Donnerstag, 12. März 2015

What the fuck? or: how to write it.

What the ... yeah, this rant contains the f-word, and some more words for adult people besides. It also contains topics for adult people. But never mind, if you read this you're likely old enough to know that the Stork does not bring babies.

But this is no rant about prude people. I don't care for what others do in their bedroom, as long as nobody peeks into mine. Still, as a reader and writer, I use to peek in fictional bedrooms. Hey, don't tell me that you never did!
There have been countless essays and discussions about how to write a good sex scene. There have been contests and even collections of the best, and more so, of the worst. The only point they all have in common is one: people's tastes vary so greatly that it seems impossible to tell how a good sex scene is written.
So here are some basics. This is no how-to, but the condensed experience from years of reading, writing, re-writing, getting feedback and giving feedback. (Sorry that I can't add an example; this blog is open for everyone to read.) I won't say that I found the holy grail of writing saucy scenes. This is a scrappy map. As always in writing, you'll have to find the X by yourself.

I did not read Fifty Shades of Grey, 'cause the style and lengthyness threw me out during the first chapter countless times. Curiosity had me look for excerpts and some good, critical reviews. Without exaggeration, I know each single saucy scene from quotes (some people counted them) and twice as much of the surrounding questionable relationship stuff. I'm truly sorry to say bad things about a book, but hells, the best part of FSoG is the title. Sex sells, that's obviously true, even if it is wrapped up in explicit words and saucy phrases which, to me, are as exciting as logarithms, and bet that I hate maths.
The majority of sex scenes in literature is fucking boring. Not even thanks to the content, but 'cause many just read all the same no matter what happens. When things get boring, dare to experiment.

Why the f... does bad mommy porn like FSoG sell like this? Why didn't these endlessly repetitious tiring un-sexy sex scenes make people put the book away? Why, on the other hand, do some of the same people who read it point at the kitchen scene in the Name of the Rose movie and cry that it is only there because sex sells? This happened in a discussion where someone came up with "But hey, look there, even that movie uses the sex sells trap!" Which is not true; the scene also in the book, and with a very philosophical reason and high impact on the character of Adson.
The movie scene is not even very explicit with all the deep shadows, just like the monk(!) Adson tends to wrap his confession in the book in every paraphrase he can think of. But as close as the book version is to Adson's inner turmoil, as close is the movie to the characters; believeable, intense, real instead of idealized. Are some people embarassed by that? Then all hail the author and the movie team, 'cause the scene has the essence of good storytelling: it supports immersion so perfectly that you don't notice to be immersed until they've got you. If the scene were shallow and meaningless, there wouldn't be a reason to feel caught in the act.

Sex in stories works just like the Most Evil Monster or the Most Beautiful Creature Ever: it will be best when a good deal of it remains hidden between the lines and allows space for the reader's imagination. So, when I sneak into a bedroom with quill and paper ready, I never put down all the biological stuff. We all know how it works. No body part names need to be copied from Reproduction For Dummies. No dumb and overused phrases too, please. And never ever tell me what the protagonist feels unless you have established that feeling already in the text.

Put your own fantasies aside completely, get into the brains of the point of view character, and stay there during all of the scene. That may be hard to imagine if the character does not correlate with what you would do or what you even know, but hells, that's the challenge about writing, isn't it? Do some research, read, think, try to roleplad in your imagination, get yourself an anonymous account in an online community, ask people, get feedback. Fifty Shades of Grey does not work at all in showing love, because the author probably never thought about the mechanisms of relationships that deserve to be called romantic, and even less about what exactly is the point of kinks and fetishes and what makes them desireable instead of scary.
Here's someone who did it right: Stjepan Šejić with the graphic novel Sunstone.
You'll need to log in on Deviantart to read it, but it's absolutely worth to do that. If you're going to write anything, think out of the box and learn how people tick.

An even more crucial part is not to drop out of perspective.
For example, in A Game of Thrones, George Martin messes up the nice, quiet Daenerys-and-Drogo scene I ranted about here by adding too many descriptions of female body parts. He does so mainly towards the end of the scene, where readers should be stuck in Daenerys' head. Instead he writes a fantasy, a picture seen not even from Drogo's perspective, but from beyond the Fourth Wall. As this is the turning point where Daenerys learns that Drogo is no moron, that her marriage might not be all crap but the start of something greater, it's a marvelous waste of potential.

When I read a hot scene, I want to feel what the characters feel. It's all about sensation and emotion. Of course there may be some body parts - people use to consist of them - but it's likely shoulders and skin and hands; touches and warmth and tension, details and hints suffice to start an avalanche of subconscious effects. Pacing and flow of language need to be perfect to lead into the scene. Words hush, hesitate, caress, tremble, and climax with the characters to create immersion. Writing erotic scenes is not science, it's more like poetry.

Don't take me wrong, poetry can be overdone. A good love scene can even be written cold and cynical. There is no way to write the one perfect love scene, for each individual will react differently to the same words. There's a thin line which may part plain biology from explicit porn, but a bold streak parts both of these from erotics and art: unless there's a very good reason avoid to be explicit, don't choke the scene with an overload of metaphors, and don't replace human body parts with shamefully indirect surrogates. Read the scene aloud and ask yourself if you feel anything about what happens.
It's like Sandro Del Prete's dolphins and couple picture: The more you see the dolphins, the more is wrong with the sexy scene.

Context and function are extremely important. Sometimes you may not need a sex scene in your story. Unless something important happens while the characters are at it, a mere implication will help more than even the best written scene could. For example, read William Gibson's Neuromancer for the implication variant, or The Godfather, where just half a line says that Kay and Michael made love in the hotel room. Sometimes, that's just enough, and everything else would only be an excuse for porn. Which of course is okay if you want to write that.

Creating immersion was never easier 'cause evolution has been so kind to make reproduction nice. At the same time few things are harder to write, as many societies have banished everything carnal from everyday life since hundreds of years and more, and will need another long time to get rid of their self-made chains. As a writer, you need to get rid of your personal shackles: never guess what your readers may think when they read what you put down on the paper. Don't be ashamed of your own writing. Kick prudery in the balls and allow your characters, your readers, and yourself to feel like human beings.

Montag, 9. März 2015

How to seriously fuck up a love scene

Guess I'm getting better at attention-drawing headlines. :P
Oh, some strong language here, like "blatantly" and "unbearably" and even the f-word. And I'm well aware I'm years late with this rant, but as the topic is timeless and the example just perfect, I don't care.

Some time ago I read Film Crit Hulk's rant on a rape scene in Game of Thrones.
As usual, he puts the problem in words way, uh, more capital and more precise than I could, because I get in an claw-some-eyes-out mood when I read about such an idiotic handling of a severe problem in fiction. I confess I almost fell into the same trap of using such screwed-up so-called love scenarios for the purpose of shallow dramatization myself when I started writing, but fortunately I'm a lazy ass and never published anything before I stumbled upon the light of reason - well, no, but understanding - in that matter (and still published nothing of notion). I threw away hundreds of pages and rewrote just as many. Maybe check out the Ouch! rant for further babble on how to handle a 'fate worse than death' scene based on only too real situations.

So this one sounds rather harmless, but is also pretty fucked up. In the novel A Game of Thrones, George Martin wrote quite some bedsheet scenes, some of them all nice and consensual, some not. If there is one outstanding among all of them up to A Dance with Dragons, I believe it's the wedding night of Daenerys and Khal Drogo. And I'm truly not a person who likes even the sound of the word wedding, because I doubt the whole concept as it is in most of the world. Still, I like this scene, because Drogo proves that he's the probably only not-an-asshole man in his whole damned world. In later chapters, he proves to be one as he handles Daenerys all of a sudden like a rubber doll, which for me simply shattered his credibility as a character. But this scene is good. Not well-written - I'm quite picky about what I consider a sexy scene - and overly descriptive to the end, but basically, it works. Of course Drogo could be even more understanding, but then I might not have believed him too. He gets a totally scared and by the hands of her own brother abused young bride. He handles the situation like a person of his rather patriachic culture, and still not like the stereotype expected in the No Woman's Land which Daenerys experienced so far (link to the Entangling Maze Of Tropes at the bottom), but obviously he does not totally lack empathy. If you want to interpret the scene, by letting Daenerys undo his braid he pretty much lets his armor down completely. He gives her time (mostly), is gentle, and ohgods, how kitschy sounds that. Well, he's not being a moron.

The TV series restores continuous credibility to Drogo over this and the next episode, but unfortunately not by making his further love life with Daenerys believeable (moron again), but by making him a moron in the first place. In the book, a minor scene did not match the picture; in the series, one of the key scenes turned from the implication of a pretty neat wedding night to flat-out marital rape.
Now that makes me like Drogo.
If I hadn't known the books in advance, I'd probably quitted the series at the point when Daenerys went cooing about him and their great, great love. It was a bit weird reading the scene in the book where Drogo suddenly turns into a "she's my wife, I fuck and don't care about her" idiot (at least he simply does and does not make a statement about it), but these scenes felt wrong at all, like a piece from the wrong story glued into the book. Thus I just read on and found a working Drogo character later again. One whom Daenerys truly could grow to love, which is key to her character development.
In the movie, Drogo is introduced as a self-centered careless friggin' asshole. That does not just go away by Daenerys starting to announce heartfelt world-shattering love later. It's so blatantly unbelieveable that I asked myself ever since I saw this scene how it could ever get to the screen. But unfortunately, the answer is easy: it's not half as blatantly dumb as way too many relationships in fiction are (like a certain grey-ish series I'm never ever going to read or watch, 'cause I still need my brain). It's sad, but such behavior of fictional characters leaves an impression in everyone who sees them, and thus influences also the writers, directors and producers of new scenes of this kind. Of course this does not mean these people are morons, but this silent influence seems to be strong enough to make them write more crap without thinking about it from another angle. Ooh, let's add some rape for the flavor, huh?
I'm getting all poke-some-eyes-out about it because I actually like both the books and the series. There are many newer works of fiction that still suffer from the same incredibility, and partially way worse. The detail that makes me rant about this very scene is that a nice existing reference has been thoughtlessly fucked up. Literally. So I don't even feel bad about ending this rant with the worst word-play at hand.

Beware the sticky trap of tabbed trope browsing.

Good Dog

So, after being lazy for almost a year, I dug up some old rants in the making, and here they are, because I have new ones ready. Meanwhile, go play with the dog. ;)

If I were an NPC, I'd want a player character instead of a dog. They sleep and eat elsewhere (or not at all), don't need to be taken for a walk (just give them a goblin to play with), they are not smelly (even if they just crossed a swamp full of undead hydrae) and all you got to do is giving them some coin (which a game designer placed in your inventory) when they solved the task you gave them. Sometimes you can even send them to someone else for payment. You may even tell them you tricked them into work and refuse payment 'cause you are oh-so-terribly poor. As long as you don't withhold their experience points, they won't even eat your brains. All in all, they make marvellous pets.

Though, pets can be quite unnerving if they do the same all day. Dogs retrieve sticks you throw for them. Player characters retrieve stolen jewellry, your ancient family heirloom, or just a random number of, well, sticks. So what if you want a more interesting pet? Tell him so save the world? That's crap, you'll just get killed by the evil guy to motivate the player character. But there are different kinds of tasks to send them off with and still survive.
For an instance, send them off, then disappear into nothingness and leave the payment trouble to someone else. Your opponent in a certain quest, at best. The only important thing is not to leave them without a quest solution; they would pursue you and get your purse or your head, or both.
You're on the secure side when you just hint the quest stuff as a rumour to the player. Make them get you a bottle of good old wine, have a nice drink and rant drunkenly about that treasure hidden in some old ruin or in the house of another NPC whom you would wish some decent thieving. Even if this is not the whole task, it's a good start: When players need to do something beforehand to get the real quest, when they do something and find out there's more behind (like a dump of rotting corpses in the basement of the NPC's manor) they're more likely to run after the stick you throw them.
Sometimes you can even get money from them. Put on the worst set of clothes in the game, wait by the roadside and whine about them evil robbers in the woods, or the baron who threw you out of your house. Money is only the usual part, of course. The true worth in this kind of quest is not the gold, but the fun when they slay the robbers or the baron, or get themselves some bruises while trying.

The annoying part is that you'll never get the really cool items which the player loots from their foes. Players always keep the good amulets and swords; if not, they'll be pissed. So make them choose: The item they are to fetch, or a good deal of money instead; or a different item. Whatever they take, they will feel it's worth even more as is truly is, as they choose and paid. It might get even more worthy when they have to do something evil to gain it. Truly evil. Others must loathe them for the deed, and not talk and trade with them any more.
Always a nice distraction are curses. Be it a cursed object which they shall find - or which they stumbled upon, what a coincidence! - or a curse which their opponent in the quest lays on them; it gives you a good reason to get them rid of the object and claim it for yourself. Still, they fulfilled the quest. Most likely, they needed the cursed weapon to do something awful which you didn't want to stain your own hands with, but you'll look like the nice helpful NPC until you're off with the amulet / sword / handkerchief of doom.
The most amusing and most content player character pets are those who never notice being pets at all. In the end you can even decide to let them know they've been a nice dog. But then, keep in mind you're an NPC, and worth some experience points if they want to whack you with their newly gained weapon.

The unspoken reason why vampires suck

Yeah, vampires suck, we all know that as there are bazillions of rants on the web on the topic. I don't mean to join in. My reason why vampires suck (pun intended, as usual) is the one which every player of a typical experience point-based Pen&Paper system or digital game should know: they drain levels.

To all those readers who now bray "powergamer, stop whining!", I can simply say read on or turn away and miss some experience points for yourself. This is not about the loss of levels, but about a severe game design flaw that took hold in RPGs with the one really old pen&paper system that is named after dungeons and huge flying lizard-things. Actually, I tend to play this system once in a while, and as I play the one character who is always the lucky one to be level-drained, I started to think about the reason why I was way more pissed of permanently losing levels - which means: experience points - than gold, as both experience points and gold can be re-gathered. I'm pissed by this concept as well in digital games, even in modern ones where the level drain is clearly temporarily, and there are quite some of them who employ basic level drain mechanics.
To keep things straight, I'll stick to the pen&paper system mentioned above, but the overall issue applies to any other level-draining game mechanics too. And vampires are simply my scapegoat of choice.

Mechanics are not what the classical tabletop RPG and it's digital cousins are about. Once this construction breaks through the surface, once a character speaks ingame about "experience points" or even about "experience" as something that implicitly can be measured by a value, the illusion shatters, immersion is lost, maybe even the atmosphere killed off as if it weren't important.

So, vampires drain levels. What, by the names of all pantheons of the Multiverse, is a damned level? Tell me in in-world terms what a vampire does to a person.

They let you age, I was told.
But no, a ghost lets the characters age, explicitely described that way. Whoever sees or touches a ghost ages some decades in mere seconds, hair turning white and eyes hollow. That's a pretty neat concept, close to folk tales and horror stories, and extremely dangerous.

They drain your blood, I was told.
Oh. Sure. I wasn't aware that blood carries experience and abilities. I was pretty sure that the brain is the culprit. Now don't tell me that blood loss affects the brain, or lose some levels the next time an ogre smashes your character into the ground, causing some quite severe blood loss.
Besides, it suffices that a vampire manages a successful attack in almost every game system to drain levels. They don't have to bite, not mentioning to suck blood. They would drain levels by giving you a thick ear.

They drain energy, I have read many times.
What the heck is energy? Life energy? Why do they also drain the experience points, not only the level-related health points? Answer in one sentence, or throw the whole concept of level drain away, as it is one huge inconsistency in the game mechanics that stinks of an idea which someone did not think to the end. Instead, this game mechanic was glued into the world and not even painted over. And one game after the other took the idea and made it's own variation, with the same effect.

It's, uhh, vampire ability! Or vampire saliva! You don't need an explanation for a game system!
I can't believe how many times I heard that. Of course we do need explanations. For the simple reason that the game promises adventures, which means stories, in a foreign and fantastic world, and not Beating The Game Rules. I do that when I want to test a prototype of a game or when I want to play something that's only about assembling items and abstract numbers. When I play my Pen&Paper character, I want to think in in-world terms and forget about the mechanics.

Levels and experience points are the most abstract of all game concepts, meant to be representation and management tool of the character's progress. They have absolutely no base in the world itself. Health points aka life energy (sic!), character attributes like Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom, skill points - everything is the abstract background for ingame values that can be translated to in-world terms with one word. Sometimes they simply are described by this word. Level would only be possible in a world of bots and cyborgs, but in a sword-and-sorcery world, it's an epic fail to mention these terms ingame or remind of their existence before the evening is over and the players - not the characters - deal with newly gained experience points and level settings.

Experience points are obviously only partially fitting in the game world as a measurement for someone's experience (wouldn't have guessed that, huh?). Levels, on the other hand, are based on this value, and thus absolutely abstract. A level is also the base for other values, like additional health points, the gain of new skill points, abilities, saving throws, natural resistances. So when a vampire or any other energy-draining monster drains a level, they drain the one value which has absolutely no in-world relation, and break the fourth wall in the most inconvenient way.

There is no saving throw against level drain in the original system, a vampire simply needs to score damage; some other opponents even only need to touch their victim. And do you think it's the fighter who gets the problem, or the character with the highest level? No. He has the best armor. It's usually the weakest character who bears the highest risk of being drained. More so, vampires drain two levels at one hit, some even four.
In both tabletop and digital systems this overthrows the balance of the group severely. This way, level drain is a powerful, but hardly controllable tool in the hands of a game master.

Of course there is usually a method to get your level back at the next temple, but you'll never get the whole lost experience. You pay an extraordinarily high price to be restored to a part of what you had earlier. In any case, the level drain leaves you with the feel of being cheated about something, as you did exactly nothing wrong, but the game system does not allow a saving throw like against almost every other incident, e.g. a dragon puking acid all over an adventurer.

Now there's an interesting point: you lose health, and other bodily attributes like saving throws besides. Fine. You could lose these and get them back by spell together with the level.
But instead, the level drain takes everything related with this level: experience points, skill points just as well. Of course this can be explained if one tries hard enough. Anyways, explanations like this are simply a mask for a poorly integrated part of the game system, and it doesn't help to paint over that just one more time.
Let me flake off the paint completely: even if you manage to come up with reasons, explanations and excuses for all of the above, tell me what the extreme and rare experience of being bitten by a vampire, fighting a vampire or even watching others fight a vampire will yield in abundance? Right. Experience. But instead, despite all the new experience points possibly gained from the adventure, you lose way more than you gain. No talking about getting them back by a restoring spell; as the spell will always only yield a capped amount of experience, there's likely no gain at all. Excuse that, and take care not to get a knot into your tongue whilst trying.

Of course any game action which is technically based on someones level may show a player that their character is only a name on a sheet full of numbers. Which is, truth be told, no fun at all. For the same reason I like point-less experience gain better than any pointless try to depict the learning curve of a living being, if only an imaginative one, by points.
Level drain most effectively abolishes the working concept which health points or health slots have established. After all, I, the player, still feel betrayed before I think about what my character feels.
Vampires suck an abstract value, not my character's life.