Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 3: Stumping Howard at Conduit

Howard here… I’ve learned that it’s a really bad idea to run out for a bio-break between podcasts. When I returned to the packed panel room I could tell that everyone’s attitude towards me was subtly different. It wasn’t until we started recording that I realized Brandon had turned our Q&A panel into a “Stump Howard” panel. Our good friend Eric James Stone joined us for the fun.

As silly themes go, this one works well. So well, in fact, that we went six minutes into overtime. The questions were all good, and yes, according to the rules (of which I was not apprised, I should add in my defense) I got stumped one time. It was the question about making aliens seem alien. Go figure.

Writing Prompt: Start with a device that vaporises water, ala Batman Begins, and turn it into a believable superweapon which is not being used to destroy the world.


19 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 3: Stumping Howard at Conduit”

  1. Not to answer the writing prompt before I’ve listened to the podcast, but that’s basically how they originally defeated Godzilla in his first movie.

  2. Evil Overlords:

    The ONE believable megalomaniac I have EVER seen who literally did want to destroy the world was Emperor Cartagia on Babylon 5. The man was insane, and wanted to become a god, and he believed that if he let the Vorlons destroy Centauri Prime (his planet), it would ascend him to godhood.

    I didn’t doubt it for a second, which is probably at least as much because of the actor’s skill as that of J. Michael Straczynski (the writer/creator of the series).

  3. {off-topic}A question for Brandon (or those that know) about New-Media & Warbreaker:

    I’ve listened to the podcasts on the Impacts of “New-Media” for writers, and am interested in the effects of this.

    Seeing as Brandon just released Warbreaker – which was available online for quite some time before editing/publishing – I was wondering if there was a noticeable difference in sales/publicity for Warbreaker attributable to dipping into New-Media?

    Of course, I understand it may be too early to notice, or that there are just too many confounding factors to evaluate such a thing.

    And re: Batman Begins. I actually never picked up on the flaw of needed to vaporize it instead of just letting it stay in the water. I couldn’t get past the fact that Batman + evil guy were fighting on a device that was vaporizing water out of pipes 50 feet below… yet their bodies were unaffected (human body ~60-70% water). Part of being Batman, I guess.

  4. Howard: Sounds familiar. When the vocal trio for my big band practices, we switch each others’ music when someone leaves the room.

    Tricksy, they are. Tricksy.

  5. @Avonwatches Re: New Media — I suspect that “Wheel of Time” effect is going to drown whatever “New Media” effect might be present with Warbreaker. The good news is that the book is selling well enough that its online availablity has not appeared to hurt it in the least.

    A better analysis of “New Media” effect might be sales figures of Baen title that exist in the Baen Free Library. Eric Flint and Toni Weisskopf are the experts there.

    Re: human bodies and water — those were my thoughts precisely. A weapon that induces “molecular resonance” in H2O is something you can point at people when you want them to explode. And I suspect it would be less energy-efficient (and certainly less discriminating) than just using bullets.

  6. @Howard.

    Oooh. That’s a good point (WoT effect). I am glad it is selling well. I actually assumed that online coverage/release would enhance sales via publicity, but my presupposition was that people who have read some/all of it would still buy the physical book (I myself would for anything worth reading). But I suppose it can work the other way too, the electronic free version now infringing on book sales.

    Thanks. I am going to check out the Baen website now.

    re: Super villain motivations/weapons. I found Elliot Carver (villain 007: Tomorrow Never dies) to be believably motivated/insane/deluded. Alot of people disagree with me though and just think it didn’t work. However, I think it does – but the flaw is that not that many people can associate with building an empire and being far-removed from the common person like society’s elite. Perhaps sometimes the villain’s motivation etc can make sense, but really require the reader/watcher to step into the villain’s shoes.

  7. Mmmm, megalomania…

    Somethings that have worked for me, as a reader are to either put the villain at the beginning stages of conquest, which narrows his/her scope to understandable proportions, or to have something ELSE underly/accompany the megalomania which explains it. Like Howard mentioned last week, monocausation is boring and reads false. Megalomania + self-loathing, for example, is much more complex and interesting. The need to control everyone else in the world might be a compensation strategy, etc.

  8. @Jen Another way to raise the stakes is to have the super-villain doing something that he knows will make him more powerful and/or rich, but that he DOESN’T know will induce a disaster of much greater proportions.

    In fact, you could probably get away with building a trilogy around that concept. Beat the villian in Book I, but only barely. In Book II the protagonist(s) discover there is a greater threat brought on by the villain’s machinations, and strive to not be bested by it. Book III wraps it all up.

    Something like “superweapon works, but quietly causes massive Ozone hole.” Or maybe “Mind control device works, but lowers our defenses against alien attack.”

    I’m making it sound formulaic, but that’s just because all the trappings of good writing and plotting have been stripped away from the framework.

  9. I also think that an Evil-Overlord type character needs to not be someone that everyone hates. If you study history, the best dictators are the ones that had a very charismatic personality, and were able to win over the masses or the army by their brilliant speeches. I’m tired of reading about villains that are cruel to everyone, and that no one likes. How about the hero liberates a country by killing the villain, and the people are sad that the villain is dead?

  10. Re: Cherise
    That’s actually something I’ve come up against in one of my stories (unfinished). The villian has conquered several countries, and instead of killing the leaders, merely exiled them by sending them on a “quest.” They get their countries back once they return, quest completed. In the meantime, he’s been pandering to the population, setting up schools, recruiting (not drafting) the young men into the army, providing for their needs, and etc. The only catch is that the quest is bogus- just a way of getting rid of those in charge without setting himself up as a despot. And as time goes by, and the they don’t come back, the people begin to lose faith in them… yeah, did I mention how that’s an unfinished story?

  11. @K. Solomon I’d suggest removing the black and white villain aspect. I think you could write a good story about the heroes getting caught up in the conflict between the exiled leaders (who return and are rousing up whoever will still support them to start a civil war/coup) and the conqueror, where you slowly reveal that in fact neither side is totally right or totally wrong, that the conqueror send the old leaders on a goose chase to grab power, but that the old leaders aren’t any better rulers as far as the common people are concerned.
    Just my thoughts when reading your post.

  12. Wow. A lot of useful stuff here. As far as megalomania goes, I don’t try to make my villains megalomaniacs. I create my villains, I give them their appearances, their personalities and their backstories, and if those things lead up to megalomania, I let it happen naturally and organically. If those things lead to some other motivation, I make that their end goal.

    And I greatly appreciated the question about making aliens seem alien. My sister has just recruited me to help her write a book about aliens, and, quite frankly, I have no idea what I’m doing. Darn it, Jim: I’m a fantasy author, not a Sci-Fi nut!

  13. The main role of villains and antagonists in stories is to generate suspense, anxiety, and fear in the reader. There are other effects–mystery, poignancy (about the human situation like in Les Mis). But those are secondary.

    For the main things to happen the villain has to be a credible, significant, and immediate threat…all the way through the book until he or she is smushed or wins.

    If he’s not credible, the reader realizes there is no real threat. If the threat is not significant, who cares? If it’s not immediate, again, who cares?

    So how do we do that? Make him or her smart, powerful, a few steps ahead of the hero, and dedicated to doing something we root against (because it’s just plain wrong or because we love our hero and want the best for him and they’re pitted against them). He has to be able to put the hero on his heels most of the way through the book, and our poor hero is scrambling to adjust.

    You can have all sorts of villains–liked by many or few, kooky or calculating, eccentric or plain, noble or sadistic–just as long as they remain significant, immediate, and credible threats. The minute they lose threat status, the game’s over because at that point fear, anxiety, and suspense in the reader vanish.

  14. I agreed with the comment from Howard about making the aliens believably human, or at least human like. I think back to the aliens I’ve enjoyed the most, most of which could be found in Babylon 5, and it was their human characteristics that appealed to me the most. Of course with the Shadows and the Vorlons they were sufficiently inhuman to make differentiate them fromt he other races but even then tiny touches of humanity gave them hooks as characters.

    I’ve just gotten through listening to all of the writing excuses podcasts, and every single one has taught me somethign worthwhile. Thanks guys.

  15. In fact, you could probably get away with building a trilogy around that concept. Beat the villian in Book I, but only barely. In Book II the protagonist(s) discover there is a greater threat brought on by the villain’s machinations, and strive to not be bested by it. Book III wraps it all up.

    Hmm, maybe the villian can be an evil overlord who rules the world and enslaves half the population but in book two it turns out that the evil overlord was really holding the destruction of the world at bay from a bigger menace. And maybe we can have a cool magic system that lets people eat specific metals for power and fly around doing cool Ninja attacks by pushing off metal coins … Wow, I think I’m on to something here. Hope no one has beat me to it.

  16. Saint Dane (villain) from Pendragon wants to destroy the universe in order to build a new one because he thinks people make bad decisions, so, naturally, he should be ruling everything because he makes better decisions, or something. I bought it because destruction of the universe wasn’t his end-goal, just a point he had to reach in order to make his own, super spiffy universe of all hail Saint Dane. He was also some sort of spirit thing instead of a normal human. That’s why he thought he was qualified for the Dictator of the Universe position he hoped to open up.

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