An article on Wired today talks about a technique to rob ATMs using USB sticks, so long as the ATM is still running Windows XP. Had I watched this on an episode of television, I would have called shenanigans. Not because it seems unrealistic, but because it's too easy (more on that in a sec). And surely there can't still be ATM machines full of money still running on Windows XP out there.
In reality, I see problems like this all the time in my day job. Managers don't want to spend money to upgrade and maintain old hardware or code, even in critical systems. If a developer can't point to a specific vulnerability and prove an urgent risk, it's put off until never. There's no revenue in it. When something goes wrong, someone else gets blamed for it. I can easily imagine some executive of some large bank corporation scoffing at the cost of upgrading ATMs.
The kicker in this story is how the ATM is taken offline and the hack is untraceable. No one knows how much this has been used through the world, or if the criminals were able to intercept custom pins and card numbers.
The realistic part of the story? It isn't actually easy. Considerable effort and money went into developing the malicious code, including:
It's a ridiculous image. Research—talking to experts in the field—adds so much in terms of verisimilitude to a story. Lazy writers often take the easy path. If they do research, it's no more than gleaning a few cool-sounding words for their script.
In The Superhero Murders, my work in progress, I have an "evil app" used to track superheroes and coordinate attacks against them (it's a little more detailed than that, but you'll have to wait for the release.) I had to put some time into what resources would be needed to develop the app, how it would be hidden from the rest of the development team, and what kind of person would put this thing together. While I don't plan to spend a lot of time on the details, it's good to know. It's like that Hemingway quote.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water”
I talked a little about descriptions in the past, but there is one thing that continually seems to elude many writers, myself included. It's a simple question of character. The point of a Point of View character is to deliver the story and the world through the eyes of an interesting character. Otherwise, we might as well stick with an objective-omniscient point of view and never bother.
For me, description isn't about describing things. As I said in the earlier post, it's about establishing place for a scene, mood and character. All true, but what is missing is the lens.
The character is the lens. An author acquaintance of mine recently noted to me that she had no idea what color her curtains were without glancing over her shoulder to check. Well, then, if she were to describe herself hard at work in that room, would it make sense to describe the color of the curtains? Not if we're firmly rooted in her point of view.
In the past, when I wrote, I had a mental movie playing. I saw every detail. I meticulously transferred those images to prose, every glance, every smile, every cough, every scratch. But that is a waste of words. The reader has their own mental moving playing, and no matter how much you describe your mental movie, it is not the reader's mental movie. They will always form their own images. So, the first job of description is to get the reader's mental reels spinning. It doesn't take much.
A movie theater is not just a movie theater though. It can be old and trashy or new and luxurious. It can be cramped or plush. So, yes, it deserves a few words to get the reader into the place.
Then what? The next job is to point out what is important or noteworthy. Let's say it's a brand-new, plush, and cool despite the heat outside. Now, there's some youths in the front row. They're in ripped jeans. Not much detail, right? But they obviously don't belong. The reader's mind is probably adding some detail despite the paucity of details. One reader might add a tattoo, another might add an earring or a hairstyle. If I need a specific effect, a particular type of youth in ripped jeans, I can add a few more details, but there is probably something more important....
I haven't mentioned a point of view character in this theater yet, but rather than focus on things like eye color, hair color, height, build and complexion--I would most likely start showing the reader something of what is happening inside that brain. How does the retired doctor who is there to illegally exchange a lot of cash for a year's supply of medication for his wife's rare condition feel about those youth? Their eye color suddenly doesn't matter as much. What matters is that they're a threat. At least, that's what our retired doc thinks. He's not noting every detail about these kids, he's thinking of a way to get them expelled. Maybe he could say he saw them playing with a camcorder, or that they were being loud and making rude comments.
What we have so far is just description and reaction. There is a deeper level. Rather than use the author's voice to tell the reader that there are a group of youth's in ripped jeans, why not let the character's voice come out. "Four or five callow lads in ripped denims loitered on the front row of the auditorium...." I didn't provide any extra detail. It's only fair. But notice how now we have a sense of what our retired doctor sees. Not just what is in his line of sight.
It is always about character, unless it's about story, which is always about character.
Beyond the five sense, the human mind does a lot of processing. Scientists differ on the number of senses we have, but it's not five. Wikipedia lists a sense of temperature, time, pain, self, mind, kinesthesia, balance and acceleration. It also mentions a sense of suffocation, chemoreceptors, a sense of vasodilation (blushing), and a host of other things that our brain is constantly busy with. So just focusing on five senses cheapens the deep Point of View experience--though, yes, if you're going to describe things, please do remember to use more than just visual clues.
Last point: concerning the amount of description to use: it varies. One character will notice much more than another. (And some people seem oblivious to their surroundings.) But grounding the reader, establishing mood, and focusing on character seem to be the keys to really good descriptions. It's not about what is there so much as how the character reacts to it and the mood it sets.
How many times have you heard the phrase "weak verbs" or "no adverbs" or "no words ending in -ly" during a critique or writing chat? It's one of those lingering rules in the community that says adverbs are bad. But are they?
I tend to be that guy that balks at all the rules. Here are my thoughts.
The short, easy rule goes thus: it's all just tools on the tool belt. Figure out how to use them well. That applies to just about any rule you encounter.
Adverbs: it's not so much that they are a sign of weak verbs--they certainly can be--but that some writers have been brainwashed and trained to reflexively shout, "weak verbs, weak verbs" when they see a word ending in -ly. No thought about how much they're enjoying the story or if the verb in question is working or not.
So here's the short version of my theory--taken from a forum comment I made last week.
I'll start with the examples.
Still, it is true that using too many modifiers will indeed make a manuscript feel wordy, fluffy and weak overall. It's one of those red flag things to be mindful of. (Note I didn't say rule.)
So here's my motto: modifiers modify things. If you have to modify the thing, maybe you chose the wrong thing to begin with. It's not a rule, just something to consider.
But some folks believe in rules. Some folks scan your manuscript looking for words that end in -ly so they can scream, "weak verb, weak verb." I love those comments. They let me know when to stop reading the critique and move on
When it comes to rules, I try to understand the wisdom behind the rule and forget the rule itself. It's like Matsuo Basho, the 16th-century Japanese poet told his students. "Learn the rules well, and then forget them." The rules are there for the beginning, but there is a deeper wisdom that you need to internalize before you really know what you're doing.
Fight Scenes and Action Scenes are, at their core, just like any other scene in many ways--especially when it comes to structure. They center around a basic yes/no question born from a character goal (based on something they care about or need), an obstacle keeping them from that goal, and an inevitable resolution that can be summed up as success, failure, or one of those combined with a complication.
Fighting and action involved mortal risk, so characters enter into a fight with strong motivation. Each character needs something or is fighting for something they care about. The character that approaches a fight or action scene with confidence and nonchalance or disinterest isn't interesting (unless he's about to learn a lesson about blind arrogance.)
Not only are goals in conflict, but also wills and personality. Once goals, consequences, and motivations are clear, let the fight first demonstrate who has the distinct advantage due to skill, numbers, position, etc. This continues until the other side is close to losing. Risk rises. Then, let the fight be about wills, needs, values, choice, risk and sacrifice. Who will sacrifice more? Who is more desperate? What choices do they make, and what do those choices cost?
The actions and events in the fight or action scene illustrate those motivations, choices and sacrifices. Personality and backstory add juicy detail and nuance to the unfolding choreography--a commando fights different than a housewife, but just as desperately.
When the action is resolved, not only is the story affected by the action or combat, but the characters will have been affected as well--usually one more than the others. What has the victor gained? What has the loser lost? What are the costs of their choices? What has been given up?
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.