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by Mike Brotzman
©2006 Mike Brotzman -- all rights reserved

This month in Dragon's Lair we have a special article devoted to Special Effects.

The meddlesome centaur writes:

Special effects? Excuse me, but I thought this was supposed to be about writing stories, not making movies.

::glares:: Ugh! Can't you let me finish a whole paragraph before butting in? Anyway: Yes, you can have special effects in a written medium -- they just happen to be a lot cheaper than the visual kind, since the only cost is the time it takes you to write them. Now, I'll bet all of you readers are groaning right now, thinking this is another rant about the importance of on-screen transformations. However, while proper description of a TF sequence is a very important part of transformational writing --

The meddlesome centaur gestures:

::Snort:: ::Paw:: ::Stamp::

-- the use of special effects writing is something more specific to dragons and other mythical creatures.

Now, I know in my previous articles I have gone on at great length about all the wild and crazy ways you can have your dragon characters transform. Well, in all honesty dragon characters, especially when in supporting roles, will usually have some form of generic magic based TF power which allows them to shift back and forth with some regularity. When you have a character that has a latent TF ability, describing the TF over and over again gets a little repetitive. Aside from boring your readers, you'll probably want to kill yourself the 5th time you have to find a different way to describe wings bursting out of someone's back.

The advantage to dealing with highly magical creatures such as dragons in your TF stories is that they can spice up their routine transformations with a healthy dose of special effects. I'm sure you've all read my previous articles and (like good little TF writers) you don't want to mess up your well-engineered TF abilities. All I'm asking here is for you to keep in mind that special effects should add flash, but not so much substance. Maybe instead of your dragon melting into hewman form he 'poof's or 'pop's or 'sparkle's or 'whoosh'es or whatever. If you want a mundane example of what I'm talking about, think about all the different ways in which you might enter a room. You can walk or perhaps cartwheel or dance or hop, or even crawl. No matter which of those options you go with, you're doing the same thing -- namely, 'entering a room' -- but depending on which you chose, you may well have jazzed it up a little.

Special effects are important to dragon writing as dragons tend to be proud creatures. They like to maintain a certain air of power and invulnerability when dealing with lesser critters. Remember: The more a dragon can puff up his rep, the less he has to deal with pesky knights waking him up at all hours trying to steal his hoard. So when a dragon needs to reveal his trueform to lower life forms, he should naturally strive to make the transformation impressive with the addition of some choice special effects.

Exactly what the effects are is up to you. Your options are limited only by your creativity. When describing your effect, make sure to consider elements such as light, sound, color, air displacement, duration, smoke, electrical sparks, etc etc etc. Also, make sure that the effects don't interfere with the premise of your basic TF ability and are appropriate in the context in the story. For example, a dragon sneaking into a castle might want to silently melt back into dragon form rather than explode in a burst of light and smoke. Also, it's good to consider special effects as tricks a dragon learns with age and experience, so younger dragons might have a more limited repertoire. Still, nobody likes a one-trick pony. So except for special cases, try to mix it up a bit to keep the readers interested and wondering what your dragon character might do next.

Also remember to keep in mind that a special effect isn't simply some magical smoke and mirrors. To pull off the effect correctly usually relies on some proper physical setup on behalf of your dragon character. This might involve some actions such as running quickly or jumping from a tall precipice or even doing a series of back flips. Your character might want to use some well chosen lines, a catch phrase or even some unnecessary (or necessary) 'magic words'. You can even use props (like staffs or artifacts or weapons) to either; a prop might initiate the TF or, if your dragon is particularly on the ball, it could possibly morph into an equivalent dragon-sized item in a parallel transformation. If your dragon is operating in a close-knit group with a Special Forces-type bond, you might choose to work some other characters into the TF. One of my favourite moves is where a hewman sits on the shoulders of a hewman-form dragon who then performs a standing, jumping or plummeting TF, leaving the hewman in perfect dragon-riding position.

Some more advanced considerations include side effects of the special effect and remembering to retain a default transformation. All special effects, in addition to taking your effort to write, take some effort on the part of the dragon to perform. If your character is unable to summon this extra energy, the TF should revert to some default mode you've chosen. Moreover, you are also free to have the TF effects be more than an illusion -- one example being bolts of electricity which stun nearby enemies. Conversely, if the TFing dragon transitions via a mist-like form, that could perhaps render him vulnerable to being sucked into a vacuum cleaner.

TF special effects will work best when you make them an extension of your character's personality. The effects that a dragon chooses when transforming are an art form and you should tailor the effects in your story to match said personality. An evil dragon will probably choose effects which scare or intimidate; a more personable dragon might choose effects which are designed to impress; and finally, a dull, unimaginative dragon will probably stick to a more utilitarian repertoire which only aids in getting the job done.

I'll wrap things up with an analogy. A dragon's library of TF special effects is like the set of moves your favorite action hero uses in whatever Matrix-clone movie they happen to be in. You whip them out at the right moment to keep your readers pumped, turn the bad guys into heaps of ash, and (most importantly) reinforce the personality of your dragon character. Your dragon's library should be big enough that you don't have to recycle the same old tricks over and over, but not so variable that you lose any sort of signature style.

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