I posted one of my slightly older stories, a wRHG battle against Sadko. Normally, I wouldn't post wRHG battles, because they're more vignettes than actual stories. However, there's a bit more going on with this one, so I thought I'd post it up and then write up some comments.
This is a companion to "Jasper vs. Sadko", which you should read for context before jumping into this. I'll be talking about wRHG as a platform in general, then some plot development.
(And no, I haven't seen Chinatown. I really should, though.)
What the hell is wRHG?
Good question, anonymous denizen of the internet! To answer this question, I will tell a story.
Long ago, in a faraway land, there was a website called FluidAnims. It was a rollicking meadow full of sunshine and rainbows where amateurs from all over the world could come and animate stick figures.
In FluidAnims, there was a little thing called RHG, or Rock Hard Gladiators. In it, people would create their own characters with powers (usually involving elemental abilities and/or swords) and appearances (meaning a hexadecimal color code and maybe a scarf—they're stick figures, after all) and then pit them against one another, by which I mean both people would animate their character punching the other person's character in the face. Then the community would watch them and vote on whose facepunching was more facepunchy.
People would tally up their points and show off how awesome they were, or, more likely, create a character and never use it, because animation is hard.
However, there was more to Fluidanims than just stick figures punching each other in the face. There was a subsection of the forums with art, coding, music, and writing. Somebody in the writing section, or the Writer's Lounge, said, "Hey, why don't we do that thing with the facepunching but do it with writing instead of animation?"
And lo, wRHG was born.
Fast forward a few years, a young girl named Jesse stumbled across the Elysian fields of FluidAnims. She lurked around the forums as she learned to animate stick figures. She finally signed up for the forums for the competition "20 Seconds to DIE", where Mr. Black Stick would kill Mr. Unassuming Blue Stick in a myriad of unfortunate ways, each taking 20 seconds.
Jesse and her walnut tree did not win.
Anyways, after a series of unrelated events, Jesse found out about wRHG and created her own character, Jasper, who was basically Jason from her then-going story, Bending the Light, but with a different background and slightly less ridiculous skill set.
Upon creating her character, she immediately ventured out to challenge the first person she saw who had some decent writing ability: WarCorrespondent.
She continued on to challenge six other people, garnering a total of five wins, two ties, and zero losses.
Then she disappeared from wRHG forever, taking Jasper's legacy with her.
"But Jesse!" I hear you cry, "why would she ever do that? She had such a good thing going!"
Well, anonymous denizen of the internet, allow me to enlighten you. See, Jesse realized somewhere around battle 3 or 4 that every story she wrote was basically the same: contrived meeting, escalation into battle, Jasper originally gets overwhelmed but pulls back, Jasper punches other character in the face, Jasper runs away or eats the other character.
There are only so many permutations you can build when you're writing your character punching another character in the face. And, as I've said before, fighting in text isn't that interesting unless there's context to make it interesting. There have to be things at stake and a reason to fight that isn't "because the author says so" or "because face punching is cool".
The fact is, Jasper vs. Character of the Week isn't a plot. It's fine to have fighting in a story and it can even be enjoyable to read, but the fighting should serve the story by contributing to conflict or characterization, not the other way around. At the end of the day, no matter how elaborate and amazing your fight is, in text it all eventually boils down to "And then Jasper punched Character in the face". If there's nothing to distinguish the punching, like "Jasper punched Character in the face to retrieve the MacGuffin of Power" or "Jasper punched Character in the face because his honor was impugned", it's just a mishmash of facepunching and sameyness.
After all, it doesn't really matter if a character fights by kicking someone in the shins or screaming really loud, because the results are the same.
There's also a second major problem with wRHG. Imagine, if you will, a Venn diagram where one circle is "people who visit stick figure animation websites" and the second is "people who have any interest in writing whatsoever".
The intersection of those two sets is small, to put it mildly. That's not even considering the percentage of people who understand basic English grammar and style, know how to use and give constructive criticism, or regularly proofread their work before posting.
I'm not saying that the people in the Writer's Lounge are trash. If you look at other amateur work like on AO3 or FF.net, you'll probably find the same ratio of trash to mediocre to above average writers. It's a universal problem: Any literate person can put down words and storytelling is just making shit up, so people assume that writing is easy when it's a skill just like anything else. I've been writing for about ten years now, and I still wouldn't say that I'm a "great" writer.
My point is, the Writer's Lounge is not, and never has been, a good place for writers to congregate. It's fine to talk about stuff, but for anyone looking to improve, there are infinitely better communities out there than in the subset of a stick figure animation website. I can safely say that I was one of the best writers there, even when I was fourteen and hadn't yet gotten into thinking about writing and storytelling properly.
"Well, Jesse," squawks someone in the back, "if you hated it so much, why did you keep going for seven whole stories?"
Okay, fair enough. Maybe I'm being a bit unclear.
I don't actually hate wRHG. I just think that it's inherently immature as a storytelling platform.
I think wRHG is good for exercise. It's actually fun to do every once in a while, because you're taking two characters and figuring how to fit their personalities and abilities together and play them off of each other. These days when I do wRHG, I actually ask my friend Crataegus to give me a random setting, so I have to put those together, too.
It's filling a prompt. If you're into that, then cool, if not, then wRHG isn't your cup of tea and that's fine, too.
There's something fun about reading someone's work to figure out what their character is about, then extrapolating it to your own work (because you should never believe the wRHG profile description. You'd be surprised by the number of complete sociopaths people accidentally write). It's kind of like fan fiction in that way, where you use your reading comprehension to figure out characters and then apply it to other situations.
Writing characters is an inexact science, and wRHG is great practice for that, if only because of the variety of characters available.
(In theory, anyways. Most of the characters tend towards the extremes of noble heroic or completely psychotic, because emotional stability is so last year.)
Plots and Planning
Writing is about setting up and subverting expectations. You'll hear me repeat this or a variation thereof many, many times.
I liken writing to a performing art, because you have to understand your audience and what they'll know, as well as anticipate their reactions and play off of them. In that sense, it's harder than a performing art, because you don't get live feedback and you can't adjust on the fly.
It's hard to describe how much I love a well-executed plot. There's something viscerally satisfying about reading everything as it falls together, like when Harry Potter finds out about the horcruxes or Adrian Veidt reveals his plot to unite the world. Sure, the villain monologue is silly and dramatic, but the reveal makes all of the build-up and plotting worth it.
"Jasper vs. Sadko" isn't the most complex or well-structured story I've ever written. It's another story in which Jasper punches someone in the face, after all. However, it's definitely one of my earlier forays into more complex storytelling, so it warrants a little bit of talk.
I'm holding off on the in-depth discussion until I post a certain lovely story, so consider this more of a primer.
I think the most important step in writing a plot is figuring out what it is. That sounds obvious, but it isn't.
A cursory look at "Jasper vs. Sadko" would tell you that the plot is simply Jasper vs. Sadko, and you'd be right. More than that, though, it's the story of how Jasper defeats Sadko.
You might recall how I explicitly said that Jasper vs. Character of the Week wasn't a plot just a thousand words ago. Yeah, facepunching still isn't a plot. The difference is, Jasper doesn't defeat Sadko by punching him in the face. Jasper defeats Sadko by stacking the deck so hard that he practically gets a cold burn.
There's a crucial asymmetry in Jasper and Sadko's understanding of the situation, and the plot is in showing how deep that goes and how that leads to Jasper punching Sadko in the face, as opposed to the facepunching itself.
Let's talk point of view.
Pro tip for anyone reading my stories: Don't take the narrator's word at face value, ever, because I subscribe to the unreliable narrator like it's going out of style.
It's not a secret that I have a love affair with personal, information-based conflicts, which is to say, conflicts where what characters do or do not know play a major part in the plot. Character assumptions and gradual unveiling of the truth is kind of my bread and butter.
It's not lying when Sadko says that Jasper's unarmed and ripe for the killing; it's what he thinks is true and what he acts upon as true, which is then revealed to be entirely false when Jasper tries to counter-shank him in the kidney, signaling to the reader that there's something going on.
See, in omniscient third person, that would be cheating, because it's arbitrarily withholding important information for the sake of artificial tension, but in third person limited, it's using the inherent limitations to build expectations from a specific reference frame. Or, to say it in a less faffy manner, third person limited has limitations, yes, but you can use those limitations to help build your story and create tension naturally in ways that don't work with omniscient third person. It's like deliberately drawing in black and white instead of a full color palette; you can build an entirely effective work just as well or possibly better by limiting your base materials, as long as you use them to their full potential.
Third person limited works best for me because my stories are about people in the context of the events of the story, not the events themselves. Yes, "Jasper vs. Sadko" is about Jasper punching Sadko in the face, but it's also about the path taken to punching him in the face. I personally find that third person limited helps to focus on that path because you're, well, limited to it.
Which brings up the question of why "Jasper vs. Sadko" is about 70% from Sadko's point of view when Jasper is the main character. Well, "Jasper vs. Sadko" from Jasper's point of view would be boring. It would have to start about two weeks before the start of story when Jasper realizes he's got a hitman on his tail, then follow him as he formulates a plan to engage the hitman on his own terms, then show how his plan totally works, which would be horribly anticlimactic.
There's an unspoken rule in narratives that if you ever exposit a plan, something has to go wrong, or you've just spoiled the action by telling us how it's going to go. It's the same way here. Jasper carries all of the relevant information about the situation and there's no conflict from his side, because everything's been planned well in advance.
By using Sadko's point of view instead, we can bring up all of the plot information above through the lens of Sadko realizing it exists, followed by realizing exactly how much he doesn't know. Additionally, we can just skip ahead to the confrontation, neatly excising the weeks of nothing happening. Sadko's point of view, therefore, produces a more interesting and compact story.
I do switch to Jasper's point of view in the middle. That's because Sadko's point of view alone doesn't answer questions like, "Wasn't Jasper unarmed?" and "Why a china shop?". Some might call that cheating, but seeing as the core conflict is showing the asymmetry between Jasper and Sadko's knowledge as opposed to actually being a story about the characters or their development, I'm perfectly entitled to switch points of view if it helps develop the plot. For me, that middle section is the reveal of how well and truly screwed Sadko's been from the start, which leads straight into Sadko's swift demise at Jasper's trap.
The little bit at the end with Jasper's friend is to drive it home that the entire situation was orchestrated. Of course, readers should know that fact well before the end, so the more important reason it's there is because that's the moment Sadko realizes how badly he's been played, finally bringing Sadko's knowledge to meet Jasper's while he's bleeding to death and drowning in his own blood.
Like I said, the story is not particularly complex, but it covers one of the very important parts of plotting (in my opinion)—namely, the use of point of view to build tension and expectations. There are people who prefer writing in third person omniscient, but I honestly can't get into it because the freedom of knowledge takes away a lot of my tools in writing and runs the risk of head-hopping, which can be impersonal at the best of times and a complete mess to comprehend at others.
So, y'know. This is the sort of stuff I think about when I write stories. Even ones where Jasper mainly punches people in the face.