Monday, 26 September 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy - formula or formulaic?

by Addy Farmer

Yeah, yeah, I know it's a film but Candy Gourlay's done it so I thought I'd have a go as well. Let me, declare an interest here - I LOVE 'GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY'. There it is. I also like science fiction and fantasy and am proud to say so.

So, what makes this story a winning formula and what can writers learn from it?

The Story

For those of you unfamiliar with GOTG, it tells the story of our hero, Peter Quill and his stumble into finding a meaning to his life and coming to terms with the death of his mother. It is all wrapped up in action and humour and friendship.

We can follow the plot so ...

Inciting incident - the heartbreak death of Peter Quill's mum rapidly followed by capture by space pirates, The Ravagers, who happen to have kidnapped him from Earth in the first place.

The Beginning of Themes - coming to terms with the grief of the past plus allusion to Peter's mysterious father and his possible future.  Friendships begin.

The Tone is set - irreverent, quirky and oh so cool (some super-cool music helps here).

Establishing world - right from the get-go, we see our hero recovering an expensive alien artefact for exacting alien clients from a dangerous alien world. We are firmly sic-fi/fantasy. We are also, in Marvel comic territory and this comes with its own audience expectations of good v evil on a universal scale.

You don't want to end up in this prison
The problem - after discovering a mysterious orb in another part of the galaxy, Peter, is now the main target of a manhunt led by the genocidal villain Ronan the Accuser plus his old muckers, The Ravagers.

Ronan has issues
Rising Tension - Peter Quill arrives on the Nova Empire city of Xander and is chased by Ronan's warrior Gamora and by the bounty hunters Rocket and The Groot. They are all captured and sent to prison where they meet Drax. Soon they learn that Gamora wants sell the orb to a dealer for a huge amount while Drax wants to destroy Ronan, who killed his wife and daughter.
Friends? They will be eventually
They plot a plan to escape, sell the orb and split the money. But soon they also learn that the orb keeps the infinity stone that gives immensurable destructive power to the owner. They decide to keep the orb safe from mad Ronan. But they are pursued left, right and centre by pirates and an increasingly bonkers Ronan.

False happy ending - it all leads to a seeming triumph which fails when it looks like Xander and civilisation as we know it may fall and Peter and the others will die ...

Plot Resolution - but no! Here comes the resolution. The friends join together to save Peter from being destroyed by the orb. Together they become GOTG and defeat Ronan the Accuser. Hooray! The orb is safe .... for now.

We are Guardians of the Galaxy!
emotional resolution - Peter faces up to the death of his mother by opening she left for him - more super-cool music!

Hint for the next story - The Ravagers leave Peter alone for now saying that his father will just have to wait ...

The story works because frankly that's the way that stories do work to achieve a satisfying conclusion. It has a clearly defined, well paced plot; there is a strong emotional arc for our hero and for his friends; an epic and and beautifully realised setting. It's a winning formula for a story but never formulaic. GOTG has a few things which raise it up and which writers can use. So, here's a something we all like - a list.

  • Using the mundane makes things funnier, more real and more resonant for your reader. There is a scene where the heroes' set out side by side to do battle with evil nemesis. One is yawning, another has a bit of a scratch, someone else trips up - not very hero-like, not slick but really funny and human and it makes me think that I too could be a guardian of the galaxy.
  • Give everyone a reason for being. Ok, so everyone has a problem they want to solve - Is Gamora evil like her father? Will Drax avenge the deaths of his wife and child? Will Rocket ever get over being a racoon? Will Peter Quill face up to his mother's death by opening the present she left for him? Will Groot ... well, Groot is pretty much perfect, he is the one that binds them together (almost literally near the end).
  • Make your characters work in order to understand one another. The GOTG start as a bunch of strangers flung together by circumstances. They actively dislike one another but work together to escape from a truly horrible space prison.
  • Inject it all with unexpected humour. there's a time and a place for being serious but that is not all the way through a story. GOTG works because it has the prefect balance of serious and funny. Take the characters. They all have stuff they need to sort out. E.G Drax has a very serious resolve to kill Ronan for a very serious reason. He is also very serious in his speech. What could be dreary over time is lifted by the fact that he takes everything literally and this leads to unintended funniness.

  • Humour in desperate situations. When Peter and Ronan have their showdown it looks and sounds like Marvel super-evil villain versus good hero all the way. Ronan is about to destroy the universe when ... Peter starts dancing and singing like a normal person i.e. not great but having fun all the same. He invites the super-evil about to destroy the universe Ronan to join in. The unexpected action is funny, sort-of embarrassing and defies Ronan's own expectations as to how his story will go down. It turns out to be a ruse to distract Ronan

    • Ronan:'What are you doing?!'
      Peter, 'It's a dance-off bro''

      • Defy expectations with the way a character acts. Drax is a mighty man but it turns out that he has a big heart. His physicality and manner make his hesitant attempt to comfort Rocket all the more touching.

      Drax comforts Rocket when Groot sacrifices himself for his friends

      Rocket and Groot come as a pair and have a seemingly indifferent relationship based on Rocket's need for muscle in dangerous situations. But we get to learn that beneath his aggressive exterior, Rocket is a damaged personality who relies on the mono-phrasal (?) Groot.
      Groot and Rocket
      In turn, Groot, the living tree, the follower, becomes the one who saves his friends and seemingly sacrifices himself ...

      No, Groot! You'll die!

      There's got to be a sassy action girl - well, yes, but this sassy action girl not only beats Peter Quill in a fight (ok, so far so formulaic) but she's NOT fast-talking and knowing. She's serious and doesn't know how to dance and doesn't end up in Peter Quill's arms. She's awkward and annoyed and her own person.

      • Have a flawed hero. Peter Quill is so flawed that he even wants to be known as a hero and gives himself the name 'Star Lord'; he tries to get his enemies to call him Star Lord. We know he has grown when near the resolution an enemy approaches saying, Star Lord!' 'At last,' says Peter Quill.

      Peter Quill: There's one other name you might know me by... Star Lord.
      Korath the Pursuer: ...Who?
      Peter Quill: Star Lord, man. Legendary Outlaw.
      [Korath shrugs]

      Then much, much later

      Korath the Pursuer: Star-Lord!
      Peter Quill: Finally!

      This is also a really good example of seeding in something that your reader is going to pick up on later on and cheer.

      • Have a talisman. Peter uses music as his ward against dark thoughts and of course, a constant reminder of his own mother.

      It's a brilliant opener and brings us right back round again at the end. Love it.

      Monday, 19 September 2016

      Exposition: it's about emotion not information

      By Candy Gourlay

      Have you written The End yet?

      Nooooooo I haven't!

      Despite recent pronouncements that The End is nigh, I'm still plodding along. I can see it coming, but right now, what's on my mind is EXPOSITION.

      See, this book I'm writing, it's got a historical element (meaning, it's context is a real time and place). Also an anthropological element (meaning, it is set amongst a real people who didn't write down their history).

      It's a tricky book to write because there's a lot of explaining to do. Nothing about the history or the characters will be easy peasy for most readers. The onus is on me to explain what it's all about. Exposition. But how do I do that without boring people?

      This problem of course is not unique to me. All authors struggle with exposition whether they are writing fantasy, history, mystery or any other genre. Exposition, done badly, can turn your book from a svelte, pacey story ...

      ... to a sluggish, unwieldy tome.

      I first heard that old writing maxim 'Show Don't Tell' thirty years ago when I was starting out as a journalist. It's a good rule for a writer to live by. But the more I write fiction, the more I realise that it ain't as easy as all that. Sometimes you just don't have the time to show. Sometimes showing is more boring than telling. Sometimes telling is the only way to get from A to B.

      Show and Tell ain't easy. Sometimes you don't have the time to show. Sometimes showing is more boring than telling. Sometimes telling is the only way to get from A to B.

      I would argue that Show Don't Tell is a valuable skill that every writer should master - but it's just one of many techniques in your toolbox ...  it should not be a rule for everything.

      Exposition is information and information is necessary to enhance the reader's experience. So instead of Show Don't Tell, I prefer this quote from novelist Chuck Wendig:

      If exposition is on the menu, then by god, you better know how to serve it right and make it tasty.

      (Read Chuck's 25 Ways to Make Exposition Your Bitch post, it's great with lots of rude words. But first finish reading this article.)

      Weeds are just plants in the wrong place. Exposition, like weeds, is story in the wrong place. Your job, as author, is to know where exposition belongs. So my first suggestion is:


      Story structure looks something like this:

      This is the diagram I use when I'm teaching story structure. 

      Imagine that jagged line was a washing line. And all the stuff that happens in your story are the washing you hang on the line.

      Hanging the right bit of washing on the right bit of line will make the difference between a story that sags and a story that is tight. But first, you gotta understand the washing line. That is, you have to make time to understand structure so that you know where things belong.

      Exposition has its place but you, the writer, have to know where that place is.

      DON'T DUMP ... DRIP.

      Photo: Dave Shafer (CC)

      When are you most likely to give up reading a book? Whenever there's a massive info-dump. You know, that moment when the author interrupts a perfectly good story to describe something irrelevant in great detail or the characters have a long stretch of dialogue in which they explain the plot to each other or when a character looks into a mirror and describes herself for the benefit of the reader?

      'I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing,' says Stephen King in his memoir On Writing. Absolutely! But I would add: bad writing is also rooted in a total disregard of the reader.

      A writer who does an info dump is only thinking of getting the business over with. Poor reader. She won't know what hit her. Well, she won't bother to find out because she's probably slammed your book down and returned to liking random cat videos on Facebook.

      So drip-feed exposition. Craft it into the narrative so that the reader absorbs it without realising. Little by little should do it.


      When something important is happening in your story, you want your reader totally, absolutely absorbed in the moment. Got something to explain? NO! Don't you dare interrupt! Put it somewhere else!

      Ring-fence your big moments from anything that might take your reader out of the fictive dream. Keep exposition out.

      Do not interrupt. 

      Write it on a large piece of card and stick it to the wall above your head. Just don't.


      Here's where the Show Don't Tell skill comes in. The best way to make exposition invisible is to not treat it like information.

      Why say 'Darth Vader is evil' when you can show Darth Vader blowing up a planet, strangling his own officer and torturing various underlings?

      Why say Woody in Toy Story wants to be top toy when you can show him leading a meeting, supervising the toy soldiers and monopolising prime real estate on Andy's bed?

      Be on the look out for 'tells' that can be turned into story. Done well, your reader will thank you for it.


      The New York editor Sol Stein said, 'Don't take the reader where he wants to go.' Or give the reader 'narrative blue-balls' as Chuck Wendig more colourfully puts it in 25 Ways to Make Exposition Your Bitch.

      Stein says, when the reader most desperately wants to know what happens next, don't tell him. Hold back. It will make any revelation that much more satisfying.

      Wendig says, yes, keep your reader sweating (that's what they want anyway). Then suggests this would be a good time to insert some exposition that needs expositing. This is not interrupting, this is torturing your reader. In a good way.

      Try it, next time you're writing a scene. Hold something back.

      The reader doesn't always want to know even when he's desperate to know. Suspense is part of the fun of reading.


      I have loads more exposition tips but I haven't got any more time, so let me end with this advice.

      It's so easy to read books and blogs and lists and believe that if you follow certain rules, you will write a better book. But it is also important to know that every story is different. Your story is special. No one else is writing it.

      So as writers, we must learn to listen to the story we are trying to tell. Not just listen. Feel. Because at the end of the day, managing exposition is about figuring out how our stories impact on the emotions of our readers.

      'How do you know when to cut?' Someone asked Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting, a YouTube channel on cinema.

      'I have to think and feel my way through the edit,' Tony replied.

      Tony explained that when he's rewatching footage, he looks for 'moments when he sees a change in the actor's eyes -- like when he's making a decision.' For us writers I guess it's similar to paying attention to the character's emotional arc and how, in turn, it generates emotions in the reader.

      'Emotions take time,' he says, and 'editors have to decide how much time to give an emotion.'

      It's a great prism with which to review how you craft exposition into your stories. What emotion does the exposition generate? How can I use this piece of exposition to enrich and build emotion or tension in the story? Can it do that in another part of the story? Is there another way I can reveal this information so that it enriches the reader's experience? Would it achieve that better if it were shorter? Should I write more to build on the reader's emotional response?

      There's an in-built relationship between the story itself and how to tell the story and the rhythm with which you tell it. And editing is seventy per cent about rhythm. Walter Murch, editor of Apocalypse Now

      There are more nuggets of inspiration for writers in the video, so at this point, let me go and write another chapter, while you sit and watch.

      Till next time!

      Candy Gourlay is the founding member of Notes from the Slushpile and the author of Shine and Tall Story. Her books have been listed for the Guardian Children's Prize, the Carnegie, the Blue Peter and many other prizes. She loves babies, dogs, photography, gardening and drawing. Her last post on the Slushpile was Breaking Bad for Children's Writers

      Tuesday, 13 September 2016

      Notes from the Critique Group - Meet the Agents! by Em Lynas

      On Saturday members of our SCBWI BI York critique group headed up to Seven Stories in Newcastle for a mini Agents Party arranged by our lovely NE organisers Marie-Claire Imam Gutierrez and Cathy Brumby.

      I was feeling very lucky as the agents appearing at the event were my agents - Amber Caraveao and Joanna Moult of Skylark Literary. They were coming up north so I got to see them and catch up on how our Witch School Sucks submissions were going. Very exciting!

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