Tactical Depth, or Fight-as-story

One day, while I was wandering around the internet, I came across a comment about Bleach having bad psychology.

Wrestling psychology, that is. I don’t think that’s the proper term for what that person was talking about, outside of the context of semi-improvised fight scenes performed in front of a live audience. In works of fiction that a first written, or drawn, or otherwise made and only then presented to an audience, the term I would use is something like ‘tactical depth.’ However, the overall sense of what he was talking about was the fight itself being a kind of story, with it’s own exposition, plot development, twists, and climax.

As an example, let’s consider a wrestling match between an average-sized but athletic man, and a freakishly huge giant. For exposition, we begin with the average-sized man facing off against the giant, and getting some offense in, which the giant doesn’t seem to care about. As the plot develops, the smaller man continues his attacks where he can, as he dodges around his opponent’s, which begins to frustrate the giant. This frustration is born out in the twist, where the smaller man uses the big man’s own momentum to throw his opponent over his shoulders. This twist, in turn, sets up the climax, where the smaller man flips the giant into the turnbuckle, and the pain of the impact paralyzes him long enough for his opponent to get the win.

That’s a basic example of how these things work. In contrast, most fights in Bleach end with the winner suddenly powering up, or revealing that they have an ability that’s perfect for the situation they’re in. In other words, the exact tactics that the fighters use have little to no bearing on how the fight plays out. The tactics of the wrestlers in the example above, in contrast, made up the entirety of the story. Hence, tactical depth – a form of storytelling in which the tactics used actually matter.

I enjoy writing tactically deep fights. However, this comes with costs, chiefly that I need a fairly good idea about what the fighters can do, what their abilities are and what the limits on those abilities are. But as an upshot, my fight scenes can be memorable in and of themselves, and not have to rely on the character’s backstories to get the audience engaged. And I enjoy thinking about my character’s abilities, anyway.

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Magic: The Energy-Fluid Model

Picture an energy-fluid running through the human body.  What, exactly, this energy-fluid does as it is doing this is unimportant.  What is important is that, somehow, this energy-fluid can be manipulated for various effects.  How this manipulation occurs varies, but the results are magic.

This is what I call the energy-fluid model of magic.  This is how most people think magic should work.  Inherit to this model are a set of assumptions about magic, that I wish to dig out and make explicit: 1) magic is a discrete phenomenon, 2) magic is fuel for effects, and 3) magic is personal.

The first assumption, ‘magic is a discrete phenomenon,’ means that there is a clear line between magical things and the mundane.  Making things explode by chanting is completely different from blowing your nose.  Furthermore, when you take magic away, what you have left is a world that obeys scientific laws, rather one that collapses without magic propping the laws of reality up.

The second assumption, ‘magic is fuel for effects,’ means that, for everything a magic-user does with magic, some amount of the energy-fluid is used up, like gasoline.  This means that there is only so much a magic-user can do before needing to recover magical energy.  What’s more, everything that every spell a mage casts directly affects their ability to cast any other spell.

The third assumption, ‘magic is personal,’ means that one person’s magic is independent of every other person’s magic.  If one person uses fire magic, another person can use fire magic, ice magic, or plant magic, and all of these are equally likely if the first person uses lightning magic instead.  This also means that when one person casts a spell, it only takes from their own reserve of power.

What’s striking about this model is how flexible it is.  Outside of the three assumptions, a wide variety of options present themselves to the author, to be used as the story requires.

As an example, I’ll explain how this model interacts with the powers of the Occulted.  The first Occulted character I came up with was Jessica Albright, the vampire.  I needed a reason for her to ingest blood regularly, and for this to give her superpowers.  The energy-fluid model provided a simple-enough reason: drinking the blood of others gave Jessica magical energy, which she could then spend to increase her physical abilities or use to activate her other powers.

Blood is a liquid, so it seemed natural to me that it could be spent in a liquid matter, that is, that it could be spent at a rate proportionate to the effect it produced.  This meant that the more she used her powers, the more frequently she would have to drink blood.  Add in the ability to constantly spend blood to counteract the wear-and-tear of everyday life, I had a reason for her to need regular donations.

That was one reason for me to use this model.  The other reasons had to do with the world Jessica would inhabit.  I wanted the Occulted to be a distinct society, at least partially separated from the Surface.  This meant that I had to treat magic as a discrete thing, with the Surface largely (or at least superficially) working like our own world.

Furthermore, I wanted each Occ to have their powers work in a way that was different from every other Occ.  The way that I came up with to make this work was to have each magic-user have their own ‘flavor’ of magic.  In much the same way that orange soda and grape soda are both soda, each creature would have their own magic, that would still be magic.

How about you?  Do you have any ideas involving the energy-fluid model of magic?

My Dream

I almost lost my job recently.  I would have actually been fine with losing it, actually, but my workplace literally shuts down when I’m not there.  That’s not important, though.  The important thing is that it made me realize what I want to do with my life.  And that is to turn the characters in my head into something I can live off of.

The only thing I ever seriously pictured myself as doing in the future was being a webcomic artist.  My original plan was to publish my stuff in twenty to forty page chapters, mimicking the Japanese comics that first inspired me.  I’ve come to realize that I’m not going to be able to keep up that schedule on my own, and not while I’m working another job, but I still want to publish my drawings to accompany the words.

If I want to make money off of my work, I need a value proposition.  What can I give people that they can’t get anywhere else?  Why would they want to read my story, much less pay for it?  If I was going to an investor, and making a formal request,  I would right something like, “Occulted is a story about how people are defined, by others and themselves, and the struggle to be allowed to live your own life, as examined through a category of people that doesn’t exist in real life.”  That’s a bit long, but it works for the start of paper, while something to get people to bother reading the paper would be something like, “Monster high-school students (many of them girls) get into fights.”

Unfortunately, neither my prose or my drawings are particularly good.  For my drawings, I need to work on drawing my hands and feet, to make sure they’re the right size for the rest of the body, and to buckle down and actually draw the backgrounds.  For my prose, I need to plan things out more, to consider how the world, the story, and the characters all fit together.  Drawing up a schedule of days (like, what days each chapter takes place on) might help.

Speaking of schedules, I need to find time to do all of this stuff.  Scratch that, I need to make time.  I need to stop procrastinating and do work.  I have most of my weekends open, I just need a way to figure out how to keep myself on task during them.

Write, draw, write, draw, lunch, write, draw, write, draw.  This could form the basic pattern of my day, each ‘write’ and ‘draw’ consisting of fifty minutes of the activity, with ten minute breaks between to stretch my legs.  I’ve kind of done this before, with a previous iteration of Occulted.  That was when I was unemployed, however, and if I do something like that, that means I’ll have to do it while also doing laundry.  But at least it’s a plan.

I also need to increase my exposure.  The easiest way to do that would be to upgrade my WordPress account, which would also have a bunch of other benefits.  My website could do with a sprucing up.  I’m thinking of adding a header image, drawn by myself.  Actually, I think I want everything on this website to be done by myself.

I want to buy art supplies.  So far, I’ve been drawing in pencil (colored and grey) and ballpoint pen, because they were available and cheap.  I’m thinking of taking up brush ink, both black and colored.  I also need paper heavy enough to hold that, and a scanner to get my drawings into the computer.  I also need a filing cabinet, both to put the scanner on top of, and to put the drawings in.

I also need to get a Patreon account and a Paypal account.  There are some donations I’ve been meaning to make now that I have money, anyway.  I’m not sure what I would give the people that donate, though.  The most obvious thing is early access to chapters and pictures, which means I need to build up a buffer, but I need to do that anyway.  I could also give access to special drawings that I wouldn’t post on my main site.  My poetry’s getting a pretty good response most weeks, maybe I could take commissions.  I could ask for a mood and a subject.

But beyond that, I have no idea where to advertise, and I don’t want to post things all over the internet, instead of just here.  And then there’s my problems with the largest sites for increasing my exposure.  Twitter seems like it would be a pain to keep up with, and Facebook wants to have the entire life of its user on it, which is something I very much don’t want.

I’m not going to stay at my current job after September, so that’s how long I have to get this all running.  I have a deadline and a plan.  Do you have any questions or suggestions?

Dragon Ball and its Imitators

The earliest thing that I remember that set me on my path to writing is first catching Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z on Toonami.  Ironically, the parts that I came in on were probably the worst parts of the series: the Pilaf arc (before the series had found itself) and the Buu saga (when the series was running out of steam).  This didn’t inspire me directly, but it did lead me to looking up scanlations online, of series that were, themselves, inspired by Dragon Ball.

After years of keeping up with Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach, reading through the scanlations of Dragon Ball was an eye opening experience.  The thing that struck me was how fast everything moved.  There was absolutely nothing in the series that doesn’t move the plot forward.  (Well, until the Buu arc.)  For example, there’s a part early on where two characters have to swim through an underground tunnel to escape a bad guy.  Other series might take three panels, one of the characters disrobing, one of the characters getting into the water, and one of the characters starting to swim, with maybe the second panel getting skipped.  I was surprised that the comic went right from ‘we need to take off our clothes’ to ‘we’re in the water.’

Perhaps even more striking is where the Piccolo arc ended, which is where the animation team divided the series.  This had been the most dramatic arc in the series at the time, involving an enemy from the mentor’s past, the origin of the Dragon Balls, and a villain that could create A-bomb level blasts.  The final tournament arc doesn’t just end where you would expect a shonen manga to end power level-wise, but narratively as well: the hero had saved the world, was going off to get married, and he had finally won that stupid tournament.  The only real plot thread left dangling was what was up with Goku’s tail.  All of this was done in under 200 chapters, about four years of weekly installments, while the later series needed at least a decade to even start to approach their ends.

The slowness of those series can be attributed to their authors’ style: Kishimoto has a tendency to draw everything out for the most drama possible, Kubo’s negative space needs gigantic panels that keep much from happening in a chapter, and Oda uses a ‘more everything’ approach to storytelling (More action!  More tears!  More shouting!  More everything!)  Kishimoto and Kubo are also much worse than Toriyama at improvising (Oda is, too, but he also improvises a lot less).

The problem with improvising is that it can lead to retcons.  The retcons in DB never really grate on the reader, because the past doesn’t matter.  The characters, especially Goku, never think about the past, because all that matters is the challenge in front of them.  From what I read about him, Toriyama also strikes me as a very in-the-moment kind of guy, so an in-the-moment kind of story suits him.

This is in contrast to, say, Naruto, where the change from ‘The Nine-tailed Fox Demon being sealed inside of someone is completely unheard of’ to ‘The Nine-tailed Fox Demon has been sealed inside of people for generations’ renders the early chapters of the story nonsensical.  (Why would people hate and fear demon hosts if they understood how to control them?  Or why would there be demon hosts if they couldn’t control the demon?)  Kishimoto’s style uses a ton of flashbacks, to the point that there was a flashback within a flashback at one point, so with the past constantly being shown like that, it’s really noticeable how the story doesn’t actually fit together.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s to understand yourself when you write.  Toriyama’s in-the-momentness is also the reason that the story could move so quickly, not getting bogged down in pointless details or forcing the author to stall for time while he thinks something up.  Oda knew that he wasn’t that in-the-moment, so he did a ton of prep work, but he didn’t realize how much time it would take to tell his story.  Kishimoto and Kubo tried to replicate Toriyama’s ability to let the characters just act, and failed, so their series got worse and worse as time went on.

So what kind of writer am I?  For one thing, I’m the kind that needs to go over their work after the first draft.  That takes time that weekly updates won’t allow.  My mind has a tendency to create immense, detailed backstories for the characters I come up with, with almost no conscious effort on my part.  My creative process is mostly filling in the gaps between what I’ve thought up.  I think I can get away with only a little prewriting, because most of my universe is already inside of my head.

Proper Chapter Length

There’s something I’ve noticed while reading fanfiction.  Some of these authors write like they need to fulfill an arbitrary length quota.  The actual prose isn’t particularly overwrought, and it’s not like they’re repeating themselves or anything, they just write long meandering chapters with no real overarching theme.

It’s like they’re just describing a series of events, with each piece starting where the last one left off.  There’s no reason for each installment to start or end where it does.  These fanfic are also, inevitably, dull.

A story should be centered around a single, complete idea, the kind of thing you can summarize in one sentence.  If the author doesn’t know what the story, or chapter of the story, is going to be about before they start writing, the result will almost certainly be a long, meandering mess.

More than just talking about the inability of amateur authors to actually make a point with their words, I want to talk about the reason for the length.  Readers of fanfiction tend to be impressed by long stories.  At least part of this is that long stories can only exist when an author has actually done the work of actually typing it all out.  This effort frequently extends to making sure the story is actually good.  The problem arises from people that don’t know what makes a story good.

This results in some readers believing that it’s normal to take thousands of words to just get into a story.  In truth, there’s something wrong if it takes more than two hundred.  However, people seeking advice from readers frequently receive such nonsense.  This can result in a story that starts strong, but becomes a boring slog a few chapters in.  When this happens, I find myself wandering off mid-chapter.  As for myself, if I have to risk either leaving a reader wanting more or getting bored and leaving, I know which side I’m going to err towards.

Becoming a Better Reader

“To become a better writer, you must become a better reader.”  That’s some writing advice I’ve heard, meaning that part of being a good writer is being able to break down and analyze what works in a story and what doesn’t.  The specific context I read them in was figuring out what you like in a fight scene, but I don’t see why it can’t apply to other parts of a story as well.

As an example of what the first context means, I’m going to go into Brandon Sanderson’s fight scenes.  What strikes me about them is how visual they are.  The focus is not on the tactics and specific movements of the combatants, although these do play a part, but on the people flying around, getting thrown into walls, and avoiding the rocks being thrown from the ground by the two massive storms their flying over.  I don’t quite know what I don’t like about the fights, because I seem to have forgotten it.  But honestly, the worst thing a fight scene can be is forgettable.

For my own work, I must strive to make every fight memorable in it’s own way.  The first might simply be a showcase of a character’s powers, another might simply be the point where somebody reaches a significant point in their development, and yet another could be take place in such unusual circumstances, like falling down a waterfall, that the setting is what the audience remembers.  But all of these would be remembered, and that’s what matters.

For the things I don’t like, I should probably concentrate on traps that I am particularly prone to falling into.  The most obvious thing, to me, that could cause problems is that I’m publishing my stories as I write them.  One of the problems I could run into with this is that I can easily be buried underneath my own retcons.  Analyzing how that could go wrong is probably an essay unto itself.

If nothing else, the advice I started with is an excuse for me to talk about things I’ve read.