Thursday, June 21, 2012

By The Numbers

            What the heck?  How’d it get to be Thursday already...?
            Okay, a quick tip for you about numbers, because I’ve had a few folks ask me about this in the past few months.
            Some people get confused about numbers versus numerals in their writing.  Were there twelve days of Christmas or 12 days of Christmas?  Does my lord offer you a thousand swordsmen or 1000 swordsmen?
            Some of this confusion comes from journalistic standards.  A lot of non-fiction writing tends to follow the rule that everything below twelve is written out, but from 13 up you use numerals.  It varies a bit from publication to publication.  Sometimes the cutoff is ten or eleven, but it’s usually somewhere in the very early double-digits.
            That’s non-fiction, though.  Non-fiction is hard facts.  Here, we’re more concerned with making things up, yes?  With making them seem real, but not too real.
            My personal rule of thumb is that it looks very unnatural for people to talk in numbers.  We all speak in words, not numerals.  So when someone’s speaking, numbers should always be written out.  For example, in my new book, 14, someone might say “I live in room twenty-eight,” but then they’ll walk down the hall and go into room 28.  Dialogue is always written out, but numerals can show up in the prose.
            Now, there are a few exceptions to this.  Off the top of my head...
            First is cases where the numerals are part of a proper name.  No one should ever fire an Ay-Kay Forty-Seven or an Em-Sixteen.  The year is 2012, not twenty-twelve or two-thousand-twelve.  In Ex-Patriots, Captain Freedom is the commander of the Alpha 456th Unbreakables and speaks of them as such.  So when the numerals are part of a proper name, it’s okay for me to use them in dialogue.
            Second is in first person stories.  If you think about it, a first person story is really all dialogue, because the character is addressing the reader.  This site is mostly first person—me talking to you—and I tend to write things out most of the time.  So I need to be extra careful using numerals if I’m writing in first person.
            Third is screenplays.  I should always write out numbers in screenplays because if I don’t it messes up timing, especially if I’m doing it a lot.  I might write 4,321 to save space, but the actor still has to say “Four thousand three hundred and twenty one.”  Check out this clip from my very cliché-filled road trip movie.

One million bottles of beer on the wall, one million bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.  Nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around...

Now compare it to this...

1,000,000 bottles of beer on the wall, 1,000,000 bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around, 999,999 bottles of beer on the wall.  999,999 bottles of beer on the wall, 999,999 bottles of beer.  You take one down, pass it around...

            This block of dialogue just got cut in half by using numerals instead of written out numbers.  Except it really didn’t.  It’s going to take just as long for the actor to say, and all that’s really happened is the producers, assistant directors, and script supervisor have a bad estimate for how long this will take to film.  Not only that, odds are I’m going to mess it up, too, because I’m thinking my script is shorter than it really is.
            So  keep that in mind when you’re writing that subtle reference to 007’s twentieth adventure.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about one of my favorite animated movies, and how it’s an example of wonderful storytelling.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Patting the Dog

            Oh, get your minds out of the gutter.
            This week’s topic comes from a comedy sketch done many years ago by British comedian Benny Hill.  He’s best known in America for having lots of scantily clad women dancing around him, while the rest of the world also remembers his ability to rattle off some clever wordplay or jokes.  If I do this right, though, “patting the dog” will become a regular writing phrase and we’ll all get to give him credit for that, too.
            Many years back, Hill did a sketch where he played a foreign film director being interviewed by the press.  When asked about his new film (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), he explains in broken English that it’s a “deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness.”  When the interviewer prods him a bit, Hill goes into further detail.
            “It’s about a man who tries to leave the mob and sees his friends slaughtered by criminals with machetes.  So he tracks down the villains and kills them all.  Then he finds their boss and kills him in front of the man’s family.  Then he kills the man’s wife, and then his children.  Then he desecrates their bodies and, as he leaves, he sets fire to their home.”
            “I thought it was a deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness?”
            “It is,” insists Hill.  “As he walks out the door, he pats the dog on the head.”
            That got a big laugh from the studio audience.  And from me, even though I was only eleven and really watching the show for the scantily clad women.  It was clever enough to stick with me, even past those distractions.
            See, the studio audience and I both recognized the absurdity of what Hill’s character was suggesting—that one miniscule, token act could balance out, or even override, the atrocities he’d just described.  Patting the dog is a nice thing to do, yes, but in all honesty it’s kind of low on the scale.  Heck, for most of us it’s more of an automatic response than a deliberate act of kindness.  We see a dog and we pat him or her on the head.  That's all there is to it.  We probably think more about tying our shoes in the morning.
            So the idea that patting the dog would make us completely change our views on this character or this story is... well, laughable.  It’s too little, too late.  It’s the weakest kind of spin job.
            And yet, how often have we seen this sort of thing in books or movies?  We’ll have a completely unlikable person who does nothing we can sympathize with or relate to.  Violent drug dealers, sadistic assassins, abusive spouses, jerk bosses, there’s dozens of characters that could fit this category.  And all too often, the writer will give them some tiny, banal moment that’s supposed to make us suddenly change how we feel about them.  They pat a dog.  They thank the guy who sells them their morning coffee.  They get drunk and confess their awful childhood.  They go to church and say their prayers.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m patting the dog, it means I’ve got a character who’s doing some small, token thing that’s supposed to counterbalance a lot of really awful things. And that just doesn’t work.  I can’t spend page after page making the audience feel one way about a character, then expect their views to completely shift because of one minor action.
            Now, at the risk of possible Armageddon, let’s mix dogs and cats
            I’ve mentioned the “save the cat” moment once or thrice.  This is Blake Snyder’s term for when a character does something small and quick early on in the story that gets us on their side.  His example of this is “saving the cat” (which some writers take way, way too literally) but it can be any number of things.  It’s just a simple action that assures us this person is a decent human being.  In my new book 14, the main character’s saving the cat moment is when he decides not to drown a cockroach.
            Here’s a well-known save the cat moment from the movie Robocop.  Remember when we see the still-human Murphy practicing his quick-draw and spinning his pistol into his holster?  He explains that he’s learning the trick for his son, who sees all the great cops on television do it and therefore assumes his dad should also be able to do it (because his dad must be a great cop).  And, Murphy tells his new partner with a grin, it is just kind of cool.  It’s a quick little moment, barely thirty seconds long and only about fifteen minutes into the film, but it establishes Murphy’s a good dad and an overall decent guy.
            Now, the big catch with a save the cat moment is that we’ve never been against this character.  Saving the cat has never been about changing our view of a person, it’s about emphasizing our view of them.  It’s just a shortcut to help the reader like them quicker so the writer can move on to more important things.  Like, say, the plot.
            A lot of folks try to have half-assed save the cat moments in their stories, but really they’re just patting the dog.  A couple easy ways to figure out which column my random act of kindness falls in...

--If everything I’ve done up till this point has been to make the character unlikable, then this moment is patting the dog.

--If it comes more than halfway through the story, odds are I’m patting the dog.

--If I’m trying to change the reader’s perception of my character with this moment, I’m just patting the dog.

            This isn’t to say I can’t reverse how my readers see one of my characters, but it’s not going to be a quick fix thing that I can do with one line.  It’s going to take lots of moments and a lot of work.  It’s a long process that can’t be rushed.  Even if I’m doing it with a clever twist, the reader needs to look back and see that the seeds of this change stretch all through my story.
            Because there’s another word for when someone does a sudden reversal like that.  It’s called a betrayal.  And no one likes to be betrayed.  Even if it’s just by characters in something they’re reading.
            Next time, I’d like to run some numbers by you real quick.
            Until then, go write.  And remember to thank Benny Hill.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Crystal Clear Tone

            The title will become clear further into the rant.  Hopefully.
            Shamefully, some pandering, too.  My new novel, 14, just came out.  It's there on the sidebar.  Ebook only, at the moment, but this time next week that link should take you to the paperback version.
            As some of you know, I used to write for a fairly popular screenwriting magazine.  It let me talk to lots of professionals about their job, and it also let me see a lot of movies for free.  A lot of movies, sometimes weeks or even months before they came out.  To be honest, the last movie my lovely lady and I paid to see was V for Vendetta.  Before that was probably Batman Begins, which we saw twice—once with our friend Max and once just the two of us.
            But that really doesn’t have anything to do with this week’s topic.
            Or does it?
            Anyway, one day I was in the office and the editor, Amy, asked me about a film she knew I’d seen a few weeks earlier.  One of the other journalists had suggested the idea of doing a big piece on horror-comedies for the September-October issue, and the movie I’d seen (let’s call it Gorefest) was one of the ones that had come up as a potential subject.  Amy wanted to know if I thought Gorefest would fit the article.
            I didn’t think so.  The filmmakers were telling a horror story, and they knew that too many jokes and cheap laughs would shift the tone of the film and knock it into a different category.  Gorefest was a horror movie, and it had several moments of comedy in it, like a lot of modern horror films.  But it wasn’t a horror comedy.  They never crossed that line.
            The other journalist insisted it was, though, and used it anyway.  In the final article, the screenwriter of Gorefest openly said it wasn’t a horror comedy.  And Amy gave me a little grin the next time I was in the office.
            This is an example of someone being a bit tone deaf.  You’ve probably heard this term applied to both music and writing.  In music, it’s when I don’t realize that a group of notes or chords clashes with another group.  And that’s pretty much what it means in writing, too.  When something doesn’t work in my story, tonally, it means something’s clashing or overpowering something it shouldn’t, to the point that it stands out.  In this particular case, the journalist was projecting emphasis onto those comedy bits that wasn’t there in the script—he was deaf to the actual tone of the film.
            I interviewed Kevin Smith a few years back for one of his movies (Zach and Miri Make a Porno).  One question I asked was about working with Seth Rogen.  After all, Smith notoriously hates ad-libs and Rogen is famous for constantly riffing on lines, coming up with new ideas and variations for almost every take.
            He was quick to correct me, though.  His reputation for hating ad-libs came from his first few films, when he realized he and his cast were too inexperienced to be making big deviations from the script.  So back then, he was very strict about sticking to the page.  And while he’s loosened up a bit, he still favors the script over random interpretations on set.  “So often you’ll get an actor who just starts saying stuff that’s very funny to the crew or me or the other actors, but it’s not germane to the discussion,” he told me.  “It’ll be great on a friggin’ blooper reel, but I can’t fit this into the scene.”
            And, yes, I did clean up Kevin Smith’s quote a bit for those of you reading this at work.  Feel free to swap in the words you think he used.  You’ll be right.
            Just because something’s good in and of itself doesn’t mean something is good in the bigger scheme of things.  I can throw a great slapstick comedy scene into my Somalian pirates script, and it may be some of the greatest slapstick ever written.   But it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb amidst the gunfire, brutal killings, and mounting tension.  I could write some stuff right now that could make most of you reading this cringe or get grossed out.  It’s not really that hard. 
            The thing is, what would be the point of doing it right now?  You’re reading this to learn about writing, not to get nauseous.  It might be some fantastically disgusting imagery, but it just wouldn’t fit here any more than... well, a random discussion about the last couple of movies I paid to see.
            I see this kind of stuff all the time.  Random gore for the sake of gore.  Long monologues in an action film.  Comical sidekicks wedged in for no reason except to be the comical sidekick.  Romance that’s shoehorned in just so there’s a reason for a female character.
            Another quick story, one I’ve mentioned here before.  A friend gave me a horror script to look at a few years back.  It was a basic “cabin in the woods” setup with a clever idea behind it.  My friend knew that sex sells, and he told me before I read it that he'd added a nude scene.  It actually turned out to be a hardcore lesbian sex scene.  Three pages of boobs, some bondage, toys, and insertions.  It was so graphic, in fact, there was nothing to call it except pornographic.  And that’s a major shift in tone right in the middle of a fairly creepy horror story.
            This is one of the harder criticisms to give.  For a lot of people—especially inexperienced people—it’s also one of the harder ones to receive.  It’s very hard for some folks to grasp that something can be good and still not be right
            If I had to guess, I’d probably say part of the reason people have trouble with this concept comes from that reverse-engineering idea I mentioned a few weeks back.  Element X works well in story Y, therefore it stands to reason element X will work in story Z.  There’s also probably a bit of special snowflake mentality—the idea that doing something good should somehow automatically translate to success.  And, for some writers, there’s probably an empathy issue in there as well.
            Y’see, Timmy, tone is about my story as a whole.  Not this particular funny joke or that one creepy description or that strongly-implied (or blatantly shown) sex scene.  Tone is how my entire story feels overall and how it’s going to be viewed.  That’s not to say I can’t have comedy or romance or action in my story.  It’s these little moments of flavor and color that make a story really sing.  The trick is to know how much comedy and how much romance will work in a given story—and maybe accepting that the answer is “none.”  Because things that break the tone generally break the flow, too.
            And if you can’t tell you’re breaking the flow... well, don’t worry.  Your readers will let you know one way or the other.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about a wonderful lesson we can all learn from an old Benny Hill skit.
            Until then, go write.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Couldn't Care Less

            Very sorry this is late.  Last Thursday I was up in Seattle for Crypticon.  This Thursday was my birthday and my lovely lady had a very full day planned out for us.  So you’re getting this a bit late, but you’ll still get a new post in a few days.
            Anyway, I had a quick tip for you
            I’ve talked a few times here about mysteries.  A good mystery is when your characters and your audience are looking for the answer to a question.  But there’s an exception to this rule that I haven’t mentioned.  If your characters don’t care about the mystery, there’s a good chance the author and audience shouldn’t either.
            This is pretty much the flipside of an idea I tossed out a few weeks back.  I can’t put the mystery under the spotlight and then expect I don’t have to show it to people.  However, if my characters are content to leave the mystery completely in the dark, odds are my readers will be fine with it, too.
            The Time Traveler’s Wife never bothers to investigate how Henry can travel in time.  We get a loose explanation of genetics and that’s it.  He and Clare just accept it as a given because it’s tied their lives together.  On the sadly-just-cancelled television show Awake, Detective Britten doesn’t care which world is real and which is a dream.  Having both worlds is a win-win for him, so the show was far more procedural than supernatural.  On The Finder, Walter didn’t care how a head injury turned him into a locating-obsessed goofball, and neither did his friends, so the show never pondered on it.
            Y’see, Timmy, my characters should always mirror my audience, and I should write accordingly.  If St. George, Stealth, and Cerberus are excited and interested about something, my story should be structured so my audience is excited and interested as well.  That’s good writing.
            If my characters don’t care about the mystery, though, my story shouldn’t spend page after page shoving it in my readers' faces.  If my characters have one priority and my audience has another, it’s just not going to work.  That’s bad writing, and it’s going to make things feel forced and unnatural.
            Be clear on what your characters want, and make sure your story wants the same things.  If not, you’re going to create a conflict.  And not the good kind of conflict.
            A quick question for you all, for the future.  Would any of you be interested in interviews with other professional writers?  I’ve got a fair number of novelists and screenwriters in my email address book, plus a good-sized pile of old interviews I did in the past with some name folks.  Would that sort of thing interest anyone here?
            Let me know.
            Speaking of which, next time, I’d like to drop names and talk about something very important that Kevin Smith told me once.
            Until then, go write.