Writing Tips: Point-of-View and Switching Characters

One of the more difficult things to talk about when it comes to writing, in my opinion at least, is point-of-view.  Though the concept itself is pretty easily grasped, it’s also a major one that gets brushed off as unimportant in a lot of cases.  Particularly for writers who write their stories by instinct, the point-of-view is something that happens naturally depending on what they’re going for.  Unfortunately, this can often result in the point-of-view being written poorly.

However, of particular note for today’s tips, we’re going to focus in on stories where the point-of-view is limited, but the limited view is switched between various characters.  Now for some who aren’t avid readers, this may seem like a foreign concept to a degree.  There are numerous contemporary stories that use limited view, but they only ever focus on the protagonist.  However, there are indeed still others where it utilizes specific viewpoints of different characters to show different aspects of the story (Game of Thrones is one example).

Why this particular subject, though?  In my opinion, it is perhaps the one that poses the most risk to poor writing, as characters are often the driving force of a story.  As such, messing up how these viewpoint switches occur can quickly turn readers off.  There are ways to prevent this though, which is my goal for today: tips on how you can make sure you’re able to switch characters successfully.  Please keep in mind there are numerous things to watch out for, but these are the areas I believe one should be most concerned with.

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  1. For low risk switches, establish the character you want to switch to before they become the focus.

Imagine this scenario: you’ve followed hero Billy-bob for a while, and as the chapter/scene/etc. comes to an end, the story switches focus to Princess Bobweed, whom you’ve never seen before ever in the story.  I’ll wait a moment while you imagine this.

….

..

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Now hopefully you realize one thing: this is going to be extremely jarring.  As a reader, you would have no attachment to Princess Bobweed, her desires, what her role is in Billy-bob’s world, etc..  In the end, she is an unknown character.  While new characters are good in a lot of occasions, the problem is via the fact she would become the main emotional focus.  Everything about the story would be filtered through her character essentially (whether first person or third person), and feel like it was destabilizing things that were established with Billy-bob.  Thus, readers would be compelled to want to go back to Billy-bob instead of learn about this new character.

So, in order to overcome this matter, one low risk maneuver a writer can utilize is to establish the character before they are switched to.  In the above scenario, the best course of action would be to have Billy-bob interact with Princess Bobweed.  Perhaps the two strike a deal and while Billy-bob is killing the dragon, Princess Bobweed will sneak in the back and take the magic mirror that is her family heirloom.  The interaction would, of course, have to be pretty meaty and give Princess Bobweed some good established character (sympathetic motivations, personality, etc.).  However, in so doing, if the viewpoint switched to her as she retrieved, it would feel extremely natural.  Instead of focusing on the fact that Billy-bob was no longer the filter, the reader would be enticed by the intrigue to see whether Princess Bobweed’s attempts are successful or if something she does endangers Billy-bob.  However, in their intrigue, the reader learns more about Princess Boboweed, so subsequent switches are much easier since she becomes a known character.

Keep in mind, again, that one must establish the character well in order for this work.  In otherwords, a few page scene where the characters just say a few words to each other is not enough.  One must establish why the reader should care about the future viewpoint character.  This way, when the switch occurs, the reader has an identifiable goal to root for in regards to that character.  Regardless, though, establishing the character before switching viewpoints to them is often the safest route to ensure that readers aren’t pushed away from your story.

 

  1. For high risk switches, provide something that immediately makes the character sympathetic and interesting.

Let’s say, in the above scenario, you decide that you want to take the high risk of just switching to Princess Bobweed anyway.  Perhaps the plot demands that Billy-bob and Princess Bobweed establish themselves as heroes before they’re put together as a team.  It is possible to do this, but one must keep in mind a few things.

First off, and a matter that will be discussed more in the next point, don’t spend too much time on Billy-bob so that the reader becomes overly attached to him.

Second, if you choose to switch like this, you must be prepared to make the character you switch to immediately interesting and sympathetic.  Perhaps, when the reader first meets Princess Bobweed, it’s as she’s being exiled from her kingdom by her evil uncle.  As she’s leaving, maybe she comments that Billy-bob’s hometown, Timber Town, will be the first to fall under her uncle’s terrible and ruthless rule.  Then, she declares she won’t stand for it.  By providing these elements, the reader is not only given a connection to Billy-bob, whom they care about, but also see that Princess Bobweed has sympathetic motivations to taking her kingdom back from a tyrant.

The point of this method is to make the character you switch to be just as interesting as the protagonist(s) you’ve already established as a viewpoint character.  This way, even if the scenario is a bit jarring, the reader will be intrigued enough to continue with the story.  Of course, as you may have noticed, in that scenario I added a brief connecting point to Billy-bob.  This another way by which you can make the switch smoother, since giving the reader something familiar to grasp onto helps them switch more easily.  Again, this is a method that’s higher risk, but it is possible to be executed well.

 

  1. Make it clear the point-of-view is going to switch.

Briefly, let’s talk about when to switch.  While for some this might seem obvious, it is worth stating none-the-less.  When you switch can be equally important as how.  In this respect, there are two things in particular to watch out for.

Of the more obvious, you should always make sure the switch occurs at a notable end.  A notable end, in this case, can mean the end of a chapter or the end of a scene (it truly depends on the media).  Either way, the flow of a scene should be closing out the main focus before the reader is transported to a different character.  Think about how awkward it would be if in the middle of Billy-bob swinging his sword, we switched to Princess Bobweed’s feelings on watching him.  Though some action sequences could get away with this, in most cases one needs to make sure to not disrupt the flow of action unless there can be an appropriate time gap.

The less obvious matter to watch out for is to make sure you don’t wait too long to start switching characters.  Let’s return to our usual scenario again for a moment for a new hypothetical.  You’ve gone on adventures with Billy-bob for half a book and seen him slay 5 of the 8 great dragons.  He’s met with Princess Bobweed some, but for this first half of the book the limited viewpoint has been entirely Billy-bob.  Then, suddenly, in the second half of the book there’s a brief scene where the reader is limited to Princess Bobweed’s viewpoint.

Even though Princess Bobweed was even established in this case, the fact her viewpoint came out of the blue is going to jar the reader just as much as failing the above points.  Though one can add the amount of characters to switch to later on, it is far wiser to make it clear early on that these switches may occur (even if infrequent).  In so doing, the reader can at least expect them and not wonder if they’d suddenly entered a spin-off story.

 

 

Through these tips, I hope I have established enough of a foundation to make switching viewpoints easier.  Though it can backfire quickly, it is often a great boon to a story to allow the reader different limited viewpoints.   Of course, as with all my tips, there are numerous other ways you can go about writing.  This includes switching the point-of-view.  However, I feel with these tips in hand, one will have some guidelines through which they can analyze their works.  Whether you write novels, comics, visual novels, or anything else, I hope you keep these matters in mind and write a successful, well-flowing story.

 

Image by LouAnna on Pixabay.

The Power of Sound Effects

As someone who is a big fan of Subnautica, I often keep up with updates to the game, usually via various Youtubers who cover the game extensively.  Without spoiling too much, a huge portion of the end game is in development right now (when this article was written anyway).  Since it’s a key story point, it’s being tweaked to be as impactful as possible.  Animations, voice acting, textures, and tons of other aspects keep being overhauled to present the most satisfying moment that could be achieved.  However, in some of the more recent updates, one additive that added a ton of impact caught my eye: the sound effects.

Sound effects are one of those aspects of creative media that often get overlooked.  Whether the sound effects are audio or implied to with words, they make a huge difference despite being minor additives.  Unfortunately, in numerous indie industries, they can often be underused.  While certainly you run the risk of oversaturating a piece with sound effects, they are still an essential that should never be neglected.  To hammer in this point, let us examine why the sound effects make a difference in two industries: gaming and comics.

 

In the case of gaming, it is a very audio-centric media in most cases.  Though one could play games in complete silence, most people would concede the sounds make a difference.  Yet, as much as a background soundtrack adds to a game, so does the sound effects.  Take any game which involves swords or guns that you use to attack people.  Now, if you can, imagine if there were no sound effects.  No swosh or chink for those swords, no popping bullets, no anything; just imagine if you only had the animation, even if there’s a nice accompanying soundtrack.

Now ideally, if you can picture it, you’d realize how odd that’d be.  There would be a sense of emptiness to each attack.  Since in real life objects like this have sound effects, it is also something that would break immersion; the game is giving no feedback to the attack, so it feels unreal.

This being the key concept: sound effects in games provide feedback.

Let’s take a look for the moment at Dragon Age: Inquisition.  One key mechanic to the game is its search function.  Essentially, when a player presses a hotkey, a little circle fans out from the inquisitor and detects objects, whether it be resources, loot chests, or something hidden.  It is a pretty vital component if one wants to find the collectibles in the game as certain ones can only be found via this mechanic.  Now, of course, there are visual cues via the object highlighting, the mini map, and more.  Thus, one can still use the mechanic on visuals alone.  However, the sound effects for the mechanic make a big difference.  There are different sounds for finding nothing, finding a resource, or detecting a hidden object.  By consequence, one can put their eyes to more important things on the screen and let the sounds guide them.  Not only does this provide great feedback, but it streamlines the process of navigating.  In otherwords, one can run and scan rather than take those few moments to check if they found anything every moment.

There are a plethora of other ways sound effects play a role, whether it’s feedback from opening chests in The Legend of Zelda series or through loud thunderous sounds of dragons flying overhead in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The sounds give a true sense of presence and aid in immersing someone into the world.  Like in real life, one expects sounds when objects interact, so providing them in key moments makes a huge difference.

 

Nevertheless, games are not the only medium in which sound effects make a difference.  Let’s now turn to comics, which out of the gate obviously lack the same audio component games do.  For comics, the sound effects are part of the visuals and come in varying styles.  Whether they say “Pow,” “Kablam,” or anything else, they are generally something present in a lot of comics.  That being said, some people may question whether they’re important, since these “sound” effects are visual instead audio.  Yet, much like games, they provide important feedback.

In a similar function to the last exercise, let’s put our imaginations to work.  Imagine any two characters you want in a fight, and one panel features one of the characters dramatically slapping the other.  Now, because imaginations are pretty robust, you surely imagined the slap sound that would occur in the moment.  For comics, the way this is conveyed is with the sound effect text, which depending on how its styled can have a different effect.  Instead, though, try to picture the image without that text.  All you have is a slap making contact, but no feedback on whether it hit.

In the end, the effect that occurred for games occurred here as well: without the sound effect, the moment felt empty and lacking impact.

Even when the sound effects are visually very small, they play a role in conveying the world and making it feel real.  Speaking personally, I barely even ever read what the sound effects say; at the same time, when they aren’t present, I take extreme notice of how silent a comic’s world consequently feels.  As a result I feel confident saying that even their presence alone is enough to convey that there is noise in the world, which makes a world of difference.

Of course, sound effects can be used to aid the story too in this case.  For instance, when the story wishes to have an eating scene, it’s not uncommon to have a panel where a characters stomach growls.  This is shown not only by a close up of the stomach, but through sound effects to emphasize the growling sound.  The reader is left with no confusion about what’s going on, so even without dialogue the visual and sound effect convey the character’s need.  This, in turn, helps immerse one more into the moment; like in real life, the visual clues and sound are all that’s needed to convey the unspoken message.  There are numerous other ways the visuals and “sound” effects in comics can be utilized in a more poignant matter, so they are not something to be discounted.

 

Hopefully, at this point, I have conveyed why sound effects play a vital role.  With them, you can make something more immersive and impactful in both small and big ways.  Without them, you risk turning the consumer away from the product due to the world feeling empty and hollow.  In the end, even if it is a tedious aspect to consider, one should always try to include sound effects.  They can make or break a project sometimes, so to neglect them is to do your project a disservice.  The internet offers tons of sound effect resources, so there’s really no excuse not to use them.  So, go forth, and remember like the world, your work should have sounds.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioward, EA, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Link opening a chest from ZeldaDungeon.net.

Strange Writing Mistakes

Anyone who takes writing seriously knows that there are certain conventions that should be followed.  From simple things like “they’re” vs. “there” vs. “their” to bigger things like handling protagonist character development, there are numerous mistakes that are talked about frequently.  However, there are still even more mistakes that do not get talked about often, if only because they used to be infrequent.  Yes, I did say used to be.

Due to my myriad of project types, I end up reading a lot in one day and get exposed to a lot of mistakes I’m surprised people even make.  That being said, there are a few in particular that not only grind my gears, but also are a concerning trend in certain areas of the internet.  As such, I would like to take a moment to address these unspoken mistakes.  You too may have seen these and felt the irritation I do.

Keep in mind these mistakes are pretty variable and don’t particularly have a consistent theme like previous articles; nevertheless, they are worth discussing.

 

  1. Titles that are in all lower case

Even for non-native speakers, it should seem a pretty noticeable after a while that titles for works should be capitalized.  While there are a few exceptions that were done on purpose by the creator for specific reasons, in most cases titles in all lowercase shouldn’t be done.

Yet, it is something I see happen very frequently for indie stories.  Whether it’s laziness or some desire to be edgy, I’m unsure.  What I do know, though, is that in most cases it makes the work appear extremely unprofessional.  This is especially the case when the creator is inconsistent about whether they capitalize the title or not.

So, unless you have a very, very specific reason not to, I highly recommend capitalizing your titles.  It is something simple that if not done, quickly turns off a slew of readers who just assume you’re otherwise going to be a bad writer (which is often not the case for the indie stories I see do this).

 

  1. Summaries that are an inappropriate length

For those who write stories, situations where you need to summarize the story can often be difficult.  Even I struggle for reviews sometimes actually summarizing what I’m seeing on comic pages, and the longer the story the more difficult it can be.  That being said, most of the time people persist and persevere through the problem and eventually come up with a summary that they believe is golden.

This is the point, though, where the next mistake comes in: not stopping to consider if your summary is the right length.

Not all summary lengths are appropriate for every situation.  For example, your two paragraph masterpiece of all things is definitely not going to fit onto Twitter.  On the otherhand, your Twitter elevator pitch probably isn’t appropriate length if you need to describe in detail what volume 1 of your masterpiece entailed.

Thus, my next tip is simply to consider what you’re writing your summary for and make sure to fit it to those specifications.  The point of a summary is to describe the work with as much information as you can in as few words as possible.  People will go in with different reading expectations depending on what the summary is for.  By that, I mean the person on Twitter is on Twitter to read sentiments that are 140 characters or less.  If you give them two paragraphs worth of summary, they will more likely skip it than read it.  In the end, it’s in your best interest to not just worry about the summary, but also how long and/or brief the summary needs to be.

 

  1. Not specifying the time zone

Time zones are a headache.  They have purpose and are around for a reason, but for the average person they can be a hassle.  Unfortunately, a lot of writers seem to forget that they’re a thing.

Let me give you a personal story.  Recently, in order to become more proficient at marketing, I’ve been researching the best times to post on social media.  While I have plenty of complaints about receiving mixed information, the thing that bugged me the most is that none of these articles I read listed the time zone.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Articles whose purpose it was to list the best times couldn’t be bothered to write the time zone abbreviation.

Hopefully, you can see my dilemma.  Sadly, it was a lot of articles who committed this folly, leaving me feeling confused and no more knowledgeable than when I started researching.

Although it’s easy to forget, it is generally wise to include the time zone.  Your 1pm is not necessarily someone else’s 1pm.  As the internet reaches the far corners of the Earth, this becomes more and more poignant, so it’s better to include than to not include.  Particularly, be sure to include it in situations like my story above where the time is the highlight of the topic at hand.

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In summary, these lesser talked about mistakes are still things that happen frequently enough to be worth addressing.  Even if you think you’d never make them, they’re good to keep in mind regardless, If you have made them, well, everyone makes mistakes and it’s always something you can fix in the future.  If this article taught you nothing, perhaps it at least brought to your attention your own pet peeve you’ve noticed happening more.

 

Image: Time zones courtesy of geralt on Pixabay.

DC Movies, Tone, and Why it Hurts

While I’m not a huge mainstream comic fan, I’m averagely familiar with Marvel’s and DC’s franchises.  Really, living in America, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat familiar with them.  They are fairly pervasive in the culture, and with the recent string of superhero movies, they are pretty well-known characters.  That being said, those familiar with the current state of movies know one thing: Marvel is doing better.  Not to say, of course, that Marvel always has masterpiece movies, but Marvel has had more successes in the past few years than DC.  In fact, outside of a few Batman movies, such as The Dark Knight, most DC flicks are forgettable or laugh worthy.

Why is this?  This is a pretty important question since Marvel has proven that superhero movies can be box office successes.  Though I’m sure certain fanboys/fangirls would say Marvel has better franchises, I would disagree considering Marvel and DC copy a lot of characters from each other.  This is not to mention that DC does have iconic characters like Batman and Superman, so the flaw in the movies more likely lies with their execution.

As I pondered this question, I also considered the fact that DC gets a ton of other great material in different media.  While Marvel has put most of its eggs in live action productions, DC still gets a lot more animated shows, video games, and so on.  Though there are certainly flops, a lot of these productions are successful.  Take for instance Young Justice who just got renewed for a third season because of the passionate fans.  Or, consider perhaps, Injustice 2 which just released and received high praise, in part for its writing and not just its game mechanics.  Heck, even consider, despite all the years that have passed, people still talk about Batman: The Animated Series because of how masterful of an animated show it was.  The point is, whether you personally like the productions or not, DC can succeed as shown by their success in other areas.

So, why are their movies so ill received?

Thus comes my personal opinion on the matter: DC movies are getting the tone entirely wrong.

Tone in stories can be subtle but very important.  Describing a rainstorm as “light and cascading” sets up a different tone than describing it as “an unforgiving torrent of water.”  Though movies are clearly more visual, the dialogue, music, light choices, and more all characterize what the tone of the movie will be.  Tones dictate everything even if one doesn’t understand them completely; they not only encourage consumers to a specific interpretation, but also help manipulate the emotional responses that will occur.

In the case of DC movies, there seems to be a common trend of making the tone as serious as possible.  The movies will focus on the darker sides of the DC characters, from Superman’s inherent threat from being so powerful to Batman’s broodiness and vengeful attitude towards stopping crime.  The conflicts they face will often have dark implications, and lighting choices will be fairly dark or have a gloomy atmosphere to them.  All in all, the choices in the movies set up a serious tone to remind the consumer that this is serious business with serious stakes and angst.

Unfortunately, this is inherently the problem with their tone.  Everything in the movies (with exception to a few specific movies) is meant to be taken seriously.  Consequently, all the joy and fun of superheroes is sucked out of the production.  These are, at the end, people running around in costume; to not have a little fun with that is to do the concept a bit of a disservice.

Now, that being said, I’m not saying the franchises shouldn’t be treated seriously.  After all, there are some DC movies who did the exact opposite, and were as poorly received as the serious ones.  However, what there should be is a balance of treating the franchise seriously and having fun with it.

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To example this, let’s take a quick look at the 2001 animated Justice League TV show, a generally well-received animated show for the time.  Now the show was definitely a serious one and the conflicts were treated seriously.  There was an episode about Diana/Wonder Woman being banished from her home, an episode where Superman was thought to have died, and so forth.  The show did not skirt around serious conflicts and made sure to convey some heavy emotions.  However, the tone was never overly serious, and the show added lots of light-hearted moments as well to keep the tone from being too heavy.  A lot of this actually came from Flash, who was depicted as a goofball with some funny lines, especially his failed pickup lines.  Overall, the best word to describe it is the show was relatively witty.

I could go on and on and analyze several incarnations in other media but lack the time for this post.  Regardless and suffice it to say, in my personal experience, the good DC productions all achieve this balance.  They are serious, but never forget to add some humor and wit at regular intervals.  When done well, it blends in seamlessly, and one gets to have fun even despite the heavy conflicts going on.

As such, for me at least, it is the tone of the DC movies that is failing them.  If one looks at Marvel’s movies, they do not fall into this trap; rather, there is a lot of humor in Marvel’s movies.  Even when there’s a hole in the sky, there’s still time for some witty banter from Iron Man.  The movies are fun, so many flaws can be overlooked.  Since DC movies treat themselves so seriously in tone, though, their flaws don’t receive this benefit; people will judge the movies in a completely serious and unforgiving manner in the same spirit.

While, of course, I don’t expect this trend to change anytime soon, I thought this analysis might be insightful for some people asking this same question.  I’m sure other aspects also hurt the movies greatly, but for me, the tone is the truest culprit that changes what could be a fun depiction into an overly serious, nonsensical, travesty.

 

Mentioned Marvel franchises (Iron Man, The Avengers, etc.) are © to Marvel Entertainment LLC and affiliated parties.

Mentioned DC franchises (Batman, Superman, Justice League, etc.) are © to DC Entertainment and affiliated parties.

Image: Justice League (2001) animated show promotional image.

Project Organization Tips

So, you’ve got your big project planned, but feel overwhelmed because there’s a lot to do.  Or, even worse, you’re in the middle of the project and keep missing deadlines, keep forgetting to do particular parts, etc..  These are generally all symptoms of lacking organization.

From my experience, lacking organization for your project is the quickest way to kill it, whether you’re working alone or with a group.  Even if you think you can remember everything off the top of your head, distractions in life will always pop up and prompt you to forget things.  As such, in my opinion having good organization for any project is the first key to success.  Surprisingly, though, few people ever seem to have a clear idea on how to get themselves organized.  Thus, the purpose of my article today is to give you my tips and tricks for getting organized and staying on top of your project.

 

  1. Break down your project into manageable goals

The first step for any project should be to break it down into manageable goals.  It’s very easy to become overwhelmed when one keeps in mind their lofty goal of creating a game, planning a birthday party, or anything else of a large nature.  Generally, without breaking down the project, you will eventually become confused, lost, and unsure of the steps you need to take to achieve completion.  You also run the risk of forgetting aspects until the very last moment when it’s too late to rectify.  Thus, breaking down the project should always be a first step.

Certainly, breaking down a project is no easy task sometimes.  However, there is a key question you can ask yourself if you’re struggling: “What do I need for this project?”  Once you start asking yourself this question constantly, you put yourself on the track to think about the project from a more manageable level.  Planning a party?  Well, you probably need decorations, a location, invitations, music, food, etc..  Creating a game?  You need art assets, music assets, an idea of what gameplay mechanics you want, and so forth.  You can continue to ask this question to make the tasks even smaller, but as may be clear, the tasks suddenly become easier to accomplish.  Yet, they all work towards your larger, lofty goal, so completing them is still progressive towards it; now, you’re just better organized and prepared to handle everything.

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  1. Use a to-do list

Your project is broken down, but how can you keep track of it?  My suggestion is to always have a to-do list.  Whether you want to use a web-service that syncs across your devices or write it on old fashioned paper, the to-do list is how you keep track of what needs to be done and its status.  Now I’m sure there are those who “ugh” at this point since to-do lists are, in themselves, work.  They are also something that has to be developed into a habit so one can stay on top of it.  There are reasons, however, to keep up with a to-do list.

To start, a to-do list again, helps keep track of the project.  The larger the project, the larger the chance you will have to wonder, at some point, if you did something or not.  As long as you stay on top of the to-do list, it only takes five seconds to check it (versus the many minutes you may spend checking otherwise).  If you’re a paranoid person like I am, it’s also helpful for boosting confidence; in other words, your to-do list can help assure you that yes, you did indeed do that task you were supposed to do last week.  A to-do list also helps ensure you don’t forget what tasks need to be done either.

At the end, this sort of organizational task, though work, helps make the project more efficient.  As mentioned, it’s much quicker to check something off a to-do list than it is to keep track of everything in your head.

 

  1. Plan a conservative schedule

With to-do list in hand, the next task to organizing your project should be to plan a schedule.  Even if you aren’t going to set a hard deadline, a loose schedule is still important.  You may know your tasks, but the order you do them in can be pre-determined by the nature of the project.  For instance, if you’re making an educational video on math, you can’t exactly edit the video before you shoot it.  Even for the most hobby oriented of projects, make sure you know the order.

Of course, for less casual projects, you want to set deadlines with your tasks.  Thus, we come to the “conservative” part of this tip.  The unfortunate truth of life is that stuff happens and life does not always want to work with your plans.  One minute everything is on track for your party, and then boom, your DJ cancels a week before because their parent is in the hospital.  Or maybe the artist you hired to make game sprites for your cool indie game just suddenly dropped off the face of the Earth, leaving you asset-less.

Inevitably, when picking your deadlines, always give yourself an abundance of time to meet them.  If you can draw two comic pages a week, promise to upload one every week.  If you think your art piece will take one week to make, give yourself two.  There are numerous scenarios I could rattle off, but you always want to give yourself extra time.  This way, when life throws wrenches into your plans, your organization has given you leeway to deal with them and still stay on track.  If you meet your deadline before then, that’s great!  Start working ahead.  Trust me, it’s a much better feeling to be ahead than it is to be behind.

 

  1. Communicate your butt off

While this tip is more oriented for group projects, it is still worthwhile to mention.  Group projects can be a pain in the ass, and more people generally means more can go wrong.  However, you can help the matter with organization and communication.

So let’s say you’ve done all the above tasks, but instead of a solo project it’s a group project.  The next step to your organization should be to assign the tasks appropriately and make sure everyone understands the tasks and what’s expected of them.  It may even be helpful to agree to check in with each other every week to monitor progress (i.e. hold each other accountable).  Perhaps, if you’re really ambitious about your communication, you can start a group project page on Trello or other similar sites.

The point is, for group projects, organization and communication go hand-in-hand.  One cannot stay organized and on top of their project if they can’t keep track of how things are going with other group members.  It’s a stressful time for everyone, so the more you can assure people the project is going as planned, the easier everyone’s life can become.  This will ensure the optimal efficiency for the project and keep it from falling through.

There are two things to remember though.  For one, every group always has Dick, the person who will be a terrible member, never communicate, miss deadlines, etc..  Just because one person doesn’t care though, doesn’t mean you should strive to be Dick.  Be better than Dick, and perhaps kick Dick off the project.  The other thing to remember is that people cannot read your mind.  You think Sally and Joe Bob know you’re working on the last character art, because you subtly hinted at it by saying you were almost done?  No!  They don’t know.  They probably interpreted it to mean something else entirely.  Sounds silly to you, of course, until you’re on the other end where someone expected you to read their mind.  Always be direct, and always assume the other people don’t know.  Even if it gets tedious and annoying, it will save you from miscommunication later.

 

In summary, though organization is work, it is an essential component to any project.  Not only does it make you complete projects more efficiently, but it makes sure you do so with confidence.  I have seen a ton of potentially great projects fall through cause it was clear the people involved weren’t organized.  So please, do not be those people.  Organize, do better, and you will have a successful project that comes together smooth as silk.

Side Quests: Making Interesting “Fetch Quests”

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Inquisition (specifically the Hinterlands).

 

The week before last I analyzed side quests and how you could make them more compelling than the generic fetch quests one might see in a grind-like MMORPG.  At the heart of the matter, I illustrated three ways one could make them interesting, namely: having side quests add to the story, having side quests with worthwhile loot, or having side quests with an enormous gameplay challenge.  In regards to story, I discussed certain aspects in Dragon Age II and how some of its side quests vastly change outcome of the story.  However, today I would like to expound on this point some more, and also tackle fetch quests which I didn’t talk about fully in that post.

Before we begin, let’s first discuss what will and will not be included when I say fetch quests.  For those unfamiliar, fetch quests are a specific type of quest that basically involves you getting an item to give an NPC.  An NPC may say they lost an object and need you to find and return it.  Some NPC may request you clear an area of spiders and bring their fangs as proof (i.e. kill a certain number of this creature).  A different NPC may ask you to collect so much of a specific herb that spawns in an area.  These are the sorts of quests will be discussed in this article, but I am also including similarly simple quests that don’t necessarily involve lots of fighting.  For instance, if you find an ancient scroll that tells you to go to a cave to find loot or fight a monster, those are close enough in simplicity that they will be included in my analysis.

With that established, one must wonder how such simple tasks could be interesting.  After all, in the last post even I acknowledged the criticism that these are what make MMORPGs a grind sometimes.  Certainly, my purpose here is not to say fetch quests are the most interesting of all, and I stand by my post that there are ways to make more interesting side quests.  That being said, fetch quests still have their place, if not for the sake of giving players an easy way to kill some time, take a breather, and still earn EXP and money.  Since they are most likely going to stay in gaming for a quite a while, it doesn’t hurt to try and make them more compelling.  This is where story and world-building comes in, which even fetch quests can tap into and enhance.  Even if they cannot change the story, there are two things fetch quests can do very well, very easily: enhance the tone and atmosphere of the story and add to the world lore.

To illustrate this, I am going to discuss Dragon Age: Inquisition, so spoilers ahead for those not familiar with the Dragon Age series.

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One manner in which fetch quests can aid a game’s story is by reinforcing the tone or the atmosphere.  One of the primary background problems in Dragon Age: Inquisition is, of course, the mage rebellion.  The fight with mages has progressed so badly that even the Templars have gone rogue and hunt mages at their leisure.  Unfortunately, innocent people have gotten caught in between the fights, and there are a lot of refugees as a result.  This background setup primarily comes into play in the Hinterlands, where the player experiences first-hand how devastating the mage rebellion has been.

This being the case, many of the fetch quests in this area help reinforce this sad devastation.  For instance, some of the starting quests involve you getting supplies for the refugees, specifically food and blankets which the refugees have none of.  Through the dialogue of the quests, the suffering of the refugees is emphasized, as how they have no food or warmth is discussed by people at length.  Though a subtle insert, it helps drive home how devastating and far spread the war is.  Another example quest is obtained by entering a house that is fairly in the middle of nowhere.  Upon entering, you can speak with a woman who asks you to retrieve a ring that Templars took after killing her husband, who they suspected was an Apostate (a rogue mage).  Though, again, the dialogue is simple, it revolves around the thoughtlessness of the Templars and mages at the devastation that is being wrought upon the civilians.

Though I could name many like this, what should be clear is these specific fetch quests help emphasis the tone of war in the area.  The quests often revolve around the setting of the mage rebellion, involving issues with helping the refugees and trying to repair the area from the rampant destruction.  This being the case, the player is immersed further into the setting, as these quests aren’t random happenstance.  Rather, they are used to reflect a cause and effect in the world, which allows it to feel more real.  The flavor text also showcases the expected emotions in such a case, such as sadness, desperation, and hopelessness.  Everything about these fetch quests has an overtone of the setting, so though simple, they allow the player to remain immersed in the world, rather than be reminded they are playing a game.

The other manner in which fetch quests can be interesting is via their ability to add to the lore.  At least for fantasy and sci-fi set RPGs, the general rule of thumb is the better developed the world, the more immersive a setting you give the player to get into.  However, one never wants to dump too much lore at once, so adding and increasing the world lore must be done in small chunks.  This is something fetch quests can be very good at in the right hands, since they are short, simple quests that the player can have a low key commitment to do.

For instance, let’s take a look at the landmark quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  As the player travels throughout the various areas in the game, they can claim landmarks.  This is a simple matter that literally involves traveling to the area and pressing a key/button in the right spot.  However, when the player claims the landmarks, they receive a codex entry (a small collection of world information).  The player can, of course, choose to ignore it, which is perfectly fine.  Yet, if one chooses to read the codex entry, they find out interesting world information that is tied to the landmark.  Though it’s a small addition, the world can grow via these landmarks and they cease to be just polygons on a screen.  Rather, they begin to live up their titular title of landmarks.  As a whole, though, they help increase the lore of the story, but also keep it optional for the players who don’t care about lore.

 

While I could ramble on and on about other sorts of quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition, let alone some other games, these are a few examples of ways one can make fetch quests more interesting.  Though, of course, I still wouldn’t say they hold a candle to more in-depth quests, they can be handled in a manner that continues to immerse players.  For game development, at least for story heavy games, the last thing you want is for a player to be reminded they’re playing a game.  This is, sadly, where a lot of MMORPGs fail with their quest design, since they add so little the player is hyper aware they are playing a game.  In Dragon Age: Inquisition’s case, though, the quests are generally always designed with heavy world overtones.  So, even if they can be a grind sometimes, the story additions make it worthwhile to still complete them.

Regardless of what you’re designing your quests for, the key is to always give them purpose beyond EXP and virtual money.  Compel the player to complete the quest, even if their additions are optional flavor text that just add a smidgen of lore or atmosphere.  You ultimately shape the experience for the players, so even if it’s fetch quests, use them to bring out the very best of your game.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age Inquisition concept art from Concept Art World.

Tips for Writing Good Magic Systems

Magic is a tricky subject when it comes to any story.  Whether you’re writing an epic, medieval fantasy or a space opera, you have a high chance of creating characters who are capable of feats beyond our normal, mortal means.  Unfortunately for beginners, magic has a high risk of becoming too over-powered, too confusing, or too plot deviced.  There are a plethora of ways magic can go wrong, whether you’re writing it for a novel, game, or anything else.  It is not a topic for the faint of heart, as the saying goes.

That being said, however, there are certain mindsets that can help you create better magic systems for your stories.  In this article, I’ve chosen three tips that, at least for beginners, should be kept in mind while developing your world.  Before we begin, I will note that like most “rules” in writing, they can be broken.  These tips are not set in stone; rather, they should be used as guidelines to help you along the process.  With that out of the way now, let’s begin.

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  1. Understand how your magic system works, and convey that to the reader.

One thing you definitely do not want to do with magic is make it up as you go.  Sure, for a while Wizard Boy can peacefully shoot fireballs, ice spikes, and grease, but eventually some reader is going to ask questions about how it works.  Why can Wizard Boy do magic and not Warrior Chick?  How does Wizard Boy do magic?  The moment these questions start being asked, the moment the world starts to crumble if you do not have a concrete answer.

Thankfully, there are a myriad of ways to handle this area.  You can use a mana based system (like what most RPGs use for magic) that involves pulling energy from the area or from inside yourself to turn it into some sort of magic.  You can have the magic be reliant on incantations instead of just a wave of a wand.  You can even have something more out there like with Mass Effect’s biotics (i.e. space magic), where humans have specific implants that allow them to use it.

There are just numerous ways for you to go about magic creatively, whether it’s something you make up yourself or something inspired from other fictional works.  The important part is to have a clear understanding of it.  In general, you want to know where the energy for the magic comes from, who can perform magic, how magic is performed (incantations, wands, sheer willpower, etc.), what magic can do, etc..  The more rules your magic has, the better you will find yourself able to utilize it in a story.

However, you must also make sure you can convey this information to the reader.  Now of course, you don’t want to info-dump a ten page monologue from Wizard Boy to deliver the information.  Dropping tidbits at appropriate moments, though, is something that should be strived for.  The better you can put the reader on the same page as you, the more immersed and real the world will feel to them.  It also creates a world where the reader won’t get distracted asking their questions that you cannot answer without a well-established system.  So, whether your magic system is shallow or immensely deep, make sure you have moments the reader can understand it as well.

 

  1. Keep in mind advantages and disadvantages

Another way to title this tip would be to say make sure the magic in your story has limitations.  This is a point I cannot emphasis enough and is often the point I see that’s most broken, even by professionals who have monumentally successful series.  When it comes to magic, there is nothing that opens up a plot hole faster than a magic system that is limitless.

For example, if you established that characters aren’t limited by something like mana or anything else to produce magic, everyone is going to start to wonder why Wizard Boy didn’t just magic them out of that dungeon.  It’s at this point that more introspection is triggered, and readers may come to dislike your story for not having enough balance as far as character power dynamics goes.

As such, it is extremely important you establish some limitations.  Perhaps, like in Baldur’s Gate, characters can only use spells a certain number of times per day.  Or, like in numerous RPGs, characters only have access to a certain amount of energy (i.e. mana) to cast their spells.  As you can guess from my analogies, I highly suggest taking a look at games and analyzing how they limited magic via the gameplay mechanics.  While not the easiest to translate over to pure writing, for gameplay mechanics putting limits on magic is extremely important to creating a balanced game.  Taking inspiration from their ideas may give you a better idea of aspects you could utilize to limit your own story’s magic system.

On the flip side, however, let’s briefly talk about advantages.  Now while I don’t see this point broken often, there are times where a story will make magic horribly weak (until the plot demands it fix something at least).  As important as it is to give magic limitations, one must also remember magic should have some advantages.  To example, the most common advantage magic has is range, and magic users are generally very powerful as long as they stay out of close combat.  This is something you can easily utilize in a story.  Either way, magic should have a point of being in the story, and not be so weak it’s worthless.

Balance is key when it comes to magic systems.  Pros and cons must both be present, but in so doing you will have magic using characters who fit into the world smoothly.

 

  1. Keep rules and lore consistent

The last tip I have for writing magic is to have consistent rules and lore.  One of my first posts on this blog was basically a rant about how Dragon Age: Inquisition’s magic system broke immense amounts of lore.  Fortunately in that game’s case, however, it could be overlooked because gameplay mechanics generally take precedence over good lore.

Unfortunately for the subject of this post, though, that is a huge no-no.

For a reader, breaking of the lore and/or rules sticks out like a sore thumb.  If you establish, for example, that only fire nymphs can use fire spells, don’t suddenly tell us Wizard Boy can somehow use them too even though he isn’t a fire nymph.  Breaking rules and/or lore will generally and immediately pull a reader out of the story.  They will question why this was broken, and unless you have a compelling reason for why, you’re risking it coming off as a poorly written plot device.

Once you establish your magic system, you should try to stick to it like glue.  While you can slowly throw wrenches into the system, the heart of it should continually remain the same.  The reasons for this are largely related to the reasons for the first tip: you want to give the reader something concrete to understand about the magic system.  If you start throwing in wrenches willy nilly, you destabilize the system you developed, and more or less wind up back at square one.  Do not create rules unless you intend to follow them, because it’s the consistency that will help ground your world.

 

Thus are my baseline tips for writing magic.  Magic can be a high risk endeavor, but the reward for its presence can be interesting as well.  It’s not something that should be thrown together on a whim; it should be given some deep thought to create a world that is logical to the reader.  Of course, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to try magic out either.  Eventually, you will come to learn your own tricks of the trade for magic, and will create something that nobody else has before.

Before closing out this article, I would highly suggest checking out Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, not the terrible movie).  This show pushes the boundaries on these tips I’ve given, but does so in a way that’s well-written.  As I mentioned at the beginning, these guidelines are just that: guidelines.  There are ways to push and pull at the guidelines and still create a well-written story; so, if you need an example, that is the show to check out in my opinion.

 

Image: Wizard from Pixabay by GraphicMama-team.