Thursday, September 27, 2018

Elementary

            Many thanks to all of you who tossed some new topic ideas at me (here and on Twitter).  I think this might fill up all the slots I had for the rest of the year.  I may even take some time to rethink my upcoming plans.
            Anyway, for now, the potential Sherlock Holmes idea stuck in my head, so let me babble about that for a minute or three.
            There’s a pair of terms that have been floating around for a bit now—Watsonian and Doylist.  On the off chance you don’t get the reference, the terms come from Dr. John (or Joan) Watson, constant companion to Sherlock Holmes, and also to their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When we use these terms, we’re saying there’s two ways to look at any story element.  The in-story reason for this happening, and the author’s reason for this happening.  They’re often very different, but they’re both very important.
            For example...
            Why did Sherlock Holmes die in “The Final Problem,” plunging to his death at Reichenbach Falls?  Well, from Watson’s point of view, Holmes sacrificed himself because it was the only way to stop Moriarty.  The two evenly-matched men fight, and while Holmes dies, Moriarty’s now-leaderless criminal empire will crumble.  A net win for society. 
            From Doyle’s point of view, though, he was just sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories.  He was making money off them, yeah, but he wanted to move on and start writing more serious, important stuff about, well... ghosts and fairies.  No, seriously.  So he killed Holmes off and tried (unsuccessfully) to move on.
            Yeah, don’t be the person pointing out Doyle later retconned the death.  When he wrote this story, Holmes was dead.  Toast.  Joined the choir invisible.
            Of course, this principal doesn’t just apply to Sherlock Holmes stories.  If you look at most stories, the elements break down into these two categories.
            --Why did Han Solo get frozen in carbonite?  The Watsonian reason is that Vader wanted to test the carbon-freezing process and Boba Fett wanted to collect on Solo’s sizeable bounty.  The Doylist reason is that Harrison Ford wasn’t sure he wanted to come back to play Solo again, so George Lucas needed an ending that could explain Solo’s potential absence but also contain the possibility of bringing him back.
            --Why did the Twelfth Doctor regenerate?  Watsonian reason—he was shot by the Cybermen and managed to hold off his regeneration briefly before transforming into the Thirteenth Doctor.  Doylist—Peter Capaldi was leaving the series, as was showrunner Stephen Moffat, and the new team decided to cast Jodie Whittaker.
            Here’s one of my own—Why does Ex-Patriots begin with a Fourth of July fireworks show?  Well, from a Watsonian point of view, the citizens of the Mount are celebrating.  It’s the Fourth, but it’s also one of their first major holidays since things have (for them) kinda stabilized after the zombocalypse.  So they’re partying hard.
            From a Doylist point of view, though... this opening lets me start with action.  There’s a lot going on.  It gives me a chance to re-introduce our four main heroes. It also lets be immediately bring up the idea of nations and patriotism, which are key themes in the book.  Heck, because this was one of those very rare times where I knew there’d be another book in the series, this was also a setup for a plot thread in Ex-Communication.
            This all makes sense, yes?
            Why are we talking about it?
            I think it’s really important to remember these distinctions when we’re talking about writing.  To be more specific, when we’re talking about aspects of writing.  If we’re discussing dialogue or characters or settings, we should be clear if this is an in-world discussion or an authorial discussion.  Are we talking about things as they relate to the characters, or as they relate to the author (and the audience)?
            “Authorial”?   Ooooh, don’t I sound all clever...
            For example, once or thrice I’ve mentioned my belief that all good, successful characters have three common traits—they’re believable, they’re relatable, and they’re likable.  But I’ve seen some pushback on this.  I’ve had people online and in person argue that characters don’t need to be likable.  Characters just need to be fascinating or compelling or... well, look.  They don’t need to be likable.
            Here’s the thing.  In a Watsonian sense—I agree with this.  I mean, I’ve said this myself lots of times (pretty much every time I talk about these traits).  Likable doesn’t mean we want a character to marry into our family and they always have a kind word to say.  Within the story, there are tons of popular protagonists who aren’t remotely likable.  Who are kind of awful, really.  There’s not a version of Hannibal Lecter—books, movies, or television—that most of us would want to have a private dinner with.  We probably couldn’t count the number of books and movies that have hit men or assassins as their main characters.  And to bring us back around, most modern interpretations of Sherlock Holmes rightly point out that the guy’s an abrasive, condescending ass. 
            (...and that’s with the people he likes.)
            But in a Doylist sense, viewed from outside... we kinda like these people.  We admire Lecter’s twisted ethics.  We envy the ultra-competent man or woman of action.  And it’s kind of pleasant to watch Holmes point out what’s sitting right in front of everyone’s face.  That separation of fiction, the thin sheath that keeps us from absolutely immersing into the story, lets us enjoy these characters in ways we couldn’t in real life.
            I mean if we didn’t like them as readers, why would we keep reading about them?  Who’d torture themselves like that.  Hell, why would we keep writing about them if we didn’t like them?  I can’t imagine sitting down and working for months on a story about a character I didn’t enjoy on some level.
            This holds for so a lot of aspects of writing.  I’ve mentioned before that realistic dialogue in fiction is different from the actual conversations we have with each other in the real world.  Other characters might not get my protagonist, but the reader should be able to relate to them.  And I’m never going to be able build any sort of tension if I don’t understand the difference between what my readers know and what my character knows.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I’m taking in advice I need to be clear if we’re talking about things in a Watsonian or Doylist sense.  And when I see advice from other writers, I should stop and think about how they mean it.  Are they talking about the actual pace of events in the timeline of the story, or the pacing in the narrative?  Are they talking about the motives of the characters or the writer?
            In the future, I’m going to try to be better about this, too.
            Next time...
            Well, thanks to some of you, I’ve got next time all planed out in advance.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, September 21, 2018

One and Done

            Okay, book edits have been turned in, but I never made it to IKEA.  One of our cats is sick and has been getting daily trips to the vet for fluids.  So the library and game room are still stuck in transition.
            Plus, I managed to squeeze a ranty blog post into all of this, only to realize at the last moment (just as I was inserting links and pictures) that I’d talked about this exact topic just a few months ago.  I mean, I used some of the same examples and everything.  I may be a hack, but I’m not that much of a hack.
            So let me skip ahead in my list of topics and talk briefly about killing people.
            A while back I mentioned a bad habit people have that I named “describe and die.”  It’s when an author (or screenwriter) gives us tons of details about a character in an attempt to make them likeable and relatable.  As a way to get us quickly invested. 
            And then kills them.
            Today I wanted to mention a little offshoot of this that I ended up talking about with my editor recently.  Call it a connected bad habit.  One I think grew out of necessity...
            This is going to seem rambling, but stick with me.
            One of the ugly truths about screenwriting is that so many things come back to budget.  I can write the most elaborate script with a broad palette of characters, but at the end of the day it’s going to come down what we can afford to do—especially in television.  I may have written dozens of little characters here and there to help bring the world to life, but the reality is they’re going to be cut and trimmed down to the bare minimum we need to move the plot along.
            Of course, most of us don’t see this.  We just see the final version.  And we tend to absorb some storytelling lessons from it.  Even the bad, unnatural ones.
            In screenwriting it makes sense that we’ll never, ever have a speaking role that isn’t important.  It costs almost a thousand dollars just for someone to have one line.  Seriously.  That actress saying “Your drink, sir”—she just paid rent for the month.  And she’ll get a sliver of the residuals, because she’s a speaking actor.  So Hollywood is reeeeeeeeeaaally conservative when it comes to handing out random lines to random people.  I’ve personally watched those parts get whittled away as new script revisions came out.
            Of course, that’s Hollywood.  Books have no budget.  We can have casts of thousands and dinosaurs and spaceships and all sorts of stuff.  If someone needs to speak, they can speak.
            But...
            Some folks still follow that minimal-character idea, not understanding it’s an element of budgeting, not storytelling.  And when I combine this with describe-and-die, it creates a really weird mechanic in my story.  Not only do I “create” real characters just to kill them off... they’re the only other characters I’m creating.  Nobody else gets a line of description or a few words of dialogue.
            Y’see, Timmy, now my story only has three types of people in it.  Protagonists, antagonists, and... victims.  Heck, depending on my story, I may not even have an actual antagonist.  Now all I’ve got is protagonists and victims.
            Which doesn’t feel like a very well-rounded world, does it?
            I’ve talked here a few times about the need to keep things tight, but—like so many things in life—this goes horribly wrong once it’s taken to extremes.  I don’t want to trim away every single interaction or description in the name of brevity.  A non-stop, breakneck pace is going to get exhausting really fast.
            I shouldn’t be afraid to have a little more in my story.  I don’t want my world to be cluttered, but I also don’t want it to be a stark, utilitarian framework.  Because the truth is... sometimes people are just there.
            Usually blocking an aisle in IKEA.
            Next time...
            Okay, look, my schedule for topics is a mess now, so if you’ve got something you really want to hear me blather on about, let me know down in the comments.  And if nobody does, I’ll just end up blabbing on about Sherlock Holmes or something...
            So until then—go write.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Little Context

            Wow.  A wild week with Dragon Con. And then a just as wild but far less fun week on the floor of the game room when I threw my back out the day after getting home.  Just flopped there between the boxes and the brand-new couch I couldn’t make it up on to...
            But I’m okay now.  Well, much better... 80-85%.
            I’m still in the process of moving into my new place.  Yeah, I’m going to keep talking about this for ages.  And milking it for useful analogies.
            I’m guessing most of you have moved, and you know how it’s not just about that one day.  It’s a whole ongoing process—packing up there and spreading back out here.  I mean, we’re here now, but there are still maybe twenty or thirty boxes scattered through different rooms, and we’ve kinda developed unpacking fatigue.  That’s not even counting the library.
            We’re also discovering that some of our stuff is just... well, bad, now.  Things are in new configurations and combinations and some of them just don’t work.  They look kinda weird or ugly.  Sometimes, they actually don’t function correctly anymore.  This shelf was short enough to fit well below my old office window, but not this one.  Which leaves me with nowhere to put the printer.
            We’ve got a fair amount of stuff that worked there but doesn’t work here.  So it’s probably getting replaced.  Which means more weekends putting furniture together in my future...
            Funny thing is, this related to something I wanted to talk about.
            What a coincidence, right?
            I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies.  I take in a lot of storytelling, just on a week-to-week basis.  And a common thing I see is people copying a beat or a character moment or some kind of set-up.
            To be clear, I’m not taking about plagiarism.  While there are some blatant rip-offs out there, and books that try to capitalize off other books, that’s not what I want to talk about here.  Those folks have much bigger issues to deal with than we have time and space to discuss...
            What I’m talking about is when people are using a moment they saw in a previous story and trying to getthe same emotional resonance with the reader (or audience) as it did in that other tale.  A key reveal at just the right moment.  A fervent declaration of love (or at least lust).
            And they accomplish this by copying that original story beat as close as they can.
            Remember when the Hulk beat the crap out of Loki in The Avengers?  And then did the exact same thing to Thor in Ragnarok?  Funny as hell both times, right? 
            So now let’s picture an adult man doing that with a baby.  Holding it by one leg, swinging it up over his shoulder, and slamming it face-first into the ground two or three times.  That should be funny, too, right?
            No, of course not.  Hopefully you were all cringing a bit just at the thought of that.  It’d be nightmarish to watch, and for someone to actually think that it’d be funny...?
            Again these shelves worked in my old office, but not my new one.  Everything around them is different.  The windows.  The angles.  The carpet.  The colors.
            How about this one-- watching someone undress can be sexy as all hell.  Unbuttoning shirts.  Sliding out of pants.  Maybe just tearing open a coat if you’re both impatient.
            But in a different context, those very same actions can be mundane, annoying, or depressing. Heck, even kinda creepy.
            Yeah, someone doing that exact same little striptease can be creepy as hell.  Because if I’m seeing it from outside the bedroom window, maybe with some leaves in the way, while I hear that rough breathing... Hey, we all know what that handheld POV shot means.  We’ve seen horror movies.  There’s a psychopath out there in the bushes watching that person strip!  They’re probably wearing a weird mask and everything.
            I mean, assuming the director’s not just copying this shot and doesn’t understand what it meant in other films...
            And this may sound like extreme examples—talking about killing babies and stripteases—but it holds for pretty much anything.  Seeing a building collapse can be terrifying.  Or exciting.  Or frustrating.  Heck, if I do demolition for a living it could be boring.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with all of these examples is that sometimes people try to copy something they've seen in other stories without understanding why it worked in those stories.  Yes it was exciting/scary/titillating/romantic over there, but that was over there in a certain context.  The reaction it created isn’t something inherent to the elements themselves.  It was a result of the combining narrative voice and character development and plot structure that led up to them.
            Think about that striptease again.  Think of all the different ways it could be interpreted by someone.  It depends on when they see it.  Where they're seeing it from.  How they know the other person.  How that person knows them.
            Think of all the different ways it could be interpreted by an audience.
            And if I can’t think of any other ways... that might be part of the problem, too.
            Next time, I’d like to bounce an idea off you.
            Until then... go write.
            I’m going to IKEA again.  This time for bookshelves.