Thursday, October 15, 2020

YOU LIAR!

 No, no, I’m not talking about you.

 I’m talking about him.

You know who you are.

There’s an issue that came up in one of my weekend B-movies recently, and it also came up in a book I was reading last month. Not the first time I’ve seen it in either format. And I thought it was worth talking about for a minute or three.

And that issue is cheating.

I’ve talked about twists many times here on the ranty blog. I friggin’ love a good twist.  Seriously. I will forgive a story a lot if it can knock me over with a completely unexpected reveal that seems obvious in retrospect. That’s the kind of thing that makes me want to grab a book and read the whole thing again. There are movies I love to rewatch just to see how beautifully the filmmakers set up a fantastic twist.

Now, in the past, I’ve addressed a problem some writers have when they try to set up a twist. And that’s when the revealed information—the twist—is something the reader couldn’t possibly have known or even guessed. If I tell you Wakko is actually the clone, it makes us realize how we-misinterpreted some parts of the story and a couple things line up now that didn’t before. If I tell you Phoebe is actually the clone, it makes us ask who the hell Phoebe is. Is she even from this story? Also, wait, this story is about clones...?

In the past I’ve tried to soften this criticism by saying the writer didn’t understand how to set up a twist. And while that’s still true in the big scheme of things, I think it might be  a little more helpful to just be direct. When this happens, the author is cheating in how they tell the story. They’re lying to the readers.

And sometimes, you just have to call out the liars.

Yeah, this sounds a little harsh and a few folks may already be raising their defenses, so let’s take a moment and be clear what we’re talking about. This is a very specific thing I’m referring to. Cheating is a deliberate thing, a choice, as opposed to a simple mistake.

All that said, let’s talk about what makes a good twist. I’ve talked about these all at different times, but I think a good twist always has four distinct elements.

1) My readers and my characters don’t expect a twist is coming. If I tell you there’s a big secret about my cat you’ll never guess, you’ve been flat-out told there’s something about my cat you wouldn’t expect. Likewise, if the shadowy figure is constantly referencing things only certain people could know, they’re probably connected to one or more of those people. It’s hard for any twist to land well when people are on the lookout for it.

2) The information a twist reveals has to be something my readers and characters didn’t already know. Telling you I have cats is not a big reveal, especially if you follow me on Instagram. This information has no weight. Telling you one of my cats is a cyborg is a reveal—that’s something you didn’t know.

3) The information revealed in a twist has to change how my readers and characters look at past events in the story but (very important) this information can’t contradict the information they’ve been given up until now. I can’t say my cat’s actually a plush toy dog after calling her a cat for a hundred pages and talking about the vet bills when she got her cyborg parts. Worth noting—this is when a lot of twists go wrong.

4) Finally, a twist needs a certain amount of time to build up strength. It’s really tough to have a good twist in the first five pages of a novel. As I mentioned above, a twist needs to alter our view of past events, which means... there have to be past events. If my cat’s showing off her laser eyes and adamantium claws on page eight, this isn’t a twist—I’m just introducing a character.

Granted, these are my own requirements, not something (to the best of my knowledge) taught in any courses or books. For this little rant of mine, it’s 2) and 3) we’re most concerned, because that’s where the cheating often comes into play. Because cheating (and lying) usually involve the manipulation of information to suit your own needs.

Now, right up front, it’s really common for me, as a writer, to lead my audience into believing something. To carefully choose words and phrases to make them think X when the truth is Y. This is a standard aspect of storytelling—what I want the reader to know and when I want them to know it.

But it’s important that I don’t cheat. I may leave a few facts out. I may deliberately guide them down a different path. But I can’t lie to them. The moment I lie—even if I’m doing it to make the story “better”—I’ve broken the contract. They’ve got no reason to trust me, and it’s not unfair for them to start doubting and questioning everything in the story.

So what do I mean when I’m saying cheating or lying? Let’s break it down by those two points from above...

As far as 2) goes, I need to be revealing information the audience doesn’t know, but it has to be information they could know. It can’t break the characters or the world I’ve established. It needs to fit within that context.

For example, if my twist is that Bron from Game of Thrones has psychic powers because he’s actually a mutant from an alternate future timeline... well, it’s definitely information we didn’t know. But we never could’ve known it. With everything we’ve been told it’s just an impossibility in this story. Likewise, if I’m writing a murder mystery and the big twist is that the murderer is Phoebe... we should all know who Phoebe is. Revealing a name we’ve never heard before at a critical moment doesn’t really solve anything.

A good way to think of it is whatever information I’m revealing in my twist is something my readers should be able to guess—even if it might mean a few guesses. If I have twenty characters/potential suspects in my murder mystery, the reader shouldn't need thirty-seven guesses to name the murderer. If I’m three hundred pages into my grimdark medieval fantasy story, I can’t abruptly say the dark lord’s secret weapon that’s wiped out armies is a battlemech with a meson death ray. Why would anyone ever guess that?

When we’re talking about 3), the big cheat is usually just a straight contradiction. The facts I give on page 150 or 200 just don’t line up at all with the facts I’ve given you before. I’ve told you two or three times that Wakko’s a computer programmer but then it turns out really he’s a genetic engineer.  Numerous characters have said there’s nothing within a hundred miles of our village, but then they escape to the town on the other side of the valley. And if you find out on page 175 of my political thriller that the secret informant is actually an angry ghost... well, I’d understand if you tossed it aside at that point.

One of the worst examples of cheating is when we’ve been seeing over a character’s shoulder or “hearing” their thoughts for a hundred or so pages and they just, y’know, never happened to think about the fact they’re the serial killer the whole city’s searching for. Or that Wakko constantly calls himself as a computer programmer (even in private) until we find out he’s the genetic engineer who activated Dot’s Zoanoid genes (double-geekery reference). This is the kind of things that make readers grind their teeth, and it really stands out on a re-read.

In the end, these lies are just about no being honest with my readers. I’m lying to them about what Wakko does. I’m lying about what’s going on in his head. I’m cheating to create a certain effect rather than actually creating the effect.

Y'see, Timmy, I think the reason some writers fall back on these blatant cheats and lies is... it’s easier. Doing the work is tough. Lying is simple. And if I just don’t feel like doing the work, it’s really tempting to just say Wakko’s a computer programmer and move on.

Good writing is tough. It’s work. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it is. There are a lot of nuances to this art and they’re going to take actual effort if I want to come close to mastering them. To pull off a really good twist is probably going to mean going over my manuscript two or three times, making sure everything lines up and fits together just right.

But when you do it--when you do the work and don’t lie, don’t cheat—that’s when you make something that sticks with people. Something fantastic they’ll remember and talk to people about and recommend constantly. Because a great twist makes a good book twice as good. The readers get to enjoy the whole story, and then they get to enjoy it again, seeing and appreciating how everything fits seamlessly together.

True story. Like a lot of my books, Ex-Patriots has a twist in it. It’s such a big twist that, when one reader hit it, she couldn’t believe I could’ve slipped this past her for the entire book without her noticing. In fact she immediately re-read the whole book, convinced I had to have cheated. And when she realized I hadn’t, she (somehow) hunted down my phone number and called me to rave about it and congratulate me.

And that, friends, is how I met Seanan McGuire.

Do the work. Don’t cheat. Don’t lie.

Good advice for writing and life.

Next time, I wanted to talk to you a bit about characters.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Nothing Left to Learn

I was thinking of new topics a week or so back, and about the fact there’s not much I haven’t covered here. I mean, it’s been well over thirteen years now. There’s only so many times I can say “Try to make your characters relatable somehow.”

And that train of thought led me to, well... why are you still here? Why are you still reading this? Not just this post but I mean... the whole blog?

Yeah, over the past year or so, I’ve tried to be better about doing stuff here. Writing advice is still the majority of it, but lately I’m also trying to put up some related thoughts on publishing, marketing, movies, and well... the state of the hellworld we’ve all found ourselves living in.

But, yeah, in all fairness, a lot of the writing advice is stuff I’ve gone over once or thrice before. Which makes me ask, again... Why are you still reading this?

I mean, I love that you’re here. Seriously. It’s truly appreciated. But I’m asking about you in the larger, general sense. What are you still hoping to find here?

For a lot of our time as writers, professional or not, there’ll be people taking that journey with us. They can be teachers in school or professors at university. Maybe they’re other writers we know. Some might be at the same stage of their writing career as us. Others may be a bit behind. A bunch of them may be way ahead of us. Or they could’ve written a bunch of books (or blog posts) about writing and storytelling you really enjoyed.

And these folks have given you tips and suggestions. Maybe some rules to follow. A few guidelines. Maybe a bunch of examples. They’ve pointed out paths to follow and given you a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge in what they think might be the right direction for you.

Eventually, though—like with any active effort to learn—there’s going to come a point when the time and money I’m investing in all that reading and listening and learning is going to outweigh what I’m actually getting out of them. We call it diminishing returns. It’s the point when I’ve gotten ahead of the learning curve. When I’m getting less and less out of each book or class or blog post because, well... I already know I should try to make my characters relatable.

And this is when I need to move out of that safe, comfortable learning bubble and start doing real work. 

This is a big, scary step, because it’s essentially taking away my safety net of excuses. A lot of them anyway. Why didn’t I write today? Well, I’m not quite there yet. I signed up for a class. I’m waiting for feedback from my writer’s group.  I was reading a new book about how to structure novels. And there’s this other book coming out in a few weeks, and I don’t want to get started and then go back and redo things. Plus, let’s be honest... writing’s just the first step toward getting rejected, right?

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you know the advice and tips here are mostly aimed at people who’ve got a solid grip on the bare basics and are ready to start taking a few more steps forward. But right there, that’s telling you this shouldn’t be your go-to place for years and years. If you’re doing things right, there’s going to be a point where the returns have diminished and these posts just aren’t worth your time.

And I’m cool with that. It happens. It should happen. Your writing should hit a point where you don’t need to be paying for classes or buying books or searching the web for the best way to include subtext. You should progress, improve, and just not need these things anymore. Over the years I’ve belonged to a ton of writing groups.  I took several classes in college. I’ve attended a few writing conferences. And I have bought soooooooooo many books on writing. I don’t regret doing these things, but it’s also been a while since I’ve done any of them.

(True fact—the last writing book I bought was Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig when we were both attending Phoenix Comics Fest. He laughed at the idea I was buying a copy, and he actually signed it “You don’t need this book, so I hope you enjoy it”)

(it is, for the record, a really fantastic book on storytelling, and even though it turned out I did know a lot of what he was saying, I really did enjoy how he said it and the examples he gave)

Look, I’m not saying any of us are ever going to be the end-all be-all authority on writing. Personally, I’d tell you to steer clear of anyone who claims to be. But that’s just because with any art—with anything at all—there’s always going to be more to learn. So if I’m waiting until I know it all before I start... it means I’m never going to start.

So stop worrying that you don’t know enough yet. Recognize that maybe it’s time to stop putting effort into learning how to write and shifting some of that effort into... y’know, writing. Give yourself permission to learn on the fly, to figure things out as you go, and to not look up every possible way to do something before you do it.

Next time—if you’re still here—I think it’s time we talked about the cheating problem.

Until then, go write.

No, seriously. Go write. What have I been talking about for the past ten minutes?

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Allow Me to Explain...

 There’s a storytelling idea, sort of a method, I suppose, that I’d been batting around for a while as a possible topic. Something I see crop up enough that it was worth mentioning in that “something else to keep in mind...” way. I decided to add it to my list of topics here and then, in a weird synchronicity, said problem showed up in a TV miniseries I finally got around to watching and a book I was reading (some formats may be changed to protect... you know).

The miniseries I mentioned involved an aggressive computer virus. And it explained how the virus worked. In detail. It used a few specifics and a few generalities, but it spent three whole scenes explaining this virus, the logic behind how it worked and how it selected targets.

The problem was... even as I was watching this, I could see a bunch of holes in the explanation. Holes that were only pulled wider as the story went on. And my computer skills more or less peaked in the very early 00’s. But I still knew enough to know the virus wouldn’t work the way it was described. Couldn’t. If it chose targets this way, why didn’t it go after that or that? If it propagated like that, how had it reached here and here?

For a brief time I was wondering if this was some sort of foreshadowing that there was more to the virus than was being let on. Maybe some sort of AI or a living virus that had been transcribed but then... mutated or something? But no, in the end it was just a computer virus that didn’t make any sense.

Which was doubly annoying because the virus didn’t really need to be explained in this story. The plot was much more about the repercussions of this thing being loose on the web and how it was affecting lives, society, and so on. The explanation slowed things down.

And, yeah, sure—part of this is on me. Any genre story is going to involve a degree of suspension of disbelief. Nobody wants to be the guy picking apart the energy requirements of a lightsaber or arguing how the Hulk can’t be that strong because his muscle/bone density would mean he’d sink into the earth. And as for Mjolnir, look...

Okay, yeah... there are some people out there who love being that guy.

(looking at you, Neil...)

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t’ve picked it apart if the writer hadn’t put so much down in front of me. I wouldn’t’ve had anything to pick apart. I can’t complain about your wardrobe if you never show me your wardrobe. But this writer decided they needed a whole scene (three scenes, really) explaining the computer virus in detail. And the details didn’t match up.

So what does this mean for me if my story needs explanation? I mean, speculative fiction is filled with different forms of technobabble. It’s got FTL drives and magic systems and AI computer viruses and alien life cycles and bringing dinosaurs back with cloning and mutant superheroes and... I mean, I’ve got to explain it all somehow, right?

Maybe? Consider Jurassic Park. How much does Crichton (or Spielberg and Koepp) actually tell us about the process of recreating dinosaurs? No, seriously—what do they tell us? If you look back, it’s actually a pretty bare-bones explanation of what’s a fairly complicated process (especially twenty-five years ago!). In fact, it encourages us to fill in a lot of the blanks ourselves and make it seem more complete.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind as I’m writing out that long explanation...

First, be clear if the story really needs this explanation. Is this what the story’s actually about, or is this a minor element I can handwave away or just skip over? Back to the Future gets away with a ridiculously simple explanation of time travel because it’s not really about the time travel. It’s about actions and consequences, and becoming a better person. Time travel’s just the mechanism that lets it happen. It’s just short of being a MacGuffin. We don’t need that explanation the same way we don’t need to read about someone hitting every step on the staircase, how many keystrokes it took to log into their cloud account, or a list of every item of clothing they put on when they got dressed (in order). The reader will fill it in.

Second, if I decide I really need to explain this at length, it’s got to be solid. I’ve waived the right to say “just trust me, it works” and now I need to make this as rigorous and believable as possible. I need to do my research, double-check my logic, triple-check my numbers, and let it marinate overnight in plain-old common sense. Trust me when I say if I get a fact wrong or use garbage science or make a math mistake... people will let me know. I don't even have to ask them. Not only that, but...

Third, I need to keep in mind the more something gets explained, the easier it is to punch holes in that explanation. Like in the example I first mentioned. As the characters went into more and more detail about the computer virus, the flaws in that explanation became more and more apparent. How often have we seen the person digging themselves deeper and deeper because they won’t stop talking? It’s soooooo tempting when we’ve done all that sweet, cool research, but I need to figure out how much explanation my story really needs and stop there. I’ve mentioned screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin here onceor thrice, and his idea that we experience stories in our gut, but we analyze them in our head. I never, ever want my explanation to drive people into their heads.

Fourth, closely related to the last one, is that this sort of explanation is almost always going to be exposition. Yes, even if I try to work it into a conversation or presentation or something like that. As we’ve talked about here a bunch of times, exposition gets boring really fast because so much of it is either things we already know or things we don’t need to know. For our purposes here, there’s a chance the reader doesn’t even want to know. So if I decide I need this explanation in my story, I need to make sure it’s going to be clever and engaging for the reader.

And that’s me explaining how to explain things.

Next time, I’d like to talk about if you should be reading next week’s post.

Until then, go write.