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Welcome Back to Nine Worlds!

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Around this time last year I decided to start doing things that were positive but scary. The first of those was to sit on a panel at the Nine Worlds 2016 convention – an experience which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the fact my hands were shaking all the way through. Since then, the list of scary things done has expanded to include the following:

  1. Sing in a concert as part of a quartet (so no one to hide behind)
  2. Sing in an international competition as part of a quartet
  3. Sign up for egg donation
  4. Dance with strangers at a ball
  5. Speak to one of my celebrity crushes (I say speak… ‘squeak’ is a more accurate term)
  6. Go out with people I don’t know

(If you think that looks like a tame list, I’d like to point out that for a repressed introvert most of those took considerable effort and spoons.)

Anyway, this weekend it’s time for me to add another one to the tally: stand up on a stage and give a presentation. And we’ve come full-circle, because the stage I’ll be standing on is part of the Nine Worlds 2017 convention. This Sunday I’m scheduled to be talking about different types of narrative technique and how they impact your audience. My day job involves looking at a lot of other people’s presentation slides and, after 12 years of seeing some truly awful slide decks, it was really fun to write my own. I’m quite pleased with how they came out. And on the day, I’ll be faintly terrified.

What does this mean for you, my loyal readers? Well, basically it means that over the next few weeks I’ll be reporting back on the various talks I attended, hopefully with some really interesting and productive content on all things story-related. I’ll also make my slides available at some point, so you can have a look at what I presented.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a lecture about classical monsters in popular culture coming up shortly, and I want to get a good seat. 🙂

 

The Focalizer: I/She/They’ll Be Back

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More narrative perspective theory! Yay, I hear you cry! But this stuff’s important, chaps, so buckle up. We’re going back to that whole homodiegetic stuff from the end of last year, and taking it apart in a bit more detail, courtesy of Mieke Bal and Gerard Genette.

Redefining Perspective

As discussed last week, even 1st POV stories can have multiple types of narrator involved – implied authors, reflectors, disguised narrators, etc. What you as a writer always need to be aware of is the bias used by any of these narrators. The reader’s opinion of the story is naturally affected by the lens through which the story is narrated. What the narrator sees, the reader sees, and passes judgement in the same way. Genette calls this the focalizer:

‘…the focalizer influences how the reader perceives the character seen. But our game does not stop there: we cannot determine “who sees” without taking into account the medium through which we perceive that sight: the narrating. So we must know “who speaks.”‘ – Mieke Bal, Essays in Narratology

The narrator is obviously the person who speaks – what Bal calls the “author’s delegate” – and they are the focal lens by which the reader therefore sees other characters and places. Bal doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between the bias of the actual author and the bias of the narrator, as Booth does, but it’s an important one so don’t forget it.

Bal splits it down further – the actors (characters) produce the story through their actions; the focalizer places the bias or lens on that story by which it is portrayed; the narrator recounts it in words and thus creates the narrative for the implied audience. See the diagram below for clarity:

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Narrative Levels

This is where we come back to homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators. As far as I can work out, they’re all pretty much different terms for the exact same thing:

  1. INDIRECT: observer narration, frame narration, absent narration, heterodiegtic narration
  2. DIRECT: narrator agent, present narration, homodiegetic narration

If I’m wrong about this, and there’s important differences, do please enlighten me. Because this is a subject that critical theorists seem to love throwing multiple technical terms at, which makes it occasionally tricky to decipher.

One important point to note is that the homodiegetic narrator can exist in a heterodiegetic (frame) story. The frame narrator, as he’s not present and active in the events themselves, is always heterodiegetic, but as soon as the character who is or was present takes over as a disguised narrator, relating the events, that focalizer becomes homodiegetic.

EXAMPLE (because I’m confusing myself): In the story of One Thousand & One Nights, aka Arabian Nights, the primary level narrator in 3rd POV is the ruler Shahryār. His unfortunate and brilliant wife, Scheherazade, is the focalizer and heterodiegetic narrator (she was neither present at the events of the stories she relays, nor is she the primary level narrator). Within one of her stories, for example that of Aladdin, Aladdin is the homodiegetic narrator because he is present and active in the events of his own story.

On top of all that, you also have extradiegetic narrators. This is a particular type of frame narrative, where the narrator is outside the fictional universe of a particular text. ‘The Making of “Lord of the Rings”‘ documentaries, for example, are a type of extradiegetic narrative. In the example above, Shahryār counts as an extradiegetic narrator – the primary level of the overall story – as does the grandfather in The Princess Bride.

The reason for understanding the different levels of narrators is to determine how much authority they have for recounting these events, how much reliance we as readers can place on them, and also how close their relationship to the reader is.

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A heterodiegetic self-conscious narrator addressing an explicit ‘reader’

The Narrated

Genette turns the words of the story into an object, which he calls ‘the narrated’. These are the words that the narrator speaks, and are therefore ‘subordinate’ to the narrator or ‘dependent on the subject’ to exist in the form they take. Bal calls this a hyponarrative or hypodiegetic. That is to say, the dependent relationship between the story and its narrator. (I think – honestly, I started getting properly confused around this point.)

So when, in a frame story, the heterodiegetic narrator hands over to the homodiegetic narrator (i.e. the one who was actually there), the level of the hyponarrative changes. It moves from being a story seen through the frame narrator’s eyes into reported speech, or direct discourse – a story being told to that top-level narrator – and therefore the story becomes dependent on the new storyteller, or focalizer. And remember, in that scenario the story itself – the narrated – isn’t happening to the storyteller at that moment in time, so the events themselves remain a level below the homodiegetic narrator. Any characters within the reported story, however, are basically experiencing it in real time and are therefore also a level below, subordinate to the way the focalizer is telling the story and unable to respond to the bias being placed on their actions.

“Scheherazade tells that Jaafer tells that the tailor tells that the barber tells that his brother (and he has six brothers) tells that …. ” When such a change in level occurs, the reader becomes aware, if not of the presence, at least of the activity (and thus of the existence) of the narrator within the narrative… The narrated is everything located at the level immediately below the level at which the act of enunciating is located. ~ Bal

Yeah, see what I mean about lit crit essays? Headache-central.

The Focalizingfrom_my_point_of_view_king_681795

Like The Shining, but different. This relates to point of view, and has two definitions:

  1. External/perceptible focalization: what you can see or are looking at. Physical, usually tangible, things.
  2. Internal/imperceptible focalization: what can’t be ‘seen’ – dreams, feelings, personal perspective, opinion, etc.

A narrator character with limited privilege (restricted information) therefore has limited focalization – this is also called ‘restriction of field’.

The thing is, the reader doesn’t necessarily get all of a character’s focalization. A minutely detailed description of their surroundings, or the person they’re talking to, would disrupt the pace of the story (not to mention boring the reader). So what you as the reader actually get from the character’s focalization is their ‘centre of interest‘ (the things they have selected to mention, out of all the details available), plus their ‘gaze‘ (the things they actually noticed, rather than the things which are technically visible but the character just didn’t spot), plus their ‘presentation‘ (the way they put what they can see across, including bias). Combine the three and you get the narrated.

Focalization changes as narrator changes, and can also change from external to internal as the narrator shifts from telling us what they see to telling us what they think. When it comes to self-reflection, the focalizer themself becomes the object of focalization.

Narrator vs. Focalizer

A lot of the time they’re the same. Like, nearly all the time. But as you can have different levels of narration, and therefore different levels of focalization, so you can have levels of what is focalized.

Okay, so in a close 3POV story, you have the character-narrator – the homodiegetic narrator – and also the person doing the actual talking to the audience, who is presumably the implied author. With me so far? The homodiegetic narrator does a ton of focalizing, obviously. But they are simultaneously the object of focalization by the implied author. You as the reader are getting the story (and other characters) through the lens of the narrator-character, and the narrator-character through the lens of the narrator-author.

Immanent Rules

In simple terms, what is the narrative structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator? How often does it change focalizer? Who provides internal/imperceptible focalization, and does that change? Does it switch between hetero- and homodiegetic narrator? Who has the most privilege, in terms of information and insight?

Once we work those out – and usually it’s pretty instinctive – we can also spot if and when the story breaks its own rules. Then we can ask why it was done and what impact it created on the reader.

2068b8f11dda3fb1564bc67ae8074810What the hell is the point of all this complexity, I hear you cry? Believe me, guys, I’m crying too. I had to wade through this lot, unabridged. But I think it boils down to this: by identifying who is saying what to the reader, at what level, and with what information available, we can identify the bias of those words and therefore how much reliance we can place on the report. All these technical terms let us be really, really specific about that identification.

Nine Worlds: Non-Binary Gender in Myth & Fiction

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Two academic talks: ‘Crossing Fantasy’s Borders: the Fluidity of Gender and Genre’ by Taylor Driggers, and ‘The Age of Athena: Gender Non-Binary’ by Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart

This session was another one of two halves. The first presentation looked at the concept of gender roles in fantasy, using Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness as an example text, and the second looked at examples of non-binary gender in mythology, history and literature.

I’ll be honest, I was at a slight disadvantage for the first paper as it’s been many years since I read Left Hand, and I couldn’t remember it in enough detail to really contribute much. It has inspired me to go back and read it again, though. If it’s not a book you know, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Gender & Society

I’m actually going to start with some fairly fundamental terms that could easily get mixed up in this discussion:

  • Sex – biological status. The physical equipment you possess.
  • Gender – attributes and behaviours culturally defined as male or female.
  • Identity – someone’s unique sense of self.

Binary genders are a cultural construct, not a natural one. Nature doesn’t dictate that girls like pink and boys like blue – in fact, pink was considered to be a boy’s colour until the Victorians changed things up. Not only is it a cultural construct – it’s a modern cultural construct. There are tons of examples of a far more fluid approach to gender in ancient mythology.

Athena is the prime example. She was the goddess of strategic war, and also a goddess of weaving. She disguised herself as male whenever she pretended to be mortal (even to her favourite, Odysseus), but is a mother figure in her divine form and never denies her sex. She is balanced. Nor is that balance restricted to female figures in the Greek pantheon. Dionysos is her male counterpart, often dressing in women’s clothes when he masquerades as mortal, yet never denying his sex. He is a god of fertility and a god of frenzy. It’s not just okay when you’re divine, either. Herakles – the ultimate mythological Jock – spent a long time dressed as a woman and taking on a female gender.

Even relatively modern history has examples of figures with gender-fluid roles.

But this distinction is something we seem to have lost sight of. Binary gender and identity has become so default that anyone who doesn’t conform is considered to be Other.

Otherness in SF&F

This assumption becomes an active handicap when considering texts like Left Hand of Darkness:

“Binary identities can only engage with this text as an outsider.” – Taylor Driggers

Through the eyes of her protagonist, Le Guin presents this fundamentally blinkered view of gender when confronted with a species that can change sex and therefore has no concept of gender. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is another superb example of the dangers of assuming binary gender is default. Go read it – it’s an astonishing book.

“Western thought and language are all organised around binary hierarchical concepts which mostly have gender connotations with the masculine as dominant.” – Helene Cixous

The Sun and the Moon, Light and Dark, Culture and Nature, there were a ton more examples given. I’m not sure if I agree with all of them but the fundamental point still stands. These are things which don’t inherently have a gender, yet we attribute one to them and – with that attribution – assign them differing values.

SF&F is transgressive and disruptive. It subverts and pushes at understood norms and boundaries. It is, as Lisa Tuttle said in a different panel, the ‘literature of ideas’. The idea that Left Hand explores is that Otherness is neither inherently bad nor something to be avoided. It is, in fact, essential for survival and growth, for the evolution of society. SF&F lets us respect Otherness as a reality, and as an equally valid approach to living.

Next week: tricking the reader through unreliable narrators.

Nine Worlds: A Newbie’s Review

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BMw-j2D4Last weekend I went to the Nine Worlds 2016 convention in London – a gathering run by geeks, for geeks, celebrating all things geek. Over the course of the next several weeks (possibly months, seriously, I took so many notes) I’ll be writing up the various sessions I attended. Before that happens, though, I have to do a certain amount of translating my own handwriting and I ran out of time this week. So instead, with apologies for the slight cheat, here’s an abridged version of the overall review that I was invited to submit to the British Fantasy Society journal.

I don’t go to many conventions. In fact, Nine Worlds 2016 was the second ever and is a different beast to the World Fantasy Con, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was also – I’ll be honest here – quietly freaking out because I’d volunteered in a fit of madness to speak on a panel for the first time. But more on that later.

I wandered along on Thursday evening to pick up my ticket, rather than stand in a time-sapping queue the following morning (Top tip #1: this is a Good Plan). The Novotel Hammersmith is in a convenient spot, transport-wise, but extensive scaffolding combined with a natural propensity to get lost ended up with me going in through the loading bay.

The badges had optional add-ons of pronoun stickers and coloured films indicating whether the wearer was interested in talking to strangers. I’ve never come across this before, and it set the tone of the Con for me. This was an event where the expression of, and respect for, self-identity was at the forefront – a tone which carried through into the programming, where there was a heavy focus on gender and identity issues in genre.

The programme was massive: nine tracks on everything from VR programming to kaiju-colouring for kids. There was also an agenda of social activities (including pirate knitting, which sounds wonderfully whimsical). There was stuff on films, TV, books, comics, fanfic, gaming, and creating props and costume.

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Nine Worlds also welcomes  Architeuthidae

And, wow, the costumes. About 25% of the attendees were in costume and some of the skill on display was truly impressive. Everyone got five blue tokens with their badge which were, quite literally, tokens of appreciation to give out to people wearing stuff you liked. I’d given mine all out by 11am on Saturday. There was high-quality cosplay, roving packs of Ghostbusters, some gorgeous misc Steampunk, very short Stormtroopers (I’m guessing seven years old?), and a man with a giant squid on his back. I don’t know who you were, sir, nor what the squid was about, but I enjoyed the absurdity.

There are two main approaches to Cons, it seems: academic and social. Obviously you end up doing a bit of both, but for me the main focus was panels. If people like James Barclay, Jen Williams and Lisa Tuttle are willing to give me tips on how to improve my writing, you can be sure I’ll sit and take copious notes.

What I didn’t realise beforehand was that tracks at Nine Worlds fall on a spectrum ranging from full-on academic papers to geeks frothing about cool stuff with each other. This means there’s something for absolutely everybody, but it also means you need to work out which sessions cater to the way you want to engage. The Living Words and Academia & Humanities tracks were for people hoping to learn new things. Alternatively, Crafting & Creating and Fanworks were for those there to share their love of the weird and wonderful.

My agenda went out the window pretty quickly once I cottoned on. The first session I attended – a panel about world-building techniques – was an interesting revision of stuff I already knew but it didn’t have any revelatory moments. The second session, on the other hand, was a presentation on the history, development and cultural impact of Chinese SF&F which was fascinating and completely new information to me. The third was a series of short papers by academics on the use of foreign language in genre fiction, and I came away from that with a fresh understanding of the assumptions and associations readers can draw from, for example, Latin as opposed to Welsh. Don’t worry, this is all good stuff I’ll be sharing with you guys over the next couple of months.

I became more relaxed about my self-appointed schedule, which was a smart move. It gave me the leisure to continue fascinating conversations about literary constructs and megatextuality with people I’d just met, or had known at a distance for years but never actually sat down and talked to.

Top Tip #2: people at conventions like this are generally awesome. Yes, the idea of talking to a stranger can be terrifying to an introvert, but everyone’s there because they love the same things. I knew a total of two people, going in, and by Saturday morning there was a loose coalition of around eight of us that eddied around a couple of sofas in the bar. It gave us a home base to operate from – somewhere to go between sessions, people who would keep an eye out for me if needed, and a guarantee of good conversation which I could just slide into. In the hour before I was due to talk on a panel, there was also somewhere to sit and collect my thoughts, even bounce some of them off sympathetic listeners, and generally keep my calm at acceptable levels.

Funny story about the panel session: I’d volunteered to be involved in speaking in some capacity a while back (I’m currently on a ‘kick through the walls of my comfort zone’ drive) and, knowing that Dr. Nick was also going to the Con, I’d extracted a promise from him that he’d sit in the audience as emotional support. What I didn’t know was that he’d also volunteered. The day the organisers emailed me to say which panel they’d put me on, I got a text from him saying ‘I can’t be in the audience at your session.’ Quite by coincidence, the organisers had put us on the same panel. Which was great for me, since emotional support was therefore sitting on my immediate left, but a tad boring for him at times because he’s heard all my stories at least twice before.

Zeppelin-Luftschiff "Esperia"

Dr. Nick was speaking. Of COURSE we talked about zeppelins.

The panel was in one of the ‘geeking out about cool stuff’ streams and, frankly, I didn’t expect much of an audience. Who cares about how to use real-life knowledge of naval architecture, ancient history, cyber security or historical costume in running roleplay games? Quite a few people, as it turned out. I was very nervous but the moderator, Ash, had given us a list of questions in advance and started us off on some of the easier ones so I found my footing relatively fast. The conversation was largely anecdotal, rather than containing any ‘how to’ suggestions, but we got enough questions to run out of time and several people came to chat afterwards. I think I even managed to convert someone to Live Action Role Play, which I’ll take as a win.

So there you have it: what I did on my Nine Worlds holiday. I’ve come away with new friends, new ideas, an invitation to submit to an anthology and the British Fantasy Society journal, and a reading list two pages long. In fact, that reading list might earn its very own blog post, as the final one in my ‘here’s what I learned at Nine Worlds’ series.

Next week: what James Barclay said about world-building. 🙂

How to Create Legendary Villains

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Kristen Lamb's Blog

American Horror Story "Freak Show" on FX American Horror Story “Freak Show” on FX

This past Saturday I held my Bullies & Baddies class and a couple of the folks posited a really good question worth talking about. How do we write great villains? One of the reasons I love holding this class is that all stories require a core antagonist (who is responsible for generating the story problem in need of resolution), but there are different types of antagonists. All villains are antagonists but not all antagonists are villains.

But since we went there, what goes into creating a truly terrifying villain?

I watch a ton of movies and television series. I also read around three novels a week. I’m always studying, breaking stories apart so that I can understand them better. I do it for my fiction, but also so I can share what I learn with you guys.

Though the series isn’t for everyone…

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Ancient to Modern: Updating the Fairytale

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Since I started my MA course, my blog posts have basically been about the week’s assignment. This week, however, the assignment was all about structure and heroic monomyth, which is something I’ve covered a lot on here already. I don’t want to go over the same ground, especially since there wasn’t really any new thoughts that came out of it, so I’m going to take the liberty of sharing my creative homework with you instead.

Having looked at the Grimm fairytale of the Girl Without Hands (which, seriously, is messed up on so many levels), we were told to use the basic structure to create a new story. We were allowed to change aspects, but had to justify why we’d done so. I changed three core things:

  1. I gave the heroine some actual agency. There are fairytales that let the protagonist make decisions, rather than things just happening to them, but this isn’t one of them. I’ve ranted about the importance of agency before. You can manage without it – Katniss Everdeen – but I’d rather not have to.
  2. No resetting. In the original story, the heroine’s hands are restored as part of her happy ending. I felt like this detracted somewhat from her struggles along the way. This builds on what I said last week about heroes and villains, and the stigma of physical deformity. Handicaps aren’t a barrier to success and happiness, and I think we should be writing more stories that make this clear.
  3. No devil and angels need apply. People do what they do for reasons, not because the infernal/divine intervened. It’s a point that comes back to agency, I guess, but it’s way more interesting to explore WHY someone’s behaving in this way. Even the villains. Especially the villains. Black and white characters were fine for fairytales but modern writing has a different style.

Anyway, without further ado, my synopsis for a modern retelling of the Girl Without Hands:


 

the_girl_without_hands_by_projectgrimmThe Girl Without Feet

Specialist Grace Donnelly was on her second tour with the Bomb Disposal Squad in Karachi when things went wrong. It should have been a routine procedure of unexploded ordinance in a cleared area. When the team got there, however, they found an ambush waiting for them. They ought to have pulled out and returned another day, but Captain Hobson refused.

The previous week Hobson had been told he needed to increase his results or face an enquiry. He couldn’t risk that – too many pieces of equipment had fallen off the back of lorries – so he pushed his team hard. When the ambush blew up he refused to pull out, instead ordering Specialist Donnelly to ‘do her damn job instead of whining like a schoolgirl’. When she protested, he threatened her with court martial for insubordination and disobeying an officer.

As Grace crawled closer to the bomb, the intensity of the firepower increased. She tried to retreat but Hobson shouted over the radio for her to finish the mission. Then a stray round hit the bomb in exactly the wrong place.

The explosion sent her flying. The world disappeared in a pounding silence. She felt like she was floating, but a pressure round her legs anchored her. It didn’t hurt, though she thought distantly that it probably should. Someone was with her, mouthing her name. But she was so tired. It could wait until she’d slept.

She surfaced in Malir Cantonment Hospital. The doctors said shrapnel from the bomb had cut through her shins. There wasn’t enough to save – they’d had to amputate both legs from the knee down. She was out. What’s more, the report Hobson had filed laid the blame firmly at her feet (haha). He claimed she’d rushed in, counter to orders, endangering the entire squad. She was discharged without compensation.

Grace fought, of course, but suing the Army was a hopeless prospect. She couldn’t exactly afford a lawyer, either. Back home, all her savings went on physio and rent. She sat over her laptop, hunched in pain, and tried to make her bank account balance. She turned off the central heating. She rationed her food. She sold most of her furniture.

Then, one day, a man was waiting for her at the physio’s. His name was Simon and he worked for Help For Heroes. He said there was a place at Tedworth House with her name on it. It took some swallowing of pride, but Grace knew she couldn’t carry on alone much longer. By the weekend she was comfortably installed in a private room in the charity’s recovery centre. She was warm, well fed, and Simon came to see her every day. Her spirits began to recover.

When he suggested challenging the terms of her discharge, she objected. No one ever won a case against the Forces. Simon pointed out that the Forces had only acted under information received. The guilty party was Captain Hobson. Why not go after him personally? Simon knew a good lawyer.

Word spread of Grace’s situation. Tedworth House residents asked veterans, who asked contacts. Evidence trickled in of Hobson’s record: paperwork from people he’d sold stolen equipment to, witness statements from her old team, a copy of the memo Hobson had received pushing him to increase results. Then, miraculously, Simon brought her a transcript of the team’s radio traffic on the day of the explosion.

The case never went to court. Grace stood up before an Army Enquiry Board, limping but mobile on her prosthetic legs, and presented the accumulated evidence. Hobson was given a Dishonourable Discharge and Grace accorded full compensation. She spent £300 of it on a weekend in Paris with Simon.

The Right Time for Morality

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A couple of weeks ago the raptor sent me this link to a fantasy workshop. As preparation for the workshop, the applicants are asked to ‘write a scene which shows how one of your characters is morally conflicted.’

Now, I love morality questions in fantasy. They’re a great tool for character development, characterisation and culture building in any genre. In fantasy, where so often the societal norm is pretty accepting of murder, theft, pillage, etc, I particularly enjoy drawing attention to the (by real life standards) somewhat sociopathic morality of many ‘heroes’.

What made me stop and think on this occasion, however, was more a question of pacing. All the scenes that sprang immediately to my mind for the workshop prep revolved around the character doing the morally questionable act without thinking about it, and then agonising over it later. Which fits the brief, but isn’t actually what the brief is asking for.

Being morally torn whilst committing the act unquestionably adds tension to the scene. The protagonist is tense, therefore the reader is as well. But it also has the potential to slow the scene down as you explore the reasons behind that tension, the inner conflict, and the decision making process. This isn’t necessarily an issue – it depends very much on the action in question. If you’re in the middle of a high-action scene, however, disrupting the pacing for an internal moral struggle isn’t necessarily the right option.

I guess that leaves you with two options, as a writer. Either you subtly foreshadow the moral conflict so that, when it’s crunch time, the reader already understands without having to explore it further. Or you have the character go right ahead, and deal with the moral fall-out later.

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Doing the right thing for the right reasons, against the law