Rinse and Repeat

While trawling KU for something new to read, I recently picked up an urban fantasy that seemed to have a promising start. OK, it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking; an informal, totally non-precise study shows that 66.66% of contemporary urban fantasy novels begin with the (of course) magically talented protagonist fighting for her life against attacking demons / werewolves / evil whatevers. But this fight scene was well done, with flashes of humor that made me enjoy spending time with the heroine, and curious as to what came next.

Five chapters in, the action had been virtually non-stop but I was beginning to lose enthusiasm for the story.

40% in, I was beginning to think, “Meh, I’ll do another Duolingo Czech lesson before I read the next chapter.” And it’s not like I’m that fascinated by Czech.

After one more chapter I returned the book, unfinished.

What’s the matter with you? The heroine is likeable and funny, and the tension never lets up. How could you get bored?

Yeah, well, it’s not exactly true that the tension never lets up. The action never lets up. That’s tiring in itself; while the heroine is fighting for her life there’s not room for other things I like to see in a story, like character development, interaction between major characters, world-building. But what really killed the tension was the growing feeling of déjà vu.

See, the opening has the heroine fighting both magically and physically against an attack of the Evil Whatevers, and she only survives by the skin of her teeth because (1) someone comes out of nowhere to help her and (2) under this stress she achieves a surprise upgrade of her magical powers.

She and the Mysterious Helper exchange about a page of inconclusive dialogue, leaving me curious: who is this guy and is he really on her side? Then, suddenly, it’s the next day and she is in the midst of another magical battle with Even More Evil Whatevers.

Which she wins because of the Mysterious Helper and because, guess what, under stress she upgrades her magical powers. Again.

You see the problem developing? You see why I ditched the book midway through the third battle with the Yet More Numerous and Yet More Powerful Evil Whatevers?

It doesn’t really build tension to keep repeating the same problem/resolution while dialing up the intensity to 11, does it? If anything, it kills tension, because one starts thinking, “Okay, I know how this bit ends, maybe I’ll skim ahead to the end of the fight scene and see if anything else happens… naah, another fight scene…”

It goes without saying that nobody here would ever do this. So in closing, and just to show that I don’t complain about every book I pick up, let me mention that I am quite enjoying my current KU read. It’s called Academic Magic, by Becky Jones, and the author has a sharp eye for the foibles of academia. Also, there are talking squirrels. Of course, the book gives me a little extra pleasure every time I think, “Aha! I don’t have to live in that world any longer!” but I think it’d be fun even for those of you who have never fled academia screaming.



39 thoughts on “Rinse and Repeat

    1. That, or she misunderstood how thrillers are paced, and missed the part that there are still breaks in the action and pauses, even though they’re shorter (usually, not always) than in other genres.

    1. Yeah, I suspect all of us who write urban fantasy are sitting here thinking, “Is it me?” I don’t think so, but…

      1. I hope so, too. There has to be some character development and some dance numbers…but, this just reads like some of the really bad “popular” stories that I’ve seen.

      2. C’mon, Zsuzsa, you know it’s not you. Or don’t you read your reviews?

        1. Technically, yes, I know it isn’t me because my heroine isn’t yet magical and takes until Chapter 19 to get into a fight, but I do wonder if I’m guilty of falling into a similar pattern of having the main character repeat the same basic pattern too many times.

          And, er, no, I don’t read my reviews, or at least I hadn’t before I posted that comment. Now that I have, thank you. Can I quote you?

          1. My God, you must have a will of iron. You really don’t look at your reviews??? And sure, quote me. I just wish I had a Name that would impress anybody.

            1. Your name impresses me. The author of the Applied Topology series liked my book!

              And I don’t know if its a will of iron so much as it is a feeling that if I start down that road, I’m going to just sit there hitting refresh on the Amazon page and saying, “Drat, stats are what they were 30 seconds ago…”

  1. It goes without saying that nobody here would ever do this.

    I am really, really, unpracticed at plotting. So I feel I have no grounds to claim that I would not make those mistakes, or others as bad or worse.

    Hmm. If you squint a little at Sailor Moon, you could condense it down to the mysterious helper, and the power upgrades. Issue with that is, to do so requires overlooking a lot of the structure and genre formula bits.

    Would need to do a much deeper dive into that than I wanna do now to support the claim, but the manga series with a bunch of power upgrades tend to have story between the upgrades. Cut out the story, and the upgrades don’t really make sense. And the Sailor Moon/Tuxedo Mask relationship could possibly survive removing the rest of the cast from the story, but would probably not survive eliminating the rest of the cast /and/ the previous life stuff.

    I’m wondering how one would go about justifying story with a mysterious helper, and a bunch of power upgrades. I’m thinking it would need a really inexperienced character, making the whole thing more of a mentor-ship, which would be a little creepy if combined with a romance.

    1. Hmm. Well, if the mysterious helper were a vampire who wants to turn her, then each blood exchange would increase her powers. And then you can make mysterious helper mysterious because his vulnerability to her is increasing with each feeding. But he could misdirect and say it’s because she’s not ready to be openly claimed and plunged into undead politics.

      Which would occasion the salty reply that she’s already covered with the remains of the opposing faction, so she’s pretty plunged already. (Although, if he was trying to turn her, could turn out the encounters were controlled – that he was attacking her with his own minions. Play up that complete disregard for lives.)

      Of course, if I were writing this origin story, I’d have her choose light over dark, faith over powers of evil, and kill her master. Because I’m a contrary cuss, and tired of “evil == sexy” tropes.

      1. Of course, if I were writing this origin story, I’d have her choose light over dark, faith over powers of evil, and kill her master. Because I’m a contrary cuss, and tired of “evil == sexy” tropes.

        I really, really, REALLY wish someone would do this, with an actually-sexy guy instead of a freaking predator being involved—
        and oh gads, I just realized a lot of the “ugh, what was she THINKING?” choices in some romance type stories* where she goes for the creepy dude over the decent guy is borderline grooming junk– train the prey to be attracted to the guy who is a Bad Idea, rather than the good guy that shows the non-predator guy as more attractive.

        * I read a lot of YA as a teen– of course– and part of why I shifted to stuff like Drizzt’s books is because the ones for girls all had a girl, two guys competing for her, and she picks the dark mysterious and oh yeah FREAKING EVIL one, every time. Not the decent guy who you’d want to actually be a friend with. They also made the decent guys so…dishrag, to counter that they were decent human beings.

        1. One wonders, given the stories one hears about the publishing and entertainment industries, if there’s not some deliberate choice going on there on the part of the publishing houses.

          1. Yeah, thus why I’m now double creeped out.

            Especially when you add in the kid story standard of “Being an abusive a-hole is part of being the Cool Guy in a friendship.”

            Uh, no, it’s being the Draco in your little slythern thug-pack, loser….

        2. I suspect that for a lot of them, it’s not being done deliberately – it’s that they never went back and rewatched Labyrinth as an adult, with an adult’s critical eyes, and are still naively head of heels and twitterpated for David Bowie.

          Not realizing that David Bowie was playing the part of a truly evil man… if I recall correctly, he was modeling the Goblin King on the more sociopathic predators in the gay clubs of London and Berlin in the 70’s and early 80’s.

          I am not so naïve as to think that all of them are so ignorant and blind.

          1. Watching Labyrinth as an adult also brings to mind just what a complete whiny little bitch the girl is. Although she does grow up some over the course of the movie, thankfully.

            It’s the supporting characters that make that movie. Hoggle, and Sir Didymus, and the dog.

          2. It helps if one knows– recognizes– admits– that “evil” is real, and not the opposite of good, but a deformed good.

            So the way that character is attractive isn’t inherently bad, there’s some good or at least neutral which is being used badly…which does poorly with a mental formula that’s a knob, rather than a bunch of slider bars.

            I recognized Bowie as doing a pretty decent Devil figure even before film class. Classic deal with the devil.

    2. That was the point of Labyrinth. She needed to overcome her personal problems to cope with reality.

      One could say it’s a metaphor for not allowing your ax-grinding to stop your art.

  2. Also, there are talking squirrels.

    I must be loopy, I suddenly felt “homesick” for Pensacola training station– where you get to see the officer candidates running around, saluting the squirrels.

    Having one talk back would be a hilarious intro for a magical sailor story. If the reader “got” it. I don’t know if it works without the background of having seen it.

  3. Academic Magic, by Becky Jones I left a good review. I loved it. I think she did a brilliant job with the “normal person suddenly exposed to supernatural world” problem. The character neither freaks nor freezes, but rather acts as best she can and has a lot of “what’s going on?!?!?” dialog, both internally and to others.

    I’m dumping my current series. I said earlier that I’d give it another book. Turns out, I’m not that patient when the same issue comes up over and over and over again. In “planet vs galaxy spanning civilization” the planet ALWAYS loses. If admirals in the official space navy don’t realize this, they are to stupid to be admirals. Worse, if the author doesn’t realize this, he shouldn’t be writing space opera.

    No idea how accurate it is, but I just looked it up and there are about 14,000 stars in any given 100 light year sphere. So, if the galaxy-wide folk want to keep it “local” they can mount a hyperdrive an one asteroid in each system and pummel the single planet with 14,000 relativistic rocks. If 99% of them miss due to aiming-at-distance, 140 of them should be sufficient, not to mention very nearly unstoppable – especially if they blow themselves into gravel upon entering the target system.

    1. In “planet vs galaxy spanning civilization” the planet ALWAYS loses.

      I would say it depends on exactly what the goal is. Can the planet take down the galaxy-spanning civilization? That would be hard to swallow. Can the planet make themselves a sufficient pain-in-the-rear that it’s not worth the galaxy-spanner’s efforts to take them down? That’s more plausible. The good guys would have to be pretty high-tech, the bad guys would have to be not-so-bad that they would render the planet uninhabitable just out of spite, but given
      those conditions, I could see the planeteers being sufficiently difficult that the galaxy-spanners would just declare that system part of their Empire but never send anyone out to actually rule it.

  4. It seems to me that a lot of Urban Fantasy is just Superheroes Without Capes.

    It’s hard to keep the tension going when every scene boils down to who has the most powerful Handwavium–particularly when the reader knows that the hero is going to win.

    What’s exciting is a character with very limited powers, or none at all, having to outthink a superior force and use what little she or he has to its full potential.

    1. The big difference is the unified origins. In the Superhero genre, the cheerful chaos of a stranded alien, a woman from a Utopia with god-granted powers, a merman from Atlantis, a hard-boiled detective up to 11, etc. is part of what makes it work.

        1. No, there is a mixture element that often present in the super hero genre. Forex, Grrl Power has standard supers, but also has a hidden supernatural world, aliens, and the two mysteries that provide Maxima and Halo their powers. See also, Whately. On the other hand, My Hero Academy succeeds at establishing super heroes with what looks like a completely unified origin.

          Urban Fantasy, you often have a bunch of secrets under the same cover up umbrella, or revealed to the public at the same time.

          Comic book hero setting retain material separately invented by many different creators, and that necessarily involves reconciling wildly different ideas about what a hero’s secret source of power is, what the public knows about it, and what kind of secret conspiracies are successfully hiding.

          That can be replicated by a single creator, but they have to work to create the feel. A lot of urban fantasy writers do not do that work, because it isn’t part of the love driving them, and so the urban fantasy tends to lack the feature.

          1. Tue. Also, in superhero books, there’s a lot of one-offs. The difference between a radioactive spider and a werewolf is that there was only one known radioactive spider bite in the universe IIRC – Spiderman. (Or was venom a second? I seem to recall Venom being something alien instead.)

            Even if there’s a planet that Superman came from, there’s still only one of him.

            Werewolves – there’s usually packs of them all over the planet, and always have been, in-universe. Same with vampires, faeries, etc.

            …having written this out, I now realize why Larry Correia’s Hard Magic reads as Urban Fantasy to me, not Superhero – the unified origin, classes and sets of power whose variation only lies in strength and application, the widespread occurrence, the integration of them into the society as part of the normal…

            1. It’s a problem. In Through A Mirror, Darkly, I loosely connected all the powers because it was impossible to build up all the universe the way Marvel and DC did in a single novella — or, for that matter, a single trilogy.

          2. I see what you’re getting at, but unless the power’s origin in some way determines it’s functionality it’s not going to have much effect on the issue described in the OP.

            Is Character A more invulnerable than Character B is unstoppable? Unless the reader has some sense that the fantastic elements operate by a firm set of rules–even if the rules themselves are unknown–it’s going to feel like the author is just arbitrarily deciding the outcome of each conflict.

            I think a lot of Urban Fantasy suffers from this, which is why action scenes often lack any real tension.

  5. “…the heroine fighting both magically and physically against an attack of the Evil Whatevers, and she only survives by the skin of her teeth because (1) someone comes out of nowhere to help her and (2) under this stress she achieves a surprise upgrade of her magical powers.”

    This is shonen anime plotting. All challenges are met with brute force, trusting to luck and the power of their Powers to get them through. Surprise upgrades and surprise friends coming to help, every time, this sounds a lot like Bleach. (I’m up to episode 248, I’ve been binge-watching. So. Many. Episodes. Plus side, still not bored.)

    In a half-hour cartoon that shows once a week, 15 minutes of which are opening sequence, recap commercials and closing sequence, you can get away with it. In a book? Not so much.

    I do admit to having my characters invent something insane in every book which gives them a huge upgrade, but its science fiction right? There should be science! ~:D Plus they -earned- it, and it didn’t drop out of the blue.

    1. Shonen Jump structure was part of what I was referencing above. But you are generally limited to something like one power up per fight, and one absurd retcon of the rules saving the main character per arc. And the other story material between fights, and filling out the story arcs, is actually quite important. Trim that out, trim all the supporting characters, and you generally don’t have enough to hold interest.

      Forex, Naruto’s structure, from memory, years ago. First we have a teacher chasing Naruto, who has been a brat. Tells us a little about the power rules of the setting. Then we have the academy exam, more characters, more rules, and some of Naruto’s key strengths and weaknesses. Then the situation with a traitor, ending in a fight, and the introduction of Naruto’s signature gimmick. Then we have team introduction before the next fight or fights (I forget if there was a second part of the bell test), followed by a bunch of d ranks and a time skip before the first c rank arc. If you just go from fight to fight, it is too boring to stay with long.

      Bleach is a little bit unusual for Shonen Jump, because Kubo Tite could choreograph these sprawling mass fights. Of course, One Piece isn’t bad at that, so it may be an editor advising from Shonen Jump.

      Otokojuku is another unusual title, a manga about cheerleading. Why is it unusual? It starts with a fairly large cast, even if filled with extras. It also fairly relentlessly practices defeat means friendship. The exceptions to that, as well as exceptions to death not being permanent, are rare enough to be notable. (Anyway, took the genre to a fairly absurd extreme, back in the ’80s. Author has done a bunch of other things I liked, and some I didn’t.) A good example of chaining tournament arcs. The band of fighters discovers a problem, resolvable by entering a martial arts tournament. They join, and soon members of the band are ‘sacrificing’ themselves to fight someone blocking the way, so that the rest travel only. Finally, the MC is fighting the big bad of the arc in a ‘life and death battle between men’. Now, the MC in Otokojuku gets power ups, but the supporting cast are varied enough that they rely less heavily on them, and more on Otokojuku’s cheerful willingness to ignore continuity. Otokojuku is heavily a comedy, and doesn’t rely as heavily on expecting the reader to pretend that the rules are consistent.

      Yuyu Hakusho is maybe closer to what I think of as normal. Start with a weird guy in a weird situation. Have various troublemakers start something for various reasons. (General rule with character that are fought is that they are named, and either have something bad they are trying to to, or a clearly established character flaw.) Hero defeat-means-friendships the trouble makers. By fighting, they gain mutual respect. The bad guy, being defeated, has his original plan defeated or made unnecessary by some unpredicted act of the good guy or guys. At a loss what to do now, he joins team good guy. Yuyu Hakusho builds a core group of four this way to send to later arcs, tournament and otherwise. Flame of Recca I think is a similar example of this set up’s structure.

      Of note is the stock character who shows up later to fight for team good guy, and fiercely denies he is doing so, or that he respects the hero. I think Vegeta from Dragonball Z, and Uryuu Ishida from Bleach are strange examples of this.

      Ruroken is a good example of extras who show up during an arc (particularly filler arcs for anime adaptations or movies), either innocents associated with the villain, or targeted by the villain, who show up and for some reason trust the main character with all sorts of sensitive information, setting up the later fights.

      Anyway, I hope I’ve clarified for those who didn’t already know, and didn’t run away screaming, why Shonen Jump plots wouldn’t work if you just skipped the stuff between the fights. Phantom’s summary is still reasonably accurate, for the space he used.

    2. It’s Shonen without any of the interesting characters or world-building.

      A story* is like a road trip. Ideally you’ll be taking an interesting route to a cool place with great company.
      You can deal with any two of those three being meh if the third one is GOOD. Requires that the audience not include the folks who go “meh” for that aspect of the trip.
      Really good on any two will take you through flat bad on the third.
      And if you can manage just slightly above average interesting in all three, you’ll appeal to everyone, even if it’s only as a solid “not bad, would buy again.”

      * I think I got this from here, but it’s been rolling around in my head enough I’m not sure what teh original was. My husband HATES sitting in a car, so I found it very useful– there’s road trips he’ll still go on beacuse he likes his family, or where we’re going, but…..

  6. — Yeah, well, it’s not exactly true that the tension never lets up. The action never lets up. —

    I recall Ken Follett once telling an admirer that his “secret” was to have action on every page. That might be why I never warmed to Ken Follett. The reader isn’t necessarily uninterested in the “action,” whatever form it may take and however it may be presented. However, he wants it framed in an emotionally relevant way. More specifically, the action must interlock causally with the protagonist’s emotional journey. If the protagonist is just fighting, fighting, fighting without any characterological changes, there’s no point to the action.

    I dunno. Maybe there’s a readership for stories that are just one battle scene after another. I’m just not part of it.

    1. This is where the Shonen Jump/Naruto stuff can be argued both ways.

      Naruto has some very stable character traits, and it could be argued that he never actually changes.

      The tools to establish characters in manga include a distinctive appearance, and repetition of a catch phrase. Compared to novel characters, manga characters are perhaps sketches. So it is possible that you would not consider that Naruto experiences any real character development.

      On the other hand, once Naruto the series ended, the readers were able to see a clear plot purpose in the changes of Naruto and Sasuke, and their relationship.

      One stock element I neglected in my response to Phantom was mid fight flashbacks.

      Naruto has a pretty strong example, which I will hopefully describe without spoiling. There was an antagonist character who’d been established previously over several events. Good guys finally have him trapped, and are going to ask him some questions. (Even the good guy polity has an organization devoted to torture and interrogation, and the good guy polity has access to guys with mindreading/mindraping powers.) Segue to a flashback to the bad guys experiences. Relationships, and betrayals, how they shaped him to who he is, and his final loyalty. End flashback, he immediately has his own pet monsters eat him to avoid betraying that final loyalty.

      So, yeah. Events without emotional context, a reason to care, are worthless. But is the ‘character development’ in your head the same as ‘character development’ in mine?

      1. — But is the ‘character development’ in your head the same as ‘character development’ in mine? —

        Well, I can’t be sure, and here on Long Island, the head-swapping shops are heavily overbooked just now. But I’ll elaborate on what I mean: two things that don’t always “jive,” though a first-rate storyteller will ensure that they do so.

        First, there’s “character development,” in which the character struggles against his limitations and the constraints of his circumstances to find the solution to his challenges. That’s plot-dependent and setting-dependent. In a sense, it’s the more creative aspect of the fiction writer’s trade.

        Second, there’s character development, in which the character addresses his own spectrum of desires, fears, and convictions, finds the lacunae in them, and makes necessary adjustments. The adjustments, to be organic with the story, must be coupled to his “character development” (and therefore to his solution to his major challenges). While less creative in the strict sense — there are really only three general varieties of character development, as everyone since Flaubert has known full well — it’s more difficult than “character development,” owing to the constraints on plausible human emotional transformations.

        The great storytellers have a facility with merging the two kinds. It’s very hard, but then, if I may quote Tom Hank’s character in A League of Their Own, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

        How does that march with what you had in mind?

        1. I’m not sure; my thinking may be a little bit too confused.

          It has been a very long time since I have read any of the manga I’ve discussed. So, I’ve forgotten a lot about details of structure and character, and at the same time haven’t brought my current understanding of story to bear. I’m not sure if they had ‘difficult choices presented to the character’ or ‘characters changing their minds from deep introspection about their values’. Yes, characters do change their minds, but that may all be demands of the plot, rather than something truly justified.

          I do know that the manga succeeded in establishing character in a way that made me care about the fights.

          The bit I described of how Naruto starts? The C-Rank arc fights are boring if you care nothing for Kakashi, Sakura, or Sasuke, do not care that Naruto wants them to like him, do not care what happens to Naruto, and do not care about the characters introduced solely for the arc. The first fight in Naruto shows us that there is good in Naruto Uzumaki, good that justifies caring about the brat. The stuff in between the fights shows why he wants people to like him, why relationships are important to him. The team introduction, the bell test, and the d ranks are pretty important for stuff like making the reader care what happens to Sasuke, despite him being a bit of a dick to Naruto.

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