Friday, February 16, 2018

Getting Our Story Straight

            Running a little late this week.  Again.  Crazy busy these past few days.  Craig DiLouie was here in southern California, so we hung out for a day. Then there was Valentine’s Day.  And if you haven’t seen Black Panther yet I highly recommend it.  Fantastic movie.
            Oh, plus a couple of outlines for new projects, too...
            This past week at the Writers Coffeehouse I babbled on about different forms of structure and how they work together.  I haven’t really gone into that here in a couple of years, so I figured now might be a good time.  While it’s all fresh in my mind.
            Fair warning—this is kind of a sprawling topic so it’s going to spread out over the next two posts as well as this one.  I also may use a few terms in ways of which your MFA writing professor would not approve.  But I’ll do my best to be clear, despite all that.
            Speaking of professors...
            Structure is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot when we’re talking about writing.  Sometimes in a generic sense, like that last sentence, other times in much more specific ways. You may have heard gurus talk about narrative structure, dramatic structure, three-act structure, or maybe even four- and five-act structure (if you’ve been dabbling with screenwriting a bit).
            An important thing to be clear about before we go too far—all of these are very different things.  I think this is why people get confused about structure sometimes.  A lot of things fall into this general category, and while some of them are vital to the storytelling process... some aren’t.  And it doesn’t help when “expert” gurus try to conflate them.  I read an article once where one guy was trying to use the five-act structure of television shows to demonstrate that three-act structure was an obsolete form (ProTip--it’s not).
            When we talk about structure, we’re talking about the underlying framework of a story.  The skeletal system, or maybe the nervous system, depending on how you want to look at it.  And, just like with anatomy (or architecture or programming) there can be more than one underlying system. And they all work together to make a functioning person. Or house.  Or story.
            It’s key to note that all these systems (or structures) are not the same. Sometimes things will overlap and serve multiple purposes. Sometimes they won’t. And, as I mentioned above, just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’ll work in my story.
            Okay.  Got all that?
            Good.  Get ready to take a few notes
           The three main structures in a story, for our purposes these next few weeks, are linear structure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure.  They all interact and work with each other.  Just like with anatomy, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself.  So it’s important that I have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
            The one we’re going to deal with this week is linear structure.  Simply put, it’s how my characters experience the story.  There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula.  Another term you may have heard for this is continuity.  Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday.  Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner.  Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
            There’s a simple reason linear structure is so important.  Almost all of us are experts with it.  That’s because linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day.  We notice when effect comes before cause, even if the story gives them to us out of order.  A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline.  When detectives break down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in.  If I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. 
            A good way to test the linear structure of my story (a method I’ve mentioned before) is to arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order.  My story should still make logical sense like this, even if it's lost some dramatic weight this way (more on that later).  If my story elements don’t work like this (if effect comes before cause, or if people know things before they learn them), it means I’ve messed up my linear structure.
            Now, I want to mention a specific example where linear structure gets messed up a lot-- time travel.
            In a time travel story, it’s very likely there’ll be multiple linear structures.  My time traveler might be experiencing Thursday, Friday, then Wednesday, and then Thursday again.  They’re still experiencing four days in a row, though—even if their friends and coworkers are only having three. And their three are Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.
            I mentioned this diagram at the Coffeehouse on Sunday. It’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—Jack Harkness and the Doctor himself.  I’ve marked a few key, mutual events in their lives.
            Jack’s life is pretty straightforward, for our purposes here.  A is when young Jack first meets the Ninth Doctor and decides to travel with him for a while.  B is when he later encounters the Tenth Doctor and Martha.  C is when they all briefly meet again a year or so later to stop Davros and the Daleks.  They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life.  And E is when the Doctor’s there for Jack’s death at the ripe old age of twenty billion or so (mild spoilers, sorry). 
            That’s a pretty normal, linear timeline.  Young to old.  The one most of us have (just slightly exaggerated in his case).
            Now... look at the Doctor’s.  This is the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around (more on this next week).  He travels in time, though, so he meets Jack in kind of an odd order.  First time for him isn’t the first time for Jack, and vice-versa.  But it’s still a logical, linear order for the Doctor—he’s living his own timeline, A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack.  A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
            Make sense?
           Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, the characters are experiencing the story in linear order.  If halfway through my book one of my character flashes back to what happened a week ago, this isn’t new information for him or her—it happened a week ago.  So all of their actions and reactions up until that flashback should take that information into account.
            It sounds pretty straightforward and it really is.  Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blab about over the next few weeks because it’s logical and objective.  But, alas, people still mess it up all the time.  And the mistakes are usually because of... narrative structure.
            But we’ll talk about that next week.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ultimate Screenwriting Tip—

            If screenwriting is your thing, it’s contest season.  Granted, these days it’s almost always contest season, but the start of the year is when a lot of the big ones open for submissions.  And contests are still one of the better ways to get a foot in Hollywood’s door while making you a couple bucks. So if this is something that interests you...
            And if screenwriting’s not something that interests you, well... keep reading anyway. You may glean something from this.
            Now, last year at about this time, I mentioned that I wasn’t going to offer any more sceenwriting tips.  I’m sticking with that, but I still thought it might be worth mentioning this one.  Because it’s pretty much the ultimate screenwriting rule of thumb.
            If it’s not on screen right now... don’t put it on the page.
            If it’s going on in someone’s head, but we can’t see it on the screen right now... don’t put it on the page.
            If it’s going to come up later, great. Put it on the page then, when it’s going to be on screen.
            If it’s something the director and crew will really, absolutely need to know up front, put it on the screen.  If it shouldn’t be on screen up front, then don’t mention it on the page until it is on screen.  I promise, they won’t start filming before they read the script at least once.
            Well, okay... the grips probably won’t read it at all.  Ever.  Sad truth.  But it’s not really something they need to know for their job.
            This is one of the absolute top killers in amateur scripts.  People load up the page with a lot of details that are completely irrelevant to what’s actually happening on screen right now.  It’s material that will come out later in the story or maybe never needs to come out.  But right now... it’s irrelevant.
            Because all that matters in screenplays is what’s on screen right now.
            Heck, I worked on some produced scripts that did this, and almost every one of them crashed into a bunch of other problems.  I saw one writer who padded a television script with half-page descriptions of every character—then acted surprised when it turned out the episode was over four minutes short (which is a huge screw-up in television). 
            Just remember this one rule and your screenwriting will level up almost immediately. No joke.  Do this and you’ll leap ahead of all those amateurs.
            Next time, I want to talk about structure.  We haven’t really done that in a while.
            Until then... go write.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Help From the Internet

            A random thought...
            Well, not that random.
            The other day I made a smart-ass response to a friend’s Twitter comment about different online writing aids and apps. There’s a bunch of them out there these days.  Some of them highly publicized.  My comment was... snarkily negative.  Let’s leave it at that.
            I know. Snarkiness with friends.  What has the internet come to?  It’s all downhill from here.
            Anyway, it did get me thinking about these different sites a bit.  I mean, a good writer wants to use all the tools available, right?  Is this just me inching ever-closer to cranky old manhood?
            I don’t think so.
            Okay, first off, let’s not even talk about the information side of this. If someone wants to hand over a bunch of their intellectual property to a random website and feels completely confident they’ve read and understood every single line of the terms of service... that’s up to them.  We’ll leave that discussion for others.
            I want to blather on about how useful these sites are, both short-term and long-term.
            So... let’s talk machines.
            (I feel hundreds of fingers poised over keyboards, ready to lunge at the comments section...)
            The most common computer tool we’re going to encounter is a spellchecker.  Pretty much every word processor has one.  Lots of websites do, too.  Blog sites like this one, Twitter, Facebook—they’ve all got some basic spellcheck capacity.
            That’s the important bit.  Basic.  The absolute best spellcheckers are, if I had to put a number to it, correct maybe 97-98% of the time. Don’t quote figures at me—I’m saying right up front that’s just based off my own experience.  These are the spellcheckers we usually find in the word processors.  The online ones... I’d drop it down into the 88-90% range.  Maybe even a tiny bit lower.
            What does this mean?  Well, there are words that have accepted alternate spellings, but a spellchecker will say they’re wrong.  There are also lots of common words—especially for genre writers—that won’t be included.  I was surprised to discover cyborg wasn’t included in my spellchecker’s vocabulary.  Or Cthulhu.  Okay, not  quite as surprised on that one, but still...
            Keep in mind, spelling is a basic, quantfiable aspect of writing. We can say, no question,whether or not I’ve spelled quantifiable correctly in that last sentence (I didn’t). That’s a hard fact (and, credit where credit is due, the spellchecker kept insisting we needed to change it).
            Also—a spellchecker doesn’t know what word I meant to use.  It can only tell me about the word on the page.  Or the closest correctly-spelled word to that word on the page.  Maybe it’s the one I wanted, maybe not.  At this point it’s up to me to know if that’s the right word or not.  And if I don’t know... well, things aren’t looking good for my manuscript.
            Consider all the things I just said.  The gaps. The problems.  The rate of accuracy.  And this is with the easiest aspect of writing.  Spelling is a yes or no thing.  It’s right or it isn’t.  This is something a computer should excel at... and the online ones are getting a B+ at best.
            How accurate do you think an online grammar program is?
           Grammar’s a lot more complex than spelling.  Spelling’s just a basic yes or no, but grammar has a ton of conditionals.  Plus, in fiction, we bend and break the rules of grammar a lot.  I tend to use a lot of sentence fragments because I like the punch they give.  A friend of mine uses long, complex sentences that can border on being run-ons.  I know a few people who remove or add commas to help the dramatic flow of a sentence.     And hell... dialogue?  Dialogue’s a mess when it comes to grammar.  A big, organic mess.  Fragments, mismatched tenses, mismatched numbers, so many dangly bits...  And it needs to be. That’s how we talk.  Like I’ve mentioned in the past, dialogue that uses perfect grammar sounds flat and unnatural.
            Think about this. I’ve talked before about Watson, the massive supercomputer that was specifically designed by MIT to understand human speech... and still had a pretty iffy success rate.  Around 72% if my math is right.  And it might not be--I'm not a mathematician, after all.
            D’you think the people who made that grammar website put in the time and work that was put into Watson?
            So, again... how accurate is that online grammar program going to be? 
            More to the point, how useful is it going to be as a tool?  Would you pay for a DVR that only records 3/4 of the shows you tell it to?  Do you want a phone that drops one out of every four calls?
            Now, I’d never say there’s no use for these tools or sites. But it’s very important to understand they’re not going to do the job for me.  They’re the idiot writing partner who’d really good at one thing, so I kinda need to keep both eyes on them when they’re set loose to do... well, that thing.  I need to know how to spell words and what they mean.  I still need to know the rules of grammar—even moreso if I plan on breaking them.
            See, that’s the long-term problem.  Assuming this professional writing thing is my long-term goal, at some point I need to learn spelling and grammar.  If I’m going to keep depending on someone (or something) else to do the work for me... when am I going to learn how to do the work? 
            Y’see, Timmy, these programs and apps are kinda like alcohol.  They won’t make up for a lack of knowledge. They’ll just emphasize it.  I definitely don’t want to be dependant on them.  At best, if I know what I’m doing and I’m careful (and use them in moderation), they might make things a little more smooth and painless.
            Next, a quick screenwriting tip.
            Until then, go write.
            You go write.  Not your computer.
            Go on...  go write.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Origin Stories

            So, I wanted to talk about why things get started for a bit.
            Motives are my character’s core reason for doing something.  They’re the answer to the question “why is this story happening?” I’ve mentioned once or thrice before the issues that crop up when my character isn’t so much motivated as dragged along into a story.
            It’s not unusual to have motives shift a bit in a book, but in shorter formats (screenplays or short stories) they tend to be pretty focused.  Sometimes I’m hiding a character’s motives from my audience, but they still need to be there.   As the writer, I need to know why someone’s doing something.  Because my motives are going to a key when it comes to what kind of story I’m telling.
            No, seriously. 
            For example, it’s tough to do a revenge thriller when my heroine’s goals are world peace.  Try to figure out a way that could work.  It's tough to solve a mystery when my protagonist's big goal is to go the prom with the quarterback.  Likewise, if the only reason I’m fighting the dark Uberlord who’s enslaved New York is to save my niece... that’s not exactly heroic.  When I’m fighting for me—my family, my purposes, my revenge—that’s just personal.
            Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to superheroes.
            I’ve blathered on about superheroes a few times, and one of the major stumbling points I see a lot is when someone with a non-heroic motivation is crammed into the superhero genre.  It creates a stumbling block.  One phrase you may have heard before is “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons,” and I think this is what confuses people.  The end result is the same, even though we took two very different paths to get there... so the two paths must be the same, right?
            Hey, look—here’s an example.
            Years ago I worked on a pretty awful superhero show.  This was before anyone believed you could do costumes without camp, and it hit a lot of stumbles.  The biggest ongoing one was the main character’s motive for putting on this super-powered suit and fighting crime.
            Well, actually, that was part of it right there.  He didn’t fight crime.  Most of the time he just settled scores.  He, his friends, or his family would get drawn into some struggle and he’d put on the suit to get them out.  And... that was kind of it.  Once or thrice someone would show up specifically to challenge him and he went out to fight them. Hell, one time the suit’s creator had to actually talk him out of using the suit to get even with someone who’d shoved him in a club. 
            No, dead serious on that.  One episode started with the hero being kind of arrogant, getting pushed aside, and then deciding to use a state-of-the-art weapons system to show that other guy who’s boss...
            Like I said, it was a pretty awful show.
            But you should be able to see the problem here.  No matter how often they tried to insist this guy was a hero, even with the times he stopped an actual super-villain or monster, his motives were always personal.  Bordering on selfish, really.  He wasn’t heroic because his motives weren’t heroic.  He cared about himself, his circle of friends... and that was pretty much it.  No dealing with muggers, corner drug dealers, any of that.
            To be clear, there's nothing wrong with personal goals, but I need to be clear how this paints my character in the bigger scheme of things.  Yeah, going up against a street gang is great, but if the only reason I’m doing it is to protect my friends and family... this isn’t about heroism.  It’s just personal.  When Bryan Mills (Taken) goes up against European gangs and white slavers and crushes a lot of their organization, he’s not doing it to make the world a better place.  He’s also not trying to help the hundreds of other families these people have hurt.  He’s just doing it to get his daughter back.  That’s it.  So if I'm doing this and trying to make him look like some great heroic figure for doing it... my story's probably going to stumble.
            Another important point.  With a lot of these personal motives, they have to end.  Killing the gang member who killed my sister—that’s vengeance.  We get it.  Killing some random guy from another gang because he dresses kinda like the guy who killed my sister... well, that sounds a bit wrong, doesn’t it?  If Mills just kept killing various European gangsters long after his daughter was safe at home... well, this is leaning into serial killer territory now.
            Heck, even trying to recreate those personal circumstances seems weird.  The Taken movies got progressively more convoluted as they kept coming up with reasons for Mills to use his particular set of skills. The old Deathwish films just devolved into unintentional comedy, they were so ridiculous.  Stretching out this kind of personal motive either becomes laughable or disturbing.  Or both.
            Y’see Timmy, it’s really hard to have someone be a hero, in that larger sense, if they’re doing things for personal reasons.  They can be the hero of my story, sure, but not a hero in the “heroism” sense.  One of the reasons Wonder Woman was such a standout superhero movie is  because from the beginning of the story she was 100%  doing this for a greater cause. She was going to head out into the world so she could find (and kill) Ares, thus ending WWI and saving millions of lives.  Her mother didn’t want her to go.  Steve didn’t want her to go.  Honestly, it’s not even like she wants to leave her home behind.  But she sees it as her responsibility to do this, to go out and save total strangers from this faceless threat.
            That’s pretty much what being a hero is.
            Next time, it’s contest season, so I wanted to toss out a quick screenwriting tip.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Didn’t See That Coming...

             Y’know, I realized I haven’t done a pop-culture reference in ages, and I’m honestly not sure if I keep thinking of too-obscure references or if I’m just being lazy .  Or maybe I’m just not as in touch with pop culture as I used to be.
            No, it can’t be all three. Think about it.  Don’t go for the bear suit with your snarky comments.
            I talked about the detective’s speech a few weeks back, and I thought it’d be worth mentioning a big way it can go wrong.
            I can even give an example.  The one I hinted at then...
            So, I’ve mentioned once or thrice that I worked on a detective show for a few years. It wasn’t a very good one, mostly because no one ever seemed really sure if it was a detective show or a cop show or maybe some kind of late-night-cable-sexy show.  And it really didn’t help that all of it got pressed through this sort of ‘80s filter... in the late ‘90s.
            Anyway, one episode reached into the fifth act with our heroes backed into a corner. They had nothing.  None of their clues led anywhere.  None of the motivesheld up.  Everyone’s alibi checked out.  It really seemed like one of those cases where the bad guy—whoever they were—was going to get away with it.
            Then they went back to talk one of the people they’d interviewed earlier and explained how they remembered something he’d said.  Which led to them examining his bank records last night.  Which led to talking to one of his business partners. Which led to them getting a warrant this morning and searching his house.  During which they remembered his love of European architecture and found the priest hole in his home office. Where they found the murder weapon this morning... with his prints on it.
            Bam!  Case closed.  Another one for the good guys.
            Except... even as we filmed it, the cast and half the crew sensed something was wrong here.  It felt weird.  And not just because of some horrible editing (that came later).
            Our entire mystery was solved off-camera.  Almost nothing we’d seen for the entire episode was relevant.  In the end, we just had the two leads standing there giving the detective’s speech about a bunch of deductions and discoveries that all happened off-camera.  The audience didn’t see any of it. They were told about solving the mystery rather than being... well, shown it. 
            Which is a real killer in a visual medium.  And not terribly great in print, either. It’s easier to get away with, yeah, but still not a habit I want to get into.
            When this happens, I think it’s because writers feel like they’re following Elmore Leonard’s famous rule of thumb about skipping stuff nobody’s going to want to read.  Or not going to want to read twice.  In the case above, we don’t want to see the detectives find all the clues, and then also watch them talk about how they found all the clues.
            So the question is, which one do I cut?
            On one level, this is another empathy thing.  Most of the time, it’s going to come down to dramatic impact.  What’s going to give my reader a bigger kick in the gut—seeing them find the gun, or seeing them stand in a parking lot and tell someone they found the gun?
            On another level, this is just knowing what my plot is.  On a detective show (even a late-night-cable-sexy one), the plot is about solving the mystery. Sure, confronting and catching the bad guy is great, but it’s also... well, kinda incidental.  Solving the mystery inherently means we've caught the bad guy.  We want  to know it happened, but that’s not what we picked up the mystery novel for.
            Y’see, Timmy, 99% of the time, plot happens in front of my audience.  I can fade to black for a sex scene, maybe skip over the hero’s six hour shift at the grocery store, maybe not even show the bad guy getting confronted and arrested —but those things aren’t really plot, are they? They’re elements we drop into the story for extra flavor.
            As I mentioned above, Elmore Leonard said to cut out all the parts people skip anyway. But I shouldn’t be cutting out the stuff they picked up my book to see.  If I remove a scene and nothing really changes, it probably isn’t plot.  If I remove a scene, but then need to add another scene where they talk about what happened in the now-missing scene... well, that scene was probably plot.
            I want to see the plot unfold.
            So do my readers.
            Next time... I’d like to talk about origin stories.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Down to Basics

            It’s come up once or thrice that I’m a lover of bad movies.  Partly for the laughing aspect, partly because I think you can learn as much from bad storytelling as you can from good.  Partly because I need to justify my drinking, and some of these movies make it reeeeeally easy.
            A while back I tossed out a list of really basic things a lot of these movies messed up.  Film school 101-level stuff that people were getting wrong.  Even though some of them went to film school.  And I wondered if it might be possible to do something with stories in general.
            Kristi Charish (of the fantastic Kincaid Strange series—book two coming soon) recently mentioned this idea (for a different topic) in a much better way—the invisible handshake.  It’s sort of an unofficial, unspoken contract between the author and the reader. If you’re picking up my book, there are certain automatic assumptions you’re making about what I’ll be providing you with, and I should be meeting these assumptions.  Basic things about plot and structure and character that are just... well, basic.
            At the end of last year I read a book that fumbled that handshake.   Fumbled it bad.  It was like that awkward moment with someone at the end of the night where you’re not sure how to say goodbye, so the two of you make a bunch of half-moves toward different things.  Do we hug?  Shake hands?  Peck on the cheek?  Write an awful book? 
            We’ve all been there, right?
            I ranted a bit about said book on Twitter, but even then I was thinking I should revisit a lot of those issues here.  And while said book was very rant-worthy, I’ve been .trying to keep things a bit more on the positive side here.
            So, a few general things I need to keep in mind when I’m writing.  I’ve mentioned most of them before, but I thought a general, all–at-once
            First, I need to be clear who my main character is.  If I spend the first four chapters of my book with Yakko... everyone’s going to assume Yakko’s the main character.  This book’s clearly about him, right?  So when he vanishes for the next seven chapters... well, people are going to keep wondering when we’re getting back to him.  Because he’s the main character.
            Now, a lot of books have a big cast of characters.  An ensemble, as some might say.  That’s cool.  But if my book’s going to be spending time between a bunch of characters, I need to establish that as soon as possible.  If the first three or four chapters are all the same character, it’s only natural my readers will assume that’s going to be the norm in this book.
            Second is that I need to keep my point of view consistent.  This kinda goes with the first point—being clear who my main character is.  Even with a third person POV, we’re usually looking over a specific person’s shoulder, so to speak. Which means that character can’t walk away and leave us behind.  Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.
            Again, it’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it, but I need to make it clear to my readers that I’m doing it. If they start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, it’s going to knock them out of the story and break the flow.  That’s never a good thing.
            Third thing I need to do is be clear who my actual characters are.  Who’s part of the story and who’s just... well, window dressing.  If my two protagonists go out to dinner, there’s going to be other people in the restaurant.  But I shouldn’t describe them all. Or name them all
            Names and descriptions are how I tell my reader a character’s going to be important and worth remembering.  Three paragraphs of character details means “Pay attention to this one.”  So if I’m telling the reader to keep track of people for no reason, I’m wasting their time and my word count.
            I want to note a specific way people do this, too.  I’m calling it “describe and die” (trademark 2018).  This is when the author introduces a character, spends five or six pages describing them, their history, their goals, their loves, their life—and then kills them.  We’ve all seen this, yes?  Here’s Yakkoshiro, a twenty-nine year-old salaryman who spends all his free income on Gundam models and always wears long sleeves to the office because he won't stop wearing his fathers watch, even though nobody wears watches anymore and looking behind the times like that could hurt his chances at a promotion so... long sleeves, never rolled up, even when the air conditioner dies (which happens a lot). And tonight he has a date with the beautiful woman from the Gundam store, who he’s exchanged nervous banter with for months now and, oh, he’s dead.  A kaiju stepped on him.  Now, back to our heroes...
            Don’t do that.
            Fourth is that I need to have an actual plot before I start focusing on subplots.  What’s the big, overall story of my book?  If it’s about Wakko trying to save the family car wash, I should probably get that out to my readers before I start the romance subplot or the backstabbing partner subplot or the Uncle Gus has cancer and wants to travel around the world before he dies subplot.  After all, they picked up my book because the back cover said it was about saving the family car wash or escaping that Egyptian tomb.  I should be working toward that first—meeting those expectations.
            If I’m spending more time on a subplot than the actual plot, maybe I need to revisit what my story’s actually about.
            Fifth, closely related to four, is that my subplots should relate to the main story somehow.  They should loop around, tie back in to the main plot, or at least have similar themes so we see the parallels.  If I can pull out a subplot out of my story and it doesn’t change the main story in the slightest... I probably need to reconsider it.
            And if it’s an unrelated subplot to an unrelated subplot... okay, seriously, I’m wasting pages at that point.  Not to mention this all starts getting, well, distracting.  I don’t want to kill whatever tension I’m building in my main plot by putting it on hold for eight or nine pages while I deal with... well, something completely unrelated.  It’s like switching channels in the middle of a television show. Nobody’s saying what’s on the other channel is bad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show we’re trying to watch.
            Okay, this is an odd one.
            Remember how much fun it is when you meet someone you’re interested in and there’s all these fascinating little mysteries about them?  We want to learn all their tics and hidden secrets.  Where are they from?  What’d they study in school?  What movies do they like?  How’d they develop a taste for that?  Why do they have that accent?  Where’d they get that scar?  Just how big is that tattoo?
            But... we don’t want to learn those secrets from a book report.  We want to hang out with these people, talk over drinks, go on road trips, maybe stay up all night on the phone or on the couch.  It’s how we get to know real people... and it’s how we want to learn about characters, too. Pages and pages of backstory often makes characters less interesting because it leaves me with nothing to reveal about them.  It kills that sense of mystery, because there’s nothing left to learn about them.
            There’s nothing wrong with me having all that backstory, but I don’t need to use it all in book.
            And I definitely don’t need to reveal it all in the first two or three chapters.
            Seventh and last is flashbacks.  Flashbacks are a fantastic narrative device, but they get used wrong a lot.  And when they’re wrong... they’re brutal. A clumsy flashback can kill a story really fast.
            A flashback needs to be advancing the plot.  Or increasing tension. Or giving my readers new information.  In a great story, it’s doing more than one of these things. Maybe even all of them.
            But a flashback that doesn’t do any of these things... that’s not a good flashback.  That’s wrong.  And it’ll bring things to a grinding halt and break the flow.

            Seven basic things to keep in mind while I’m writing my story.
            Now, as always, none of these are hard-fast, absolute rules.  If I hire a pastry chef for my bakery, there’s always a possibility this particular one doesn’t use a whisk.  There can always be an exception.  But I should be striving to be the exception, not just assuming everyone will be okay with me not following all the standards. My readers are going in with certain expectations, and I need to be doing honestly amazing things to go against them.  
            Because if that same pastry chef also doesn’t use a spatula...  Or butter... Or flour...
            Again—the invisible handshake (trademark K. Charish, 2018). 
            It’s a legally binding contract in forty-two states and four Canadian provinces.
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about something that happened off-camera on a TV show I worked on years ago.
            Until then, go write   

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What They Know

            There’s an empathy issue I see crop up a fair amount of time, and I ran into it a few times back in my film days, too.  I just hit a big patch of it recently, and it was while I was working on a pitch/outline that also kind of skirted around it.  So I figured it was worth talking about a bit here.
            That big patch I mentioned was a werewolf anthology I read (some monster names may have been changed to protect the innocent).  One of the things that amazed me was how many of the stories had a “big twist” which turned out to be—ready for it?—this is a werewolf story!  Some of these were pretty good... but I still ended up twiddling my fingers once it became apparent where things were heading and I had to wait for the narrative to get there.
            Now, granted, in this particular case a fair share of the blame for that falls on the editor.  Why would I accept a story for my anthology that’s undercut by... well, the very nature of the anthology?  That just seems like a bad idea.
            But why submit such a story, either? Shouldn’t I, the writer, immediately realize that anyone who picks up the anthology is already going to be clued in to my big reveal?  And shouldn’t I be aware of the failings that creates in my story?
            Either way you look at it, nobody’s thinking about what the readers are going to know when they sit down with this story.
            Simple truth is, what my audience knows affects what kind of story I can tell.  It’s going to affect my structure. Maybe even my genre.
            No, seriously.  Imagine trying to write a mystery story where we all know who the murderer is from the very start.  Before we even pick up the book.  If I try to tell that story in a normal mystery format with normal mystery tropes, it’s going to collapse really fast.  The whole structure of mysteries is based around the audience not knowing certain things, so if they already know them... well, that’s going to be a tough sell.
            Remember that pitch/ outline I mentioned?  It’s loosely inspired by an old ‘50s sci-fi movie.  But one of the big issues is that the “science” that drives most of the story in that movie is just awful.  Oh, it might’ve been borderline acceptable back in the day, but these days my niece could poke a dozen holes in.  And she’s a high school freshman. In Texas!
            That’s how weak the science is.
            So if I want to tell that story now, I’ll need to change a lot of things.  Those rationales and explanations just won’t hold with modern readers because they know better.  It’ll kill their suspension of disbelief almost immediately and they’ll give up on my story before they get to chapter five.
            And I don’t write big chapters.
            As I mentioned above, both of these examples deal with an empathy issue.  I have to be aware of what my audience knows.  What’s common knowledge, what’s obvious, and what sort of thing they’re already aware of.  And I need to understand how that knowledge is going to affect the reception and dramatic structure of my story.  Something they already know can’t be a surprise, and something they know is wrong can’t support a string of plot points.
            Please note an important difference here. Wrong doesn’t mean not real.  I can propose tons of alternate histories or secret societies or fringe science breakthroughs. I’d love to give you guidelines for making up planets or technologies or imaginary animals.  But the simple truth is... it’s an empathy thing.  Every thread in every story is going to be unique and different in how I present it and how you receive it.
            Semi-related---this is also why spoilers suck so much.  They literally change the story I’m telling (or reading) because they change what the reader knows. 
            For example...
            I’m going to spoil The Sixth Sense, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now and go watch it. No, seriously, go.  The whole point of this is how knowing things can mess up how you receive a story, so if you keep reading you’ll never be able to watch The Sixth Sense the way you’re supposed to.  NEVER.  If you’ve somehow managed to avoid it until now, I don’t want to be the one to take it away from you, so stop reading.
            Okay, now that those folks are gone...
            That big reveal at the end of The Sixth Sense is a jaw-dropping moment when we hit it for the first time.   But if we go in already knowing Bruce Willis has been dead all along, this is a very different story.  It’s almost an afterschool special.  “The Boy and his Phantom Psychologist,” Thursday at four on ABC.
            More to the point, that ending doesn’t have the dramatic weight it would without that knowledge. And it never can.  We can’t unlearn things, much as we’d like to.
            Once something’s been spoiled... that’s it.  No takebacks.  No mulligans.
            I’ll even toss this out.  The ending of The Sixth Sense was such a powerful moment that it got copied many times--often by people who didn’t really understand it.  But this often-copied ending still ended up out there.  It became common.  And because it was common knowledge, so to speak, it changed how writers can tell that sort of story.  These days, most readers know to look for that sort of twist.  And they’ll pick up on the subtlest of clues or hints.  And I need to be aware of that if I want to tell one of those stories—that people will almost be expecting it.
            Because if I don’t, I should know I’m about to make some clumsy mistakes.
            Next time, I want to talk about some more basics.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Why Do I Do This, Anyway...?

            Joyous arbitrary point in the solar orbit!  Or, as some people like to say, Happy New Year!  Hope 2018 hasn’t been too rough on you so far.
            At the start of the year I try to scribble out something about why I keep writing this ranty blog week after week (sometimes twice a week) for year after year (over ten years now).  It’s not like I’ve got thousands of fans checking this page all the time.  Heck, I see the numbers.  The average post here barely gets 200 views, and I’m willing to bet a good handful of those are bots looking to drop some spam links about great opportunities mining bitcoins or something like that...
            Please don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the eyes I get. I’m honestly amazed by the half-dozen or so of you who’ve reading these rants for years now. Since long before I was considered any kind of pro.
            But let’s be honest.  If you added it all up, I probably put 80-100 hours a year into this blog.  I could write a third of a novel in that time—a novel I’d probably get paid for. Heck, that’s three other books I could’ve written in the years I’ve spent here.
            Hardly the best use of my time.
            Sooooo... why?
            Well, for a long time (and still sometimes) it came from frustration.  It’s annoying to watch a movie or read a book and see people make basic storytelling mistakes.  Not “oh, I didn’t like that choice”—full-on mistakes.
          And I see a lot of them because, in my self-flagellating way (oh, get your mind out of the gutter), I tend to watch a lot of B-movies.  Because I believe people can learn at least as much from the bad stuff as the good stuff.  Possibly more from the bad stuff (think of it as a literary Anna Karenina principle, odd as that sounds).  So I watch the B-movies, break down problems, and then rant about them here when I spot recurring patterns of mistakes.
            Writing these posts also helps me figure out stuff, to some extent.  I’ve approached some problems in my own writing from the angle of “how would I explain this on the ranty blog” (sort of like going to the doctor and saying “I’ve got this friend who’s been having, y’know... problems...”).  And once I’ve figure out a way to avoid a problem, I like to share it with all of you and the bitcoin bots.
            But there’s one simple reason I do it.  The same reason I look forward to doing the Writers Coffeehouse every month over at Dark Delicacies
            I wish there’d been something like this when I started out.
            Seriously, back in those heady days (when half the writers were shrieking about how papyrus was going to mean the death of clay tablets and anyone who didn’t adapt immediately was soooooo Old Kingdom) it was tough to come across decent writing advice.  Of the four fiction-writing instructors I had between high school and college, one was fantastic, two were okay, and one was just bad (as a teacher and especially as a writing teacher).  There were only two writing magazines that were easily accessible (and I say this as a college student whose campus had a huge newsstand).  The internet at this point was pretty much just six trained ravens, at least three of which were out at any give time carrying messages and they always made that horrible screeeeEEEEEEEEEchhhhhhhh...
            The idea a professional writer would toss out advice at random was just mind boggling to me.  Even when I got in touch with a few, like Ray Bradbury or Lloyd Alexander, the fact that they responded clearly had to be the exception, not the rule.  And I still see that mindset today—that pro writers are these crabby, closed off people who clawed their way to this point in their career and will scare off anyone who tries to take their perch from them.
            That’s nonsense.  To paraphrase a friend of mine “other writers aren’t my competition.”  Writers help other writers.  We offer those little leg-ups we wish we’d gotten from the start and try to steer folks away from the bad advice we followed for too long. 
            So that’s why I do it.  Because I want to help people.  Because there isn’t much solid writing advice out there, and a lot of what there is tends to be about how to make a million dollars by self- publishing your novel about the great Bitcoin heist of 2019.  Because it’s kinda fun.
            Seriously, though... why do you keep showing up?
            Speaking of showing up, next time, I’d like to talk a little bit about them. And what they know.
            You know who I’m talking about.
            Until then, go write.