Words and Chaos

You meet a stranger…

Describe me like one of your French girls.

My apologies, I have been silent. I have, however, been at work on various projects and ideas. One of those is my character generator. I have fully moved onto the character details portion of the generator, which is coming along fairly well.

To get there I had to complete the description generator. I have. There are some minor things that I have left out in the interest of not getting bogged down. At this point, everything I wanted in the generator is there, and anything else is a cool idea but not integral. So I’m putting a lid on it for the moment because I’d like to get to the more interesting parts of the generator: The character details.

So consider this version 1.0 or 0.5… I don’t have a version-by-version point list, just a lot of bullet points that I’m working through. The general idea is to generate a full character, and from there just expand on the presentation of that. At the moment it can be almost dry and mechanical, which isn’t fantastic for evoking strong images. In the end I want to try and incorporate simile and metaphor in there. With random generators controlling metaphor and simile I’m expecting some very dada-esque description, but, regardless, that’s a while away. The syntax is still a bit odd in places, but I think that’s going to have to be addressed once I’ve got all the pieces in place, and perhaps just a side effect of trying to account for as many things as this generator does.

In the end, this is all meant to spark ideas more than it is to be taken wholesale. Nobody writing a character would ever, nor should ever, describe a character in the detail or fashion that this generator presents them. So without further ado:

You meet a stranger…

Frailty, Thy Name is Weapon

 

Snap your fingers, snap your gorget.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released recently. One of its more controversial ideas was the weapon durability system. Predictably, Nintendo overstated the wear and tear of weaponry and armour by laughable amounts in an attempt to hoist the system onto people. They managed to implement the system in such a way as to turn it into a tedium inducing cycle of busywork, as opposed to an element of risk management. There are too many developers, especially in these days of bar filling “survival” games, who seem to mistake dull routine for gameplay. We’ve traded old-school MMO grind for survivalist grind. Instead of collecting ten bear arses, we’re collecting ten twigs. How did we get here? There’s space for all sorts of ideas in game mechanics, and experimentation should be encouraged by the consumer, but only so long as the mechanics compliment the gameplay. Unfortunately, the average weapon durability system doesn’t. It’s yet another percentage meter to keep track of, rather than a dynamic part of the underlying mechanics that can change the direction of an encounter or player priorities. There are ways that weapon durability can actually improve a game, but they have to be thought of in terms of complimentary gameplay, not in terms of vacuous time sinks.

Weapon durability gives you more room to be uncomfortable. You can use that discomfort to balance out the problem of unchecked power creep. The potential for weapons to break mid-fight causes you to reassess not only current circumstances, but also your approach to each subsequent encounter with more caution or forethought. It encourages preparation and back up equipment. Alternatively, it can switch the flow of the fight and force the player to change their play style on the fly. Suddenly a fight you were winning turns against you and you have to either fall back on a secondary weapon and press on at a disadvantage, or run.

When I say ‘run’ I mean actually run as a means of escape and get to somewhere safe. If you only have to tab into a menu, click a new item and auto equip/switch, in the style of Skyrim, then you’re doing it wrong. Pulling a claymore out of your underpants should take a little bit of time, come with an animation, and open you up to an attack when you’re being careless, if you’re going for that kind of system. The same goes for consumable items: Scarfing a bottle of potion or eating a leg of lamb should happen in game time not in a menu. It’s cheesy and exploitable. If you’re trying to emphasize danger and survival, then you’re not allowed to teleport things into player’s hands and stomachs. With all that said, weapon breaking can’t be forced into every fight. It can’t happen every other fight or third fight and so on. Weapons and armour are there to take blows, so unless you’re trying to fend off a sledgehammer with an ornamental rapier, there’s no reason why your defences should shatter every three seconds. It doesn’t help or add to the gameplay and it’s utterly counter-intuitive to what is often laughably referred to as “realism.”

Dwarf Fortress added weapon and armour durability mechanics relatively recently. It is one example of durability mechanics done right. It really did change the game. Post update, industries really mean something. Let’s say you produce ten sets of top tier equipment for your soldiers in fortress mode. If you know that they’re all there for eternity then that takes away any incentive to care about producing more equipment any further than trade. In a game where production is a large chunk of the core cycle, it’s important to keep it relevant beyond turning everything into a gold equivalent.

With weapon and armour damage, you’ve got to think about how much you’re selling versus how much you’re holding in reserve for invasions and re-equipping soldiers. In adventure mode it made castles more important. You have a reason to keep an eye out for them now, as a way to resupply and replace equipment. Previously, you could just walk into any old castle and find a highly effective weapon and armour set right off the bat, which would give you an advantage that would never end. As a result you’d never really hesitate before getting into a fight with a giant penguin. You’d just grab the steel knitting needle and off you went. With item durability in place, blindly wandering into a goblin fortress or necromancer tower isn’t the best idea when you know that eventually your armour is going to buckle under the blows of a hundred enemies. The armour protects you, as it should, but you’re not a god. And you never should be.

While Dwarf Fortress also suffers the same fragility problems that crop up in most durability systems, it gets away with it because the AI plays by the same rules that you do. That’s the other thing that weapon durability systems often lack: they don’t apply to other parts of the world. Just you. So you don’t get ever get to be the guy who breaks the weapon and then chases down the enemy. This is another reason people get so frustrated with these mechanics: There should be two edges to this blade; you should have the opportunity to do something cool but instead the mechanics can only ever hinder you in particular. If you’re going to have a rule then apply it to everything.

Blood Omen II had weapon durability mechanics and it was another instance where I found that it added to the game. In an otherwise mediocre adventure, made better by some satisfying voice acting and an unwillingness to sacrifice character for genre cliché, the weapon breaking did add a slight depth to the formulaic combat system. Because my big looted sword could only take a certain amount of punishment and would break after I repeatedly blocked attacks, I approached each fight with a bit of forethought. If I was just tackling a grunt, I’d use my hands or focus on dodging, but if I ran into something more substantial or faster, I would switch to the weapon, preferring the raw damage output over a considered parry and counter. When I didn’t have a weapon and came up against one of the tougher enemies, the absence was noticeable.

It’s good to put the protagonist in trouble. Otherwise what’s the point in them? When the game is structured around a linear narrative, regardless of the size of the corridor, then we already anticipate the end: Kill the boss and triumph. In the case of Zelda, we all know it ends up with the Master Sword anyway. But we’ve already played with the Master Sword for 16 games. We get it: It’s the bog-standard heroic phallus. Get out of the way. It’s just more interesting to be using, or have the choice to use, all the other weapons and armour. If we’re aware of the destination then the journey needs some hooks.

Of course there are those who will rail against mechanics like this. I wonder if that’s simply a backlash against games outside of a specific niche, daring to offer some danger. This isn’t some semi-covert, ‘git gud’ elitist braying. A game shouldn’t have to hold your hand in order to engage you. In recent years there has been a period where gaming has dug itself into a power fantasy hole, and then refused to climb out of it. More recently there has been a push back against that, fuelled by successful games that understand the concept of difficulty as a part of an experience, rather than just cheap difficulty for the sake of difficulty – think Diablo III’s launch and the abysmal gear-check hurdle grind difficulty setting ‘Inferno’. A better understanding and experience of mechanics and expanded technical and AI capabilities have increased our ability to develop game difficulty that feels natural, not just cheesy and frustrating like Mario Kart’s rubber-band AI. As technology grows, we’re in a great place to capitalise on this. Now that we can take advantage of increased processing power and memory, we can build interesting physics and AI systems. Developers no longer need to rely on just upping the amount of damage taken or implementing dull damage-sponge enemies.

Dark Souls is, as ever, the obvious one: You’re very rarely out of danger, every enemy can always hurt you, and becoming careless can be death; but the games don’t exclude you from being very powerful. Killing Floor II doesn’t increase its difficulty simply by giving its monsters more health it gives them more abilities. That’s a fairly obvious but fantastic way of increasing difficulty. Instead of just increasing the amount of spent bullets, the player has to adapt to increasingly varied and less predictable behaviours. XCOM 2, while renowned for its RNG, isn’t a game of chance. A certain part of the core gameplay loop is the negation of RNG and swinging the odds in your favour. That’s arguably just a part of any tactical process, but it doesn’t detract from the danger or success of the game’s systems. You prioritise enemies based on their abilities, you choose your attacks based on your circumstance, you take advantage of the procedural terrain to negate the effectiveness of the aliens. While I have some reservations about certain mechanics, I have at no point felt that everything boiled down to chance. Every move you make is dictated by your situation at the time.

Getting back to the point: There’s an edge to knowing that your weaponry can break alongside a refreshing forced change in pace and play style. Switching from one defence to the next based on what you have to hand is more frantic and compelling. Forcing a player to run if they underestimate their enemy or overestimate their own abilities keeps the player from becoming complacent. Jim Sterling argued that forced variability of play style is no real choice. While I get where he’s coming from, unless you’re getting nothing but very specific items, then you should theoretically be able to stick to a broad play style – quick and nimble, heavy and hard hitting, etc.

Of course, if it’s balanced poorly, the mechanic becomes nothing but a frustration. If a weapon snaps like a twig at the first sign of impact then that’s a problem. If a piece of armour is rendered useless in three hits, that’s a problem. In general, we build our expectations roughly comparative to the ones that we might have of reality. That means that we don’t expect hardwearing combat equipment to feel anything but. If it doesn’t, then all sense of significance goes out the window. Put simply: If your player is holding a weapon then it should feel like a weapon. Revelatory, I know.

Take the survival horror genre, for instance. It’s a genre that is built around making the player vulnerable. To that effect it either doesn’t give you a weapon of any kind, or downplays the effectiveness and availability of protective measures. That’s not a license to equip the player with a Styrofoam crowbar. If you want to leave an impression then you make the crowbar feel like a crowbar. Weighty and impactful: The kind of thing that would put a large man on the ground without a problem. It’s something that the player can latch onto, it’s a point of reference, and it’s a measurement by which they understand the rules of the world. And then you give the player an antagonist that doesn’t care.

I’m just adapting writing functions here. It’s more or less the same idea, just on an interactive level. For instance, you can emphasise the sense of danger by giving your player human opponents to start off with. It’s something they instantly recognise and understand. That gives them the idea that they have control and thus some power. Then you introduce something that is outside of their frame of reference and doesn’t obey the rules that they’re used to. That takes control away from them. Suddenly they’re vulnerable. As an aside, that doesn’t mean take away the rules – there should always be rules, even if the player, or the reader, doesn’t explicitly know them. The reaction isn’t to discard the crowbar as useless; the reaction is to cling tighter to it. It’s all they’ve got – it becomes more a talisman of hope than a means of survival. So you’ve taken the danger into a psychological space and given them something to anchor themselves with. Then you take that thing away. Better yet, you destroy it. When you take an item away from a player they will hold out hope to find it again. They’ve got something to latch onto and they’re not going to give it up. They will expect to find that crowbar later on. That’s their safe place. If you break the crowbar then it’s useless. It’s gone. It’s not coming back.

The problem with overly short gear durability is that players aren’t given an incentive to use items, nor an opportunity to get attached to them. Attachments are meaningful if you have the ability to lose them. If gear durability is too low then players don’t use what you give them even if they pick it up. They will use items against bosses and that’s more or less it. If they’re doing that then you’ve failed. You should take all the items and replace them with a stick of dynamite. All you’ve done is set up a wall and given the player some explosives. Items should alter the way you approach a scenario, they should lend themselves to a play style. If, for example, your weapons are just short lived high damage objects, then they lose their identity. They become an amorphous, but easy, way of dealing large amounts of damage to a miscellaneous barrier in the shortest possible timeframe. Nobody likes health sponges because all they take to beat is the repetitive mashing of a button. That’s what your bosses become and your items are just ways to reduce the amount of time you have to mash a button for.

That’s not a gameplay mechanic: It’s a means of reducing the risk of RSI.

In this era of day one DLC and hotfix patches, adjusting the balance of item durability isn’t beyond possibility. It’s not impossible for features and mechanics that start out as a tiresome negative to become an immersive addition with the right tweaks.

Weapon durability systems should, at their core, be a means of depriving a player of a comfort zone. While this may seem to go against design philosophy, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as an impediment to fun. It simply depends on whether the mechanics interact with, and add to, other features of the game. There’s a good reason to keep your player off-balance and put them in uncomfortable situations: It keeps them alert and engaged with the game. If you give your players a very powerful item and they know that it has a limited number of uses, its inherent value goes up so long as it isn’t restricted too severely. Go too far with restrictions or overspecialise and your item value goes down. If you have unlimited access to a very powerful item then the value of everything goes down, because if there’s no chance of loss then there’s no diminishing of a player’s ability to dominate all circumstances or remain invulnerable. As a result the power is endless and, in a counter-intuitive twist, stops having meaning.

Where games can fall down is simply to overemphasise durability to the point where it is not a mechanic so much as it is a chore. If you are constantly worrying about item damage after every single use, then the system is not adding anything to the experience. There’s a significant balancing act to systems like this, pacing the availability of items, encouraging their use, differentiation, etc. Jim Sterling accurately called out the endless supply of banal bar filling that pervades survival games in his ‘Babysitting the Survivor’ episode of the Jimquisition. All too often developers seem to approach item durability in this manner; viewing potentially novel mechanics as simply another bar to keep topped up, when they should be doing anything but.

Weapon and armour durability can be an effective tool in creating an immersive experience so long as developers have the guts to take things away, and work item durability in as a complimentary system rather than an endless source of arbitrary busywork. It can keep the variety and the danger in combat regardless of player advancement, and thus keep the player from becoming complacent. As a result you keep the tension, and you can potentially wind up with some incredibly memorable emergent gameplay moments and stories. This is the strength of item durability, and by extension, a willingness to take things away from the player. As long as it can be implemented effectively, it should be encouraged. You have to be willing to both give and take away. That’s a rule for writing and it’s a rule for games, too.

 

 

 

 

There Is Only Chaos: Alpha, Beta, Whatever

Maturity begets integrity.

A month into Trump’s presidency and the new American president is causing as much of a wave in the White House as he did on the campaign trail. While I have my reservations about the rash of post-election protests, much as I do sympathise, Trump is certainly a polarising individual. His ‘grab them by the pussy,’ comment, in particular, remains in the spotlight. Not without good reason. It’s hardly a fitting comment for the leader of a major world superpower, with his hands on the nuclear codes. Well, depending on who you ask, anyway… At the time of the leak, Nigel Farage, that paragon of authenticity, passed it off as ‘alpha male boasting’. In the wake of the election of such a personality there seems to be a rise in a kind of red pill style conservatism, revolving around delusional machismo, branding everything unaffiliated with the label ‘cuck’, and attempting to boil all of masculinity down into a rudimentary food chain of sorts.

There’s a sad contingent of people, mostly males, who insist on dividing all other males in the world into categories of dominance. It’s not a particularly expansive categorisation, neither is it particularly in-depth. There are just two columns for the entire 3 billion or so males on the planet: The alpha and the beta. It’s a kind of simplified flat-pack easy-assemble worldview that offers comforting direction to boys who don’t want to think too hard about their actions, perceptions, or their significance in the world, but still want to feel like someone of consequence. The kind of person who will fight you for the first place in front of a mirror, but will chug a stein full of bull semen before taking a long look at themselves.

As expected, we find that the depiction of the alpha males is a parodic example of self-perpetuating gender stereotyping played straight. I don’t want to fall back on a tired cliché, but the image of the grunting Neanderthal lumbers to mind, only with none of the charm. Conversely, the grovelling weedy nerds of the world, again as expected, represent the beta male. It’s a foregone conclusion that each of these hapless oestrogenic wonders secretly aspire to be just like the alphas, if only they could get off World of Warcraft and give negging a chance. Most amusing is that these grossly oversimplified caricatures are held aloft as if they were real. The loud obnoxious character who attempts to hold court, rather than engage in conversation, is held aloft as someone to aspire to. This person is, apparently, revered and respected as opposed to being a massive turn-off. See, the problem with a person, of any gender, who constantly attempts to dominate all social scenarios, is that it quickly becomes apparent how pervasively insecure they are. That’s why they need to have themselves validated at all turns and why all eyes must be centred on them at all times. Unfortunately, nobody goes out for a drink with the intention of babysitting.

Take Trump’s consistent grandstanding. His need to have the attention forever focussed on him is all too apparent. He is so insecure that he has hired people to clap for his speeches. How about photos of him sitting in a golden chair in front of a golden wall? Comedy Central had to repeatedly scrap the jokes they’d written, because Trump couldn’t quite understand the point of a roast – the humour. Instead, he insisted that they talk about his wealth… Naturally, bankruptcies were off limits. Leaving aside Trump and his chronic narcissism, this constant need for validation and attention doesn’t inspire the kind of image that one would associate with an ‘alpha male’.

Five minutes of mild contemplation is sufficient to illustrate how utterly absurd the entire alpha-beta concept is in the first place. It works with other animals because most of them don’t have much in the way of an advanced social structure. It doesn’t work with humans for a number of reasons, but working within this paradigm, let’s examine it:

Do you know any men who are going to actively identify themselves as ‘beta’, given the social implications? Me neither. Not all men can be alpha so there must be some beta men. However, if one man is alpha then the majority of those around him are presumably considered beta. If each of them in turn thinks of themselves as alpha, than the alpha male would have to be beta. They cannot exist in both states at once. All of them, as the self-presumed alpha, are betas in someone else’s perspective and so they cancel each other out. The conclusion is, as usual, that a man who brands himself an ‘alpha male’ is merely overcompensating with a psychological crutch. Within that shallow paradigm, you’re not an alpha in that case. An alpha wouldn’t need that crutch.

People talk. About you. People you hate, people you like, people you love. Your enemies, your friends, your family. Whatever your social presence or connections, people talk about you. Braggadocio is the spurious pup yap of the immature boy who never left the playground: A loud, limp cover for feared impotence. It’s as facile as the alpha-beta nonsense. Alpha male boasting doesn’t happen. They don’t need to. Other people talk for them.

I know, I know. The only reason I’m writing about this in the first place is, of course, that I am simply an angry beta male. Constantly friend zoned, blue balled, whining about it on the Internet to a disinterested handful of faceless strangers. Meanwhile I spend my time kotowing to the looming feminist matriarchy that is slowly taking over the world because of a surge in regressive left leaning cucks. I do this with the shrivelled hope that, upon their eventual dominance and the overthrow of all Y-chromosomes, one of m’ladies will favour me enough to grace me with a pity fuck. Any day now.

Let’s dispense with the alpha beta rhetoric. Social power dynamics in human relationships, even among creatures as simple as us menfolk, are somewhat more complex than a binary sorting hat. It’s not solely about chest thumping and flaccid bragging. As with all human social hierarchies, the variables work on multiple levels are affected by any number of external and internal factors, and the points of dominance and power shift depending on context. I’m not well read on animal social group dynamics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those too, were slightly more convoluted than the proposed alpha-beta model. Of course, the reality is simply that none of this exists. It’s the psychological equivalent of homeopathy for the pitiful and puffed up.

Perhaps it would simply be more effective to take an honest look at yourself every now and then. Perhaps go so far as to actively do the hard work to improve yourself, rather than simply shouting about how great you are, despite nobody, not even you, believing it. Of course, that requires somewhat more work than constantly trying to bark the loudest and inflate your chest like a cheap helium balloon. Perhaps that explains why these types desperately cling to the chest thumping. There isn’t the stamina, tenacity, or mental alacrity to work on anything more difficult than a two-dimensional binary system more concerned with the volume of the bark than the power of the bite.

Character creation: Lose the Lists.

Because people are more than attribute collages.

Creating a character is a seemingly straightforward process, but every writer runs into times where it can be difficult to know how to flesh them out past an initial idea, or sometimes simply where to start. It’s just an unfortunate wall that you run into. Like almost all problems in the 21st century, it’s instinctive to turn to Google, our eternal babysitter, for the answer or some easy inspiration. You come across a lot of lists this way: ‘100,000 questions for characters’. Those lists can seem like incredibly detailed and in depth studies of character and personality – how could they not be: There’s 100,000 questions! That’s more than the MBTI and that other personality quiz you took last Sunday, on Buzzfeed, put together! In actual fact they usually devolve into tedious lists of minutia and quirks that rarely tell you anything important about your characters. What’s the use of knowing who were there parents are, what ice cream brands they like, what their favourite colour is, their national tax number, and so on if it doesn’t provide you with anything you can use?

List like this give the illusion of a fleshed out characters. They don’t actually provide a great deal to draw on – how many of those 100,000 notations will you remember? How much of it will come in handy when you’re writing? You can sink a lot of time into filling out those mammoth lists and it will feel like you have put in a lot of work at the end. Technically you have, and your patience is commendable is nothing else, but not all work is created equal.

The key is picking a few relevant questions and then running with them. Common starter question: Who are their parents? On its own, it’s not a useful question. You can provide names, perhaps a profession, but nothing particularly useful. So from there you could ask, ‘what was their relationship like?’ When you’ve answered that ask ‘why?’ Then you can go from there: If the relationship is good, what would it take to destroy it and how does your character react when their trust is broken? Conversely, if the relationship is bad then what would it take to fix it? If nothing, why not? And you can’t shrug your shoulders or give some piss thin excuse, ‘They just don’t feel like it’. That’s a cop out and it’s not helping you. You don’t have to answer right away, but if you give an answer then you have to give a good one.

Another common question: What are they scared of? On its own, not too useful. It gives you a surface level discomfort to throw at a character. They see a spider on a wall, they scream and attempt to hit it with a wood axe. After you’ve decided what they’re scared of, again ask ‘why?’ ’Why’ is always your go-to question. It gives you more to work with, context, and add depth that can use to expand on the ways you manipulate those fears. What do they do when they’re confronted with their fear? How do they react? Do they curl into a ball? Do they accept their fate in a stoic manner?

This works for all of these questions, fear is just a good example. Other suggestions: What do they do when they like someone? How do they display affection? The same goes for animosity or hatred. What do they do in a confrontation? What kind of drunk are they?

Of course, the most basic of these questions is more or less just the root of your story: What does your character want? More importantly, how are they going to get it? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? The answer to that doesn’t have to be ‘everything’. It’s both obvious and amateur dramatic. It’s the cookie cutter approach to raising to stakes. It’s like all those overblown antagonists with world conquest or destruction as their aim. It doesn’t make sense most of the time. Just as very few people actually want to destroy or rule the world, very few people are willing to sacrifice everything they have to get what they want. Even if they say they are. The nuance and depth come from putting a limit on what a character is willing to do or sacrifice, and forcing them up against it. Alternatively, they can be use to subvert expectations. If a character claims that they’re willing to give up everything, then one thing to do with that is put them in a situation where they’re not willing to sacrifice as much as they want others to believe, or believed themselves. You can learn as much about a person from what they’re not willing to do as much as what they will.

These follow up questions tell you meaningful things about your character’s state of mind, where they’re likely to put themselves in the world, their expectations of people, what they are likely to respond to and in what way, etc. It’s all about how they approach and act in a given situation, and the reasons for those responses. You don’t need 100,000 of these questions to get a far deeper understanding of your characters than you would by filling out one of these excessive lists. All you have to do is dig past the surface. It takes longer per question, you’ve got to think harder about each one, but you can get more memorable substance from just a few in depth questions, than hundreds of random attributes or lists of adjectives. Characters are like psychological experiment patients. The unethical kind. Put them in a situation, see how they respond. You’ll get more out of it.

The Atrocity Exhibition – Crashed Cars, Blue Balls

“For Talbot the explosive collision of the two cars was a celebration of the unity of their soft geometries, the unique creation of the pudenda of Ralph Nader.”

Forewarning: The following article contains spoilers.

Where do you start with J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition? The author himself suggested anywhere. Quite literally open the book at any page, flick through it until you find a paragraph with a title you like, and go from there. It runs along the same thinking as the cut up technique popularised by William S. Burroughs, who inspired Ballard. Burroughs actually provides the introduction to the copy I have. It’s experimental through and through and it doesn’t blush about it. You know you’re dealing with something different from the get go.

I first read it in my early twenties. A professor recommended that I read Ballard, Spanbauer, Hempel, etc. My writing reminded him of theirs. In retrospect I’m flattered. The Atrocity Exhibition stayed with me. Something about it was entirely unsettling, but I had trouble putting my finger on precisely why. Skip forward several years and it was still stuck in the back of my mind like a splinter. So when it came time for my book group to draw up a list of books for 2017, I decided to put that one down. I wanted to pick it up again and see if I could get anything more out of it a second time and with a few more years behind me. I also simply wanted to see what my friends would do with it. So I gave them the disjointed oil stained vulva that is The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition follows Travis down the exhaust pipe of his mental breakdown in a Picasso meets Brazzers dystopia. He’s trying to start a self-contained psychological World War III. The purpose of this is incomprehensible, but it does seem to serve as the initial vector for the prevailing themes.

The structure of the book proves intriguing. Ballard describes it as being made up of ‘condensed novels’. The rest of us would call them paragraphs. There is some argument to be made that the title is deserved, but it flies in the face of all identifiable aspects of a novel to suggest that it can be justified and so in the end it just sounds pretentious. The argument that each of these individually titled segments can stand on their own falls apart when you come across, with consistent regularity, another section that makes little to no sense without context. They can quite easily be contained to a comment on a thought, some observation of another character, or simple description. No one is identified, no context given – alone it would be nonsensical. It would be fine in a continuous format, but if you’re aiming to create what essentially boils down to continuity driven micro fiction, then a story requires more than that. As for even standing on their own – well, they don’t. They more often than not tie into the preceding and following paragraphs. Ignore the aggrandised title.

On the note of Ballard’s suggestion to hop from paragraph to paragraph at random: don’t do that either. Especially if you’ve never read it before. It’s hard enough to get to grips with this book just reading from cover to cover. There is a chronology to it, the chapters and paragraphs follow on from one another in a sagging stagger from start to finish as Traven’s mental state becomes increasingly unhinged. It’s a bizarre, confused, and unsettling journey, but not once did I get the impression that Ballard had pulled a Slaughterhouse Five and jumped around the timeline.

The most consistent problem with The Atrocity Exhibition is simply the content. I went from cover to cover both times I read it, but I still can’t tell you for certain that I didn’t read the same paragraph multiple times over. I didn’t backtrack, but I consistently ran across the thought that one section in chapter 2 or 3 looks much like another in chapter 7 or 8. I wasn’t alone in this. Ballard’s protagonist shuffles from apartment to car crash to non-descript suburbia and around again ad nauseam, ruminating on geometry, social events, and sex. It’s not without purpose or reason as Talbot does not differentiate between the curve of a thigh and a bit of roofing. As a study in odd perspectives, it’s second to none but it’s not so much a story as it is a long corkscrew down an obsession with mathematical abstracts, decontextualisation, and pop culture repeating like an Andy Warhol filtered through a Gauntanamo Bay kaleidoscope.

Talbot’s aim to decontextualize everything resembles a sort of heat death of the universe scenario. This is where the structure of the book compliments the content. The fractured incoherence is disorientated and confused. The cyclical themes and sporadic jumps between characters and view points all mirror his mind and its endless looping around mathematics and pop culture. It is a fantastic and effective method of putting you into his headspace. At the same time it’s a car crash for a narrative. Picking through the jagged scrap of the plot I found characters blurring into one another, scenes and themes becoming so homogeneous and indistinct that they are ultimately irrelevant. This may be a deliberate play to the structure, but it also destroys any semblance of drama. I’ve written before about the necessity for peaks and troughs in a narrative. It’s hardly a revolutionary concept, but Ballard almost completely does away with it. Perhaps I’m too much of a literary philistine to appreciate the stylistic nuance or some such, but in experimenting with structure he has gutted the story. The narrative is a straight downward line, there is no point at which you are wondering what happens next: you always already know. Then again, the plot lines are buried beneath the rambling prose in any case, so it’s difficult to say precisely how much any of it matters.

When the plotlines do emerge they don’t go very far. Doubly so for the brief moments where sub plots seem to exist. The narrative parameters are more less defined by Toboggan’s mental state, which makes concessions to nothing beyond mathematics, pop culture, and sex. As such, that makes up the vast semi-coherent majority of the book. It’s extremely interesting in theory, but in practice the obsessive circling prevents it from going anywhere worthwhile. Maybe Marilyn Monroe’s left nipple at a thirty-degree angle to her sternum, sodomising JFK reimagined as a Mercedes-Benz, under the succulent curve of a glistening bridge arch is an interesting concept the first time. It has lost all novelty by the thirty-fifth.

When notable plot points do come up, it’s all very sudden and short lived, and then they are submerged again just as fast. There are characters that feel like they should have been doing more, they were actively invested in Timbuktu’s problems, but none of them seem to have any agency or ability to impact on him. They follow him around and then they disappear. It’s not like you couldn’t filter them through his distorted mental space, but instead Ballard has them erecting billboards and reconstructing car crashes, through which Traven wanders until he’s had enough musing on the angle of a bent fender and shuffles off to compare it to the slant of an Ikea desktop.

Whenever the characters do anything there’s no significance. At times he may as well be the only character in the novel. That seems to be part of the point; the world is reminiscent of a nihilistic paradise. The problem is that nihilism doesn’t remove any and all response to every instance of stimuli. People respond to things regardless of philosophical setting. If they do not because of the setting then there’s no point to them being there. The only person who seems to respond to anything is Travers’ wife, and her small internal conflicts were engaging. Tombola is a write off and nobody else has any investment. The wife’s conflicts, predictably, don’t amount to anything, but she’s practically hysterical in comparison to the rest of the cast. You can contrast unresponsive setting with responsive characters and vice versa, but you can’t just have a continual blank space accompanied by narration. These people don’t and it makes for a book in which nothing is allowed to happen. Even the moments that should be focal points of drama are bled of any impact. Novotny takes up a great deal of book space as a walking, thinking, elastic concubine equally as detached as Travis and yet there’s no comment on that. There’s no interaction or friction. Despite being dragged across every motorway in the States, Novotny remains utterly unfazed by anything around her. Koester steps out of the background for the space of a chapter, there’s a quick burst of drama and then it just sloughs away. There’s very little to grasp here. Melodrama is bad. No drama is worse.

As previously mentioned, it’s difficult to tell who’s who some of the time. Many of them are so undeveloped that they blur together. Some are called different things at different times without contextualisation. That works for Tuberculosis because we spend most of the time in his head. The background characters are otherwise unimportant for the most part. Save for a few of them, who reappear with enough frequency and do enough to justify their existence, the cast is largely forgettable or even unidentifiable. Who they are and what they are doing is consumed by the continuing torrent of psychobabble. I can’t remember at which point in the book it is made clear to us that Koester and Vaughn are the same person. It may well have been, but it was clearly not something worth remembering. He pops up for a brief abortive love-triangle-esque sub plot with Maybe-Maybe-Not-Novotny and Takes-Two-To-Tango, and then fades into the background again. I can’t tell you why he was relevant or what his purpose was. Furthermore, Koester only seems to be Vaughn when he’s having a Mr. Hyde moment, but in all other side references he is Koester. I would assume I was just being dense, but I can’t remember a description to link the two names together – they exists as separate entities. Vaughn’s sudden violent and potentially rapey turns are ripe for expansion and exploration. But not to Ballard. Continuing the trend: They go nowhere. Even after his exciting bit of agency and drama he goes back to doing not much. On the rare occasions that we get significant action in The Atrocity Exhibition we are left with no consequence and it kills the desire to keep going.

Speaking of which, Travis kills Novotny. It’s a spoiler but it’s so insignificant that it almost isn’t. She presumably dies, but then springs back up like a comedy clown in the subsequent chapter. I’d have suggested that maybe she’s just another hallucination, but other characters can see her, too. The best I’ve got is that he either didn’t kill her, or every instance of Novotny is a different woman given the same name by Tiramisu. The problem is that there’s nothing to indicate that any of this is the case. So what’s the point? Every time the hint of plot development appears it is attacked by the Hounds of Tindalos and never seen again. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but it’s deflating: The longer the book goes on the more of slog it becomes.

And then there’s Dr. Nathan. Dr. Nathan is the exposition man. He is there to give people some context and explain what’s happening. Without Dr. Nathan, even Ballard seemed to realise his book was all but impenetrable. His second role is to project sex onto everyone and everything. His assistant stands with her legs apart? She wants the D. A man in the hall lights a cigarette? He wants the D. Standing on a rooftop observing a pedestrian woman walk along the road? She is so sex crazed that she’s practically leaving a trail! It goes from creepy to absurd and just ends up being amusing. I can only assume that Ballard was deliberately trying to illustrate the idea that Dr. Nathan is projecting so hard he could rent himself out as an IMAX cinema.

It’s not hard to see how some could view Ballard’s novel as merely the work of a controversy peddler, equipped with some books on maths, medical anatomy, and architecture, sprinkled with cultural references to tie into the time period and hit a few nerves. While The Atrocity Exhibition certainly is trying to hit some nerves, it’s not merely a banal blending of sex, violence and smarter-than-thou cultural references. Pretentious, perhaps, but not soulless. For a start, the book isn’t actually that explicit. If he was going for shock he could have done so with ease. Instead, almost everything is given via impression and suggestions, leaving you to fill in the blanks. You’re the filth; don’t blame the book. But in taking the human and compartmentalising it until it is inhuman there are reflections of consumer and celebrity culture: An uncomfortably accurate illustration of how a person can be segmented into a dozen or more separate parts – hair, face, thighs, chest, back, arms, etc – and stuck on a hundred thousand billboards for people to digest. We have unwittingly become products in Ballard’s world. Arguably, since its publication in 1970, that fiction has long since become a reality. There are also nods to Vietnam and the unfiltered media bombardment that accompanied it. Like the book, the Vietnam War saw a continuous escalation of confusion and violence. News outlets were more than happy to pump it into homes across America, the repeated exposure numbing viewers to what was previously overwhelming. With all of that said, much of this book is heavily rooted in its own era. Unless you lived through the 60s, or you’re already well versed in the history, the constant references will most likely be lost on you, which directly inhibits what tenuous threads of interest there are to grasp. Nobody wants to stop reading every five minutes to research yet another personality, media reference, or historical event.

When I try to come up with key events in The Atrocity Exhibition, none of the ones that stand out amount to much. I’m not asking for Broadway fireworks, but I would have preferred a journey worth taking. Every now and then subplot ambles out from under an overpass and looks like it means business. Inevitably it just pisses onto the nearest vertical surface and shuffles out of sight again. Travis and Koester are doing something interesting all of a sudden, what’s going to happen next? Nothing. Jackie Kennedy is sodomising the Royal Albert Hall and Traven is trying to make that mean something. Even when Xero and Klein appear, Ballard refuses to seize on the opportunity for something interesting. By that point, yet another blurry tangent about geometric death tantra is as exciting as floorboards. These two characters, of all the opportunities, were ripe for using as an expansion and further exploration of Traven’s mind – they are his hallucinations! But Ballard doesn’t do it. Instead we just keep slumping inexorably forwards to no great purpose.

We end more or less where we started and it feels hollow. It’s just presented in a less coherent form than what it starts out with. While an ending like that isn’t a bad thing, the journey doesn’t do enough to make it feel significant. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho didn’t ‘solve’ anything in the end, but there was just enough response and consequence to Patrick Bateman’s actions that it left you with something concrete. I like stories or scenarios that take something enjoyable, comforting, or safe, and turn into something that is not. That is the type of thing The Atrocity Exhibition excels at. Unfortunately it plays the same note too many times and the effect wears off fast.

The World War III thing gets lost after a couple of chapters, I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure it’s long forgotten by the time these Xero and Klein show up. Aside from that it’s just more dissociative lists, deliberately disconnecting human experience from itself, reducing it to a collection of stock build-your-own modules. That way of viewing sex as a series of interlocking and shifting angles wasn’t something I’d considered before and it’s uncomfortable to do so. Probably because it’s not that far a leap in perspective. We’re all aware that a human is, more or less, an assemblage of shapes. We just don’t normally think of ourselves in those terms. To take that depersonalisation and throw it into one of the most personal situations you can find yourself in leaves a jagged impression. Who’d have thought you could do that to an orgasm?

Much as I’ve ranted at this book, I don’t hate it. It still stays with me. It’s perhaps trying to be too clever for its own good. I’m glad I read it again; it hasn’t lost its bizarre charm. I do enjoy the end result. Everything comes together as a whole in a distorted oil and semen smear of words and impressions. A dirty collage built up from hundreds of inconsequential frustrating scraps. But I’m trying to find a reason to suggest it and I can’t. It’s nice but it’s the literary equivalent of blue balls. It’d be disingenuous to claim there isn’t a climax, but by the time I got to it I wasn’t interested anymore.

Could you conceivably condense this collection into a less repetitive and tedious read? Yes. But you’d lose something in doing so. The obsessiveness is the point. Perhaps it’s simply a flawed idea or has to be taken only as impressionist literature. That, in essence, is what The Atrocity Exhibition boils down to. A free fall down the spread legged entry into the engulfing hole of a fractal vagina as concept of world, reflected in a hundred thousand erogenous curves, crumpled bonnets, and apartment corners.

A Novel Idea: Philip Reeve – Mortal Engines

More delays, it’s been a bit awkward lately, but  October’s A Novel Idea podcast is up.

November won’t have a book, unfortunately, but we will have an outtakes reel in December. In the new year we’re back to normal and we should have more books and drinking.

Download and listen to it here.

US Presidential Election 2016

Trump won. Against all rational incentive, America has voted Donald J. Trump for president.

In the immediate future America can expect a severe increase in number of racist attacks. As for your new president: Either he’s a complete master at playing the game, or he’s the easiest mark you could think of. All evidence points to the latter. This man is a slave to his own gigantic, infantile ego. That makes him exploitable.

Arms dealers:
‘Hey! Donald, let’s talk guns.’
‘I thought we already had a deal.’
‘Sure we do, sure we do! But, you know, it was made by that Liberal. ‘
‘True.’
‘And now that you’re in the White House, you’ve gotta show you mean business. Back up your talk on the trail.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’ve gotta show your tough, Donnie. An Alpha male. And what says strong like a gun, right?’
‘Ok, but can’t we just update the existing contract?’
‘Hey, hey, Donnie. Come on. You wouldn’t want people to think you’re weak, would you?’
‘No! No, I’m not weak!’
‘Of course you’re not! But they’ll start talking. You know that, don’t you? What if they start talking about your hands?’
‘You’re right. I’ve gotta buy the guns.’
‘That’s right! And you’ve gotta do it big. You wouldn’t want them to think you’re not rich, right?’
‘No! No, of course not!‘
‘And what’s more worthless than a weak man who lacks wealth? How are you going to prove how much of an Alpha male you are? Stick with us, Donnie, we’ll take care of you. Even Putin’ll respect you. He’ll admire you! Stick with us and you can be the Alpha Alpha. What do you say?’
‘Yes! What’re the biggest guns you’ve got?’

Or Putin. Putin likes Trump because Trump is a fool and Putin isn’t. He can lead Trump around by the nose. Massage or prick his ego, put him where you want him, turn him in the right direction. Just give him enough attention. He’ll dance on anybody’s strings because he’s too blind sided by his own ego to notice them. Putin buzzed the West coast with fighter jets recently. How do you think Trump would respond to that?

A Novel Idea: Adrian Barnes – Nod

After some delay, September’s podcast is up. Sound is a little wonky as I had auto-level turned on. I’ve tried to sort out the balance to compensate, but it’s not the best, unfortunately. I’ll leave that off in the future.

Download and listen to it here.

There is Only Chaos: Random Breast Generation

I had a problem with my character generator. It was facial hair. Specifically: How to get it to assign to the appropriate gender. The background for the generator doesn’t seem to be particularly complex, certainly manipulating the various syntax blocks is straightforward. I imagine I’m overlooking various things, but I don’t have to learn C++ to get what I want out of it. Or something entirely more simple… C++ would probably be massive overkill for a random generator.

But back to the point: From my *very* layman’s grasp of coding, some dabbling here and there way back when with game design that never went anywhere, what I basically needed was an ‘if function’. As in: ‘if male, assign facial hair options’. I had genders lumped together so it was just picking between the two and that worked up until I needed to rope things to specific options like this. After quite some time I had only half got it working. My solution gave me the male output, but it would also try and assign facial hair to the female category, too. That would be interesting to do as a very small percentage chance, but we’re dealing with every single generated female. So I made it pass over them. It did, to an extent. It left the descriptions with ‘She.’ at the end, where it couldn’t get anything to fill in for the category of facial hair.

So I thought I needed something to take up the blank space. A physical female characteristic. Bingo. So after some deliberation I bit the bullet and went off to write some random breast generator syntax to slot in. Long story short, I was, again, only half successful. It had options for both genders, but got confused about which to assign to which, since the way I laid it out couldn’t specify anything. I went away, drank some coffee and eventually struck on an idea. I came back and rewrote the generator syntax to work in a new way, in order for it to mimic a very simplistic ‘if function’. It works. Men can have facial hair, women can have breasts. Simple.

I was on the fence about adding breast-specific descriptions into this generator. It wasn’t on the cards initially. Technically, I could even take the breasts out now, but having come this far I may as well leave them in for the mean time. However, this whole episode proved to be far more interesting than anticipated.

I want to be at least partially objective with this. It turns out that it’s surprisingly difficult to be objective where tits are concerned. Adjectives are so loaded with weight in the context of breasts. My immediate question is whether that’s my personal wellspring of depravity, or just my personal cultural background? For instance, If I went to a far flung rain forest, African tribe, nudist colony, or something similar, where bare breasted women are commonplace, would they still get the same connotations from my randomly generated descriptions? On the surface, any and all of the words that I threw in that list are neutral on their own, but in context they take on different meanings and significance.

My general approach is to cover as much surface area without straying towards any particular tone or image. At the same time I want to allow room for the generator to come up with a tone or feel that is naturally concocted by one or more adjectives. So on the one hand you get your average woman, on another you get a horrifying hag, and on yet another you get your stock Amazonian sex goddess. It’s all in what the combination of visuals put in your head.

This part of the joy of being a writer and the kind of sad bastard who actually enjoys fucking around with words, random generators, and things like this: I get to research anything, including tits, and it’s all legitimate. I’m probably on a number of lists by now, but until it interferes with my life I probably won’t care.

The main problem is describing breasts without being lascivious or perverse. I’m not going for that, it’s weird. I do find that a lot of the language used to describe breasts does fall into the problem of leaving me looking like this slimy caricature man-child who can’t quite get over the fact that mammaries exist, and can’t manage to describe them without finding something inherently sexual in the process. The result is that every description of a female thereafter becomes loaded with sexual connotation and they in turn become caricatures. I was only trying to write some basic descriptions! I found that people trying to describe breasts are almost universally positive in tone. If they’re not the next best thing to the holy grail, they’re akin to the holy grail defiled. There isn’t that much middle ground.

Question: How do you describe an average pair of tits? By proxy, you don’t. There’s no need to describe nondescript things. If something’s average you just don’t mention it. Describing things as ‘average’ basically means you’ve put a sentence in that you should not have. However, when dealing with random generation, two problems arise: You leave out the majority of breasts in the world, and that in turn weights everything towards either end of the spectrum and there’s not a run of the mill rack in sight! I noticed a lot of adjectives are for large breasts. What of small? Medium? There’s about five adjectives for large tits for every one describing a solid handful. There’s a thousand and one words for small, but they don’t quite fit the topic of breasts: ‘trifling’, ‘diminutive’, ‘inconsequential’, even ‘tiny’ seems problematic. But for the ‘large’, ‘huge’, ‘buxom’, there is a bountiful selection of adjectives. So much of it also seems to be dependent on overall body context, which doesn’t work well for generators. A ‘boyish’ build is a good example. Unless specified, you probably wouldn’t expect that to be accompanied by ‘with a rack to write home about!’ You probably shouldn’t write that anyway.

Do they need to be described in any case? In general: No. Outside of specific context, you don’t need it. In the case of my generator, sort of: I needed an alternative to facial hair to avoid having random ‘She.’ in my descriptions where the generator couldn’t supply facial hair for females (discriminatory, I know), and it seemed like the best alternative. Now that my syntax has been redesigned I could remove it, but for the moment I’ll let it be. Anyway, regardless of gender and sexuality, people notice and enjoy boobs. Sorry, that’s the best alternative answer I’ve got. Suck it. Or them. I’d like reiterate the point that if you’re writing a novel or general prose, that involves descriptions of people who happen to have two X chromosomes, every woman you come across doesn’t need to lead with her nipples.

Speaking of which: Nipples and cleavage. Deliberately left them out. While they are natural objective facts of reality, it didn’t seem necessary to describe them. Strange, because I’ve put pretty much every other bit of the human body in, regardless of significance. Down to specifying individual fingers and toes. I even had internal organs left in there, until earlier today, from the general list I’d written up ages ago and slotted in. So some people had ‘staunch’ lungs and ‘oblong’ lower intestines. I thought it might work as an amusing quirk, but in the end it just seemed out of place. Yes, I’m that kind of lunatic. Cleavage comes in naturally via context – you can fill in the gap, so to speak. Nipples seemed to indicate specific context: either general nakedness or sexual situations, potentially niche scenarios like breastfeeding, but again I wasn’t looking for a specific context to slot these people into and that seemed to rope them into one. Women: You’re either mothers, not wearing clothes for miscellaneous reasons, or fucking something. No exceptions. Admittedly, this is all pretty damn pathetic. Again, is that just me and my socio-cultural context? Does all of this pondering about tits indicate some kind of psychological repression or regression? I don’t consider myself to view women as walking fuck holes or find myself putting the humble breast on the towering pedestal that it seems to have found itself (themselves?) on. But the fact that this repeatedly returns to the subject of the sexualisation of an otherwise mundane biological collection of tissues, fats, and glands, suggests that something’s going on. Whether that’s personal or on a broader scale is up for debate.

Speaking of which, it’s no surprise that a lot of my research led me towards erotic fiction and romance, etc. One theme I noticed for breast-related adjectives seemed to be skin colour. That was not something I’d considered before this morning. Given that I’m randomly generating skin tone, too, I can’t use them, but I found the trend interesting. I noticed ‘creamy’, ‘pink tipped’, ‘rosy’ etc. came up a good number of times across various lists. I don’t know about you, but I picture white breasts in association with those adjectives. I didn’t find many, if any, that seemed specifically for non-Caucasian skin tones. Is there a similar set of adjective to describe brown or black breasts? If not, why not?

Missing breasts. Slightly heavier territory, potentially ruffling some feathers here and there, but I don’t mind pushing buttons. In the interest of accounting for all variables, I included missing breasts. Either single or both. I wasn’t specifically intending to draw attention to things like mastectomies, war crime, or anything in a similar vien: That’s for the person viewing the description to decide. Whether it’s in bad taste is up for debate, I suppose, but it seems like a reasonable thing to include. Women don’t cease to be women for lack of breasts.

The other elephant in the room, that any writer worth half a thimble full of salt is wondering now is: Simile and metaphor would make these descriptions easier, or at least more varied. Why not use them? I’ll get to it. I did think about it, and I’ve for plans. I’ve not included the syntax for metaphor or simile in any of the parts yet. It’s all fairly dry and specific. Until I get all the basic parts of this generator in place, I’m keeping things pretty simple. Other than that, there’s omission options. I’m still not amazed with the adjective list for boobs, if I’m honest. It’s certainly not all over-glorified or sexually pre-disposed crap, but it could be fleshed out.

This wasn’t the way I expected Saturday morning to go… From a quick answer to a problem with facial hair, this part of the generator has thrown up some interesting thoughts and observations.

Narrative Pacing: High, Low, Fast, Slow

Pacing is often something I fix on when discussing books. It’s become a feature I instinctively pick up on, and one that I return to in my own writing often. I don’t believe I’ve mastered the art, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m developing a fairly good sense for it. In the modern world we don’t have time. That sounds like a bad advert catch phrase, but it’s true enough. There isn’t time enough to digest chapter upon chapter of nondescript throwaway content. There is too much else that needs doing or is vying for our time. So in the spaces where I sit down to read, and I should probably make more of those, I don’t like that time wasted. I ran into this problem with the Count of Monte Christo and subsequently never finished it.

There’s an innate tendency for writers to pad things out when writing a novel. You can’t blame anyone for that: There’s a lot of words to get through and, honestly, if you’re taking your cues from guys like Hemingway, you can get through a lot of material in a surprisingly small number of them. At the bare bones, interactions are very sharp and quick. What’s more, most don’t actually require much fattening up. Ideally the flesh should give the reader enough information that they can intuit most of the ‘description’ based on what ever you’ve given them for context. The problem is you can never be sure of this. You have to trust that your audience will pick up on what you’re trying to get across to them without shoving it in their faces like an over-excited lad. Hence we have adverbs.

So that’s the external side of pacing in story. In the August podcast, I gave Tolkien as an example of poor pacing from a drama perspective. That’s going to piss some people off, and I have great respect for the man, but it’s true. He was a linguist first, a world builder second, and a writer third. To the extent that you can see his writing progress in quality throughout The Lord of The Rings. By the time Frodo gets to Mt. Doom, Tolkien’s come a long way from where he started. No doubt everyone does, that’ a natural part of the practice, but he’s developing a solid grasp for pacing. Arguably pacing was never the point of The Lord of the Rings. I get that, however, it is still essential, even when secluded to specific contexts, for the sake of engaging the reader. Take the scene where the Orcs kidnap the Hobbits after shanking Boromir. I think the films actually got that part better than the book. Ooh, controversy! When your friends get kidnapped by monsters you don’t scour the beach strip searching corpses so you can have a Viking funeral and a sing along on the shore before you do the chase montage. That’s exactly what happens in the book. Legolas and Aragorn have what amounts to an extended duet on the riverbank after piling all the weaponry and armour onto the boat for Boromir. Occasionally Gimli pipes up and reminds them that their friends have just been kidnapped by some testosterone-poisoned mutant Orcs, and they should probably go find them. At which point Legolas and Aragorn agree with Gimli and then continue their rap battle.

Consider how long that would take. Consider how tired you’d be after that. Consider how far away a bunch of jogging super-soldier Orc hybrids can get while you’re doing all of this and singing karaoke on a beach! And then they’re supposed to just find them and track them and catch up to them? Technically, I suppose a large troop of warriors tramping through the landscape aren’t going to be particularly subtle, so tracking them shouldn’t be too hard, but it’s still a bit ridiculous. Back on track, Peter Jackson dialled that down in the films and for good reason. I don’t know about anybody else, but I was reading that scene and pausing every now and then to take in the fact that there was a giant ball of tension set up with the Hobbits being kidnapped… and then essentially pissed away. And before someone burbles, ‘but it’s fantasy!’ – No. Stop. You’re wrong and that’s not an adequate answer. I’d go into greater detail, but I think that explaining why science fiction and fantasy are not just ‘pull things out of your arse’ narratives, deserves its own post. I know, heavy words from a guy who’s never been published. Suck it.

Then you’ve got guys like Michael Ridpath. So let’s be fair: Thrillers survive on their page turning ability. If you can’t get the reader to turn pages in your thriller then you’re due a re-write. So you’re going to have to employ a lot of the standard hooks and so on. In that sense the entire genre is cynical like that. But there are levels of obfuscation and pacing that make those hooks less obnoxious. I mentioned that Where the Shadows Lie has the literary equivalent of extreme premature ejaculation and is in no way attempting to hide the fact. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a writer myself that I don’t like having the cogs and gears of the craft waved in my face. Perhaps I just notice it more than the average person. Either way, Where the Shadows Lie is a rare example of a book that is trying to do too much too fast. There is minimal set up and it’s clear that Ridpath is desperately trying to put some tension into the book.

The problem is that there’s no time to invest in any of the characters. You’re just shoved from cliché to cliché, one page to the next. As a result everything seems superficial. Why should I care that whatshisface is getting attacked in an alley and now his girlfriend, who hated him a minute ago, is demanding marriage? Why are these dramatic moments so underwhelming? Why have I basically digested several major tension scenes that would occur over the course of a single novel, in the first twenty pages of this one? Do we really have to lurch into a juvenile monologue about supposed warrior honour and so on? Please.

There should be a consistent flow of tension, even in the troughs of the narrative. You can’t have nothing but peaks, and the dramatic moments of tension that occur in those peaks doesn’t mean that the troughs are useless. They are just as important as the dramatic moments. It runs on the same idea that anticipation is better than the reality. It’s what PR firms are exploiting to absolutely no ends in hyping up media like films and games these days. The build up can’t be too slow or you don’t feel like you’ve really gotten anywhere, you’ve just ambled along a gentle incline and somewhere along the way it’s levelled out and now someone’s screaming at you. You can’t build up too fast either, because then you’re never not climbing. The troughs become ledges, and there’s a stranger with a plastic salesman’s grin standing on each one asking you if you’d like to know what’s on the next one, while some semi-contextualised madness unfolds in the background. It’s about as authentic as a tribal tattoo and the resulting moments that should be your rewards are no longer rewarding.