Thursday, September 26, 2013

How To Be A Drama Queen

            Or a drama king.  I don’t judge...
            When we left off, I’d just finished babbling about narrative structure, which is how my readers experience a story.  Before that was linear structure--how my characters experience a story.  This week, I want to talk about how those two structures come together within a dramatic structure to form the actual story.
            Warning you now, this is going to be kind of big and rambling, but I’ve also included a lot of pictures.  Go grab a snack now and hit the restroom.  No one will be admitted during the dreadful story dissection scene...
            Also (warning the second), the story I’m going to dissect is The Sixth Sense.  If you’ve never seen it and somehow avoided hearing about it until now, stop reading and go watch it.  Seriously, if you’ve made it this long without having someone blow it for you, you need to see that movie cold.  People love to give M. Night Shyamalan crap, but there’s a reason The Sixth Sense made him a superstar writer-director.  So go watch it and then come back.  The ranty blog will be here waiting for you when you get back.
            Seriously.  Go.  Now.
            Okay, everyone back?
            As the name implies, dramatic structure involves drama.  Not in the “how will I make Edward love me” sense, but in relation to the building interactions between the elements of the story.  In most cases, these elements will be characters, but they can also be puzzles, giant monsters, time limits, or any number of things that keep my protagonist(s) from achieving his or her goal.  Any story worth telling (well, the vast, overwhelming majority of them) are going to involve a series of challenges and an escalation of tension.  Stakes will be raised, then raised again.  More on this in a bit.  
            Now, I don’t mean to scare you, but I’ve prepared a few graphs.  Don’t worry, they’re pretty simple and straightforward.  If you’ve been following the ranty blog for a while, they might even look a little familiar.
graph #1
            On this first graph (and all the others I’ll be showing you) X is the progression or the story, Y is dramatic tension.  This particular graph shows nothing happening (the blue line).  It’s an average day at the office, or maybe that long commute home on the train.  It’s flat and monotone.  No highs, no lows, no moments that stand out.
            Boring as hell.
            Harsh as it may sound, this graph is a good representation of a lot of little indie art films and stories.  There are a lot of wonderful character moments, but nothing actually happens.  Tonally, the end of the story is no different than the beginning.
graph #2
            As a story progresses, tension needs to rise.  Things need to happen.  Challenges need to arise and be confronted.  By halfway through, the different elements of the story should’ve made things much more difficult for my main character.  As I close in on the end, they should be peaking. 
            Mind you, these don’t need to be gigantic action set pieces or nightmarish horror moments.   If the whole goal of this story is for Wakko to ask Phoebe out without looking like an idiot, a challenge could be finding the right clothes or picking the right moment in the day.  But there needs to be something for my character to do to get that line higher and higher..
            Now, here’s the first catch...
graph #3
            Some people start with the line up high.  They begin their story at eight and the action never stops (I’m looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest).  This doesn’t leave a lot of room for things to develop, but the idea is that you don’t have time to see that because we’re hitting the ground running and going until we drop.
            You might notice the line on this graph looks a lot like that first one up above.  It’s pretty much just a straight line because there isn’t anywhere for things to go.  And, as we established, straight lines are pretty boring.  They’re monotone, and monotone is dull whether the line’s set at one-point-five or at eleven.
Rising with setbacks
            That’s the second catch.  Dramatic structure can’t just be a clean rise like that second graph.  That’s another straight line.  And straight lines are... well, I’m sure you get it by this point.  In a good story, there will be multiple challenges and the hero isn’t going to succeed at all of them.  He or she will win in the end, of course, but it’s not going to be easy getting there.  They’ll face mistakes, surprises, bigger challenges, and determined adversaries.  For every success, there’s going to be some setbacks.  So that blue line needs to be a series of peaks and drops. 
            If you know your physics, you know that we don’t feel a constant velocity.  Think about riding in a car.  As long as it’s a steady speed, you don’t notice.  You can drink coffee, move around, whatever.  What we feel is acceleration—the change in velocity.  Those ups and downs are when things stand out, when we know something’s happening.
            Make sense?
            So, with that in mind, here’s a big graph.
             This is everything together.  X is narrative structure.  It’s the story progressing from page one until the end of my story, novel, or screenplay.  Y is dramatic structure. We can see the plot rising and falling as the characters have successes and failures which still continue to build.  And the letters on the blue line are the linear structure.  We’re beginning at G, but there are two flashbacks in there that go back to A and D.
            Notice that D-F flashback.  Even though it’s near the end of the story, it’s got more dramatic weight than G through K.  This is the big, easy trick to dramatic structure.  No matter what my narrative is doing, it has to keep increasing the tension.
            Y’see, Timmy, this graph is what pretty much every story should look like if I map it out.  They’re all going to start small in the beginning and grow.  We’ll see tension rising and falling as challenges appear, advances are made, and setbacks occur.  They’re not going to be exactly like this, but the basic structure—an escalating, jagged line—is almost always a given.  Small at the start, increase with peaks and dips, finish big.
            Simple, yes?
            Keep in mind, this isn’t an automatic thing.  This is something I, as the writer, need to be aware of while I craft my story.  If I have a chapter that’s incredibly slow, it shouldn’t be near the end of my book.  If a scene has no dramatic tension in it at all, it shouldn’t be in the final pages of my screenplay.  And if it is, it means I’m doing something wrong.
            Now, that being said, it should be clear that where things happen within a narrative is going to effect how much weight they have.  Again, dramatic structure tells us that things in the beginning are small, things at the end are big.  Something that’s an amazing reveal at the end of the story won’t have the same impact at the beginning.
            Let me give you an example.  It’s the one I warned you about at the top.  I’d like to tell you an abridged version of The Sixth Sense.  But I’d like to tell it to you in linear order.
            Ready?
            The Sixth Sense is the story of Malcolm, a child therapist who is killed by one of his former patients in a murder-suicide.  Malcolm becomes a ghost, but doesn’t realize he’s died so he continues to “see” his patients.  Several months later, across the city, a woman becomes jealous of her new husband’s daughter, Kyra, and begins to slowly poison the girl.  It’s about this time that Malcolm meets Cole, a little boy with the power to see ghosts, and decides to take Cole on as a patient, helping him deal with the crippling fear the ghosts cause.  When Kyra finally succumbs to the poison and becomes a ghost, she finds Cole, too—inadvertently terrifying him when she does.  Malcolm suggests to Cole that helping her might help him get over his fear.  Cole helps expose Kyra’s stepmother as a murderer and also helps Malcolm come to realize his own status as one of the deceased.  And everyone lives happily ever after.  Even the dead people.
            The happily ever after is a bit of an exaggeration, granted, but it should make something else clear.  When the narrative of this story follows the linear structure, a huge amount of drama is stripped away.  It’s so timid and bland it almost reads like an after-school special rather than a horror movie.  A lot of the power of this story came from the narrative structure.  The order Shyamalan told this story in is what gave it such an amazing dramatic structure (and made him a household name).
            This is what I’ve talked about a few times with flashbacks and non-linear storytelling.  There needs to be a reason for this shift to happen at this point—a reason that continues to feed the dramatic structure.  If my dramatic tension is at seven and I go into a flashback, that flashback better take it up to seven-point-five or eight.  And if it doesn’t, I shouldn’t be having a flashback right now.  Not that one, anyway.
            For the record, this is also why spoilers suck.  See, looking up at the big graph again, E is very high up in the dramatic tension.  It’s a big moment, probably a game-changing reveal, in a flashback.  If I tell you about E before you read the story (or see the movie or watch the episode or whatever), I’ve automatically put E at the beginning--it’s now one of the first events you’ve encountered in the narrative.   And because it’s at the beginning, it’s now equal to G in dramatic tension.  Because things at the start of the story always have very low tension ratings.
why spoilers suck
            The thing is, though, E isn’t at the start of the story.  It’s near the end.  So now when I get to where E really is in the story, it isn’t that big spike anymore.  It’s down at the bottom.  The dramatic structure of the story is blown because I didn't get that information at the right point.  It even looks wrong on the graph when the blue  line bottoms out like that.
            If you want an example of this (without giving anything away), consider Star Trek Into DarknessI can’t help but notice that a lot of people who were demanding to know plot and character information  months before the movie came out were also the same ones later complaining about how weak the story was.  Personally, I went out of my way to avoid spoilers and found the movie to be very entertaining.  It wasn't the most phenomenal film of the summer, but I had a lot of fun with it
            It’s dismissed as coincidence.
            Now, here’s one last cool thing about dramatic structure.  It makes it easy to spot if a story is worth telling.  I don’t mean that in a snide, demeaning way.  The truth is, though, there are a lot of stories out there which just aren’t that interesting.  Since I know a good story should follow that ascending pattern of challenges and setbacks, it’s pretty easy for me to look at even the bare bones of a narrative and figure out if it fits the pattern.
            For example...
            By nature of my chosen genre, I tend to read a lot of post-apocalyptic stories and see a lot of those movies.  I’ve read and watched stories set in different climates, different countries, and with different reasons behind the end of the world.  I’ve also seen lots of different types of survivors.  Hands down, the least interesting ones are the uber-prepared ones.  At least a dozen times I’ve seen a main character who decides on page five to turn his or her house into a survival bunker for the thinnest of reasons, filling it with food, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies.  But twenty pages later, when the zombies finally appear...  damn, are they ready.  Utterly, completely ready.
            In other words... there’s no challenge.  There’s no mistakes, no problems, no setbacks.  The plot inmost of these stories just drifts along from one incident straight to another, and the fully prepped, fully trained, and fully loaded hero is able to deal with each one with minimal effort.  That’s not a story worth telling, because that story is a line.  And I’m sure you still remember my thoughts on lines...
            On the other hand we have C Dulaney’s series, Roads Less Traveled.  The series begins with The Plan, protagonist Kasey’s careful and precise strategy for surviving the end of civilization.  But almost immediately, the plan starts to go wrong.  One of the key people doesn’t make it, a bunch of unexpected people do, and things spiral rapidly downward.  Challenges and setbacks spring up as the tension goes higher and higher.
            That sound familiar?
            And honestly... that’s all I’ve got for you.  I know I’ve spewed a lot, but I wish I could offer you more.  Y’see, Timmy (yep, it’s another double Y’see, Timmy post), while the other two forms of structure are very logical, dramatic structure relies more on gut feelings and empathy with my reader.  I have to understand how information’s going to be received and interpreted if I’m going to release that information in a way that builds tension.  And that’s a lot harder to teach or explain.  The best I can do is point someone in the right direction, let them gain some experience, and hopefully they’ll figure it out for themselves.
            So here’s a rough map of dramatic structure.  
            Head that way.
            Next week, I’ll probably blab a bit about Watson, the supercomputer.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Once Upon a Time...

            ...there was an aspiring writer.  And he lived in a beautiful world of wild dreams and deep denial...
            But let’s not talk about that guy.
            Last week I talked about basic linear structure.  This week I want to talk about narrative structure.  Narrative structure relates to—big surprise—my narrative.  It’s about how I’ve chosen to tell my particular story.  While events unfold in a linear fashion for the characters, how I decide to relay these events to my audience can change how the story’s received and interpreted (more on that in a bit).  So linear is how the characters experiences the story, narrative is how the reader experiences the story.
            One quick note before I dive in.  Within a story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of our discussion here, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about the writer.
            That being said...  here we go.
            In a large chunk of the stories any of us will encounter, the linear structure and narrative structure are going to be the same thing.  The story starts with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, through Wednesday and Thursday, and concludes on Friday.  It’s simple and straightforward, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it.  My own book, 14, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.
            There are also a fair number of stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences.  Other times, the story may be broken up into several sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to where these sections line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there). 
           A great example of a non-linear story is Christopher Nolan’s early film Memento, where the story is actually told in reverse order, starting at the end and moving to the beginning.  My own Ex-Heroes series employs numerous flashbacks (although it’s worth mentioning that the flashbacks are all in linear order).  There was also a brilliant Marvel Comics miniseries by Roger Stern and John Byrne called The Lost Generation, which involved a time traveler moving back through history to see a forgotten superhero team, get wiped out as they saved the world, then moving forward (for the traveler) to see how the group formed and the origins of the heroes.  The issues were even numbered in reverse order.
            Now, there’s more to narrative structure than just wanting to switch around my story elements so I can look all cutting-edge.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind.  Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I do is tell you what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to reflect that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who the murderer is, then roll the story back to Monday were everyone witnesses the killing and sees the murderer.  If they knew then, why don’t they know now?  There’s no logic to it (barring a case of mass amnesia).  If I have Phoebe act surprised that she owns a cat on Friday and then have the narrative jump to her finding the cat in an alley on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are very broad, simplistic examples, yes, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff up, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy one to fix, it just requires a little time and work.  And sometimes a bit of rewriting.
            The other big issue with having narrative and linear structures so far apart is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I can have tons of fancy word choices and beautiful language in my story, but readers are still going to put it down if they can’t figure out what’s going on. 
            For example...
            Think about when a little kid tells you a story about Iron Man and Batman and Snuffleupagus and there’s a moon base and they had a spaceship that Iron Man made before they fought the werewolf and the werewolf hates only getting to go out on Halloween so he decided when he was a little kid because only Snuffleupagus liked him and the rest of the time he has to get shaved because it’s too hot so he decided to go to the Moon so he could be a werewolf all the time and no one would make fun of him cause he didn’t know there were aliens on the moon but Batman saw the wolfman spaceship and tried to stop it and asked Iron Man to help and they fought the werewolf and Batman knew the werewolf when they were kids before he was Batman so he decided to help him move to the moon because they broke his spaceship but Iron Man had another spaceship he built after the Avengers movie and it looks like a big Iron Man and the werewolf had promised Snuffleupagus when they were little that he could come and so they got him out of the broken ship and you kind of tune it out and start mentally skimming.  I mean, you just skimmed a lot of that, right?  It jumps around so much that after a point it just becomes noise.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with chopping up my narrative too much is that people are automatically going to try to put it in linear order.  As I mentioned last week, we all do this almost automatically because it’s how our brains are set up.  The harder the narrative makes it for someone to reorganize the linear story, the less likely it is they’ll be able to follow it.  Which means the more likely it is that they’ll put it down.
            I talked about the idea of a detective at a crime scene last week.  If you’ve read a few mystery stories—or watched a few crime shows—you know a standard part of the mystery formula is the hero going through the events of the story and putting them in linear order for the other characters and the audience.  And how many are there? Eight or nine, usually?  Call it ten elements that are out of order and  the writer’s admitting it might be kind of tough to keep up at this point.
            There was a movie that came out about eight or nine years ago (I’ll be polite and not name it) that was a non-linear mess.  I don’t think there were two scenes in it that followed each other.  So we’re talking about well over a hundred scenes that were all scrambled and out of order.  Maybe as many as two hundred.  The actors were fantastic, but the story was impossible to keep up with.  It didn’t help that certain events repeated in the story.  Again, to be polite and protect the innocent, let’s say one of the characters was in a serious car crash and then was in another serious car crash two years later.  The audience was getting random scenes of burning cars, ambulances, emergency surgeries, recovery, and physical therapy... from two car crashes.  So we're left trying to figure out which car crash the character was experiencing/recovering from at various points--once it was clear there’d been two car crashes--and then figuring where this scene fit in relation to all the other scenes.  The audience had to spend their time trying to decipher the movie rather than watching it.
            So non-linear structure can be overdone and become a detriment if I’m not careful.  This can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, even though for someone coming in cold it might be an illogical pile.  This is one of those times where I need to be harsh and honest with myself, because if I don’t my story’s going to be incomprehensible.
            That’s narrative structure in a nutshell.  Maybe more of a coconut-shell.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure, it still needs to be logical, and it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I want to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine via dramatic structure to tell a good story.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Structural Engineering 101

            The first chapter is titled “Zefram Cochrane.”
            Geek reference.
            Anyway...
            Well, for a couple months now I’ve promised that I’d blather on about structure.  I’ve actually got a bit of time now, so let’s do it.  I’ll warn you all right up front, this is probably going to be spread over two or three posts because it’s a big topic.  I also may be using terms a bit loosely and in ways your MFA professor may not approve of.  But I’ll do my best to make it easy to understand, despite that.
            When we’re talking about structure in stories, it really means the same thing it does when we’re talking about architecture or biochemistry or auto engineering.  It’s the underlying framework that helps us figure out how things go together.  Different structures work for different projects, so just because something worked when we were building One World Trade Center doesn’t mean we should use it when we’re building a house.  Or a motorcycle.
            Now, there are three types of structure in stories, and they all interact and work with each other.  Just like a house or a skyscraper, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself. So it’s important to have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
            First up, the one we’re going to deal with this week, is linear structure.  Simply put, the linear structure of a story is the chronological timeline the characters experience.  There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula. I’ll prattle on more about this in just a bit.
            Next is narrative structure.  This is the manner and order my story is told in.  Put another way, it’s the way my audience experiences the story.  A flashback is part of the narrative structure, as are prologues, epilogues, and “ten years later...”  Again, if you studied (or over-studied) this sort of stuff in college, you professor may have used the term syuzhet.  I’ll talk more about this one next week.
            Last but not least, there’s dramatic structure.  This is the way linear and narrative structures work together to form a coherent, enjoyable story.  Dramatic structure is why tension builds, why mysteries intrigue us, and why twists and reveals surprise us.  I’ll talk a little more about this on the 26th, if all goes well.
            For now, though... linear structure.
            As I mentioned a few moments ago, linear structure is the order your characters experience the story in.   Another term you may have heard for this is continuity, or maybe cause and effect.  Day comes before night, which leads to another day.  People start young and then get old (Benjamin Button and Doctor Who excepted).  Turning a key in the ignition starts my car.  Or, sometimes, sets off a bomb.
            Now... check out this list
            Yakko dies peacefully in his sleep.
            Yakko celebrates his fifth birthday.
            Yakko gets married.
            Yakko is born.
            Yakko witnesses the birth of his grandchild.
            These are five random events from a life.  Now, despite the fact that I started the list with Yakko’s death, we all inherently understand this is not the first event in his life.  In fact, I’m betting most of you reading this can put that list in linear order in just a few seconds.  That’s because linear order is the most natural structure for all of us—it’s the one we experience all the time, every day.
            This is also why linear structure is so important.  Most of us are experts on it.  We’ll notice when effect comes before cause, even if we’re getting them out of order like I just gave them to you.  A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline.  When you see detectives breaking down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order they 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 pull everything apart and then arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and so on in chronological order.  They should still make logical sense like this, even if they’ve lost some of their dramatic weight this way (again, more on this later).  If my story elements don’t work like this (if cause doesn’t come before effect, or if the same thing is happening multiple times), I’ve done something wrong.
             Which brings us to time travel.
            Time travel stories depend a lot on linear structure.  If I don’t have a clear then and now, before and after, then time travel means nothing.  I need to be able to see that linear structure so I can see how my traveler’s timeline moves back and forth along the world’s.
            Check out this little diagram.  Here’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—the Doctor himself and his friend, Jack Harkness.  There’s kind of a big spoiler in here (or not, depending on which fan theories you subscribe to) which I’ll try to avoid, but if it makes things too confusing just say so.
            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 C is when they briefly meet again to stop the Daleks.  They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life.  And E is when Jack finally dies at the ripe old age of about five billion or so (no, seriously).  All in all, this personal timeline isn’t much different than the one I showed for Yakko up above.
            Now... look at the Doctor’s timeline.  This the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around.  He travels in time a lot, so he actually meets Jack in kind of an odd order.  But it’s still a logical order for the Doctor—he’s still living on his own timeline A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack.  A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
            In fact, this linear order creates a big twist for the Doctor (and the viewers, since we’re following him).  He doesn’t realize the person he first meets at D is the same person he later meets at A (as I mentioned, a lot of time passes for Jack).  But this isn’t a twist for Jack because he’s following his own linear story.  That’s why he can address the (somewhat confused) Doctor as “my old friend.” 
            Make sense?
            Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I 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 the flashback should take that 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 overall 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.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Easter Eggs

            Months early for Easter, I know.  But, as some of you may have guessed, I’m not really talking about those Paas coloring kits.  Or the Cadbury Bunny.
            For those few of you who are still waiting to see if Betamax is going to win the format wars, an Easter egg is a hidden bonus on a DVD or Blu-ray.  As of late, the term’s been broadened to include any little onscreen reference or in-joke. 
            A lot of superhero movies tend to have “Easter eggs,” in this broad sense.  Captain America’s shield (or a version of it) showing up in Tony Stark’s workshop.  Superman and General Zod crashing into a Wayne Industries satellite while they fight.  Agent Coulson stopping at a Roxxon gas station on the way out to New Mexico.  Professor Horton’s synthetic man at the WWII Stark Expo (a two-for-one Easter egg, really).  Heck, I remember giggling with geeky joy when Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne made an offhand comment about some people being “halfway to Metropolis by now.”
            I think most writers do this on one level or another.  We put in little in-jokes and references.  Sometimes they’re ten percenters, others they’re so small and private maybe only a dozen people in the world are going to get them.  I know I’ve done a bunch of them in different books and short stories.
            Now...a few weeks back I read an interview with Joss Whedon about the new Agents of SHIELD show.  The interviewer wanted to know if we’d be seeing lots of guest spots from some of the movie characters like Nick Fury or Cap or maybe Dr. Banner.  Whedon kind of shrugged it off and said while he wasn’t against it, the show wouldn’t last long if it was all about waiting for the next guest star or movie reference.  It needed to stand on its own feet, without support from the films.
            See, that’s the catch with these sort of in jokes and clever references.  My story needs to work despite these ten percenters, not because of them. If all I’ve got is a few clever nods to other things, I don’t have a real story—no matter how clever those nods are.
            This is also relates to a common prequel problem.  In prequel stories, there are often Easter eggs to all the stuff the audience knows is in the future.  Smallville would often dress teenage Clark Kent in blue t-shirts with a red jacket, or have numerous guest stars who would be important later in his life (like ace reporter Perry White).  Hannibal Rising had the titular character learning to cook and trying on samurai half-masks that hinted at the signature muzzle he’d wear later.  The Star Wars prequels showed us glimpses of the Death Star and hints of the Empire.  As I write this, there’s a pair of shows on the air, each about a famous fictional serial killer at an earlier part of their life.  And each show relies heavily on the fact that we, the audience, knows who this character is going to become.  There are constant winks and nods and references to things in their respective futures.
            In most of these cases, though, when you strip away all the references to “the future,” it becomes clear there’s very little going on in the now.
            There’s a similar problem you’ll see a lot in bad comedies.  It’s when the plot grinds to a halt to show us a painfully long setup for a joke that does nothing except get a quick laugh.  It’s not humor advancing the story, it’s just humor for the sake of humor.  And that gets old real quick, no matter how funny the gag might be on its own.
            I’ve mentioned seeing this in a fair number of genre stories.  A writer comes up with a really cool and new (or what they think is really cool and new) idea about zombie origins or time travel mechanics or vampire biology or cyborg implants or something.  But they don’t actually have a story.  They just have this one cool idea trying to carry everything. 
            All of these examples tie back to something I’ve brought up before.  One cool idea isn’t a story.  It’s just a story point.  And one story point—or even a dozen of them—does not make a book.  Or a movie.  Or even a short story.
            Easter eggs are cool and fun, no question about it.  But you can’t live off them. And a story can’t survive on nothing but sly winks.
            Next week, I think it’s time for that long overdue lecture on structure that I’ve been promising for months.
            Until then, go write.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Transparency

            Is this pathetic or what?  Someone else offers to write a ranty blog post for me and I still can’t get it up on time.  It’s sad, really...
            Well, here’s Thom Brannan, author of Lords of Night and (with DL Snell) co-author of  Pavlov’s Dogs and their new book The Omega Dog, talking a bit about clarity.  I’ll be back later this week (hopefully on time) to talk about Easter eggs.

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            Hello is alright, again. On occasion, Pete has stuff to do; like, a lot of it, and he knows there are a lot of you who come to this blog for tips and tools.
            So this week, it's me again. Thom Brannan. I'll try to avoid disappointing you. Those of you who know who I am, congratulations! For those who don't, here is a picture.
            Today, I'm here to talk to you about transparency. It's a thing, a real thing, where you can read something an author wrote, and there's a lot of the author in there, one way or another. Sometimes it's political, sometimes it's in the interests... most times, you'll find it in the details.
            For your readers who are just like you, no doubt this will be a source of delight and entertainment. But not everybody is like you. For those readers, this will induce the effect known as "God, I'm skimming this part." It happens.
            Let me hit you with an example. I recently finished reading something by Robert A. Heinlein. He's one of my literary heroes, okay? I love his work and his verve and his ideas and just everything.
            Almost.
            I'm now catching up on works of his I'd missed previously, and it's great joy. Except when he devotes entire paragraphs to doing math. Really, honestly, when I started reading his stuff, it made me want to run out and get a slide rule, just so I could keep up. True story. But that was a different me, back in high school. Math was one of my things. Now, when I get to a part where any of his hyper-competent characters go on about anything that remotely resembles figuring, I just skim over it.
            But that wasn't enough to spark this blog entry. I'm also reading a WWII story about... well, about spooky stuff. (I don't want to put too fine a point on what or who I'm reading.) So, there's a passage where some dirty, nasty Krauts are in a plane with a creepy box which may or may not have something moving in it, and the author is clearly enamored with the plane. With the plane. There is a serious chunk of text dedicated to the plane and why it was chosen for this type of mission and the capabilities of the plane and how it got its nickname, et cetera.
This will cost you
extra with FedEx
            But what about the spooky box?
            The spooky box, if I'm reading the foreshadowing correctly, contains something (someone?!) which is going to be major later on, and next to no text is dedicated to it. It's just kind of there, and the Nazis eye it, and the plane they're in is endlessly fascinating.
            Now, in other places in this very blog, Pete has said things like have a reason to describe it, or to avoid being focused on the wrong thing. Sometimes, it's hard to figure out when YOU'VE LOST YOUR GODDAMN... excuse me. Sometimes it's hard to know when the thing you're writing is what people need to read about the story. Or if people will even read it. Skimmers gonna skim.
            For an easy litmus test, corner someone your work with. Or someone you live with. Or someone in the grocery store. Whatever. Start telling them all this cool stuff you've unearthed about maybe Einstein being a plagiarist, or the use of Tesla technology to cripple other nations, or how the innards of a watch work, or how the Warthog got its nickname of the Warthog, or whatever stupidly addicting thing you're bound and determined to include in your current or next work.
This is what it's like...
            If at any point their eyes start to glaze over, cross that crap off your list.
            And since I didn't say this from the get-go, this is what I've found works for me. I have a relatively diverse background, and I find a lot of things fascinating. But only a fraction of that stuff finds its way into my prose because I've seen the look in people's eyes, that loss of focus when they're not really listening to me anymore. It happens quite a bit, as I tend to ramble.
For instance, in my most recent work, The Omega Dog (with D.L. Snell) there's a section where the protagonists travel in the Gulf of Mexico in a narco-sub. I'm a former submariner, and the intricacies of the works of subs, even the fiberglass jobs used to transport drugs, kind of trips my trigger. So I sat and wrote maybe two pages of all this, and then I stopped.
            There was also a drug lord, my protagonists, a person who may or may not have been human, a strapped-down zombie and a goddamn WEREWOLF, all in this tiny space... and here I was writing about navigation and whatnot. A little bit of submarine development history had made it in there, too. What the hell?
            I deleted all that before I sent it to Snell, because he would just delete it. He'd be nicer about it than I was to myself, but the end result would be the same.
            There are exceptions, of course. What's his name, the legal writer guy? The one who wrote The Pelican Brief. He leaves a lot of that stuff in there because hey, that's what his readers are reading him for. The same with gun porn. I mean, men's adventure. My good friend Doug Wojtowicz knows a lot about guns, and that kind of detail is not only expected in The Executioner, but welcome. God help him if he leaves something out. Or gets it wrong, yikes.
            But I guess I'm starting to get long-winded. Shaddap. I guess my point is this: if you're including something like that, be sure it moves the story along, or is at least an interesting tangent with some story elements to it. If at any point, your manuscript starts to read like a Wikipedia entry, you're doing it wrong.
            So there. My two cents. Again, your mileage may vary.
            Go write something.