Category Archives: Writing

Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.


First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.


There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.


There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.


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Monthly World-building Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Occupation

Welcome back to Atsiko’s Monthly World-building Seminar!  Today, we’re going to be talking again about technology and its influence on society.  In fantasy literature.

In the spirit of my official seminar schedule, I wanted to talk about how the ideas in the previous post can be applied to the real world.

According to the MIT Technology Review and the National Bureau for Economic Research, income and wealth inequality are directly related to the way in which an increasingly technological culture advantages the technologically literate over any other group.  Which only makes sense.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely to be technologically literate are people who are already advantaged in a given economy/society.  And when new technology comes around, they are also the most likely to have the time and resources available to capitalize on the possibilities of that new technology.  And this has been true throughout history.  When a group of people has a smaller share of inherited wealth, and a technology comes along that eliminates or changes their field of employment drastically, they have less chance of being able to recover and find a place in the new incarnation of society.

The roots of this problem all go back to the concept of specialization of labor: As a society grows larger and more organized, individuals in the society begin to switch from being jacks of all trades to being the master of one.  With the advent of agriculture, the job of producing food could be handled by a smaller percentage of the population, leaving the rest of the society free to pursue other trades.  This leads to the development of trades, where the master passes on their skills and knowledge to the apprentice, and these traditions result in an increasing level of quality in those areas.  As trades become more specialized, it becomes increasingly harder for an individual to learn a new trade, whether by themselves or from a teacher.  Finally, trades become specialized enough, and important enough to the economy that they begin to gain prestige, the supply of those skilled in the trade is exceeded by the demand for their services, and they become economically more stable and lucrative.


And some day, a new technology is invented which makes some trade obsolete.  Or perhaps a step in the production of a good that was once important and labor-demanding becomes simpler and easier, eliminating the need for the people who specialized in that step begins to dry up.  Now they must either invest in learning a new skill or be relegated to the pool of laborers suited for only easy tasks which are little trouble to learn.  The suppl of workers is closer to or even exceeds the demand, and the individual faces a decrease in the standard of living.

Not every technology has this effect, but the more innovative and powerful the technology, the more likely it is.  And while new technologies make create new jobs and trades, they tend to be more specialized, and create fewer jobs than a job-killing technology may destroy.


The next step of the association between technology and inequality involves the way in which technology breeds complexity in a society.  As more technologies arise, and the limited population divides further between career paths, it becomes necessary to have more effective organization.  Now jobs in organization begin to diversify and increase in complexity.  Because some human beings are better at certain tasks than others, and because there are a limited number of slots in most fields, especially as increasing levels of technology make tasks in those fields more efficient, the ease of switching between careers decreases.  And even the mid-level careers go through this, such that high-level and mid-level careers both drop to low-level when their relevance is eliminated by technology.

Finally, as technology and organization increase in complexity and investment of time and knowledge, there is a class of job that only a tiny number of people are suited for, but for which workers are in high demand.  You can never eliminate all the low-level jobs.; human society will always have the equivalent of today’s “minimum wage” job, at least as far as fantasy is concerned, no matter what the level of technology or magic involved.  Supply and demand will always hold, and so as a result, the greater the level of technology, the wider the income gap is going to be, no matter how much that same technology may raise the floor.  And as this rise in demand for certain skills convinces more people to aim for those career tracks, the people in the middle shift more towards the top, and the economy sees more profit in those areas, increasing demand and also increasing inequality.  Those who would previously have been in the mid-level fields are now instead either hitting the tail-end of the upper-level, or failing out and losing their investment, dropping into the low-level fields.  You can read a bit more about the ideas of capital bias and skill bias here.


The easiest example of this today is Silicon Valley.  As noted in the MITTR article, Silicon Valley is one of the areas of the highest economic inequality in this US, being one of the centers of technological innovation and change.  But basically any American corporation can model these concepts.  Certain high demand fields, such as CEO or other management jobs are paid not according to merit, but rather based on competition between companies for an under-available commodity.


So technology leads both to a massive increase in the overall productivity of the society, but also to larger and larger amounts of inequality.  This is something that’s important to keep in mind when building your own fictional society, and it can lend a lot of verisimilitude to your world-building. And in our third and final post for this introductory mini-seminar, I’ll go into more detail about both realistic and reasonable applications of these concepts to fictional world.


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Monthly World-building Seminar: Introduction

As I’ve worked on this blog and on my writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that my special skill is world-building. It’s not only one of the hallmarks of what I see as my style of writing, but an interest I can and have explored even outside of writing.  There are many writing and literature blogs on the internet, and I’ve long struggled to find my niche.  At this moment, I think my best option is to specialize in world-building, a topic covered in breadth by many others, but rarely covered in the depths I intend to plumb.

I’ll choose a topic every month, with wide enough application to support a lengthy series of posts approximating the following format:

  1. The first post with be a broad introduction to the topic with an idea of what inspired me to pick it.
  2. The second post will be a general exploration of how it applies to the real world.
  3. The third post will be a general exploration of how it might be applied to fictional stories.
  4. The fourth post will be an explanation of how it applies to the triad of fiction: character, plot, and setting.
  5. The fifth post will be a successful real-world example of the concept, covered in-depth.
  6. The sixth post will be a second real-world example, of a failed application.
  7. The seventh will be an example of the application of the concept in fiction, preferably of a short-form work.
  8. The eighth will be an example of the concept in a long-form work.
  9. The ninth post will be an example of a failed application in fiction.
  10. The tenth and final post will be a conclusion of the seminar, possibly some writing prompts, and some questions to keep in mind when writing future stories. And the next topic!

I’ll have at least a partial list of individual topics in the intro post, some reading assignments(though they won’t be necessary to understand and enjoy the seminars, I’d say they add a lot of nuance), and some exploration of my inspiration.

The intro will always be on the first day of the month, and the conclusion on the last day.  The posts in between will on average be two posts a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Feel free to comment, suggest  topics, and in general let me know if I’ve done anything wrong, or right.

The first official topic, starting in June, will be History and Narratives: Putting the “Story” Back in “History”.

The first unofficial topic published on a shortened schedule in May, Technology and Inequality: Understanding Your Setting


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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Inequality

World-building is essentially creating the setting for your story.  What many people don’t think about consciously is that the setting has possibly one of the strongest effects on a well-told story, even compared to the plot and the characters.  What is a plot-hole except a failure to match the plot properly to the full range of possibilities inherent in the setting.  What is bad characterization except a failure to have your characters react properly to the setting?  The interaction of the characters with the setting is what creates the plot on a basic level.  You can’t have a restoration of the rightful monarch(read: farmboy hero) without having a monarchy, a false ruler, a rightful ruler, and someone who wants to change the status quo.  Those are all elements of the setting, and when you start the machine of the setting ticking, it inevitably creates the conflict that drives the plot.  You can start planning story with any of the three elements or a combination thereof, but essentially you are using abductive reasoning to tie all the elements together.

Now that we have that premise out of the way, the actual issue I want to talk about here is what technology is and what effect it has on a society.  In particular, how does technology affect the gap between the rich and the poor.  In order to explain these effects, I’ve found that the metaphor of a lever works particularly well.  Both literally and figuratively.  Technology is the lever and individual human ability is the force that’s being applied.  Now, a lot of people like to say that technology raises the standard of living in the sense that the rising tide lifts all boats.  Which is true to an extent.  Anyone with a lever can do more than someone without.  But, because the most privileged are starting ahead in terms of the force they can input into the system, their output is always going to be greater.  Assuming two people of equal skill and ability, the poor man can never catch up to the rich man.  If both men have access to the piece of technology, they both advance, but the rich man advances farther.

Here’s a simple mathematical example:

One man has 100 acres.  Another man has 900 acres.  They can both produce 10 bushels of wheat per acre, which totals to 10,000 bushels.  The gap is thus 8,000 bushels between the rich man and the poor man.  Now say we introduce a machine that increases productivity per acre by 50%.  The first man can now produce 1,500 bushels of wheat.  The second man can now produce 13,500 bushels of wheat for a total of 15000 bushels. The gap is now 12,000 bushels.  Technology has brought up both men’s productivity, but it has also widened the gap between them.

The rich man can now afford to sell his products more cheaply, because he’s moving a higher volume, so customers buy his wheat and the poor man loses out.

Further, greater technology allows a leader to actively organize a larger power base, whether that involves an army, a workforce, a company, or resources. The greater the level of tech, the wider the reach of a given company.  National chain businesses, for example, flourish better in a high tech world, while individual small businesses tend to fair better in a low-tech world because competition is less and it’s harder to synchronize business and products and suppliers.

Other factors excluded, a world with higher technology is likely to include wider inequality, even if the lowest level may have a higher standard of living on average than in a world with less technology.

Now, there are more kinds of inequality than economic inequality.  A common topic in military discussion, whether fiction or otherwise, is how the disparity in technology might affect tactics, and even lock a given force into certain tactics even though they may not be effective in the situation.  It also affects composition of forces.

For example, while better technology may mean an average soldier for one group is worth some multiple of soldiers in another group, the extra expense means that of two groups of relatively equal resources, the group with the better military tech will often maintain fewer soldiers to make up for the expense.  The hope is that the better efficiency will make up for that, but it does leave holes open for the less advanced group to attack from another angle.  You can hope to split the opponent up, ambush them, make use of terrain or inherent flaws.  And the opponent may prefer tactics that leave them open to strategies they don’t have experience with because the technology is considered “inferior”.

This also applies to population.  For most of the periods involved in fantasy, higher technology leads to greater population density.  (Eventually you hit a peak, where the bottom of the standard of living is pushed so high that birth rates drop; this can be tied both to gender equality and technological advancement.)  So a country with higher tech levels has more people, giving them an extra economic and military advantage.  Magic may follow the same pattern depending on the style of magic in the world.

More population means you can occupy more territory, raise more food at the increased level, have more minds working on further advancement, etc.

Finally, we have the difficulty of living outside the system but near the same standard of living and level of technology.  The greater the technology, the more integrated it is into the society, the more you need specialization of labor to keep things going.  So an individual or small group can’t maintain self-sufficiency equal to someone in the web of society as easily.

The simplest example of the influence technology can have on the setting and thus on the plot and characters is steampunk.  Theoretically an entire sub-genre based on the technological level of its setting,

Look forward to further entries in the Technology in Fantasy Seminar this month.

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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Fantasy, World-building, Writing


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Immersive vs. Intrusive Settings

I thought I’d piggy-back off of Farah Mendlesohn‘s distinction between Intrusive and Immersive Fantasy in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy.  Essentially, Mendlesohn proposes and axis between “immersive” fantasy on one end, and “intrusive” fantasy on the other.


Immersive Fantasy– a fantasy setting which is presented as the norm for the protagonist, while also not being the norm for the reader.  Generally there is little info-dumping or explanatory narrative.  Most proto-typical immersive fantasy is secondary world fantasy which remains “impervious” to its existence as a foil for our world.

Note:  Not all immersive fantasy is secondary world, and not all secondary world fantasy is immersive.


Intrusion Fantasy– a fantasy setting in which the fantastic intrudes into the real world or a close approximation thereof.  The protagonist generally shares the readers confusion, ignorance, and/or skepticism of the fantastic elements, unlike in immersive settings where the protagonist considers fantastic elements as normal parts of their everyday world.


Now, my proposition is this post is to expand these words to describe and sort of fictional setting.  Certainly, science fiction can be immersive or intrusive.  Going even further, a great deal of mystery and horror fiction is intrusive, in the sense that there are metaphorical worlds beyond the everyday world of the protagonist.  Keep in mind that immersive vs. intrusive is one continuum, following one axis of possible descriptors for a setting.  Secondary world vs. primary world is another such axis.  So is high fantasy vs. low fantasy.  Hard SF vs. Soft SF.  These are not genres.  They are not prescriptive labels.  They are purely descriptive.


As a basic example of  non-speculative fiction with an immersive intrusive distinction, consider:  getting caught up in a whistle-blowing chase thriller surrounding a company’s environmental crimes is no less intrusive to “everyday” life for you or me than is getting caught up in a war between vampires and werewolves.  What makes a setting intrusive vs. immersive is the relationship between the character’s perspective before and after the inciting incident.  For example, the White Walkers in Game of Thrones are an intrusive element relative to the understanding of the Starks and their people.

There are, in reality, two immersive/intrusive axes in any story.  One is based on the perspective of the character, and one on the reader.  Proto-typical intrusive fantasy has a protagonist and a reader sharing a basic understanding of the world.  Then an element foreign to both perspectives enters the story.  Proto-typical immersive fantasy has a protagonist and a reader with different understandings of their worlds.  But there’s no rule that the reader and character axes can’t intersect.


I believe that this method of looking at setting (and plot) can create a much closer interaction between writers of various genres, as many of the same methodologies and story-telling tools are held in common across genres.

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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in World-building, Writing


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Social Media and Plagiarism: How the Dynamic Web Has Changed Speech

There’s been a lot of hubbub on the internet lately, in social media circles as well as the traditional press, about the issue of plagiarism in social media.

Now, plagiarism has been a problem online for a long time, but social media brings something different to the discussion.  Back when the internet was young, and you had to pay your own hosting fees and code your own website, it was a lot more difficult, and just plain inconvenient to plagiarize.  You had a static site and relatively few ways to distribute your work.  Much like with books, the Static Web was everywhere, but not all that hard to police.

But social media and the content creation movement has changed all that.  Where once we had the Static Web, with people coding their own sites by hand, or paying someone else, we now have the Dynamic Web, where for the cost of an internet connection or a walk to the local library, anyone can have as-good-as-infinite accounts on the hundreds of content creation and social media sites whose struggles carry vibrations all across the Web.  And these sites auto-create pages from databases and some PHP/RoR/Perl code.  No more commitment-heavy hand-coding.

There are actually two issues at hand here.  Although content creation platforms and social media platforms are different in method, they are similar and ethos, and their differences shrink daily, as VBulletin includes blogging features in their forum software, and Facebook Groups function much like an old-style message board.  The effect of both of these Dynamic Web implementations is to bring written speech much closer to casual speech.

It used to be that creating written work required a commitment to the end product.  People struggled over letters to friends, competed to be published in newspapers.  Many people ascribe the various issues with Dynamic Web speech to the lack of gate-keepers or competition.  But what’s really going on is deeper than that.  Although social media sites like Facebook and Twitter store speech in text format, a status on Facebook, or a tweet on Twitter, is not really the written word.  It’s treated and acts much more like a comment tossed off in a college discussion class, or a joke made to a friend.

And where the disconnect between people in the Static vs. Dynamic Web paradigms happens is that the Tweeter or the Facebook poster isn’t thinking of their status as a publication.  So when they leave off a citation, or mis-attribute a quote, they don’t consider the consequences.  After all, we’ve never policed the spoken word to the extent that we police the written word.  It would be impossible.

So when I stumbled across the false MLK quote doing the rounds on Facebook and looked it up on, it didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t really from MLK.  If it had been a spoken word mis-quote, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.  The maximum propagation rate for the spoken word is relatively small.  It’s limited by memory, by audience, by time, by importance, by significance.  But because the text Web is searchable, because it allows instant access to much larger social networks, because the Web is forever, the propagation rate of a statement is significantly higher.  What would have been an un-important mistake in a casual conversation with a few friends has the potential to reach a much larger audience.  And that audience, reached through the Dynamic Web, is more likely to treat the statement as normal speech, and therefore, before passing on this mis-quotation, they are unlikely to source and cite it.  And then we have the issue that we had with the MLK quote and many others in the last few years.

As an example of this dis-connect, I have an anecdote I heard from a friend of mine.  He was perusing his Facebook feed, and came across an screencap from tumblr showing images and recipes for cocktail shots based on Eevee’s evolutions in the Pokemon games.  He shared it.  As it happened, one of his friends was friends with the person who had created the shot recipes.  And who was shocked and a bit creeped out to find it coming back to her in this circuitous Kevin Bacon effect manner.  Whoever had learned about it from her probably didn’t consider it plagiarism to pass it on.  After all, one of the features tumblr is most well known for is the “reblog” feature.  Which actually does a decent job of citation.  Tmublr has a system for that.

And so we encounter the other disconnect of the Dynamic Web.  Not all sites have the same terms of service, and very few sites, if any, have clear rules for how content is to be treated if shared outside the boundaries of its original, individual site.  You may have come across the auto-citations that many sites have started adding to links and copy-pasted quotes.  Or how a major art-based social media and display site, DeviantArt, implemented an anti-hot-linking system a few years ago.  All of these are individual sites’ attempts to combat the casual speech ethos of the Dynamic Web.  But what we really need, what would actually do something to solve the greater problem, is to educate people on the differences between social networks and content creation platforms and casual, real-world speech.  Perhaps the chat systems implemented by Facebook and other such sites are somewhat equivalent to casual speech.  But a Facebook status or a blog post is not.  You can’t treat them the same way, because as a decade or so of evidence has shown us, the consequences of such speech are very different.

Now, it isn’t a sure thing that Dynamic Web speech is the same as professional publication or journalism, either.  It may be in-between.  But better to err on the side of intentional publication than of casual speech.

(Maybe next time I’ll address plagiarism of status and blog articles more specifically.)

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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Blogging, Publishing, Rants, Social Media, Writing


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Why A Pause? Story Pacing

Jon Wallace write an article on Gollancz’s website on the subject of HG Well’s War of the Worlds and British invasion literature.  But the topic isn’t what’s relevant here.  What’s relevant is a note he made on why modern invasion literature often fails to live up to Wells’s example:

In Wells’s story, the Martians land and then sit there for awhile in their craters, leaving us to wonder why they’re here and what they want.  Whereas in recent Hollywood flicks, “they’re attacking, duh, why else?”

The key here being the suspense created by having alien space-ships crashing into the country-side and then… doing nothing.  That little pause in the major action can really drag a reader in.  You sorta feel like you’re watching along with the characters.

That suspense creates a desire in the reader to keep reading; it pings human curiosity.

And yet, the reader doesn’t just think: “Get on with the invasion already!”  Because they can’t assume that’s what’s going to happen.


And that leads me to the topic of this post: Pacing.

Pacing is that thing you do so the reader doesn’t spend the whole book wondering when shit is finally going to happen.  It’s a common complaint about books that there’s nothing happening, or that it takes too long to get to the good stuff.  But of course things are happening.  A character angsting is a thing that happens.  A character driving to the 7-11 is a thing that happens.  It’s not that nothing is happening.  It’s just not what the reader expects to be happening at that moment.

For me, that is a failure of pacing.  Because the story isn’t keeping up with the reader’s expectations.  But the great thing about pacing is that you can control those expectations to some extent.  Wells chooses to slow the thing down right after a world-changing event.  And it works, because when something crazy happens, it’s not unexpected for there to be some suspense before the consequences are realized.

There are a lot of books on writing out there that purport to tell you the perfect structure for a novel/screenplay/story and save you from thinking about the way your individual story could best be paced.  It’s just simpler that way.  And Hollywood has been eating this up for years with Save the Cat!   But the truth is, every story has its own unique pacing, and the best a pre-set structure can give you is an approximation to be fiddled with until it’s exactly right.

That’s not to say that looking for a pre-made structure is wrong.  But there is some value in acquiring the tools to build your own structure, instead.

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Posted by on August 6, 2013 in Writing


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