Lightweight plots and weird tales

Let me tell you something. Trying to write stories that stray from established conventions is hard.

The standard for fantasy adventure stories in the 21st century so far seems to be complex plots with multiple character arcs revolving around mysteries and escalating series of unexpected twists and reveals. I think Marvel movies and Game of Thrones are certainly not without blame in this, but I think you find it also in the other big stories of our age like Lost, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, or the Star Wars reboot. Shocking surprises are the name of the game and these tend to rely on multiple competing factions with unclear plans. Which isn’t a bad thing in any way, but not something that I care much for personally.

But when you set out to create your own work with an ambition for depth, strong themes, and cerebral content, it can be very difficult to not instinctively fall into this pattern that we encounter everywhere in contemporary media discussions.

As a critic, and when discussing writing with others, I have pretty clear ideas of what I consider high quality stories. Plots should be simple and effortless to follow. The core of a story really is the relationships between main characters. Twists and surprises are vastly overrated and generally only obscure the aspects that really matter. And as a reader I also know what I am really looking for. Evocative and wondrous places and creatures. Mythical encounters and situation. Abstract and surreal magic. And characters who display an insightful awareness of themselves and the situations around them. (Yeah, I think Princess Mononoke gets the full score here.)

But then I look at my current outline and it does not do any of these things. It’s just been three weeks since I wrote about how my appreciation of Sword & Sorcery with it’s short and simple plots has been a weight at me feet for years now, misleading me to try to make my ideas fit into a structure that is very much unsuited for them. You’d think putting my thoughts into writing this way would cement them into my brain, but apparently it didn’t. Not sure if I consider that particular outline to be still salvagable.

But all is not lost. Instead I see this as an opportunity to once more take a good look at my earliest ideas for what I really would want to write. Plot has always been my great bane while I see my greatest strengths in setting, locations, and creatures. Over the past half year, I had frequently been investigating the idea of writing stories that are not really about plot. But this very notion goes straight against conventional wisdom what story is. And it would be the complete opposite from the kind of storytelling that is currently dominating.

However, this weekend I did remember one very highly regarded, though today somewhat obscure writer, who did just that. Clark Ashton Smith wrote a sizable number of stories set in different strange worlds, like Hyperborea and Zothique, that consistently lacked anything worth mentioning regarding to plot. You can sum up almost all of them as a character walking through a strange place and then suddenly getting eaten by a grotesque monster. I like Hyperborea much more than Zothique (and have to admit never read anything about Averoigne) but they are all without a doubt some of the most imaginative and fascinating things you’ll ever come across. It doesn’t really matter that there isn’t any real point to any of it when the sights alone cause wonder and amazement.

While Smith was one of a kind, there is another important one of a quite similar type. Lovecraft also wrote lots of stories that only have the barest excuse of a plot and instead rely entirely on the unique and unsettling strangeness of the places, events, and entities that the main characters behold. They do all end in a big twist, but over 80 years later the same ideas have been repeated thousands of time and when you read them now you know exactly what kind of story you are reading and can spot the reveal at the end  from miles away. But even without the twists having any impact left, they are still really entertaining and compelling stories to read. Simply by experiencing the places and events the protagonists are encountering.

Like Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are the quintessential writers of Sword & Sorcery, Lovecraft and Smith are really the core of what they called the Weird Tales (which also was the name of the most famous magazine that published them, as well as Sword & Sorcery).  While Lovecraft is today more usually described as Cosmic Horror, the horror label is much less fitting for Smith, though his stories were also usually gloomy and grotesque, but also much less serious. Many of them are genuinely funny, and not just in a macabre way.

It makes me wonder if perhaps the genre of the weird tales might be a better guideline for a way to put the ideas from my mind into a story form. Plot is not the be all end all to a story. Relying on revelation of setting seems to be a viable way of writing a readable story, though the question remains open whether this also works for settings outside of the general horor sphere. I am also interested in the reveal of character through actions and I think the two should combine very well into Man Against Nature narratives. The biggest challenge I see with this form is how to get to a propper resolution at the end. Both Smith and Lovecraft never really figured that out either. Their stories simply just end at some point with nothing really having been resolved.

Is there even an audience for it? I guess to get people interested in such types of stories in this time they would have to be really good. But then, if they are good, when you write it, they will come. But what it really makes it a very inviting idea to me is that it should help me getting out of the outline hole and maybe finally getting some actual story written. Even if it just ends up practice, it would still totally be worth the time and effort.

Write what you would want to read

In the past weeks I’ve written some stuff about my ongoing concept work for A Warrior of Kaendor. About the preparatory worldbuilding and the stylistic influences that are going into it, and my considerations for the right format and presentation. But I have been noticably quiet about any narrative content or plot. Which is because this main aspect of writing is still very much work in progress. There is a high concept for a series of mid-length stories, but turning it into actual plots continues to be an ongoing challenge. I have a rough outline for a first story, but I have to admit that I am still not entirely hooked by it. It would be good practice to write, but is it really something compelling to read? It keeps striking me as somewhat banal and an exercise by the numbers. There are also four much more fascinating ideas, but they seem too daunting to tackle with such little practical experience for now.

But I think to create something really good, you have to be fully convinced that you are working on something with the potential to be great. It’s hard to put your passion into practice work. One frequent, and wise, peace of advice for creating a draft is to write what you would want to read. And I have made good progress with figuring out the setting by putting together the things that I would love to see appearing in stories. But things that are appearing in a story are not a story. Simply looking at a collection of things and making a story out of it is hard. I would know. The question of what you would want to read goes beyond that. What kinds of events and situations would I like to see in the book of my dreams as a reader?

The first thing that comes to my mind is characters travelling through vast isolated wilderness, being dwarved by huge trees and massive cliffs, disappearing between the deep shadows and thick undergrowth on the ground while the bright sun and moon are half obscured by the branches far overhead.

And I want them to climb up to villages high up in the trees and creep along balkonies and crumbling walkways of towns carved into mountainsides, wearily peeking into the black doorways leading deeper into the stone while the wind is tearing at them.

I would love to read about great clear lakes far out in the forests whose magical waters connect to a higher reality, even when just looking at them.

I want the stories to take the characters to ancient towers that are overlooking a sea of green below and have a clear view of a large, dim orange sun and a huge blue cloudy moon, surrounded by bright stars and polar lights.

I want them to ride through shallow streams between the trees a d giant boulders on their dinosaur steeds and observe giant flying beasts cast their shadows on the ground.

I want them to encounter eldritch spirits made from light and water and talk with the shadows of men dead for centuries, standing over their crumbling bones. To glean wisdom from the empty eyes of a sorcerer’s skull.

I want them to meet warriors with painted skin and feathers on their spears, witches with wooden masks, and warrior priests with faces of bronze. To walk up the marble stairs of temples flanked by fire bowls lighting up the chilly night. And descend into vast caves covered in huge crystals and glowing moss.

I want them to have moments of quiet insight when they see the distant past and future, and touch the minds of people far away.

That is what I would want to read! And maybe that is what I should try to make into a story. Not begin with filling in the vacancies for villains, locations, and macguffins.

Smokey, this isn’t ‘Nam! There are rules!

I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding these past days and I think that the best worldbuilding always has a function, instead of just being something that would be cool or fun to have in the setting. Either it communicates something emotional about the characters, though I see that working best in visual media, or it establishes the rules that the plot will have to follow and that limit what the characters can do. To tidy up the often messy worldbuilding of Kaendor, and to tighten it up, I made this list of basic rules that define the setting and also the stories to take place in it.

  • All the land is either forest or mountains.
  • Spirits control the natural forces of the environment.
  • Spirits do not care about mortals.
  • Civilization can only exist in places where powerful spirits shield the people from unpredictable weather and encroaching wilderness.
  • Civilization is always limited to only city states and some surrounding farmland.
  • City states never last longer than a few hundred years.
  • Outside of civilized regions, time and distance aren’t as clear.
  • Magic can only provide awareness of the environment and subtle manipulations of minds, and summon spirits for direct services or to ask for their insight about the past and the future.
  • Sorcery can reshape things and change the laws of nature in limited areas.
  • Sorcery always corrupts anything it changes, making them sickly, brittle, and insane.
  • The powers of great spirits can reverse the corruption by strengthening the natural life forces to break the sorcerous restraints put on them.
  • The size and strength of spirits is reflecting their supernatural powers.
  • There is no afterlife for the dead and no reincarnation of the soul. Undead are only immitations or shadows of the dead.
  • Priests and shamans always have great political power.
  • Architecture and environments are often very vertical.
  • Travel is almost entirely by water.
  • Traders make up most traffic.
  • The economy runs on salt, silver, and slaves.
  • Mounts can not keep up with runners over longer distances.
  • Spears and bows are the primary weapons. Knives, axes, and short swords are used occasionally. Armor is lamellar or leather scale, but shields and helmets are the most important.
  • Personal disputes are settled with boxing duels.
  • Killing someone will always have repercussions.

Making this list made me spot a Chekhov’s Gun. When so much about the world’s culture revolves around the fact that civilization consists of tiny precarious islands of stability within a vast hostile wilderness, the audiences will reasonably expect to get shown the demise of at least one such city. And of the five plot ideas I currently have in reserve, two of them have this as one of their stakes.