The Driving Force
by Mike Brotzman
©2004 Mike Brotzman -- all rights reserved
In this second installment of how to write transformation stories we will discuss the concept of a 'transformation engine' -- literally, that within the story which drives the transformation. Most (but not all) stories that deal with transformations are going to need an engine of one sort or another. A properly designed transformation engine can be treated as an independent unit that is then coupled with characters and setting to form a plot. Ideally, a transformation engine can be swapped between various character/setting combinations sort of like a closet full of clothing you can mix and match to for a new look.
The most important part of a transformation engine, be it very simple or highly complicated, is that it have a consistent and well defined set of rules. When planning your transformation story the first thing you do is come up with a concept. This basically means you decide who or what will transform into who or what. The next step is to design your transformation engine. This can be as simple as a magic wand that can change anybody into anything; but just as you want to avoid cardboard characters with little or no depth, so you'll probably want to take some time building your transformation engine. A quality transformation engine will pay dividends in the form of a rich storyline that you can squeeze a lot of juice out of and that will keep your readers on the edge of their keyboards.
Transformation stories are highly susceptible to the breakfast cereal syndrome. You know, this is where you buy that new breakfast cereal with the freeze dried berries and the first 3 bowls are like pure heaven, but by the second box you are sort of sick of it and are wanting something new and different. Many transformation stories tend to be "bite sized" because, after all, having a guy turn into a female anthro-equine 5 or 6 times in a row is sort of tedious. A good transformation engine can help get a few more miles out of your story concepts. In the following article I will touch on some of the various points that you should consider when designing your transformation engine.
When designing your transformation engine, you are really writing a set of rules that governs exactly how your engine will function in the context of the story. While for the most part in life rules are limiting, in this case rules will enhance your story and to some degree the more rules you have the better. The reason for this is that each rule is an aspect of your story that can be visited by you, the writer, via your characters and plot, and will help attract the interest of your reader. The next important factor of your engine is getting the details right. You don't necessarily need to reveal all of your engine's secrets in the story -- in fact, it's often a good idea to leave most of those secrets unwritten -- but you, the author, really have to know what you're talking about. If you are writing a serious or semi-serious story you should develop a fairly complete idea in your own mind of exactly how your transformation engine will function within the context of your story universe. By getting the 'facts' straight in your own mind, your descriptions will be more complete and self consistent. Now, because transformations aren't really possible (or at least not yet) there is going to be some fudge factor involved in your transformation engine, but if you can present it all in a way that hides the 'seams', you reduce the risk of getting the classic eye roll from your reader. Oh, and for those of you of the magical persuasion, you're not out of the woods either. As Arthur C. Clarke one wrote on the back of a bar napkin, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. So it doesn't hurt to build some sort of logical operation into your magical spells and artifacts.
Now, the last thing I am going to do is write out some flow chart for you all to permute your way to a quality transformation engine. Your can't reduce creativity to a predefined chart (at least not in a small article like this), so all those tough choices regarding melting bones and tails and nano-machines and residual spell energies are all up to you. My job here is to clue you into some areas of thought where you can let your mad creative writer power run rampant. So here they are in no particular order:
Instructions for Proper Use: Take a hint from the SRU wizard and make sure you know exactly how your TF engine is supposed to be used. Know it to an extent that if such an object existed you could write the government mandated instruction manual. Proper use include how the engine is initialized (if necessary), how the transformation is activated, what needs to be done to ensure completion, what can be done to stop the transformation (if anything), what safety precautions should be taken (i.e., "don't use it under water"), and what needs to be done after the transformation.
Power Requirements: As much as it sucks, you can't get something for nothing -- and this rule should apply to your transformation engines. Whether magical or technological, a TF Engine is going to have power requirements that need to be satisfied. Now, it is your choice if you want to make "power" a problem or not, but at the very least you need to address exactly how/why your TF engine doesn't need to worry about power. Things to consider include charges held, how to recharge, time to recharge and availability of "fuel".
Things Fall Apart: Some people tend to believe that if a technological or magical item is advanced enough and powerful enough to transform someone, then the quality control measures associated with its production must be similarly advanced. This may even be true on the Planet of Happy Fun People, but here in the real world, quality and complexity are in no way dependent on one another. There were shoddy consumer products back in the day, there are shoddy consumer products today and I believe that even in the Star Trek universe there will be low quality consumer products of dubious functionality. Now we are all aware of the classic storyline where some Joe Blow builds a TF device in his basement and it fails in some transformative way -- but this is not the sort of quality issues I am suggesting. What needs to be shown more often are the infuriating, logic defying, mind numbing problems that your average laptop or consumer grade router user experiences on a daily basis. Like, what if a part broke off and you lost it, and now if you don't wear lead gloves your hand will turn into a wing when you pick up the Transform-o-matic 6000? Or maybe that new MAU you bought always forgets the dang kidneys unless you lick it just right. All too often a TF engine is right out of the shrink wrap and conforming to factory specs. Consider thinking up a TF engine that embodies the personality of your video switch box.
Failure Modes: Of course a TF engine can break or malfunction -- but what about flaws in the basic design? Maybe the engine's designer said to himself, "Nobody would be stupid enough to do X, so I'm not going to worry about how the Transform-o-Matic 6000 might respond when someone does X." Any TF engine might make any number of assumptions when it is used, and if one or more of those assumptions isn't valid, well... For example, a stone that changes a guy into a girl makes the assumption it will be used on a guy. TF engines also usually assume that someone won't pull the plug halfway through, or that all of the necessary components are present. Now, of course, you as the designer of the TF engine can be responsible and deal with all of the various situations that might come up when the TF engine is used in a non-standard way. On the other hand, things can be a lot more interesting if you decide to be lazy and allow the engine to enter into all sorts of unusual default or partial states. Again, if the unit is damaged or interrupted you can always choose to have it fail safe, but again, what fun is that? The key to having fun with failure modes is to really know how your TF engine works, because once you have that all mapped out in your head, you can identify the vulnerable points and tweak them.
Balance Is Everything: Conflict and adversity really are the meat of a good story. If your story has no adversity for its characters to overcome, it becomes flat an uninteresting. However, going too far in the opposite direction is no better. A story needs balance; if you have something 'good', you should try to balance it out with something 'bad'. For example, if your main character finds an infinite wishing lamp, you'd better have something pretty darn bad to counter it, like it causes the world to implode or there is some evil twin with his own wishing lamp. If your story is nothing but super fun happy things happening to your main character, every reader above the age of 6 will roll their eyes and lose interest. Likewise, if your story contains nothing but nasty stuff, every reader not wearing leather straps will similarly lose interest :-) So, you might consider adding some downsides to your TF Engine to get the USRDA of adversity in your story.
What's in a Name: Now, the name of your TF Engine is probably one of the less important aspects of it, however in certain situations it can add a great deal to your story. The name of your TF Engine can help with how your readers perceive the mood of your story. A wacky and/or funny name (like Transform-o-matic 6000) will indicate a less serious mood; a straight forward or ominous name (like the Fang of Osleck) will indicate a serious or deadly serious mood; and so on.
Although there are many more things that can go into a TF Engine, neither you nor I have the time to write/read about them all. But before I go, I would like to briefly touch on helpful tips to improve your creative TF Engine process. Perhaps the most important step is to talk over your TF Engine idea with others. The people you talk with don't even have to be in the TF community; they could be just friends or family that won't label you as a wacko and break out the tar and feathers. While it is often easy to come up with the seed of an idea, growing it into a large tree can take some effort and outside points of view can really go a long way in filling in the complex details. Also you should use an outside perspective to attempt to break the logic of your TF Engine. If they can, you go back and rework it, present it again and repeat the process until your Engine is solid. Another tip is to become well versed in transformation stories and to draw your inspiration from them. TF Engines can often be broken down into component parts and you should feel no shame reassembling a variety of pre-existing parts into a new and exciting engine.
In conclusion I would like to say once again that your story does not need a prominent TF engine to be a TF story. There are many ways to write TF stories, and those that have a strong engine are just a single subset of those. Still, almost every TF story is probably going to have something that probably resembles in some way a TF Engine as I have talked about them today. Even if that TF Engine is glanced for only the briefest of times by your reader it will color the story in many ways, even in some you might not intend. Therefore, when you get to the 'how; part of your plot, think it through; you never know how much a little investment in thought now could pay off later.