The 'How To' of URPG Grading (and Writing)
Let’s get right to it: The nitty-gritty of grading a story. Read on to find out which specific areas you might want to devote more effort to when you write grades. Remember that the subsections you include in a grade are both a matter of personal style and also dependent on the absolute necessities the writer needs to improve. Those necessities are here!
Remember that you should not at all include all, or even really 60%, of the below analysis in the average grade. A word of advice from EmBreon, our favorite ex-Head Grader: "Short stories should get simple grades. New stories should get even simpler grades. Moderate stories should get moderate grades. And to be honest, Complex grades shouldn't even be happening unless they've peaked about 100k. There is simply not enough text to even make it practical. Extensive grades should be practically non-existent, unless someone specifically asks for it, the size is tremendous, and the grader knows what they are doing."
This is very much intended to guide writers, too. If you take a peek at what graders are supposed teach you, you'll have a head start. It should be easier to catch Pokémon the first time around. :o
[Revised by Scourge of Nemo, then uber-edited by Taras Bulba. Now more or less written entirely by Taras Bulba. I have no idea who originally wrote this. Jack? DUNNO.]
BY THE WAY. IF YOUR GRADES ARE THIS LONG, YOU'RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG. AND NEVER FORGET THE RULES IN "HOW NOT TO GRADE LIKE A JERK."
First, read the How to Write Stories
How a story is begun is one of its most important aspects, especially here on the Internet where words are legion and attention spans are short. A good writer grabs the attention of his or her readers in the introduction; a good grader is able to critique his or her attention-grabbing techniques. Are the characters introduced? Do they have personalities and a background? Are there details about the surroundings and such that allow us to visualize the opening scene in our heads? At the start of the story, we need to know who Johnny is, what Johnny is, where Johnny is, and what he is doing. Why he is doing it may well be the subject of the rest of the story, so don't go looking too hard for that just yet.
These are the fundamentals, the backbone, of an introduction. However, you can look for more than that. The story doesn't just begin--it opens, and the writer wants you to walk through the door. Is there a special something about the story that draws you in from the first sentence? Can you tell what sort of story it is shaping up to be? Is it particularly vivid? Is there an exciting yet mysterious action scene that begs to be explained? Is there some sort of stereotype or expectation of yours that is abruptly overturned? These sort of things make an introduction delicious. Showing the writer that they're delicious is your job.
There should be some kind of introduction at the start of every capture attempt.
Pay particular attention to the writing style. If the story is unreadable due to grammatical problems, no amount of awesome-tastic plotting is going to get people to read it. Provide some gentle pointers here if you see some problems.
A particular challenge for URPG-form writing is multiple-installment stories. Many stories are posted and graded in chapters. In this case, you need to examine how the author balances the "last-time-on-the-adventures-of-Johnny" part of it with the need to start with a bang. A good in-the-middle intro mixes information for new readers with the beginning of the actual rest of the story without sounding like an infodump.
Experienced writers know the score when it comes to introductions. Instead of talking about whether they have done the things we've just discussed, because they certainly have done them, you should talk about just how they were done. Was this technique appropriate or well-executed? Was that technique particularly excellent? Is there a better alternative that would give the intro that extra spark? This takes a lot of thought and some detailed consideration of the story as a whole, but our better writers deserve it.
Plot is, literally, the story itself. Does Johnny make friends with a Pokemon? Does he fight battles? Is he himself a Pokemon trying to make his way in a human world?
The most important aspect of plot is kind of intangible: is it a good story? Good stories are creative, gripping, and get you invested in the action. Your enjoyment of the plot will be easy for you to assess but possibly difficult for you to describe in your grade. Try to find the tangibles.
A more definable aspect of a good plot is flow. As Johnny progresses from place to place or event to event, doing whatever things he needs to do to move the action forward, you should be able to follow him. If you suddenly get a feeling of disorientation, there's some flow confusion. However, sometimes the writer may create this effect on purpose. If it happens at the same time that Johnny gets confused over something, it can be an awesome way to get the reader to identify with him. If that's the case, bravo. But if the flow disruption's not deliberate, make sure the writer knows it's happening. Don't be all, HEY YOUR FLOW IS MESSED UP. Explain "The story feels weird here; it moves so quickly that the reader doesn't know what's going on." Or, "I have no idea where your character is now. Maybe you could stop to describe the daisies."
A specific issue in URPG writing is stereotyping. The archetypal Pokemon story goes as follows: Johnny goes on wilderness adventure, Johnny meets Pokemon, Johnny fights Pokemon, POKEMON GET. We graders are automatically biased against this- admit it! These stories are old, hackneyed, and reflect badly on their writers' creativity: this is what we think.
Don't be so quick to judge; context is everything. It may so happen that a particular story of this format has many merits. Is the protagonist original, even if the plot is not? Is this a debut story with impeccable grammar from a new author? Was the (oh-so-predictable) battle genuinely exciting and scintillatingly choreographed? Pat the author on the back! That story was actually pretty awesome!
One of the most important parts of a Plot grading section is the suggestions for improvement. Especially for stories of 100k+ written by experienced writers, you'll have to really get into the plot, see what makes it tick, and look for gaps or areas that could be polished. If it's a plot so awesome that you're having trouble finding any issues, don't be afraid to the writer just what makes it so great.
That's good writing and good grading. An invaluable but dangerous resource for understanding plot structure is the TV Tropes Wiki. Seek it out on Google if you have several hours of free time. Perhaps make sure you get some sleep first. Food, too; TVTropes has at least twice the addictive power of the regular Wikipedia. I did say "dangerous."
A relatively easy thing to do is plot-hole patching. Look for logical or causal inconsistencies (i.e. "That couldn't happen! That makes no sense! And you didn't convince me that it could make sense!") and bring them to attention. If the situation is particularly complex, provide a potential fix.
The higher-level captures require some pretty cool plotting. Don't just ask yourself if it was a good story; look for things like themes, surprise, and lack of extra dangly bits. Point out any problems and areas to build upon. And for goodness' sake commend them for particularly nice bits of writing! Pointing out what you like can be a really good tool to a writer. Maybe you've picked up on an underlying theme or technique in the story that the author used unconsciously. By letting him or her know what he or she's been doing, he or she can really progress as a writer and form an unique personal voice.
If you can't find any problems or room for improvement, then GOOD. JOB WELL DONE. TELL THE WRITER THAT. And make sure to not be all "This was so wonderful and excellent and wonderful" without some level of "It was awesome when you did this, and that explosion was really well timed, and your discussion of the main character's death almost made me cry" and et cetera.
Even if you can find holes... ALSO TELL THEM GOOD JOB. THEY'VE WRITTEN AN ENTIRE STORY. THEY SHOULD BE PROUD.
First off, remember that dialogue is optional. Some writers can toss pretty much any aspect of storytelling he or she wants to, up to and including dialogue, an antagonist, a central conflict, or even conventional sentence structure. Your job as a grader is not to tell them to include these things, but to let them know if what they've done works. Be generous; few of us are adults!
Okay, dialogue. Most stories will have it. It is generally a cornerstone of good storytelling. Most stories will have mediocre dialogue at best; advanced usage can be tricky. That said, poor dialogue is easy to see: it serves no purpose or breaks the suspension of disbelief. Dialogue should push the plot forward, assist in defining a character's personality, or (subtly!) give background information to the reader. If it stands out from the flow of the story and makes you think, WAIT, WHAT'S THAT DOING THERE, there's a bit of an issue. Script-fics are not well-received here; you should warn writers who only have line after line of dialogue without anything actually happening! Also, keep your eyes open for character names; if you lose track of who's saying what line, let the writer know.
An basic grammatical rule is that each line of dialogue must be in its own paragraph, for the sake of readability. Make sure your writer has either done this or is reminded to do it next time.
There is also the matter of nested quotes. Regular dialogue goes inside double quotes. " " However, quotation marks inside a line of dialogue go in single quotes, or apostrophes. ' ' Examples follow.
"I watched 'Mewtwo Strikes Back!' yesterday," she said.
"Confucius say: 'Man who run before bus get tired.'"
Now, what makes dialogue advanced? A well-written character should be able to define him- or herself by the way he or she speaks without hitting you over the head with it. Writers often use dialects, different vocabularies, speech tics such as stuttering and "like," and distinctive sentence structures. Also pay attention to the age of the characters: do children talk like children or like adults? Well-written children sound childlike without necessarily sounding stupid. There is also another factor: most people don't write like they talk. Really effective dialogue should sound more like something someone would say than something someone would write. If you ever look at an accurate transcript of a speech, you may find that it's difficult to read because of all the pauses, "um"s, and "like"s. As a general rule for budding young URPG writers, you should encourage them to avoid the extremes of "unreadable realism" and "unrealistic conversations."
When suggesting improvements, focus on little things that can set individual characters apart or make them more human. Remember that straightforward dialogue is great for a low-level capture. You shouldn't discuss a lot of the crazy advanced stuff mentioned here for anything less than a Hard+ capture--and even then, that's pushing it.
Three words: never demand perfection.
If there's only a very few noticeable, unrepeated errors in the story, you can highlight them without much comment and assume the author already knows how to fix them. If they seem to be a regular occurrence, however, especially if it's a particular type of error that keeps popping up, then it's time to whip out the explanations. Good general advice is to use a word processor such as MS Word or a browser that at least has spell check. Recommend editing to all: a short bug-catching expedition is necessary after writing before it's ready for publication.
If you feel you can't explain a particularly arcane point of grammar (and English grammar is arcane indeed) there is no lack of grammar-focused websites that you can draw from. Don't be afraid to link out to explain that which you can't explain yourself, or at least copy and past the relevant part and include it in your grade. It is polite to credit the original source.
There is no absolute consensus on the spelling or capitalization of Pokemon-world terms. Some capitalize them, treating them as proper nouns: Potion, Growlithe, Hyper Beam. Some say they would be ordinary words in the Pokemon world and wouldn't be capitalized: ether, poke ball, zubat. Some put the little accent on the e. Others can't be bothered. So long as the writer is consistent in his or her usage, you don't have to worry about it. One thing to remember, though, is that Poke Ball and Poke Mart are traditionally two-word terms.
If they do good, always remember to say so.
If you're going to grade an advanced story on an advanced level (as in, like, 60k or longer, at least), you can deal less with the surface conventions.
We all know that sensory details are like the spice rack in the kitchen of writing. (And that simile was like ketchup: not so sophisticated but gets the job done.) Details liven up the story. This is part of the reason why script-fics are of limited use: they don't have any narration, and that's where you find some of the best details!
As with all other things, moderation here is important. The two extremes as defined by the distinguished individuals of the TV Tropes Wiki are beige prose and purple prose. Beige prose is dry, fairly technical writing that basically says "It was A in the B with the C." We now know how Mr. Boddy died, but where was the spark? The romance? On the other hand, purple prose is where the writer unscrewed the tops of the adverb and adjective shakers and dumped the entire contents over the plate with some thesaurus to garnish. You can smell it from a mile away: an adverb after every instance of "said," sentences longer than some ordinary paragraphs, words nobody's used since Shakespeare's time (and, if you think about it, there has got to be some reason nobody uses them anymore), and paragraph after paragraph spent describing the setting or the color of the protagonist's hair.
The take-home message here is never to advocate an extreme. Really, really amazing description says a lot with a little--not a little with a little or a little with a lot. (Yes, that's right, chew on that.) If they did something well, point it out. If there's an endless, awkward description that kills your soul, quote it and say, "You're doing a bit too much here. Try to draw some of this out into other places/tone down the adjectives and adverbs/this doesn't actually tell us something that's super important to the story, so maybe shorten it." If there's not enough description, ask questions that draw them out. "What are his feelings here? How's his face look?" Make sure not to make them think you're asking for ridiculous, extreme prose.
A good rule of thumb is to make detail a second priority when compared to concision. If the prose is tight and punchy, one should be able to figure out which details are needed along the course of the story, both to progress the plot and to allow the reader to understand the characters. Remind the ambitious writer: which words are necessary? A useful hierarchy put forth by Scourge of Nemo is verb > noun > adjective > adverb. (">" is the greater-than symbol as used in mathematics) We see here that the most important thing is action! Verbs! With a sufficiently skilled writer, all rules can be thrown out the window, but for our purposes pretty much every story should have things happen in them: verbs.
One last word of note: connotation. The richer and longer the description in the story is, the more important it becomes that that description set a consistent mood throughout. Unless the author is making a conscious and conspicuous exception, but that's always a concern anyway. So back to connotation: a sad story probably shouldn't have words like "mirthfully" or "bright." A tale of manly men and the manly things they do should steer clear of "sparkly" and "delicate." It should be easy to notice if there are tonal contradictions, because as a reader, your reaction will probably be, "WAIT WHAT." If this happens, point it out. Don't be all, "YOUR CONNOTATION IS STUPID." Explain that "these words in this situation feel really really weird because they contradict each other."
The Pokémon Battle
In many stories, the plot climaxes with a battle of some sort. Some stories make do without a battle, which requires a bit of daring from the writer. A story which makes do without a climax, though, requires near-suicidal bravery. You may have learned about the rising and falling action of the plot: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, denouément. (Please don't use that last word in a grade.) This is the classical form of drama as defined by the scholar Gustav Freytag as defined by Wikipedia. Many modern stories don't follow this form, and that's fine. It's even recommended. But. If there isn't some kind of peak at all, or multiple peaks, or a half-peak that mocks the fact that there is no peak... the story's often not going to work. The final climax is where everything comes together and the story's existence is legitimized. So it's important. If there are climax issues, point 'em out.
Now, in multi-part stories, things get interesting. There should be a story arc in any competently-written serial, such that it only gets really exciting a few installments in. However, if each part doesn't have its own little climax, then there are some problems.
Climaxes can take several forms. In all cases, there is some kind of conflict taking place in the story, and the climax is where it is resolved. However! The conflict isn't necessarily physical, and so the climax may not be physical. Not all stories feature action scenes. Could you imagine a gun battle in March of the Penguins, for instance? Non-physical climaxes include arguments, major decisions, changes in attitude, and various family interactions.
As for battles themselves, they should feature the best of all the other sections we've covered. Tight plotting. Efficient but rich description. Character traits. Creativity; a boring, predictable, or stereotypical is no fun. Just writing out what would happen in the actual games is a no-no unless the author has a really good reason to. We're talking plot point here. A straight-up transcript ("And thne pikachu used thunder bolt i twas supper efective!") is going to need some sound advice-giving.
Another factor to consider is the placement of the climax. It should be in a good position relative to the rest of the story. Is it too early? Is the ending too abrupt because it was too late? Does it lead to a satisfying conclusion?
SO BASICALLY. The battle is usually the climax, and the climax is usually important. Don't ignore it! It's definitely more important than the introduction in most stories. Be sure to, as usual, encourage the writer by showing them what they did awesomely; equally as usual, do not swamp them with criticism or advice, but do give helpful pointers for including what they've got.