Thursday, March 22, 2018

The First Time Around

            Is it still a pop culture reference if I’m referencing one of my own books? I mean is it really a “reference” when J.K. Rowling talks about Harry Potter? Or is it just self promotion...?
            Anyway, this week I wanted to blab about an issue that cropped up in a book I just read. I mean, it’s a fairly common problem, truth be told, and it’s easy to see why it happens.  But it’s one of those things that almost always makes readers grind their teeth. Even if they’re not sure why they’re grinding their teeth.
            And to explain this, I’d like to start by talking about my mom.
            My mom had me when she was really young.  Not scandalously, Gilmore Girls young, but young enough that there was still a touch of scandal.  Especially back in New England during Nixon’s presidency.  It’s struck me a couple times in my life to think where she was in her life at the same age.
            Of course, I didn’t always think like this.  I didn’t really put the math together until some time late in high school, I think.  Because my mom didn’t look young. She looked... well, mom-aged.  Why would I look deeper into something that was totally normal?  My thoughts just never turned that way.
            No, the odd thing when I was growing up was how all my friends had old parents. I think I was around seven or eight when it first struck me that the particular friends I’d ended up with all had parents that were at least a decade older than my mom. It was odd, yeah, but I logically assumed that all those many, many parents I hadn’t met were normal mom-age.
            Hopefully the point I’m trying to make is clear.  All of us assume our lives are normal.  That we’re the baseline.  Even when we come to realize they might not be normal in a greater societal sense, they’re still normal for us.  It still doesn’t surprise me that my mom’s not-quite twenty years older than me because... well, she always has been.
            And this is true for fictional people, too.  The world they live in is—big shocker—the world they live in.  It doesn’t surprise them.  Kincaid Strange isn’t shocked spirits and voodoo are real because that’s her world.  Since Charles grew up in a world of metal spiders, a horned God on television, and mechanical implants in the back of people’s skulls, these things are more annoying background noise to him than disturbing.   Constance Verity doesn’t get surprised by aliens or androids or monstrous creatures at the center of the Earth because for her... well, that’s a Thursday.
            Granted, they can still get surprised when something changes in their world. We tend to call that “plot."  But the day to day aspects of their life shouldn’t come as any big shock.  They’ve seen it and experienced it before.  It’s normal to them.
            One mistake I see a lot in stories and screenplays is when characters in my story go for a hover-drive, go to work at the vat-meat processing plant, or telepathically scan perps for evidence of crimes... and are in awe of these things.  Maybe even feel the need to dwell on these things for a paragraph or three.  It knocks a reader out of the story because it’s immediately apparent this is something the characters should be familiar with.
            But it’s not just genre stuff. This happens in “real world” stories, too.  I’ve seen characters be eyes-wide amazed at the smell of dog food and the price of milk.  Not because these things are radically different than expected, mind you.  Just because... they’re there.
            Let me put it a slightly different way. And I’ll give you another personal example.  Or, in this case, you can give yourself the example.  No, you don’t need to share or even write it down, don’t worry.  Just keep it in your head.
            Do you remember the very first time you saw your current (or most recent) significant other naked?  Girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, whoever they may be.  I’m not asking for a date and time—do you recall how you felt at that moment, at the sight of them exposed to you?  What was running through your mind?  What your heart was doing in your chest?
            Okay, now get yourself under control--there’s a follow-up.
            How did you feel the last time you saw them naked?  Maybe this morning or just the other night. Were you as focused? As breathless?  Heck, were you even thinking about them?  Not in a “someone else” way, I just mean maybe you were working out a problem from one of your own stories.  Or thinking about stuff you had to do this weekend.  Heck, maybe you were reading and they were just walking around in the background.  You knew they were there but you just had to finish this chapter.
            Y’see, Timmy, sometimes, storytellers get focused on the fact that this is the first time my readers have seen Wakko perform an exorcism.  Or it’s the first time we’ve seen a dynochromium field in use.  Or it’s the first time we’ve seen Phoebe and Yakko together (in any sense). And so the writer want to explain these things—to show how horrible or amazing or beautiful they are.
            But just because this is new for the reader doesn’t mean it’s new for the character.  It’s not their first time.  These are normal things for them.  Mundane. Perhaps even a little boring.  Definitely not cause for heart-pounding excitement.  
            When I start shaping dialogue and reactions to be informative for the audience rather than to make sense for the other characters, my focus is going in the wrong direction.  It might seem right on a quick-pass, mechanical level, but when we really study these examples... they just don’t work.  You may recall all the times I’ve brought up that most hated of dialogue phrases-- “as you know.”  It’s a perfect example of writing my dialogue for the reader and not for the characters.
            Now, there’s an addendum to this, and it’s a real killer.  It’s when I make plot points out of these things people should’ve known about before.  If my characters all know Wakko can actually use dowsing to find water, they shouldn’t be completely baffled why he’s digging a deep hole out in the field.  At the very least, they should have some suspicions about why he’s doing it. 
            Because if they don’t—or they don’t even consider his dowsing abilities—well, they’re going to look like idiots in the end.
            An easy way to get around this is something I’ve mentioned a few times before.  I call it the Ignorant Stranger.  It’s pretty much the opposite of “as you know.”  In some cases it can help a lot to have a character in my story who’s not quite as in the know.  Someone who things need to be explained to, because this is the first time they’re being exposed to something.  They can even be my protagonist.  In fact, it’s not a bad thing if they are.  If my hero needs things explained to them, it means they’re in new, unknown territory.  And—as mentioned above-that’s where I tend to find a plot.
            One of the worst things I can do as a writer is confuse the first time my readers see something with the first time my characters do.  It’ll ultimately come across as false and it’s one of those clumsy mistakes that’s hard to recover from.  I need to find the balance point, the sweet spot where I’m informing my readers but things still make sense and feel natural for my characters.
            Next time... okay, I’m trying to get a draft done before the end of the month, so next time might just be a few quick questions for you to think about.
            Oh, and if you’re going to be at Wonder Con this weekend, I’m there all day Sunday.  At 11:00 I’m doing a two hour version of the Writers Coffeehouse, at 2:00 I’m on a panel called “Knowledge: Handle With Care,” and we’re doing a book signing right after that.
            Until then... go write

Thursday, March 15, 2018

It’s Not THAT Bad

            I tried a few pop culture references for this week, but none of them seemed to work just right.  They weren’t awful, but that’s the best I can say about them.  They weren’t awful.
            Speaking of which...
            A while back I mentioned an idea called Crap +1.  It’s a viewpoint screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott noticed (and named)--a common way some people approached screenwriting.  It’s a mindset where I look at something absolutely horrible and say “well, my script is better than that.” And that got made, therefore logic and fairness dictate that my script deserves to get made, right?
            I’m betting you’ve probably seen this reasoning applied to books, too, yes?  And publishers?  That garbage book got published, so of course the publishers are going to want to snatch up my slightly-better-than-garbage book.  The bad book prooves I deserve to be published just by existing.
            It doesn’t work that way, of course.  The big problem with the crap+1 theory is that what it really justifies is laziness.  It assumes my work just needs to be “slightly better” to qualify as good.  Which simply isn’t true.  My story might be “better” than an illiterate piece of derivative fan-fic... but that still doesn’t mean my story is any good.
            I’ve found this mindset also pushes a certain degree of entitlement.  The idea that I’m somehow owed an equal form or level or success (logic and fairness, remember?). If that made it, I deserve to make it.   At the end of the day, nobody else’s success has anything to do with my success.  The universe—or a Big Five publisher—is not required to do something for me just because it did it for someone else who I feel is less talented/ less creative/ less determined/meaner/uglier than me.
            It’s an easy trap to fall into.  The crap + 1 mindset.  Try to avoid it.  In all aspects of your life.
            Anyway, it struck me recently that some writers use this sort of logic and justification within their stories, too.  Especially in the darker, grittier tales that some folks like.  A lot of these stories operate under the idea that my character or their actions or the outcomes will be seen as good once we compare them to something worse.  The story has unlikable, awful people as our protagonists or in the cast of supporting characters around them... but that’s okay because there are people in the story who are even more awful and unlikable.
            Think about it.  How often have we seen something where my protagonist is a violent, abusive, racist... but, wow, you should see the bad guy!  My heroine just brutally killed two dozen people, yeah, but that’s not even half as many as her antagonist killed in an earlier scene.  Hell, sometimes that bar is literally as low as “well, he didn’t try to rape any of them... I guess he’s the one we’re rooting for?”
            How ridiculous is this when we stop and think about it?  Yes, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was responsible for more deaths than Charles Manson, but that doesn’t mean Manson was a nice person. Yakko isn’t likable because he’s only cruel to women when he could be cruel to women and children.
            A. Lee Martinez (he of the wonderful Constance Verity books, among others) made an observation once.  Being a good person is more than not being a bad person.  This is fantastically simple and true.  It’s fine to say Wakko’s not a serial killer, but that doesn’t make him a hero.  Or even a good person.  That’s the kind of dating logic “nice” guys use.  “Well, I’m not going to treat her like crap the way some guys would—so why doesn’t she want to go out with me?” 
            I’ve talked about this before when discussing characters, especially my main characters. They need to be likable.  By which I mean, my readers need an actual reason to like them.  A reason that counts as "good" when it’s divorced from any conditionals.  Helping out someone in need.  Showing restraint with power.  Defending and supporting the weak.  These are all inherently good actions that don’t need to be compared to anyone else’s to be good.
            Not being awful is just... that’s the bare-bones minimum.  It should be baseline human existence.  It’s definitely not a quality to cheer about in my main character.
            Along with the crap+1 idea, I think this is also a bit of binary thinking slipping in here.  This character is marginally better than the antagonist, yes, but you know what else they are...?  Not the villain.  So, logically then, they must be the hero, right? I mean, who else can they be in my story?
            And that brings me to one last aspect of all this.  I’ve mentioned before the need for my characters to win.  They can still get hurt, physically or emotionally--even die--but they need to succeed at their goals.  Because my readers identify with the heroes, and they don’t want to identify with people who don’t win because it reflects back on them.
            With this talk of being “slightly better than...,” it’s worth noting that the antagonist losing is not the same thing as the protagonist winning.  They can be connected, but this isn’t always a nice Venn diagram overlap.  If someone else stops the bad guy... that doesn’t mean my hero wins.  If the antagonist somehow fumbles things themselves... that doesn’t mean the good guy succeeded.  And if they villain just gives up and walks away... well... nobody’s really earned a victory parade for that.
            My hero needs to actually be a hero...not just a rung above the villain.  They actually need to win... not just be nearby when the plot is resolved.  And all of this needs to be in my story, which is actually good... not just slightly better than someone else’s.
            Next time... there’s something I’d like to discuss for the first time.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Writing Lessons from ROM

Eight-year old me learned a big lesson about storytelling from this one panel...

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Step 1: Collect The Underpants

            Whoa!  A relevant pop culture title. First one in ages!
            Okay, there’s an issue that pops up at the Coffeehouse now and then.  Someone sent me a message about it on Facebook a week or three back, too.  And it’s something I’ve kinda had in the back of my mind to mention again.
            It takes a couple different forms, but what this usually boils down to is keeping enthusiasm up for writing.  It’s always fun to start a new project, but then they almost always boil down to... well, work.  And when we think of writing, people don’t like to think about work.  They want passion and muses and wild nights of drunken creativity when the words flow at a rate of two thousand an hour or more.
            But the ugly truth is... it’s often work.  A lot of work.  Suddenly all that excitement of that first step is gone and enthusiasm begins to ebb.  We're not exactly sure what we're supposed to do next.  And we’re only on chapter four!
            So here are a few things I can do to make that first draft a little easier

--Know where I’m going
            Writing a book is kinda like taking a trip.  It’s going to take time.  I’m going to need some skills.  I may need some supplies.  I can plan out every step of the way or I can be a little looser with it, but either way I should probably have some idea where I want to end up.
            Yeah, sure, there’s something wonderful and romantic about saying “wow, I just learned how to drive this weekend—it’s time to explore America’s highways!!”  Just jumping behind the wheel and taking off. No destination, no maps, nothing. Just me and my best woman/man/dog in the passenger seat.  We’ll figure it out as we go!
            Again... sounds wonderful and romantic, but I think we can all guess how a trip like that will really turn out.
            If I’m going to write a book, I should start off with a really rough idea of how it’s going to end.  I don’t need to stick to that ending, but it’s tough to keep moving forward when I don’t know what direction forward is.  So even just a very general endpoint—“Wakko and Dot sell their invention and get rich.”  “Yakko uses his giant Mechbot to stop the aliens”  “Phoebe’s the only one who gets out alive.”—will give me something to aim for.

--Schedule the time
            Okay, I admit... this can be a tough one.  I’m in a lucky position when it comes to writing.  It’s my full-time job, and I make a living at it.  I do it from home.  I don’t have kids.  My girlfriend’s a writer, too, so she needs her own time just as much as I need mine.  Most people aren’t in this position.
            But y’know what?  I wasn’t always, either. I had a full-time journalism job while I wrote Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots and my Crusoe mash-up novel. And I haven’t always been in such writer-friendly relationships.
            Heck, I’ll be honest. There were a few romantic relationships in my past where me announcing “I want to write for a while” got a bit of a... negative reaction.  There were rolled eyes, some gentle mocking, even a bit of resentment. And being a younger man who wanted to preserve certain day-to-day aspects of these relationships... I put my writing aside. It was ultimately my choice, and that was the choice I made.  Which is why I didn’t have much writing success in my twenties—writing was a very low priority that I was willing to ignore for other things.
            There’s always going to be other things, so I need to make time for myself to write. An hour before bed,  on the train into work, or a big block on the weekend.  Just like exercise or learning the violin or finally watching Downton Abbey,  writing’s something that’s easy to put off.  It can very quickly become the thing I’ll do next weekend.  So I need to figure out a time and try to stick to it.

--Don’t starve myself
            I know some folks try not to read similar things while they’re working on a project because they don’t want to be influenced.  I think sometimes this leaks out and becomes one of those telephone-game pieces of advice where new writers end up thinking they shouldn’t read anything while they’re writing.  Or watch anything. or listen to anything.  Or talk to other writers.  Or...
            We need input. That’s just common sense.  No input, no output.  I can’t expect to build a lot of muscle if I’m not eating anything.
            Also—and this is, again, just my own opinion—this kind of “starvation” approach can easily turn writing into some sort of punishment.  I’d like to hang with my girlfriend or read a comic or watch the finale of Rebels...but I didn’t write today so I get nothing!  If my method makes me hate writing... maybe I don’t have the best method.
            But again, don’t use feeding appetites as an excuse to put off writing until next weekend.  Don’t fall for the same traps twenty-something year old me did!  Learn from my mistakes!

--Know what I know
            This is also a good time for me to toss out my usual comments about voice and spelling and drafts.  It’s important to learn and develop these things, because it’s easy to lose momentum when I end up second-guessing myself a lot.  If I stop to double-check every four-syllable word or verb tense or read each line of dialogue out loud... it’s going to be easy to lose enthusiasm.  Don’t forget that none of this matters in a first draft.  It’s definitely going to matter—just not right now.  First drafts are big, messy, gap-filled things.  They’re not the point where I should be worried about little stuff. For now, just plow ahead. I’ll get to deal with all that stuff soon enough.

--Just do it
            I know this sounds like crap advice, but sometimes the way to keep writing is just, well... to keep writing.  At the end of the day, sometimes that’s what it comes down to.  I can keep making excuses, let myself get distracted, promise myself to do it later.  Or I can just do it.
            Or maybe ask myself why I keep not doing it.

            So there you go. A few easy ways to keep yourself on track. If you’ve got a favorite of your own, feel free to add it below.
            Anyway... hopefully, next week’s rant will be better than this one.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

It’s All Uphill From Here

            No, the title’s relevant. Really.  Just wait.
            Okay, so... we started with linear structure, and last week I went on for a bit about narrative structure.  This week I want to close up my extended TED talk by discussing dramatic structure.  It’s the way I weave the previous two forms together to form a killer story.
            Fair warning up front—this one’s going to be the longest, so if the others strained your patience or ate into your lunch break... hey, I told you.  Go hit the restroom, grab a snack, and pour yourself a drink. 
            What, now you’re drinking at work? Seriously? You might need to talk to someone.
            You might recall I said that linear structure is how characters experience the story and narrative structure is how the author chooses to tell the story. In that vein, dramatic structure is how my audience receives the story.  As the name implies, dramatic structure involves drama.  Not in the “how shall I make Phoebe love me” sense, but in the sense that the tension and interactions in my story should almost always be building.  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.  
            I hate getting really clinical with this stuff because... well, we’re talking about art. Not in that “ARRRRRTTTTT!!!” sense, but in that golden rule, we’ve-all-got-our-own-methods-of-doing-things way.  The art part of this is personal and we should all be cautious when someone starts slapping down graphs and charts of how “good” stories go together.
            But... I also think most of us here have been doing this writing thing long enough to understand that sometimes there are rules. There may be a few exceptions here and there, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are some very solid guidelines that cut across the vast majority of stories. Especially the vast majority of popular, successful stories.
            That being said...
            Let me show you some graphs and charts of how good stories go together.
            No, don’t freak out.  They’re really simple, and this is the easiest way to demonstrate the points I’m trying to make.  Hell, if you’ve been following the ranty blog for any time now (or gone back and read a lot of it) you’ve probably seen them before.
            On all these graphs, X is the progression or the story from beginning to end, Y is dramatic tension, high to low.  This first graph shows nothing happening.  Absolutely nothing.  This is me getting a good night’s sleep.  From my point of view.  I didn’t even have any interesting dreams.  No highs, no lows, no moments that stand out.  It’s flat and monotone.
            Boring as hell.
            As my story progresses, I want the tension to rise.  Things need to happen.  Challenges need to appear and be confronted by my protagonists.  By halfway through, the different elements of the story should’ve made things much more difficult for my heroes.  As I close in on the end, these difficulties and stakes should be peaking.
            Check this out. Here’s a bare-bones dramatic structure.  We start small, and tension increases as time goes by.  Low at the start, high at the end.
            Mind you, these don’t need to be world-threatening challenges or huge action set pieces.   If the whole goal of my story is for Phoebe to ask Yakko to the Sadie Hawkins dance without looking like an idiot, a challenge could just 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.  There’s a movie out right now called Please Stand By where the main character’s goal is traveling to Los Angeles so she can submit her amateur Star Trek script to a screenplay contest.  The challenge is that she’s kind of high on the autism spectrum, so doing something this far out of her routine is a huge deal for her.
            Make sense so far?
            Okay, now here are a few things we need to keep in mind. 
            And there are visual aids, too
            First, you may have heard that “starting with action” thing that so many gurus preach.  A lot of folks start with that line up around eight... and then they increasing tension.  This doesn’t leave a lot of room for things to develop, but we’re hitting the ground running and going until we drop.
            Thing is...when we plot this out, the line looks a lot like the one on that first graph up above.  It’s pretty much just a straight line because there isn’t anywhere for things to go.  And, as we established earlier, straight lines are pretty boring whether they’re set at one-point-five or at eleven.  They’re monotone, and monotone is dull.
            This brings me to my second point. Dramatic structure can’t be a nice, even rise like the second graph.  That’s another straight line, and straight lines are... well, you get it by this point. 
            Think back to high school physics for a minute.  We don’t feel a constant velocity.  If I’m driving a car at a nice, even speed, I can reach out and play with the radio. I can have a drink of water or soda or coffee.  I can wiggle around and take off my jacket or get my wallet out or whatever.  And it doesn’t really matter if I’m moving at 40 or 60 or even a hundred miles per hour.
            Y’see, Timmy, we don’t notice the constant, we notice the change.  That’s what grabs our attention.  When I have to hit the gas or slam on the brakes or turn fast—these are the moments that grab me. These points stand out above the constant ones.
            In a good story, there’s going to be multiple challenges and my hero isn’t always going to succeed.  No, really.  He or she will win in the end, sure, but it’s not going to be easy getting there.  There’s going to be failures, mistakes, and unexpected results.  Ups and downs.  Because that’s normal. We don’t want a character who’s good at everything and never has a problem.  So that line is going to be a series of peaks and drops.  For every success, every time we get a little higher, there’s going to be some setbacks. A new, bigger challenge that appears.
            Still making sense?
            So, with that in mind, here’s my big graph.

             This is everything I’ve been talking about these past few weeks.  Just like above, X is narrative structure.  It’s the story progressing from page one until the end of the story.  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 graph are the linear structure—we all know what order the alphabet goes in.  We’re beginning at C, but there’s also a flashback much later on that go back to A, and we understand that occurred before C even though we don’t see it until this later point..
            Pretty much every story should look like this graph if I map it out.  Not exactly peak for peak, no, but they should all be pretty close to this pattern.  They’re all going to start small and grow.  We’ll see tension rising and falling as challenges appear, advances are made, and setbacks occur.  Small at the start, increase with peaks and dips, finish big.
            That’s it.  This is the big, easy trick to dramatic structure.  No matter what my narrative is doing, it has to keep increasing the tension.
            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. 
            Not to hammer the point, but this is what I’ve talked about a few times now.  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.
            See, let’s take another look at that A-B flashback up above.  Even though it’s near the end of my story, it’s still pushing the story higher than everything that came before it. I’m choosing to put this information in this place in order to create a specific dramatic effect.
            Think about a lot of your favorite stories.  When the readers learn things affect the kind of stories they are. And that change affects the dramatic structure.  Because dramatic structure tells us that things in the beginning are small, things at the end are big.  Something I know at the start is automatically a minor point, but it could be a major one if it’s revealed closer to the end.
            Got all this so far?
            Don’t worry, we’re almost done.
            There’s one last cool thing I can do with dramatic structure.  It makes it easy to spot if a story is worth telling.  I don’t mean that in some snarky way.  The truth is, there are a lot of stories out there that just aren’t that interesting. We all know this. Since we 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...
            I’ve read a lot of zombie books (not surprising) and seen a lot of 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 many different types of survivors.    One that crops up too often is the protagonist who decides on page seven to turn their house into a survival bunker for the thinnest of reasons. They stockpile food, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies.  But twenty pages later, when the zombies finally appear out of nowhere...  damn, are they ready.  Utterly, completely ready.  There’s no mistakes, no problems, no setbacks, because they have prepared for everything.
            In other words... there’s no change.  No challenge.  The plot 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 flipside, some of the best zombie stories have people caught unawares, or finding their plans collapsing around them.  The Undead Situation has a young protagonist who suspects the end’s coming and stocks his home... with candy and pet treats.  In Fiend we find out that meth addiction makes you immune to the zombie plague... but being on meth makes it challenging to survive the zombie apocalypse.  Roads Less Traveled has the protagonist work out a meticulous zombie-survival plan with her friends... which slowly unravels as people don’t follow the rules, come up short on their requirements, and generally act like, well, people.
            Again—dramatic structure isn’t an automatic thing.  Just because I reveal something later on doesn’t guarantee it’ll be more dramatic.  But if I map out my story like this, even in my head (and be honest with myself about it), I can get a better sense of how well my story’s structured.
            And honestly... I think with that I’ve thrown enough at you.  I wish I could offer you more.  But a lot of this is going to depend on you.  While the other two forms of structure are very logical and quantifiable, 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, then hope they gain some experience and figure it out for themselves.
            On which note... next time I’d like to talk about getting started.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our Story Begins Ten Years Ago...

            For those who came in late...
            So we’re in the middle of a big discussion/lecture/infodump about story structure.  To be more exact, the different types of story structure, because there are several of them and they all serve a different purpose.  If you missed me blabbing about linear structure last week, you might want to jump back and read that first.  Or maybe re-read it as sort of a refresher before we dive into this week’s little rant.
            Speaking of which...
            Now I want to talk about narrative structure.  Remember how I said linear structure is how the characters experience the story?  The narrative structure is how the author decides to tell the story.  It’s the manner and style and order I choose for how things will unfold.  A flashback is part of the narrative structure, as are flashforwards, prologues, epilogues, and “our story begins ten years ago...”  If you studied (or over-studied) this sort of stuff in college, your professor may have tossed out the term syuzhet. 
            One more note before I dive in.  Within my 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 this little rant, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about me, the writer, and the choices I make. Because I’m God when it comes to this story, and the narrator doesn’t do or say anything I don’t want them to.
            That being said...  here we go.
            In a good number of stories, the linear structure and narrative structure are identical.  Things start with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, and conclude on Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, and very common.  My book, The Fold, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.  Same with Autumn Christian’s We Are Wormwood, Dan Abnett’s The Warmaster, or Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male.  These books may shift point of view or format, but they still follow a pretty straightforward linear narrative.
            We don’t need to talk about this type of narrative too much because... well, we already did.  When my narrative matches my linear structure, any possible narrative issues will also be linear ones.  And we discussed those last week.
            There are just as many 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. In other instances, the story might split between multiple timeframes. Or the story may be broken up into numerous sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to how they all 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).  My own Ex-Heroes series employs numerous flashbacks, all in their own linear order.  So does F. Paul Wilson’s latest, The God Gene.  In his “Vicious Circuit” novels, Robert Brockway splits almost every other chapter between present day and the events of forty-odd years ago.
            Narrative structure involves more than just switching around my story elements, though.  It’s not just something I can do off the cuff in an attempt to look trendy.  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 tell you about is what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to acknowledge that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who stole the painting, then roll the story back to Monday where everyone was a witnesses and saw the thief’s face.  If they knew then, they have to know now.  If I have Yakko act surprised to find a dog in his house on Friday and then have the narrative jump to him adopting the dog from a shelter on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are kinda stupid, overly-simple examples, yeah, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff around in clever ways, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy problem to avoid, it just requires a little time and work.
            The second thing to keep in mind when experimenting with narrative structure is... why?  Why am I breaking up my story instead of telling it in order?  Sure, all that non-linear stuff is edgy and bold, but... what’s the point of it in my story?  Why am I starting ten years ago instead of today?  Why do I have that flashback at that point?  How is the narrative improved by shaping it this way?
            Now, these may sound like silly questions, and I’m sure many artsy folks would sweep them aside with a dry laugh.  But they really deserve some serious thought. I talked a little while ago about how when my reader knows things can greatly affect the type of story I want to tell.  By rearranging the linear order, I’m changing when people learn things.
            And if this new narrative form doesn’t change when people learn things... again, what’s the point?
            The  third and final issue with having different narrative and linear structures is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I mentioned last time that we all try to put things in linear order because it’s natural for us. It’s pretty much an automatic function of our brains.  This flashback took place before that one.  That’s a flash forward.  This flashback’s showing us something we saw earlier, but from a different point of view.
            The catch here is that I chop my narrative up too much, people are going to spend less time reading my story and more time... well, deciphering it.  My readers will hit the seventh flashback and they’ll try to figure out how it relates to the last six.  And as they have to put more and more effort into reorganizing the story (instead of getting immersed in said story), it’s going to break the flow.  If I keep piling on flashbacks and flash-forwards, and parallel stories... that flow’s going to stay broken.  Shattered even.
            And when I break the flow, that’s when people set my book aside to go watch YouTube videos.  No, it doesn’t matter how many clever phrases or perfect words I have.  People can’t get invested in my story if they can’t figure out what my story is.  And if they can’t get invested... that’s it.
            Y’see, Timmy, narrative structure can be overdone if I’m not careful.  This is something that 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, but for someone just picking it up... this might be a bit of a  pile.  Maybe even a steaming one.
            That’s narrative structure.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure. Perhaps even more important, it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I’ll try to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine to (hopefully) form a powerful dramatic structure.
            Until then... go write.

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.