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.