. Bam, goals and stakes are go! Overall, this book was very fast-plotted and fun, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected.  The book played in fun ways with identity, acting, cover identities, though I kept expecting even more. There was no antagonist, which was not as big a problem as you might think. I may try to track down the sequels.

So, I made a strategic error. I was in the library, looking for a Brust book. They didn’t have anything on my list of good starting points, so I had to choose on the fly. “Hey, this one says it’s the first book of a set (The Viscount of Adrilankha), so it should be a good place to start.”  Alas, not so much. If I had checked the internet, I would’ve learned it’s also #3 of another set (The Khraaven Romances, I think). The plot truly did stand on its own, but the characters did not; there were many references to past places and actions, including explicit stuff like “The reader should be familiar with this character!”, which made me feel like I was listening to someone else’s inside joke.

As for the book itself: A fun read, plot that kept me going, very distinct characters. The players and stakes of the series conflict are very clear, even though many threads remain hanging at the end of this book. It was also quite funny, but some of that came from the weird courtly speaking style. Which unfortunately really started to grate on me after a while, because everyone used it, even servants. Effectively, the author voice was so strong that it muffled a lot of the character voice in dialogue. The Omnipresent Style was also very fluffy and roundabout, which meant you spend way too much time reading exchanges like this:

“There is something important!”

“What is that thing?”

“Why, I will tell you that thing this instant.”

“Please continue, I am waiting for you tell me that thing.”

It’s much funnier in Brust’s words, of course. But after a few dozen times it really wore thin on me.

More book reviews to come!

Viable Paradise prep #1 – Reading List

So in anticipation for Viable Paradise XVIII in mid-October, I’ve been trying to read a good sample of books by all of the workshop’s instructors. I figured that tnowing more about their writing should help me appreciate and contextualize their awesomeness!

As background: I was so excited to apply to VP because I already loved Scott Lynch’s work from Lies of Lock Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies, and Elizabeth Bear’s short work from 30th Annual Year’s Best Science Fiction (which included her In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns and The Wreck of the “Charles Dexter Ward”). I also read some of Stephen Brust’s Taltos novels a looong time ago, details fully faded from my memory.

So here’s what I have read thus far as my VP “homework”. I chose these books via a mix of what I wanted and what was available in my local library. Listed in order I read ’em.

  1. Scott Lynch: The Republic of Thieves
  2. Sherwood Smith: Inda
  3. Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald: The Price of the Stars
  4. Steven Brust: The Paths of the Dead
  5. Elizabeth Bear: Bone and Jewel Creatures
  6. Elizabeth Bear: Range of Ghosts

And yet to read:

  1. Steven Gould: Jumper
  2. Steven Brust: The Book of Jhereg (Taltos #1-3)
  3. Steven Gould: 7th Sigma

Next post: reviews!

Twitter!

I now have a twitter feed! Not that there’s anything of interest on there yet, but I’ll give this thing a whirl. Once upon a time I tried it for my professional science life, and gave that up straightaway due to a lack of interesting science to say (or read) in 140-character chunks. I’ll watch and learn and hopefully find more things to chirp about on this side of my life?

@BenCKinney

Virgil Magus: The Echo of a Story

I recently began reading The Phoenix and the Mirror by Avram Davidson, inspired by someone-or-other’s list of all-time best SF. Despite some frustrations with an occasionally jumpy writing style, I’m enjoying it immensely. Rich with detail and mystery, it’s a font and spectacle of ancient myth. The main character is Virgil Magus — the poet Virgil as warped and retold by medieval myths about his sorcerous wisdom. I’m only halfway through, but the plot seems interesting thus far.

But that’s not why I wrote this post. My edition of this book has a preface wherein Davidson said he planned to write more Virgil Magus books, so I glanced at Wikipedia to confirm whether this happened. Not only did he, but in those links, I found mention of a story I half-remembered from 1998! I had only remembered the second half of the title Virgil Magus: King Without Country, but it was enough to trigger the memory when I saw it listed. That (along with ) is story has been echoing in my head for years. VM:KWC is a story of Davidson’s that was posthumously finished by Michael Swanwick, possibly my all-time favorite author. If you want a slew of info and spoilers, read through the first link in this paragraph. Suffice to say the general tone and a few specific tricks in that story (e.g. the sword) inspired me in many ways throughout the years since.

This is the second time this year I’ve managed to identify a short story that inspired me >10 years ago. The other culprit was The Hydrogen Wall by Gregory Benford. That one was less serendipitous: I was thinking about it one day, and the near-closing line that stuck in my head: “The answer does not lie within your conceptual space.” That and a bit of google-fu eventually led me to a copy I could read (without having to shovel through back issues of Asimov’s in my highschool bedroom).

If I ever write a story that makes someone think, ten years later,: “Wow, I remember the story that had X and Y, that made me think about Z. I wish I could remember its name or author.” — if I write one story that accomplishes that, I will call my writing a success.

Workshop time!

It looks like I will be attending Viable Paradise XVIII this October! I am super-thrilled for this opportunity. It already looks like I’ll be joining a crew of weird and excellent and much-more-accomplished-than-I folks. My hope for the week is to get bitten by a radioactive author and gain his/her proportionate strength and speed.

JWA final results

The winner of the 2014 James White Award was “Beside the Dammed River” by DJ Cockburn. I am sad that I did not win, but still very excited that I made the shortlist. I look forwards to reading his story when it comes out, and/or eating his brain to absorb his talents!