Mired in the Blog

Storytelling Failures in the End of Mass Effect 3

The game development company BioWare recently announced a fourth title in their hugely popular Mass Effect series of video games, which prompted me to replay the already extant trilogy. Which in turn reminded me in great detail all the problems with the ending of Mass Effect 3. Some of those problems were game play (which I’ll spare you) (for now). But many of them were problems with storytelling. So I’ve gathered some of the lessons you can learn about storytelling from the bad ending of a terrific video game. There’s some spoilers here, but the statute of limitations has expired for this one, so this is the only warning you get.

1) Understand your medium.

Mass Effect is a video game. A lot of video games have very rich backstory and settings. They have immersive story that pulls you in. Mass Effect has that. It’s got very strong environment details that any novel writer could rightly envy. But it forgot what it was at the end.

Near the end, after the final battle (though first time players could hardly be aware it was the final battle), decision making is taken away from the player. Now, in a lot of games, decision making isn’t a factor. You go through the levels that are given to you, but those games are not roleplaying games. Mass Effect is.

And Mass Effect doesn’t even give you a level to work through. There’s no fighting (which doesn’t make sense for a game played as a first person shooter), there’s no dialog of consequence. There’s a very thin semblance of interactivity placed on top of a movie.

If you’re writing a first-person shooter roleplaying game, you can’t take out the shooting or the roleplaying, or you deny your story. If you write a fantasy novel, you can’t suddenly have your dragons fall out of the sky because physics doesn’t provide a means for such a massive beast to fly. If you’re writing a sonnet, you can’t toss in three lines of trochees. If you’re writing a blog post, you can’t blather on for five pages.

2) Action!

Action doesn’t automatically mean chase scenes or tense bomb defusals or epic sword fights. Action can be conversation. Action can even be introspection (provided you are remembering your medium, as above). But it’s got to be something that moves the plot. It has to feel like the conflict is being explored or that the characters are trying to overcome an obstacle.

Shepherd (the protagonist of Mass Effect) is injured near the end, and because of this has to do this limping shamble that makes moving through the compulsory long hallways with nothing interesting to see (well, except for a lot of carnage). Any walking that happens for the rest of the game will take. a. really. really. long. time. It takes half an hour, bare minimum, to get to the end of the game from this point. And a good half of that is walking. On injured legs. Very slowly. You don’t feel like anything is getting done, and it’s terrible and if that happens in something you’re writing, most readers are not going to finish.

3) The end comes from the beginning.

You’ve heard of deus ex machina? It literally translates to “god out of the machine.” Which was a popular way for ancient Greek plays to end – a device opened to allow an actor on stage who played a god such as Zeus or Hera, and then told everyone how everything should work out. Voila! Archimedes then said! Everything’s done!

It hasn’t been a popular way to end stories for centuries because it doesn’t make sense. Anything can happen, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the events of the story. It’s bad because it renders the struggles of the story meaningless. There is literally no point to any of it but the set up and then the God straightening it all out.

Mass Effect 3 definitely has the problem of inconsistency with the rest of the story. At least one of the three choices actually contradicts the events and solutions of the story. “Control the Reapers?” Sure. That might make sense if every use of Reaper technology up till then hadn’t resulted in Lovecraftian nightmares and widespread carnage.

I was going to say Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have a straightforward deus ex situation, but then I remembered that the decision is forced on to Shepherd by a very godlike little boy who apparently controls the Reapers that have driven every sentient species in the galaxy for at least hundreds of thousands of years.

Even the need for that decision – the conflict that synthetic life will always destroy biological life – is demonstrably false. Shepherd has two synthetic lifeforms that actively support and work with him without false pretenses.

4) Death has to have meaning

Death of a companion can drive a protagonist, even if the death, in itself was senseless. And it can be deeply ennobling for a character to sacrifice themself to overcome a conflict, or to give others a chance to live, or so forth.

Mass Effect doesn’t do that. In one of the three choices, Shepherd’s death at least makes sense. But there’s nothing gained from it. In another, the “death” is played off as something transcendent, but it’s dissonant and a strong contradiction of the story – transcendence is only a theme for the bad guy, and his “transcendence” turns out to be corruption. In the third choice, the death is mostly… reasons… There’s no explanation for why Shepherd has to die, but it’s made very plain that death is required. It’s senseless.

Mass Effect has gotten a bad rap, considering that it is one of the best first person roleplaying games ever written. It got that bad rap because the ending was terrible. And because the failure was at the ending, it was impossible to leave the game without that bad taste. A story can have excellent writing, but if it drops the ball for the last 1%, the whole story is going to suffer for it.

Poetry Writing Prompt

Write a poem that is inspired by one of the following pictures:

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5 Poetry Tips from Famous Poets

1. Maya Angelou

“You have to get to a very quiet place inside yourself.  And that doesn’t mean that you can’t have noise outside. I know some people who put jazz on, loudly, to write. I think each writer has her or his secret path to the muse. I’m told one writer stands for six hours with a typewriter on a podium—he stands and types. And I know a woman who has her computer in a closet and she goes in, closes the door, and, with her back to the door and her face to the wall, she writes.” (Source)

2. Sir Andrew Motion

“Tap into your own feelings. I never quite believe it when poets say that they’re not writing out of their own feelings, and when that is the case, I tend not to be terribly interested in what they’re doing.

I don’t mean to say that they are writing bad poems, but those aren’t the poems that I like most. The poems I most like are where the engine is a very emotional one, where the warmth of strong feeling is very powerfully present in the thing that is being given to us. I think poetry is a rather emotional form and when it isn’t that, I’m not very interested in it.” (Source)

3. Edgar Allan Poe

Decide on the desired effect. The author must decide in advance “the choice of impression” he or she wishes to leave on the reader. (Source 1) (Source 2)

4. Ezra Pound

“A Few Don’ts” about writing poetry. In 1913, Pound wrote an essay entitled “A Few Don’ts.” In a nutshell, the rules state that each verse should be lean and purposeful, with no frills or filler to provide padding. They also emphasize the importance of possessing an awareness of the work of previous poets, and of using this understanding in the creation of new work. Please refer to the Website to see Pound’s complete list. (Source)

5. Henry David Thoreau

Understand the power of each word. “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;- not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”(Source 1) (Source 2)

Kick The Darkness

Some year ago, the legendary music artist Bruce Cockburn sang “Gotta kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” This lyric has haunted me (in a good way) for almost twenty years. While it wasn’t a conscious choice, I realize that it seeped into my soul to become a motto for my own writing.

And, it’s become an important guiding principle in all the stories that I tell. Currently, I have two paranormal thrillers on the market (3 Gates of the Dead and Dark Bride) that, at first glance, look to glorify the dark. Just recently, a very good friend of mine, after meeting me for the first time said, “I thought you’d be this dark, sinister, brooding figure.”

At first, I bristled at the comment, because I get it a lot. Everyone expects me to be obsessed with darkness because of what I’ve written. But, I understand my friend and everyone else’s expectations. They’ve been conditioned by our current culture’s fascination with the darkness in their pop culture consumption. A quick look at the current book store shelves show how obsessed writers are with writing about “dark things,” such as dark sex (50 Shades of Gray), dark demons, dark murders, and dark anti-heroes. Everyone seems to be in a race to be darker than the next person. It somehow brings some sort of bizarre street cred.

And, the YA literary world is no exception. A few months ago, a co-worker was telling me how her stepdaughter loved to read and devoured YA fiction. My friend was torn because while she wanted to encourage the reading, she was also disturbed by the darkness that seemed to seep in every page.

To me, this latest fascination comes from what I call the “Martinization” of YA novels. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has become the best-selling series of books this side of the Boy Who Lived (Harry Potter). The hit HBO show has taken the books to even greater heights and made it a staple of pop culture conversation.

His books (and the show) are praised for their unflinching “gritty realism.” The world, most of them feel, is full of murder, rape, rampant corruption and ultimately, everyone is looking out for themselves. So, Martin, everyone believes, has an accurate point of view as to how the world “works.” He’s keeping it real, as the kids in the 1990’s used to say.

From what I’ve seen (as a YA novelist, Bram Stoker Jury member for YA fiction and frequent YA conference speaker), YA authors are falling all over themselves to be considered “gritty” and “realistic.” And so, they want to make their novels grittier, darker to the point of obsession. In the rush to be “taken seriously” by the wider book world, they go dark, yes, even in the realm of sexual attraction.

To be clear, I’m not a book prude, nor do I wish books to be burned, censored or otherwise destroyed. Neither am I saying books shouldn’t explore dark themes and the darkness of the human heart. Indeed, some of my favorite books and authors explore some very intense ideas. Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite novelists, for example, and she explores racism, death, deformity and the struggle with believing in God. I explore some pretty dark things and ideas in my own novels.

However, none of these books—the ones I enjoy (and the ones I write)—seek to glorify terrible things. They have hope buried in their story lines. To me, these are the realistic stories. And, what I’m getting really tired of, what bothers me to the core, is how dark nihilism in YA (or any other) is being praised as “realistic” and “brave.” It’s neither. I hate the attitude that “being dark” makes you more credible as a writer. Yes, there are dark and terrible things in our world. Only a person with their head firmly planted in the sand would say otherwise. Yet, there is also goodness, beauty, truth, and justice. There are people who fight for these things on a daily basis, real heroes and real heroines.

Yes, it’s true, good and evil might be more complex than people realize, but they’re still real concepts. Just because no one person can fully define either of those terms, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Good and evil are real concepts that govern human thought. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, just listen to everyday human conversation and you’ll hear what people really believe.

My hope is that we start developing more storytellers with true courage to find beauty under the trash. Anyone call pull out trash from a dumpster and say, “look how terrible this is.” What takes true grit, courage and commitment is to find something worthwhile, good and meaningful. It’s not that people should ignore the trash, but they need to learn how to dig in to find the beauty.

How? The answer is simple and takes us back to Cockburn’s quote. Obsession with darkness only leads to more darkness. Loving the darkness means we’ve fully bought into the horror, the rape, the terror and all the destruction that comes with it. As an artist, if you stare at the darkness too long, it can take you over and become a part of you. Your work becomes sadistic and jaded. It glories in the awful.

Instead, of obsessing, writers need to “kick the darkness until it bleeds light.” By all means, write that dark fairy tale. Write that dark murder. But, don’t be satisfied with leaving the story there. That’s lazy writing and easy to do. Instead, footstomp the darkness hard until it bleeds, oozes and gushes the light.

Let’s face it; it’s why Narnia, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are the most read books of the last seventy-five years. No one can accuse these series of ignoring dark themes, struggles or character flaws in their heroes and heroines. The difference is, each writer sought to find the light, magnifying it and showing the darkness for what it really is….

A weak and contemptable thing….

From a Bird’s Eye View

quail

Well readers, in the words of the great mustachioed, emerald-clad ghost hunter/ explorer extraordinaire, “Ima back!” If my reference was too obscured by flowery prose, I apologize. I was simply trying to grant poor Luigi from the Mario bros. the spotlight he so deserves. Nintendo bless you, Luigi.

This brings me to my prompt for this week! It is only natural to think of Mario in the classic game series, most reasonably because his name is in the friggin title. But for this week, dearest readers, I would like you to take the time to consider things from the perspective of someone or something unexpected. For instance, consider the tale of King Arthur from the perspective of Excalibur. On the way to dinner one night, my dad and I did this little exercise while swerving to avoid the unbelievable number of quail who dash onto the road. This is the masterpiece we came up with:

 

A Quail’s Death Wish

By Phoebe (and Rick)

 
What lies on the other side of this road?

 

Why do I bolt so quickly over

The black compacted rocks that emerged from the flaming depths of hell

So hot

So hot

 

Death’s hallowed road

Filled with shiny, rolling, loud reapers

Commanded by featherless Giants

So fast

So fast

 

Why must you slow in my presence?

This heat is unbearable

Death is my only hope

So dry

So dry

 

The winged beasts with feathers made of the night sky

Plucked my scurrying baby feather balls

How have I managed to avoid the reaper?

So lonely

So lonely

 

Oh reapers, why do you avoid me?

I leap into your shiny arms when you pass

Leaving my life in fate’s hands

Why do you slow?

So slow

So very slow

 

Once again I was too fast

The other side has no water still

Where will the water be?

Will there ever be any water?

So thirsty

So alive
 

Why?

Why still alive?
 

Okay, so not the greatest piece of literature ever penned (or typed into notes on my phone), but it sounds pretty fantastic when Siri reads it. Could this be a creative writing prompt or an exercise in empathy I wonder….

I Have Had my Fill of Filler

Greetings once again, readers! I hope you’re in for a fun-filled (if perhaps fury-fueled) post, because have I got a touchy topic for you—oh, and sorry about the pun. I’m sure you can guess from the title, but today’s post is about “filler”. Filler is a casual term used for the parts of a story that don’t necessarily progress the plot but provide padding in between important plot points—in other words, stalling. This is most commonly found in Anime, as this Urban Dictionary definition will tell you:

A segment of anime, whether it be an entire episode or part of one, which does not appear in the manga of the title. Fillers, as the name implies, “fills” an episode with non-canonical material which has been written usually by the same company which animates it. (Source)

Ordinarily I would be fine with the occasional filler episode, but one of my favorite shows has gone too far.

I hereby call you to the stand, Naruto, you abusive, supercilious prune!

phoebeOkay, maybe that was a bit harsh. I still love you, Naruto. Maybe it’s time we had an intervention instead of a heated trial. Your filler has gotten out of hand. For most shows, filler is only necessary if it is based on a manga or comic book series that has not yet been completed and the animators run out of story to work with, but you have no excuse anymore. The manga is finished. You were so close to the end when I heard that you planned for the next two episodes to be filler. How could you? You tantalize your viewers with the promise of one last battle to end this war that has been going on for almost 200 episodes and then instead of blood and guts we get fluffy flashbacks to events that we already knew about. I swear to Anime that if you show me another episode filled with recycled clips of Obito losing his eye, I am going to retaliate with the full force of my artistic skills and paint the most beautiful rage art you have ever seen! You will be reduced to tears by both the sheer beauty and the sting of its insults!

You see what you have reduced me to? I’m hurling nonsensical insults at a work of fiction! This is exactly why I hate filler in any sort of story. While the term was created to describe this trend in anime, it can be found in other TV shows and books when the writer can’t come up with anything good but has to meet his or her deadline. I understand in some cases there needs to be some padding between plot points in order for the story to progress in a natural way. I mean the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender couldn’t just go from one intense battle to the fight to end all battles; they needed some padding in between so the story wouldn’t appear too rushed or hectic. But at least the filler in Avatar: The Last Airbender was able to develop the characters and flesh out the world that the writers had created. The Hunger Games series did this as well when Katniss and Peeta were in between arenas; Suzanne Collins used this time to emphasize the extent of President Snow’s cruelty as well as give the reader a better idea of what it would be like to live in the districts.

What I am getting at in this blog post, which is starting to resemble a boiling pot of chamomile tea laced with Tabasco, is that filler can be in your story, but make it meaningful. Use the opportunity to prove to your readers/viewers that you have thought about everything in this world that you have created, from the daily routing of the town baker to your main character’s beverage of choice. I highly doubt it will be a boiling pot of chamomile with a shot of Tabasco, but who knows? It could make for an interesting protagonist.

Project Semicolon

Project Semicolon (The Semicolon Project) is a faith-based non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire.

A little over a month ago, a blog article came up in my “Writers” news feed simply titled “the semicolon project” by Heather Parrie. The synopsis implied it was related to mental health and writing, two topics that are close to me as the creator of straitjacketwriters.com, so I clicked through and read the article.

If you haven’t done so, I highly recommend you do now (convenient link).

For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing right now, the summary from the Project Semicolon website: “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”

Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are very much (more…)

Writing Prompt – Details are Everything

I like picture prompts. I like to look at them and see the obvious story, then I like to try to come up with something NOT obvious. I do that by looking carefully at the details of the image. Is there a bug in the corner? Maybe that’s the bad guy. Is there a wrinkle in the shirt? Maybe it’s hiding something sinister. Is there a Photoshop error? Maybe this whole image is a hologram. What is it hiding?

Can you do that? Write a quick sentence or two about the obvious story behind the picture, then look for the small details and come up with a couple of sentences to show a not-so-obvious tale.

Speculative fiction, art and poetry are all about the unknown, the unseen, the overlooked. We have to be the ones to carve those moments out and bring them to the attention of others. It’s a higher calling, people. We owe the human race something amazing. And PLEASE! For the love of human interaction, share your ideas in the comments!

NUMBER ONE

waterpeople

Obvious: Diver stumbles across sunken statues of people. (Do not write this!)

 

NUMBER TWO

ladyhitchhiker

Obvious: Chick sitting on the side of the road, probably running from a bad situation. (Do not write about this either! And am I the only one who’s calves get chaffed when I wear boots without socks? Ouch.)

 

NUMBER THREE

invisiblewoman

 

Obvious: Invisible woman reading a book in the park. (Sorry, too easy, come up with something better!)

Hurry Up & Wait

I’m up to my eyeballs in edits and slush for the Summer issue of QFT. The team is digging through submissions as fast as we can right now, but we’re still getting emails from artists, poets, and writers asking – DO YOU WANT ME OR NOT???

 

The answer is – I DO NOT KNOW!

Well, for some of you, I know. But it isn’t time to send out replies yet. Everything has a time and a season here at QFT. We roll in a very carefully organized fashion with lots of time for pool breaks. (The unicorns get restless if we don’t let them swim every afternoon.)

What I do know is – I FEEL YOUR PAIN!

I’m a writer myself. I’ve sent out submissions and queries like a bat on fire and received nothing but crickets from most of them.  It hurts! It kills the little goblin inside of me that is aching to run full speed into the next contract and publication.

But it’s a necessary evil. Just like the big bad wolf, the wicked witch of the west or Voldemort – you’ve got to have the bad in order to appreciate the good. We have to work our tails off and jump through the hoops, then wait. And wait. And wait. And wonder. And wait. And most importantly, keep creating.

Are you sitting down? I have FOUR books out with folks big and small right now. FOUR. WHOLE. BOOKS. I can do nothing with those books until I hear back from those people. Nothing. I have to sit on those stories, maybe write down a few ideas, but really, if I want to make the most of my time, I have to wait. And chances are very likely that all four will get back to me at the same time and my brain will explode.

So in the mean time, while I’m sitting around on my thumbs waiting to hear about my books, I’m reading your stories, going over your poetry, helping sort through your art, and the team is working hard to put together something wonderful for you to read this summer while you wait.

And I can tell you one other thing I know for sure – QFT is the only webzine (that we know of) that replies to every single submission with a personal reply and advice for those who are not accepted for publication. So, sometimes it takes us a bit longer to get back to you. But we hope what you are receiving means something to you. Please remember that it takes a lot to skip the form rejection mode of publication. It takes time, effort and brain cells that a lot of us are running short on (in all three areas) but we are happy to give them to you. And we are very happy that you are sharing your art with us.

Just remember that while you wait, for us or anyone else to get back with you, to stay busy. Start something new. Join a writing group. Try a writing prompt. QFT has great prompts every Thursday. Or hey, join the Unicorns in the pool. After all, life is what happens while we’re waiting around.

Thursday Prompt: Finding your Secret Space

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On Tuesday I talked about podcasts that inspire me as a writer, and I can’t believe I left off my very favorite one! TED Talks! They are the best. Honestly, if you’ve never listened to a TED Talk, just do a Google search and find anything that sounds interesting. There are hundreds of them. I like them because they’re short, fascinating, and have a huge range of topics that can inspire ideas or inspire you as a creative person (like this list of 10 talks from authors).

Today’s writing prompt involves one of my favorite talks for writers, Mac Barnett’s Why a Good Book is a Secret Door.

Listen to the podcast, you can listen online or on your phone or wherever, and inspired by his talk about stores of pirate goods and time travel, tells us about a place you’ve been that inspire you as a creative person. Write it down in great detail–all the tiny little particulars–and use your five senses to relive what it’s like to be in that space. Give your reader a sense of why you feel inspired in that space by showing, not telling, all about it.

We’d love for you to share in the comments!