Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time And Relative Dimensions In Space

Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.

This one's just a quick thought before we all lunge into the holiday season.

Time is a tricky thing in stories. Oh, you've got the usual narrative time issues like skipping a few days here or there or going into a flashback, and I've prattled on about those a few times. There's also continuity issues with time. Who knew what and when, was she with him at the same time she was with her, and how did he know that when he hadn't met her yet--we've all dealt with these issues. Well, hopefully you've dealt with them...

I wanted to talk about a different aspect of time, though.

Time, and the passage of time in a story, tells us about characters. It gives us an insight when Yakko can shrug off losing a piece of jewelry after a long sigh but Dot is still crying about it two months later. It really tells us something when Wakko can't remember what he had for breakfast yesterday and Marco can recite every item on the table from breakfast on his fourth birthday. If it takes Bob six months to hit the point where he'll compromise his morals and Rob breaks after six hours, you know who you want to be trapped in the Andes with. How long something has an effect--or doesn't have an effect--on someone tells us subtle thing about them that register just as much as any monologue they're about to spiel out.

I was reading for a screenplay contest recently and came across an example of this in one script. On the off chance the contest entrant is reading this (slim, but let's be polite), I'm going to tweak a few facts and relate the set-up more than the story. It was just such a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

We begin, as the header tells us, in May of 1999 as a stranger arrives in town. A local woman is mourning the death of her daughter, and she goes to the cemetary to set flowers on the grave. We see on the tombstone that her daughter died just over a month ago, in early April of '99. That night, when she breaks down in tears over dinner, her husband sighs and tells her she has to get over it and it's time she moved on.

When we see her in town the next day, most folks she meets are a bit stand-offish to her. Eventually she finds the stranger, they become friends and after another twenty pages or so she confesses how miserable she's been since her daughter died... just over a year ago.

A quick check confirms both of the dates I've already mentioned to you. So which is the mistake? Was "year" supposed to be "month" or was one of the earlier dates wrong? Well, a few pages later she's talking with a priest and the one year figure comes up again. So the problem was in the earlier dates, apparently.

A harmless typo, you say?

Well, here's the thing. Her husband came across as kind of a jerk, didn't he? His own daughter's dead a month and he's already telling his wife to move on? It didn't matter how long she was supposed to be dead. All we have is the words on the page, and those words make us interpret and judge things in a certain way.

Look at this scene when you know it's a year and suddenly the husband's a much more sympathetic character. He's barely recovered from one loss and is dealing with a wife it looks like he might lose to her own grief. Same with those townspeople. They seem a bit cold to ignore a grieving mother, but it's a bit understandable why many of them might be put off by a woman who's been grieving for close to thirteen months.

All that messed up in the story because of a single digit.

What this means for us as writers is that we need to be really, really careful with time and dates. They need to be double and triple-checked. Unlike a typoed word, I can't tell if a date is wrong or not. "Birthday cale" is an easy-to-spot mistake, but "2005" is not.

Y'see, Timmy, the immediate, unconscious timelines those dates and times create are something we can all key into, and we can relate to them (and make judgements off them) almost immediately. They set up certain assumptions and conceptions about characters, and if they're the wrong ones it can land your script in that big pile on the left.

So, as the Doctor always says, please be careful when you play with time.

Come back next week at our usual bat-time, and you can listen to me prattle on about characters.

Until then, go write. And have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different...

A long-overdue pop culture reference for the title, just to get us moving.

It's always interesting to me when I try to figure out what next week's blog will be about, for that little teaser at the end of this week's blog. This week's started off when I was passing quick notes back and forth with a friend who's doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. He had a clever idea for one of his upcoming chapters, about midway though his work-in-progress, and I... well, I was advising against it. Then someone brought up the same issue on a publisher's message board I frequent. A few days later, I was reading scripts for a contest and found one where said issue had become one of the problems crippling the screenplay.

What is said problem, you ask?

Well, the first time I ever saw Doctor Who was halfway through a very trippy story arc called "The Deadly Assassin" (which has finally become available on DVD). It was probably the worst set of episodes to try to start watching the show on, because the Doctor spent a good chunk of it in the mind-twisting reality of the Matrix (yes, Doctor Who had a Matrix decades before Keanu Reeves did). A few months later I tried again and WGBH (which only had so many episodes) had circled back around to "Robot," which was the first Tom Baker story, also featuring the lovely Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane. And that's how I became a Doctor Who fan, and have remained one for most of my life.

What the heck does that have to do with any of this?

Well, it's hard to tell, isn't it? Suddenly bam I've gone from the usual rant to some senile doddering about my childhood without any sort of transition.


Transitions are what I wanted to rant about this week. That moment your story goes from this to something else. It can be a shift in character, person, location, or time. Every time you switch, you're asking your audience to take a moment to readjust. The bigger the shift, the bigger the time of adjustment. Most of us could make it past either a six inch step or a three foot drop, but one's going to take a lot more effort than the other.

As a writer, you don't want the audience to think about that adjustment. If everything's done right, the transitions will be as invisible as the word "said." If there are too many transitions, though, going in too many different directions, it's too much like driving on a road covered with speed bumps. You're asking the reader to pause again and again and again and again. If a manuscript has too many transitions, or too many extreme ones, it's going to go into that large pile on the left. What would you do if a manuscript made you pause half a dozen times in the first ten pages? Would you keep reading or get back to folding laundry?

I mentioned my friend who started all this off (and who most likely is reading this). Let me be blunt and hope he forgives me. In the middle of his superhero action-intrigue story, he wanted to do an entire chapter in verse. Chaucer-style, Canterbury Tales verse. Why isn't important for our purposes, just that he was going to do it. He had a very solid reason for it, and I have no doubt he could've pulled it off.

The thing was, he'd actually had several point of view shifts in his novel already. Some of them were basic shifts-- we'd go from third person focused on him to third person on him. Then there would be jumps to first person narratives. And epistolary chapters. And flashbacks. Plus a frame that was a flash-forward. So it wasn't just that he wanted to do a chapter in verse, it's that he wanted to do a chapter in verse on top of everything else. All fine and good on their own, but as they begin to pile up...

As a brief but relevant segue, let me talk about Dean Koontz for a moment, author of (among many, many others) Watchers, Dark Rivers of the Heart, and the Fear Nothing series (which I really hope he goes back to some day). Early in his career, Koontz wrote a great little book called How To Write Best Selling Fiction It's gone out of print, and the author himself has said he's got no interest in seeing it re-issued. I think a lot of the reasons for both are political, because in this book young Koontz did say a lot of blunt, rather unkind things about publishing, gurus, and wannabe writers. Now, in all fairness, many of these things were completely true, and still are today. They're not what people want to hear or admit, but, as a friend of mine once told our boss, if you wanted a cheerleader you should've hired one. If you can find a copy-- grab it (they go for big bucks on eBay). If you can find it online, download it, memorize it, and delete it. Than write an angry letter to Writers Digest Books telling them how they've forced you to resort to piracy.

Back on track, though.

One thing Koontz stresses, and you can see it in his work, is to never shift viewpoints within a chapter. Use the chapter break itself as the big pause and try to have as few little ones within it as possible. Now, I'd never go as far to say you should never switch within a chapter, but I also think Koontz has a solid track record backing him up.

So, a few quick tips for transitions...

Fewer - This is the easiest one. The simplest way to avoid troubling shifts is... well, avoid them. Look at the transitions in your writing and figure out how many of them can be trimmed out or consolidated. Is it harder to tell a story with fewer transitions? A bit, yes, but far from impossible. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope doesn't have one transition in it. It's a single continuous film narrative from start to finish. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe only has two in the entire novel. It switches to an epistolary journal for a few dozen pages and then back to the regular narrative. There aren't even chapter breaks.

Smaller - As I mentioned above, it's easier to go down a six inch step than a three foot drop. It's easy for a reader to go from third person, past- tense to another third person, past tense. It's a bit harder to start in third person, past tense and jump to second person, future tense section and then back... or to a first person, present. Likewise, jumping between the thoughts of a Harvard professor and a golden retriever is going to be a bit jarring. Bigger jumps mean bigger pauses to adjust, and also more of a disruption in the flow of your story.

Smoother - One way to lessen the impact between sections is to make the transition as organic as possible. A common way of doing this is by creating parallel structure in text or dialogue to keep up a certain rhythym. Another is to do continuations, where, for example, a question gets asked in the first part but the answer is given after the transition.

Make Them Have Purpose - Is there a real reason the story's going from this point of view to that one? If so, your readers will be more willing to accept the change. If not, it's just going to frustrate them more. Much like when I prattled on about structure, if the shift doesn't accomplish something in the story, you shouldn't be doing it. Make sure the story as a whole is focused, and that there's a real reason we're suddenly spending a page with Wakko, the wannabe actor who's working as a waiter on weekends and about to serve a drink to the main character.

Now, there is sort of a halfbreed flipside to this. A common problem, especially in screenplays, is a complete lack of transitions. Gurus and how-to books tell people to cut description, cut words, cut everything. So fledgling writers take that advice and cut... well, everything.

The problem with that approach is, while it sounds wise on the surface, what it really does is leave you with nothing on the page and nothing between scenes. Suddenly, we're in a house with Jane. What kind of house? Old? Modern? Is it the present day? Are we in the kitchen at lunchtime? The bedroom at midnight? And while I'm still reeling trying to figure out where we are and why Jane is yelling at George, suddenly we're in an office. A newspaper office? A telemarketing office? Is it real office or a field of cubicles? Too late, now we're with George in his car...

I've set down a lot of scripts like this while I was reading for contests. None of them went in the pile on the right.

So, there's my random musings on transitions. Hopefully not too random.

By the way, the reason "The Deadly Assassin" was so hard to follow as an introductory episode was because it took place across a virtual landscape formed from the stored memories of the Time Lords. In other words, it was a mish-mash of settings with no transitions between them. It would've been so much smoother if I'd said that up front, yes...?

Next week we're getting into the holidays, so I won't take up too much of your time. I may talk about it, though.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Got Anything That Doesn't Suck?

Thank the late Captain Murphy for that title.

Let me pull out the big guns right at the start. There's a great line by Tolstoy (see, I warned you)-- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. There's a wonderful lesson in those words, and it's what I wanted to pontificate about this week.

Everyone reading this has read something that was awful or seen a movie that just sucked, right? I mean, if you're doing your job as a writer and taking in everything you can, it's unavoidable. We've all been exposed to some serious crap.

Time for another one of my random guilty confessions. I love bad stuff. I can watch awful movies for hours (sometimes I even get paid to watch them). I've been exposed to crap scripts that are getting off easy with the label crap. I read horrible books cover to cover, and I've read some stinkers. My girlfriend is often in awe (we'll call it awe, anyway) that I continue to read things even as I lament how bad they are. I admit I take a certain perverse pride in being able to say I've finished almost every book I've ever picked up. Some took longer than others, and some I'm still working on, but I don't think I've ever given up on something once I started reading it.


That's a fair question. I mean, why subject yourself to the bad stuff? There's plenty of great stuff out there, after all. There are timeless works of fiction in all genres. Some phenomenal movies and television. Why should anyone waste time and effort going over the crap?

Let's play a little game. Name five writers someone must read if they want to be a good writer. No ifs, ands, or buts, you have to know these authors' works. You can write them down if you like, or just keep them in your forebrain for a few minutes. This won't take long.

Got 'em?

Okay, then...

Shakespeare's probably there on your list, yes? Maybe Hawthorne, Dickens, Hemingway, or Steinbeck? If you're a bit more horror-oriented, odds are you have Lovecraft or King. Bradbury and Matheson both bridge horror and sci-fi quite nicely, if that's your focus.

The point of the game--of this round of it, anyway--is that I probably just named at least three of your top five authors, didn't I? Maybe even all five? The reason I can do that is because everyone picks the same authors. We could do the same thing with five filmmakers every budding director or screenwriter should study. Go on, try it with your friends.

That brings us to round two. Can you name five authors someone should avoid at all costs if they're studying to be a writer? Heck, can you just name five books?

It's been said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. The unspoken lesson is you can't just study all the winners, you have to study the losers, too. Knowing why Ronald Reagan won his election is good, but it's also good to know why Jimmy Carter lost--and no, they are not the same reasons.

The same goes for writing. You can take dozens of classes that will teach you (and tens of thousands of other people) all the same things about all the same good authors and novels. Then all of you can turn out the same good stories of your own that imitate those same authors and novels.

The problem here is that you're not learning how to avoid the problems and pitfalls of writing-- you're being taught they don't exist. It's the literary equivalent of the spoiled rich kid whose never had to do anything for him or herself. Paris Hilton never learned how to change a flat tire because in her world there's always a repairman and a back-up limo one phone call away. Does that make her an expert at car repair or just someone who never has to deal with it?

Of course, just reading the bad stuff and rolling your eyes doesn't help. Anyone can say "that sucks." Anyone. It doesn't take any special skills or education. Heck, you can train a parrot to say it. Keep that in mind. When someone points at a piece of writing and just mocks it for no reason, they're operating on the same level as a bird (or celebutante daughter of a hotel magnate) with a brain the size of a walnut.

No, you need to look at the bad stuff and be able to explain why it sucks. What mistakes did the storyteller make. What's wrong with the dialogue? Why can't you believe in the characters? Is it an actual problem or a matter of personal taste? Why was the resolution so unsatisfying? And the most important question to answer, of course, is how could you make it better? What would it take for this piece of crap to be something passably good, or even great? Again, you want to have a real answer, not a smart-aleck, off-the-cuff response. A real writer can discuss a crap book just as easily as a good one.

Which brings us back around to the why.

Y'see, Timmy, if you can honestly identify and critique another piece of work, it's going to make it easier for you to judge your own work. Being able to honestly judge your own work is how you're going to improve. There are a lot of ways to be a bad writer, and if you can't recognize them for what they are--and figure out how to avoid them--then odds are that's the path you'll end up on and you won't even know it.

So go forth and learn from the badness.

Next time, I'd like to talk about something completely different.

Until then, go write. And for God's sake, write something that doesn't suck.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What's My Motivation?

The answer to that question, according to Hitchcock, is your paycheck. He was talking about actors, but there's a bit of truth in there for writers, too.

So, a while back a friend of mine asked me to look at a script he'd been working on. It was pretty darn solid, overall, but right in the beginning I noticed something that struck me as a bit odd. Our hero's renovating a large home and has been told one area of the estate is off limits. Don't go through that door. Well, as tends to happen in movies... guess what?

It was how it happened that got my attention, though, and not in a good way. Just a few pages later said character is slamming his shoulder against the door three or four times until it pops open and he can explore a bit. Which was odd, because up until now this guy had seemed like a straight-shooting model citizen. Now suddenly he's breaking and entering just to satisfy a mild sense of curiosity.

Here's another example (not from my friend's script). Let's say Bob is hanging out with a female friend, they decide to go out, and she heads off to her room to get changed. It says one thing about Bob if, when he heads to the bathroom, he happens to catch a glimpse of his friend naked through the door and has a momentary "Wow." It says another thing if, as soon as she walks off, he casually finds the angle that lets him stare into her room. It's a third thing altogether if he pulls out his cell phone to use the camera and take pictures. On the surface, the same thing is happening--Bob is seeing his friend with no clothes--but these are three very different scenes because of his intentions in each one (innocent, lecherous, and kinda creepy).

Y'see, Timmy, motivation is one of the keys to storytelling, because it's one of the keys to great characters. It's why everything happens, and why someone's doing something affects how they do it. People can be motivated by greed, survival, anger, hatred, fear, duty, love, lust, zealotry-- any number of things. Everything a character does has to come from some type of motivation. Everything. Unmotivated characters will just sit on the couch for 300 or so pages, and nobody's interested in that. We all know people like that in real life. Why read about it? More to the point of this week's little rant, it's the writer's job to make sure motivations make sense and are consistent for both the characters and their world. When they aren't, that starts chipping away at suspension of disbelief.

Now, hands down, the biggest and most common problem is when the writer confuses their motivation with the character's. The big battle can't happen if Wakko doesn't do this, so he does this. I need Yakko to say something so we can get to chapter seven, so Yakko says it. Granted, this is how all writing happens, but if you've already established that Wakko would have a strong aversion to doing that and Yakko would never say this, the reader's going to wonder where these choices are coming from. Just because the writer has ultimate power over the characters does not automatically mean anything that gets written is "right" for the characters. Even when you're behind the wheel, you have to drive certain ways in certain places. If you doubt this, try shifting into reverse next time you're on the freeway.

Probably the most common place for this kind of motivational mistake is dialogue. The writer comes up with a funny or cool line and needs a character to say it. Any character. Someone has to say this cool line! Suddenly Father Mike is cracking sex jokes and Sister Hannah is cursing like a sailor. Still great lines, but would these people really use them? The need for explanation can also lead to unmotivated dialogue and make monosyllabic characters start lecturing like college professors. This is a two-fold problem, because not only does it weaken the suspension of disbelief, as mentioned above, it also breaks the flow of the story.

Motivation also becomes a problem when the writer is trying to hit certain benchmarks or requirements with their work. Gurus exhort people to hit this point by page nine, have this action by chapter ten, or make sure this happens X number of times before Y. Fledgling writers follow these rules as a rigid gospel, make their stories and characters twist unnaturally to meet them, and often the result is just a bunch of false drama. In Hollywood, where they refer to elaborate stunt or effects sequences as set pieces, it's not unusual for producers to hand the screenwriter a laundry list of set pieces to fit into their script-- or to write the script around. Robert Towne's script for Mission Impossible II is, alas, an example of just such a thing. Throughout it, stuff just happens. No reason for it, it just happens because the director, producers, and star wanted it in the script. Don't even get me started on Wanted.

In all fairness, some times those requirements are self-imposed. Like that cool line of dialogue I mentioned above, the writer comes up with something they just can't let go of. Maybe it's a certain action sequence, a clever homage, or some odd wish-fulfillment being expressed on the page. Regardless, it usually ends up with some unmotivated decisions, violence, or romantic encounters.

Another common mistake, on the flipside, is to give the motivations for every single thing that happens, including characters or actions that... well, that just aren't all that important. Odds are I don't need to know that the woman at the bus stop ran away from home at age thirteen or that the long-haired waiter doubles as a male stripper to pay for med school. As I've mentioned before, if it doesn't have a direct effect on the story being told, don't waste time with it. It may feel luxurious and literary, but more likely it's clumsy and confusing.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying these characters and actions shouldn't have a motivation. Everything in your story needs a motivation, but the reader doesn't need to know it all. They just need to see the consistent results of it. At no point in Casablanca is it ever brought up or discussed why Rick suddenly decides to be generous to the young couple trying to win money for an exit visa. People comment that he did it and it's very out of character, but why he did it is never mentioned. Does it need to be? No, of course not. Anyone paying attention to the film can explain why Rick has this sudden turn of heart.

Now, there is another school of though in writing that unmotivated action is the best. Life is random after all. Much as we don't like to think about it, people often suffer setbacks that have no deliberate machinations behind them. They get dealthly ill. They're involved in fatal car accidents. In the real world, stories don't always get happy endings and neither do people. Things get left unresolved and mysteries go unexplained. So doing this in your work can only make your writing more realistic and believable, yes?


I'm calling shenanigans on this one, and on every professor, critic, indie filmmaker, and self-proclaimed guru who pushes this viewpoint. If you take this approach in your writing it isn't artistic-- its lazy. Things like that happen in the real world, but we're talking about fiction. Nothing on the page is coming from the randomness of the universe, it's all coming directly out of the writer's mind. It's a created world, and as the writer it's your job to resolve the issues you've created. To have readers invest their time and emotions in a character which the writer then kills off just for the heck of it is cheap. When doing so leaves conflicts unresolved, it's a cop-out. It's the kind of pretentious excuse made by people who don't actually want to put any real effort into their work.

Nobody here wants to be that kind of writer, right?


Next week, before we get further into the sparkly holiday season, I want to talk about some stuff that really sucks. No, seriously.

Until then, hopefully this has motivated you to go write.