Parallel Plotting: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

ws_Forest_Dirt_Road-long“The common definition of plot,” says Ansen Dibell, author of Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot, “is that it’s whatever happens in the story.” But, “it doesn’t tell you how to make one,” he adds. “Plot is built of significant events in a given story—significant because they have important consequences.”

Dibell describes plot as a tapestry of pattern, form, shape and color that share recognizable meanings. And subplots are the threads that make up the story’s fabric. Parallel plots, braided plots … even the terms reflect a flowing river. This is an apt metaphor, particularly given that, as Dibell reminds us, “plot is a verb.” It is the engine that moves the story.

Subplots are more common in long fiction, where they are used to deepen a story and add layers that make it more intriguing and tease out more depth to the story. Subplots may provide varying aspects of a theme, from community to individual as played out by different characters. Ultimately, subplots and how they are crafted, provide the writer with the means to transcend plot into what Dibell calls pattern.

Parallel Plotlines & Patterns

Dibell describes “braided” plots, in which two or more subplots are woven together, and parallel plotlines, in which two plots share almost equal footing. This happens when strong protagonists carry each plot. Parallel plotlines often run counterpoint to each other in pace, tone and color. Each plot becomes richer and stronger when contrasted with the other. And they are always connected in some way, in many ways.

In Matrix Reloaded, Neo’s introspective and thoughtful plot with the architect of the matrix runs counterpoint with Trinity’s action plot as she sabotages the matrix and battles an agent. Both demonstrate conflict and tension but the tone and pace are opposite. This contrast only heightens each plot line.

Notice also how the two plot lines are connected and eventually converge in the final scene where Neo saves Trinity’s life by restarting her heart. Earlier on in, while Trinity is totally engrossed in her problems, Neo becomes aware of her struggle through the architect’s artful hint; this prompts Neo to choose his path to join her plot. His awareness is the bridge between the two plotlines. If you look carefully, you will find many other ways the two plotlines are connected, visually, mentally and viscerally and how they inevitably draw together in that riveting last scene; “how thoroughly,” Dibell says, “the story belongs to itself.”

Mirrored Pattern on the Wall…

Scenes, characters, and plots can be mirrored. It starts with identifying two situations that can be tagged for connection and built-in recurrence. Mirrored plots often run as double stories concurrently or through alternating flashback narration. Good examples include The Empire Strikes Back, Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Rings. My short story, The Arc of Time, used a double plot set 40,000 years apart, one played out with real characters and the other in the form of e-letters between two lovers. Both plots converged in the end.

Mirrored plots are achieved by setting up pairs of opposite and/or complimentary scenes that share emotional resonance.

Dibell provides these hints to create effective mirroring scenes:

  • Repeat one or more lines of dialogue (e.g. the “I love you” “I know” between Han and Leia in Star Wars).
  • Repeat a brief description of emotion.
  • Have the two situations go through similar stages.
  • Use similar imagery.
  • Ensure that subject and terms are the same.
  • Keep the polarities and emotional content the same.ws_Forest_Dirt_Road_1280x1024

Ultimately, the pattern that develops forms a moving story that has rhythm and cadence.

In short, nothing should happen at random. Plot should stem from “character under adversity” often with an urgent personal agenda. The plot of a story synthesizes the individual character subplots and subthemes and resonates with the overarching theme.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Sharing Nature’s Terrible Secrets And When Trees Talk Dirty…

 

nature's canop-2One of the lectures I give to my science fiction writing students is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character.1

I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction. Students perk up when I discuss some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring alconbluebutterfly-antsfor its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

When I bring in extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas. I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

water-bear03

Tardigrade

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own. Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

When Trees Share the Dirt

“Trees are the foundation of a forest, but a forest is much more than what you see,” says University of British Columbia forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

suzanne-simard-portrait

Suzanne Simard

Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of resealch, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest. This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root). These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

forest-conversing

Myccorhyzae and fungal highways

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Simard made another incredible discovery: that mother trees “recognize their kin.” In experiments her team ran using related and unrelated seedlings, the mother tree preferentially sent its excess carbon to kin over non-kin seedlings.

These discoveries pose some serious implications in how we do and should manage our forests. “You can take out one or two hub trees, but there’s a tipping point,” says Simard. “You take out one too many and the whole system collapses.”

Simard shared that “in 2014 the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide…In Canada it’s 3.6% per year…about four times the rate that is sustainable.”

“Massive disturbance at this scale is known to affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat and emit greenhouse gases back to the atmosphere, which creates more disturbance and more tree die-backs,” says Simard. She adds that the practice of planting commercially valued species at the expense of the indigenous aspens and birches lacks complexity and promotes vulnerability to disease. It’s creating “a perfect storm,” Simard concludes.

Trees & Climate Change

A major international report on climate change shows that wildlife habitats will be dramatically impacted around the world. In Canada, this could fundamentally alter 65 per cent of its existing natural habitat in the boreal and Arctic regions, where warming will be the greatest. The report says that seven Canadian provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba – will have more than half of their natural habitat at risk.

Simard asks: “Instead of weakening our forests, how can we reinforce them and help them deal with climate change?” She suggests four simple solutions:

  1. Get out into the forest and re-establish local involvement in our forests, using management techniques based on local knowledge
  2. Save our old-growth forests, the repositories of genetic material, mother trees and micorhizal networks
  3. Save the mother trees when cutting trees
  4. Regenerate our forests with a diversity of species types and structures

“Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they are super-cooperators,” Simard points out. “The great thing about forests,” she reminds us, “is that as complex systems, they have an enormous capacity to self-heal.”

How Healing Trees Can Heal Us

Aside from being highly evolved water management specialists, trees are chemical factories that broadcast a host of aerosols into the atmosphere around them. Researchers have found over 120 substances, of which only half could be identified. These aerosols are part of a sophisticated survival strategy, writes botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Studies have shown that willows, poplars and maples warn each other about insect attacks; undamaged trees then pump bug-repelling chemicals to ward off the attack. Black walnut trees emit juglone, an aerosol that repels competing nearby plants and some insects. Scientists demonstrated that airborne communication between individual sagebrush plants (called “eavesdropping”) helped neighbouring plants resist attacks. The monoterpenes like pinene and linene can relieve asthma and even fight cancer.

You can read more about this in my book “Water Is… (Pixl Press).

 

1I give several lectures based on this general topic of world building for writers. One I gave recently, at CanCon2016 in Ottawa, focused on aquatic worlds, my scientific area of expertise.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

How to Write Science Fiction at George Brown College April 2016

nina-workshop 2This April, I will teach my 12-week long writing course on how to write science fiction.  The 12-week course “Creating Science Fiction” runs TUESDAY nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting April 5th through to June 21st at George Brown College on King Street in Toronto and costs $285.

“Creating Science Fiction” is now part of George Brown’s Creative Writing Certificate.

See the description below:

Microsoft Word - GBC-SF course-APRIL2016 AD.docx

Meant for both beginning writers and those already published, the 12-week course is run like a workshop with student input and feedback on student’s WIPs.
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I explore with students the essential tools used in the SF genre (including world building, research and plot approaches). Students will work toward a publishable original piece by learning to generate and follow through with premise, idea and theme.
George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.
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nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Creating Great Characters in Fiction

 

renoir-table-close01Fiction characters have a dramatic function and a role in advancing the plot and theme of your story. They need a reason to be there.

Your characters need to appear real without being real. Characters in fiction fulfill a dramatic function in the story for the reader and are, therefore, more logically laid out. They may, as a result, be more coherent, consistent and clear in their actions and qualities than a person in real life.

In his 1995 article in SF Writer called “On Writing: Constructing Characters”, Hugo and Nebula award winning SF author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job.” This notion goes back “twenty-five hundred years to the classical playwrights,” says Sawyer. “In Greek tragedy, the main character was always specifically designed to fit the particular plot. Indeed, each protagonist was constructed with an intrinsic hamartia, or tragic flaw, keyed directly to the story’s theme.”

When we begin to tell stories, our characters can often suffer from lack of distinction or purpose; they will clutter and dilute a story’s promise. You may wish to focus on fewer rather than many characters. One way to tell if major and minor characters are fulfilling their role in story is to assign one or more archetypes to them (see my earlier article on archetypes in the Hero’s Journey). If you can’t come up with an archetype for that character, he or she may simply be there, filling up unneeded space. You might need to merge two characters into one or nix a few altogether. This is especially important in short story. The most common thing new writers do is clutter a short story with too many characters and associated sub-plots. These stories are actually novel-wanna-be’s.

You achieve distinction in characters, including minor characters through a number of ways. One is “voice”. A character’s “voice” must be unique. Give your character distinctive body movements, dress, speech, facial features and expressions that reveal his inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent.

It may also be useful to create character dossiers on major characters to help keep track of their distinctive traits and keep these consistent. Dialogue is an excellent tool to reveal a person’s education, philosophy, biases, culture and history. A character’s inflections and common vernacular can be used to identify them from a particular region or culture.

Fictional characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not afraid; same for a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a shy scientist impelled to discovery; etc.—the hamartia that Sawyer talked about.

Make your character bleed, hurt, cry, and laugh. This needs to be clear to the reader, who painted leaveswants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and with each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling.

“The lesson is simple,” Sawyer tells us. “Your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.”

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Limestone Genre Expo—July 2015

Kingston waterfront

Kingston waterfront

I recently attended the inaugural festival of the Limestone Genre Expo (July 25, 2015) for writers in Kingston, Ontario. The festival gets its name from the city’s moniker, based on the many heritage buildings constructed there using local limestone.

It would have been a very long trip from my digs in Nova Scotia; but I’m currently in Toronto, teaching writing at UofT and George Brown College. I still had to get up earlier than I normally do to get to the 1-day festival that started at ten in the morning.venue

It was worth it.

Organizers Liz Strange, Barry King, Delina MacDonald and Marlene Smith nailed everything right. Being the first of hopefully many more, this writers’ festival wisely started small. But, like the good Doctor’s tardis, the venue belied its size by being dense with quality and diversity.

Alison Sinclair

Alison Sinclair

The Ongwandada Resource Centre, where the festival was held, had lots of parking with a friendly well-lit ambience inside under an atrium with tables and chairs for gathering and several rooms for panels and workshops.

The festival covered several of the major genres such as fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance and mystery, with representation by well-known authors in each. Organizers offered a triple track program from 10 am to 5 pm that included panels, informative workshops, readings, novel pitch sessions with CZP

Sandra Kasturi of CZP

Sandra Kasturi of CZP

and Bundoran Press and first page critiques with Caro Soles. Festival organizers populated their program with well-established writers from their own communities. Readers of genre fiction and writers looking to learn and network were given the opportunity to meet some of the top genre writers in the region. The venue included a book fair, box lunches and a snack stand. The only thing missing was a primo coffee bar.

Marie Bilodeau

Marie Bilodeau

The small venue provided an intimate setting for great networking. I had a chance to meet many of my old friends and to make new ones. Marie Bilodeau, an Ottawa fantasy writer, gave an exquisite reading of her new series “Nigh”. Alison Sinclair, recently moved to Ottawa, beamed as she showed me the new release of her Eyre series, “Contagion” by Bundoran Press. Aurora-winning short story author Douglas Smith gave

Doug Smith

Doug Smith

an informative workshop on how to market and sell your short stories. His excellent guidebook “Playing the Short Game” sold for a special festival price. I caught Derek Newman-Stille sitting in the lounge over a box lunch and discussed his radio show in Peterborough and traded stories with Hayden Trenholm, publisher of Bundoran Press and aurora-winning author of the Steeles Chronicles. Other writers who I had a chance to visit

Alyssa Cooper

Alyssa Cooper

with and meet included Caro Soles, Sandra Kasturi (of Chizine), Alyssa Cooper, Eve Langlais, Matt Moore, Nancy Kilpatrick, Matthew Johnson, and Violette Malan.

The organizers—themselves published genre writers (Strange writes fantasy, horror and mystery and just released her first science fiction novel, “Erased”; King writes science fiction)—started the festival in response to an observed need to showcase genre writers in the Kingston area, otherwise rich in non-genre writing festivals. “Kingston is in an interesting position because we do have so many writers and we do have the WritersFest and so on,” explained King to Peter Hendra of the Kingston Whig-Standard. King felt there was room to showcase this literature in Kingston and the surrounding area.

Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille

“I find that genre fiction can sometimes be seen on a lower status as ‘literary fiction’, and that stings,” Strange confided to me. “I thought [the LGE] would succeed because there are not that many festivals of this sort, and after we put feelers out to see who might be interested in attending the positive responses were overwhelming.”

Caro Soles

Caro Soles

Strange added that “nerd culture” these days is more mainstream than in the past, thanks to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Strange concluded that this is a good thing for writers of romance, sci-fi, horror, mystery and fantasy and observed that genres are blending a lot more (e.g., historical fantasy, paranormal romance, etc.). I personally write mostly blended genres: science fiction thrillers; SF eco-fiction; historical fantasy and romantic SF.

Violette Malan

Violette Malan

I asked Strange for her opinion on whether the festival was a success and what the organizers plan to do for next year. She gave a resounding yes; they had double the numbers they’d hoped for and didn’t lose money (a common challenge with writing festivals). With most events tending to be in spring or fall, they chose summer, which worked well and showed off Kingston.

Liz Strange, Marlene Smith, Barry King, Delina MacDonald

Liz Strange, Marlene Smith, Barry King, Delina MacDonald

Based on the feedback and success of the con, it looks like the festival next year will run two days.

Now that’s great news!

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nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Learn How to Write Science Fiction at George Brown College

For those in the Toronto area, I’m teaching a 12-week course on how to write science fiction at George Brown College this spring.

Called “Creating Science Fiction”, the course runs Wednesday nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting April 8th through to June 24th and costs $278. The course is also part of George Brown’s Creative Writing Certificate.
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Meant for both beginning writers and those already published, the 12-week course is run like a workshop with student input and feedback on student’s WIPs. I explore with students the essential tools used in the SF genre (including world building, research and plot approaches). Students will work toward a publishable original piece by learning to generate and follow through with premise, idea and theme.
Microsoft Word - GBC-SF course-APRIL2015 AD.docx
George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.
spaceship02
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nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.